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Confession of Sins as Essential Part of a Conversion

Conversions of an individual in the Ancient Mediterranean Traditions, especially associating oneself with a certain religious group, involve turning away from a certain mode of life and orientation towards another one, which is characterized by a set of religious practices, adherence to certain in-group rules and belonging to a certain social group.

This process is accompanied by rites or rituals, which illustrate the change in life and group affiliation. As part of this process, candidates are sometimes required to perform a confession of sins in front of the representatives and existing members of the group, denoting their former mode of life as “sinful”.

By confession of sins in general, I refer to speech acts in which an individual or a group, either for themselves or on behalf of a group, expresses responsibility for an act that is disregarded in the religious group (they belong or desire to belong to) and seen as disturbing the relationship to their deity in an attempt to restore the relationship or to prevent punishment.

While scholars have put much emphasis on form criticism and tradition criticism of confessional texts, especially of the so-called penitential prayers, little research has been done on the various social settings and circumstances under which confessions of sins take place.

This paper examines three texts dealing with confessions of sins as part of a conversion, 1QS I-III, Mk 1,2-11par and Lk 15,11-32, and discusses their similarities and differences with regard to the social setting of the confession and its place in the conversion process. It will also regard the function of the confession from the point of view of the costly signalling theory and its contribution to establishing group rules.

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