Cognitive Science and the New Testament

A New Approach to Early Christian Research

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István Czachesz
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Istvan Czachesz’s Cognitive Science & the New Testament: A New Approach to Early Christian Research makes an important contribution to the growing body of scholars employing cognitive science and network theory in the study of early Christianity. Czachesz is, himself, one of the early adopters of this approach, with an impressive list of prior publications. The book represents the distillation of many years of experience, and fills an important lacuna. There are many excellent and accessible introductions to cognitive theory, but none adds an application of the theory to early Christian evidence.

Chapters 1-4 provide a solid introduction to both neuroscience and the cognitive science of religion that will be useful for scholars new to this field. They would also provide a solid foundation for introducing students to cognitive approaches. These chapters, fittingly, do not shy away from technical terminology, yet remain lucid. Cognitive theory has enormous potential for bridging science and the humanities; but to do this a shared terminology is needed, and we must do our part in learning the science.

Czachesz begins with the key point about the place of cognitive theory within religious studies. Put succinctly, “Nothing needs to be given up” (2). Cognitive theory is an additional tool, particularly suited for some situations, and informing all. It does not replace or displace traditional methods in religious studies or newer social scientific approaches; it complements them.

I worry that an indiscriminant use of cognitive theory, in situations that are not well-suited to cognitive analysis, will make skeptical colleagues into cultured despisers. The problem is that most cognitive theory is macro-level theory not easily employed on small-scale historical issues, particularly when data is minimal. My main criticism of the book lies here. Pace Czachesz, I pass over many important elements of his work in this brief review. Many of Czachesz’s examples of cognitive analysis are situations where, I believe, we do not have enough historical data to use the findings of cognitive science effectively. My concern is that such use of cognitive theory will draw skepticism on the theory as a whole.

The discussion of Pauline meals in Czachesz’s fifth chapter is a case in point. This chapter argues that the newness of Paul’s ritualized meal aided in group solidarity. Czachesz is certainly right that Paul’s meal involved ritualization and introduced new goals other than nourishment. The question, though, is how was this perceived by the participants, based on past experience. Greco-Roman meals practices, among elites, were already highly ritualized acts in which nourishment was not at all the key goal. Depending on the socio-economic status of the Corinthians, they may have perceived Paul’s meal as something new or simply more of the same. It is possible that the Corinthians saw the Lord’s Supper as basically the same as any other religious and association-based meals in which they had participated throughout their lives. If Paul’s meal was not culturally salient, cognitive analysis cannot explain why the Corinthians might have felt more tied to the Christ group than to any other group of which they may have been part. This raises the problem of how cohesive this group really was and what role the meal played in that cohesion. Czachesz assumes a high degree of cohesion, but this is a debated point. The cognitive approach has returned us to a basic unanswered problem within Pauline studies.

Chapter 7 addresses glossolalia and the question of how “arousing” Pauline rituals were a fruitful area of cognitive analysis. But lack of data and the need to extrapolate is, again, a problem. Czachesz calls glossolalia “the main source of religious experience” for the Corinthian group (151). I don’t think we can establish this. Paul never mentions glossolalia outside 1 Corinthians. It is not clear how important it was, or even what it was.

Czachesz assumes that glossolalia involved a lack of bodily control resulting from “deactivation of executive areas in the frontal lobes” (152). This is, again, possible but uncertain. Paul’s description is not clear enough to establish what is going on. One could read these passages as evidence for the ecstatic experience of involuntary utterances, but it is equally possible to read these passages as evidence of something more mundane.

I don’t think anything in 1 Corinthians 14 suggests that people are losing control of themselves Rather, Paul’s objection seems to be about competition. People performing glossolalia are monopolizing group meetings and not leaving time for other things that Paul considers important. Rather than people in an altered mental state, Paul’s description sounds more to me like an overeager graduate seminar where people are interrupting, talking over each other, and generally trying to show off—a concern Paul voices elsewhere (1 Cor. 11:16-33).

This would make more sense in Roman Corinth than a model that assumes ecstatic experience. Self-control was a key element in Roman notions of “manhood,” particularly for the upper class. Indeed, this concept was so central that Paul uses it as his main hook in Romans 1: 18-32.

Throughout the ancient Mediterranean, ecstatic, uncontrolled religious behavior was often associated with foreign cults, the lower classes, and women. Since Paul’s message so strongly builds on self-control, drawn from Stoic thought, it seems unlikely that he would advocate such practices. Cognitive analysis may be useful here, but we cannot know without making unfounded assumptions about the mental states of the participants.

Czachesz’s ninth chapter attempts to use network-modeling software to consider Christian spread via missionary activities. I agree that network theory is critical to the study of early Christianity, and challenges many traditional models of Christian spread. However, the example in this chapter is too simple to provide any useful conclusions. I applaud Czachesz for making a start, but I worry that this simplistic example, with its problematically monolithic conception of Christianity, will do more to turn people away from network analysis.

I am sensitive to the extreme challenges of blazing a new path in the tangle of religious studies. There are many positive elements to this book, particularly the introductory chapters on neuroscience and cognitive theory. Even as a strong supporter, however, I find several of the uses of cognitive theory here unconvincing. Advocates of cognitive science will find useful teaching tools and helpful jumping off points here. Skeptics should know that these examples are not the only way to use cognitive theory to study early Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Ullucci is associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

István Czachesz is professor of biblical studies at the University of Tromsø'. His research concentrates on religious antiquity, the New Testament, and the development of early Christianity. His publications include The Grotesque Body in Early Christian Discourse: Hell, Scatology and Metamorphosis (Routledge, 2012) and Mind, Morality and Magic: Cognitive Science Approaches in Biblical Studies (with Risto Uro; Routledge, 2013).


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