Gaster, Theodor H.

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GASTER, THEODOR H. Theodor H. Gaster (19061992) was a renowned Semiticist and follower of James G. Frazer. He was born in England, the son of the folklorist Moses Gaster, who was Romanian by birth and a legendary linguist and scholar of Judaica. When the family immigrated to England, Moses Gaster became chief rabbi of the Sephardic Jewish community in London. He was also a leading Zionist, and Theodor "recalled that the first draft of the Balfour Declaration [which announced the British aim of creating a homeland for Jews] was prepared in his father's home. For a time, Theodor, along with his young friends Abba Eban and Isaiah Berlin, would go from door to door in London soliciting donations on behalf of this future homeland" (Hiers and Stahmer, 1995, p. 64).

Theodor Gaster was educated in private schools in London. He received an undergraduate degree in classics from the University of London in 1928 and a master's degree in Near Eastern archaeology, also from the University of London, in 1936. His master's thesis, a preview of his key work, was titled "The Ras Shamra Texts and the Origins of Drama." His mastery of languages was extraordinary, and he was "one of the last generation of scholars equally at home in Classical, Ancient Near Eastern, and multiple modern languages" (Hiers and Stahmer, 1995, p. 65).

With few academic positions open to Jewish scholars, Gaster held a series of museum and library appointments for the first part of his professional life. His first major appointment came in 1928, as curator in the Department of Egyptian and Semitic Antiquities at the Wellcome Research Institution and Museum in London. He served there until 1932 and again from 1936 to 1939. In 1935 he became literary editor of the Jewish Daily Post, contributing an array of scholarly and popular articles almost daily during the nine months of its existence.

In 1937 Gaster became lecturer on biblical and Near Eastern archaeology at New College and Institute of Archeology of the University of London, where he served until 1939. In the 1930s he published innumerable scholarly articles on Ras Shamra and the Bible.

In 1939 or 1940 Gaster moved from London to New York and began work on a Ph.D. at Columbia University. While pursuing his doctorate he continued to publish prolifically. In 1941 and 1942 he was editorial secretary for the Institute of Jewish Affairs of the American Jewish Congress, and in 1943 he was executive secretary for the Conference on Jewish Relations. From 1943 to 1945 he was managing editor of Jewish Social Studies and frequently contributed articles on Judaica, the Bible, and the ancient and modern Near East. In the mid-1940s he also began contributing to Commentary, and in the mid- to late 1940s he published articles on the Bible in the Jewish Quarterly Review.

In the early 1940s Gaster apparently missed securing a professorship in Jewish learning at Duke University because his comparativist bent was considered insufficiently traditional. In 1942 he began teaching part time in the graduate school at Columbia University, and in 1945 he also began teaching part time at Dropsie College, in Philadelphia. From 1946 to 1950 he was a lecturer on Semitic civilization at New York University. From the mid-1940s until the mid-1960s, he was a visiting professor at many colleges and universities in the United States and three times at the University of Leeds.

Gaster's first full-time American post came in 1945, when he served for a year and a half as chief of the Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. In 1951 and 1952, he was a Fulbright Professor in the history of religions at the University of Rome, and in 1961 he was a Fulbright Professor in biblical studies and history of religions at the University of Melbourne.

Most of the books for which Gaster is best known were published in the 1950s, including his translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, widely admired for its felicitousness; Thespis, his application of the Frazerian myth-and-ritual theory to the ancient Near East and beyond; and his abridgment and updating of James Frazer's The Golden Bough (The New Golden Bough [1959]), in which he retained the theory but updated the data. This abridgment was of Frazer's third twelve-volume edition of his opus, which Frazer himself had abridged into one volume in 1922. Gaster's final major work, the two-volume tome Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament (1969). was similarly an abridgment and updating of Frazer's Folk-lore in the Old Testament.

Only in 1966, at the age of sixty, did Gaster secure a permanent full-time academic post, as professor of religion at Barnard College, the women's undergraduate division of Columbia University. He helped revamp the curriculum and served a term as chair. He continued to lecture widely, and from 1971 to 1981 he was professor of religion and director of ancient Near Eastern studies at Dropsie College, by then renamed Dropsie University. Upon his retirement from Barnard, he was once again a visiting professor at many American universities. He relocated to Florida to teach for several years at the University of Florida. He died in Philadelphia, where he had moved in 1988.

As a theorist, Gaster's main contribution was his distinctive brand of myth-ritualismthe theory that connects myth to ritual. Gaster assumed that existing versions of the theory downplayed myth in favor of ritual, and he strove to accord myth the same importance as ritual. Certainly the original version of myth-ritualism, that formulated by William Robertson Smith, made myth secondary to ritual, but it is debatable whether succeeding versions of the theory did.

Gaster's myth-ritualist scenario, which he painstakingly sought to reconstruct for the ancient Near East, derives from Frazer, whose dual and ultimately incompatible versions of myth-ritualism Gaster sought to combine. In Frazer's first version, the king is human and merely plays the role of the god of vegetation, who dies and, through the imitation of his rebirth, is magically reborn. In Frazer's second version the king is himself divine and is killed outright and replaced, with the soul of the god of vegetation thereby automatically transferred from the incumbent to his successor. For Gaster, the king either is god or merely represents god. It is simply not clear which he is asserting. On the one hand, according to Gaster, the king is literally or symbolically killed and replaced annually. Here Gaster is using Frazer's second version. On the other hand, according to Gaster, the killing and replacing of the king parallels the death and rebirth of the god of vegetation and, by magical imitation, causes the rebirth of the god. Here Gaster is using Frazer's first version. Followers of Frazer other than Gaster have also become confused in trying to reconcile actual regicide (king as divine) with magical imitation (king as human).

For Frazer, the myth of the death and rebirth of the god of vegetation explains the ritual. It is the script of the ritual. For Gaster, the myth does more than explain the ritual. By itself, the ritual operates on only the human plane. Myth connects ritual to the divine plane. The renewal sought thereby becomes spiritual and not merely physical. Rather than simply explicating the inherent, physical meaning of ritual, as Frazer did, Gaster saw myth as giving ritual its spiritual meaning. In this sense he accords myth a status at least equal to that of ritual. To do so, he must in fact be confining himself to Frazer's first myth-ritualist scenario, for only here is the myth of the god to be found.

See Also

Frazer, James G.; Myth; Myth and Ritual School; Ritual.


Gaster, Theodor H. "Divine Kingship in the Ancient Near East: A Review Article." Review of Religion 9 (1945): 267281.

Gaster, Theodor H. Passover: Its History and Traditions. New York, 1949.

Gaster, Theodor H. "Semitic Mythology." In Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, edited by Maria Leach, vol. 2, pp. 989996. New York, 19491950.

Gaster, Theoodor H. Thespis: Ritual, Myth and Drama in the Ancient Near East. New York, 1950; rev. ed., Garden City, N.Y., 1961.

Gaster, Theodor H. Purim and Hanukkah in Custom and Tradition: Feast of Lots, Feast of Lights. New York, 1950.

Gaster, Theodor H. "Errors of Method in the Study of Religion." In Freedom and Reason: Studies in Philosophy and Jewish Culture, in Memory of Morris Raphael Cohen, edited by Salo W. Baron et al., pp. 372382. Glencoe, Ill., 1951.

Gaster, Theodor H. The Oldest Stories in the World. New York, 1952.

Gaster, Theodor H. Festivals of the Jewish Year: A Modern Interpretation and Guide. New York, 1953.

Gaster, Theodor H. "Myth and Story." Numen 1 (1954): 184212.

Gaster, Theodor H. The Holy and the Profane: The Evolution of Jewish Folkways. New York, 1955; 2d ed., New York, 1980.

Gaster, Theodor H. "Mythic Thought in the Ancient Near East." Journal of the History of Ideas 16 (1955): 422426.

Gaster, Theodor H. New Year: Its History, Customs and Superstitions. New York, 1955.

Gaster, Theodor H. The New Golden Bough. New York, 1959.

Gaster, Theodor H. "Myth, Mythology." In Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, edited by George A. Buttrick, vol. 2, pp. 481487. New York and Nashville, 1962.

Gaster, Theodor H. Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament. 2 vols. New York, 1969.

Grimes, Ronald L. "Ritual Studies: A Comparative Review of Theodor Gaster and Victor Turner." Religious Studies Review 2 (1976): 1325.

Hiers, Richard H., with Harold M. Stahmer. "Theodor H. Gaster, 19061992: A Biographical Sketch and a Bibliographical Listing of Identified Published Writings." Ugarit-Forschungen 27 (1995): 59114. The key source on Gaster's life and much relied on for this entry.

Hiers, Richard H., with Harold M. Stahmer. "Theodor H. Gaster: Biographical Sketch and a Bibliography: A Supplemental Note." Ugarit-Forschungen 28 (1996): 277285.

Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University 5 (1973). Festschrift to Gaster with essays by 46 contributors. Includes a select bibliography.

Robert A. Segal (2005)