The Philadelphia Seminar on Christians Origins (PSCO) has a slightly misleading name. When it was first founded back in 1963, it explored precisely what it said on the tin. Using the toolkit of the critical study of religion, PSCO examined the New Testament, other Second Temple Jewish texts, and Mediterranean antiquity in order to better understand the beginnings of Christianity. The seminar met in Philadelphia, but did not limit its horizons to the United States; scholars working with the seminar even transported key European scholarship to America—most substantially by translating Walter Bauer’s important 1933 Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity into English. Since then, PSCO has evolved into more general but always rich forum for discussion centred on ancient—and post-ancient religion. Talks in recent years have included black Hagar in American literature (Nyasha Junior, Temple), revolutions in Seleucid era time (Paul Kosmin, Harvard), the complexity of canon construction in the Second Temple Period (Eva Mroczek, UC Davis), and the Jewish Paul through twentieth-century Jewish thought (John Gager, Princeton)—to name just a few.
PSCO takes the concrete form of a two-hour, discussion-based group that meets on Thursday evening five to six times every academic year to hear invited speakers on a topic chosen by the co-chairs. The topics are designed to draw attention to an underused text or make some scholarly intervention in the broader study of ancient religion. Typically, at least an hour is reserved for discussion—and usually there is plenty to say, since its regular attendees include a wide sampling of disciplines: biblical studies, Jewish studies, religious studies, ancient history, classics, engineering—and this year, excitingly, also philosophy and the history of science. This year’s docket is no exception to this variety, with exceptional scholars from several different disciplines speaking. But PSCO manages to stay intimate by virtue of being a low-budget operation (travel for speakers is covered by grants from the Center for Ancient Studies and the Penn Humanities Forum.) The seminar is also graced by several of its founding members. Robert Kraft (emeritus) has been a frequent attendee, as have previous secretaries of the seminar, and many illustrious scholars have at some point in time passed through its collegial, courteous, and intelligent salonesque gatherings.
As the seminar itself attests, nothing stays the same forever, and PSCO has evolved from the time of its early meetings back in the 1960s in more than just name. Partly, this results from a high turnover rate amongst those who run it. Graduate students are currently heavily involved, for one-year stints at a time. And whilst the current coordinator, Annette Yoshiko Reed, was the Penn contact for the seminar over the last decade, her recent move to NYU ushers in another period of transition in PSCO’s long and venerable story. Although Reed (a long-time member of the AJR advisory board) remains coordinator from afar, for the first time in the seminar’s history there is no faculty in Penn Religious Studies serving as an anchor for the series. I have no doubt this represents another opportunity for growth and productive change, even as PSCO continues to enjoy its close relationships with the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, the Center for Ancient Studies, the recently renamed Woolf Forum for the Humanities (formerly the Penn Humanities Forum), and with other institutions, both Philly specific—Haverford, Temple, Drexel—and further afield—Princeton, Columbia, NYU, JTS, Yale, Harvard.
As for our 2017-18 topic selection—science and the scientific—two main factors drove our choice. The Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, in downtown Philadelphia, gathers a crop of superb scholars every year to focus on a specific framing concept; this year, the choice was “Jews and Science.” As a result, we chose to draw on internationally-renowned scholars to discuss their in-progress projects. Second, recent scholarship has shown the benefit of attention to regimes of knowledge—ways of generating knowledge, and the ways knowledge shapes expectations of the people who do the knowing—as a method for approaching the past. Our title (“What did Ancient Jews Know?”) references Daryn Lehoux’s What did the Romans Know, in which he asked the same question of a different group: how do we understand Romans better if we also understand their way of classifying, questioning, and navigating the world via knowledge? For what it is worth, current events, especially in the US, and the general contestation of the authority of science as a discipline means that there perhaps is no time like the present for taking a long hard look at what our own expectations about scientific knowing bring to our ancient source material, or what they may hide. Does considering knowledge as practiced in the ancient world disrupt, modify, and nuance our understanding of the “scientific”?
This year, for the first time, we are taking PSCO digital via Ancient Jew Review. This is thus the inauguration of an Ancient Jew Review series that disseminates this year’s PSCO discussions to a much wider audience than before, to colleagues unable to regularly make the trip to Philadelphia, as well as to the interested public. Following in the footsteps of founding member Robert Kraft, an early adopter of what is now called Digital Humanities, we take another step towards a broad distribution of scholarly knowledge. For each talk, Ancient Jew Review will host a greatest hits version, pointing to questions raised, discussions had, and promoting the academic work of those involved. So welcome to this year’s PSCO: come join us in Philadelphia if you can! If not, enjoy our posters—and watch this space for a report on our first talk on October 12!
For more information about the Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins, including archives and recordings of sessions from previous years, see http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/psco. For questions about the 2017-8 seminar, email the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Berns’ talk, and the seminar discussion, enabled reflection from an unexpected angle on the PSCO theme for the year: what does it mean for us to have expertise about what ancient Jews knew (and how they knew it)?
"On November 2, the Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins scrutinized something a little zoological. How do claims, explicit or implicit, about what animals are—and what they do, suffer, or feel—reflect assumptions about what people are? And what types of knowing engage animals?"
"Lennart Lehmhaus explored the category of Talmudic medicine through this passage and through rabbinic commentary on it. In the process, he invited us to take seriously the epistemological implications of discrete bits of data, especially on medicine, midwives, and healing experts, for our understanding of the context of Talmudic discourse."
PSCO 2017-18: Snakes in the Garden - Sexuality, Animality, and Disability in the Rabbinic Garden of Eden
"How do the rabbis conceptualize the biblical “cleverness” of the snake? How do such ideas map onto larger questions of human and animal embodiment? Might the example of the snake help us think better about how bodies–especially despised bodies—do conceptual work for rabbis?"