Emma Wasserman brings the sensibility of an anthropologist to the study of early Christianity.
She reads the New Testament in the original Greek, explores the influence of competing faiths in the ancient world, and probes the undercurrents of Roman society to understand how a new movement supplanted Greek and Roman religion.
“We know that Christianity destroyed traditional Greek and Roman religion; but why did that happen?” said Wasserman, a professor in the Department of Religion, School of Arts and Sciences “We have so little information, and we have so many questions: ‘Where is this new religion coming from? Who is attracted to it? What trends are we seeing in other religions that might be influencing this new school of thought?’”
Wasserman was recently awarded a prestigious fellowship that will allow her to delve deeper into early Christian thought. She will spend the academic year at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, researching apocalyptic themes in the writings of the Apostle Paul, the visionary evangelist who developed many of the foundational doctrines of Christianity.
She joins a select group of 50 fellows who were chosen from more than 800 applicants. For Wasserman, the Pauline Letters have long been a subject for her research. At Yale University, where she earned her PhD, she wrote her dissertation on Paul’s language about inner struggle in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, which also formed the foundation of her first book.
“Paul is the best source we have for Christianity,” Wasserman said. “The Gospels are written 30 or 40 years after the death of Jesus, while Paul starts to write his letters about 15 years after. His writings give you a lot more insight into the mind of one of the earliest leaders of this movement who becomes the central figure for the developing church.”
The New Testament is laced with apocalyptic themes because the early Christians expected the imminent return of Christ. Wasserman’s mission during her fellowship will be to better understand the ideas expressed in the text, their roots in other faiths and intellectual tradition, and what they might tell us about the early Christians – their social status; their hopes and aspirations, and the reasons for their attraction to the new religion.
Wasserman notes in her writings that Pauline Christianity and its cosmology was attractive to former slaves, merchants, and women householders who were excluded from the social elite.
Her research, which will form the foundation of her second book, also has relevance for today. Apocalyptic movements, of course, are still every much with us, including one that recently generated worldwide publicity with its proclamation that the world would end on May 21, 2011.
“This research may be important for understanding apocalyptic movements, where they come from, why people are attracted to them, and why they persist.” Wasserman said.