William Robertson Smith

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William Robertson Smith (8 November, 184631 March, 1894) was a Scottish philologist, physicist, archaeologist, and Biblical critic best known for his work on the Encyclopędia Britannica and his book Religion of the Semites, which is considered a foundational text in the comparative study of religion.

Smith was born in Aberdeenshire and demonstrated a quick intellect at an early age. After being home-schooled he began attending New College, Edinburgh in 1866. After graduation he took up a chair in Hebrew at the Aberdeen Free Church College in 1870. In 1875 he wrote a number of important articles on religious topics in the ninth edition of the Encyclopędia Britannica.

Smith's articles approached religious topics without endorsing the bible as literally true. The result was a furore in the Free Church of Scotland, of which he was a member. He lost his position at the Aberdeen Free Church College in 1881 and took up a position as a reader in Arabic at the University of Cambridge, where he eventually rose to the position Professor of Arabic and a fellow of King's College. It was during this time that he wrote The Old Testament in the Jewish Church (1881) and The Prophets of Israel (1882), which were intended to be theological treatises for the lay audience.

In 1887 Smith became the editor of the Encyclopędia Britannica after the death of his employer Thomas Spencer Baynes left the position vacant. In 1889 he wrote his most important work, Religion of the Semites, an account of ancient Jewish religious life which pioneered the use of sociology in the analysis of religious phenomenon. He died in 1894 of tuberculosis.

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