Early Christian rituals studied with a computer simulation
Theology uses digital methods in many different ways, e.g., in ritual research.

Risto Uro, university lecturer in New Testament studies heads the Ritual and the Emergence of Early Christian Religion research project which studies the role of rituals and ritual innovations in the emergence of Christianity.

The researchers rely heavily on digital tools.

One of the researchers in the project is doctoral student Vojtěch Kaše, whose dissertation focuses on early Christian mealtime practices, particularly how the meals of early Christians became ritualised and ultimately turned into the ritual behaviour re-enacted in services at Christian churches today.

 “Kaše uses computer modelling of social groups in his research, hoping to focus and refine the existing social science and cognitive explanations in historical research,” Uro explains.

Another member of the group, Rikard Roitto (Stockholm School of Theology) has also used computer simulation in his work. His research examines the early Christian rituals of forgiveness and mediation.

 “The theoretical analysis of altruistic behaviour inspired Roitto to develop a computer simulation which indicates that selfless action may be an effective instrument in spreading a religious movement, if certain conditions are met,” Uro says.

A parallel research project is also underway, using network theory to model how early Christian readers interpreted texts. Network theory has previously been used in the study of the classical period and early Christianity, and now the intention is to combine it with information gleaned through cognitive science of religion. This study is led by Docent István Czachesz from the University of Tromsø, a partner in Uro's project.

Digital methods and the challenges of multidisciplinarity

Uro believes the use of digital methods is a natural part of up-to-date theological research.

 “My first contact with digital research material was in the early 1990s, when I participated in the reconstruction project for the Q Source (a hypothetical source shared by the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) led by the late Professor Emeritus James M. Robinson. At the time, computers were primarily used for systematic recording and processing of the research material,” Uro reminisces.

 “Of course in 1990, even using email was a mind-blowing experience,” Uro laughs.

Today, humanities researchers are increasingly cooperating with researchers from the natural sciences, resulting in studies influenced by the “exact sciences” in addition to more traditional historical and social science methods.

 “This does not mean that research in theology or the humanities should become an exact science. It’s just cooperation. Many of the phenomena studied in theology are such that it makes the most sense to examine them with a multidisciplinary approach and in cooperation with other fields. Ritual research is a good example of this,” Uro points out.