Our research group with their own special research questions within the project.
Petri Luomanen

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.

Nina Nikki

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).

Pasi Hyytiäinen

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 Hyytiäinen’s doctoral thesis, Textual evolution in the Book of Acts focuses on this topic. Hyytiäinen studies textual changes in Acts by applying the concept of textual evolution. The purpose is to challenge the centuries-old text- type theory by suggesting that variations in Acts do not trace back to some edition, redaction or recession, but rather are the result of textual evolution. This evolutionary approach enables us to see Acts as a living text, constantly adapting to the changing social-theological environments.

Elina Lapinoja

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.

Antti Vanhoja

Doctoral student, Uni­versity of Hel­sinki


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

Vanhoja examines the process of identity construction in the Pseudo-Clementine Basic Writing, a marginalized text from the early 3rd century CE Syria. In his dissertation, Vanhoja uses social identity perspective to analyze various aspects of the text, such as polemical descriptions of “outsiders” and positive exemplary figures. The goal of Vanhoja’s study is to understand the means by which the author of the text tries to create distinctiveness for his in-group and thus deal with the surrounding social reality.

In addition to working with social psychological theories, Vanhoja is more broadly interested in socio-cognitive research in the field of early Christianity.

Jarkko Vikman

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.

Wille-Hermanni Riekkinen

Doctoral student, University of Helsinki

Key research questions: The last judgement and other expressions of supernatural punishment in John Chrysostom´s sermons on the Gospel of Matthew

In his doctoral dissertation, Riekkinen studies how John Chrysostom (349–407 A.D.) uses the idea of supernatural punishment in his sermons on the Gospel of Matthew. The aim of the dissertation is also to test whether supernatural punishments promote cooperation and deter free-riding, as suggested in cultural evolutionary theories. 

John Chrysostom was widely known for his rhetorical skills, which he fully utilized as a preacher in Antioch and later as the bishop of Constantinople. Nicknamed Chrysostom, that is “the golden-mouthed”, his influence still raises reverence today – not only in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, but in the Western Churches too. His numerous sermons offer insight on theological thought of the early Church of the post-Constantine era; a vast, ecumenically and historically compelling source material. Riekkinen focuses on Chrysostom´s 90 sermons on the Gospel of Matthew. The prominent status of the Gospel of Matthew among early Christian writers, its reception and influence on later authors, and its central eschatological themes make it an interesting source material for reception-historical analysis and especially for testing cultural evolutionary theories, such as Ara Norenzayan's Big Gods theory and Dominic Johnson's supernatural punishment hypothesis.