Jonathan Z. Smith
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Jonathan Z. Smith
Jonathan Z. Smith, circa 2008

Jonathan Zittell Smith (J. Z. Smith) (November 21, 1938 - December 30, 2017)[1] was an American historian of religions. He was based at the University of Chicago for most of his career.[2]

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.[3][4]

Education and career

Smith graduated from Haverford College in 1960 with a B.A. in philosophy. He also earned a Bachelor of Divinity from Yale Divinity School and a Ph.D. in the history of religions from Yale University in 1969, where he was their first degree candidate in this field;[5] with a thesis on anthropological thought, focused on Frazer, "The Glory, Jest and Riddle: James George Frazer and The Golden Bough."[4] After holding positions at Dartmouth College and UC Santa Barbara, he began teaching at the University of Chicago, where he served as Dean of the College from 1977-1982 and was appointed Robert O. Anderson Distinguished Service Professor of the Humanities.[3] He still held that position as of 2008, and remained active in undergraduate teaching at least as recently as the autumn quarter 2011, teaching the course titled "Introduction to Religious Studies". He was elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2000,[6] and served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2008.[7]

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.[2] 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.[8] 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."[9]


He grew up in Manhattan, and as a teenager he desired to become an agrostologist.[5] 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."[10] He was survived by his wife Elaine, daughter Siobhan and son Jason.[2]

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.[11]

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).[12] Along with his October 31, 2010, AAR plenary address, introduced by then President Anne Taves,[13] and his second annual Ninian Smart memorial lecture[14] 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.[15]


  • 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): ISBN 0-226-76357-9
  • Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, University of Chicago Press, 1982 (paperback 1988): ISBN 0-226-76360-9
  • To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual, University of Chicago Press, 1987 (paperback 1992): ISBN 0-226-76361-7
  • Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity, University of Chicago Press, 1990 (paperback 1994): ISBN 0-226-76363-3
  • Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion, University of Chicago Press, 2004 ISBN 0-226-76387-0
  • On Teaching Religion: Essays by Jonathan Z. Smith (ed. Christopher Lehrich), Oxford University Press, 2012 ISBN 9780199944293
  • Reading J. Z. Smith: Essays and Interview, 1999-2010 (ed. Russell T. McCutcheon and Willi Braun), Oxford University Press, forthcoming (July 2018), ISBN 9780190879082


  1. ^ "Religion historian Jonathan Z. Smith dies". Colorado Springs Gazette, News. Retrieved 2018.
  2. ^ a b c McCutcheon, Russell T. "In Memoriam: Jonathan Z. Smith (1938-2017)". Retrieved 2018.
  3. ^ a b "Jonathan Z. Smith". Divinity School - The University of Chicago. Archived from the original on 9 February 2017. Retrieved 2010.
  4. ^ a b Carter, Jeffery (2003). Understanding Religious Sacrifice. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 325-326. ISBN 978-0-8264-4879-8.
  5. ^ a b Religion, American Academy of (23 February 2011). "Plenary Address: Jonathan Z. Smith" – via Vimeo.
  6. ^ "Book of Members - S" (PDF). American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Retrieved 2010.
  7. ^ "Past Presidents List" (PDF). Society of Biblical Literature. Retrieved 2010.
  8. ^ Smith, Jonathan Z.; Willi Braun; Russell T. McCutcheon (2000). "3. Classification". Guide to the Study of Religion. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 35-44. ISBN 978-0-304-70176-6. Retrieved 2010.
  9. ^ Smith, Jonathan Z. (1982). Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 19-35. ISBN 978-0-226-76360-6.
  10. ^ "Interview with J. Z. Smith".
  11. ^ "Something I Learned From J.Z. Smith". Bulletin for the Study of Religion. Retrieved 2018.
  12. ^ The collection of 14 clips from this interview can be found at Fairfield University's Digital Commons project.
  13. ^ 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).
  14. ^ Delivered on September 22, 2003, the lecture, entitled "God Bless This Honourable Court: Religion and Civic Discourse," was delivered at the University of California, Santa Barbara and simulcast at Lancaster University.
  15. ^ This talk, hosted by the then Dean of Divinity, Margaret Mitchell, closes with a long and substantial Q&A session with graduate students.

Further reading

  • "Full J. Z. Smith Interview". The Chicago Maroon.
  • Alderink, Larry J. (1992). "Introduction: Critique and Construction in Jonathan Z. Smith's "Drudgery Divine"". Numen. 39 (2): 217-219. JSTOR 3269907.
  • Gill, Sam (1998). "No Place to Stand: Jonathan Z. Smith as Homo Ludens, The Academic Study of Religion Sub Specie Ludi". Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 66 (2): 283-312. JSTOR 1465673.
  • Kimura, Takeshi (1999). "Bearing the 'Bare Facts' of Ritual. A Critique of Jonathan Z. Smith's Study of the Bear Ceremony Based on a Study of the Ainu Iyomante". Numen. 46 (1): 88-114. JSTOR 3270292.
  • Urban, Hugh B. (2000). "Making a Place to Take a Stand: Jonathan Z. Smith and the Politics and Poetics of Comparison". Method & Theory in the Study of Religion. 12 (1): 339-378. JSTOR 23551195.

External links

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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