Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Kathy Ehrensperger: Power and Identity Formation

The vital interaction of identity and power is central to the work of Kathy Ehrensperger (2007). The agency of Paul, which is expressed primarily in his teaching role, emerges as he seeks ‘consciously to shape their identity’(2007: 15, 123). Identity formation, for Paul, was not an optional add-on to his teaching but was central to his work among the nations (193). Ehrensperger argues that Paul was in a ‘transformative power relationship’ with the communities he founded, such as the one in Corinth. She argues, however that he exercised power ‘in a differentiated way which cannot be subsumed under’ a Weberian or Foucaultian concept of ‘power-over in the vein of a command-obedience structure’ (155). Ehrensperger builds on the work of Wartenberg who understands transformative power to include both supportive guidance and temporally limited asymmetry; and Arendt’s concept of communicative power as a ‘web of interdependency’ within the correctives provided by both Habermas and Allen (178; cf. 18-9). She understands Paul’s letters to be attempts to empower his communities to ‘act in concert’ with their calling ‘for the enhancement of all’ and shows Paul interacting with them in a way similar to the ‘domination-free communication’ found in the contemporary writings of Wartenberg, Arendt, Habermas, and Allen (178). The program that Ehrensperger lays out is one in which scholars are encouraged ‘to move beyond the command-obedience paradigms of power’ to a more differentiated understanding of the positive dynamics of power in Paul and his writings, that is to say empowerment (178).

Two overarching presuppositions in Ehrensperger’s work on power and its impact on identity formation include Paul’s thorough embeddedness in Judaism and its Scriptures and the all-pervading influence of the Roman Empire (4-11). The implications of these presuppositions include the secondary use of Greco-Roman sources for understanding or explaining Paul’s line of argument (125). Likewise, the realization of the pervasive and pretentious inclination for power and domination within the Roman Empire is understood as the reason for Paul’s desire not to ‘lord it over’ the gentiles (cf. 2 Cor 1:24; Mat 20:25-26a). In her earlier work (2004) she notes in this regard that Paul ‘was teaching in small groups and wrote letters to tiny marginalized communities, thereby using his gospel implicitly to oppose the Roman imperial order’ (141, 157). She concludes, concerning ‘Judaism, with its exclusive loyalty to the one and only God of Israel and the identity-shaping dimension this loyalty had for their way of life, was actually incompatible with these goals of Roman imperial policy’ (2007: 9-10). Paul, however, was no revolutionary; he worked within the Roman system to stabilize his Christ-following communities throughout the Mediterranean basin, while recognizing that because of Christ their doom is sealed (1 Cor 2:6-8).

Ehrensperger follows very closely the particularized understanding of identity evident in the work of William S. Campbell. In critiquing the work of Sandnes she rightly concludes ‘Paul’s and his colleagues’ perception of the gospel did not bypass or in any way obliterate Israel’s identity or future’ (2007: 96; Campbell 2006: 144). She also rejects any notion ‘of Paul as ‘stealing’ the identity of the Jews as God’s people and transferring it to the church’ (2007: 158-59). At the same time, she emphasizes the importance of kinship language and connects it with Paul’s approach to identity formation in a manner similar to Jewish family education rather than seeing analogs within Greco-Roman education approaches (47-48). Also, her approach to gender identity is slightly less-essentialist than Campbell’s general understanding of Jewish identity (2007: 28; 2004: 97-110; Campbell 2006: 5).

In terms of the methodological debate between Philip Esler and David Horrell on the use of models, Ehrensperger aligns more closely with Horrell’s approach. She recognizes themes that emerge from her exegesis and then turns to contemporary political or social theories to which provide the language resources from which to discuss important issues relating to identity, power, and biblical studies. Thus her work does not, overtly apply social identity theory, it resonates with many of the concerns addressed by feminist, postcolonial, and social-scientific scholars.


Kathy Ehrensperger, (2007) Paul and the Dynamics of Power: Communication and Interaction in the Early Christ-Movement. London, New York: T&T Clark.

Kathy Ehrensperger, (2004) That We May Be Mutually Encouraged: Feminism and the New Perspective on Paul. London,UK, New York: T&T Clark International.

William S. Campbell, (2006) Paul and the Creation of Christian Identity. London, New York: T&T Clark.

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