Columbia University Seminar on Religion and Writing

Columbia University Seminar 751 was founded in the fall of 2011 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)

This talk will draw on newly discovered sources for the Quran versions prepared by Johann Zechendorff (d. 1662) and Ludovico Marracci (d. 1700) in order to explore the practical challenges of access to copies of the Arabic Quran in early modern Europe and to discuss the theoretical problems of editing the Quran’s text after the Protestant Reformation.  Starting with Peter the Venerable (d. 1156), Christian theologians were encouraged to read the Quran and, subsequently, it began to circulate in a Latin version in Christian Europe.  Renaissance Quran manuscripts which present the Arabic text together with a translation, whether on facing pages or on the same page, document that from the fifteenth century onwards there was a growing interest in the Quran’s Arabic text.  In the early sixteenth century, the recently invented letterpress printing technology offered new opportunities for meeting the European demand for access to the Arabic Quran, and in the 1530s the Venetian publisher Paganino Paganini (d. 1538) issued the first printed Arabic Quran.  At the same time, there were the first efforts to translate the Arabic Quran into European vernaculars.

November 17, 2016 – Daniel Purdy (Pennsylvania State University): Publishing over Preaching: Jesuit Missionaries and Chinese Print Culture in the Seventeenth Century
Please note that this meeting will take place on a Thursday.

Ming China (1368–1644) enjoyed a robust book culture.  Alongside the Confucian classics, inexpensive editions in many fields––poetry, literature, astronomy, agriculture, medicine–– were printed for an eager audience.  Jesuits stationed around the world were generally known for learning the local spoken vernacular, but Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), a founding figure of the Jesuits’ mission in China, concluded that circulating manuscripts and publishing books in the language and manner of the administrative elite, was a more effective conversion strategy than holding oral disputations before representative audiences of politicians and priests.  Because the book business was so widespread, the Jesuits were able to find craftsmen able to carve the woodblocks required for printing. European tomes were expensive and rare, whereas publishing Chinese translations was often a more economical means of distributing Christian texts.

The geographical reach of what linguist Charles A. Ferguson calls Chinese “diglossia”––a classical high language with a substantial body of literature that is differentiated from regional vernacular languages––suggested to the Jesuits analogy with the position Latin as a universal elite European language.  As highly educated humanists and scholastic clerics, the Jesuits quickly grasped the importance of integrating Christian teaching with classical Confucian literature.

The Jesuit understanding of Chinese reading practices—the intensive manner in which the administrative elites read and memorized Classical Confucian texts—encouraged missionaries to disseminate their arguments through writing rather than sermons. Ricci clearly had the intimate habits of the Mandarin elite in mind when he distributed his early compilations of European moral philosophy first among friends in manuscript form and then second to a wider audience as printed books. The Jesuit concentration on learning the Chinese script in addition to speaking the administrative language was motivated by what they considered to be China’s distinctive print culture.

December 6, 2016 – John W. Coakley (New Brunswick Theological Seminary): Constancy and Metanoia in Medieval Christian Hagiography: On Francis of Assisi and Others

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 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

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

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 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, 15 October 2016