Over the summer and autumn of 2020, I’ve been catching up and rereading several important books on the New Testament, especially those that have approached their subjects from a sociological standpoint. Those works led me to others (sometimes the bibliography is more worthwhile than the book itself), and so on.
I remember reading Jonathan Z. Smith and noticing what he had actually written did not correspond well with what Robert M. Price had told us he wrote. Price has continued to insist for many years that Smith didn’t understand Weberian ideal types and that if an instance of a type did not conform exactly to the type, then we had to discard the instance.
Yet, in Drudgery Divine we observe in Smith’s writing an honest effort to categorize unique events within frameworks of classification. In fact, he pushed against “uniqueness” as a modern concept, too often used as an excuse to mystify, a lazy justification not to compare, for example, one event with another.
Let us be clear at the outset. There is a quite ordinary sense in which the term ‘unique’ may be applied in disciplinary contexts. When the historian speaks of unique events, the taxonomist of the unique differentium that allows the classification of this or that plant or animal species, the geographer of the unique physiognomy of a particular place, or the linguist of each human utterance as unique, he or she is asserting a reciprocal notion which confers no special status, nor does it deny–indeed, it demands–enterprises of classification and interpretation. A is unique with respect to B, in this sense, requires the assertion that B is, likewise, unique with respect to A, and so forth. In such formulations ‘uniqueness’ is generic and commonplace rather than being some odd point of pride. In my language, I would prefer, in such instances, the term ‘individual’, which permits the affirmation of difference while insisting on the notion of belonging to a class. [pp. 36-37, emphasis mine]
He tackled the subject of categorization and classification in greater depth in his 1982 work, Imagining Religion. When trying to explain what a religion is and how one particular religion fits within a framework of categorization, we often stumble on the problem of necessary and sufficient criteria. He wrote:
Perhaps the most promising development in recent years has been the return to the suggestion made by Michel Adanson in 1763 in controversy with Linnaeus over the question of the mutability of species. Adanson argued that the members of a given taxon need not possess all of the defining characteristics of that taxon and that there was no a priori justification for deciding what characteristics were most definitive. Although the state of the art in the eighteenth century was not such that Adanson could have put it this way, what he was suggesting was something like a statistical approach to classification. [p. 4, emphasis mine]
Here we see the way out of the quandary in which it seems as if all religions ought to have gods of some sort at their cores, and yet — Buddhism, and yet — Jainism.
Smith referred to this system of categorization as a “polythetic mode of classification.” By this means, we can leave aside the unhelpful procrustean bed of rigid classification. In his words, we could “surrender . . . the idea of perfect, unique, single differentia.” And further, with large numbers of individuals, we would expect to find (as in evolutionary biology) examples in which one individual might share hardly any characteristics with another individual. In fact, they might not share any at all.
To state this more concretely. Imagine a group of six individuals, each possessing three characteristics of a set, A-H. Individual 1 has characteristics A, B, C; individual 2 has B, C, D; individual 3 has A, B, D; individual 4 has A, C, D; individuals 5 and 6 have characteristics F, G, H in common. Individuals 1-4 would be formed into a polythetic group sharing a number of characteristics, although no one characteristic is found in all four individuals. Hence, no one characteristic is definitive. Individuals 5 and 6 form a classic monothetic set with the only question remaining the determination as to whether characteristic F or G or H is definitive. [pp. 4-5]
To put it another way, various individual examples of a type may not share a single prominent characteristic, and yet they may still firmly sit within the general boundaries of the ideal type.
With all this in mind, we may begin to doubt Price’s accusations against Jonathan Smith. He has stated them several times, most recently in his 2018 book, Bart Ehrman Interpreted:
[Jonathan Z.] Smith accuses previous scholars of cobbling together disparate features of very different myths in order to construct an artificial synthesis, a chimera which does not resemble any actual myths or gods. He is shocked, shocked, to find significant differences between the so-called dying-and-rising god myths and declares the patient dead with no resurrection on the schedule. In other words, if the various myths of Osiris, Attis, Adonis, et. [sic] al., do not all conform to type exactly, then they do not fit into the same box, so let’s throw out the box. Without everything in common, Smith sees nothing in common. [p. 194]
How can we square this “bad” J.Z. Smith who throws babies out with the bath with the “good” Jonathan Smith above who argued for a polythetic classification system to help us understand complex realities? In the next few posts, I’ll take a closer look at what Smith really thought about dying-and-rising gods, ideal types, and the general process of categorization and comparison.
Smith, Jonathan Z. Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, Univ. of London, 1990.
Smith, Jonathan Z. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Price, Robert M. Bart Ehrman Interpreted: How One Radical New Testament Scholar Understands Another. Durham, North Carolina, Pitchstone Publishing, 2018.
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