Religion historian Jonathan Z. Smith dies

Religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith died on Dec. 30, 2017.

Religion historian Jonathan Z. Smith from a video series. Images courtesy of YouTube

(RNS) — Jonathan Z. Smith, a historian and theorist of religion widely admired for his  analytic rigor in comparing religions, has died. He was 79.

Smith, who died Saturday (Dec. 30), was the author of numerous books and served as the editor of “The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion.” He spent his entire career at the University of Chicago. Though trained in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, he amassed formidable knowledge on such issues as ritual, Hellenistic religions, Māori cults and the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana.

He was also an eccentric scholar with a mane of unruly white hair, a beard, oversized glasses and an outsized personality.

In a 2008 interview, Smith said he never used a computer (he typed or handwrote all his papers) and viewed the cellphone as “an absolute abomination.”

Smith raised fundamental questions about the nature of religion and the challenges of comparing it across different cultures.

“He insisted on considering all religious phenomena in their social, historic and cultural context, whereas his predecessors tended to treat them as a-temporal expressions of eternal truths,” said Bruce Lincoln, professor emeritus of the history of religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

“In this way, he re-theorized religion as something human and thereby opened it up to critical investigation.”

Smith earned his bachelor’s degree from Haverford College in Pennsylvania, and went on to earn his doctorate from Yale’s department of religion.

He was also a beloved professor, known for challenging and entertaining students. He served as dean at the University of Chicago from 1977 to 1982. 

“Generations of undergraduates knew Jonathan Z. Smith as a challenging, inspiring, uncompromising, witty and breathtakingly erudite teacher,” wrote Wendy Doniger, a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, for a university statement.

Margaret M. Mitchell, a professor of New Testament and early Christian literature at the University of Chicago, said he loved classifying, organizing and thinking of religion in scientifically rigorous ways.

“He was famous for saying, in essence, that religion is a product of the scholars’ study,” Mitchell said. “It’s not out there. It’s created in moments of scholarly selection of material and choice to compare them with one another. ”

A longtime chain smoker, Smith died of lung cancer. He requested cremation and no funeral or memorial service.

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.


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  • Ah. I was one of Professor Smith’s students in the ’80s, and last week, thirty years later, I finished reading books on the development of our concepts of Satan and on the Book of Revelations. I didn’t enter a religious field, but I continue the studies he started me on back then. It took great courage to say the things he said, but I, at least, needed to hear them.

  • So he led people to question the reality of Jesus? Satan tried to beat him at that in the garden.

  • Must have been a wonderful time listening to this man. I have a great deal of respect for men like this.

  • Nope, your Christians repeatedly made it a point to remind me that questioning was an attempting at misleading others. I shut up and left them to their nonsense patriarchy.

  • no Christian would be afraid of one questioning, but one attempting to deceive, as this author, that would be a problem

  • “In this way, he re-theorized religion as something human and thereby opened it up to critical investigation.” Christianity is nothing human

  • Sandy without humans, God would not need to breath out scripture. Scripture entirely depends on a human audience and participation. Studying religion is studying humanity’s desire, understanding or, response to God.

  • Not only was he insightful about religion, but it was his college course “The Bible in Western Civilization” that convinced me to study history in graduate school and become a historian (of economic development, not religion). More than many conventional historians, he knew how to make history important and intellectually powerful.

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