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His research includes work on such diverse topics as Christian origins, the theory of ritual, Hellenistic religions, M?ori cults in the 19th century, and the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, as well as methodological studies on such common scholarly tools as description, comparison, and interpretation. An essayist, his works include Map is Not Territory, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown,To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual,Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity,Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion, and a collection of his writings on pedagogy, On Teaching Religion.
While at the College of the University of Chicago Smith has also written on pedagogy and the reform of undergraduate education in the United States. This emphasis on teaching has also affected Smith's output in another way--much of his written work began as lectures, and most of his publications have been essays. Smith's research has focused on Western theories of difference ranging from contemporary accounts of alien abduction to Greek and Roman ideas about the way climate shapes human character.
Comparison of religions
Intellectually, Smith has been influenced by neo-Kantian thinkers, especially Ernst Cassirer and Émile Durkheim. He has also been influenced by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Smith's dissertation focused on James Frazer's The Golden Bough and the method that Frazer used in the comparison of different religions. Since then much of Smith's work has focused on the problem of comparison and how best to compare data taken from societies that are very different from one another. His most influential essay on this topic is perhaps "In Comparison a Magic Dwells."
He grew up in Manhattan, and as a teenager he desired to become an agrostologist. Smith never used a computer. He typed or hand-wrote all of his papers. Furthermore, he despised the telephone and thought the cellphone was "an absolute abomination." He was survived by his wife Elaine, daughter Siobhan and son Jason.
After the news of Smith's death was announced, scholars of religion soon began more explicitly to reflect on the effects of his writings and work. The blog of the UK-based quarterly, Bulletin for the Study of Religion began an ongoing series of posts, from international scholars, concerning what they understood themselves to have learned from Smith.
Lectures and interviews
Despite his well-known aversion to technology (such as his often cited remarks on never using a computer and, instead, hand-writing or typing his work), a variety of videotaped lectures by, and interviews with, Smith appear online, providing viewers with an opportunity to become acquainted not just with his work but with his sometimes lively mode of delivery. For example, there are the 1999 interviews (part of the American Scholars of Religion collection), conducted by Alfred F. Benney at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). Along with his October 31, 2010, AAR plenary address, introduced by then President Anne Taves, and his second annual Ninian Smart memorial lecture there is a 2013 talk on teaching the introductory course that Smith delivered as part of the University of Chicago Divinity School's ongoing Craft of Teaching series.
The Glory, Jest and Riddle: James George Frazer and The Golden Bough, PhD thesis, Yale University 1969 (unpublished)
Map is not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions, University of Chicago Press, 1975 (paperback 1993): ISBN0-226-76357-9
Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, University of Chicago Press, 1982 (paperback 1988): ISBN0-226-76360-9
To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual, University of Chicago Press, 1987 (paperback 1992): ISBN0-226-76361-7
Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity, University of Chicago Press, 1990 (paperback 1994): ISBN0-226-76363-3
Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion, University of Chicago Press, 2004 ISBN0-226-76387-0
On Teaching Religion: Essays by Jonathan Z. Smith (ed. Christopher Lehrich), Oxford University Press, 2012 ISBN9780199944293
Reading J. Z. Smith: Essays and Interview, 1999-2010 (ed. Russell T. McCutcheon and Willi Braun), Oxford University Press, forthcoming (July 2018), ISBN9780190879082
^This public lecture, available here, was modeled after the ACLS's longstanding Charles Homer Haskins Lecture series, in which the lecturer is asked "to reflect on a lifetime of work as a scholar and an institution builder, on the motives, the chance determinations, the satisfactions (and dissatisfactions) of the life of learning, to explore through one's own life the larger, institutional life of scholarship." Smith's lecture was later included as the concluding chapter in his book, Relating Religion (2004).