ECCLESIAE operates with a blend of both established and innovative theoretical models. For both pragmatic and epistemic reasons, we prefer methodological eclecticism over against the hegemony of one comprehensive theory, since no theoretical framework is able to explain all aspects and players of society, and since different elements of the evidence require diverse theoretical tools.
Emergence of Religious Groups in the Urban Ecology
Ever since the seminal studies of Edwin A. Judge, Wayne Meeks, and Gerd Theissen, the social patterns of early Christ groups in comparison with Greco-Roman and Jewish social institutions have intrigued scholars. They refer to the household (oikos), private association, synagogue, philosophical school, mystery cult, societas, and civic assembly. The recent discourse shows a remarkable preponderance of the model of the voluntary association, though more and more critical voices arise.
We endeavor to overcome under-complex, unilinear reconstructions of the social structure of early Christian communities, applying the notions of “ecology” and “emergence”: Christ groups and other Greco-Roman social entities are not hermetically sealed, but occupied the same physical, social and cultural space. Still, according to theories of emergence, those social phenomena, which stand the test of time, exhibit a significant surplus and eventually reconfigure the existing paradigms: novel social forms emerge, new communal identities are shaped.
The idea of “emergence” also recognizes the gradual development of the key characteristics of religions in a modern sense: “a distinctive world view, an exclusive membership, some unique rituals and beliefs, a group of distinctive symbols and perhaps texts of special significance for co-religionists, a characteristic ethical stance and usually also some structures of authority not congruent with those of wider society”
Social Network Analysis:
Individual and Institutionalized Ties
Within the urban “ecology” religious groups recruit new members through social ties. Thus, analysis of the diffusion and circulation of religious ideas, rituals, ethical convictions, and spirituality must take into account the communication between individual members and the institutionalization of social relations within a specific historical and cultural setting (e.g., friendship, patronage, benefaction). Communities can have strong or weak ties with other individuals, institutions or small elite circles of a society (e.g., associations, synagogues).
In the last decade a set of historical studies has demonstrated that many theories, methods and (partly computer-based) tools of Social Network Analysis (SNA) can aid ancient history research, in diverse fields such as prosopography, archeology, economic and commercial history, historical ethnicity, and history of religions. While SNA produced significant new insights in other historical disciplines, the approach is virtually unknown in biblical studies. Recently, John Kloppenborg suggested:
“Theoretical models drawn from network analysis are available to assist us in imagining the mechanisms through which the diffusion of ideas, rumors, influence, power, and infections occurs. Models, of course, do not manufacture new or missing data; what they do is to alert us to the kinds of data that we should look for, and models sometimes allow us to see in the data that we possess interpretive possibilities that we might otherwise have missed.”
Social Identity Theory and Theology
The third methodological component closes the circle from the emergence of social forms and network mechanisms to social identity and theology. In conversation with major landmarks in the field, ECCLESIAE will advance insights into the diverse ways “Christian” identities were formed in the centers of the Mediterranean basin. Under the umbrella of Social Identity Theory, complementary avenues of study will come into play and enrich the depiction of early Christian identity development:
social memory studies, sociolinguistics, the sociology of deviance, conflict theory, and the cognitive study of religion. ECCLESIAE seeks to overcome the cognitivist bias of some social identity approaches as it gives due justice to the inner dynamics of early Christian self-understanding, theologizing, spiritual experience, rituals and practice. Identity is shaped via ingroup-outgroup distinction, boundary construction and reinforcement of own identity.
As Christian faith and theology have been developed, articulated and communicated in the form of letters and “gospel” narratives, ECCLESIAE will also explore the role of texts in the process of identity formation. Written accounts and storytelling constitute one of the most important “cultural ways of worldmaking” (Ansgar Nünning), and each Christian center witnesses with its specific texts to a distinct “way of worldmaking”.