William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Religion
201B Skinner Hall
Michael Penn received his Bachelor’s degree in molecular biology from Princeton University, a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies, M.A., and Ph.D. in religious studies at Duke University. As a specialist in the history of early Christianity, Professor Penn explores how ancient Christian communities forged their own identity, especially in the context of religious and ethnic pluralism. His class offerings include courses in the Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament and seminars such as "What Didn’t Make It into the Bible," "Sex and the Early Church," and “Early Christian-Muslim Relations.”
His 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 has 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 is currently working on an Andrew Mellon Foundation funded collaboration with a Smith College computer science professor that uses recent advances in the automated analysis of handwriting to help analyze ancient Aramaic manuscripts. In addition to this work in the digital humanities, Professor Penn has begun several related projects that focus on the history of middle eastern Christianity and the manuscripts they produced.
Before joining the Mount Holyoke College Department of Religion in 2002, Professor Penn was a postdoctoral fellow at Brandeis University, and taught religion and Women Studies courses at Haverford College, Bryn Mawr College, and Duke University. He has also been 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. In addition, he has held research positions at Apple Computers, the Weizmann Institute (Israel), Palo Alto Veterans Hospital, and Ames Research Center, NASA.