Born near Leiden on 16 December 1830, Cornelius Petrus Tiele received his education in Amsterdam. Intent on entering the ministry, he trained in the seminary of the Remonstrant Brotherhood and, after ordination, served the Dutch Remonstrant Church in several congregations, including Moordrecht and latterly Rotterdam. When the Remonstrant seminary relocated from Amsterdam to Leiden in 1873, Tiele was appointed professor. Four years later, in 1877, the University of Leiden specially created a chair of History of Religions for Tiele and offered him a professorship in theology. After some wrestling of conscience, as it required him to leave the ministry, he duly accepted the chair, which he held until shortly before his death. In this post, Tiele applied the scientific method to the study of religion. With his vast knowledge of ancient languages and history, he profoundly influenced the study of comparative religions and was greatly influential in bringing the study of the science of religion to the fore in Dutch academia. Through the 1860s and 1870s, Tiele argued for radical alterations of the study of theology within Dutch universities. Largely through his advocacy, two new disciplines were introduced into the Dutch theological curriculum by an act of Parliament in 1876: ‘History of Religions in General’ and ‘Philosophy of Religion’. Along with Friedrich Max Müller and others, Tiele has been attributed as one of the founders of the science of religion and a leading architect of its further development.
Tiele first came to prominence in the English-speaking world after the translation of his Outlines of the History of Religion in 1877. His Gifford Lecture series of 1896 and 1897 has been hailed by some scholars as his greatest masterpiece. Although he declared Elements in the Science of Religion to be an outline to the science of religion rather than a ‘handbook’, it served to profoundly shape the future of the field. The lectures drew large audiences and received daily coverage in several British and Dutch newspapers and magazines. Controversy over the translation of lectures from Dutch into English did cast some shadow over the experience for Tiele. Unhappy with the original translation produced by William Hastie (who instigated a lawsuit over alterations to his work by the author), Tiele’s friend J. Kirkpatrick was enlisted to provide a new translation. The lectures were published simultaneously in Dutch (in Amsterdam) and English (London and Edinburgh).
In 1900, the University of Edinburgh conferred on Tiele the degree of D.D. honoris causa, a degree which both Trinity College Dublin and the University of Bologna had already bestowed upon him. Tiele’s reputation both at home and abroad led to him being made a fellow of no less than fifteen learned societies throughout Europe and the United States, while Queen Wilhelmina of Holland provided domestic recognition for his contributions by granting him a special honour upon her succession in 1890.
Tiele passed away on 11 January 1902.
Having written widely on Assyrian, Zoroastrian, Indian, Egyptian and Semitic religions, Tiele left a significant corpus. Among his most important works translated into English are: The Religion of Zarathustra (1864), Comparative History of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian (Hamitic and Semitic) Religions (1882) and History of Religion in Ancient Times (1893–1901). For a fuller bibliography of Tiele’s work, see J. Waardenburg, Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion: Aims, Methods and Theories of Research, 2 vols. (1973–74); and Arie J. Molendijk, ‘Tiele on Religion’, Numen 46 (1999): 237–68.