J.Z. Smith on the Study of Canons

I was recently rereading J.Z. Smith’s 2008 presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature, titled “Religion and the Bible” (published in the Journal of Biblical Literature and available online here), and I found two provocative passages worth sharing:

[W]hat [Max] Müller proposes in his definition of sacred books—and I affirm—is that the object of study, in the case of sacred, canonical books, is not so much the text itself as it is its tradition, its trajectories. For Müller, you will recall, the data of a student of book-religions include not only the canonical texts, and their secondary and tertiary formations, but also what he terms the “indispensable” commentary literature these have generated. The Nachleben, the ‘afterlife,’ of a canonical text is as significant as the origins of the text—after all, the notion of ‘the Bible’ is, itself, a postbiblical phenomenon.


[T]he Bible is not best taught as a set of ancient documents, nor even as a formation of the early centuries, but rather through the exploration of trajectories through the full range of its history, to read it, in [Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s] terms, “forwards” as well as “backwards.”

What might it be like if our courses on “sacred texts” like the Bible or the Qur’an did the same?

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