Columbia University Seminar on Religion and Writing

The seminar investigates the roles of literacy and writing in religious traditions.  Its goal is to serve as a research group for the comparative study of literacy and the uses of writing as a form of communication technology in world religions.  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.

2013/2014 – Religious Books and Orthodoxy:
From Censorship and Book Burning to Copyright and Trademarks

September 10, 2013 – David Greetham (CUNY Graduate Center): Trial by Fire: Religion and Book-Burning

October 29, 2013 – Emile Schrijver (Universiteit van Amsterdam): Natural and Unnatural Boundaries of the Jewish Book

November 19, 2013 – M. Rahim Shayegan (UCLA): The King and his Audience: On the Composition and Reception of Royal Inscriptions in Ancient Iran and the Iranian World (Generously sponsored by the American Institute of Iranian Studies)

December 12, 2013 – Jessica Litman (University of Michigan): Copyright and Churches  

January 28, 2014 – Aleksandr I. Naymark (Hofstra University): Treating Images as Texts: A Reconstruction of the Sogdian Pantheon from the Images of Sogdian Ossuaries

February 18, 2014 – David S. Powers (Cornell University): BNF MS arabe 328a: Manipulation of Text and Meaning in an Early Quran Manuscript

March 25, 2014 – Zeynep Tüfekçi (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill): Who Tweets for the Ummah? From Clash of Civilizations to Bonds of Humor, from Innocence of Muslims to #Muslimrage

April 22, 2014 – Ronald Wallenfels (New York University): Canonicity and the Cuneiform Traditions

Cuneiform, the world’s oldest form of writing, first introduced towards the end of the fourth millennium BCE, appears to have finally expired by the third century CE. On the other hand, the Greek word κανών, not introduced until the fourth century CE by Christians as a technical term for a specific fixed body of sacred literature, represents a development of the special status accorded Jewish scripture termed “sacred writings” within the Rabbinic tradition. These traditions accepted divine authority, the morally binding nature of the texts comprising the Bible, and their fixed—that is unaltered and unalterable—nature. These are the fundamental notions of canonicity in its original sense and in this narrow sense it can be said categorically that there existed in the cuneiform traditions no single fixed set of religious texts that fit the narrow criteria warranting the label “canonical.” However, if we take the term canon to mean more generally any collection of texts that through a process of literary stabilization where older material is consciously maintained in a traditional form and new material is no longer being incorporated, then we most certainly can speak of “canonicity” within the cuneiform traditions. By examining the corpus of preserved cuneiform documents and the origin and characteristics of the cuneiform writing system this seminar will review the nature and history of canonicity in cuneiform literature as understood by modern Assyriologists.

Meetings in 2014/2015

September 9, 2014 – James G. Basker (Barnard College & Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History )
October 21, 2014 – Julie Crawford (Columbia University)
January 27, 2015 – Avinoam Shalem (Columbia University)


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 ]

Last updated, 12 April 2014.