Childhood, first Lessons and Study
iii Professorship in Aberdeen and Encyclopaedia Britannica
iv The Heresy
vi Last Years
Robertson Smith: a Postscript
Notices and Contact
© Astrid Hess &
Andreas Hess 2006
Professorship in Aberdeen and Encyclopaedia
Edinburgh, Andrew Bruce Davidson, professor of Hebrew at New
College, early left his mark on Robertson Smith’s thinking. From
Davidson’s teaching he grasped the conviction that the Bible was
to be regarded as a man-made record of divine revelation, to be
read critically just as one would approach any other historical
document. In the Scotland of that day, such an approach was
generally accepted as valid by many scholars but was not
considered suitable for communication to lay members of the
Robertson Smith’s emerging interest in the development
and psychology of religion was further influenced by his meeting
with a fellow Scot in Edinburgh, John F. McLennan, who was one of
the first to propose the notion of an evolutionary development of
religion progressing from animism and totemism towards an
ultimately monotheistic concept of divinity.
in Robertson Smith’s final year at New College, in
September 1869, the
death occurred of Professor Sachs, holder of the chair of Hebrew
and Old Testament Exegesis at the Free Church College in Aberdeen.
Close friends persuaded Robertson Smith to apply for the post and
a vigorous campaign was begun to promote his cause. Testimonials
were solicited and given at home and abroad, from student
colleagues and academic staff alike.
Free Church College Aberdeen,
Robertson Smith, 1870, B&C
Early in May 1870, Robertson Smith was licensed to preach,
and when the election for the chair finally took place on May 25,
1870, he gained an impressive majority over the rival candidates.
That summer Robertson Smith returned to Aberdeen and on his
twenty-fourth birthday delivered his inaugural lecture, entitled:
“What history teaches us to seek in the Bible”.
Two years later, he was accorded the honour of becoming a member
of the Old Testament Revision Committee, which met regularly in
London (until 1884). It was yet another opportunity for him to
forge important relationships with a wide circle of leading
British biblical scholars from a range of denominations.
In other respects the following five years passed
uneventfully for the young professor. He moved to a house in
Aberdeen’s Crown Street along with his younger brother Charles
Michie Smith, ca. 1870, FP
at that time was a student at King’s College and was eventually
to become director of the observatory in Kodaikanal, near Madras,
in India. During this period Robertson Smith diligently lectured
to his students while also engaging with a group of Aberdeenshire
friends, including artists, scientists, ministers, and lawyers,
who met socially on a regular basis to enjoy good meals, wine and
cigars – and who even behaved somewhat outrageously at times. It
was a typically masculine gathering of Victorian times and led to
Robertson Smith’s lifelong friendship with John Forbes White, a
notable patron of the arts, and with the painter George (later Sir
George) Reid. He continued to indulge his liking for travel and in
1871 J. S. Black accompanied him to France for an extended tour.
In the following year he made a further trip to Germany, where he
heard the orientalist Paul de Lagarde’s lectures on Arabic.
Again this acquaintanceship ripened into longstanding
collaboration and friendship.
of a draft, Bible, B&C
1874, at the request of Professor Thomas Spencer Baynes, then
editor-in-chief of the new (ninth) edition of the Encyclopaedia
Britannica [EB9], Robertson Smith began to contribute
some minor entries, all on biblical topics, beginning with “Angel”
and “Ark of the Covenant”. In 1875, he embarked upon a major
(fifteen page) article, entitled “Bible”, for volume three of
the encyclopaedia, in which he stated with complete frankness,
that certain claims made in the scriptures could not be considered
accurate. The Book of Deuteronomy, for example, obviously could
not have been written by Moses himself and had been composed by
writers of a much later date. The Pentateuch as a whole
represented a work which had been gradually put together in its
final form over the course of several centuries to form an
authoritative exposition of the Jewish Torah. This suited the
needs of the Second Temple Era in order to give the laws as
dictated by God more importance, and to strengthen the spirit of
the people Israel after the Babylonian Captivity.
conception was proven by historical verified dates, in the use of
language and script as well as descriptions of living conditions
of this people at this period.