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a priori: David McCollough’s work on Identity Fusion in Luke-Acts

A Priori is a series in which we put three simple questions to scholars undertaking important research in biblical studies, theology, ethics, and more. This week we hear from David McCollough and his social anthropological work, called Identity Fusion, in Luke-Acts.


1. Who are you, where did you study, and what work have you published so far?

My name is David McCollough. I completed my first PhD (New Testament) at The London School of Theology (examined by Max Turner and Glenn Balfour) in 2014. I am doing a second PhD, this time at Durham University, in the social anthropology of religion (supervised by Douglas Davies and David Janzen). I have published: 

  • Ritual Water, Ritual Spirit: An Analysis of the Timing, Mechanism, and Manifestation of Spirit Reception in Luke-Acts (Paternoster, 2017).
  • ‘The Liminal Spirit:  Ritual Experience, Ritual Initiation in Luke and Paul’ in Journal of Youngsan Theology Vol. 45 (2018), 107-142.
  • ‘Nicodemus and Jesus:  A Narrative Response to Linda Belleville’ in “Nati due volte: segreto e iniziazione”, Perennia Verba n. 15.
  • “Prospettive Sacre d’Oriente e d’Occidente”, with Officina di Studi Medievali, publ. by Il Leone verde, Torino (forthcoming, copies available upon request).

2. What research/writing project are you currently working on that you are most excited about? Have you presented papers related to this topic, and can you give us a little taster from your writing?

I am very excited about my current social anthropological investigation of ritualised spirit experience in the Early Christian Sect. I demonstrate that Luke-Acts is not merely a story, but that it is a rich source of information about the Early Christian Sect at the time of its publication (broadly construed between 70 and 130). I am not primarily interested in the historicity of the narrative as such, that is a secondary question. I am interested in the exemplaric role that its characters and events would have played in a Graeco-Roman context that valued heroes as role models for education.

Here’s a section from my upcoming EABS paper:

What then is Identity Fusion?  In their seminal article, Swann et al. write:

Identity fusion occurs when people experience a visceral feeling of oneness with a group. The union with the group is so strong among highly fused persons that the boundaries that ordinarily demarcate the personal and social self become highly permeable.

Fused individuals are thus willing to personally sacrifice for the group and for other individual group members. Fused persons understand both that the group is an integral part of who they are, and that they are equally integral to the group. Can we know whether Identity Fusion was occurring in the Early Christian Sect?  Obviously, we are unable to directly observe sectarian behaviour, or conduct qualitative measurements of Early Christian emotions.  However, as emotions are essential to Identity Fusion, we can evaluate Luke’s teaching on emotions for signs that he was encouraging fusion.  As it turns out, five emotions which characterise fused individuals – visceral oneness with the group, invulnerability, certainty, agency, and destiny – are all salient in Luke’s teaching along with associated pro-group behaviour.

3. Which readers is the final product intended for, and when do you anticipate we might see the fruit of your research in published form?

My intended readership is as follows: New Testament scholars interested in Luke-Acts and in early Christianity, scholars in the Social Anthropology of Religion, anyone interested in the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian Initiation (Liturgical scholars, Practical theologians). I expect completion in about a year. I do aim to publish, though I have no contract as of now.


Want to promote your research? Send an email to tavis.bohlinger@faithlife.com answering the three questions above. Contributions are published in the order they are received. We look forward to highlighting your work!

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Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the editor of Word by Word's Lecture Hall and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger