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The seminar is composed of scholars of different faiths and traditions with a common interest in research and teaching of the Hebrew Bible. The focus of the seminar is research illuminating the cultural milieu, language, text, and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. This research is characterized by a variety of methodologies, including historical-critical, literary, philological, archaeological, and sociological approaches to the text, as well as history of interpretation. Research on ancient near eastern cultures and languages relating to ancient Israel is also regularly presented.

Professor Heath Dewrell

David DeLauro

Meeting dates and locations are subject to change. Please confirm details with the seminar rapporteur.

Meeting Schedule

09/23/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Walt Whitman and the King James Bible
Chip Dobbs-Allsopp, Princeton Theological Seminary


Having recently celebrated the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible (2011) and the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth (2019), it is perhaps fitting to take a fresh look at what has been one of the older preoccupations of Whitman scholarship, the nature and extent of the KJB’s influence on Whitman and on his “mature” style, especially as manifested in the (early editions of the) Leaves of Grass. This is what I propose to do in a forthcoming monograph. Whitman was an inveterate “collager” of outside writing and it is unsurprising that the English Bible, which Whitman counted among the finest poetry of the world (“I don't know but the deepest and widest”), should be one source of language, imagery, themes, rhythm, and style for the poet to mine and mold and mobilize into Leaves of Grass. And though Whitman scholars have long acknowledged Whitman’s debt to the Bible, treatments of the topic have not usually included “careful investigation and massing of evidence,” as M. N. Posey observed already in 1938, and no biblicist, as far as I am aware, has weighed in on the issue. Any (Hebrew) Bible scholar who reads Leaves of Grass cannot fail to hear and feel its familiar rhythms, style, and, at times, even manner of phrasing. My aim in the book is to give these impressions some more precise articulation and illustration. In the end, I think that Whitman’s debt to the (King James) Bible is substantial and significant. To anticipate the conclusions reached in the book, and stated most positively, those aspects most reminiscent of the English Bible—Whitman’s signature long line, the prevalence of parallelism and the “free” rhythms it helps create, his prosiness and tendency towards parataxis, biblicized diction and phrasing, and the decidedly lyrical bent of the entire project—are characteristics of the style that begins to emerge in the immediate run-up to the 1855 Leaves and comes into full bloom in that volume and either are entirely absent or not prominent in Whitman’s earlier writings (prose and poetry). And what is more, in almost every instance, as far as I can tell, what Whitman takes from the Bible he reshapes, recasts, extends, molds, modifies, even contorts and warps, such that it becomes his own—that is, this is the kind of collaging “essential” to Whitman’s “writing process,” and thus by its nature such taking requires—in many instances at least—the sense and sensibility of a Hebraist for its detection and (full) appreciation. Whitman’s use of the English Bible cannot of its own explain the poet’s genius but it seems to me to be an important part of that genius. In the evening’s presentation I offer a general overview of the book project, lingering on salient details from each chapter.

10/23/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Where are the Colophons? Colophons in Ancient Near Eastern Literature and the Dead Sea Scrolls
Sidnie White Crawford, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


One of the interesting, if not puzzling, features of the literary Dead Sea Scrolls is the lack of colophons, that is, a short notice at the end of the work giving details about its production. Colophons are common in Mesopotamian literary texts, occur in Ugaritic literary texts, and are sporadic in Egyptian literary texts. In Greco-Roman literature, it was common to affix this information to a book roll in the form of a title tag. However, in the literary Dead Sea Scrolls, even where the beginning or end of a scroll is preserved, no information beyond the occasional title is given. This paper will explore this phenomenon and possible reasons for it.

11/04/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
The Jewish Diaspora in Persian Egypt
Karel van der Toorn, University of Amsterdam (Netherlands)


A small Jewish diaspora community lived in the deep south of Egypt in the fifth century BCE. These Jews lived on Elephantine Island and served as soldiers in the army of the Persians—the rulers of Egypt at that time. Together with two colonies of Arameans living in Aswan (ancient Syene) on the east bank of the Nile, the Jews received houses and fields in return for their readiness to defend Persian interests militarily. A rich collection of papyri and inscribed potsherds documents Jewish life on Elephantine. Until now, the origin of the Jewish colony on the island was obscure. But a recently translated papyrus from the fourth century BCE has proven to represent a variety of religious and historical texts that allow us to trace the history of the Jews of Elephantine. A true brain-twister, the papyrus is written in Egyptian signs (Demotic), but the words are Aramaic. Due to this most unusual combination of Demotic script and Aramaic language, it took more than a century to solve the riddle of the papyrus. Its newly revealed secrets shine unexpected light on the Elephantine Jews and their Aramean neighbors across the river.

01/14/2020 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM

Jessie DeGrado, Brandeis University

02/18/2020 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM

Yosef Ofer, Bar-Ilan University (Israel)

03/24/2020 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM

Liane Feldman, New York University

04/23/2020 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM

Elaine James, St. Catherine University