Areas of Study

The history of the book

In The Jewish Bible: A Material History, David Stern explores the Jewish Bible as a material object―the Bibles that Jews have actually held in their hands―from its beginnings in the Ancient Near Eastern world through to the Middle Ages to the present moment. Drawing on the most recent scholarship on the history of the book, Stern shows how the Bible has been not only a medium for transmitting its text―the word of God―but a physical object with a meaning of its own. That meaning has changed, as the material shape of the Bible has changed, from scroll to codex, and from manuscript to printed book. By tracing the material form of the Torah, Stern demonstrates how the process of these transformations echo the cultural, political, intellectual, religious, and geographic changes of the Jewish community. With tremendous historical range and breadth, this book offers a fresh approach to understanding the Bible’s place and significance in Jewish culture.


Fall 2023

Dana-Palmer Seminar Room


CompLit 119X/REL119/NEC 107: History of the Book: Using Harvard’s Treasures to Study the Material Text

David Stern

You have been reading books since first grade if not earlier, but how much do you actually know about the physical object you’ve been reading—the book, the material artifact?  Drawing on a great deal of recent scholarship and the incredible treasures in Houghton Library’s Special Collections, this course will study the history of the book in Western culture from its earliest stages in cuneiform tablets through ancient scrolls, hand-written medieval manuscripts of all types, early and late printed books down through children’s books of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and modernist artists’ books of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries including recent ones utilizing digital technology.  The heart of the course will be weekly assignments in which students in groups of three each will be asked to intensively examine books in Houghton’s reading room and then report on them in the weekly seminar. Books studied in class will include papyrus fragments of Homer and the Old and New Testaments; Hebrew scrolls; early Qur’an leafs; Greek and Latin codices; Books of Hours and many other illuminated and decorated medieval manuscripts; the Gutenberg Bible; Copernicus, Galileo’s and Vesalius’ scientific works; censored books; the First Folio edition of Shakespeare; Alice in Wonderland; and Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés. For the final paper, each student will choose a book from Houghton’s collection and write a biographical study of its “life.”

4 Credits

In Person


Harry Starr Professor of Classical and Modern Jewish and Hebrew Literature

Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Office: Semitic Museum, 6 Divinity Ave., Room 209

Office Hours: Fall 2024 Office Hours TBA By appointment

Chair, Department of Comparative Literature

Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Office: Boylston Hall 423

Office Hours: On Leave 2024-2025

Areas of Study