Talking donkeys and obedient bugs, flying magicians and grim pirates: “Why shouldn’t theology be allowed to be entertaining?” says Tobias Nicklas with a smile. And why shouldn’t it be possible to transfer theological findings on apocryphal writings into today’s reality? They might be able to support an understanding of the nature of conflicts—for instance, in the Middle East. Tobias Nicklas, spiritus rector of the Centre of Advanced Studies Beyond Canon_ at the University of Regensburg, speaks very optimistically about this potential. But more on that shortly.
Nicklas is a passionate theologian and distinguished researcher who, together with his co-directors and colleagues Harald Buchinger and Andreas Merkt, established a worldwide network on traditions and their functions in the many diverse contexts of religious life. From Berlin to Boston, from Texas to Jerusalem, from Vienna to Mendoza—Beyond Canon_ research collaborations have taken on a global scale.
Fellows at Beyond Canon_ focus on literary traditions beyond the biblical canon—on their diverse, often material forms of expression and origins in “lived” and “popular” religion, and on their underestimated significance in the ritual life of churches. The concept of the “intellectual space of late antiquity” is thereby expanded. The discourse space also includes things and practices.
The approach is interdisciplinary—the Centre’s fellows come from various research backgrounds, such as religious studies, classics, history, or archaeology. This interdisciplinary approach not only promises insights into the rather implicit mechanisms of religious communication and the making of theological knowledge, but could also make an innovative contribution to general questions of canonical processes and alternative authorities as they are explored in the cultural sciences and humanities.
Since the Centre’s founding in 2018, more than 70 conferences and workshops have taken place, and around 150 scholars are now in touch with the Centre and with each other as a result of the Centre’s activities. Stephanie Hallinger, the Centre’s academic coordinator, with a background in medieval studies, art history, and journalism, holds the threads together. Together with a committed team, she ensures an efficient workflow, supports editing publications, and organizes events. “I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else,” smiles the mom of Paula and Korbinian.
Stephanie particularly supports the Centre’s international fellows. Among them is Mari Mamyan, an early-career scientist who moved from Yerevan to Regensburg. She particularly enjoys the lively exchange with internationally renowned scholars. Currently, Mari is working on an English edition of the Armenian Infancy Gospel, of which she just recently discovered a second version. Staying with Beyond Canon_ in Regensburg is enhancing her research network—still a vital prerequisite for any international scientific career.
In Regensburg, the hub for the Centre’s fellows, scientific exchange didn’t stop during the pandemic. For the time being, many events, like the regular fellows’ brunch or workshops, take place in the virtual world. Beyond Canon_ fellows stay in touch with each other, and there are plenty of meetings and discussions. English—the lingua franca within the Centre—can be heard from each office, and if a break from virtual exchange is needed, the steaming coffee machine shows the way. Need written inspiration? One of the most modern university libraries in Germany is just a five-minute-stroll away.
What do apocryphal traditions mean for each of us? Apocrypha refer in very different ways to the narratives of the Bible—its characters, the basic structures of its plot or decisive motifs, and forms of biblical texts—that were not included in the Bible. In addition to continuing, updating, or even taking a position against biblical texts, they can become part of meaningful narratives. Since ancient times, biblical texts, as well as the motifs and characters associated with them, have formed part of the fundamental narratives that find their way into the cultural memory of groups and societies.
“Narratives influence our memory landscapes—interpreted spaces—that make it possible to perceive, for instance, Jerusalem as a ‘Holy City,’” says Tobias Nicklas, taking the Middle East example further. “Where political solutions really want to lead to peace, they have to try to understand these narratives.”
From a purely geographical point of view, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem may simply be a place the size of a football field. “But it is the aspects of the cultural memory of different groups that struggle for interpretative sovereignty, refer to the Bible and apocryphal traditions, and develop their narratives not with each other but against each other that make it a key location in the Middle East conflict.” And it is not only about Jerusalem, Tobias Nicklas adds: “Not only in Jerusalem itself, but also in all of Israel, different, partly overlapping, partly competing memory landscapes stand side by side and against each other.” Plenty of room for further research...