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

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by Neil Godfrey

Angelic rulers

I continue my recent post, Are the “Rulers of the Age” in 1 Cor. 2:6-8 Human or Spiritual? – the sea change: this post begins to address  Gene Miller’s argument that when Paul wrote that the “rulers of the age” crucified “the Lord of Glory” he meant human, worldly authorities, viz. Pilate, crucified Jesus. Miller’s article, “Archontōn tou aiōnos toutou—A New Look at 1 Corinthians 2:6–8,” JBL 91 (1972) 522–28, was published in 1972. Why bother with a 46 year old article? In the previous post we saw indications of its continuing relevance in major commentaries. In 2001 Chris Forbes of the Department of Ancient History (not a theologian!) described Miller’s article as presenting a

particularly forceful case . . . [arguing] that (at least for this verse) the view common since Cullmann that both human rulers and their angelic/demonic counterparts are intended “needs finally to be laid to rest”. (Forbes, p. 68)

We start with Miller’s translation of 1 Cor 2:6-8

Yet we speak of wisdom among the mature, not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are being brought to an end; on the contrary, we speak of the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God decreed before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew. For, if they had known (it), they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:6-8).

Miller opens with two passages that scholars have used to argue that “rulers of this age” refers to supernatural powers.

[Héring] cites especially Col 2:15, where the hostile powers over whom Christ triumphs in the cross are called archas kai exousias, and Rom 8:38, where archai is used to describe one of the forces which might be thought to separate men from the “love of God.”

Let’s look at those two passages:

When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him. (Col 2:15 NASB)

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities [=archai], nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers , nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38f NASB)

Miller responds to these verses as follows:

It is immediately apparent that in neither case is there any certainty that the reference is to supernatural or spiritual powers. This is particularly true of the passage in Romans; in fact, the context of the passage seems to favor the opposite conclusion. Paul mentions specifically “angels” (angeloi) and “powers” (dynameis); the archai, then, might reasonably be supposed to be human authorities. This interpretation would certainly be consistent with the situation of the church in the first century. (p. 522)

So we see that Miller presents no argument to justify interpretations that contradict what was the virtual consensus in 1972; rather, he simply asserts that “there is no certainty” that spiritual powers are meant. I would have thought that the passage in Colossians that speaks of Jesus having disarmed the rulers could not possibly be saying that Roman rulers were suddenly disarmed by the death and resurrection of Christ.

But Miller wants us to look “particularly” at Romans 8:38 because, he asserts, the context actually suggests that Paul means human rulers. After all, Paul mentioned angels and powers in the same sentence and since these obviously refer to heavenly beings it surely is “more likely” that he must mean human rulers when he speaks of “principalities/archai” in between those two — so Miller asserts. The only way I can follow Miller’s reasoning here is that he begins with the assumption that Paul must surely have been talking about Pilate, full stop.

As we saw above, Miller’s essay has been cited as a persuasive argument so presumably a good number of scholars are inclined to view such an assertion sympathetically.

To my layman’s thinking, however, I would have thought that the context in which archai (“rulers”) is used — that is, in the context of other terms for angelic powers — would suggest that archai likewise refers to such figures. This would seem all the more likely insofar as it seems reasonable to imagine supernatural forces having power to come between human mortals and God but not so easy to understand how a human ruler could somehow remove another human from the realm of God’s love. Besides, isn’t Christ’s love also towards human rulers, a few of whom were even converted in the early days of the Christian movement if Acts is any guide at all? Even Paul said a few of the mighty and noble were called.

But so far we have only seen an assertion that the passage should be interpreted a certain way. We have not seen a justifying argument.

So I turn to several major studies on the term archai and in particular its use in Romans 8:38, since Miller begins by asserting that its meaning there should influence how we read it in 1 Cor. 2:6-8.

Wesley Carr in Angels and Principalities: The Background, Meaning and Development of the Pauline Phrase Hai Archai Kai Hai Exousiai examines the cultural and linguistic background to the use of the term archai (ἀρχαὶ) in an attempt to understand why Paul in Romans 8:38 should couple it with angels. Carr acknowledges that in earlier Judaism the term was used to refer mainly to human rulers but Paul appears to have associated it with spiritual powers. For Carr it is significant that ἀρχαὶ was used in the days of Paul by Stoic philosophers as a name for God. (Several scholars have in recent years published works on the striking influence of Stoic ideas and terminology in Paul’s letters but I cannot address all of those here. I have, however, previously addressed one scholar’s exploration of Stoic thought on Paul.)

Okay, you may be thinking… Just calling God a ruler doesn’t explain the other “rulers” in Paul. But Carr introduces readers to a wider field of scholarly research that shows how Jewish thought in the Second Temple period understood God to have “hypostatised” his “ruler/ἀρχαὶ” nature into other divine figures. The author of Colossians is deploying this concept when he speaks of Christ as the “ruler/ἀρχαὶ” of creation. Christ is understood to be a hypostasis of God as ruler. (So F.C. Burney in a 1926 article listed below.) Similarly the author of 1 Enoch 6:8 used the word to describe certain named angels who had authority over groups of other angels.

And these are the names of their leaders/rulers: Semyaza, who was their leader, Urakiba, Ramiel, Kokabiel, Tamiel, Ramiel, Daniel, Ezeqiel, Baraqiel, Asael, Armaros, Batriel, Ananel, Zaqiel, Samsiel, Sartael, . . ., Turiel, Yomiel, Araziel. These are the leaders/rulers of the two hundred angels [or, these are their leaders of tens], and of all the others with them. — 1 Enoch 6:7-8

(Sparks, p. 189)

Early Christian fathers like Clement understood the term to refer to angelic powers, too, such as Satan, and so interpreted Paul’s use of the word that way.

The probable explanation [of Paul’s coupling the term for rulers with angels] is similar to that offered for δυνάμεις [=powers]. The singular word ἀρχαὶ is only used as a definition or name for God in some Stoic thought, and a development of the plural in Jewish angelology cannot depend upon this. The clue lies rather in the exegesis of Gen. 1: 1 through Prov. 8: 22. The hypostatisation of ἀρχαὶ as an extension of God provided just the starting point for an angelic hierarchy of ἀρχαὶ There is a fascinating example of such a shift in Clement of Alexandria’s exegesis of Rom. 8: 38, although for him the ἀρχαὶ is the Devil rather than God.48 Without accepting the detailed application of Burney’s thesis on bereshith, his argument that there was in Jewish thought an exegesis of the ἀρχαὶ of God is convincing. The ἀρχαὶ, therefore, as angelic beings most probably developed from this hypostatised ἀρχη. The beginnings of such an extension may be discerned in 1 En. 6:8 where, if the surviving fragment of the Greek text may be trusted, the leaders of the angels are described as [their rulers (ἀρχαὶ) of tens].

Carr, p. 40

Following Everling and Dibelius and the near unanimous agreement of the scholarly community at that time Carr concludes that when Paul uses “rulers/ἀρχαὶ” he typically means the heavenly host.

Walter Wink (Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament) points out the many places Paul speaks of both earthly and heavenly powers but when he comes to Romans 8:38 he demonstrates in depth (pp. 47ff) how the context obliges us to see the passage referring entirely to hidden spiritual forces.

Charles A. Gieschen in Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence (1998) addresses various angelic categories in Romans 8 but does not separately discuss verse 38’s use of “archai”. However, he does at one point not with reference to “rulers of this age” in 1 Cor 2:8

Although the Corinthian congregation probably did not understand all these nuances of Angelomorphic Christology, Paul certainly did. (p. 333)

Timothy Hegedus argues that the terms in Romans 8:38 are ancient astrological terms and finds support for this view in Jung Young Lee’s 1970 article discussing these terms in depth. D.E.H. Whiteley sets out a detailed case, based on textual context and the importance of astrology in Paul’s Hellenistic and Jewish worlds, that at least strong probability favors the astrological interpretation of all the terms in Romans 8:38.

Scholars have long debated the astrological interpretation of the entities set out in Romans 8:38 but the debate is waged by means of a discussion of the evidence. Similarly, evidence for or against gnostic interpretations can be debated. But there is certainly evidence for Jewish authors using “rulers” to refer to supernatural powers during the era of Paul. When Miller asserts that “it is immediately apparent” that the word for “rulers” used by Paul in Romans 8:38 (and therefore a key to how we interpret 1 Cor. 2:6-8) seems to favour human rulers he is short-changing us. To further assert that it is “reasonable” to “suppose” that when “rulers” is used in a passage speaking of spiritual entities then “rulers’ probably means human powers is effectively to bypass the real discussion. As mentioned above, I can only understand such reasoning if one begins with the determination to reinforce the much later gospel narrative by introducing human rulers despite the context.

To continue…..

Carr, W., 1981. Angels and Principalities: The Background, Meaning and Development of the Pauline Phrase Hai Archai Kai Hai Exousiai. Cambridge University Press.

Forbes, C., 2001. “Paul’s Principalities and Powers: Demythologizing Apocalyptic?” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 82, 61–88.

Gieschen, C.A., 1998. Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence. Brill.

Hegedus, T., 2007. Early Christianity and Ancient Astrology. Peter Lang Inc., International Academic Publishers, New York.

Lee, J.Y. (Ed.), 1970. “Interpreting the Demonic Powers in Pauline Thought.” Novum Testamentum 12, 54–69.

Miller, G., 1972. “ΑΡΧΟΝΤΩΝ ΤΟΥ ΑΙΩΝΟΣ ΤΟΥΤΟΥ — A New Look at 1 Corinthians 2:6-8.” Journal of Biblical Literature 91, 522–528.

Sparks, H.F.D., 1984. The Apocryphal Old Testament. Clarendon Press; 1984. xxii, 990 p. ; 19 cm, Oxford.

Whiteley, D.E.H., 1972. The Theology of St. Paul. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

Wink, W., 1984. Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament. Fortress Press, Philadelphia.




  • John Roth
    2018-06-18 15:22:08 UTC - 15:22 | Permalink

    In counterpoint, “principalities” is a rank in the angelic hierarchy. I’m not sure if that hierarchy goes as far back as the 1st century, but it’s certainly there later. Archons (which is another translation of the Greek,) is a central theme of Gnostic teaching, and they are certainly spiritual powers.

  • Bob Jase
    2018-06-18 16:16:41 UTC - 16:16 | Permalink

    God was a sloppy writer. Even middle-school kids can write clearer books.

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