Project Description

Dynamics of Moral Repair in Antiquity:  A Comparative and Interdisciplinary Approach

The research project is conducted by Thomas Kazen and Rikard Roitto at Stockholm School of Theology with funding from the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet) 2017-2021.

Purpose and Aims

The proposed research project analyzes dynamics of moral repair in the ancient world, and takes a comparative and interdisciplinary approach by focusing on similarities and differences between various cultures. The overarching purpose is to analyze and compare the dynamics of moral repair in Greco-Roman culture, Second Temple Judaism, and the early Christian movement. The analysis employs three points of comparison: 1) Ideals of moral repair; 2) Practices of moral repair; 3) Rites of moral repair. The specific aims of doing this is threefold: A) to gain a wider knowledge about the interrelationship of distinct, yet interdependent value systems in the ancient world; B) to achieve a deeper understanding of the historical roots of contemporary ideals of forgiveness, reconciliation and justice that still play a significant role in European society today; C) to advance and further develop the use of inter-disciplinary methodologies in the study of early Judaism/Christianity and the Greco-Roman world, especially methods associated with the Cognitive Science of Religion. 

In this project, “moral repair” is used as an umbrella term for strategies of repairing moral relations (Walker 2006), i.e., for ideals, practices and rites of forgiveness, reconciliation, punishment and revenge, including compensatory payments and the reestablishment of social rela-tionships. The time frame is approximately 200 BCE – 200 CE.

Project Description

Our research project compares dynamics of moral repair on three points: ideals, practices, and rites, in Greco-Roman culture, Second Temple Judaism, and the early Christian movement. Although necessarily overlapping in part, these three points of comparison provide a convenient structure for holding together an analysis employing a variety of methods. The overarching question this project attempts to answer is: what similarities and differences can be found between the dynamics of moral repair in these three cultural spheres, and how do we understand and explain them?

Theory and Method

The project employs current historical and literary methods for interpreting ancient texts and artefacts, but our theoretical perspectives are markedly comparative, cross-cultural, and interdisciplinary. Comparative methods move in the borderland between qualitative and quantita-tive methods. They are characterized by often comparing a few cases with a large number of variables (Lijphart 1971). Comparison is admittedly never neutral; the degree of abstraction and the choice of variables will determine results (Green 1994). The methodological innovation of the proposed project, however, is that the categories of comparison in our analyses are formulated with the aid of behavioural – particularly the cognitive – sciences, enlisting a variety of approaches to human behaviour and interaction from other disciplines, such as social sciences, evolutionary biology, neuroscience and developmental psychology. Analytical tools from the these sciences are particularly suited for comparative analyses, since they usually deal with that which is common and similar in human beings from different places and periods in history, without denying or diminishing cultural differences and developments (cf. Roitto 2013b). These tools will be used “heuristically” (Esler 2005), not in order to establish social or historical “laws”, but as hermeneutic tools to describe similarity and variation. We believe that such interdisciplinary and cross-cultural approaches significantly advance the methodology of comparative studies in historiography.


We limit our time frame to approximately 200 BCE – 200 CE, occasionally reaching back into early Hellenistic times. This period sees a broad variety of texts suitable for comparative analysis. Some prominent samples of genres and texts: 1) Philosophical texts on moral repair include treatises and epistles, for example Plutarch (Moralia), Stoics like Seneca (De Clementia) and Musonius Rufus, relevant passages from Philo, 2 and 4 Maccabees, Sirach, certain New Testament epistles (notably 1 John and James), and material from the Apostolic Fathers (e.g., 1 Clement; Hermas) and Tertullian. 2) Narrative texts include certain Greek and Roman dramas (for example Menandrian comedy) and novellas (Plautus), Jewish apocryphal texts (including the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs – a hybrid genre), and parts of the Jesus tradition (e.g., the sermon on the mount and Matthean texts on forgiveness). 3) Forensic and rhetorical texts include examples from Cicero and Quintilian, some of Josephus’ defences, early Jewish and Christian martyr texts, as well as early rabbinic passages on repentance and atonement. In addition, correspondences and inscriptions (“confession inscriptions") provide interesting additional material to analyze.

First Point of Comparison: Ideals

Ideals of moral repair differ widely between cultures and contexts, and correlate largely with how moral wrongdoing is conceptualized. According to Conceptual Metaphor Theory (Lakoff & Johnson 1980; 1999), human beings conceptualize abstract ideas, such as “sin”, “guilt”, or “wrongdoing” by metaphorical extension of bodily experiences. Anderson (2009) has shown that the sin in Israelite tradition was thought of as “stain”, “weight”, or “debt”, rather than as abstract wrongdoing. As a first step in analyzing ideals of moral repair, we need to compare the social and bodily experiences which moral wrongdoing was modelled on in different contexts in antiquity. Which conceptual metaphors lie behind various ideals of moral repair? 

Ideals of moral repair are also related to power relations. Konstan (2010), has questioned whether Greeks and Romans forgave and repented in our sense of the word, suggesting that they reconciled through other methods, such as assuaging anger and restoring dignity, in order not to disturb power relations. Barden Dowling (2006) has shown how the value of clemency grew popular together with the acceptance of the divine power of the Caesar.  Theissen (1999) has suggested that the radical Jesus tradition on forgiveness democratizes virtues and obligations that traditionally belonged to the aristocracy. This introduces a power dimension into the issue of moral repair, in which lower-class people are challenged to behave like superiors, acting according to perfectionist ideals of Greek philosophy. 

These historical results can be compared with the help of empirical research. Studies on real processes of forgiveness show that modern theological constructs of ideals of forgiveness do not always fit such processes in collectivistic cultures, as these value the peace of the group above the inner peace of the forgiving and forgiven persons (Hook et al. 2009; Kadiangandu et al. 2001). Studies on primates (Cords & Thurnheer 1993; McCullough 2008; Aureli and de Waal 2000) have resulted in the “valuable relationships hypothesis”, suggesting that social species adapt their ideas of what is a fair way to reconcile to factors such as relative power and how valuable they find relations. Such insights will help to structure our comparison of ideals such as clemency, justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

A comparison between early Christian texts on forgiveness, prevailing conceptualizations of sin and reconciliation in Second Temple Judaism, and Greco-Roman cultural and philosophical perfectionist attitudes, challenge us to reconsider forgiveness in varying contexts as something inherently social and practical.

Second Point of Comparison: Practices

Practices of moral repair also differ widely and are related to variations in how demands for justice and mercy are balanced. Practices of mercy, peace, and non-retaliation became increasingly popular from the fourth century BCE and onwards in Greece and, with the introduction of the empire, in Rome, but moral philosophers frequently problematized mercy as morally responsible (Barden Dowling 2006; Griswold & Konstan 2011). Early Christian practices of moral repair suggest that the radical ideals of the Jesus tradition were mitigated from the very beginning. There are tensions between ideals of unlimited forgiveness and non-revenge, and early Christian practice, based on general human demands of justice, revenge, and group cohesion (Goldhahn-Müller 1989; Kazen 2011b; 2012; Roitto 2012; forthcoming a, b) Also Israelite tradition attests to practices that effect moral repair while satisfying human demands for justice (Daube 1947; Jackson 2006; Wright 2009; Kazen 2011a), although some of these seem to be distinct from Jewish or Christian practices during the late Second Temple period and beyond. 

In order to structure our comparison of a variety of practices which reflect and resolve these tensions, we argue for common psycho-biological underpinnings influencing human moral behaviour on a general level, while particulars are always culturally formatted in diverse ways. Neuroscientific and psychological research on emotions suggest that innate capacities account for moral decision and moral behaviour to a larger extent than previously assumed (Haidt 2001; Moll et al. 2005). Empathy, fear and anger interact and govern propensities for pro-social action, forgiveness and revenge (Miller 2006; Newberg et al. 2000). The emotional demand for fairness is based on a biological need for integrity and shaped by cultural concerns for honour and status, but human beings also have an emotional need for reconciliation, which lowers anxious tension and preserves valuable relationships (see previous point). Game theoretical analyses of cooperation and forgiveness suggest the need for a balance between forgiveness and retaliation (Axelrod 1990; McCullough 2008). Repentance, social bonds and social pressure modify the willingness to forgive (Mullet & Girard 1999). 

Insights such as these challenge us to compare practices of revenge, mitigation, reconciliation, and forgiveness in the ancient world, using a set of analytical tools that has not been applied to this material before.

Third Point of Comparison: Rites 

Rituals of moral repair include a variety of cultic rites which restore relationships between human and divine beings, but are not limited to these. We also find a number of rituals for interpersonal moral repair. These are sometimes related.

In the ancient world, ritual behaviour was a means of communication and sacrifice was the grammar of religious discourse. Both in Greco-Roman and Israelite society cultic means of moral repair restored homeostasis and re-established inter-human relationships in terms of honour and status. Sacrifices maintained good relations with the gods and balanced communion and commensality (Burkert 1985; Ekroth 2008; Ullucci 2012). Forgiveness was not a central feature, and confession of sins was rare (Pettazzoni 1954: 55-67). Second Temple Judaism knew sacrificial rites for the removal of offence (Milgrom 1991; Marx 2005) and other rites were also effective for moral repair, including ransom and confession of sins. In the early Christian movement, baptism, eucharist and public confession evolved as rites that could merit forgiveness and restore relations to God. While Jewish and Greco-Roman rites for repairing relations to the divine mostly focus around the (sacrificial) cult, early Christian rites for similar purposes seem to function independently of the temples, but also Christian rites such as public confession of sins and the Eucharist often effect forgiveness and re-establishment of a positive relation to God. These Christian rites frequently “recycle” cultic imagery. 

Boyer (2002) argues that human cognition of the divine is based on our cognition of human agents, but with certain attention-catching “counterintuitive” elements added to that cognitive schema. We will use his analysis as a starting point for comparing rituals that assume the gods to be appeaseable in an anthropomorphous, yet slightly counter-intuitive manner. For instance, disgusted and angered gods may have their negative emotions turned into positive ones by cleansing and appeasing measures (Kazen 2011a; forthcoming a), and they are understood to be just as impressed by beauty, costly signals, and loyalty, as humans. Tools such as Sørensen’s (2006) cognitive theory of magic and Lawson and McCauley’s (2002) theory of ritual efficacy, as well as conceptual blending theory (Fauconnier & Turner 2002) can help us compare how sacrifices and water rituals are experienced as effecting transformation and restoring relations with divine beings. 

One important question is how moral repair with the divine compares and relates to interpersonal moral repair in ritual acts. In Second Temple Judaism, there is an increasing integration between divine forgiveness and interpersonal apology and compensation (Zerbe 1993; Morgan 2011; Roitto 2012; forthcoming d). In the evolving Christian ritual of public confession of sins, confession was often a requisite for catechumens to enter and offenders to be accepted back into the community (Goldhahn-Müller 1989; Johnson 2007). No such tendency is apparent in Greco-Roman rituals, though participation in different cults may be analysed as costly displays of loyalty to a city or a collegium. A comparative analysis of how divine and interpersonal moral repair were integrated will benefit from using costly signalling theory (Irons 2001; Sosis 2003), which argues that religious rituals often function as costly displays of loyalty to the community. Bell’s (1990) feminist analysis of how rituals embody societal power relations will also be helpful to our comparison of how ritual actions directed to the divine simultaneously function to restore re-lations in a group.


Our project will analyze the dynamics of moral repair in Antiquity with the help of transparent analytical categories and a combination of comparative and interdisciplinary approaches which have not been used in this way before. Therefore, we believe that our combination of methods and our distinct points of comparison will produce relevant results: A comparative approach needs to look for both universals and particulars. The cognitive sciences suggest that many basic emotional and cognitive tendencies are shared across culture, while affirming the role of cultural formation and constraints. An analysis of the dynamics of moral repair within a combined universal and cultural framework can deepen our understanding of social and historical tendencies and trajectories, and better explain both variation and commonality in patterns of moral repair in Antiquity. 

The results should also be of relevance for present-day society, since contemporary projects and practices of moral repair often build on controversial ideals of forgiveness and non-retaliation that have been inherited from Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian culture. A better understanding of the meaning and social function of these ideals in the context where they originated could help to dispel some common misunderstandings and some misappropriation of ideals that never were practised in the way they are sometimes understood.

Further Reading

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  • Barden Dowling, Melissa, 2006. Clemency and Cruelty in the Roman World. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Constantineanu, Corneliu, 2010. The Social Significance of Reconciliation in Paul's Theology: Narrative Readings in Romans. London: T & T Clark.
  • Cords, Marina & Thurnheer, Sylvie, 1993. “Reconciling with Valuable Partners by Long-tailed Macaques.” Ethology 93: 315–325.
  • DeMaris, Richard E., 2008. The New Testament in Its Ritual World. London: Routledge.
  • Ekroth, Gunnel, 2008. “Burnt, Cooked, or Raw? Divine and Human Culinary Desires at Greek Animal Sacrifices.” In E. Stavrianopoulou, A. Michaels & C. Ambos (eds.), Transformations in Sacrificial Practices (Berlin: LIT), 87–112.
  • Fauconnier, Gilles & Turner, Mark, 2002. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books.
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  • Goldhahn-Müller, Ingrid, 1989. Die Grenze der Gemeinde: Studien zum Problem der Zweiten Buße im Neuen Testament unter Berücksichtigung der Entwicklung in 2. Jh. bis Tertullian. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
  • Griswold, Charles & Konstan, David, (eds.), 2011. Ancient Forgiveness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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  • Kazen, Thomas, 2010. Issues of Impurity in Early Judaism. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.
  • Kazen, Thomas, 2011a. Emotions in Biblical Law: A Cognitive Science Approach. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix.
  • Kazen, Thomas, 2011b. “Moralische Emotionen in der Jesusüberlieferung. Ein psycho-biologischer Beitrag zum Verhältnis von Selbstbehauptung und Nächstenorientierung.” Evangelische Theologie 71: 288–306.
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  • Kazen, Thomas, forthcoming a. “Emotional Fear in Pentateuchal Legal Collections.” In R. Nikolsky & T. Biro (eds.), Papers from the First International Workshop on the Cognitive Study of Religious Texts, Groningen 2010 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix). 
  • Kazen, Thomas, forthcoming b. “Emotional Repression and Physical Mutilation? The Cognitive and Behavioural Impact of Exaggeration in the Sermon on the Mount”. In R. Roitto (red.), Social and Cognitive Perspectives on the Sermon on the Mount. 
  • Kazen, Thomas, forthcoming c. “Jesus’ Apocalypticism: A Cognitive Approach to Language, Myth and Metaphor”. 
  • Kazen, Thomas, forthcoming d. “Cause and Effect and Levels of Explanation for Ideas of Impurity: Why Structuralist and Symbolic Models Often Fail While Evolutionary and Cognitive Models Succeed”.
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  • Mackintosh, R. H., 1927. The Christian Experience of Forgiveness. London: Nisbet & Co. 
  • Marx, Alfred, 2005. Les systèmes sacrificiels de l’Ancien Testament: Formes et fonctions du culte sacrificiel à Yhwh. SupVT 105. Leiden: Brill.
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  • McCullough, M. E., 2008. Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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  • Roitto, Rikard, 2011. Behaving as a Christ-believer: A Cognitive Perspective on Identity and Behavior Norms in Ephesians. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.
  • Roitto, Rikard, 2012. “Practices of Confession, Intercession and Forgiveness in 1 John 1.9; 5.16.” New Testament Studies 58: 232–253.
  • Roitto, Rikard, 2013a. “Sinless Sinners who Remain in Him: Social Identity in 1 John.” In B. Tucker & C. Baker (eds.), The T&T Clark Handbook to Social Identity and the New Testament (London: T&T Clark). 
  • Roitto, Rikard, 2013b. “Is Covenantal Nomism only Jewish?.” Henoch 58: 119–134. 
  • Roitto, Rikard, 2014. “Reintegrative Shaming and a Prayer Ritual of Reintegration in Matthew 18:15-20.” Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok 97: 95–123. 
  • Roitto, Rikard, 2015a. “Dangerous but contagious altruism: recruitment of group members and reform of cooperation style through altruism in two modified versions of Hammond and Axelrod s simulation of ethnocentric cooperation.” Religion, Brain & Behavior.
  • Roitto, Rikard, 2015b. “The Polyvalence of ἀφίημι and the Two Cognitive Frames of Forgiveness in the Synoptic Gospels”. Novum Testamentum 57: 136-158. 
  • Roitto, Rikard, Forthcoming a. “Enduring Shame as Costly Signalling: The Case of Public Confession of Sin According to Tertullian.” Journal of Cognitive Historiography.
  • Roitto, Rikard, forthcoming b. “Forgiveness of the Sinless: A Classic Contradiction in 1 John in the Light of Contemporary Forgiveness Research”. In G. Theissen & I. Czachesz (eds), Cognitive Science and Biblical Interpretation (Sheffield: Phoenix).
  • Roitto, Rikard, forthcoming c. “Perception of Risk in the Sermon on the Mount.” In R. Roitto, C. Shantz & P. Luomanen (eds.), Social and Cognitive Perspectives on the Sermon on the Mount (London: Equinox).
  • Roitto, Rikard, forthcoming d. “Forgiveness and Social Identity in Matthew: Obliging Forgiveness.” In J. Jokiranta, S. Byrskog & R. Hakola (eds.), Social Memory and Social Identity in the Study of Early Judaism and Early Christianity (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht).
  • Roitto, Rikard, forthcoming e. “Paul’s Theological Language as Social and Embedded Cognition.” In D. Despotis (ed.), Participation, Justification and Conversion (Leiden: Brill).
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  • Zerbe, Gordon M., 1993. Non-Retaliation in Early Jewish and New Testament Texts: Ethical Themes in Social Contexts. Sheffield: JSOT Press.

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Article: 'Enduring Shame as Costly Signalling: The Case of Public Confession of Sin According to Tertullian'

Rikard Roitto's article 'Enduring Shame as Costly Signalling: The Case of Public Confession of Sin According to Tertullian' has ...