January 14, 2020
Aaron Butts

Aaron Michael Butts, associate professor in the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures and director of the Institute of Christian Oriental Research (ICOR), has been awarded a Humboldt Research Fellowship for Experienced Researchers. 

This fellowship will enable Butts to spend the 2020-21 academic year at the Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Hamburg, Germany. While there, Butts will continue to work on a book tentatively titled The Conversions of Ethiopia: A Study of Ancient and Modern Historiography

In this book, Butts challenges the positivism of earlier scholarship by offering a more critical history of the supposed conversion of Ethiopia to Christianity. His argument is not, however, solely one of historical deconstruction and minimalism. Rather, he also explores what the later Ethiopic texts that narrate these conversions can tell us about the cultural and political matrices at the times of their promulgation. Butts aims to approach research questions in a different way, by looking more closely at the historical context of texts rather than at the events they narrate.

“The Hiob Ludolf Centre at the University of Hamburg is the premier research institute worldwide for the study of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa,” Butts says. “It is an honor to have my work there supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.” 

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation aims to promote international academic cooperation. The Humboldt Research Fellowship for Experienced Researchers, which Butts was awarded, is for senior scholars in all disciplines to carry out their own long-term research project in collaboration with an academic host of their choice at a research institution in Germany. The awardees must have excellent qualifications as well as an established research profile. 

“Aaron Butts is an innovative and brilliant young scholar who is at the forefront of the linguistic and historical disciplines that open up the world of the Bible and Early Christianity,” says David Walsh, interim dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. “It is gratifying to see our judgement of his standing confirmed by the award of a second prestigious fellowship, from the Humboldt Foundation. It is a testament to the excellence of the work conducted in the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures that, in many ways, gives us unrivalled access to times and regions that remain of enormous significance for the Church and human history.”

This academic year, Butts’ work on this project has been supported by the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, N.J.), under the auspices of the Mellon Fellowships for assistant professors.

At home at Catholic University, Butts’ research on Ethiopia has been greatly enhanced by the hundreds of Ethiopian manuscripts that the Semitics-ICOR Library received from collectors Gerald and Barbara Weiner. The Weiners’ donation made the University the holder of one of the largest collections of Ethiopian Christian manuscripts in North America and the largest collection of Ethiopian Islamic manuscripts outside of Ethiopia. Butts is currently leading a team of scholars that is cataloging the collection. 

When the University received the donation in 2016, Butts remarked that the collection “provides unparalleled primary sources for the study of Eastern Christianity. The donation reaffirms ICOR’s standing as one of the leading places to study the languages, literatures, and histories of Christianity in the Near East, including Arabic, Coptic, Syriac, and now Ethiopic.” 

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