Martin Jacobs

At Washington University in St. Louis, Martin Jacobs is Professor of Rabbinic Studies in the Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies. In addition, Jacobs is affiliated with Washington University’s History Department and the Program in Religious Studies.

Born and raised in Germany, he earned both his Ph.D. and Habilitation in Jewish Studies at the Free University of Berlin. Early in his career, he taught as a visiting lecturer at the University of Jordan, in Amman (1998-1999). Later Jacobs held visiting fellowships at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1999-2001), the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (2001-2002, and 2011-2012), and the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies (2003). Most recently (2018-2019), he was a fellow at the Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Michigan.

I consider myself a cultural and intellectual historian of Mediterranean Jews living between the Islamic world and Christendom. While my early research focused on late antiquity, I later made a transition similar to that of other classical historians who become more and more fascinated with the Middle Ages. Now I feel that my solid basis in rabbinics gives me the necessary tools to better understand medieval and early modern Jewish intellectuals who frequently drew on and reappropriated classical rabbinic literature. At the same time, I continue to explore questions of historiography, asking, for example, how premodern Jews engaged with both Jewish and non-Jewish cultures; and how information derived from extraneous sources forced them to reevaluate their own authoritative canon.

Jacobs is the author of three monographs and numerous articles whose topics range from rabbinic literature and culture to Jewish-Muslim encounters, medieval travel literature, and Jewish historiography.

His most recent book was published by University of Pennsylvania Press in 2014. Titled Reorienting the East: Jewish Travelers to the Medieval Muslim World, this study explores the Middle East as it was experienced, envisioned, and elaborated by Jewish travelers and writers during a period that, from a European perspective, is broadly considered the late Middle Ages but extends into early modern times (ca. 1150-1520). At the same time, the book appraises travel writing’s role in corroborating and challenging any sense of a clearly-defined East and West at the heart of Jewish constructions of identity and difference.

His second book similarly engages with Jewish encounters with Islam—in both a real and purely literary sense—but focuses on a different kind of primary sources. Islamische Geschichte in jüdischen Chroniken (published by Mohr Siebeck in 2004) investigates various Hebrew chronicles from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and their accounts of Muslim history. While Christian authors of the Renaissance period writing on Muslim history have already been extensively discussed by others this is the first study of comparable Jewish literature.

Jacobs’s first book, Die Institution des jüdischen Patriarchen (published by Mohr Siebeck in 1995), is devoted to a central chapter of Jewish history during the late Roman era, the institution of the Jewish Patriarch (Hebrew: nasi), and offers a methodological case study in how to evaluate rabbinic literature as a historical source.

Jacobs is currently working on a new book project tentatively titled Empire from the Margins: Early Modern Jewish Historians on the Spanish and Ottoman Expansion. It will result in the first book-length study to investigate early modern Jewish attitudes toward the two globalizing polities of this era: the Spanish and Ottoman empires. Reading three sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Jewish chroniclers against the background of their biographies, it explores how they understood their world context and how they made sense of the intertwined histories of Spain, the Ottomans, and the Americas. For a related short post, go here.

Research Interests

  • Jewish history in the medieval and early modern Mediterranean world
  • Religious and cultural encounters between Jews and Muslims
  • Medieval travel writing and representations of alterity
  • Early modern Jewish notions of history and geography
  • Sephardic diasporas
  • Rabbinic literature and culture


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Washington University in St. Louis
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Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies

Martin Jacobs on