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 (New York University-Institute for the Study of the Ancient World): Patterning the World: The Role of wen in the Shang Dynasty

The Shang dynasty is famous for both standing at the headwaters of the Chinese writing system and its anomalously violent religiosity. While the oracle-bone inscriptions are the first known corpus written in the Chinese script, they reveal an overriding concern for ritual – prominently including human sacrifice – a practice strikingly verified by archaeology. In this paper I will argue that the concept of wen (writing, patterns, civil/domesticated/pacified) links together Shang writing, sacrifice and culture in general.

I will make my argument by way of extracting the ontology of Shang visual culture, ritual and writing from patterns common to all three. I will claim that this ontology is fundamentally analogistic – relating bundles of qualities perceived in the world through analogies in order to evoke the outcomes desired. This evocative indexicality is central to understanding why, for instance, both writing system and visual culture ambivalently range from mimetic, naturalistic representation to abstraction: the purpose of Shang representation is to bring forth what is desired through its metaphoric or metonymic evocation. The patterns of wen, then, are the hidden patterns of the universe itself, its secret code of resemblances perceived and operationalized by a select few through writing, ritual and divination.

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

In contrast to many other religions in West Asia, Zoroastrianism in the Iranian world did not promote a unified tradition of temple architecture that evolved continuously through all periods.  The ancient Persian dynasties cultivated a vast array of ritual practices, which they staged both in the vicinity of their palaces and at sites of man-made and natural beauty.  In their provinces they engaged the sacred landscapes and structures of their subject peoples, offering sacrifices and patronage at a variety of sites, including temples.  However, they did not impose a tradition of fire temple architecture on their empire.

Throughout the last century scholars have repeatedly assumed – and often attempted to reconstruct – the existence of a trans-millennial tradition of Iranian temple architecture built to house a sacred, ever-burning fire in the manner of a late antique or medieval Zoroastrian fire temple, retrojecting their modern assumption on to the ancient evidence.  A more problematic tradition of scholarship sought the roots of a primordial “Aryan” architecture and religion in these imagined Iranian temple traditions.  I will explore these historiographical and evidentiary challenges of studying the temple traditions and sacred architecture in Iran, with an eye towards the warping effect of dominant scholarly and nationalistic discourses.

This seminar is 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

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

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

Previous Rapporteurs

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

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

Last updated, 8 February 2017