Ritual and Christian Beginnings

Under a contract with Oxford University Press, Risto Uro is working on a book project with the working title of Ritual and Christian Beginnings: A Socio-Cognitive Analysis.

It is often suggested that the Jesus movement arose as a branch of the baptizing movement inaugurated by John the Baptist, but scholars have rarely turned their attention to the role of ritual in the rise of early Christianity. This book will argue that the field of ritual theory offers a fresh new approach to the study of Christian beginnings, in which the dimension of ritual has all too often been neglected. Although some initial steps have been taken toward ritual analyses of Christian origins, this book is the first to employ cognitive theories of ritual in the study of the New Testament and other Christian sources. Following the recent trend among ritual scholars, the author does not rely on a grand theory of ritual, i.e. a theory that seeks to capture all aspects of the phenomena discussed under the term “ritual.” Instead, a pluralistic approach to ritual theory is applied, suggesting a three-dimensional socio-cognitive model for the analysis of Christian beginnings.

The theoretical discussion leads to the emergence of three dimensions of ritual: ritual as action, ritual and cooperation, and ritual and religious teaching. Each of these offers a window onto particular aspects of ritual life in the early Christian world. The action perspective allows an analysis of the “ritual grammar” of early Christian ritual practices, such as baptisms or healing rituals, and raises the issue of ritual efficacy – closely related to the notoriously difficult theme of “magic.” The cooperation perspective focuses on the ability of rituals to function as hard-to-fake signals of commitment and to create group cohesion and solidarity; a major concern of many religious communities, including early Christian groups. The third aspect recognizes that rituals often play an important role in the transmission of religious knowledge and teaching, a capacity that was heavily exploited by early Christian religious leaders.