Columbia University Seminar on Religion and Writing

In Fall 2011 the Columbia University Seminar 751 was founded to create a research group dedicated to the investigation of literacy and writing in world religions (cf.  Its focus is the comparative study of the roles of literacy vis-à-vis the uses of writing as a form of communication technology in religious traditions.  Approaching the relationship between religion and writing through the lenses of literacy and communication technology, the seminar strives to address all media – from inscriptions on stone and clay tablets to internet websites – and all literary genres – from myths and commentaries to divine revelations and hymns – as well as the theoretical and practical implications of the absence, or rejection, of writing.

The seminar title includes the word “religion,” as its starting point is the thesis that religions have an impact on whether and how societies approach writing and literacy.  At the moment the possibly most popular application of this thesis is the wrong, and yet persistent claim that Islamic theology is responsible for the fact that the diffusion of letterpress printing technology – coming during the medieval era from China and Korea and from northern Europe during the early modern era – halted at the borders of the Islamic civilization.  Since it is impossible to examine a negative, it is one of the aims of the seminar to provide an interdisciplinary context for the thesis’ further investigation.

The seminar’s meetings are usually held on Tuesdays in the Faculty House of Columbia University, 64 Morningside Drive, New York, N.Y. 10027 (for directions, click here). The meeting begins at 5.00 pm, and around 6.45 pm we will adjourn for dinner in the Faculty House.

Schedule 2016-2017

September 20, 2016 – Shalom E. Holtz (Yeshiva University): The Oral and the Textual in Mesopotamian and Biblical Law

October 25, 2016 – Roberto Tottoli (Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale”/Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton): Editing and Printing the Quran in Early-Modern Europe (16th-18th Centuries)

November 17, 2016 – Daniel Purdy (Pennsylvania State University): Publishing over Preaching: Jesuit Missionaries and Chinese Print Culture in the Seventeenth Century

December 6, 2016 – John W. Coakley (New Brunswick Theological Seminary): A Metamorphosis in Christian Biography in the High Middle Ages: The Case of the Early Lives of Francis of Assisi

January 24, 2017 – Clémence Boulouque (Columbia University): Betrayed Legacies? A Rabbi, his Christian Disciple and an Unfinished Manuscript: The Case of Elia Benamozegh (1823-1900) and Aimé Pallière (1868-1949) in Search of Religious Universalism

February 28, 2017 – Roderick B. Campbell (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, NYU): Patterning the World: The Role of wen in the Shang Dynasty

April 4, 2017 – Matthew P. Canepa (University of Minnesota): Historiographical and Archaeological Problems in Understanding Temples and Sacred Spaces in Ancient Iran

This seminar was generously sponsored by the American Institute of Iranian Studies.

May 2, 2017 – Debra Glasberg Gail (New York University): Scientific Authority and Jewish Law in Eighteenth-Century Italy

Italian rabbi and physician Isaac Lampronti (1679–1756) produced both the first alphabetically organized encyclopedia (the Pahad Yitzhak) and the first periodical (the Bikurei kazir) of rabbinic law. He did so by applying the most innovative scholarly methodologies of his day to the study and adjudication of Jewish law. In the process, he refashioned the Jewish legal system according to early modern scientific methodologies and emerging Enlightenment ideas. This presentation will illuminate these innovations through examination of both the form and the content of the Pahad Yitzhak and also explore two topics of broader significance: (1) the composition process of early modern encyclopedias; (2) the intersections between scientific culture and religious study in early modern Italy.

Columbia University encourages persons with disabilities to participate in its programs and activities.  University Seminar participants with disabilities who anticipate needing accommodations or who have questions about physical access may contact the Office of Disability Services (tel. 212-854-2388, disability [at]  Disability accommodations, including sign-language interpreters, are available on request.  Requests for accommodations must be made two weeks in advance.  On campus, Seminar participants with disabilities should alert a Public Safety Officer that they need assistance accessing campus.

The abstracts of all talks since January 2012 are archived here.  Please do not hesitate to contact us for any further information.  If you wish to attend a seminar meeting, please email Carolyn Quijano (cjq2101 [at]

Mahnaz Moazami, co-chair
Columbia University
Center for Iranian Studies
mm1754 [at]

Elizabeth Powers, co-chair
Independent Scholar
elizabethmpowers [at]

Carolyn J. Quijano, rapporteur
Columbia University
Department of History
cjq2101 [at]

Previous Co-Chair

Dagmar A. Riedel, Columbia University, Center for Iranian Studies, Fall 2011 – Feb. 2017

Previous Rapporteurs

Deborah G. Shulevitz, Columbia University, Department of History, March 2014 – March 2017

Hannah K. Barker, Columbia University, Department of History, Fall 2011 – Feb. 2014

Last updated, 14 April 2017