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Cognitive Dissonance and Early Christianity a Theory and Its Application Reconsidered1

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Cognitive dissonance was one of the first social scientific concepts to be applied in New Testament studies. J Gager in Kingdom and community (1975) used cognitive dissonance theory to account for Christian responses to disconfirmation of their eschatological expectations. In a later article (1981) he used the theory to illuminate Paul's conversion. It was with the same intention that Segal (1990) applied this among other theories. Räisänen implicitly draws upon, if not the theory, then the thinking and observations which lie behind it in his study of Paul and the Jewish Law (1986). In my own previous work (1992; 1993; 1996) I have sought to apply cognitive dissonance both to Paul's conversion and to its much later repercussions for his views on matters of Jewish heritage and observance. Opposition to the use of cognitive dissonance theory in New Testament Studies has been led by Malina (1986). Drawing upon the cautions raised by Snow and Machalek (1982), Malina argues that cognitive dissonance theory is inappropriate to the early Christian situation, as the culture accommodated anomalous beliefs and practices without any consciousness of their incompatibility. Malina therefore suggests that, rather than Festinger's notion of cognitive dissonance (1957), Merton's conception of normative ambivalence (1976) should be used to account for discrepancies in the records of early Christianity. A corollary of this would be that dissonant information would not generate any pressure towards resolution in the early Christian context. This article will examine Malina's criticisms of the use of cognitive dissonance theory in Biblical Studies. Particular attention will be given to the question whether cognitive dissonance and normative ambivalence can in reality be deemed to be mutually exclusive alternatives. It will be argued that situations do occur where anomalies do not generate cognitive dissonance, and these are more adequately accounted for in terms of normative ambivalence. However, there remain situations where the stress occasioned by discrepant beliefs, practices, and experiences is evident. These situations are more adequately accounted for by cognitive dissonance. The theory therefore remains a valid tool for New Testament studies.

Affiliations: 1: Faculty of Theology Africa University P O Box 1320, Mutare Zimbabwe


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