2020-12-03

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 2)

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by Tim Widowfield

Was Jesus a Dying-and-Rising God?

Burton Mack

As I mentioned in the previous post, over the past few months I’ve been rereading several important scholarly works from 20th-century NT Studies. I found it interesting that several scholars seemed to be in dialog with one another — especially those involved in Q Gospel research and the cynic-sage Jesus theory. Jonathan Z. Smith, for example, relied heavily on Burton Mack’s works, while Mack referred to Smith in his books, including (among others) The Christian MythWho Wrote the New Testament, and A Myth of Innocence.

As you may recall, in the last book listed above, Mack argued that some of the earliest Jesus-following groups were not Christ cults. In fact, the notions of Jesus’ martyrdom, resurrection, exaltation, ascension, etc. could have seemed alien to them.

It should be emphasized at this point that nowhere in this tradition running from Q into the early stages of biographic interest in Jesus is there any evidence for a view of Jesus’ death as a “saving event,” much less for thinking that Jesus had been transformed by means of a resurrection. The express application of the notion that Jesus had suffered a prophet’s fate appears to have been made when the authors of the gospels combined the Jesus traditions with views of Jesus’ death and resurrection that had developed in the Christ cults. But the notion of rejection was very near the surface in some of the later oracles in Q, thus preparing the way for thinking of Jesus as the rejected prophet. That Jesus had died a prophet’s death would only have meant, however, that he also and especially had been a true prophet in the line of prophets, nothing more. That would have been, in itself, a striking claim about Jesus and his purposes, to be sure, a claim of great significance for the emergence of Christian thought. But it would be wrong to read in any additional Christian nuances about the importance of Jesus’ death for those thinking in these terms. [Mack 1988, p. 86, emphasis mine]

Smith agreed. He believed that several competing groups of Jesus-followers sustained their own different communities. Some communities believed in a dying-and-rising Jesus; some did not. Consider the community that produced and preserved the Didache. For them, the bread and wine had nothing to do with the body and blood of a martyred savior.

[T]here is a set of Jesus-traditions which either do not focus on his death, or conceive of his death without attributing either saving significance to the death or linking it to a resurrection. For these latter options — a significance to Jesus’s death without a resurrection or the development of a ‘dying/rising’ myth with respect to Jesus — we must turn from the ‘movements in Palestine and southern Syria that cultivated the memory of Jesus as a founder-teacher’ to the ‘congregations in northern Syria, Asia Minor and Greece wherein the death and resurrection of the Christ were regarded as the founding events’. [Smith 1990, p. 138]

In Smith’s view, the Apostle Paul took the Jesus traditions he had received and pushed them along a new path of development, emphasizing the death-and-resurrection motif to that point where even the most central cultic rituals drew their entire meaning from it. And yet other Jesus-following communities focused their concerns on other things. He cites Mack here, noting five groups that “constructed thoroughly satisfying Jesus-myths without either a death or a resurrection.” [Reformatted below:]

[1] the earliest stratum of the Galilean ‘Q’ and its sayings traditions of ‘aphoristic wisdom’ (57-87);

[2] the Jerusalemite ‘Pillar’ tradition (88-90) . . .

[3] the Trans-Jordanian ‘Family of Jesus’ (90-91) about which little for certain is known;

[4] the ‘Congregation of Israel’, which was largely responsible for the early miracle stories, combining motifs drawn from narratives of Moses and Elijah with more general ‘divine man’ themes, and which laboured to relate their Jesus-traditions to the ‘epic’ traditions of Israel, while rejecting the claims of Second Temple Judaism to the same (91-93);

[5] . . . the ‘Synagogue Reform’ group, largely responsible for the early pronouncement stories, which staked out a claim for table-fellowship in close proximity to the synagogue and Pharasaic groups (94-96).

[Smith 1990, p. 135; page numbers in parentheses refer to A Myth of Innocence]

Toward a New Framework

If anything, Smith doubted the usefulness of the dying-and-rising-god motif because it was too Christian-centric and carried too much historical baggage — with scholars who worried about who adopted what from whom instead of what it all meant to adherents.

Now, one could argue (as I have) that some of these presumed communities are essentially literary mirages that resemble more the fanciful Canals of Mars than any actual, historical Christian (or proto-Christian? or pre-Christian?) groups. However, Smith and Mack took it all quite seriously. And to their credit, they concluded that assuming the basic veracity of the history of Christianity, as presented in the canonical New Testament and heavily interpreted by Protestants, had outlived its usefulness. They believed Christianity branched out very early in all directions, both geographically and theologically. I will note here that many current NT scholars pay lip service to the notion of “early Christianities,” but will quickly fall back into apologetic blather when pushed “too far.”

As I said in the opening, Mack and Smith maintained a dialog both in person and in print. Mack praised Smith’s push toward a new framework for understanding the history of religions, which included what Smith had called a “rectification of categories.” The problem, as they saw it, is our long tradition of viewing Protestant Christianity as the normative standard for all religions. We need to move to a more generic framework (including a new vocabulary) in order to compare religions adequately. Instead of comparing myths, rituals, and other features to some dogmatic Christian ideal (whether we’re aware of it or not), we need a more objective, neutral framework.

In his 1996 essay, “On Redescribing Christian Origins,” Mack put it this way:

Invariably, the process of comparison will give rise to a redescription of the objects under investigation. That is because the comparative enterprise, having to take note of situations, humans interests, the investments of a people in a project, and the circumstances, skills, and effects of its production or cultivation, will put us in touch with an ever more complex and interesting set of details. It may be that something will have been learned about factors that make the two situations similar, something about the difference another myth makes, something about the reasons for a people’s interest in or fascination with a particular notion, role, or activity, and so forth. These insights will change the way in which the examples under investigation are understood and thus require redescription. A redescription will register what has been learned in the study. My impression is that, while we have learned to be thorough in the description of this or that feature of a text, we have seldom thought it necessary to describe in detail, much less redescribe, any piece of the social and cultural picture puzzle we are trying to assemble. [Mack 1996, p. 258]

He indicts modern scholarship, noting that the focus remains steadfast on contemporary Christian needs. For example, the vast majority of studies that had looked at the various descriptions of “meeting for meals” ignored the social aspects. They didn’t bother to ask basic questions such as, “How would that actually work?” or “How would it affect mythmaking?

Studies of the supper texts have always been undertaken with only one objective — to anchor the origins of the Mass or Eucharist in the life of Jesus at the point of his passion. We need to set aside this history of scholarship. It has taught us very little about the importance that meals, congregating, and ritualizations had for early Christians and their mythmaking projects. Even after generations of studies on the origins of the “Lord’s Supper”, we still have only a mystery on our hands. [Mack 1996, p. 258]

To shake scholarship out of its Christian-centric framework, Smith and Mack recommended a wholesale reset. We must look at all instances of a phenomenon, understanding and respecting each on its own while looking for common and distinctive features within the set. (N.B., we must seek to compare without judgment and without jumping to genealogical conclusions.)

At the end of such a comparative study it might be possible to rename the phenomenon of which our case studies are examples. This, at least, is what we should strive for. Smith’s term for this operation is the rectification of categories. By that he means that the terms we use to name and describe things are important, and that the traditional terms we use are not innocent with respect to parochial connotations. It is frequently the case that a term can be found that fits the new descriptions better than older designations. [Mack 1996, pp. 258-259, bold emphasis mine]

Mack then recounts a productive encounter in which he used the term “reenactment” to describe what Christians imagined they were doing when participating in the Eucharist. Is that actually what people see themselves doing when taking part in religious rituals?

Smith demurred because he knew of no other instance in which ritual was best described as reenactment. So I asked him to come up with another term. When he said, “How about replication?”, my heart stopped. I had been reading Victor Turner’s description of Ndembu circumcision and “replication” fit the process perfectly. I mentally scurried through other rituals I had read about and found myself giddy with the difference a different category made. And what if Christian ritual fell now somewhere between replication as commonly observed and the oddity of reenactment? Wouldn’t that come close to marking one of its distinctive features without having to set it apart from all other rituals as unique and incomparable? [Mack 1996, p. 259, bold emphasis mine]

I think you can see where we’re headed here. If anything, Smith doubted the usefulness of the dying-and-rising-god motif because it was too Christian-centric and carried too much historical baggage — with scholars who worried about who adopted what from whom instead of what it all meant to adherents. Hence, he looked at and compared all supposed instances of the group, and his reassessment led to the broader (and more generic) “disappearing god” motif. Whether or not he failed in his attempt is a different question.

One last thing: Please notice once again that Smith and Mack were opposing the idea that the Protestant view of Christianity is normal and correct. They were fighting against a long tradition in which scholars saw all the features of Christianity as unique and original. They disagreed with the ideas that the historical Jesus had to be an apocalyptic prophet and that original, “real” Christianity had to be seen as a cult centered around a dying-and-rising god. This is an anti-apologetic undertaking.

In the next post, I’ll return to ideal types.


Mack, Burton L. The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy. New York: Continuum, 2003.

Mack, Burton L. Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth. San Francisco, Calif: Harper San Francisco, 1999.

Mack, Burton L. A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1988. Print.

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.

Mack, Burton L. “On Redescribing Christian Origins,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, Vol. 8, No. 3 (1996), pp. 247-269, Brill


Neil referred to “On Redescribing Christian Origins” in his 2014 post, “A Secular Approach to Christian Origins Compromised by Faith and Theology.”

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is an RV Park host who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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3 thoughts on “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 2)”

  1. Re “In Smith’s view, the Apostle Paul took the Jesus traditions he had received and pushed them along a new path of development, emphasizing the death-and-resurrection motif to that point where ….” Okay, now I am confused. It seems to me that Paul emphasized Christ Crucified above all else and really did not involve the resurrection much at all.His Christ Jesus was a celestial being who was crucified and rose “from the dead” in the Heavens. So, this claim makes no sense to me. I am beginning to think I will never make any sense of this.

    1. As I understand Paul (if that’s even possible), he took the resurrection story of Jesus as a portent of the eschaton. Jesus was the pathfinder — the first fruits of the general resurrection that was coming soon.

      With that in mind, it would seem that the rising of Christ is a fundamental tenet for him. Note too that “seeing” the exalted Christ, as Paul claims to have done, gave him some sort of authority. Recall as well that Paul saw the baptism as a ritual acting out the death and resurrection of the old self.

      And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. 1 Cor 15:14.

  2. OP: “They were fighting against a long tradition in which scholars saw all the features of Christianity as unique and original.”

    Smith appears (like G. A. Wells v. Dunn) to of folded and retreated to a more defensible position. Not having the work of Metzger; Carrier; Cook et al. at hand.

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