J. Albert Harrill received the B.A. (highest honors) in religious studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1986), M.A. and Ph.D. in New Testament and early Christian literature from the University of Chicago (1989, 1993). Before coming to OSU in 2012, he taught for a decade in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he received a distinguished teaching award and directed the College of Arts and Sciences Program in Ancient Studies. Previously he had taught on the religious studies and/or theology faculties of Boston University, DePaul University, Creighton University, and the Catholic Theological Union. He has also held visiting professorships at the University of Chicago (the Divinity School) and Williams College (Department of Religion).
Professor Harrill studies and teaches the early Jewish and Greco-Roman environment of Christian origins in order to interpret the New Testament writings in their ancient context. He approaches the New Testament less from the idea of canon and more from the wider historical perspective of classical culture and Roman imperial society. Unlike other scholars who separate early Christianity from classical culture and compare the two "social worlds" to see how they are alike and how they differ, Professor Harrill studies early Christianity as fully a part of and implicated in the Greco-Roman world. Slavery is one case study in this larger research endeavor. In The Manumission of Slaves in Early Christianity (Mohr Siebeck, 1995), he identified the pitfalls of moral anachronism that have beset so much investigation of slavery in early Christianity, by focusing on the first known pieces of Christian literature that address the liberation of slaves in order to understand how churches functioned socially within the Roman Empire. In Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions (Fortress Press, 2006), he examined how Roman slavery shaped the thinking of early Christians, with significant new analysis of the Pauline epistles, the parables of Jesus, late ancient martyrdom accounts, and the modern debates over slavery in the antebellum U.S. South.
His latest monograph, Paul the Apostle: His Life and Legacy in Their Roman Context (Cambridge University Press, 2012), challenges contemporary notions of Paul in traditional biographies. It first provides a critical reassessment of the apostle’s life by focusing on Paul’s discourse of authority as both representative of its Roman context and provocative to his rivals within early Christianity. The book then explores the legends that developed around Paul as the history of his life was elaborated and embellished by later interpreters, who remade the figure into a model citizen, an imperial hero, a sexual role model, and even an object of derision.
Professor Harrill is currently researching and writing a historical-critical commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, with attention to forgery and literary deceit in early Christianity. An associate editor of the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary and Reference Series (Yale University Press), he also serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Biblical Literature and the international quarterly New Testament Studies.
- New Testament, early Christianity and Roman social history, particularly that of ancient slaves and other marginalized people