Something I Learned from J.Z. Smith: Vaia Touna

by Vaia Touna

This is part of a new series where scholars reflect on something they’ve learned from the influential work of Jonathan Z. Smith, who died on December 30, 2017. For other posts in the series see here.

It is really difficult to choose just one thing that I’ve learned from Jonathan Z. Smith, though I have learned from him that “less is more,” for example when one is putting together a syllabus for one’s own course. But let me start from some beginning.

I don’t really remember when I first encountered J.Z. Smith’s writings, likely sometime during my Master’s degree, but I do remember vividly when it was suggested to read his book Imagining Religion (1982)—which I got a hold of in May of 2008—with the advice “do not get lost in the details of his descriptions but look for the moves he makes.” At the time, given my training (specializing in classical Greek history, religion, literature, etc.), I’m not sure I understood what that even meant. How could I possibly pay attention to something other than his rich knowledge of the examples he was writing about, his insightful, rigorous, and articulate descriptions and analysis? In retrospect, though, that was the best advice I received, so I would like to pass it on. Because I think it is exactly those moves that are more important in J.Z. Smith’s writings, even more important than the examples he sets one’s hand to, and therefore the thing that he taught me most.

I’m not sure I’ve written a paper without quoting J.Z. Smith or without going back and reading and consulting the two books that became part of my own intellectual canon. Imagining Religion (1982) and Drudgery Divine (1990). Both copies of these books are filled with highlights, my margin notes, and arrows that marked something as NB (i.e., Nota Bene [take special notice]), and so, with his moves in mind, I would like to share some of those NB quotes.


As I already said, it is difficult to choose the one thing that I’ve learned from J.Z. Smith, or from my professors who, themselves influenced by his thought, guided me to his work. Nevertheless, choices are an important endeavor, as J.Z. Smith taught me in his chapter “The Bare Facts of Ritual” (Imagining Religion 1992: 53-65). Reading that chapter one learns a great deal about hunting and rituals but, as always the case with J.Z. Smith, there’s an implicit “more than” meets the eye when one “looks out for his moves.” Although the chapter appears to be about ritual and hunting, it is just as much about choice; how scholars make choices to compare things that seem incomparable, how they manage and control reality. A ritual, as J.Z. Smith writes, is “a controlled environment where the variables (i.e., the accidents) of ordinary life may be displaced precisely because they are felt to be so overwhelmingly present and powerful.” But isn’t that also a scholarly endeavor where “contingency, variability, and accidentality are factored out”? And, well, something to seriously think and reflect upon?

In his book Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity, one can easily be lost in the detailed, rich descriptions of both Early Christianities and the religions of Late Antiquity, but for me it became a book on what a scholar of religion should pay attention to, because in part it is a book about the divine drudgery of our work, of scholarly comparisons and what they entail. Although many things can be discussed from this book, there are two things I want to bring attention to.


When it comes to comparison there is the problem with describing things or referring to things as being unique. Smith writes:

“The ‘unique’ is an attribute that must be disposed of, especially when linked to some notion of incomparable value, if progress in thinking through the enterprise of comparison is to be made” (36).

Why I find the idea of uniqueness as something very important to guard myself against is because even though I haven’t really referred to something in my writing as being unique, prior to reading J.Z. Smith that is, I think that I might have thought of my examples in those terms. The problem with something being considered unique and thus with some kind of (what J.Z. Smith describes as) “incomparable value,” as I see it now, is that once you approach your data like that, you lose the opportunity to engage in discussions with other scholars who work in other data sets, for now you are confined and isolated to your scholarly endeavor, unable to make connections, to see similarities and differences operating elsewhere, and prevented from gaining from the insights of your colleagues who made progress in their work in other data sets. Although I’m not sure if that’s what J.Z. Smith had in mind or counts as the kind of progress he wanted to see, once I dropped the whole idea of uniqueness I was able to make progress not only in the enterprise of comparison, that is, in bringing together side by side things that seemed completely unrelated, but also in my work in general; for I was able to see the inter-connectedness of practices and ideas that at first might have seemed unrelated and incomparable. Of course that was the result also of the second thing from this book that I wish to talk about.

Tertium quid

If I was really to be forced to choose one thing that J.Z. Smith taught me, the most important for me (the one thing that always operates at the back of my head, like the lyrics of a background song, every time I start a new project or every time I start writing something), is the: “with respect to” or the Tertium quid or Τρίτο Γένος (as J.Z. Smith translates it “a third something” [83]). For in regards to the enterprise of comparison J.Z. Smith writes:

That is to say, the statement of comparison is never dyadic but always triadic; there is always an implicit ‘more than’, and there is always a ‘with respect to’. In the case of an academic comparison, the ‘with respect to’ is most frequently the scholar’s interest, be this expressed in a question, a theory, or a model (51).

So, it is always with this ‘with respect to’ that I begin a project. In fact, as I’m currently starting a new research project, I ask myself why do I want to put the happenings of an archaeological dig next to the happenings of a church? Sure both e.g’s are important for all sorts of reasons, but what is the theoretical question that I want to answer by looking at them, that is, what is the third something, the “with respect to” that I wish to draw my readers’ attention to? It is a question that, as Smith writes, “is different from that to which it is being applied,” in other words, although my project will be, on the one hand, about people connected in some way or another to archaeological digs (whether archaeologists or visitors) and, on the other hand, church goers, there will also be an implicit “more than.” It will be about something that, quoting Smith once again, “is the scholar’s intellectual purpose—whether explanatory or interpretative, whether generic or specific—which highlights that principled postulation of similarity which is the ground of the methodological comparison of difference being interesting” (53).

Although, it might be appropriate to end this post with J.Z. Smith’s own words, I’d like to end on a more personal note. I met J.Z. Smith in 2008 at the annual SBL conference held in November of that year in Boston, MA, back when I was a recently graduated Master’s student. I was among the lucky and very privileged ones—and now immensely grateful—to be invited to his Presidential Festschrift Dinner at Hamersley’s Bistro. I travelled to Boston from Greece carrying one book with me, Imagining Religion, with the intention (and hope) that he would sign it. I remember spending most of that night at the dinner thinking that it was my last chance to get his signature but also terrified with the idea of bothering him with such a, perhaps, silly request, and I was even more terrified in the prospect of being denied. At the end of a lovely dinner—a dinner that was to become one of my most endearing memories of J.Z. Smith, of hearing stories of other scholars talking about him—when most of the guests had left, I gathered all my strength, and politely asked if it would be too much trouble for him to sign his book. With his unique, or better put individual and distinct, voice he said that he’d be happy to, and I was struck by how humbled he seemed and appreciative at my request to sign: “With gratitude for meeting in Boston.” So there it was, the most important scholar of religion had gratitude for meeting me?! How isn’t this humbleness also one more thing to mark as another NB (i.e., Nota Bene) in the margins of a scholar’s life book, as another lesson learned.

I would like to thank Matt Sheedy for inviting me to reflect upon the work of J.Z. Smith, and contribute to this wonderful blog post series.

Vaia Touna is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. She is author of Fabrications of the Greek Past: Religion, Tradition, and the Making of Modern Identities (Brill, 2017). Her research focuses on the sociology of religion, acts of identification and social formation, as well as methodological issues concerning the study of religion and the past in general.



Imagining Religion:

Drudgery Divine:

Fabrications of the Greek Past:


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