Jonathan Z. Smith

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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 the theory of ritual, Hellenistic religions, Māori 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. 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[edit]

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[edit]

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]


  • The Glory, Jest and Riddle: James George Frazer and The Golden Bough, PhD thesis, Yale University 1969 (unpublished)[citation needed]
  • 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. Chrisopher 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 4 January 2018. 
  2. ^ a b c McCutcheon, Russell T. "In Memoriam: Jonathan Z. Smith (1938–2017)". Retrieved 22 February 2018. 
  3. ^ a b "Jonathan Z. Smith". Divinity School - The University of Chicago. Archived from the original on 9 February 2017. Retrieved 21 December 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 21 December 2010. 
  7. ^ "Past Presidents List" (PDF). Society of Biblical Literature. Retrieved 21 December 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 21 December 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 5 April 2018. 

Further reading[edit]

  • "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.