Lectures on the religion of the Semites by William Robertson Smith

Lectures on the religion of the Semites

Lectures on the religion of the Semites

First series. The fundamental institutions (1889)

In Scotland, at least, no words need be wasted to prove that a right understanding of the religion of the Old Testament is the only way to a right understanding of the Christian faith; but it is not so fully recognized, except in the circle of professed scholars, that the doctrines and ordinances of the Old Testament cannot be thoroughly comprehended until they are put into comparison with the religions of the nations akin to the Israelites. 

The value of comparative studies for the study of the religion of the Bible was brought out very clearly, two hundred years ago, by one of the greatest English theologians. Dr. John Spencer, Master of Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, whose Latin work on the ritual laws of the Hebrews may justly be said to have laid the foundations of the science of Comparative Religion, and in its special subject, in spite of certain defects that could hardly have been avoided at the time when it was composed, still remains by far the most important book on the religious antiquities of the Hebrews. 

But Spencer was so much before his time that his work was not followed up; it is often ignored by professed students of the Old Testament and has hardly exercised any influence on the current ideas which are the common property of educated men interested in the Bible. In modern times Comparative Religion has become in some degree a popular subject, and in our own country has been treated from various points of view by men of eminence who have the ear of the public; but nothing considerable has been done since Spencer's time, either in England or on the Continent, whether in learned or in popular form, towards a systematic comparison of the religion of the Hebrews, as a whole, with the beliefs and ritual practices of the other Semitic peoples. 

In matters of detail valuable work has been done, but this work has been too special, and for the most part too technical, to help the circle to whom the Burnett Lectures are addressed; which I take to be a circle of cultivated and thinking men and women, who have no special acquaintance with Semitic lore, but are interested in everything that throws light on their own religion, and are prepared to follow a sustained or even a severe argument, if the speaker on his part will remember that historical research can always be made intelligible to thinking people, when it is set forth with the orderly method and in plain language. 

 There is a particular reason why some attempts in this direction should be made now. The first conditions of an effective comparison of Hebrew religion, as a whole, with the religion of the other Semites, were lacking so long as the historical order of the Old Testament documents, and especially of the documents of which the Pentateuch is made up, was unascertained or wrongly apprehended; but, thanks to the labors of a series of scholars (of whom it is sufficient to name Kuenen and Wellhausen, as the men whose acumen and research have carried this inquiry to a point where nothing of vital importance for the historical study of the Old Testament religion still remains uncertain), the growth of the Old Testament religion can now be followed from stage to stage, in a way that is hardly possible with any other religion of antiquity. 

And so it is now not only possible, but most necessary for further progress, to make a fair comparison between Hebrew religion in its various stages and the religions of the races with which the Hebrews were cognate by natural descent, and with which also they were historically in constant touch.

William Robertson Smith FRSE was a Scottish orientalist, Old Testament scholar, professor of divinity, and minister of the Free Church of Scotland. He was an editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica and contributor to the Encyclopaedia Biblica

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