New University of Glasgow project to explore ancient religious manuscripts

Published: 21 June 2023

A new £2.4 million project at the University of Glasgow exploring manuscripts and knowledge in multiple religions in partnership with world experts in their field.

Launch of new £2.4m project called Paratexts Seeking Understanding. The book shows a bible with notes in the margin.

A new £2.4 million project at the University of Glasgow exploring manuscripts and knowledge in multiple religions.

The School of Critical Studies and the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at Glasgow today announced the new major joint project called Paratexts Seeking Understanding, funded by the Templeton Religion Trust.

The project, led by Dr Garrick Allen (Critical Studies), Dr Christoph Scheepers (Psychology and Neuroscience), and Dr Kelsie Rodenbiker (Critical Studies), explores the ways in which paratexts* of ancient religious manuscripts (titles, annotations, artworks, commentary, and other features in the margins) affect the ways the people read, gain knowledge, and develop understanding.

Partnering with The Chester Beatty Museum in Dublin, the project makes subgrants worth nearly £1 million to multiple world-leading experts in different religious manuscript cultures to carry out research on the collection and work with the scientific team in Glasgow to carry out empirical and experimental studies on reading, manuscripts, and art.

Theologian Dr Garrick Allen, project lead and a Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies, said: “We are delighted to begin in this exciting interdisciplinary project and to work with world-leading experts in Scotland, England, Ireland, France, Spain, Germany, the USA, and Australia.

“This project allows us to look at ancient and medieval religious manuscripts in Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, and Samaritan traditions and to explore how these texts and all the things around them create knowledge and change understandings about the world.  We’re plotting a new course in empirical theology, one that gives us new evidence for old questions. This project helps us to better understand sacred manuscripts and to better understand how people engage with and learn from artwork more generally.”

List of subprojects and grantees for Paratexts Seeking Understanding project:

Words are Not Enough

Jill Unkel, Curator of the Western Collection, The Chester Beatty, Dublin, Ireland

This project unites museum and academic experts in the fields of philology and experimental sciences. Each of the subprojects explores the paratextuality of a particular manuscript culture represented in the Chester Beatty collections (Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist). The project will culminate in the transformation of the museum’s special exhibition gallery.

Understanding Paratexts of the Hebrew Bible

Elvira Martín-Contreras, Scientific Researcher at the Institute of Languages and Cultures of the Mediterranean and the Near East (ILC-CSIC), Madrid, Spain.

This project studies of the role and impact of paratextual elements in reading, understanding, interpreting, and learning the Hebrew Bible. The project has two main objectives: to examine the relationship between the biblical text and the Masora annotations and to investigate the interaction between the Masora and other paratextual elements when they coexist in the margins of the manuscript.

Text, Format, and Reader

Francis Watson, Research Chair in Early Christian Literature at Durham University, UK

This project sets out from the fact that the same text can be formatted in very different ways, and it addresses the question how these formatting differences affect the reader’s experience. This question is addressed to the text we know as “the Bible”, which originally circulated not as a complete volume but as separate manuscripts of individual books or sub-collections. The project explores the effects of the transition from individual books to “the Bible”.  

Harmful or Helpful Holiness: The impact of paratexts on reading perception in the Samaritan manuscript culture

Stefan Schorch, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism at Martin-Luther-University Halle–Wittenberg, Germany

This project analyses the impact of paratexts on the perception of Pentateuch manuscripts and on their reading within the Samaritan culture. The Samaritan manuscript culture is ancient, but still alive and has been preserved within the Samaritan community until today. Literary and visual artwork is an extremely common feature in these manuscripts, but its function and impact has not yet been determined.

In and Around Tibetan Buddhist Texts: A Historical-Philological-Empirical Study of Tibetan Buddhist Paratextology

Dorji Wangchuk, Professor for Tibetology at the Department of Indian and Tibetan Studies, Asien-Afrika-Institut, Faculty of Humanities, Universität Hamburg, Germany

This project investigates the phenomena of Tibetan Buddhist paratexts from historical, philological, and empirical perspectives, focusing on the Tibetan texts in the Chester Beatty collection. Some of the key research questions are what the nature and function of paratexts in the Tibetan Buddhist textual tradition are; how the phenomena of paratexts evolved and developed in the Tibetan Buddhist cultural sphere; and whether some of the functions ascribed to Tibetan Buddhist paratexts can be corroborated empirically.

Words Upon Words: The Paratext in the Islamic manuscript tradition

Asma Helali, Maitresse de conférences of Islamic studies at the University of Lille, France

This project examines the forms, functions, and cognitive values of the paratexts in the Islamic manuscript tradition, focusing on Arabic manuscripts the Chester Beatty library and Arabic texts on variant readings of the Qur’an, like The Book of Beauty. Dr Helali suggests that the paratext is a multi-layered, mobile fragments whose display and flow on the page plays a crucial role in its reception by the reader. In other words, paratexts are central to understanding the Qur’an and its transmission.

Paratextual Prestige and the Social Life of Islamic Scholarly Manuscripts

Matthew Keegan, Moinian Assistant Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures at Barnard College of Columbia University, USA

This project explores how Muslim scholars in the 12th and 13th centuries added paratextual elements to the texts that they read. These included notes attesting to students reading the text with a teacher, transforming a manuscript into a social document. Dr Keegan is examining a 12th-century copy of a 10th-century work entitled The Exegesis of Rare Words in the Quran, in which one of the attested students was Saladin’s nephew, who was both a prince and a scholar. 

Scholia Seeking Understanding: Reader Competence and Reading Culture

Stephen C. Carlson is Associate Professor in Biblical and Early Christian studies at the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at Australia Catholic University, Melbourne, Australia I Jonathan Zecher is Senior Research Fellow in Biblical and Early Christian studies at the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at Australia Catholic University, Melbourne, Australia.

This project investigates the marginal notes and commentary (“scholia”) that surround the main text in Byzantine Greek manuscripts. Rather like modern footnotes, scholia are meant to clarify difficulties, expand meanings, and invite reflection on texts. But the aesthetics do not always seem to help. Sometimes the frame commentary script is so tiny, abbreviated, and unfamiliar that it seems to frustrate the unaided reader.

First published: 21 June 2023

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