Michael Penn is the Teresa Hihn Moore Professor of Religious Studies and, by courtesy, Classics. He is also a Faculty Affiliate of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies. A specialist in the history of early Christianity, Professor Penn's research focuses on middle eastern Christians who wrote in the Aramaic dialect of Syriac.
Professor Penn’s first book, Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church, was published in 2005 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. In 2015 he published two books on Christian-Muslim relations: Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians in the Early Muslim World (University of Pennsylvania Press) and When Christians First Met Muslims: A Source Book of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam (University of California Press). For these projects Professor Penn received awards from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council for Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Humanities Center, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, the British Academy, the American Philosophical Association, the American Academy of Religion, and the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning. Professor Penn also was the senior editor of Invitation to Syriac Christianity: An Anthology, the world’s first book-length English reader of Syriac literature (University of California Press, 2022). Professor Penn has also been the principal investigator for several digital projects including a 47-person collaboration—the Digital Analysis of Syriac Handwriting—which serves as the main electronic resource for Syriac paleography (dash.stanford.edu). Most recently, he led a small team that created an on-line tutorial to help students gain proficient in Syriac verbs (syriacverbtutorial.org).
Professor Penn is currently working on two books. The first is titled The Church of Baghdad. It investigates a corpus of about sixty recently published letters from the Syriac patriarch Timothy I (d. 823), the man who—quite literally—moved the Church of the East to Baghdad. Combining traditional humanistic approaches with digital tools such as social network analysis, GIS, and visual analytics, The Church of Baghdad explores just how big “the global middle ages” must be in order to accommodate first-millennium Christianity. In 2022 Professor Penn received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for this research. The second book project is titled The Social Lives of Manuscripts. It combines techniques from material philology and the digital humanities to explore the intertwined lives of Syriac manuscripts and their readers. It includes chapters on stealing, forging, blessing, damning, and cursing.
Before joining Stanford, Professor Penn was on the faculty of Mount Holyoke College. He has also taught at Brandeis University, Haverford College, Bryn Mawr College, and Duke University. He has additional experience as a secondary school teacher, including six years as the director of forensics at Durham Academy High School, where he ran a nationally competitive policy debate team. Professor Penn has also held research positions at Apple Computers, the Weizmann Institute (Israel), the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital, and Ames Research Center, NASA.
Professor Penn is currently accepting new Ph.D. students. Applicants interested in Syriac Christianity, ancient systems of gender & sexuality, manuscript culture, and digital approaches to pre-modernity have the clearest fit with his current research. But given the breadth of intra- and interdepartmental resources at Stanford, candidates with other research foci in early Christianity are also encouraged to apply. Professor Penn is committed to those who wish to move the field in innovative and new directions and especially to students, topics, and approaches that would increase the diversity of late ancient studies. Please feel free to contact him directly for additional information. Graduate students interested in studying Late Antiquity at Stanford should also consult the department’s Ptarmigan Fund site (https://ptarmigan.stanford.edu). This endowed fund provides extensive opportunities for additional training and professionalization of Ph.D. candidates in the department’s Late Antiquity track.