Writing a History of Origins

As part of an event marking the contributions to the study of religion made by (the now late) Wilfred Cantwell Smith, held at the University of Toronto in the Spring of 1992, Jonathan Z. Smith presented a paper entitled “Scriptures and Histories.” Soon published in a special issue of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion (and recently included as chapter 3 of Smith’s On Teaching Religion), it deftly picks up on themes in the former Smith’s work but expands on them considerably since, as the latter Smith writes near the opening of his essay: “We share last names, but not much else.”

Given Culture on the Edge‘s impatience with the sorts of uncritical origins narratives that must be spun in order for scholars to make judgments about how groups change over time and place–that is, claims of diaspora make no sense without positing a homeland, a pre-historic source from which the scattering supposedly took place and against which degrees of purity, significance, and membership can be measured–the part that seems particularly relevant in “Scriptures and Histories” is an aside not too far into the essay, based on W. C. Smith’s claim that scholars of the Bible spend far too much time on its pre-history and not enough on its subsequent history, as the other Smith phrases it. To make the case, J. Z. Smith quickly notes that such things as theories of the compositional history of the Bible (e.g., the so-called documentary hypothesis that is used to understand the Hebrew text’s origins) are “not tenth century B.C. or first century A.D. Palestinian artifacts, they are artifacts of the 19th and 20th century European thought.” In mistaking their tools (e.g., a theory concerning the prior, but no longer existent, sources from which ancient texts arose) for natural features of the datum itself, scholars erase their own fingerprints from the object, failing to see the role that they themselves have played in making something interesting and understandable.

Pressing the point further, J.Z. Smith writes:

jzsquoteWe have here the makings of a genealogy not of religion but of the scholarly practice that has made it possible to talk about such things as the origins of religion in the first place. For now, instead of beginning the discussion of, for instance, the origins of Hinduism in the Indus River Valley some four or five millennia ago, as every world religions textbook does, we’d instead begin the story in the late 19th century, back when we still called “it” Hindooism, during which time a series of European observations, curiosities, and eventually archeological digs (and, early on, blastings to lay track for the, yes, colonial era East India Railway Company) began taking place, which made it possible to posit the existence of what we have, since then, come to know as the early Harappan Civilization. (It would not be difficult to rethink, in precisely the same manner, the historicity of the other group important to the traditional Hinduism origins tale told by scholars: the Indo-Europeans.) Thus, Hinduism’s origins are merely a century old, regardless how antique the diverse items and practices on which we draw when talking about “it” may (or may not) seem to be.

How, then, to write a history of origins? Start with whenever you hear, whenever you read, “In the beginning…” (or any of its variants, such as “When I was a kid…,” “The Founding Fathers said…” or “The author intended…”), being sure to keep your eyes and ears on the storytellers and not get carried away by their tales. If this was our approach–a far more dynamic understanding of how discourses on the past are produced–then we’d be doing history in significantly different ways, carrying out an archeology of the continually-changing present’s discourse on the supposedly settled past.

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