Interview: Jarkko Vikman


University of Helsinki

Areas of Interest/Research:

Religious Expertise, Voluntary Associations, Cultural Evolution, Cognitive Science of Religion

What is it about your field that you love researching?

Cultural evolutionary theorists build huge theories of general developmental lines about global cultural history. Scholars of early Christianity perceive individual situations with a critical eye on the power structures behind each case. My job is to unite these views when looking at the development of religious expertise in the city of Ephesus. I am lucky to learn a lot about common human behaviour and specific social history at the same time!

What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

Early Christian religious expertise is often considered more intellectually oriented when compared to established cultic leadership of Greco-Roman society. For example, popular non-fiction books on big history of human species may link this rise of doctrinal authority to the advent of Axial-Age religions: traditions more interested in ethical questions and universal truths than rituals and taboos. These kinds of generalizations may prove helpful, but they also easily apply our presumptions of “the Church” as a stable system interested mainly in theological matters. Therefore, more scholarly work on local level religious experts is needed.

My idea is to compare religious authority depicted in several kinds of Ephesian sources from the first three centuries CE: inscriptions of voluntary associations, letters of cultic authorities and stories related to these authoritative figures. I aim to interpret my findings with the help of cultural evolutionary perspectives.

What is your current research about?

I argue that much like their rivals, leaders of Ephesian Jesus adherents were also depicted as masculine exemplary figures who control the public sphere and act unselfishly. They did not form one solid network of “early Christian” leaders but rivalled against each other with fierce words. However, gradually stories about these exemplary figures seem to have become more general property and the narratives spread outside their areal birth context. I aim to shed new light to this process with the help of cultural evolutionary perspective: several scholars of cultural evolution have modeled, how this kind of change usually occurs in small-scale societies and how it may lead to cultural innovations (such as more elaborated religious doctrines).

Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them?

PhD Maijastina Kahlos is an expert on Roman history and the Christianization of Rome. She is also always eager to learn new things about biblical studies and its methodology. Her writing style is clear and calm. Her research seems free of needs to make an impression to anyone or to start disciplinary fights. Maijastina encourages younger scholars to try new things and does not spare her positive feedback. I am lucky to have her as one of my thesis supervisors.

What books have been formative for you in your study? Why were they so important? How did they shape you?

It all started with Heikki Räisänen’s books Miten ymmärrän Raamattua oikein? [How to Understand the Bible Correctly?], Paul and the Law, and The Rise of Christian Beliefs. Prof. Räisänen’s books encouraged young soon-to-be-pastor to ask difficult questions from the Bible. I might be pursuing my PhD thanks to these works.

When digging into the world of comparing early Christianity with other cultic traditions, Jonathan Z. Smith’s Drudgery Divine has been an important ethical compass for me. The field of comparative religion arose from apologetic and colonialist needs. My job is to assess, how those needs manifest in my current work.

Lately, Rethinking Early Christian Identity by Maia Kotrosits has encouraged me to analyse my understanding of the concept “early Christianity.” What am I reading to the concept that might be important for me as a scholar? Would the same issues be pressing for the early Christians themselves? Did they even understand themselves as Christians? Prof. Kotrosits’s application of affect theory has also opened new insights to my more cognitive perspective.

Do you have any publications we can showcase?

One could keep an eye on the Journal of Early Christian History, which has accepted to publish my article “Kinship as a Trustworthy Cue: Signalling Religious Expertise in the Epigraphy of Ephesian Voluntary Associations.”

Where can we follow you online?

My research activities are updated to university’s research portal: Sometimes I tweet research related things @JarkkoVikman.

If we ran into you at SBL/AAR and you didn’t want to talk about your field what would you want to talk about?

Ice hockey is always a safe option – I learned to read from NHL trading cards. Oh, and I love the TV-series Temptation Island! The Finnish version is still being produced, and I am glad to discuss how it differs from the US original.

Other than your thesis, what research/writing project are you working on right now that you’re excited about?

I am part of a group which is pursuing to update Finnish studying materials on cognitive science of religion. It is great to be able to meet scholars of Finnish vernacular religion, modern day atheists, charismatic movements, reiki healing etc., and find out things we have in common in our scholarly approaches and challenges.

>> Thank you so much Jarkko for taking the time to share a bit about yourself and your work.

Are you a PhD student or Early Career Researcher working in Religion or Biblical Studies? If so, we’d like to hear from you. This website is dedicated solely to interviewing PhD students and ECRs on who they are, what they love about their work, and what has inspired them. If you’d like to be interviewed, head over to the Contact page and fill out the form. There’s no catch. Don’t be shy. Self-promotion is a virtue.

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