PI, Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Culture and Literature, University of Helsinki


Key research question: The spread of early Christian gospels and variants in manuscripts. 

Early Christian “Good News” (the Gospel) was distributed in four variants that ended up in the New Testament canon, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Although all these became canonical they were not equally popular: Matthew became most widely used but, at some point, Mark almost fell into oblivion. In addition, there were several other “apocryphal” gospels (like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, gospels used by early Jewish-Christian sects, etc.), many of which have not survived in their entirety. Moreover, those (canonical) gospels that did survive were transmitted in hundreds of copies, including thousands of minor, and sometimes larger, differences in readings (textual variants). The distribution of early Christian gospel literature, with all its macro and micro level variations provides a rich field for cultural evolutionary analysis. The present project tests two hypotheses in this field: 1) There is correlation between the relative distribution of particular gospels and characteristics that are required of a text in order to become widespread in an emerging religious movement that is forming a distinctive social identity. 2) There is also correlation between individual manuscripts of a gospel (with their distinctive variant readings) and their social settings.

Post doctoral researcher, University of Helsinki


Key research question: The spread of Pauline Christianity in the first three centuries: A cultural evolutionary perspective.

The study combines cultural evolutionary theorizing with detailed exegetical analysis of source material spanning from the authentic letters by Paul to third century church fathers. The study examines the selective advantages/disadvantages and adaptation of Pauline Christianity over other corresponding variants of Christianity in the same environment. The focal points are: 1) the spread of ideas through human cognitive systems and 2) group selection through identity enhancing discourse. The first viewpoint focuses on the examination of the attractiveness and memorability of Pauline ideas. The latter focuses on identity enhancing Pauline material, advancing from the assumption that certain ideas and practices benefit group survival and, consequently, survive together with the group. The study contributes to traditional Pauline studies by providing an in-depth, multidisciplinary analysis of the early cultural evolution of Pauline Christianity. In particular, in the context of the project, the study tests Rodney Stark’s theses about the reasons for the success of early Christianity (which Stark practically identifies with the Pauline Christianity).

Doctoral student, University of Helsinki


Key research question: The spread of early Christian gospels and variants in manuscripts.

There is correlation between individual manuscripts (with their distinctive variant readings) and their social settings. Pasi Hyytiänen’s doctoral thesis, Textual evolution in the Acts of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis focuses on this topic. Hyytiäinen studies textual changes in the Acts of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis (D05) by applying the concept of textual evolution. The purpose is to challenge the predominant view that the Acts of the Apostles in D05 was produced at one single point in time and to suggest that it is an evolving text, which changed in small steps by adapting to changing social-theological environments.

Doctoral student, University of Helsinki


Key research question: Comparison of early Christ-groups with Greco-Roman associations, especially with regard to their social identity construction and maintenance.

Doctoral thesis of Elina Lapinoja-Pitkänen: Pauline Christ-groups and Greco-Roman associations: Social identity and selective advantage. The study is based on the hypothesis that the more there are identity constructing and maintaining elements, the better chances of survival the group has. Lapinoja-Pitkänen’s research concentrates on how shared mythology constructed and shaped groups’ social identity.

Associate doctoral student, Uni­versity of Hel­sinki


Key research question: Identity construction in early Christianity – the case of the Pseudo-Clementine Basic Writing

As the Pauline form of Christianity gradually became the “orthodox” way of following Christ, some Christian groups were left in the margins because of their divergent beliefs. The biggest losers of this process were perhaps Jewish Christians – the dominant force in the early Jerusalem community that lost its status almost completely in the two centuries that followed. It is worthwhile to ask, how these “heretic” groups coped with the difficult situation.

Vanhoja’s dissertation examines the process of identity construction in the Pseudo-Clementine Basic Writing, a Jewish Christian text from the early 3rd century CE. The goal of the study is to understand the means by which the author of the text tries to form a distinct identity for his in-group and thus deal with the surrounding social reality. This understanding is achieved by analyzing the polemical aspects of the text as well as its sympathizing of certain beliefs from the perspectives of social identity and otherness.

Associate doctoral student, Uni­versity of Hel­sinki


Key research question: The cultural evolution of religious expertise in Asia Minor during the first three centuries CE

The study explores the ways in which the task of a religious professional was perceived in Asia Minor during the first three centuries CE.  The perceptions will be defined in terms of cognitive psychology. Special emphasis is laid on the views of voluntary associations. Inscriptions of the voluntary associations will be compared to inscriptions from sanctuaries and texts from Ignatius of Antioch. After the definitions it is possible to analyse, if the perceptions on religious professionals changed as Early Christianity started to expand in Asia Minor.