The project set out to examine how ancient Christianities located beyond the frontiers of Rome in late antique Western and Central Asia were shaped by the dual promises of empire and salvation.


Twentieth-century scholarship shattered the pious dream that imagined early Christianity as a unitary and homogeneous movement. The visionary work of Walter Bauer (Bauer 1934), published in dire times and under inauspicious circumstances that delayed its reception, was path-breaking. Although Bauer had identified the East, so West Asian regions such as Syria and Mesopotamia, as fertile ground for plurality in the early Church, like Plato’s frogs around a pond, scholars of Christianity remained fixated on the Mediterranean and the Roman Empire. Over roughly the last four decades, however, thanks to the inspiring work of renowned scholars such as Jean Maurice Fiey, Carsten Colpe, Han J. W. Drijvers, Helmut Koester, and Sebastian Brock, the history of ancient Christianities has experienced an exciting broadening of its horizons as it looks eastwards to territories beyond Rome. This turn from the wine-dark waters of the Mediterranean to the glittering sands of Mesopotamia and the rugged landscape of the Iranian plateau has marked a sea change in the field. In particular, viewing ancient Christianity in all its forms through a wide-angle lens has revealed that political borders and cultural frontiers were not coterminous, as Tudor Sala explores in his forthcoming study, “Christ’s gift-Gift to Judas: Singing the Spiritual Transaction at the Heart of the Betrayal,” in: David Brakke, Stephen J. Davis, and Stephen Emmel (eds.), From Gnostics to Monastics: Studies in Coptic and Early Christianity, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, Leuven: Peeters, 2017.

Methodological approach and Activities

Tudor Sala approached his Topoi project from four angles. First, he focused on figures of authority. He was interested in how authority was constructed and maintained, especially in the context of conflicting forms of embodied knowledge. Asceticism was therefore a fundamental category. As a complex and cumbersome concept, it required intense historical and cross-cultural engagement, which materialized in a seminar taught in collaboration with Almut-Barbara Renger at the Institute for the Scientific Study of Religion (FU Berlin) in Fall semester 2014/15, “Asceticism in Christian Monasticism: Transfer and Transformation” (in German). Mapping an underexplored aspect of this topic, Almut-Barbara Renger and Tudor Sala organized and chaired a panel entitled “Faking Asceticism: East and West” at the XXI IAHR World Congress (Erfurt, August 25, 2015). At the invitation of Edward Watts (History Department, University of California, San Diego), in late spring 2015 Tudor Sala presented elements of his research on late antique figures of authority and the construction of knowledge in a lecture entitled “The Politics of Clairvoyance in Late Antiquity: Governing People, Ruling Souls”; a related publication is in preparation. An additional contribution on authority is found in the jointly authored article by Markus Asper, Almut-Barbara Renger, Tudor Sala, Markus Witte, Philipp Pilhofer, Sarah Walter and Nalini Kirk, “Representing Authority in Ancient Knowledge Texts, in: eTopoi. Journal for Ancient Studies 6 (2016), 389–417.

The second approach targeted the ideological and polemical concept(s) of succession employed (or retrojected) to maintain charisma and authority. Interested in the discursive and non-discursive practices that linked present and past and in concomitant changes to historical and hagiographic material, Tudor Sala taught a seminar in Spring 2014 on “Thinking Succession in the Ancient World: Models, Practices, and Controversies” (in German) at the Institute for the Scientific Study of Religion (FU Berlin). The complicated teacher/master–student/disciple relationship, which played a fundamental role in succession practices and narratives of religious groups in late antiquity, was further explored in Spring 2015 in a joint seminar with Almut-Barbara Renger entitled “Spiritual Masters and their Disciples: Tensions, Breaks, and Dynamics” (in German). Aspects of Sala’s research on succession were presented at the conference of Topoi’s research group (B-5) Personal Authorization of KnowledgeSukzession in Religionen: Autorisierung – Legitimierung – Wissenstransfer (Berlin, 2014) in a paper entitled “Translatio speculatorum: Die Sukzession von Überwachungsnetzwerken im frühen Mönchtum”. A revised and expanded English version of this paper, entitled “Politics of Abbatial Succession in Ostrogothic Italy: The Rule of the Master, the Amal Court, and the Bishop of Rome” is in preparation. In response to an invitation to contribute, Sala explored the polemical potential of a master-disciple relationship among the educated elite in late antiquity in a chapter entitled “Unmasking Mani’s African Apprentice: Authority, Polemics, and Paideia in the Late Pelagian Controversy” that will appear in: Markus Asper and Almut Barbara Renger (eds.), Autorität in antiker Religion und Wissenschaft. Akteure und Repräsentationen, Berlin: Gruyter. Some of that research was presented as “The Taste of Heresy: Concocting Knowledge and Identity in Late Antique Heresiology” at the conference of research group (B-4) Spatial Identity “Ancient Identities and Modern Identification: Space, Knowledge and Representation (Berlin, 2015).

The third emphasis addressed categories of social memory that thematize suffering, persecution, and the politics of empire. Sala’s objective was to trace the interactions of image, body, and text in the political context of persecution, pointing out how these discrete elements are woven into succession narratives that formed distinct religious identities. Some of those findings were presented at the XXI World Congress of the IAHR (Erfurt, summer 2015) in a paper entitled “The Many Deaths of Mani: Biographical Mimesis and Corporeal Poetics of Persecution among Manichaeans and Christians in Late Antiquity”.

The fourth line of inquiry tackled the relationship between knowledge and power in early Christianities. At the workshop Metamorphosen asketischen Übungswissens im christlichen Mönchtum des Ostens (Berlin, 2015), Tudor Sala explored translation and the transfer of knowledge in a paper on “Spätantike Übersetzungskultur und Wissenstransfer im christlichen Mönchtum des Ostens (4.-7. Jh.)”. An additional tack addressed methods of knowledge transfer, particularly the use of images, and in November 2016 Sala presented his findings on the “didactic setting” for images and paintings in early Manichaeism in an invited paper at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting (San Antonio, Texas); a related article is forthcoming.

One spin-off from the project’s research on knowledge and power in the ancient world was an international workshop on “Surveillant Antiquities and Modern Transparencies: Exercising and Resisting Surveillance Then and Now” funded through the DRS COFUND grant. The conference was well received in both print media (Der Tagesspiegel) and radio (Deutschlandradio Kultur). A volume containing most of the original contributions with five additional contributions is under preparation for the Edition Topoi (edited by Tudor Sala and Christopher Fuhrman [University of North Texas]).