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David Michelson

Associate Professor of the History of Christianity
Assistant Professor of History; Assistant Professor of Classical Studies; Affiliate Faculty Member in the Program in Islamic Studies

His teaching and research focus on the history of Christianity in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. In particular, he is interested in historical texts in the Syriac language (a dialect of Aramaic). Although little known at present, these Syriac sources offer many new perspectives on the history of Christianity. Syriac was the common language of Christianity in the Middle East and Asia for over a thousand years. Syriac literature and networks of Syriac-speaking scholars were often a cultural bridge between Christian and the Islamic cultures. Today perhaps more than ten thousand manuscripts or fragments in Syriac survive, with a wide range in geographic origin stretching from Turkey and Egypt to western China and South India.

At present, the study of Syriac is both poignant and pressing because the current state of violence in Syria and Iraq threatens to completely eradicate the tiny minority populations who have preserved the Syriac language and Syriac cultures for nearly two millennia. One of Professor Michelson’s driving passions is to bring to public attention how these communities are facing the threat of cultural genocide. Indeed their loss of identity would be a tragedy for the world’s cultural diversity. For example, the study of Syriac materials sources offer a valuable path for broadening the history of Christianity to include non-Western voices past and present.

Michelson’s recent book The Practical Christology of Philoxenos of Mabbug(Oxford University Press, 2014) is an analysis of a prolific Syriac author and theologian, Philoxenos of Mabbug (d. 523). Philoxenos’ works are one of the largest bodies of literature by a single author to have survived in Syriac (approximately 500,000 words). In Practical Christology, Michelson offers a new approach to understanding the formation of early Christian theology through attention to overlapping contexts of religious practice. For example, the book demonstrates how Philoxenos’ many roles as a metropolitan bishop, sponsor of a revised New Testament, and monastic theologian, lead him to understand theological debates within a larger vision of ascetic and spiritual struggle. In short, it was religious practice that made theological formulas meaningful to Philoxenos and his audience.

In addition to research on late-antique Christology, Michelson is also strongly interested in the new possibilities which digital scholarship has opened up for scholars in the humanities. Not only do the methods of the “digital humanities”make it possible for us to answer scholarly questions in new ways, but also online scholarship is making it easier than ever for scholars and their audiences to interact and collaborate. For minority cultures who lack state financed libraries or other cultural infrastructure, digital scholarship also provides an inexpensive way to preserve their cultural heritage.

Accordingly, Michelson has undertaken a digital humanities project to make the history of Syriac culture better known through a series of online publications, The Syriac Reference Portal. is a joint project between Vanderbilt University, Princeton University, the Beth Mardutho Institute and several other international institutions. Funding for the project has been provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the International Balzan Prize Foundation. The first digital publication of the project is the Syriac Gazetteer, the first ever digital reference work designed to document Syriac place names and geography.

In his teaching at Vanderbilt University, Michelson offers courses which cover all of these interest areas including the global history of pre-modern Christianity, history of Syriac Christianity, history of Christian asceticism and mysticism, the historiography of Late Antiquity, and digital humanities research methods.