Kristensen, W. Brede

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KRISTENSEN, W. BREDE (18671953), was a Norwegian historian of religions. From 1901 to 1937, he was professor of the history and phenomenology of religion at the University of Leiden. Virtually unknown outside of Scandinavia and the Netherlands during his lifetime, he was the teacher of many of the next generation of Dutch historians of religions and has exerted some influence on methodological discussion through the posthumous publication in English translation of his class lectures at Leiden on the phenomenology of religion (The Meaning of Religion, 1960).

Kristensen was the son of a Lutheran minister, born in Kristiansand, Norway, on June 21, 1867. He went to the University of Kristiania (present-day Oslo) to study theology. After a year, however, he switched to the study of languages, which he later continued in Leiden and Paris. In addition to Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, he studied ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Sanskrit, and Avestan. He did his dissertation research in the British Museum in London on Egyptian ideas of the afterlife and then returned to Kristiania to study and lecture on the ancient Zoroastrian text, the Avesta. In 1901 he was appointed to the chair of his teacher C. P. Tiele (18301902) at the University of Leiden, where he remained professor until his retirement in 1937; he lived in Leiden until his death in 1953. After World War II he returned briefly to Norway to give a course of introductory lectures on history of religions (posthumously published both in Norwegian as Religionshistorisk studium, 1954, and in a Dutch translation by Mevrouw Kristensen). Much of Kristensen's scholarly work consisted of papers dealing in some detail with various specific aspects of religious life in the ancient Near East. Many of the papers were presented at the annual meetings of the Dutch Royal Society. They were collected and published in two volumes in Dutch, Verzamelde bydragen tot kennis der antieke godsdiensten (Collected Contributions to the Knowledge of the Ancient Religions; 1947) and Symbool en werkelykheid (Symbol and Reality; 1954).

Kristensen rejected the prevailing evolutionist theory of his teacher and predecessor C. P. Tiele and tried to base his understanding of a given religion on its believers' own estimate of it; he found such estimates expressed in written documents, in languages he himself had learned to read. He believed that the religions of the ancient (preclassic) Mediterranean and Near East each had a distinctive nature but that all shared important underlying features basic enough to make comparison among them extremely fruitful. The aim of such comparison is not to define certain general ideas, such as the meaning of sacrifice, but to illuminate the meaning of some particular practice. In this respect the systematic work of the phenomenologist always remains in the service of the more particular investigation of the historian. For Kristensen, however, there was in practice very little difference, because he was interested neither in a philosophical theory of historical development in religion nor in tracing stages in the development of a particular religion. For him historical change becomes significant at the point that a particular religious apprehension comes to an end. The historian's task is thus not to focus on historical change but to find a bridge to understanding a vanished world of religious reality on the other side of the decisive change to the rationalistic consciousness of the modern world. Kristensen's work is full of polemics against this rationalism, not because he was antimodern, but because he felt that such rationalism led to the misunderstanding of ancient religions.

Kristensen did not regard informative comparison as a scientific method that would guarantee correct results. He sought to gain a certain inkling or intuition of what is important in the religion under examination, which requires in negative terms, that one not mix one's praise or blame with what the believer relates, and, in positive terms, that one seek a sympathetic and loving understanding of the alien faith. This understanding can be no better than approximate, because the alien religious language cannot be fully learned and because the other religion does not become a power in one's own life, but the effort is worthwhile, because across the barrier of languages and epochs and civilizations the truth perceived by believers in the alien religion can be glimpsed Those who make this effort can grow, Kristensen maintained, not only intellectually but religiously.


An extensive bibliography of Kristensen's works can be found in Jacques Waardenburg's Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion, vol. 2, Bibliography (The Hague, 1974).

New Sources

Of Kristensen's many works, two have been translated into English: The Meaning of Religion: Lectures in the Phenomenology of Religion, 2d ed. (The Hague, 1960) and Life out of Death. Studies in the Religions of Egypt and Ancient Greece (Louvain, Belgium, 1992). For an application of the latter book's methodology see Giovanni Casadio, "Osiride in Grecia e Dioniso in Egitto," in Plutarco e la religione, edited by Italo Gallo (Naples, 1996), pp. 201227. The definitive publication on all aspects of Kristensen's intellectual enterprise and his legacy to the discipline of religious studies is Man, Meaning, and Mystery: 100 Years of History of Religions in Norway. The Heritage of W. Brede Kristensen, edited by Sigurd Hjelde (Leiden, 2000). Prominent specialists examine the European and Scandinavian background (Hans Georg Kippenberg and Einar Thomassen among the others), Kristensen's contribution to the study of Ancient Religions (Anders Hultgård, Jan N. Bremmer, Jens E. Braarvig) and the foundation of religious phenomenology (John B. Carman, Willem Hofstee, Igvild Sælid Gilhus). A masterful essay by Jacques Waardenburg on "Progress in Research on Meaning in Religions" concludes the volume (a full, detailed bibliography of publications by and on Kristensen is included).

John B. Carman (1987)

Revised Bibliography