Columbia University Seminar on Religion and Writing

The seminar was founded in the fall of 2011 in order to create a research group dedicated to the investigation of literacy and writing in world religions.  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.

Seminar Meetings in 2014-2015

September 9, 2014 – James G. Basker (Barnard College & Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History): Christian Ethics in American Antislavery Writings, 1688–1865

October 21, 2014 – Julie Crawford (Columbia University): Reading Abroad: Women, Religion and Sociability in Early Modern England

November 11, 2014 – Joseph A. Howley (Columbia University): What Was Buried in Numa’s Tomb? Religion and Politics in Roman Book-Burning

December 2, 2014 – Philip Hamburger (Columbia Law School): The KKK and the Separation of Church and State

February 2, 2015 – Avinoam Shalem (Columbia University): Classicizing the New: The Publication of the Tarīkh al-Hind al-gharbī al-musammā bi-ḥadīth-i nuw (Istanbul, Ramaḍān 1142/1730)

February 24, 2015 – David M. Stern (University of Pennsylvania): The Monk’s Haggadah (Munich, BSB Cod. hebr. 200) and the Tale of its Modern Discovery

March 24, 2015 – Michael Twomey (Ithaca College): Peoples of the Book: Middle-Eastern Ethnology in Western Medieval Encyclopedias

Encyclopedias held an important place in the university, cathedral, and monastic libraries of the medieval West.  After an introduction to these encyclopedias, including the problem of their genre, this talk will briefly outline the educational use of encyclopedias before focusing on the question of how the two most widely-disseminated encyclopedias, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies and Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s On the Properties of Things, represented the Middle East, in particular the peoples of the lands now known as Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudia Arabia, Yemen, the Gulf states, Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories.  Although it is no surprise that encyclopedias dealt in book learning rather than empirical evidence, my thesis is specifically that encyclopedic ethnology served the study of biblical and classical texts.  What we will explore in this talk is the epistemology that encyclopedias apply to the lands and peoples of the Middle East.  Whereas encyclopedias have been considered repositories of medieval science, I will argue that their focus on the classical Mediterranean and the biblical Middle East also places encyclopedias in the field of literary study.  From an examination of key passages, we can discuss the role that encyclopedic ethnology may have played in shaping pre-modern Western thinking about the Middle East; and we can compare the encyclopedic view with that of other sources.

This meeting will be held jointly with the Columbia University Seminar on Medieval Studies.

April 28, 2015 – P. Oktor Skjaervo (Harvard University): Writing and Reading the Words of Zarathustra

Since Zarathustra (Old Avestan Zaraθuštra-; Zoroaster) does not appear in the contemporary historical record of any time or place, it is hard to evaluate the words ascribed to him throughout history.
Five periods of reception must be distinguished:
(1) The first period begins with the Greek sources of Antiquity and ends with the magisterial account of the religion of the Persians and the Medes by Thomas Hyde (1636-1730), first published in 1700.
(2) The second period starts in 1771, when Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (1731-1805) publishes genuine Zoroastrian texts, though the impact is diminished by the critique of the Zarathustra of Anquetil’s translations.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Indo-Iranian Studies are established and scholars realize that Avestan and Pahlavi are old Iranian languages.
(3) In 1862, Martin Haug (1827-1876) initiates the third period when he suggests that the previous critique of Zarathustra is based on the wrong texts, since only the Gathas contain the “words of Zarathustra.”
(4) The fourth period is characterized by the acceptance of Haug’s assumption, which is now applied to the entire Gathic corpus.  The “historical Zarathustra” is the object of numerous reconstructions and the Gathas are interpreted as “Zarathustra’s words” in as many ways as there are Gathic scholars.  This period comes to a close at the end of the 20th century.
(5) During the fifth and current period, scholars increasingly abandon the concept of a “historical Zarathustra” and investigate Zorostrian texts as an oral literature which comprises notably the Avestan Avesta as well as the Pahlavi Zand and the remaining Pahlavi literature.
At present a central question of Zoroastrian Studies is therefore where and when this oral literature was composed and redacted in order to be written down.

The meetings of the Columbia University Seminar on Religion and Writing (#751) are usually held on Tuesdays in the Faculty House of Columbia University, 400 West 117th Street, New York, N.Y. 10027 (for directions, click here).  We will gather after 5.30 pm, either in the lobby, if the bar is open, or on the second floor, where dinner will follow at 6 pm.  The talk will begin at 7:00 pm sharp.

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 Deborah Shulevitz (dgs2016 [ at ]

Mahnaz Moazami & Dagmar Riedel, co-chairs
Columbia University
Center for Iranian Studies
mm1754 [at]
dar2111 [at]

Deborah Shulevitz, rapporteur
Columbia University
Department of History
dgs2016 [ at ]

Previous Rapporteur

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

Last updated, 25 February 2015