David Gyllenhaal

Postdoctoral Fellow, IAS Princeton

Portrait of David Gyllenhaal

David Gyllenhaal grew up in northeast Philadelphia, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Ancient History at Bryn Athyn College, and picked up Latin. He then moved on to the University of Oxford, where he made an intensive study of classical Greek and Syriac, and earned a Masters of Philosophy in Late Antique and Byzantine studies, writing a thesis on ideological transformations within the East Roman state during the reign of the emperor Heraclius (r. 610–641). In the course of writing this thesis, he became obsessively preoccupied with how Roman Christians understood the theological meaning behind the many defeats suffered by the empire during this period. Why did God allow the enemies of Christian empire to trample His chosen people under their feet? He was able to identify a remarkable enthusiasm within the Heraclian regime for Old Testament models of Roman victory and defeat—imagining Persian and Arab successes over Roman arms as a divine punishment for collective sin, and refiguring the emperor as a penitent-in-chief who led the people of his empire in repentance. But he was frustrated by the fact that he did not have a deep enough grounding in the Christian literature of fourth to seventh century East Rome to understand how new these ideas actually were. His Ph.D. dissertation project at Princeton University, Collective Trauma and Divine Providence in Christian Late Antiquity, is essentially a response to that frustration, laying out a comprehensive theory and a new history for how Roman Christians understood the divine providence at work in collective traumas like military defeats, earthquakes, famines, and plagues. While completing this dissertation, he also made an intensive study of classical Arabic, acquiring the skillset for his next project, which will broaden his theory of religious responses to collective trauma to include Islam as well as Christianity.

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