Shadows in the New Testament

Cognitive Approaches to Early Christian Literature


  • Paul Robertson University of New Hampshire



Shadows, Cognitive Science of Religion, early Christian literature, New Testament


This article treats the roughly half dozen instances of shadows in the Christian New Testament using evolutionary-cognitive approaches and understandings. This literary-historical data set generally conforms to predictions from cognitive science in two ways. First, shadows stimulate cognitive interest due to their evolutionary ties to predation and humans as both prey species and hunter. Second, shadows fortify the status of supernatural agents due to shadows’ uncertain and shifting boundaries, which lend themselves to agency attribution. Additional discussion theorizes shadows as a type of object particularly related to religious beliefs, due to shadows’ particular set of characteristics that differ from standard folk ontologies. This unique typology is shared with certain other objects likewise possessing outsize presence in religious history such as clouds, flame, and smoke.

Author Biography

Paul Robertson, University of New Hampshire

Paul Robertson is Lecturer in Classics & Humanities at the University of New Hampshire, where he specializes in ancient Mediterranean thought and the theory of religion. His books (2016, 2019) and articles focus on the intersection of thought systems and critical methods in the study of religion.


Arbib, Michael and Allen Hanson, eds. 1990. Vision, Brain, and Cooperative Computation: An Overview. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Atran, Scott. 2002. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Atran, Scott, and Jeremy Ginges. 2012. “Religious and Sacred Imperatives in Human Conflict”. Science 336.6083 (May): 855–57.

Atran, Scott, and Ara Norenzayan. 2004. “Religion’s Evolutionary Landscape: Counterintuition, Commitment, Compassion, Communion”. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27: 713–30.

Barrett, Justin L. 2008. “Coding and Quantifying Counterintuitiveness in Religious Concepts: Theoretical and Methodological Reflections”. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 20: 308–338.

Betz, Hans Dieter. 1986. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells, Volume 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bloom, Paul. 2004. Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human. New York: Basic Books.

Bloom, Paul. 2012. “Religion, Morality, Evolution”. Annual Review of Psychology 63: 179–99.

Boyer, Pascal. 1990. Tradition as Truth and Communication: A Cognitive Description of Traditional Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Boyer, Pascal. 1994. The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Boyer, Pascal. 1995. “Causal Understandings in Cultural Representations: Cognitive Constraints on Inferences from Cultural Input”. In Causal cognition: A Multidisciplinary Debate, eds. D. Sperber, D. Premack and A. J. Premack, 615–44. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Boyer, Pascal, and Charles Ramble. 2001. “Cognitive Templates for Religious Concepts: Cross-Cultural Evidence for Recall of Counter-Intuitive Representations”. Cognitive Science 25: 535–64.

Bullock, Merry, Rochel Gelman and Renée Baillargen. 1982. “The Development of Causal Reasoning”. In The Developmental Psychology of Time, ed. William J. Friedman, 209–254. New York: Academic Press.

Casati, Roberto. 2008. “The Copycat Solution to the Shadow Correspondence Problem”. Perception 37(4): 495–503.

Casati, Roberto, and Marco Bertamini. 2009. “False Beliefs and Naïve Beliefs: They can be good for you”, Response to Ryan T. McKay and Daniel Dennett, “The Evolution of Misbelief”. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32: 493–561.

Cohen, Leslie B., and Cara H. Cashon. 2007. “Infant Cognition”. In Handbook of Child Psychology: vol. 2, Cognition, Perception, and Language, W. Damon and R. M. Lerner (Series eds) D. Kuhn and R. Siegler (vol. eds), 226-99. New York: Wiley.

Czachesz, István. 2008. “The Promise of the Cognitive Science of Religion for Biblical Studies”. CSSR Bulletin 37(4): 102–105.

Czachesz, István. 2011. “Explaining Magic: Earliest Christianity as a Test Case”. In Past Minds: Studies in Cognitive Historiography, eds. Luther H. Martin and Jesper Sørensen, 141–65. London: Equinox Publishing.

Czachesz, István. 2017. Cognitive Science and the New Testament: A New Approach to Early Christian Research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Czachesz, István, and Risto Uro. 2013. “The Cognitive Science of Religion: A New Alternative in Biblical Studies”. In Mind, Morality and Magic: Cognitive Science Approaches in Biblical Studies, eds. István Czachesz and Risto Uro, 1–14. Durham: Acumen.

Daniélou, Jean. 1960. From Shadows to Reality: Studies in the Biblical Typology of the Fathers. London: Burns & Oates.

Dein, Simon, and Roland Littlewood. 2011. “Religion and Psychosis: A Common Evolutionary Trajectory?” Transcultural Psychiatry 48(3): 318–35.

Dunbar, Robin I. 2016. “The Social Brain Hypothesis and Human Evolution”. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner. 2002. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books.

Frazer, James George. 1994 [1890]. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gergely, György, and Gergely Csibra. 2003. “Teleological Reasoning in Infancy: The Naïve Theory of Rational Action”. Trends in Cognitive Science 7 (July): 287–92.

Gergely, György, Zoltán Nádasdy, Gergely Csibra and Szilvia Bíró. 1995. “Taking the Intentional Stance at 12 Months of Age”. Cognition 56(2): 165–93.

Gerhart, Mary, and Allan Melvin Russell. 2001. New Maps for Old: Explorations in Science and Religion. New York: Bloomsbury.

Guthrie, Stewart Elliot. 1993. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Guthrie, Stewart Elliot. 1996. “Religion: What Is It?” Journal for the Social Scientific Study of Religion 35(4): 412–19.

Hufford, D. J. 2005. “Sleep Paralysis as Spiritual Experience”. Transcultural Psychiatry 42: 11–45.

Hughes, Aaron W. 2012. Abrahamic Religions: On Uses and Abuses of History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Laurendeau, M., and A. Pinard. 1962. Causal Thinking in the Child. New York: International Universities Press.

Leeming, David A., Kathryn Madden and Stanton Marlan, eds. 2010. Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion. New York: Springer.

Lewis-Williams, David. 2010. Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion. London: Thames & Hudson.

Luomanen, Petri. 2011. “Cognitive Science in Biblical Studies: An Overview”. In Collegium Biblicum Årsskrift: Kogntionsforskning og eksegese, eds. Knud Jeppesen and Kasper Bro Larsen, 15–32. Denmark: Collegium Biblicum.

Luomanen, Petri, Ilkka Pyysiäinen and Risto Uro. 2007. “Introduction: Social and Cognitive Perspectives in the Study of Christian Origins and Early Judaism”. In Explaining Christian Origins and Early Judaism: Contributions from Cognitive and Social Science, eds. Petri Luomanen, Ilkka Pyysiäinen and Risto Uro, 27–33. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Murray, M. J., and Andrew Goldberg. 2009. “Evolutionary Accounts of Religion: Explaining and Explaining Away”. In The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion, eds. J. Schloss and M. J. Murray, 44–75. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nemeroff, Carol, and Paul Rozin. 1994. “The Contagion Concept in Adult Thinking in the United States: Transmission of Germs and of Interpersonal Influence”. Ethos 22(2): 158–86.

Newberg, Andrew, Eugene D’Aquili and Vince Rause. 2008. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York: Ballantine.

Piaget, Jean. 1930. The Child’s Conception of Physical Causality. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Pyysiäinen, Ilkka. 2004. Magic, Miracles, and Religion: A Scientist’s Perspective. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Rosengren, Karl S., Carl N. Johnson and Paul L. Harris, eds. 2000. Imagining the Impossible: Magical, Scientific, and Religious Thinking in Children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sørensen, Jesper. 2007. A Cognitive Theory of Magic. Plymouth: AltaMira Press.

Spelke, Elizabeth S. 1990. “Principles of Object Perception”. Cognitive Science 14(1): 29–56.

Spelke, Elizabeth S., and Katherine D. Kinzler. 2007. “Core Knowledge”. Developmental Science 10(1): 89–96.

Spencer, Herbert. 1876–1896. Principles of Sociology. New York: Appleton.

Stoichita, Victor I. 1997. A Short History of the Shadow. London: Reaktion.

Stroumsa, Guy G. 2015. The Making of Abrahamic Religions in Late Antiquity. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Tylor, Edward Burnett. 1871. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom. London: Murray.

Von Franz, Marie-Luise. 1995 [1974]. Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Von Thaden, Robert H., Jr. 2012. Sex, Christ, and Embodied Cognition: Paul’s Wisdom for Corinth. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press.

Wachtel, Edward. 1993. “The First Picture Show: Cinematic Aspects of Cave Art”. Leonardo 26(2): 135–40.

Warner, Marina. 2006. Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whitehouse, Harvey. 2004. Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission. London: Alta Mira.

Wilson, Robert A., and Frank Keil. 1998. “The Shadows and Shallows of Explanation”. Minds and Machines 8(1): 137–59.

Yoshida, M. 1962. “The Effect of Light on the Shadow Reaction of the Sea Urchin, Diadema Setosum (LESKE)”. Journal of Experimental Biology 39: 589–602.



How to Cite

Robertson, P. (2019). Shadows in the New Testament: Cognitive Approaches to Early Christian Literature. Journal of Cognitive Historiography, 4(2), 199-222.