“The divergent images of Paul emerging from [different feminist] approaches are based on different hermeneutical presuppositions through which specific texts or whole letters are analysed. A focus on the gendered hierarchical structure of the Pauline discourse aims at uncovering its inherent potential for domination. Irrespective of authorial intent—which is, strictly speaking, inaccessible—the reception history of the Pauline discourse, at any rate, supplies ample evidence of this potential for domination. It is, from the perspective of a feminist agenda of liberation and empowerment, one long cautionary tale. But this is only one aspect of the Pauline discourse. Other feminist approaches, whilst acknowledging the patriarchal context, focus instead on trajectories of empowerment in the letters—not so much in order to ‘rescue’ Paul as to recognize that such trajectories are another dimension of the reception history of the letters. The specific context and content of the letters are decisive for uncovering whatever empowering potential there may be in the discourse. In particular, the embeddedness of Paul’s letters within Judaism under the Roman Empire plays a significant part in these approaches.
My own research belongs to this latter group. Presupposing the permeation of first-century society with gender hierarchy, my focus is on the traces of a discourse of empowerment in the Pauline letters. Informed by feminist theories of power, I have proposed to read the Pauline letters as a fragmentary discourse of communal conversations (Ehrensperger 2009: 3). This discourse is fully embedded within the Judaism of the first century ce, albeit in the peculiar context of ethnically mixed messianic assemblies. The context of the Roman Empire, with its dominating power discourse, impacts significantly on the interaction and communication of the members of these assemblies. I concur with Davina Lopez that the Pauline discourse is located at the bottom of the imperial hierarchy of domination and that this social location is significant for our reading of Paul’s rhetoric. According to some recent feminist theories of power, if power is defined narrowly in the Weberian sense of ‘power-over’—that is, the domination of one actor by another against the former’s will—then there is no space left for a positive account of empowerment. These theories are not naïve to the all-pervasiveness of power in social relations, but they challenge the assumption that this state of affairs makes domination inevitable.”
–Kathy Ehrensperger, “Paul and Feminism,” in Oxford Handbook of Pauline Studies