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)

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

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the awakening of literary interest in human interiority and self-awareness had an important but as yet little-studied effect on the literature of hagiographical biography.  This was a literature that, from its late-antique origins, had been focused more on divine agency than on human agency; the inner life of the saint, and accordingly, the representation of change in that inner life, had been  absent—a remarkable fact given the precedent of New Testament stories of conversion and personal change.  It was in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that, with the newly increased literary attentiveness to inner life as a matter of interest in its own right, the “natural contingency” of biographical subjects began to loom larger in the view of their biographers.  The sequence of early narratives of the “conversion” of Francis of Assisi—for present purposes understood as the formative events in Francis’s life that preceded the founding of the Franciscan brotherhood—stands as a prominent case of this increased interest in human agency on the part of the biographers.  A series of these narratives that appeared in the period 1328 to 1263 give us, through comparison, a glimpse of what choices biographers made and what was at stake in making them.  These are texts that have received much attention for their value as sources of biographical fact, in the controversies that have accompanied what is sometimes called the “Franciscan Question”—that is, the modern scholarly debate over the value of these sources for the historian.  Here I will argue that that, precisely in their attempts to present the historical Francis as the authors understood him, these texts show us another related though largely implicit debate, this one about the nature of hagiographical narrative itself, and by extension about any narrative of human formation: a debate about how and whether the acts of God are to be found in the very subjectivity of the saint.

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, 17 November 2016