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

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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 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 . . . .

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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.

  4. Reading the full context of the passage – Allison is very clearly right, for a number of reasons. One very big key for me is that Paul is clearly comparing “human wisdom” (Paul’s words – 1 Cor 2:5, 13) with the wisdom of God.

    It’s clear in Paul’s writing that “of this age” means the human world (Allison makes this point in number 6). “Wisdom of this age” is human wisdom. Verse 13 makes Paul’s meaning abundantly clear: “And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.” – This is a comparison between the wisdom of God (spiritual wisdom) and specifically “human wisdom” (wisdom of this age). Demonic spirits have no role at all in this discussion.

    so when Paul says: “it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age” – the “rulers of this age” are very clearly human, because the human world and human understanding are what Paul is writing about. Inserting demonic spirits into the passage in for just doesn’t make any sense given the context – especially if the best reason you can give for doing so is that later authors used the wording that way (which, honestly, isn’t a very good reason for thinking that *Paul* in particular used the wording that way – especially considering how Paul typically uses the wording “of this age”).

    You have to consider the full context of the passage. In this passage, it’s obvious Paul is talking about humans.

    1. No, Allison is as wrong as only possible.

      The rulers of this age are the creator and his angels, and the wisdom of this world are the teachings of his prophets and the works of the Law; whereas the wisdom of God is only revealed through faith in the Chrestos.

      1. 1. ” as only possible” – why is it only possible that he’s wrong? It seems your assuming the conclusion from the start.

        2. If the rulers of this age are the “creator and his angels”, then why did they not understand God’s wisdom and why did they crucify Jesus? – “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

        3. Also, if the rulers of this age are the “creator and his angels”, why are they doomed to perish? – “Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish.”

        Wisdom of this age is “human wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:5-6) and “rulers of this age” are human rulers. In Paul’s letters, “of this age” means human – that’s what it means every time he uses it.

        1. When Paul speaks of “this world” he means this physical world with humans. But when he speaks of the “god of this world” he is referring to a supernatural agency with power over this physical world inhabited by humans.

          I Cor 2:6 does not say the rulers of this age are doomed to perish. You seem to be relying upon a less than exact English translation. The Greek means “comes to nothing, of no account…” That is the fate of Satan and the demons.

          A number of scholars — Brandon, Barrett Hering, Fredriksen, Salmond, Delling, Ellingworth — examining the expression “rules of this age” have concluded that it refers to spiritual powers and not earthly rulers. (Ellingworth in his Translator’s Handbook for 1 Corinthians says that the majority of scholars think it refers to supernatural powers.)

          Most scholars attempt to harmonize the reference to demon powers in 1 Cor 2:6 with the gospel narratives by suggesting that the demon rulers were influencing the physical rulers on earth to crucify Jesus. (But that is not what Paul says — as you yourself seem to acknowledge.)

          Throughout Christian and Jewish literature (not only the Bible) we find angels have less knowledge than God. God hides information from them until the time comes for him to reveal it. (Even Jesus said he did not know the time of the end.)

          1. In 1 Corinthians 2:6, he may mean that the human rulers who crucified Jesus will come to nothing (he may mean this in the sense that they won’t be rulers anymore after God’s final judgement).

            The key is that “age” (αἰῶνος) in Paul’s letters always means the physical world on Earth.
            – “who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age (αἰῶνος)” – Galatians 1:4
            – “the god of this world (αἰῶνος) has blinded the minds of the unbelievers” – 2 Corinthians 4:4
            – “Where is the debater of this age? (αἰῶνος) Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

            And the only other place that Paul uses the word “archón” (Romans 13:3) – he clearly means human authorities.

            So if “archón” in Paul’s letters means human authorities, and “aión” (αἰῶνος) always means this physical world on Earth, why would “archón of this aión” mean demonic spirits in a spiritual, cosmic realm here? Particularly when what Paul’s talking about in this passage is the difference between the wisdom of God and “human wisdom”.

            Thinking “archón of this aión” means demonic spirits in a cosmic realm just doesn’t make sense given how Paul typically uses those terms and the actual, full context of the passage itself.

            1. Archon can mean any power of authority. Paul uses it of human powers and also of spiritual powers — according to most scholars’ interpretations of 1 Cor. 2:6.

              If Paul used it to refer in Romans 13:3 to human rulers then obviously he had different rulers in mind when he used the word in 1 Cor. 2:6. The rulers in 1 Cor 2:6 were killing god’s son! Romans 13:3 says “rulers of this earth” do not do wield their power unjustly like that.

              (As for you reference to “age” — did you read what I wrote? Yes, “age” means THIS age with us humans! God and other spirits, as well as human rulers, are in charge of what happens to us all in this PHYSICAL time and place.)

              1. Paul seems to say the Gods of this world crucified Jesus (1 Cor 2.8, also see 1 Cor 8.5-6; 2 Cor 4.4), and these are the powers the returning Christ will subjugate (Rom 8.38, also cf Eph 6.12). Phillipians says these are the powers who will bend knees before Christ.

                Of course, if Paul is saying the gods of this world crucified Christ, this could mean the Romans were “under the influence of Satan,” and hence crucified Christ. On Satan and mind control, see (2 Corinthians 4:4).

              2. What Paul says in Romans about rulers is a very common Christian idea (see 1 Peter 2:13-17, Hebrews 13:17 and Titus 3:1 as well) – the message to submit to human authority was intended to prevent Christians from breaking the law. It doesn’t mean that Paul still didn’t think it was human authorities who executed Jesus.

                Another reason for thinking that he’s almost certainly not talking about spirits, though, is the context of the passage. He connects “rulers of this age” to “wisdom of this age” – “it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age” – the indication is that rulers of this age have wisdom of this age – and what is “wisdom of this age”? It’s *human* wisdom, Paul’s explicit about that! Just see 1 Corinthians 2:5 and 2:13, he specifically says “human wisdom”. Why would demonic spirits have human wisdom? If “wisdom of this age” is human wisdom, why would “rulers of this age” be demonic spirits rather than human rulers?

                Concerning what you say about “age” – if you agree with me that “age” means this physical world (Earth), this would mean Paul thinks Jesus’ crucifixion took place on Earth – if the rulers were “of this age” (Earth), then the crucifixion wouldn’t have happened in some cosmic realm – it would have taken place on Earth. Do you agree?

              3. Your first point contradicts itself. If Paul said that rulers do not punish the righteous but only the wicked then obviously he cannot have thought that those rulers are the same category of persons who crucified Jesus. You can’t say he meant both without contradicting yourself.

                Who created this earth? God. So God is the god of this earth. God is the god of this world. Is that correct or not? He is also the god of this world at this particular age, that is, right now. Yes?
                So if God can be an archon of this age, or a ruler or head of this world and age, then so can spirits be archons or rulers just as much as humans can also at the same time be rulers and archons of this age and world.

                That is surely simple logic. But maybe in your world simple logic is frowned upon as wisdom of this world and of the devil?

              4. “You can’t say he meant both without contradicting yourself.” – Or maybe Paul contradicted himself, which is exactly what I think happened. Why assume Paul is always ideologically consistent from letter to letter. Again, the point in Romans 13:3 was made specifically so Christians wouldn’t be breaking the law – there’s a specific purpose for the inconsistency.

                When you end with “then so can spirits be archons or rulers just as much as humans can also at the same time be rulers and archons of this age and world.” – I think you’re just isolating “rulers of this age”, ignoring the full context of the passage and then talking about possible options for what it *might* mean. Read the full context of the passage. Nothing in it has anything to do with spiritual forces. The only thing Paul has to concerning anything spiritual is spiritual wisdom (the wisdom of God).

                Again, what does “wisdom of this age” mean? It doesn’t mean the wisdom of demonic spirits. What, in the surrounding context of the passage, has to do with demonic spirits? Nothing.

                Simply saying “But he *could* mean spirits” isn’t a positive argument for why it *probably* means spirits rather than human rulers.

              5. Well if you argue that Paul changes his meanings of words to suit whatever opposing doctrines you want to believe your thesis is unfalsifiable.

                I really don’t understand why you think it is impossible for sacred texts to say that both God/any spirit AND a man can AT THE SAME TIME can both be rulers or kings of this physical temporal realm. Do you think that if a human government rules you that God is not in charge at all ultimately? You are defying what the overwhelming majority of scholars (who are NOT MYTHICISTS!) believe about that passage!

              6. Concerning Romans 13:3 – Gene Miller points out in “ΑΡΧΟΝΤΩΝ ΤΟΥ ΑΙΩΝΟΣ ΤΟΥΤΟΥ — A New Look at 1 Corinthians 2:6-8” that even if Paul is speaking about those human rulers (Caiaphas/Pilate), this wouldn’t be an indictment against the Roman Empire in its entirety or other governing institutions – only those specifically responsible for Jesus’ death.

                Concerning your statement that I “think it is impossible for sacred texts to say that both God/any spirit AND a man can AT THE SAME TIME can both be rulers or kings of this physical temporal realm.”
                – I never said any of that. I’m not saying that Paul could not possibly have thought that there were demonic powers who held some power in the physical world.

                My contention is that when Paul wrote: “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” – In *that* passage specifically, the “rulers of this age” Paul is speaking about are human governing authorities – there is no indication in this passage that Paul means to say that demonic spirits crucified Jesus – but there’s *plenty* of indication that he’s referring to human rulers crucified him.

                Miller provides a pretty strong summary in his article saying:
                “Certainly belief in the existence and influence of demonic and/or angelic “spiritual powers” was widespread at the time Paul wrote; such ideas existed in both Jewish and non-Jewish contexts, and Paul shared such ideas to some degree. This, however, does not indicate that such an idea is intended in the passage under consideration or is to be imposed upon it. On the contrary, a careful examination of the passage and its context shows that it is not at all concerned with such supernatural powers or rulers. The “rulers” mentioned are not connected with any harm to human soul or construed as being intrinsically evil in nature or as having any spiritual power over other man. The contrast throughout is between the “wisdom of God” and “human wisdom,” and not between the “wisdom of God” and that of some opposing spiritual power. The condemnation of the “rulers of this age” is that, failing to know and acknowledge God through their human wisdom upon which they depend, they ignorantly crucified the “Lord of glory.””

                Again, my main contention is that there just isn’t any evidence in the context of the passage (including what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1 as well) to indicate that Paul means to say that demonic spirits crucified Jesus – only that human governing authorities did.

              7. Have you actually read the arguments you are opposing, by the way? Why do you seem to think that human wisdom is inferior to demonic wisdom? If the argument is that demons inspire human wisdom then why do you seem to assume that the two should be different types of wisdoms?

              8. As for your “could” and “probably” — please re-read what I have actually said and contain your argument to the points raised.

            2. Paul is writing 20 or 20 plus years after Jesus lived and was crucified in the 50s AD.

              It’s 20 odd years since America invaded Iraq. It’s 80 years since Nazi Germany invaded Poland and started WW2. Who that was an adult during either of those events would describe those clashes 20 years later as wars between the “Archons of the Age”? Nobody. No one who was trying to relate important information about this world changing events.

              Paul doesn’t describe a human Jesus living in Rome ruled Palestine crucified by Pilate because he is entirely unaware of such human events. Paul knows nothing of a Gospel Jesus even tho he is supposed to be a contemporary. And even tho Paul is supposedly promoting a new religion that springs directly from the life & death of a human Jesus on earth a mere 20 years before his Letters.

              Paul knows nothing & shares nothing about human events in Jesus’ life because he knows nothing of them bc they never happened and were only created in the Gospels over the course of 50 to 100 years later.
              Paul’s Christ Jesus has nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth.
              Paul’s Christ Jesus arises out of the Hellenistic eastern Mediterranean culture and Jewish scriptures & traditions.
              Paul’s Christ never comes to earth and exists & was crucified in a spiritual plane’s beyond earth by demons in the lower spiritual realms who pester & harass men on earth.

              The Archons of the age were demons the spiritual realm.
              If Paul knew of a human Jesus crucified by a human ruler Pilate & Jewish authorities a mere 20 years before his writings he would have said so.
              But he didn’t know bc it didn’t happen & played no role whatsoever in the “Christianity” he was forming & spreading.

        2. The creator (alias god of this aion) is opposed to God who is only known through the Chrestos. This is obfuscated by later glosses and interpolations, such as Romans 13:1-7

          1. I also suspect that Romans 13:1-7 is a later “patristic” insertion but, please, Klaus, you need to present an argument. Mere assertions don’t persuade anyone.

  5. Before and after the verses 13:1-7, there are general ethical constructions concerning love and humility, similar to the sermon on the hill-top as known from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. The verses one through seven break the flow completely and are unsolicited in the context.

    1. Indeed, many scholars have suggested that 13:1-7 are an interpolation: Pallis (1920); Loisy (1922: 104, 128; 1935: 30-31; 1936: 287); Windisch (1931); cf. Barnikol (1931b); Eggenberger (1945); Barnes (1947: 302, possibly); Kallas (1964-65); Munro (1983: 56f., 65-67); Sahlin (1953); Bultmann (1947).

      It is worth pointing out, however, the problem that some scholars erect for themselves by insisting that Romans 13:1-7 is not an interpolation when attempting to argue for a more apologetic view of “rulers of this age”. I am currently preparing a more detailed discussion of these arguments that I will present as a post, pointing out the ad hoc, circular and other invalid methods of arguments.

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