Seven problems for the view that Paul’s “rulers of this age” were human authorities

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

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)

Previous posts in this series:

  1. Are the “Rulers of the Age” in 1 Cor. 2:6-8 Human or Spiritual? – the sea change
  2. Who Killed Christ? Human rulers and/or angelic rulers. Addressing 1 Cor 2:6-8.
  3. Who Crucified Jesus – Men or Demons? Continuing Miller’s Study of 1 Cor 2:6-8

This post sets out the weaknesses that Robert Ewusie Moses (REM: not to be confused with a rock band or type of sleep) sees in the prevailing view that Paul’s “rulers of this age” who crucified Jesus Christ is a reference to human authorities. REM’s discussion is found in his doctoral thesis, Powerful Practices: Paul’s Principalities and Powers Revisited (pages 123-131).

Argument: the gospels inform us that the demonic powers did know who Jesus was so the rulers of this age who crucified Jesus because of ignorance (1 Cor. 2:6-8) could not be these spiritual powers

Suddenly, they screamed, “What do you want with us, Son of God? Did you come here to torture us before the proper time?” — Matthew 8:29

“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” — Mark 1:24

He healed many who were sick with various diseases and drove out many demons. However, he wouldn’t allow the demons to speak because they knew who he was. — Mark 1:34

Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they would fall down in front of him and scream, “You are the Son of God!” — Mark 3:11

“Oh, no! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” — Luke 4:34

Even demons came out of many people, screaming, “You are the Son of God!” But Jesus rebuked them and ordered them not to speak, because they knew he was the Messiah. — Luke 4:41

(ISV translations)

The above argument is Gene Miller’s [see previous posts for details] but before Miller, REM notes, Julius Schniewind argued the same:

that while Paul may have believed that the devil stood behind Jesus’ opponents, the view that the rulers of this age are spiritual powers cannot be maintained because it would put Paul in tension with the Synoptic Gospels, which portray demonic spirits as recognizing the identity of Jesus.

(REM, p. 124)

As an aside I may interject to point out that we first encounter this argument in Tertullian’s attack on Marcion who did argue that the “rulers of this age” were angelic forces.

The most fundamental objection to the above argument is its fundamental logical or methodological error. It is not valid to interpret the original meaning of a document written around 50 CE according to other ideas and stories that were extant a generation later. But that aside….

REM’s Objection #1

Paul’s views were opposed to a number of mainstream positions in the early church (e.g. law; gentile inclusion). Paul was a contentious figure. So that Paul would disagree with gospels or early church is not remarkable.

REM’s Objection #2

Notice also the wise men who knew Jesus was to be the eschatological king as we see in Matthew 2:1-12. Further on that latter instance REM considers the relevance of Paul’s early condemnation in 1 Corinthians of the sages, the wise, the philosophers of this age being among its rulers — which raises the question: “What did the philosophers and sages of this age have to do with Christ’s crucifixion?”

Interpreting “rulers of this age” as earthly authorities still leaves us with contradictions against the gospel narratives. Just like the demons, some earthly authorities are presented as knowing who Jesus was. Recall the Roman centurions in Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10 and Mark 15:39.

Thus, we are trapped in the very pit that this interpretation seeks to escape. (REM, p. 126)

Again if I may be allowed to interject a detail in REM’s case, there is also Jesus’ parable in Mark 12:1-12. Some maybe object to this evidence because it is a parable, but even so, it is surely a very pointed parable as I try to highlight here:

12 Then Jesus began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenant farmers and went abroad. 2 At the right time, he sent a servant to the farmers to collect from them a share of the produce from the vineyard. 3 But the farmers grabbed the servant, beat him, and sent him back empty-handed. 4 Again, the man sent another servant to them. They beat the servant over the head and treated him shamefully. 5 Then the man sent another, and that one they killed. So it was with many other servants. Some of these they beat, and others they killed. 6 He still had one more person to send, a son whom he loved. Finally, he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7 But those farmers told one another, ‘This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours!’ 8 So they grabbed him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

9 “Now what will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come, execute the farmers, and give the vineyard to others. 10 Haven’t you ever read this Scripture:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
This was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?”

12 They were trying to arrest him but were afraid of the crowd. Realizing that he had spoken this parable against them, they left him alone and went away.

REM’s Objection #3

Also important is the recognition that the ignorance about which Paul speaks does not concern the “identity” of Jesus. As the context of the passage suggests, the ignorance concerns the cross as the locus for the manifestation of God’s power. The rulers of this age could not see God’s power in the event of utter degradation and weakness. Consequently, the rulers could not discern that the cross would be the site of their own undoing. If they had known this, they would not have crucified “the Lord of glory.”

(REM, pp. 126-27)

REM suggests that some scholars who adhere to the earthly authorities interpretation of “rulers of this age” do so in order to short circuit any possibility of gnosticism in Paul. However, as REM notes, there is not need for such a concern since those gnostic myths (including the events in the Ascension of Isaiah) also point to the demons’ failure to recognize who Jesus was as he descended to earth. But that’s not the ignorance Paul is addressing in 1 Cor 2:6-8.

REM’s Objection #4

See James Robinson, The Problem of History in Mark and Other Marcan Studies (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982 [1957]) 91-4; Susan R. Garrett, The Temptations of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). Robinson and Garrett argue convincingly that human opposition to Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is an extension of demonic opposition. See also J. Marcus’ demonic interpretation of the sudden shift in the crowd’s stance towards Jesus and cosmic darkness at the death scene in Mark 8-16 (AB 27A; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) 1036-37; 1061-64. It may well be that Mark is an interpreter of Paul (see Marcus, “Mark — Interpreter of Paul,” NTS 46 [2000] 473-87; cf. C. Black, “Christ Crucified in Paul and Mark: Reflections on an Intracanonical Conversation,” in Theology and Ethics in Paul and His Interpreters: Essays in Honor of Victor Paul Furnish [ed. Eugene H. Lovering and Jerry L. Sumney; Nashville: Abingdon, 1996] 184-206). If so, then our reading is corroborated by one of the earliest interpretations of Paul’s theology. As we hope to show, the author of Ephesians is another early interpreter of Paul who gives support to our reading. . . .

(I have read Robinson’s Problem of History in Mark but not the others set out here. After I catch up with more of those I may post some of the details of this interpretation of the Gospel of Mark.)

The gospels may not contradict the idea that it was demonic powers who crucified Jesus if we look at them more closely. The Gospel of Mark strongly appears to present all of Jesus’ encounters with demons, his debates with the Jewish leaders, his controversies aroused over his healings, his conflicts with his disciples, his final Passion, as part of a grand cosmic drama in which demons have been trying to destroy Jesus from the outset. All of those trials are portrayed as “temptations”, that is, as attacks by the demonic world. Jesus’ career begins with the earthly setting blurred out after his baptism as he is moved centre stage and communes with a divine voice from heaven and is thrust to the wilderness by the spirit to encounter Satan. The same language of temptation and trial continues throughout the gospel. See the side-box for REMs supporting references.

Luke 22:3-6 and John 13:21-30 explicitly state that it was Satan who influenced Judas to do the deed that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. (Judas, of course, was not an earthly authority.)

REM’s Objection #5

Paul never identifies Roman authorities as the executioners of Jesus. At best, as we see in Romans 13:1-7, the Roman authorities are subordinate and derivative of God’s power and not acting independently of God’s authority anyway.

REM’s Objection #6

If Paul meant Jewish authorities then we have run up against context of the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians since up to 2:6 Paul has categorized the Jews as those who are opposed to the earthly wisdom. Wisdom is the prized possession of the Greeks; the Jews want to see power, a sign. So it does not follow that in 1 Cor 2:6-8 that Paul is suddenly faulting the wisdom of the Jews.

REM’s Objection #7

A number of commentators have pointed to Acts 13:27-29

27 For the people who live in Jerusalem and their leaders, not knowing who Jesus was, condemned him and so fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. 28 Although they found no reason to sentence him to death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 When they had finished doing everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and placed him in a tomb.

But the argument that Paul could be speaking of Jewish leaders and of the ignorance of the identity of Jesus see objections #3 and #6 above.

REM further points out in another section that it is evident that Luke (as the author of Acts) appears to have misunderstood Paul’s views numerous times. He is not a reliable interpreter of Paul.


“The Rulers of this Age” as both Human and Spiritual Powers

Some scholars have argued that Paul’s “rulers of this age” embraced both the spiritual and earthly authorities. Against this view REM points to the above weaknesses and problems with the view that human authorities could be included at all.


Continuing — next, a look at REM’s argument that the “rulers of this age” are best understood as spiritual rulers.

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


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

14 thoughts on “Seven problems for the view that Paul’s “rulers of this age” were human authorities”

  1. Some scholars have argued that Paul’s “rulers of this age” embraced both the spiritual and earthly authorities. Against this view REM points to the above weaknesses and problems with the view that human authorities could be included at all.

    Is REM also arguing against the view that humans and demons are meant (by acting independently one from the other), or even against the view that demons are meant BEHIND humans? Isn’t the latter option a too much strong concession to stricto sensu mythicism ?

    1. He is addressing (in the section I am discussing) only the meaning of “rulers of this age”. How the rulers of this age crucified Jesus is another question.

      Notice that he does use as support for one of his arguments the Gospel of Mark depicting Jesus in a cosmic drama in contest with demons, and the Gospels of John and Luke saying that it was Satan who was engineering the death of Jesus by influencing Judas, not the human authorities.

      He does argue against the view that both humans and demons are meant by “rulers of this age” simply because he believes there are too many problems with the interpretation of “rulers of this age” in 1 Cor 2:6-8 being human authorities at all.

      He also points to the logical fallacy of even attempting to interpret Paul through the narratives of the Gospels and speeches in Acts. We can see several reasons for understanding the gospels and Acts as being attempts to contradict the writings of Paul — notice especially Matthew and Acts.

      Having said that, however, some scholars do think the Gospel of Mark was an attempt to present Paul’s theology in a parabolic or historical creation, in which case we return to the stark difference between Mark and the other gospels: Mark arguably depicts Jesus being in conflict with demons at all times, with all of his trials (called “temptations”) being the machinations of demons behind the scenes.

  2. A couple thoughts:

    2 Cor 4:4 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.” This would seem to fit in with the point in 1 Corinthians 2:8 that the rulers of this age couldn’t see the wisdom of God. So this certainly could mean Satan had blinded men’s minds so that they would crucify Jesus, God’s chosen one.

    I would also note that ὁ θεὸς τοῦ αἰῶνος in 2 Cor 4:4 is singular, while τῶν ἀρχόντων in 1 Corinthians 2:8 is plural, perhaps suggesting a distinction between the spiritual ruler in 2 Cor 4:4 and human rulers under his influence in 1 Cor 2:8.

    1. You don’t think objections #2 and/or #5 and/or #6 pose difficulties for this view?

      Should we also take into account the timing of 2 Cor 4:4 – Satan’s act of blinding unbelievers follows the crucifixion and resurrection whereas 1 Cor 2:6-8, of course, addresses the earlier event.

  3. “Argument: the gospels inform us that the demonic powers did know who Jesus was, so the rulers of this age who crucified Jesus because of ignorance (1 Cor. 2:6-8) could not be these spiritual powers.”

    Neil points out “The most fundamental objection to the above argument is its fundamental logical or methodological error. It is not valid to interpret the original meaning of a document written around 50 CE according to other ideas and stories that were extant a generation later.”

    Besides the argument/s that the Pauline texts and the synoptic texts were or may have been written at different times (eg. a generation apart), there is also the argument that they arose independently ie. they may represent quite different traditions and origins: a different theology.

  4. I would disagree with point 3. It is clear for me that the demons in Paul didn’t know the same identity of Jesus, pace REM. The problem posed by Mark (that the demons seems to know who is Jesus, contra Paul) is a false problem insofar proto-Mark could be a Gnostic Gospel where the demons believed wrongly that Jesus was the Jewish Christ and not the Messiah of an alien deity. So it is always a risk to read Paul with Gospel-coloured glasses (as someone said).

  5. Neil, as always, I’m impressed with your research and analysis. But in this case, why do we care whether he was referring to humans or demons?

    1. Good question.

      That it is important in some quarters is indicated by the heat with which some people insist that the only correct and reasonable interpretation is that Paul is referring to the likes of Pilate, Caiaphas and Herod and to reject this view is to show signs of wilful bias.

      To me I think the interpretation comes down to a contest between historical methods and that contest in turn is at the heart of justification for how we view our evidence for Christian origins.

      It is similar to the argument over whether Josephus’s Testimonium Flavianum is entirely interpolated or is built up from an original core statement about Jesus. What is just as significant as the methods of argument is the significance of one interpretation as evidence for one particular view of Christian origins. As with the TF argument what is just as instructive as the arguments themselves is the timing of them and the identity of those promoting the changes. That is, the broader cultural context (led by the ever-growing dominance of the field by American scholars with a certain religious background) tells us much.

      And how Christianity originated is not a disinterested academic question for many scholars and lay people alike.

      If Paul viewed the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not just the meaning of the crucifixion and the visions of a resurrected Jesus, but the crucifixion itself as well as the resurrection and all that it meant, as a revealed apocalyptic event that ushered in the last days and promise of the imminent parousia, then we have no tension between Paul and the first gospel that both present the “Christ event” as a cosmic drama that was “historicized” through a type of midrashic narrative, not a historical event that was mythologized or theologized.

      The interpretation of rulers of this age as human rulers has become as necessary as an original core of the TF for foundational evidence for a model of Christian origins that in truth originated as and remains central to Christian doctrine.

      But quite apart from the ideological interests involved in the debate, there is the basic question of sound historical method and de-weaponized hermeneutical readings in the study of Christian origins.

  6. One of my pet hypotheses is that Paul was being artfully ambiguous here, and in several other passages.

    On one version of mythicism, early Christianity was a Jewish mystery cult. Like other mystery cults, it had a public story about the adventures of its savior deity in an earthly setting. Once you became an initiate, you would start to learn the secret inner meaning of that story. If you reached a high enough level of initiation, you would eventually learn that the story actually happened not on earth but in a celestial realm, or even that the story was entirely allegorical and never happened at all in a literal sense.

    Paul was writing to a mixture of Christians at different levels of initiation. Those at the lowest level probably still thought that Jesus was historical, and Paul had to avoid spilling the beans to those who weren’t ready for the higher truths. So he chose his words carefully. The lower-level initiates would understand “the rulers of this age” to mean Pontius Pilate, or the Sanhedrin, or whoever else served as the villain in the cover story. The more advanced initiates would recognize that Paul really referring — nudge nudge, wink wink — to demons.

    Several other Pauline passages can be read (and often are read) as referring to a historical Jesus, such as the “born of woman” remark in Galatians 4:4, or the identification of James as “brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19. However none is a slam-dunk for historicity. Their ambiguity may drive us crazy today, but there could have been a very good reason for it at the time.

    1. Comment by Richard Carrier (23 May 2018), noting Pauls vagueness per Carrier (25 April 2018). “Historicity Big and Small: How Historians Try to Rescue Jesus”. Richard Carrier Blogs:

      [Per the Pauline epistles] the manner of death was too trivial to have a schism over at that point, especially as Paul is so vague about it—and you don’t go vague on a point that’s creating schisms; that’s what creeds are for: to demarcate what’s valid and what’s anathema. So clearly there were no anathemas regarding means of the killing; vagueness would at best mean an intent to “big tent” the movement and unite schisms. Notice that by the time we get to Ignatius, now the manner of death is a schism point built into the creed, indicating that by then there certainly were sects disagreeing (though exactly what they were disagreeing on or why we can only speculate). But that’s almost a hundred years later.

Leave a Comment

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading