“Rulers of this age” – Dale Allison’s shotgun argument for human rulers

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

...I Used to Rule the World

I like to marshal the most complete and best arguments for and against any proposition of interest to me and when I saw Dale C. Allison’s list of arguments that “rulers of this age” in 1 Cor 2:6-8 (the rulers of this age being responsible for crucifying Jesus) means “human rulers” and not demon spirits I at first thought I had struck gold. But after working for a moment on putting them up on this post it dawned on me that what I was reading was more a scatter shotgun attack — a grab-bag of any and every point that might be used to make it appear that there were heaps of reasons to agree with the author. The problem is that this “method” of argument avoids addressing the logic of the opposing case with a reasoned point by point rebuttal. It is quite conceivable that in a long list of dot points  like this the major central points of the alternative view are bypassed completely. So rather than ditch this post I decided to continue with it. Only instead of producing what I originally expected to be a post of the best nugget of arguments against the interpretation that “rulers of this age” meaning demons, I copy a list of dot points of reasons anyone who does not like that interpretation can hang on to anyway.

And as for that “in the middle in between avoiding either end of the polarity” position that says the phrase “rulers of this age” means demons spirits working though human puppets, Allison draws on Wesley Carr to refute that Mr Jellyfish Average Have-It-Both-Ways position, too.

Dale C. Allison in Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination and History lists nine dot points to support the interpretation that “rulers of this age” in 1 Corinthians 2:8  is a reference to human rulers. These nine points, he says, are the “main points to be made against” the interpretation that this phrase refers to demons. That interpretation he cruelly lays aside by saying that “it has been popular” for some time now! Popular? Oh my, how savagely a scholar can damn with such faint praise!

It has been popular, over the past one hundred years or so, to identify these rulers with hostile spirits. Paul can characterize Satan as “the god of this world” (ὁ θεὸς τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου [2 cor 4:4]), whom the Fourth Evangelist in turn calls “the ruler [ὁ ἄρχων] of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11); and “the rulers and authorities” (αὶ ἀρχὰς καὶ αὶ ἐξουσίας) of Col 2:5 generally are held to be demonic beings (cf. Eph 6:12). (p. 396)

Allison offers no more detail of the arguments for this interpretation but he does list an impressive number of references in a footnote to support his claim that this interpretation “has increasingly met opposition, and for good reasons”:

  1. Wesley Carr, “The Rulers of This Age — I Corinthians II.6-8,” NTS 23 (1976): 20-35
  2. Andrew D. Clarke, Secular and Christian Leadership in Corinth: A Socio-Historical and Exegetical Study of 1 Corinthians 1-6 (AGJU 18; Leiden: Brill, 1993), 114-117;
  3. Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 103-4;
  4. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, First Corinthians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AYB 32; New Havn: Yale University Press, 2008), 175-76
  5. Hermann von Lips, Weisheitliche Traditionen im Neuen Testament (WMANT 64; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 19909), 337-38
  6. Gene Miller, “APXONTΩN TOΥ AIΩNOΣTOYTOY – A New Look at 1 Corinthians 2:6-8,” JBL 91 (1972): 522-28
  7. Mauro Pesce, Paolo e gli arconti a Corinto: Storia della ricerca (1888-1975) ed esegesi di 1 Cor. 2,6.8 (TRSR 13; Brescia: Paideia Editrice, 1977), the first half of which contains a thorough review of modern scholarship up through 1975;
  8. Karl Olav Sandnes, Paul — One of the Prophets? A Contribution to the Apostle’s Self-Understanding (WUNT 2/43; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1991), 81-82
  9. Julius Schniewind, “Die Archonten dieses Äons, 1 Kor. 2,6-8,” in Nachgelassene Reden und Aufsätze (ThBT 1; Berlin: Töpelmann, 1952), 104-9;
  10. Ben Witherington III, Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 313

Now there are ten items most of which I hope to track down and read carefully. I can’t promise myself I will ever track down and translate all the non-English ones.

For completion here is a guide to the acronyms above:

NTS = New Testament Studies

AGJU = Arbeiten zur Geschichte des antiken Judentums und des Urchristientum

NICNT = New International Commentary on the New Testament

WMANT = Wissenschaftliche Monographien zum Alten und Neuen Testament

JBL = Journal of Biblical Literature

TRSR = Testi e ricerche di scienze religiose

WUNT = Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament

ThBT = Theologische Bibliothek Topelmann

And if you are one of those who ever wishes for an online guide to biblical studies source acronyms here are a couple of sites that will be helpful in many if not most cases: http://ecumenism.net/docu/abbrev.htm and http://wwwlibe.ces.org.tw/library/download/The%20SBL%20Handbook%20of%20style.pdf

Till I can look at those above references (the 10 citations above the acronym references) here are “the main points to be made against” the interpretation that the passage refers to demons, “in brief”, listed by Allison (with my bold for quick reference):

  1. Apart from 1 Cor 2:6-8, the only other time Paul uses ἄρχων is in Rom 13:3, where the substantive undeniably refers to the Roman authorities: “For rulers [οἱ ἄρχοντες] are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.”
  2. The plural of ἄρχοντες is the normal Greek expression for governing authorities, and the New Testament otherwise reserves οἱ ἄρχοντες for human rulers.
  3. The use of the plural οἱ ἄρχοντες to refer to invisible spirits does not demonstrably predate Paul. It appears to be a later Christian development.
  4. The apostle nowhere else holds invisible powers responsible for the death of Jesus. He says only, assuming his authorship of Col 2:14-15, that Christ’s death defeated them.
  5. Most of the church fathers identified “the rulers of this age” with earthly political rulers.
  6. The broader literary context of τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου suggests that the phrase refers to the world of human beings, for ὁ αἰῶν is, in 1 Cor 1:20 (“the debater of this αἰῶν”), 2:6 (“a wisdom of this αἰῶν”), and 3:18 (“wise in this αἰῶν”), the human world, not the world of spirits.
  7. In 1 Cor 2:6, “the rulers of this age” are “being reduced to nothing” (καταργουμένων). The verb translated as “being reduced to nothing” appears just a few verses before, in 1:28, where Paul declares that God has “reduced to nothing” (καταργήσῃ) the “things that are not [low and despised],” which in context refers to the wise, the powerful, the noble, the strong (see vv. 26-27). The verbal link prods readers to associate “rulers of this world” with the human classes mentioned earlier.
  8. 1 Cor 2:6 has close parallels in Acts 3:17 (“I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers [οἱ ἄρχοντες ὑμῶν]; 13:27 (“Because the residents of Jerusalem and their rulers [οἱ ἄρχοντες αὐτῶν) did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him”). In all three places we read of οἱ ἄρχοντες who killed or crucified Jesus out of ignorance, and in Acts they are clearly human authorities. Perhaps 1 Cor 2:8 takes up traditional Christian apologetic with its roots in the much-mined Ps 2, where ἄρχοντες “take counsel together against the LORD and his anointed” (cf. Acts 4:25-26).
  9. Because it is hard to fathom evil spirits, on their own, crucifying Jesus, some have identified “the rulers of this age” with both the governing authorities and the invisible demonic powers that stand behind them and carry out their will through them. Against this, “the angels, when they are concerned with the world of men, may relate to the fate of nations as a whole, but never to the individual king, ruler or government.”

Funny, not a single one of these pellets addresses the argument that I found most able to persuade me a little while ago that the phrase refers to spirits: that it was the phrase itself, “rulers of the age”, that was widely used to refer to heavenly powers. Of course “rulers” of itself will refer to any ruler, whether heavenly or mundane. But the phrase in question is “rulers of the age”. And those arguments based on plural verses singular forms in such letters may feel more weighty to some than others.

I also am a little surprised by the reliance upon Acts to elucidate Paul’s meaning. After all the studies out there that argue a very real possibility that Acts is an attempt to “tame” or “catholicize” Paul and challenge some of what we find in his epistles, this strikes me as a an argument of somewhat questionable strength or even validity.

And the contextual arguments — that the phrase is meant to echo similar phrases found in the same letter? — I will leave that one to anyone who can read 1 Corinthians for themselves to assess.

When Allison is good, he is very very good. But when he’s bad . . . .

Enhanced by Zemanta


  • Steven Carr
    2011-10-05 23:50:27 UTC - 23:50 | Permalink

    Gosh, Pilate became the ruler of the age. Quite a promotion.

    And Allison claims that Paul must be referring to the Romans, because , look, in Romans 13, Paul writes about how these rulers are God’s agents, punishing wrong-doers. So Paul must have meant that the Romans killed the Son of God and are now being reduced to nothing.

  • GakuseiDon
    2011-10-06 06:53:43 UTC - 06:53 | Permalink

    Neil: Funny, not a single one of these pellets addresses the argument that I found most able to persuade me a little while ago that the phrase refers to spirits: that it was the phrase itself, “rulers of the age”, that was widely used to refer to heavenly powers. Of course “rulers” of itself will refer to any ruler, whether heavenly or mundane. But the phrase in question is “rulers of the age”.

    Hi Neil. Do you have examples of the use of “rulers of the age” or a blog that you can point me to where they are listed? Thanks.

  • 2011-10-06 07:39:12 UTC - 07:39 | Permalink

    No, but I can recommend a book that might interest you for its discussion of the evidence. It has been discussed in relation to this particular phrase on this blog in some detail in posts dated 21st, 24th, 25th and 27th August.

    There’s another discussion on 4th September in which you were involved and, if I am not mistaken, you were also favouring the side that did interpret “rulers of the age” as meaning demon powers, contra Allison. (So perhaps you yourself have examples ready at hand?)

    Of course the difference is that you et al argued, iirc, that the demonic “rulers of the age” were working through human agencies.

  • GakuseiDon
    2011-10-06 18:40:55 UTC - 18:40 | Permalink
  • Pingback: Richard Carrier on Crucified Messiahs | Exploring Our Matrix

    • 2011-10-07 21:16:53 UTC - 21:16 | Permalink

      McGrath describes my post as a summary of a lengthy discussion by Allison. The fact is that Allison’s discussion is 98 lines long and I have quoted here verbatim 94 lines of those 98, and in addition have cited in full the longest footnote Allison also attached to his discussion. Curiously, after recently arguing black and blue that “rulers of the age” meant demons working through humans, he now seems to have reversed his position completely so he is in step with what Dale Allison thinks.

  • Pingback: November Biblical Studies Carnival: The Undead Edition « The Musings of Thomas Verenna

  • Pingback: El Jesús histórico (VI). El silencio de Pablo. | La sombra en el sudario

  • Pingback: El Jesús histórico (VII). Algunos problemas del mitismo. | La sombra en el sudario

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *