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.
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. . . . .
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.
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.
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