New Docs Interview: Jim Harrison (Part 2)

by | Jan 4, 2022 | Biblical Studies

This is the second part of my interview with Prof. Jim Harrison. Anyone who knows about the New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity series (commonly abbreviated New Docs) knows these ten books are lexical gold, shedding light onto the words of the New Testament beyond what our lexicons and workbooks offer. (You can read a short post I wrote on the series here.) The original overly-ambitious plan to release one volume every year soon faltered and ultimately fizzled with the last book in the series appearing in 2012. But the wonderful news is that after a lengthy hiatus, seven more volumes of New Docs are planned for release! The well-qualified chief-editor and architect of the project, Prof. Harrison, kindly sat down for an interview to discuss his work. He’s answered my questions, which I’ve posted on my website in two parts. Part 1 is available here, and part 2 appears below. Thank you, Prof. Harrison, for sharing the exciting news of this project!

4. Can you outline your workflow of producing a single volume of New Docs? Where do you begin? How do you decide what to include and what to leave out? 

First, the chief-editor (James Harrison) works through the corpus of published inscriptions for the cities/region that are the focus of the particular New Docs volume (e.g. currently, the more than 3,750 Ephesian inscriptions published in eight volumes). New inscriptions, published after the established volumes, are also considered. A database of inscriptions for possible translation and commentary is established and the co-editors also add their own suggestions. From this selection, a corpus of at least 25 inscriptions is established for Part A. The chief-editor, co-editor, and other invitees then translate and write commentaries on their assigned inscriptions. Inscriptions that profitably intersect with the New Testament documents—particularly the NT writing associated with a city/region (e.g. Ephesians, Galatians, etc.)—are chosen, along with those that throw insight into the world which New Testament believers lived. Obviously, the intersection with the New Testament writings is a decisive criterion for inclusion. Some of this process has elements of “trial and error.” We have found that some of the promising leads in the Ephesus volume were not as relevant as we initially thought and they were dropped for other more useful inclusions in the volume.

Second, the commentaries are then assembled under various thematic headings which give them a progression and coherence in Part A.

Third, the chief-editor writes the introductory essay for Part A on the epigraphic, archaeological and literary evidence of the city (e.g. Philippi, Corinth) or region (e.g. Galatia, the Lycus Valley).

Fourth, work on the second book of the volume (Part B) also begins at the same time. From our database of inscriptions, we work out the general themes relating to the political, religious, economic, cultural, and social life of the city that need to be discussed. A series of thematic essays are devised, as well as four exegetical essays. These are allocated to the chief-editor, co-editor, and an Australian/international team of writers, each of whom is invited to contribute on the general topic assigned to them. Needless to say, we invite authors who have epigraphic skills. After a final revision and close checking of all the contributions in Parts A and B, comprising the New Docs volume, the results are sent to SBL Press for the preparation of proofs. Upon the receipt and correction of the final proofs, the various Indexes are devised and returned to SBL Press for publication.

5. How was this final seven-volume run made possible, specifically in matters of funding and publication? 

We have no funding at all. All our labor is voluntary, fitted in among other academic responsibilities and projects, and carried out in liaison with our Australian and international colleagues. A small amount of money is available for paid editorial work, being derived from our previous New Docs royalties. In terms of publication, we work with the SBL Press editors.

6. What is the timeline for this project? 

The timeline for the production of the seven New Docs volumes, each comprising two books, is a decade (2020-2030). At any time, we will be working on two volumes simultaneously, along with the various co-editors and Australian/international contributors for each volume. For example, the two volumes currently being worked on are Volume 11 (Ephesus) and Volume 12 (the Lycus valley, i.e. Colossae, Hierapolis, Laodicea). I am quite experienced in working on multiple projects at the one time. In terms of New Docs, I have already written major epigraphic and archaeological pieces on each biblical site to be examined in other publications of mine. This is the SBL Press series, co-edited with L. L. Welborn (Fordham University), called The First Urban Churches Vols 1–7 (2015-2022; Vols 8–9 [forthcoming]). In sum, I have a great deal of research from past endeavors at my fingertips for the New Docs volumes, adding progressively large quantities of new research. Thus the task is demanding but it is entirely achievable.

7. How do you hope this work will impact scholarship and the church?

I am hopeful that the series will have three important impacts. First, through our discussions of the ancient documentary texts, we will contribute to the epigraphic understanding of the biblical cities/regions in their historical, archaeological, numismatic, and iconographic context. We are hoping to contribute to the world of classical and ancient history scholarship by means of the series, as it has been the case in the past.

Second, through an epigraphic understanding of each city, we hope to open up a clearer exegetical understanding of the New Testament documents in their linguistic and historical context. It would be a point of great satisfaction to us if New Testament commentators referred to our discussions as an additional dimension of their exegesis. Ultimately, we would hope that Ephesians commentators, for example, would themselves search some of the Ephesian inscriptions when probing the contextual meaning of Paul’s language in the epistle, as much as the literature of Septuagintal and Second Temple Judaism.

Third, we would hope that theological analysis of the New Testament documents might also be informed by our epigraphic unveiling of the history, social relations, and cultures of the biblical cities. Only then will we gain a better sense of the extent to which the gospel is radically counter-cultural in its critique of first-century AD social practices and attitudes and also the degree to which it endorses and reconfigures common attitudes and practices in antiquity (e.g. the importance of honoring others). An appreciation of this is vital for our contemporary cultural context. Without a strong sense of this historical background, our theology will remain a “cultural bubble of our own making” because we have not done the fundamental work of exegesis: namely, to understand what the original author was saying to the original audience in their historical, religious, social, cultural and ecclesial context. The inscriptions are an invaluable source for setting the scene in this regard.

8. In a previous conversation, you conveyed your sense of divine calling to this work while also feeling that “God chose the wrong person for the job.” Could you elaborate on this tension and offer some words of advice to those interested in entering the world of biblical scholarship?

I have a strong sense of divine calling regarding my New Testament scholarship. I came to this vocation relatively late in life, only finishing my doctoral studies when I was 44, having previously taught Ancient History in Australian state high schools for 15 years beforehand. Given such a late entry into academia, it was a matter of great surprise to see a career in theological teaching suddenly open up for me. I subsequently became the Head of Theology at an arts/theology college in Sydney and experienced God’s blessing in my publishing career internationally. This blessing, inexplicable apart from God’s grace, impressed strongly upon me the importance of advancing the Kingdom of God through faithful and accurate biblical scholarship, conducted to the glory of God.

Nevertheless, there is no room for smugness or complacency in any of this. I am only too aware of my deficiencies as a scholar, notwithstanding the excellence of my training at Macquarie University. I am continually learning new skills in my discipline. Also I have no theological training, only being a trained ancient historian. Therefore I have had to develop theological expertise through my 15 years of teaching at an arts/ theology college. In a New Docs context, I realize that the previous editors, Greg Horsley and Stephen Llewelyn, are each outstanding scholars in their fields, whose model of scholarship  remains an inspiration to me. In view of the above considerations, I  humorously quipped to Brent Niedergall that God “chose the wrong person for the job.” I am also very much aware that I am approaching 70 and that the seven New Docs volumes have to be completed in the next decade. But the sense of divine calling overrides my inadequacies and gives me confidence to proceed onwards with the New Docs series.

The key to maintaining creatively this tension in productivity as a scholar is the realization that we know “in part” (1 Cor 13:12) and that humility before God and others should be a defining mark of our scholarship. Ultimately, the right personal disposition on the part of a scholar, as much as the development of one’s skills for work of the Kingdom of God, allows God to build an academic career in his own timing as we depend on him in prayer.

9. As a dog owner, I have one final question. In New Docs 10, you wrote a thought-provoking piece on the perception of dogs in Greco-Roman and Jewish culture. Do you like dogs? How do you feel about cats?

Yes, I like dogs immensely, as well as cats. As a child, I grew up with both: Sammy the German Shepherd and Bobby the black cat. When Sammy died of tick-poisoning, I remember crying on that day as a six-year-old child. My father, too, was besotted by cats, even in his early 90s. In recent years, we shared the care of Angus, a black Cairn terrier, who belonged to the sister of my wife. He died early this year, a beautiful bag of bones in the end, but he lived 15 wonderful years and brought great joy to us as a family. We deeply mourned his loss and have missed him immensely ever since. Recently we drove five hours into the New South Wales countryside from Sydney to pick up our new Cairn Terrier from a dog breeder at the city of Armidale. We have called him “Finn”, an abbreviation of the Scottish name “Finlay”. He also belongs to my sister-in-law. Being thirteen weeks old now, Finn is a bundle of mischievous fun and indefatigable energy, when he is not snoozing, of course ….

Jim and Finn

Special thanks to Prof. Harrison for taking the time to share his important work. Be sure to read the first part of the interview here!


Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to reflect the change of publisher for the forthcoming New Docs volumes from Eerdmans to SBL Press.

Image Credit: Jim Harrison


Brent Niedergall

Pastor, Grammarian, Runner

Brent Niedergall, MDiv, is Chief Editor at Positive Action for Christ in Whitakers, North Carolina. He’s gone to war in Afghanistan, felled towering trees, and parsed Greek verbs.


Brent Niedergall