Jonathan Z. Smith, celebrated historian of religion, 1938-2017

Prof. Emeritus Jonathan Z. Smith, an influential historian of religion and a celebrated faculty member at the University of Chicago, passed away Dec. 30. He was 79.

A member of the UChicago faculty for 45 years, Smith joined the Divinity School as an assistant professor in 1968. He became a professor in 1975, was named the Robert O. Anderson Distinguished Service Professorship in the Humanities in 1982 and retired in 2013. He also served as master of the Humanities Collegiate Division from 1974 to 1977 and as dean of the College from 1977 to 1982.

Colleagues remembered him as a brilliant teacher, mentor, scholar and colleague who was passionate about the University of Chicago community and his field of study.

“Jonathan Z. Smith was a quintessential Chicago scholar of indomitable intellectual energy and unforgettable wit, iconoclastic in the very best sense, and utterly dedicated to a life of learning and teaching—for himself, his students and for a civil society,” said Margaret M. Mitchell, the Shailer Mathews Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and former dean of the Divinity School.

“Generations of undergraduates knew Jonathan Z. Smith as a challenging, inspiring, uncompromising, witty and breathtakingly erudite teacher,” said Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School. “The wider world of religious studies knew him as the author of paradigms and theoretical formulations that changed the way we now study religion.”

An early fascination with the relationship between myth and philosophy led Smith to an academic career examining the nature and history of religions across cultures—from Maori cults in the 19th century to the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. 

“They’re interesting, in and of themselves,” Smith said in a 2008 interview with the Chicago Maroon, describing the religions he chose to study. “They relate to the world in which I live, but it’s like a funhouse mirror: Something’s off. It’s not quite the world I live in, yet it’s recognizable. So that gap interested me. And so I specialized in religions that are dead, which has the great advantage that nobody talks back.”

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Smith became interested in religion at a young age when he decided to abstain from eating meat and found defense for his choice through religious texts. As an undergraduate he was fascinated with the relationship between Greek philosophy and myth and was encouraged by a philosophy professor to attend Yale Divinity School, where he earned a PhD in 1969.

Smith devoted his career to rigorous methodological research and drawing new understandings from disparate sources. For his scholarly work, Smith received numerous recognitions, including membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and he was the past president of the Society for Biblical Literature and the North American Association for the Study of Religion. In 2013 he earned an honorary lifetime membership in the International Association for the History of Religions.

Smith was also a beloved teacher, and he received the University’s Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1986. Bruce Lincoln, the Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Religions in the Divinity School, recalled Smith’s brilliance in the classroom.

“As a lecturer, he was absolutely spellbinding,” said Lincoln, one of Smith’s former graduate students. “In exchanges with students he was wonderfully encouraging, challenging and inspiring.”

Smith is survived by his wife, Elaine B. Smith; children, Siobhan Smith and Jason Smith (Rachel Weaver); granddaughter, Hazel van Wijk; and sister, Pamela Hanson. There will be no funeral or memorial services.