Philip Francis Esler (born 27 August 1952) is Portland Chair of New Testament Studies at the University of Gloucestershire. He is an Australian-born Higher Education administrator and academic who became the inaugural Chief Executive of the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in 2005, remaining in that role until 2009. From 1995 to 2010 he was Professor of Biblical Criticism at St Andrews University. From 1998 to 2001 he was Vice-Principal for Research and Provost of St Leonard’s College at St Andrews. During the years 1999 to 2003 he served as a member of the Board of Scottish Enterprise Fife. From October 2010 to March 2013 he was Principal and Professor of Biblical Interpretation at St Mary’s University College Twickenham. He had an earlier career as a lawyer, working in Sydney during 1978-81 and 1984-92 as an articled clerk, then solicitor and barrister.
Esler is a leading figure in the social-scientific interpretation of biblical texts, with an international reputation. He applies ideas and perspectives from disciplines such as social psychology, anthropology and sociology to Old and New Testament texts to gain a better sense of what they meant to their original audiences. He has also published in the areas of New Testament theology and the Bible and the visual arts. He holds a Doctor of Divinity from the University of Oxford, by submitted work (2008), and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (elected 2009).
Life, career and scholarship
Born in Sydney, Australia on 27 August 1952, Esler completed secondary schooling at the then named Marist Brothers High School in the Sydney suburb of Eastwood. He read English, Greek and Law at the University of Sydney (B.A. Hons, LL.B) from 1971 to 1977. During 1977 he also worked as Associate to Mr Justice W. H. Collins of the New South Wales Supreme Court. From 1978 to 1981 he was employed as an articled clerk and solicitor at Allen, Allen and Hemsley, at the same time completing undergraduate Hebrew at Sydney University on a non-degree basis (1978-1980) and undertaking part of an LLM. In 1979 he and four others established National Outlook, an Australian Christian ecumenical monthly magazine devoted to justice and peace issues. In October 1981 Esler came to Magdalen College, Oxford and undertook a D. Phil in New Testament.
At that time the new movement to apply social-scientific ideas and perspectives in biblical interpretation was gaining momentum. Esler adopted this broad approach in his doctorate and applied ideas from the sociology of knowledge and of sectarianism to investigate how social and political factors had affected the way Luke wrote his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Thus Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality supplied the idea that Luke was legitimating a new social and religious movement to its members in the late first century AD. Esler’s doctoral thesis was accepted by Oxford in 1984 and a modified version was published by Cambridge University Press in 1987.
In 1984 Esler returned to Sydney, initially as a solicitor at Allen, Allen and Hemsley before being called to the Bar in 1986. He completed his LLM in these years. In 1985 he began teaching New Testament courses on a part-time basis at Sydney University. In 1990 Esler attended a meeting in Portland, Oregon of a group of mainly US biblical critics committed to social-scientific interpretation. At this meeting those present formally constituted themselves as “The Context Group: A Project for the Study of the Bible in its Socio-Cultural Context.” Although of diverse interests, all members accepted the importance of Mediterranean anthropology in understanding the context of ancient Greco-Roman world. Esler remains a member of the Context Group and has written on its history and modus operandi.
In 1992 Esler was appointed Reader in New Testament in St Andrews University, becoming Professor of Biblical Criticism there in 1995. At St Andrews Esler initially published research that drew on his initial focus on the sociology of knowledge and of sectarianism and his expanding interests in Mediterranean anthropology, millennialism and magic. Esler has recently returned to the application of Mediterranean anthropology to biblical texts in Sex, Wives, and Warriors: Reading Biblical Narrative With Its Ancient Audience (2011).
In the mid-1990s Esler began using both the social identity theory of social psychologist Henri Tajfel and the approach to ethnic identity of anthropologist Fredrik Barth and these have been prominent in his research since then. In 1996 he published an essay applying social identity theory and Barth’s ideas on ethnicity to Galatians. This was the first published application of social identity theory in New Testament studies. Social identity theory has now become a widely used approach in New Testament interpretation.
Esler applied both social identity theory and ideas on ethnicity in Galatians (1998) and Conflict and Identity in Romans (2003). He has recently argued for the need to take seriously the reality of Judean ethnic identity in the ancient Mediterranean world and its asymmetrical relationship to Christ-movement socio-religious identity in the interpretation of New Testament texts.
Esler also writes on the way that biblical stories have been represented in Western art, including his study of two Rembrandt depictions of Saul and David in 1998. In 2004 he co-authored with artist Jane Boyd a book on the Velázquez painting Christ with Martha and Mary in the National Gallery in London that was covered in The Independent on 18 February 2005 under the heading “Through the looking-glass: how a mirror explains the secrets of a masterpiece” (p. 3). A work Esler co-authored with Ronald A. Piper, Lazarus, Martha and Mary: A Social-Scientific and Theological Reading of John, contains a chapter on the Lazarus frescoes from the early Christian tombs in the Roman catacombs. More recently Esler has contributed a chapter on the biblical paintings of Welsh artist Ivor Williams to Imaging the Bible in Wales 1800-1975 (edited by Martin O’Kane and John Morgan-Guy).
Esler’s understanding of the role of the Arts and Humanities Research Council on his appointment as its Chief Executive in 2005 appeared in an article in The Guardian. His developing views were reflected in the evidence he provided to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology at their introductory meeting with him on 28 February 2007 While at the AHRC, Esler also chaired the Network Board of HERA: Humanities in the European Research Area, an EU-funded network of national Research Funding Agencies for collaborative research in the humanities. For much of his last year at the AHRC, Esler was involved in a major project on impact published in 2009 as Leading the World: The Economic Impact of UK Arts and Humanities Research. One of his initiatives in this project was commissioning essays by leading UK arts and humanities researchers on the public value of research in their areas. These were later edited by Jonathan Bate FBA and published in 2010 as The Public Value of the Humanities.
While Chief Executive of the AHRC (2005-2009), Esler chaired the Research Councils UK Knowledge Transfer and Impact project that formulated an approach to impact that was then applied to Research Council grants. Impact was also later adopted, after some development, by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Esler also brokered a collaborative agreement between all seven UK Research Councils and the Research Funding Agency of the State of São Paulo in Brazil (“FAPESP”). This agreement was signed by him on behalf of the Research Councils and by the President of FAPESP on 15 September 2009. This agreement was renewed for a further three years in September 2012
On 1 October 2010 Professor Esler became Principal and Professor of Biblical Interpretation at St Mary's University College, Twickenham. In 2012 St Mary’s was the subject of a QAA report into a degree programme in Clinical Hypnosis provided with a partner institution, a programme that Esler and the Senior Management later closed. In the same year a number of other issues related to the University College were widely reported in the press: opposition to the decision to merge two academic schools; the unpopularity of the suspension of the head of one of those schools; protests against the merger and senior management by some theological and other students at the University College and at the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales; the legal proceedings preparatory to commencement of a defamation suit brought by Esler and two other members of staff against the editor of a Catholic news site, Josephine Siedleka (one of the three Catholic Women of the Year in 2012), proceedings from which Esler later withdrew; a vote of no confidence in Esler by the local branch of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU).
Esler is one of fifteen members of the Council of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), one of the oldest learned societies in the USA, with members from the USA and other countries. At the Annual Business Meeting of the SBL during its meeting in Chicago in November 2012 he was voted in for a second three-year term as Council member.
On 22 January 2013 Esler announced that he would be stepping down as Principal of St Mary's on 31 March 2013.
- Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology (1987)
- The First Christians in Their Social Worlds: Social-Scientific Approaches to New Testament Interpretation (1994)
- Modelling Early Christianity: Social-Scientific Studies of the New Testament in its Context (1995) editor
- Galatians (1998)
- Christianity for the Twenty First Century (1998) editor
- The Early Christian World, two volumes (2000) editor
- Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter (2003) (Spanish translation in 2004 and Italian translation in 2008)
- Visuality and Biblical Text: Interpreting Velázquez’ Christ with Martha and Mary as a Test Case (2004) with Jane Boyd
- New Testament Theology: Communion and Community (2005)
- Ancient Israel: The Old Testament in Its Social Context (2005) editor
- Lazarus, Martha and Mary: A Social-Scientific and Theological Reading of John (2006) with Ronald A. Piper
- Sex, Wives, and Warriors: Reading Biblical Narrative with Its Ancient Audience (2011)
- AHRC website
- Professor Esler's academic webpage at St Mary's University College
- Professor Esler's academic webpage at St Andrews
- Allens (law firm)
- Philip F. Esler, “The Context Group Project: An Autobiographical Account,” in Mario Aguilar and Louise Lawrence, eds, Anthropology and Biblical Studies: Avenues of Research. Leiden: Deo Publishing, 2004, 46-61.
- The Context Group
- Philip F. Esler, “The Context Group Project,” supra.
- Philip F. Esler, The First Christians in Their Social Worlds: Social-Scientific Approaches to New Testament Interpretation (1994)
- See review: http://www.euppublishing.com/doi/abs/10.3366/hls.2011.0017
- Philip F. Esler, “Group Boundaries and Intergroup Conflict in Galatians: A New Reading of Gal. 5:13-6:10,” in Mark Brett, ed., Ethnicity and the Bible, (Leiden: E J Brill, 1996), 215-240.
- Jack Barentsen, Emerging Leadership in the Pauline Mission: A Social Identity Perspective on Local Leadership Development in Corinth and Ephesus (2011), p. 41.
- See Social Identity Approaches to the New Testament, edited by Coleman A. Baker and J. Brian Tucker (London: T & T Clark), now in press.
- Philip F. Esler, “Judean Ethnic Identity in Josephus’ Against Apion,” in A Wandering Galilean: Essays in Honour of Sean Freyne, edited by Zuleika Rodgers with Margaret Daly-Denton and Anne Fitzpatrick McKinley (Leiden: Brill: 2009), 73-91; “Judean Ethnic Identity and the Purpose of Hebrews,” in Method & Meaning: Essays on New Testament Interpretation in Honor of Harold A. Attridge, edited by Andrew B. McGowan and Kent Harold Richards (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), 469-89; and “Judean Ethnic Identity and the Matthean Jesus,” in Jesus: Gestalt und Gestaltungen: FS Für Gerd Theissen, edited by Petra von Gemünden, David G. Horrell, and Max Küchler (NTOA; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013).
- Philip F. Esler, “The Madness of Saul: A Cultural Reading of 1 Samuel 8-31,” in Exum, Cheryl J, and Moore, Stephen D, eds. Biblical Studies/Cultural Studies. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 220 262.
- Nordling, Linda (18 October 2005). "Philip Esler: Think big". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 1 June 2013.
- "Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19): Professor Philip Esler". UK Parliament. 28 February 2007. Retrieved 1 June 2013.
- Esler, Philip (13 August 2008). "A new economy for knowledge". The Guardian (London).
- Muir, Hugh (26 November 2012). "Diary". The Guardian (London).