Philip Harland (10/07)

Blogger of the Month for October 2007

Brandon Wason Interviews Philip Harland

Editorial Note: Philip Harland authors the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean Blog at

BW: Thank you, Philip, for participating in our monthly interview. I always find your posts appealing and erudite, and thus greatly appreciate your blog.

PH: Thanks for the opportunity!

BW: Let’s start off by talking about your background. Where are you from? Are you a Canadian through and through?

PH: I am most definitely Canadian through and through, although I have not been watching enough hockey lately to make that claim—I do make up for that with my affinity for good beer of the micro-brewery kind. I grew up in Fort Erie, on the border with Buffalo, where 4-foot deep snow is the run-of-the-mill. I then spent an exciting couple of years in Indonesia with my parents (I had a pet monkey! – “haven’t you always wanted a monkey?”) when I was around 12 before settling in the Toronto area. I now live what I consider an ideal life in Kitchener with my wife, Cheryl, and five-year old son, Nathaniel. No monkey, though.

BW: What triggered your interest in biblical studies, and why did you decide to teach it?

PH: I was a terrible student at the high school level, and just about failed Algebra and such. Coles notes (= Cliff’s Notes) pretty well pulled me through English, for instance, since I avoided reading novels like the plague. I thought history was about dates and didn’t pay much attention. Since Accounting was the only subject I didn’t bomb, I imagined that I should simply pursue that at university. I quickly learned just how much I did not want to be an accountant and got very excited about my social and cultural history courses at university, which became my major.

I was extremely interested in social history, in the study of what average Joes and Janes, rather than the big-wigs, were doing in different periods of history. Most of my undergrad history courses were in Early Modern social history, but I began to quite often do papers on marginalized religious groups like the Doukhabors, Quakers, and such. Soon I realized that the social history of religion would be right up my alley, and began to take Religious Studies courses. I knew I wanted to study social history with a focus on religious groups, but the toss up was between the Early Modern era and world of the New Testament. Thankfully (in light of my later studies), my attempt to avoid taking a modern language in my undergrad led me to seek approval to count New Testament Greek, which interested me in part due to my religious background and curiosity about the New Testament generally. There were no omens or revelations but I simply ended up choosing the ancient world, and I’m glad I did since it’s been so enjoyable.

BW: In what areas of biblical studies do you generally conduct your work? I.e., what are your specialties?

PH: I tend to focus my attention on studying various religious groups from a social-historical perspective. So I’m interested in Christian writings that allow me to see the intersection or interaction of these Christian groups with surrounding society and religious groups. I happen to focus most of my attention on Asia Minor, which is a rich area of study due to the many early Christian writings that pertain to this region and the very extensive archeological and inscriptional evidence from this area. So John’s Apocalypse, 1 Peter, Ignatius’ epistles, the Johannine epistles, the Acts of Paul and Thecla and other literature from Asia Minor have drawn my attention, but I’m not tied to any particular New Testament document. I also like to teach courses that look at non-canonical literature such as the early Christian Apocrypha and Nag Hammadi writings.

BW: Where do you think the future of the field is headed?

PH: I think that the trend toward integration between Ancient History and the study of Christian Origins, as seen in the likes of G.H.R. Horsley (New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity), is the way to go. Any work that is concerned with understanding early Christianity within its broader social and cultural contexts, in placing Jesus-followers within the real cities of the Mediterranean, is where it’s at. This means giving due attention to the archeological and epigraphic evidence for the real social and religious lives of men and women living in cities or villages of the Mediterranean. Furthermore, the integration of literary, rhetorical and social historical approaches to early Christian writings remains a productive area of research. I tend to describe myself as a student of ancient religions more so than a “biblical scholar”, though I by no means spurn that label. I am an historian and Religious Studies type, not a theologian, as you probably know, so some of the more traditional “biblical studies” type things do not interest me much.

BW: Please tell our readers a little bit about your book, Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations.

PH: That book was the outgrowth of my doctoral studies and it concentrated on the question of where early followers of Jesus found a place for themselves within cities of the Roman empire, especially Asia Minor. I was struck by the dominant position—perhaps scholarly orthodoxy—in looking at early Christian groups as sects in tension with society, and I began to see cracks in that theory as I explored early Christian groups alongside other Judean and Greco-Roman associations in the same regions of the empire. So I decided to look at imperial aspects of cultural life in Asia Minor with attention to the question of how associations of various kinds, including Judean and Jesus groups, interacted with imperial honours, imperial cults, and other related practices within the cities. As I began to find some areas of similarity among some of these groups in terms of cultural engagement and claiming a place within Greco-Roman society, I found the sort of evidence that is neglected by those with an interest in seeing early Christian groups as sects. Instead, I argued, there was a range of possibilities in group-society relations with differences from one group to the next. Some groups of Jesus followers or Judean synagogues were more like their neighbouring associations than others. But clearly, the evidence for Jesus groups’ positive interaction and involvements in the conventions of society had been neglected.

BW: Where do you see the primitive church fitting in within the discussion of these various social and religious groups/associations?

PH: As a social historian, I see early Christian groups as one among many diverse types of associations that found a place for themselves in some ways within the Greco-Roman city—a minority cultural group, yes, but also an association that would be recognizable as such by contemporaries. Judeans and Christians were indeed very odd with regard to their monotheism, their rejection of honouring the Greek and Roman gods of others, but some of them were also at home within the Roman world in other important respects.

BW: What is your interest in the dynamics of identity? Is this applicable to our understanding of ancient Christianity?

PH: I’ve been doing a number of papers on the question of how to understand early Christian identity within a broader Greco-Roman context (some of which are reproduced on my website under Publications). In particular, I am looking at how members in various associations defined themselves and expressed their identities. My hope is that these studies will provide a broader comparative framework in which to understand dynamics of identity among Jesus followers in Greco-Roman cities.

BW: Why did you start blogging?

PH: Like many others, I read Jim Davila’s Paleojudaica and then Mark Goodacre’s NTGateway blog and enjoyed them very much. I began to think to myself: there may be something I can add to the picture while simultaneously doing something I would enjoy and that would profit my students. I chose my niche and tried not to step on others’ toes. I have found the experience of blogging very productive and useful both for my own research and as an educator. I really enjoy sharing what I am learning with others (hence the occupation) and the blog is simply an extension of that beyond my few students at the university. I strive to do the balancing act of writing for students and for a broader audience. Sometimes I feel successful, sometimes not. My most recent experiment in this respect is the podcast I’ve started on early Christianity in its historical context. These episodes rework some segments of material recorded in my class discussions.

BW: Do you read many blogs? If so, which ones and why?

PH: During the school terms I find that I am so loaded with things to do that I don’t read them as much as I would like. I still find myself going back to the staples: Paleojudaica and NTGateway regularly, but I also regularly look at Tyler Williams’ (Codex blogspot) site and Tony Chartrand-Burke’s site (Apocryphicity), in part because they happen to be good (Canadian) friends of mine. Some of the more Greco-Roman oriented blogs draw my attention as well, such as Rogue Classicism. I do go through the blogrolls and browse when I get a chance, so there are many others I look at as well.

BW: Now let’s forget about academics for a moment. How do you prefer to spend your spare time?

PH: Mostly with my wife Cheryl and my son Nathaniel. Beyond that I am a music-listening addict (in particular, I’ve just got back into vinyl) and, as you may or may not know, I have fostered this addiction to the point of starting another blog that looks mainly at the history of Rock and Roll but also Jazz:Phil’s Vinyl Addiction. I’ve always had the urge to discuss music matters, and sometimes I have managed to twist that into my academic blog, but now I have the proper outlet. On that blog I discuss the music I am listening to, often from the perspective of the history of rock and roll. My musical interests sprawl across Rock and Jazz, so there’s a bit of everything there.

BW: Do you have any special talents or abilities about which our readers probably know nothing?

PH: I like to do some woodwork, particularly making basic wood furniture (e.g. entertainment stand). My dad was a carpenter (as well as a pastor) and so I picked up some of his skills along the way. I have always found working out at the gym a way of escaping from everything, including academia, for many years. Other than that, I’m just your average guy.

BW: Thanks again for your participation, Philip. I know our readers will be very pleased to read your responses.

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