Are the “Rulers of the Age” in 1 Cor. 2:6-8 Human or Spiritual? – the sea change

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by Neil Godfrey

Up till the 1980s it was the accepted view that the “rulers of this age” who crucified the Lord of Glory according to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians were spirit beings. Several scholars explained that they did so by influencing their earthly counterparts to carry out the deed. The passage reads*:

* Two outlier voices arguing that 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 is a non-pauline interpolation into the original letter are those of

Widmann, M. 1979. “1 Kor. 2:6-16. Ein Einspruch gegen Paulus” ZNW 70: 44-53.

Walker, W.J., 2002. Interpolations in the Pauline Letters. Bloomsbury T&T Clark, London. pp. 127-146.


Widmann’s arguments are challenged by

O’Connor, J.M., 2009. Keys to First Corinthians: Revisiting the Major Issues, Oxford University Press, New York. 257-260

Walker’s argument takes O’Connor’s rebuttals into account and attempts to strengthen Widmann’s case.

I may set the pros and cons for interpolation in a future post. In this post I assume the passage was penned by Paul.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age [ἀρχόντων τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου], who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age [ἀρχόντων τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου] understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.1 Corinthians 2:6-8 (NIV)

Thus in the 1985 edition of A Translator’s Handbook for 1 Corinthians Paul Ellingworth could write of the passage translated “rulers of the age”:

A majority of scholars think that supernatural powers are intended here.

(p. 46. Cited in Doherty, E. 2009. Jesus: neither God nor man: the case for a mythical Jesus. Age of Reason Publications, Ottawa. p. 222)

Bolded highlighting in all quotations is my own

It is not difficult to find confirmation of Ellingworth’s observation:

Without doubt the usual interpretation [of 1 Corinthians 2:6-8] at present is that the rulers are demonic spiritual forces, and this is mainly due to Everling’s recovery of the idea. It has, however, a long pedigree, being found in Origen and Marcion, and is currently supported by, among others, Bultmann, Lietzmann, Delling, Schlier and Barrett.16 . . . .

An allied view is that the rulers are both human and spiritual forces. This is supported by Dibelius, Leivestad, Wendland, Dehn, Caird, and especially Cullmann.18

16 Origen, de Princ. 3.2; Marcion in Tertullian, adv. Marc. 5.6. Bultmann, Theology, I, 147ff; Lietzmann, An die Korinther I, II (Gottingen, 1949), ad loc.; Delling, TDNT, I, 489; Schlier, Principalities, pp. 45f; C. K. Barrett, ‘Christianity at Corinth’, BJRL 46 (1963), 278ff, and I Corinthians, ad loc. . . . .

18 R. Leivestad, Christ the Conqueror (London, 1954), p. 106; J. Wendland, Die Briefe an die Korinther (Göttingen, 1946), p. 19; G. Dehn, ‘Engel und Obrigkeit; ein Beitrag zum Verstandnis von Röm. 13. 1-7’, in E. Wolf (ed.), Theologische Aufsätze fur Karl Barth (Munich, 1936), p. 104; Caird, Principalities and Powers, pp. 16f.

Carr, W., 1981. Angels and Principalities: The background, meaning and development of the Pauline phrase hai archai kai hai exousiai. Cambridge University Press. p. 118

(To assist with identification I hyperlink references that are unclear or lack descriptive detail.)

In the 1987 publication The First Epistle to the Corinthians Gordon D. Fee (disapprovingly) acknowledges the same:

But who are the “rulers of this age”? . . .  [T]here has been a growing consensus over many years that the “rulers” are demonic powers,21 or at least that by these words Paul wants the Corinthians to see demonic powers as lying behind the activity of the earthly rulers.22

21The literature here is immense. Among commentators, see Weiss, Moffatt, Lietzmann, Héring, Barrett, Conzelmann. Among others, see R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (ET, London, 1952), I, 259; Wilckens, 60-63; Scroggs, “Paul,” p. 41; BAGD.

22This view is espoused by such various scholars as O. Cullmann, Christ and Time (ET, London, 1962), pp. 191-206; G. B. Caird, Principalities and Powers (Oxford, 1956), pp. 80-82; G. H. C. MacGregor, “Principalities and Powers. The Cosmic Background of St Paul’s Thought,” NTS 1 (1954/55), 17-28; W. J. P. Boyd, “I Cor. 2:8,” ExpT 68 (1957), 158; and Bruce, 38. . . . .

(p. 103.)

A backward look from a 2012 doctoral dissertation (supervised by Richard Hays) reminds us again of what the dominant scholarly view once was, this time approvingly:

We turn now to the most plausible interpretation: that the rulers of this age in 1 Cor 2:6-8 are spiritual powers.294

294The scholarly literature for this position is immense. See, for example, O. Everling, Die paulinische Angelologie und Dämonologie: Ein biblisch-theologischer Versuch (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1888) 11-25; M. Dibelius, Die Geisterwelt im Glauben des Paulus (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1909) 88-99; Wilckens, Weisheit und Torheit, 52-96; Barrett, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 70-72; Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, 61; Kovacs, “The Archons, the Spirit, and the Death of Christ”; Collins, First Corinthians, 129; G. Williams, The Spirit World in the Letters of Paul the Apostle, 133-34; 136-37; 232-40

Moses, R.E., 2012. Powerful Practices: Paul’s Principalities and Powers Revisited (Doctor of Theology). Divinity School of Duke University. p. 132

You get the picture.

But the tide changed.

In the second edition of A Translator’s Handbook on 1 Corinthians, published in 1993, eight years after the first, Paul Ellingworth and Howard Hatton write something different from the sentence I quoted above:

The second question, concerning the rulers of this age, does not affect translation into certain languages such as English. But translators into many other languages may have to decide whether the rulers are human or nonhuman. Verse 8 does not settle this question; the rulers of this age may be either people like Caiaphas, Pilate, and the Roman emperor, or the supernatural powers of evil that are ultimately responsible for Christ’s death (compare Col 2.10, 15). Recent writers generally tend to think of human rulers, and these should certainly not be excluded in translation.

A few lonely wilderness voices began to attract attention. One of these was Wesley Carr’s 1981 Angels and Principalities from which I quoted above. Carr references, among others, a 1972 publication by Gene Miller,

The third possible view, that the rulers are human, has received little recent support, apart from a notable argument by Schniewind.19

19 J. Schniewind, ‘Die Archonten dieses Aons: I Kor 2, 6S’, Nachgelassene Reden und Aufsätze (Berlin, 1951), pp. 104ff. The article by G. Miller, ”OI ‘ΑΡΧΟΝΤΣΣ ΤΟΥ ‘ΑΙΩΝΟΣ ΤΟΥΤΟΥ — A New Look‘, JBL 91 (1972), 522ff, also supports this position…. 

(pp. 119, 200)

Both Carr and in turn Miller are again referenced by Gordon Fee (also quoted above) who appears to be one of the first Cnuts to begin to turn back the tide.  In his 1987 commentary on 1 Corinthians he wrote of the near universal view in his day that “rulers of this age” were hidden spiritual powers:

This oft-repeated assertion needs finally to be laid to rest23 since the linguistic evidence, the context, and Pauline theology all argue against it.24 Given the evidence of v. 8, the “rulers” here at least include those responsible for the crucifixion. But in this first instance the term probably also intends the “leaders” of this age in the broader sense, including the various “wise ones” of 1:20 and 26. Those to whom the Corinthians would especially give deference do not really know true wisdom; indeed, they are themselves “coming to nothing.” . . . . .

23Despite the evidence against it, it will probably not die easily, since those interpretations that see Gnostic backgrounds to much of what is being said here are particularly dependent on this interpretation to make them work.

24The linguistic evidence is decisive: (1) the term ἄρχοντες is never equated with the ἀρχαὶ  of Col. 1:16 and Eph. 6:12; (2) when ἄρχων appears in the singular it sometimes refers to Satan; but (3) there is no evidence of any kind, either in Jewish or Christian writings until the second century, that the term was used of demons; and (4) in the NT it invariably refers to earthly rulers and unambiguously does so in Paul in Rom. 13:3. See G. D. Fee, New Testament Exegesis (Philadelphia, 1983), pp. 87-89. Some see the qualifier “of this age” to be determinative, since Satan is referred to in John’s Gospel as “the ruler of the world” (12:3; 14:30; 16:11); but that seems a remote connection at best, since the phrase in John belongs to his special vocabulary. Nothing like it appears in Paul (esp. not in Eph. 2:2). While the “powers” do play a significant role in Pauline theology, there is no evidence that they are responsible for the death of Christ; rather, Christ triumphed over them by his death (Col. 2:15). On this whole question see G. Miller, “ΑΡΧΟΝΤΩΝ ΤΟΥ ΑΙΩΝΟΣ ΤΟΥΤΟΥ—A New Look at 1 Corinthians 2:6-8,” JBL 91 (1972), 522-28; and esp. Carr, “Rulers,” which also appears in somewhat abbreviated form in Angels and Principalities, The Background, Meaning and Development of the Pauline Use of hai archai kai hai exousiai (SNTSMS 42; Cambridge, 1981), pp. 118-20.

Fee, G.D., 1987. The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New international commentary on the New Testament. W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, Grand Rapids, Mich. pp. 103f

Today Gene Miller’s 1972 article continues to appear as an authoritative pillar of interpretation in the reputable commentaries:

The plur. archontes is used elsewhere in the NT only for human rulers, whereas the sing. archōn is found for a demon such as Beelzebul (Matt 9:34; 12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15; John 12:31; 14:30; 16:30). The plur. archontes, denoting human rulers, occurs often in a context having to do with the passion or death of Jesus: Luke 23:13, 35; 24:20; Acts 3:17; 4:8, 26 (quotation of Ps 2:1–2); 13:27. For other uses, see also Matt 20:25; Luke 14:1; John 7:26, 48; 12:42; Acts 4:5; 14:5; 16:19; Rom 13:3. Such ocurrences make it highly likely that the Pauline phrase here is to be understood in this way. This interpretation is further supported, first, by the use of “this age” in 1:20 and 3:19, where it refers to this world (kosmos) of human beings and, secondly, by the following ptc. katargoumenōn, which is more suited to those who trust their human wisdom than to spirits (see further Adeyemi, “The Rulers”; Carr, “The Rulers; Miller, “Archontōn”*). . . . .

* Miller, G., “Archontōn tou aiōnos toutou—A New Look at 1 Corinthians 2:6–8,” JBL 91 (1972) 522–28.

Fitzmyer, J.A., 2008. First Corinthians. Yale University Press, New Haven ; London. (pp. 175f., p. 190)

Since Gene Miller’s article has been offered as a rebuttal to the once dominant view that “rulers of this age” is a reference to angelic powers in comments on Vridar, and given the frequent citations I see to that article in other literature addressing this question, I will take a closer look at its arguments in a coming post.

I had intended to discuss Miller’s case in this post but I got carried away trying to trace why it has appeared to be accepted today as a strong or even decisive rebuttal to the earlier interpretation, indeed to the very first interpretation of the passage when we go back to Ignatius, Marcion, and Origen. After I had completed the bulk of my investigations I serendipitously came upon Robert Ewusie Moses’ thesis (cited above) and was reassured to find many of the same methodological and logical flaws I had noticed but he also added further significant insights that had eluded me.

Some of the fruit of my attempts to trace the origin of the change of viewpoint has been set out above. Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to find the change closely tied to the growing dominance of evangelical and/or apologetic scholarly viewpoints and ideologically driven methods grounded in depressingly repeated logical fallacies. I may post some shorter pieces before making the time to set out in full my discussion of Miller’s article.

Meanwhile, one may well ask why a 1972 article appeared to have minimal impact for the first decade at least of its existence.


Carr, W., 1981. Angels and Principalities: The background, meaning and development of the Pauline phrase hai archai kai hai exousiai. Cambridge University Press.

Doherty, E., 2009. Jesus: neither God nor man: the case for a mythical Jesus. Age of Reason Publications, Ottawa.

Ellingworth, P., Hatton, H., Ellingworth, P., 1995. A handbook on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. United Bible Societies, New York.

Fee, G.D., 1987. The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New international commentary on the New Testament. W.B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Fitzmyer, J.A., 2008. First Corinthians. Yale University Press, New Haven ; London.

Moses, R.E., 2012. Powerful Practices: Paul’s Principalities and Powers Revisited (Doctor of Theology). Divinity School of Duke University.

O’Connor, J.M., 2009. Keys to First Corinthians: Revisiting the Major Issues, Oxford University Press, New York.



  • 2018-06-14 11:15:57 UTC - 11:15 | Permalink

    I have written on Fee and his woefully bad arguments for a human interpretation of “rulers”:

    • Neil Godfrey
      2018-06-14 13:40:10 UTC - 13:40 | Permalink

      I have wondered why a comment of mine to your blog was denied posting.

  • 2018-06-14 12:49:55 UTC - 12:49 | Permalink

    I agree with the interpretation of demonic powers controlling human rulers. This is akin to 2 Cor 4:4 which says “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” 1 Corinthians 2:8 stresses the ones who crucified Christ didn’t understand who he was – and demonic powers probably would have understood who Christ was (Compare Mark 1:24-25).

    • Neil Godfrey
      2018-06-14 13:15:52 UTC - 13:15 | Permalink

      I will be covering these points in the post on Miller’s article but in the meantime just want to note that 1 Cor 2:8 says nothing about not knowing who Jesus was but rather speaks of the hidden wisdom of the cross. What the rulers of the age failed to understand was the saving significance of the cross and how the death of the Christ would lead to the demise of the ruling powers. That’s why they crucified the Lord of Glory, according to 1 Cor. 2:8 — not because they failed to recognize that Jesus was the Christ or one sent by God.

      (Though according to several accounts they did fail to recognize who Jesus really was — but that’s not the point of 1 Cor. 2:8)

      Misreadings of the passage in much of the scholarly literature, including failures to note or recall what is even said in the gospels, are all too common, and they fuel confusion and misunderstanding beyond the scholarly circles.

      • 2018-06-14 14:03:28 UTC - 14:03 | Permalink

        How would Christ’s accomplishment on the cross “lead to the demise of the ruling powers”? Despite the cross, they still had the power to blind the minds of the unbelievers (2 Cor 4:4). Christ was simply the first fruits of the general resurrection of souls at the end of the age. Paul’s notion of the resurrected Christ as the “first fruits (1 Corinthians 15:23)” seems to imply Christ is of the “same kind” as the rest of the upcoming harvest of souls.

        • 2018-06-14 14:40:24 UTC - 14:40 | Permalink

          Dr. Paula Fredriksen, for instance, rejects the “temple replacing” interpretation of Paul’s Jesus.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2018-06-14 21:10:31 UTC - 21:10 | Permalink

          That’s the whole theme of Paul’s “theology of the cross” that theologians love to talk about. It’s what Paul expounds in his opening chapters of 1 Corinthians and it is picked up again and made more explicit in Colossians. It is not “logical” or obvious to anyone: that’s why it is called a “mystery” that needs to be revealed; it’s why Paul says it is foolishness (illogical, silly, nonsense) to the Greeks and weakness (defeat, the opposite of sense, loss, death instead of victory) to Jews.

          Many would even argue that it is the underlying theme of the Gospel of Mark and why Peter is called Satan for not wanting Jesus to perform his “messianic mission” by dying on the cross.

          (Note: we might even say that Peter recognized who Jesus was but failed to understand the “secret wisdom of God” as per 1 Cor. 2:6-8 — or else he would have wanted Jesus to die in order to undermine the power of the demons and sin.)

          Paul’s theology of the cross that is found in our versions of Paul’s letters (that God’s plan was to defeat the powers of demons/Satan by having his Son pay the penalty for humankind by his shed blood and so no longer leave repentant sinners condemned and in the power of Satan or doomed to the final death penalty) is not in doubt by anyone that I know of. I am sure even Paula Fredriksen whom you mention acknowledges its centrality to Paul’s teaching.

          What is in question in relation to 1 Cor 2:6-8 is reading of the words that is both coherent with everything else we read in the Pauline literature and other NT works, as well as semantically logical. Example, the passage nowhere suggests that the identity of Jesus is or was an issue. That’s an entirely gratuitous interpretation pulled out of ideological interests and imputed into the passage — despite its evident absence from the passage.

          • 2018-06-14 21:23:38 UTC - 21:23 | Permalink

            Fredriksen argues Paul says the Gods of this world crucified Jesus (1 Cor 2.8, also see 1 Cor 8.5-6; 2Cor 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. This does not imply a replacement of the temple cult. Fredriksen writes “”Paul praises the new community by likening it to something that he values supremely – the sanctity, dignity, and probity of the temple cult. If he valued the temple less, he would not use it as his touchstone … For Paul, God’s spirit dwells both in Jerusalem’s temple and in the ‘new temple’ of the believer and of the community, Rom 9.4; cf Mt 23.21 (Fredriksen, 154).”

            • Neil Godfrey
              2018-06-14 21:32:00 UTC - 21:32 | Permalink

              What does the temple cult have to do with the particular question we are addressing here? I think you are engaging with a completely different question, no? Do you see no relevance in my above comment?

              • 2018-06-14 21:49:15 UTC - 21:49 | Permalink

                Don’t get angry. I’m just an interested amateur here trying to learn. Your knowledge and experience in this area far outstrips mine.

                You said “That God’s plan was to defeat the powers of demons/Satan by having his Son pay the penalty for humankind by his shed blood and so no longer leave repentant sinners condemned and in the power of Satan or doomed to the final death penalty.” Fredriksen’s argument was just that it is the returning Jesus who would subjugate the Satanic powers – this isn’t accomplished by the death.

                Carrier argues the whole consequence of Jesus’ death is that as one great atoning sacrifice it replaces the temple cult. Fredriksen is not arguing an atonement model for Paul. Far from thinking the temple cult is replaced (as is usually argued), she thinks the Jerusalem temple for Paul is an even more central focus if one is Christian. (see 154). She does not say sins are removed by Jesus’s act. She says “Their conviction that Jesus had been raised was not meaningful in and of itself (145).” Frederiksen thinks Jesus’ resurrection for Paul was meaningful in that it was the “first fruits” of the predicted apocalypse. As I quoted, her position is that Jesus’ resurrection in Paul was significant as the fulfillment of Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecy in that the risen Jesus was the “first fruits (1 Corinthians 15:23)” of the general resurrection harvest of souls at the end of the age. No atonement. There is no reason to think “died for our sins” in the pre Pauline Corinthian creed has anything to do with atonement, since it didn’t mean that in II Isaiah or anywhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures.

                She says “[Some argue], for Paul, Jerusalem’s temple has been superseded by this new ‘temple’ of the Christian community. I argue the opposite (Fredriksen 154).” And, “thus, too, Romans 10.9 and 13 is not a statement about the risen Christ’s lordship and soteriological efficacy as such. It is a declaration of eschatological messianism (Fredriksen, 145).” And, “the risen Christ mattered because he confirmed Jesus original evangelion that the Kingdom indeed was at hand (1 Cor 15.3-20), to be established imminently at his triumphant – and classically martial, thus, Davidic – return (Fredriksen, 145).” Fredriksen doesn’t use the word atonement or atoning death once in her book because she doesn’t think it applies to Paul’s Jesus in any way. She writes “Their conviction that Jesus had been raised was not meaningful in and of itself, full stop (Fredriksen, 145).”

                That was my best attempt at an interpretation of Fredriksen’s “Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle Hardcover – Aug 22 2017”

              • Neil Godfrey
                2018-06-15 22:31:36 UTC - 22:31 | Permalink

                Don’t think I was at all angry. Not at all. I am sorry I came across that way.

                Yes, the resurrection was necessary to Paul’s theology, as is the future coming of Jesus. Without the resurrection the crucifixion would have little point. And that’s critical: the crucifixion itself does have a major point. Recall Paul’s boast that he intended to know nothing but “Christ crucified”.

                As Paul himself says in the passage we are discussing (2:6-8) the ruling powers are coming to nothing from this point on. Christ, and the mind of God, now live in the believers and they have been saved (proleptically, in effect). In the future this salvation will be finalized when Satan and his demons will be literally removed at Christ’s coming.

                It is true that the belief in Jesus’ resurrection alone carries no significance of itself. But in the early chapters of Corinthians Paul is talking about a message of the cross that the Greeks see folly though it is in fact “wisdom” and the Jews see as weakness though it is in fact “power”. Does PF discuss 1 Cor 1:18 and surrounding passages and what they mean for her thesis?

                Does Fredriksen discuss 1 Cor 2:2 or the “wisdom of God” as per the early chapters of 1 Corinthians? I would be interested in following up some reviews of Fredriksen’s argument because I suspect some would see an argument that is tipped a little too far in one direction without due balancing attention to certain contrary evidence.

                As far as I can see Fredriksen does not discuss the question we are talking about here. Her argument about the temple cult is not based directly on anything Paul writes, either, but on extrapolating what one might argue that Paul would have said given some of his other statements on other matters. It would be a mistake to take conclusions from such a process as a starting point for interpreting other passages and questions she does not discuss. To what extent does Fredriksen address earlier arguments that she is saying are rebutted by her own thesis and interpretations?

                I will have to have a closer look at PF’s book. It’s been sitting in my “to read” pile too long.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2018-06-14 13:41:39 UTC - 13:41 | Permalink

      Further, as will be pointed out, even some of the earthly rulers and wise men did acknowledge who Jesus was according to the gospels — it was not only the demons who knew him.

  • Gene
    2018-06-15 13:37:05 UTC - 13:37 | Permalink

    “Such ocurrences make it highly likely that the Pauline phrase here is to be understood in this way.” Gene Miller

    Does Miller put the writing of the four gospels before Paul’s writings? If he does, and if Paul had access to the four gospels, wouldn’t this would give much more credence to Miller’s position?

    Or could someone say that the gospel writers, writing after Paul, understood Paul’s teachings and therefore their use of archontes and archon, as Miller outlines, is reflective of Paul’s intended meanings?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2018-06-15 21:27:01 UTC - 21:27 | Permalink

      You have hit on a core fallacy of Miller’s argument. He assumes that the story of Jesus as we know it from the gospels was known to and accepted by Paul. Miller’s is one of the most obvious readings of Paul through canonical gospel framework that I have read.

  • Pingback: Who Killed Christ? Human rulers and/or angelic rulers. Addressing 1 Cor 2:6-8. |

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