Blog: Can we experiment early Christianity?

Can psychological experiments conducted on contemporary humans really help us study early Christianity? How applicable are modern experiments to ancient realities?

We frequently encounter this question when we discuss our plans to incorporate psychological experimental designs into the study of early Christianity. The question is essential for our project but raises questions, assumptions, and even problems related to the entirety of our discipline and humanities in general.

In this first instalment of a three-part blog post, we present our thoughts on why every scholar of early Christianity should contemplate this question. In the second part, we discuss the feasibility and benefits of psychological experiments and psychological research in biblical studies. In the final part of our blog series, we look at factors that should be taken into account when planning psychological experimental designs in the study of early Christianity.

To begin with, concerning the key terms, we refer to “psychology” in a broad sense, encompassing a cluster of more or less interconnected scientific disciplines studying human behaviour, mind, and brain across social, cognitive-emotional, and biological levels. When we speak about “psychological experiments”, we are referring to a wide variety of scientific procedures designed to test psychological hypotheses. These experiments cover the phenomena from group level interactions to fundamental cognitive processes and down to the neural level; the methods range from naked eye observations to physiological measurements. The experiments are characterized, for example, by controlled environments and manipulations of variables to establish cause-and-effect relationships, the random allocation of participants, and statistical data analysis. To avoid a common misunderstanding, it should be emphasized that the psychological experiments we address are not about psychiatric diagnosing or psychotherapeutic interventions but the functioning of the human mind in general.


Why should every scholar of early Christianity assess the relevance of psychological experiments in their work? Simply put, there is no such thing as “psychology-free exegesis”.

Culture does not constitute a separate and autonomous level of reality. All cultural phenomena – including religions – are inseparably linked to the human minds that produce, preserve, shape, transmit, and interact with them. Early Judaism and early Christianity were activities of psychological beings and groups composed of such beings.

Our source material consists either entirely or predominantly of the products of the human mind, such as texts and archaeological remains. Therefore, even the simplest analysis of the sources always requires that the researcher interprets the mental activities of the individuals who produced them or indirectly influenced their production. All studies of early Christianity are psychological studies of early Christianity.

The question of the relevance of psychological research is closely related to the broader discussion about the role of theories or models in biblical and other historical studies (Brughmans &Wilson 2022). Scholars conducting theory-driven research are often asked whether the same conclusions could have been reached without a heavy theoretical framework. This question is important and justified, but it often implies the idea that study of early Christianity could also be conducted in a source-driven manner without theoretical frameworks. However, the ultimate tool of every scholar, the human mind, is already a theory-based system. Our minds, for example, automatically categorize our observations and make conclusions based on these category memberships. Therefore, just as there is no “psychology-free exegesis”, there is also no such thing as “theory-free exegesis” – the explicitness and exactness of theories used in our discipline just vary greatly.

A significant portion of theories applied in the study of early Christianity contains little or no actual psychological research. This, however, does not mean that these theories do not entail numerous implicit assumptions about how the human mind works. For example, even historical-critical conclusions include several assumptions about the functioning of sensory, perceptual, and memory systems, as well as social cognition, although the connection of these methods to scientific psychology is very thin. Similarly, rhetorical analyses make numerous assumptions about the manipulative tendencies of the human mind and susceptibility to persuasion. However, these assumptions are not articulated or formulated in the language of psychology.

Scholars of early Christianity cannot evade the question of the relevance of psychological experiments and psychological research by keeping their theoretical apparatus thin or by using only theories in which psychological assumptions are hidden between the lines or protected by artful language. Implicit, loosely formulated, and intuition-based psychological assumptions are nevertheless psychological assumptions – they are just less susceptible to criticism due to their poor visibility and slipperiness than more explicit and exact claims about the functioning of the human mind. Why would psychological claims based on controlled experiments conducted on contemporary individuals be scientifically more questionable than psychological claims based on the everyday experience of contemporary researchers?

Psychological theories drawn from modern research are increasingly applied in early Christian studies. Popular examples include various depth psychological, social psychological, and cognitive science theories. Freudian-Jungian frameworks and theories relying on this tradition are largely based on outdated and scientifically obsolete research. However, criticism of the validity or evidential basis of these frameworks is rarely voiced. Theories borrowed from modern cognitive psychology, social psychology, and neuroscience are scientifically more robust, but they too are based – unsurprisingly – on research conducted on contemporary individuals and groups. Why does incorporating psychological experimental designs into the methodology of early Christian studies raise many critical questions from exegetes, even though we have happily relied on the results of experiments conducted by others for decades?

In recent years, modern psychological research has faced much criticism regarding its scientific quality due to issues such as the “WEIRD problem”, “p-hacking”, and “replication crisis”. It is true that psychological research has long focused on western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic individuals, who, from a global standpoint, are actually the WEIRD ones (Henrich 2020). Similarly, researchers analysing quantitative data have sometimes either consciously or inadvertently made results appear statistically more significant than they really are. It is also true that researchers have failed to replicate the results of many psychological experiments (Wiggins & Christopherson 2019).

These are genuine problems that we need to recognize and be aware of. At the same time, it is important to understand the nature, extent, and current situation of these problems. Concerns about replicability and data analysis, for example, are not unique to psychology but apply to numerous other disciplines that utilize experimental designs and quantitative methods; it is part of a much broader discussion on methodologies for producing scientific knowledge. Furthermore, efforts have been made to address these problems, such as developing open science protocols and using more diverse and representative samples.

Since historians study products of the human mind, questions about human mental functioning inevitably concern each of us. The better we succeed in elucidating the psychological background assumptions and claims of our research, and the more truthful those assumptions and claims are, the higher the quality of research. In this regard, modern scientific psychology, which utilizes empirical and quantitative methods ranging from observable behaviours of individuals and groups to neuroanatomy and physiology and even interspecies comparison, is our best ally – despite its numerous shortcomings.

Ancient minds have not been preserved to our day in fossilized form. Therefore, its scientific investigation is only possible by studying contemporary individuals. Historical and archaeological sources can be used to make indirect inferences about the minds that produced them, but even then, the starting point is always research knowledge based on studies conducted on living humans. For this reason, the question of the relevance of psychological experiments conducted on contemporary individuals concerns not only the EXPRECCE project but all historians.


In the forthcoming instalment of our blog series, we delve into the question of why we believe that scientific psychology in general, and more specifically, psychological experiments conducted on contemporary humans, can offer relevant information for the study of early Christianity – despite the two thousand years of distance. What kind of arguments can be used to bridge the gap between the present and antiquity? How to bring Paul and the Corinthians into the laboratory?


Brughmans, T., & Wilson, A. eds. (2022). Simulating Roman Economies: Theories, Methods, and Computational Models. Oxford University Press.

Henrich, J. (2020). The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. First edition., Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Wiggins, B. J., & Christopherson, C. D. (2019). The Replication Crisis in Psychology: An Overview for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 39(4), 202.