Cognitive Science and the New Testament

Since the early 2000s, a handful of biblical scholars started to turn to scientific explanations of human thought and behavior to understand cognitive processes behind the creation and use of biblical texts, including the biblical concepts of the divine, the rituals of the first Christ-believers, and the social interactions that influenced the formation and growth of their communities.

See Also: Cognitive Science and the New Testament: A New Approach to Early Christian Research (Oxford University Press, 2017).

By István Czachesz
Professor of Biblical Studies
University of Tromsø
July 2017


Understanding the social, cultural, and historical setting of the New Testament is an essential part of any exegete’s toolbox. There is widespread agreement among biblical interpreters, for example, that we should avoid reading our modern notion of a family into the gospel narratives, or understanding the rituals of the first Christian assemblies in terms of modern-day liturgical practices and concepts. While the importance of appreciating the differences between contemporary (Western) bible readers, on the one hand, and people of the ancient Mediterranean world, on the other, has become almost self-evident, it poses a new set of challenges. How can we understand ancient people if our ways or thinking are mutually incompatible? How can Christian believers ever find guidance in the New Testament if it was written by people who were completely different from us?

As it appears, although ancient people were indeed different from us on some level, we share with them our basic human cognitive architecture, which is largely determined by having similar brains and bodies. In other words, while we might think and feel differently in many respects than people of the ancient Mediterranean world did, both our similarities and differences can be understood better if we study them in the framework of the evolved foundations of human thought, emotion, and behavior. Since the early 2000s, a handful of biblical scholars started to turn to scientific explanations of human thought and behavior to understand cognitive processes behind the creation and use of biblical texts, including the biblical concepts of the divine, the rituals of the first Christ-believers, and the social interactions that influenced the formation and growth of their communities.

Three research areas influenced the emergence of cognitive science approaches to biblical studies. (1) Following some initial attempts in the 1970s, the field of the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) started to emerge in the 1990s and played an important role in the study of religion in the past two decades. In the beginning, CSR focused mainly on god concepts and rituals. More recent research areas of CSR include the role of religion in social cooperation, experimental studies in ethnography, and computer modeling of texts and historical processes. (2) The neuroscientific study of religious experience started in the 1980s and gained momentum with the rapid development of new neuroimaging technologies in the 1990s. Work on religious experience in biblical studies draws on insights from this area. (3) Finally, the field of cognitive linguistics also started in the 1980s and examines the role of the human body in shaping human thought and language. Biblical scholars have drawn especially on cognitive poetics and conceptual metaphor theory.

In this survey I will discuss three research foci: memory studies and their use in the research of the gospels, cognitive approaches to rituals, and the formation of early Christian networks. Other topics that are equally important for the cognitive study of the Bible but cannot be discussed in more detail in this article include magic, religious experience, and the cognitive and evolutionary foundations of morality.


Insights from memory studies have been used in biblical scholarship for some decades, including the concept of collective memory, which was originally proposed by Maurice Halbwachs. More recently, biblical scholars discussed so-called “flashbulb memories” in the context of the gospel tradition. A more nuanced engagement with the current state of memory studies have yielded new understandings of the transmission and performance of sayings and miracle stories, as well as the process of literary composition and production in the cultural context of ancient literacy (Czachesz 2017: pp. 62–87).

Let us take the influence of cognitive constraints on textual transmission as an example. Maturationally natural ontological expectations develop in children consistently under a wide range of circumstances and enable people to respond to information in the environment quickly and efficiently (McCauley 2011: pp. 31–82). For example, we know that animals move, humans speak, and tools are designed for some purpose and we can interact with them accordingly, without testing those features in every instance of them. It is important to note that such ontological divisions are not necessarily identical with categories that people use to describe the world when we ask them to do so explicitly (or ontological categories that philosophers establish). Maturationally natural ontological categories include HUMAN, ANIMAL, PLANT, ARTIFACT, and (natural) OBJECT. A donkey that talks (e.g., Acts of Thomas 39–41 and 68–81) or a statue that hears what people speak violates expectations about animals and artifacts, respectively. Such ideas will be remembered longer than ideas that do not violate our maturationally natural ontology. However, if the violations are multiplied, the advantage diminishes. As a consequence, as Pascal Boyer (Boyer 2001) suggested, minimally counterintuitive ideas are passed on across generations at higher rates than either ordinary or maximally counterintuitive items. Subsequent experiments have shown that counterintuitive details especially enhance the memorability of ideas especially in long-term retention. Boyer’s theory has generated a growing body of experimental work, but presenting his main idea is sufficient to see how the theory can help in understanding biblical transmission.

Many miracle stories in the gospels include a counterintuitive element. The multiplication of bread in Mark 6.39–44 and parallels violates maturationally natural expectations about artifacts. We do not expect natural objects or artifacts (such as bread) to multiply spontaneously, which we only attribute to living things. Another food miracle, the changing of water into wine (John 2:2–11), also implies a crossing of ontological boundaries. Whereas water is a natural substance, wine is an artifact. Arguably, we do not expect natural objects to transform into artifacts without human labor: artifacts are produced by investing time and energy. Miracles about resurrecting dead people (2 Kings 4:32–35, 13:20–21; Mark 5:21–43 and parallels; Luke 7:11–15; John 11:1–44; Acts 20:9–12) are strictly counterintuitive. Dead bodies and decomposing corpses (John 11.38–44) are not expected to resume biological function. Such details made miracle stories attention-grabbing and salient in cultural transmission, resulting in the generous use of miracle stories in oral transmission at the cost of other types of materials.

However, not all miracle stories include strictly counterintuitive elements in a technical sense. For example, catching extraordinary amounts of fish (Luke 5:1–11) at an unusual time of the day is unexpected but does not violate innate ontological categories. Healing with saliva (e.g., Mark 7:33) is an intuitive technique that relies on demonstrable physiological effects: saliva contains healing substances (Oudhoff et al. 2008). Many therapies in biblical literature change intuitive healing processes (which might or might not comply with modern scientific theory) into paradoxical (but not strictly counterintuitive) events by adding extraordinary difficulties. For example, the man healed in John 9 has been blind since birth and the one at the pool of Bethsaida (John 5:1–20) had been crippled for thirty-eight years. Although minimally counterintuitive concepts play a major role in religious traditions, other concepts that violate cultural (but not maturationally natural) knowledge can be also salient. Further, the combination of intuitive and counterintuitive elements is the best recipe for culturally successful packages of information (Norenzayan et al. 2006; Norenzayan and Atran 2004).

The influence of memory extends beyond oral transmission to literary composition and the success of various texts and ideas in early Christianity. Due to the low rates of literacy in the ancient world, stories and concepts that were attention-grabbing and remained in memory longer had substantially better chance to become widespread and popular than other concepts and stories, even if they were recorded in written texts (which remains true, mutatis mutandis, in the age of print press and electronic media). For example, the formation of the mainstream idea of Jesus’ death and resurrection has been explained (Czachesz 2007) by the dominance of a minimally counterintuitive version, which presents the resurrected Jesus essentially as a human being with some characteristics that violate ontological expectations, such as appearing in a closed room or disappearing in the middle of a conversation (Luke 24:31; John 20:19,26). Ebionite and docetic alternatives, in turn, were too “ordinary” or excessively counterintuitive, respectively, and had little chance to be widely circulated. Counterintuitive ideas that involve agency (such as concepts of gods and spirits) are not only attention grabbing and memorable but also evoke reasoning about the knowledge, intention, and purpose of the counterintuitive agent. It is no wonder then that the minimally counterintuitive concept of the resurrected Jesus invited a rich and varied Christological traditon (cf. Theissen 2011).

In some, the gospel tradition and the development of Christology can be understood (to a great extent) in the context of human memory systems and other cognitive traits, without invoking church politics or random historical circumstances as explanatory factors. Other aspects of Christological and theological ideas can also be examined with the help of cognitive science, such as the emotional content of certain stories and images, the role of ideas as social identity markers, various preferences for identifying reliable sources of knowledge (so-called context biases), and the influence of religious texts and ideas on the wellbeing and success of social groups and individuals.


The interdisciplinary research program that eventually became known as the Cognitive Science of Religion started with an inquiry about the structure of rituals. According to E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley (Lawson and McCauley 1990; McCauley and Lawson 2002), the human mind represents actions in terms of an agent acting on a patient with the help of an instrument. For example, John (agent) hits (action) the ball (patient) with a bat (instrument). In a ritual, however, one of these components is connected to a superhuman agent (god). For example, in baptism a priest (connected to God by ordination) baptizes an infant (or adult in certain denominations) with the help of water. This is an example of a special-agent ritual because the agent of the action (the priest) is connected more directly to a superhuman agent than either the infant or the water. According to Lawson and McCauley, special-agent rituals have long-lasting effects and are performed only once with the same participants (i.e., a priest performs many baptisms, but only one baptism on any infant). Special-agent rituals generate intense emotions and people invest considerable time and resources into performing them. In any religion, according to Lawson and McCauley, there is a balance between special-agent and other types of rituals.

The application of Lawson and McCauley’s theory to the New Testament resulted in an interesting debate about the nature of ancient Jewish rituals and the interpretation of the baptism of John against such a background. As Kimmo Ketola (Ketola 2007: pp. 102–03) and others observed, ancient Judaism lacked special-agent rituals: circumcision, for example, could be theoretically performed by anyone. Based on this observation, Risto Uro (Uro 2016: pp. 99–127) suggested that John’s baptism as depicted in the gospels introduced a special-agent ritual that filled the void, which could explain its success. In other words, John was seen as God’s chosen prophet and when he performed ritual washing it had “super-permanent effects” (to use Lawson and McCauley’s term), which made it unnecessary (and even impossible, from the point of view of the participants) to repeat the ritual.

The Ritual Form Theory also offers an interesting framework for interpreting the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament and in various Christian traditions. It is difficult to establish how far the Corinthian meal was a ritual in the form that Paul disapproved of. Paul’s instructions (if absorbed and implemented by the congregation) transformed the meal into a special-patient ritual, inasmuch as he suggested that the bread and wine consumed were connected to the flesh and blood of the Lord. At the celebration of the Eucharist in historical and contemporary mainline Christian traditions, in contrast, the priest can be seen as the agent of the ritual who transforms ordinary bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ. This seems to lead to a contradiction because special-agent rituals are not supposed to be repeated, yet the Eucharist is repeated regularly; still one can argue that the ritual is not repeated with the same bread and wine. (The presence of the congregation is not needed for a mass to be valid.) If one considers the distribution of the elements as the main focus of the ritual, in turn, it can be conceived of as a special-instrument ritual: the priest gives the elements to the congregation. This interpretation poses the question of how the transubstantiation and the distribution are connected with each other. Is the former perhaps an enabling ritual needed so that bread and wine qualify to be elements of the communion? In fact, in the Catholic Church, deacons and other liturgists can distribute the host that was previously consecrated by a priest (Code of Canon Law 900.1 and 910.1). From a strictly Calvinist perspective, neither the minister (Second Helvetic Confession XVIII), nor the elements (Calvin, Institution IV.17.11) are closer to the divine than the members of the congregation. It is especially difficult to analyze the ritual when the elements are passed around instead of being distributed by the minister or some designated member of the congregation. If we asked about the intuition of the participants (which is the decisive factor according to the theory), most of them would probably see Christ as present in the bread and wine and interpret the ritual as special-patient. The fact that the Lord’s Supper can be parsed into any of the three types of rituals in the Ritual Form Theory might explain why this sacrament has been the subject of so much controversy in the history of Christianity.

The study of rituals has been one of the most fruitful areas of the Cognitive Science of Religion. For example, participation in a ritual can be understood as a reliable (costly) signal of cooperation that helps the group thrive in joint endeavors (Bulbulia and Sosis 2011). Other theories suggest that rituals are based on an archaic hazard-precaution system that is activated by salient features of rituals (Liénard and Boyer 2006). For example, Paul’s words that in the Corinthian church “many are weak and ill” and “some have died” (11:30) due to the improper performance of the meal practice can be understood as the result of the activation of precaution systems that evolved to avoid food contamination and predation. Finally, the theory of the Modes of Religiosity, developed by Harvey Whitehouse (Whitehouse 2004) distinguishes between two types of religious movements: on the one hand, in doctrinal mode of religion, systematic knowledge is transmitted in frequently repeated, tedious rituals; on the other hand, in the imagistic mode, participants undergo emotionally intense but infrequent rituals followed by so-called “spontaneous exegetical reflection.” It can been argued that Paul’s efforts to change the Corinthian practices are aimed at moving the congregation from the imagistic toward the doctrinal mode (Czachesz 2017: pp. 107–14).

Network theory and early Christian society

Our last example goes beyond cognitive science approaches in a narrow sense and provides a glimpse into the use of network science in Biblical Studies. What justifies the inclusion of network science in this survey? As we will see, social network patters are intimately related to the diversity of cognitive schemata and the emergence and propagation of new ideas. Further, ideas that spread on social networks also shape these networks by changing people’s attitudes toward social interactions. Network models have also been used to analyze biblical texts, which we cannot discuss in this article. In sum, network science has the potential to integrate the study of social, textual, and cognitive components of religious systems in general, and of the early Christian movement, in particular.

As sociologist Mark Granovetter suggested (Granovetter 1973), if two people are connected by a strong social tie, it is likely that their respective social networks will largely overlap. The strength of an interpersonal tie is characterized by the amount of time, emotional intensity, intimacy (mutual confiding), and reciprocal services in the relationship. If two people are connected by a weak social tie (that is, by acquaintance rather than friendship), the number of their shared friends and acquaintances will be significantly smaller. The major importance of weak links, Granovetter argued, is that they can serve as bridges, that is, as the only links between two networks. Granovetter’s theory of weak links has been tested in a number of empirical studies. An important domain of application has been the advantage of weak links on the job market. Granovetter found empirical evidence that people find new jobs with the help of individuals to whom they are connected by weak links (acquaintances), because they provide new information more often than close friends and relatives, who tend to be in the possession of the same information as the jobseeker.

An analysis of various documents of earliest Christianity suggests that the movement generated weak social ties in many ways (Czachesz 2011). First, some members of the movement opted for an itinerant lifestyle; second, the practice of charity helped the formation of weak ties with outsiders; third, being (relatively) gender-inclusive, Christian communities created opportunities for both genders to connect their respective networks.

The reliance on weak social ties in the spread of the Christian movement had many important consequences. (1) First, reaching out to distant social groups added efficiency in terms of the social and geographical expansion of the movement. This has been already observed by Rodney Stark (Stark 1996), who called the social networks of early Christians “open networks.” (2) Second, weak links facilitated the interconnection of diverse cultural and socioeconomic groups, without forcing a uniform set of values, beliefs and attitudes on them. In terms of network science, we can say that early Christianity developed a modular structure. Many natural systems, such as the human brain, are organized as modular networks: the members of a module are connected by many links, whereas modules are connected to each other by only few links. Such a structure takes care of specialized tasks but allows for an exchange of information between specialized modules. (3) Third, as a consequence of its socioeconomic and cultural diversity, the Christ movement was able to incorporate various points of view. This feature of the network gave the movement versatility and enabled it to respond to changing historical circumstances. (4) Fourth, the interaction of various cognitive styles and cultural traditions helped the development of inclusive thinking (as in Paul’s epistles) and the formation of new ideas. Already the New Testament demonstrates that concepts changed as they moved across Christian networks. This might have been a source of conflicts, but the modular structure of the movement made it possible to retain diversity without completely breaking ties, as we have seen above.



Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion explained: the evolutionary origins of religious thought. New York: Basic Books.

Bulbulia, Joseph A., and Sosis, Richard. 2011. ‘Signalling theory and the evolution of religious cooperation’. Religion 41 (3): 363–88.

Czachesz, István. 2017. Cognitive Science and the New Testament: A New Approach to Early Christian Research. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Czachesz, István. 2007. ‘Early Christian Views on Jesus’ Resurrection: Toward a Cognitive Psychological Interpretation’. Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschrift 61 (1): 47–59.

Czachesz, István. 2011. ‘Women, Charity, and Mobility in Early Christianity: Weak Links and the Historical Transformation of Religions’. In Changing Minds: Religion and Cognition Through the Ages, edited by István Czachesz and Tamás Biró, pp. 129–54. Leuven: Peeters.

Granovetter, Mark S. 1973. ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’. American Journal of Sociology 78 (6): 1360–80.

Ketola, Kimmo. 2007. ‘A Cognitive Approach to Ritual Systems in First-Century Judaism’. In Explaining Christian origins and early Judaism, edited by Petri Luomanen, Ilkka Pyysiäinen, and Risto Uro, pp. 95–114. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

Lawson, E. Thomas, and McCauley, Robert N. 1990. Rethinking religion: connecting cognition and culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Liénard, Pierre, and Boyer, Pascal. 2006. ‘Whence Collective Rituals? A Cultural Selection Model of Ritualized Behavior’. American Anthropologist 108 (4): 814–27.

McCauley, Robert N. 2011. Why religion is natural and science is not. New York: Oxford University Press.

McCauley, Robert N., and Lawson, E. Thomas. 2002. Bringing ritual to mind: Psychological foundations of cultural forms. New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara, and Atran, Scott. 2004. ‘Cognitive and Emotional Processes in the Cultural Transmission of Natural and Nonnatural Beliefs’. In The psychological foundations of culture, edited by Mark Schaller and Christian S. Crandall, pp. 149–69. Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Norenzayan, Ara, Atran, Scott, Faulkner, Jason, and Schaller, Mark. 2006. ‘Memory and Mystery: The Cultural Selection of Minimally Counterintuitive Narratives’. Cognitive Science 30 (3): 531–53.

Oudhoff, M.J., Bolscher, J.G.M., Nazmi, K., Kalay, H., Hof, van ’t, Amerongen, A.V.N., and Veerman, E.C.I. 2008. ‘Histatins are the major wound-closure stimulating factors in human saliva as identified in a cell culture assay’. The FASEB Journal 22 (11): 3805–12.

Stark, Rodney. 1996. The rise of Christianity: A sociologist reconsiders history. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Theissen, Gerd. 2011. ‘Cognitive Analysis of Faith and Christological Change: Contribution to a Psychology of Early Christian Religion’. In Changing Minds: Religion and Cognition Through the Ages, edited by István Czachesz and Tamás Biró, pp. 89–108. Leuven: Peeters.

Uro, Risto. 2016. Ritual and Christian Beginnings: A Socio-Cognitive Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whitehouse, Harvey. 2004. Modes of religiosity: a cognitive theory of religious transmission. New York; Walnut Creek, Calif; Lanham, Md: Altamira Press.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.