Modelling Early Christianity: Social-Scientific Studies of the New Testament in Its Context

By Philip F. Esler | Go to book overview

7

THE SOCIAL NATURE OF CONVERSION IN THE EARLY CHRISTIAN WORLD

Nicholas H. Toylor

This essay draws together several strands in recent social-scientific scholarship applicable to the world of early Christianity and the phenomenon of religious conversion. The social aspect of human knowledge and perception has been widely recognized as a consequence largely of the work of Berger and Luckmann (1967). The essentially social nature of human identity in non-Western cultures has been described by Geertz (1976) and Pitt-Rivers (1977), and applied to the ancient Mediterranean context of early Christianity by Malina (1979; 1981; 51-60; Malina and Neyrey 1991b). That religious conversion is a social process as well as an individual transformation has become increasingly apparent in studies of modern religious phenomena (Straus 1979; Long and Hadden 1983; Snow and Machalek 1983). That this applies all the more to early Christianity has not as yet been so widely recognized, and I shall attempt here to explore the issues further, building on the diverse strands of recent scholarship, and attempting to construct a model which will enable further study of conversion in early Christianity.

‘Conversion’ can function no more precisely than as an umbrella term for a variety of experiences (Lofland and Skonovd 1981; Blasi 1985:91; Rambo 1993). It varies in form and motif, and in individual and communal significance (Lofland and Skonovd 1981; Kilbourne and Richardson 1988; Rambo 1993:13-15). A uniform pattern of conversion, and ascription of social significance thereto, cannot therefore be imposed. The distinctions and categories of conversion discussed by Travisano (1981) and McGuire (1992:72), while raising important questions, tend to concentrate on the cerebral aspects and overlook the social. For the purpose of our present task, a different approach is more appropriate.

That Christianity emerged from within Judaism is of course well known, and there is no recorded gentile recognition of Christians as such before the younger Pliny in 112 CE (Ep. 10.96). Writing slightly later, Tacitus (Ann. 15.44) and Suetonius (Nero 16) relate the persecution of Christians under Nero (c. 64 CE), but in so doing reflect the conditions and attitudes of their own day (cf. Wilken 1984:48-50). While gentiles in closer social proximity may have been more

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