Ritual and Christian Beginnings

A Socio-Cognitive Analysis

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Risto Uro
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This small volume explores Christian origins by interweaving three disciplines—ritual studies, cognitive science of religion (CSR), and the study of early Christianity (primarily New Testament scholarship)—around the impossible question of why Christianity happened. The author tempers any big theory/big question aspirations to make modest “suggestions” about the applicability of ritual and cognitive studies to several early Christian test cases. In this, the book is mostly successful, especially where its content scope is narrowest.

Ritual and Christian Beginnings is a very useful introduction to CSR, and particularly its applications to the study of ritual. Chapter 2 provides a handy overview of CSR, but the entire volume can serve to teach that field as it circles back to larger concepts in the test case chapters. The book may be most useful to those engaged with recent historiography in New Testament studies, but it provides sufficient guidance for those with a basic understanding of early Christianity to profit from the discussion. A thoughtful survey in Chapter 1 of approaches to ritual in general and in early Christianity sets up a main premise: cognitive approaches can be complementary to (most) of the history of religion and social scientific trajectories. Indeed, the entire volume demonstrates a generous “theoretical pluralism” along with its preference for “mid-level” over “grand” theorizing. It won’t find the answer to the impossible question, but it will, the author argues, refine it and enrich the search.

This is amply evidenced in the four test case chapters. These explore John the Baptist and “ritual innovation”; healing from Jesus to James; Paul and the Corinthians community; and the development of Christian teaching in rituals.

The author employs a range of cognitive approaches introduced in chapter 2, from Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley on “special agent rituals” to Harvey Whitehouse’s cognitive processing and Armin Geertz’s work-in-progress on bio-cultural theory. Uro raises interesting “why hasn’t anybody…” questions: Why hasn’t there been more work on John’s baptism, given his presence in all the canonical gospels? The answer in large part is, of course, the limitations of that evidence.  While this should be at least as big a challenge for cognitive scientists as for historians, Uro argues that CSR can be useful for jump-starting conversations “where the evidence does not allow the rigors” of empirical testing (179). The modest insights Uro raises about John as a “special ritual agent,” (a CSR term explained clearly by Uro)validate this point. He is less convincing that CSR offers something new in the broader case of Jesus and healing traditions. There is little insight here beyond what the anthropological studies of shamanism he cites already offer. The most provocative chapter has the narrowest focus: it engages the long-standing and of late energetically-contested picture of Corinthian social cohesion. Drawing on insights from commitment signaling (Richard Sosis and Joseph Bulbulia) and focusing on evidence of “costly,” “emotional” rituals such as prophesying and glossolalia in 1 Corinthians 11-14, the author modifies, yet generally supports Stanley Stowers’s rereading of “community” as usually applied to Corinth.

Overall, this book aims to build bridges between dominant trends and themes in early Christian studies and cognitive studies through a focus on the underappreciated role of ritual. This book is part of a bigger project based at the University of Helsinki that is examining early Christian ritual via cognitive analysis. Three more volumes are underway, each focusing on one area of ritual, and also a handbook. This introduction does not make big assertions too soon. It does, however, provide a compelling preparation for interdisciplinary conversation and promise for the forthcoming volumes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Corrie E. Norman is the associate director of the religious studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Date of Review: 
August 11, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Risto Uro is Senior lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of Helsinki.


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