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Foundations: Scripture and Authority in Book Religions
Course Description

The recent scholarly interest in communication processes and media has opened new approaches to the ways in which the so-called book religions have placed supreme authority in a certain canonic text, considered to be the unfallibly truthful message of the divinity. Sanctified by its long-duration transmission, the holy book becomes the object of a peculiar scribal culture, of complex procedures of exegesis and application as well as intense liturgic and popular veneration. The presence of the Book shapes ritual, law, education, social order, and, on a more profound anthropological level, the specific interaction between scribal, oral, and visual practices.

The present course will reflect the impact of scripturalism on religious culture on the basis of a succinct introduction to the content, historical origins and reception of the Bible and the Qur’an. In a chronological order, the overview will start with the social, cultural, and political conditions involved in the formation of the Hebrew Bible in ancient Judaism, and will then encompass the ensuing canonization processes in Christianity and Islam. Further sessions will explore the doctrines of revelation and canonicity, as well as the refined techniques of exegetic appropriation that were developed in all three religions principally during the Middle Ages. We will finally study the ambivalent effects that modernity had on the concept of the sacred text: since the Reformation, printing and mass education have tended to objectify scripture, enhancing its authority and encouraging literal readings and fundamentalist reform projects; but the same factors could also open it to methods of cultural accommodation and critical study as one literary document among others.

Throughout the class we will critically reflect on the use of scripture-related concepts and practices as markers of collective identity. Claims of cultural supremacy have often been inherent in the classificatory concept of “book religions”, from its qur’anic origins until the academic scholarship of the colonial age, but the same concept has also opened a vast field of comparative study between European and Asian traditions of the sacred text. In an exemplary manner, "Scripture and Authority" obliges to scrutinize the potential and the limits of the comparative approach.

Learning Outcomes

Students in the class will acquire an overview of the scripturalist doctrines and practices in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, including an understanding of the pre-modem conceptions of a canonical text, modes of text production and text arrangements, and the techniques of reading involved in its use and social application. The course will introduce the participants to the present state of scholarly debates concerning the interaction between textual and iconic religious traditions and between scribal and oral forms of textual culture. The course will also present the innovations of the early modem and modem periods in the textual formation of the three monotheistic and scripturalist religions. Participants will finally acquire a comparative view of scriptural practices, including a critical assessment of their commonalities and historical differences among these three religions and in religious history at large.


The seminar will involve discussing readings assigned to each of its sessions. Such a discussion will be introduced by one of the students, who will report on these readings, relate them to each other and to the overall theme of the seminar, and comment on them critically. These presentations and class participation throughout the sessions will account respectively for 40% and 10% of the final assessment. The remaining 50% will be allocated to a critical account of a book to be agreed between the student and the instructor, and to be submitted at the end of term. Class attendance is mandatory. 

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