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Explaining Early Jewish and Christian Movements:
Ritual, Memory and Identity


Contact us:

Project Director:
Petri Luomanen
Academy research fellow
Department of Biblical Studies
P.O. BOX 33 (Aleksanterinkatu 7)
FI-00014 University of Helsinki
Tel: +358-(0)9 191 24014
Fax: +358-(0)9 191 22106


The multifaceted character of both Judaism and Christianity has become increasingly clear during the past decades. It follows that in order to understand the development of these religions we cannot simply trace the history of two unified trajectories, Judaism and Christianity. Instead, we must address the question how religious identities and traditions were formed and transmitted among competing smaller groups and factions. The present project seeks to cast light on this question by drawing on the recent developments in the field of cognitive study of religion and social psychology. If there are regularities in the religious behavior and community formation, an obvious explanation lies in the basic structures of human cognition.

The studies to be conducted in this project will provide examples of different Jewish and Christian movements from the second century BCE to the fourth century CE: the Qumran movement, the Pharisees, the movement around John the Baptist, different strands of the early Jesus movement, Pauline communities, Jewish Christianity, and Valentinian and Gnostic movements. The project will focus on tracing common features in these movements in the three key areas of their religiosity: religious rituals, the formation and transmission of religious "memories" (social memory), and the formation of religious self- and collective identities.

The research to be carried out in the project is expected to contribute to the following five main areas of inquiry and cultural discussion:

First, because the project applies the social identity approach to different bodies of writings it is possible to draw some generalizing conclusion about recurring themes and general patterns which characterize early Jewish and Christian identity creation and maintenance.

Second, the project is ground-breaking in the field of social-scientific exegesis because it combines a cognitive science viewpoint with the study of early Jewish and Christian movements.

Third, the project seeks to reflect on its methods and results in active dialogue with current sociological, anthropological and cognitive research. This will offer opportunities for developing new social-scientific and cognitive methods for biblical scholars.

Fourth, the dialogue with contemporary sociological, anthropological and cognitive research will also contribute to the current cultural discussion. The project will provide useful background information about the genesis of religious identities that continue to affect discussions and debates about the role of religion in modern multicultural societies.

Fifth, the project will strengthen the position of social-scientific and cognitive approach as one of the standard methods in Finnish biblical scholarship. Thus, it will help Finnish scholars apply social-scientific and cognitive methods in their future research.

The research group is sponsored by the Academy of Finland for the years 2007-2010. The Members of the group are from the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Helsinki and from the University of Sheffield . The group is working at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies.