Phillip J. Webster
Research Associate in the Department of Religion
Office: Hollandar, 304
Email: [email protected]
M.T.S.: Duke University
Ph.D.: University of Pennsylvania
Courses Taught at Williams:
- The Talmud on What it Means to Be Human (REL/JWST 289) -Spring 2021 & Fall 2018
- Paul the Apostle: Then and Now (REL/PSCI 275)- Spring 2021 & Spring 2019
- Making God Real (REL 168)- Fall 2020
- Humans and Bodies: Theories of Embodiment (REL 313/WGSS 303)- Fall 2020 & Spring 2019
- Judaism Under Ancient Greek and Roman Imperialisms (REL/CLAS/JWST 219)- Spring 2020; Spring 2018
- The New Testament: From Word to Book (REL/CLAS 215)- Spring 2020; Spring 2018
- Rare Bibles of Chapin Library (W REL 18)- Winter 2019
- Jesus and Judaism (REL/JWST 204)- Fall 2019 & Fall 2017
- Technologies of Religious Experience (REL 108)- Fall 2019
- Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities in the Early Christian World (REL/WGSS 264)- Fall 2018
- Technologies of Religion in the Early Christian World (REL/CLAS 221)- Fall 2017
Phillip Webster’s research and teaching draw from a wide range of theories and methods to tackle what he takes to be the fundamental question in the field of Religious Studies: why do people do what they do?
Borrowing techniques and insights from Anthropology, Science and Technology Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies, among others, Professor Webster sees the study of religion as particularly well suited to combining these different analytic perspectives to study human behavior that escapes rationalist models of analysis. In other words, most human behavior occurs beyond rationality, and whether we’re talking about why people have a rosary, show reverence for a flag, believe in conspiracy theories, or identify with a brand, making sense of these behaviors is both endlessly fascinating and quite pressing for understanding the world around us.
In Professor Webster’s research and teaching, he takes this wider curiosity about how and why humans make meaning for themselves and others and applies it to specific research projects, most often revolving around (a) the formation of religious and ethnic identities and loyalties within early forms of Judaism and Christianity, (b) the effects of technologies, ancient or modern, upon religious experience, knowledge, and practice, and (c) theories and histories of the self and its relationship to the body and its environment.
For example, in his recent introductory course to the Talmud (REL/JWST 289 The Talmud on What it Means to be Human), Professor Webster designed the course to be a research seminar examining how the Talmud’s rules of purity/impurity offer its readers a theory of the body that is also a theory of the self. Through critically analyzing the ancient rabbis’ rhetoric and practices around hygiene and human interaction with animals and corpses, the class discovered together the Talmud’s vision of what it means to be human and to have a body.
In his book project, Professor Webster considers how ancient Greek, Roman, and Christian bodies included an “extra” body part (one that moderns don’t have): the psukhē. The book theorizes how a nonexistent body part can nevertheless be felt (like a phantom limb), used (like a prosthetic), and affect behavior in order to contribute to a wider conversation in the field of Religious Studies about the material ontology and agency of ostensibly supernatural beings and things.