Garrick Allen, University of Glasgow

Mapping the Margins: Understanding Scriptures Beyond the Text

What if we knew more about how our minds interpret what surrounds a text?

What if text is not enough when we read?

What if science can help us decipher aesthetic and religious experiences?

What if theology and science aren’t so far apart?

Grant Title
Paratexts Seeking Understanding: AestheticCognitivism, Manuscript Cultures, and Knowledge
Legal Organization
University of Glasgow
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 October 2023
End Date: 30 October 2026
Grant Amount

What’s a book? More than just a series of words on a series of pages, it’s a multisensory experience. Things such as the font, paper quality, illustrations, layout, and overall design all affect our encounters with anything meant to be read.

Since 2019, Professor Garrick Allen, Ph.D., has led a team of theological researchers at the University of Glasgow that’s investigating paratexts — defined as any and every feature that surrounds the main text itself.

“Similar to how signs direct us as we walk around a city, paratexts help us find our way through a text, giving us clues and insights for how to navigate and understand it,” Allen explains.

This project is important because it offers us a platform to supplement philological and theological approaches.
Garrick Allen

With funding from Templeton Religion Trust, he and his team have completed two projects focused on paratexts in medieval biblical manuscripts. In the process, they’ve gained new insights into how paratexts extended beyond aesthetic enjoyment for ancient readers. In instance after instance, they’ve documented how paratexts conveyed meaning by providing important contextual information. The net out strongly suggests that for contemporary scholars who study ancient literature, paratexts provide vital context for an accurate and credible understanding of these texts.

Yet, the more Allen’s team learned about paratexts, the more there seemed to learn. And there was also this revelation: Expertise in a single discipline can take a project team only so far.

“We became interested in understanding what happens in the mind when you engage in a literary work in a particular material context. And these are questions that I can’t answer with the tools of my discipline,” Allen explains. “We realized we needed to partner with cognitive scientists, curators, and philosophers to answer questions we can’t understand on our own.”

New Evidence for Old Questions

With sustained funding from Templeton, Allen’s research has now expanded to encompass a collaborative network of philologists, cognitive scientists, philosophers, and cultural institutions. As cohorts in discovery, they’re examining paratexts in manuscripts from a variety of faith traditions across the globe.

This unprecedented effort brings together experts from fields of study that have rarely collaborated in the past. As noteworthy, the project uses the methods of empirical science to better understand the psychological and cognitive impacts of aesthetic experiences.

We’re plotting a new course in empirical theology.
Garrick Allen

“When we study paratexts and all their variety, we study how people from the ancient world read these traditions, how they understood them, and what they did with them. Now, in our current project, we’re attempting to use today’s technologies to understand how people from the past and today process and approach sacred traditions through paratext,” Allen details.

“This collaborative approach embodies a new way to do theological and philological scholarship, offering the opportunity to embed science-informed approaches in the discipline. We’re plotting a new course in empirical theology, one that gives us new evidence for old questions.”

Using surveys and cutting-edge techniques such as eye tracking, the researchers are measuring the physiological reactions to paratexts of people today. By demonstrating the impact on today’s readers, they hope to gain insight into how readers in the past may have engaged with these texts.

The project draws on the resources of the world-renowned manuscript collection at The Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland. A premier source of scripture scholarship, it holds a significant collection of Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist texts, some dating back to 2700 B.C. Welcoming over 450,000 visitors each year, it’s inviting the public to participate in this study, which focuses on five ancient sacred texts from five different faith traditions: Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Samaritan, and Buddhist. The research is being conducted in multiple places, including labs and “real world” spaces where people engage in art and manuscripts.

A Platform for Discovery

Across venues and cultures, the project is tackling big questions, including:

“This project is important because it offers us a platform to supplement philological and theological approaches to ancient scriptural traditions,” Allen observes. “It argues that science-engaged methods create a new strand of research that can discover new spiritual information. It can change the way we understand our engagement with the written word and artwork more generally.”


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