In the previous post we looked at the arguments that “the rulers of this age” were human authorities or a combination of spiritual and human authorities as set out by Robert Ewusie Moses (REM) from his Duke University Doctor of Theology thesis of 2012, Powerful Practices: Paul’s Principalities and Powers Revisited. We now begin the case for the earliest known interpretation (Ignatius, Marcion, Justin) that the rulers of this age were spiritual or angelic beings.
Where to begin? REM notes that the literature on this view is “immense” so I start by putting REM’s thesis aside and consulting some of that literature. We have spoken of the older scholarship overwhelmingly viewing the “rulers of this age” as spirit powers so let’s look at some of that seriously older scholarship.
Otto Everling, 1888
Everling, Otto. 1888. Die paulinische Angelologie und Dämonologie: Ein biblisch-theologischer Versuch. Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. http://archive.org/details/diepaulinischea01evergoog. pp. 11-25
The rulers of this age
- have wisdom but not the wisdom of God
- are currently (present tense) in the process of losing their power
- crucified the Lord of Glory
No class of humans meet all three characteristics. Furthermore, it stretches credulity to think that Paul or anyone would have extrapolated from the actions of Caiaphas, Annas and Pilate that all the rulers of the earth, this cosmos or age, were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, let alone that anyone would have understood Pilate to have been a representative of “the wisdom of this age”.
That Paul had angelic powers in mind is supported by contemporary literature that do speak of angels has having a certain wisdom but a wisdom that is limited as well as power over this world
Paul wrote elsewhere of angels being currently in the process of losing their power and that that loss of power will be complete after Christ has finished his reign: 1 Cor. 15:24.
Satan himself is said to be a ruler of this world: John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11, Eph 2:2, cf 2 Cor 4:4, and the ruler of this time of iniquity: Barnabas 18:2. Satan’s knowledge was known to be incomplete as we read in Ignatius’s letter to the Ephesians 19:1.
In Paul’s mind this world is populated not only with humans but with angelic powers. He speaks of himself as one of those doomed to die in the arena of the “cosmos” or world as a spectacle to both people and angels in 1 Cor 4:9. In Paul’s world, angels were active and were destined to be judged by human followers of Christ, 1 Cor 6:3. Satan himself worked on God’s behalf to destroy the flesh of sinners: 1 Cor 5:5. This last passage reminds us of the Destroying Angel working on God’s behalf in the Old Testament. Another reminder of that Destroying Angel is the fate of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:5-10.
Paul also spoke of a servant of Satan attacking his flesh: 2 Cor 12:7.
Paul and his contemporaries understood that their struggles were against heavenly powers, wicked spirits and that these beings had power over flesh and blood. But good spirits were also there to serve the righteous: e.g. Heb 1:14.
Otto Everling’s discussion of this hidden world of angels is far more extensive than I can outline here. Hopefully I have at least hit on some of his main points.
Martin Dibelius, 1909
Dibelius, Martin. 1909. Die Geisterwelt im Glauben des Paulus. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. pp. 88-99
Dibelius finds special significance in the expression used for Jesus Christ, “The Lord of Glory”, in helping us see the identity of the “rulers of this age”.
To begin with, Dibelius addresses the larger context of Paul’s own thoughts about this world being ruled by angelic powers, and how these angelic powers have suffered defeat, not victory, through the crucifixion of Jesus and how the coming Jesus will finally bring their power to a complete end. Paul, Dibelius stresses, sees the whole plan of salvation as involving the spirit realm. In this context Dibelius considers it most unlikely that Paul would think that responsibility for the originating act of universal salvation should rest on the Jewish Sanhedrin, Herod and Pilate. It is more likely that those responsible will be spirit powers whom Paul views as rulers of this cosmos or age.
But back to that expression “Lord of Glory”. Dibelius discusses the way Paul associates the divine wisdom of the plan of salvation with “glory”. 1 Cor 2:6-8 is followed by a description of how great is the glory of the wisdom hidden from all but those who are Christ’s.
The passage about the rulers of this age also speaks of the glory of the wisdom of salvation and the glory that Christ has prepared for those he saves. This thought world, however, is not Paul’s alone. Dibelius finds it addressed in the context of spiritual rulers of the world in other texts, too, especially the Ascension of Isaiah.
The Ascension of Isaiah narrates the descent of the Beloved from the highest heaven where he is clothed with glory down through the different heavens, but hiding more of his glory with each of the heavens below the sixth so that he would not be recognized by the angels inhabiting those regions. According to one passage (one whose originality is disputed, though — my comment) the leader of these angelic forces becomes the author of the crucifixion by arousing the children of Israel against Jesus:
And after this the adversary envied Him and roused the children of Israel against Him, not knowing who He was, and they delivered Him to the king, and crucified Him, and He descended to the angel (of Sheol). (Asc. Isa., 11:19)
What intrigues Dibelius are numerous echoes of Paul’s writings in the Ascension of Isaiah. He does not believe Paul used or even know of the Asc. Isa. but he does see them as part of the same conceptual universe. Some manuscripts (Latin and Slavic) echo glory that “no eye saw” that we read in 1 Cor 2:9. The spirits do not know that the one they are responsible for crucifying is the “lord of glory” since he has removed his glory for the express purpose of deceiving them. Those who are saved do know of this glory and will share it in the resurrection.
The wisdom hidden from the rulers of this age or world is the wisdom of all that is and will be filled with glory. (According to the Asc. Isa. only the angels in the upper sixth and seventh heavens knew the Lord of Glory; it was the lower angels who were more wicked and blinded.)
Dibelius then looks beyond the Asc. Isa. and finds parallel concepts in Ignatius (see the link above under Everling) and gnostic writings, in particular a Naassene hymn known to us from the Refutations of All Heresies (commonly ascribed to Hippolytus – my note):
Jesus said: “Look upon her [the weary soul clothed in the form of deer (Psalm 42)], Father!
Pursued by disasters here, she wanders away
Toward the earth, away from your spirit!
She seeks to flee bitter Chaos
And knows not how she will cross it!
For this reason send me. Father!
Holding the seals I will go down, [the seals are probably tokens of passage or magic formulas]
I will go across all aeons,
I will open every mystery,
I will manifest the shapes of [the lower] gods,
I will transmit the hidden things of the holy path,
Which I have called gnosis. [Jesus is a kind of doublet of the soul who descends to save the soul]
Litwa, M. David. 2016. Refutation of All Heresies. First edition. Atlanta, Georgia: SBL Press. p. 275
From the Gospel of Nicodemus:
But Satan the prince of Tartarus said: . . . I have prepared a cross to crucify him . . .
Then Hell, receiving Satan the prince, with sore reproach said unto him: O prince of perdition and chief of destruction, . . . Thou wouldest crucify the King of glory . . . Wherefore didst thou adventure without cause to crucify him unjustly?
Dibelius further draws attention to some details in the Gospel of Nicodemus (=Acts of Pilate) (chapters 20-23). Hell and Satan are in dialogue: Satan believes Jesus to be only a mortal man and so crucifies him only to learn too late that by doing so he has undone all his work to destroy mankind.
The point of these additional texts is to demonstrate the mythical world in which Christianity took root and grew, and that there is nothing strange about the idea that Paul would speak of spirit rulers of this age crucifying “the Lord of Glory” because his glory was hidden and because the wisdom of glory was also hidden from them.
Ulrich Wilckens, 1956
Wilckens, Ulrich. 1956. “Weisheit und Torheit Eine exeget.-religionsgeschichtl. Unters. zu 1. Kor. 1, 18-2, 16.” (Heidelberg: [Verlag nicht ermittelbar]. pp. 52-96
Wilckens interprets 1 Cor 2:6-16 through the ideas and language found in gnostic texts. Modern scholars, including those who believe that “rulers of this age” are spirit beings, have preferred to interpret Paul’s ideas as closely as possible within the bounds of Paul’s letters themselves. And given my heavy reliance upon machine translations for German I find Wilckens discussion of unfamiliar gnostic arguments particularly difficult to grasp quickly so I will bypass them for most part.
What grabs Wilckens’s attention is the word τελείοίς (=mature, full grown) in 1 Cor 2:6 to describe those who can appreciate the wisdom of God. This is both a stoic and gnostic term and it is its gnostic connotations that Wilckens discusses at length.
Wilckens then examines various gnostic teachings including (among others) those of the Naassenes and the Sethians and in the Corpus Hermeticum.
In other words, Wilckens argues that in the passage in question Paul suddenly breaks out in gnostic language and he undertakes to explain the reason for doing so.
I would like to spend more time ploughing through the following passage from pages 61ff but perhaps some kind soul who reads German can translate it for both me and other interested readers. It appears Wilckens is examining the different emphases given to “rulers of this age” and how that renders unlikely the view that human authorities are in mind. He also refers to Everling and Dibelius whose arguments we have attempted to outline above.
Es ist allerdings immer wieder gegenüber dieser dämonologischen Auslegung von 2, 6 der Versuch unternommen worden, die „Archonten“ als menschliche Repräsentanten zu verstehen. Das Hauptargument für dies Verständnis ist der Hinweis auf die Aussage in V. 8, wo es heißt, die Archonten hätten den „Herrn der Herrlichkeit“ gekreuzigt. In neuerer Zeit hat besonders J. Schniewind diese Aussage als „Topos der urchristlichen Missionspredigt“ nachzuweisen versucht1. Aber man fragt sich doch, warum Paulus so ausdrücklich und betont ουδέ των αρχόντων του αϊώνος τούτου των καταργουμένων hinzusetzt, wenn doch αιών ούτος hier wie in 1, 20 einfach die Menschen weit meint. Und warum ein solcher Zusatz in diesem Zusammenhang, wo Paulus sich doch mit der korinthischen Sophia-Lehre auseinandersetzt, und sein Gedankengang demgegenüber auf eine Entfaltung des πνευματικός-Begriffes zusteuert? Außerdem fällt – trotz der Parallele in 1, 20 – auch die wiederholte Formulierung oi άρχοντες τον αϊώνος τούτον auf. Der Begriff αιών οντος wird sonst nirgends mit menschlichen Repräsentanten verbunden, sondern umgekehrt: Der Aion ist eine Macht, der die Menschen insgesamt als viol τον αϊώνος τούτον verhaftet sind (vgl. Luk. 16, 8; 20, 34 f.), und dessen Repräsentanten daher nicht Menschen, sondern die die Menschen beherrschenden dämonischen Mächte sind (vgl. z. B. 2. Kor. 4, 4: ό θεός τον αϊώνος τούτον). So hat man seit 0. Everling und besonders M. Dibelius die Archonten als „Mächte“ interpretiert. Zwar kommt im Neuen Testament sonst der Begriff im Plural nicht in dieser Bedeutung vor, wohl aber einerseits der Singular (ό αρχών τον κόσμον τούτον) wie besonders auch der Plural al άρχαί1. In der jüdisch-apokalyptischen und rabbinischen Literatur spielen diese Mächte eine erhebliche Rolle. Sie sind Herren dieses Aions und werden mit diesem Aion zugrunde gehen. Aber auch in gnostischen Texten haben die Mächte große Bedeutung. Sie sind dort ebenfalls die Herren der Welt, was im Horizont des gnostischen Weltbildes oft so vorgestellt wird, daß sie die Welt wie undurchdringliche Gefängnismauern umschließen, als Wächter die Menschen gefangenhalten und vom Lichtreich jenseits der Welt absperren.
Wilckens points to “extensive supporting documentation from Jewish and Gnostic” sources to support his view that the rulers mean demonic powers.
Interestingly he sees that the motif of concealment in the passage is common to both apocalyptic and gnostic language. While modern scholars may be reluctant to associate gnostic ideas with Paul (at most, perhaps, a sarcastic use of gnostic terms) few would disagree with Paul’s apocalypticism.
In common with others Wilckens places importance on the idea expressed that the rulers are losing their power and coming to nothing, now, in this time. He finds that concept impossible to apply to the earthly rulers who supposedly killed Jesus but it does fit well with the demons whose power is steadily being overcome since the cross and who will come to nought at the end of Christ’s rule.
More to follow….
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13 thoughts on “What they used to say about Paul’s “rulers of this age” who crucified the “lord of glory””
“the demons whose power is steadily being overcome since the cross ”
Funny but all the evangelical preachers I hear about claim that demonic power is constantly growing. Puny cross.
I’ve heard preachers in the past also use the very same scripture above to “prove” the Christians daily fight against Satan and his evil angelic hosts, but when the above arguments and very same scripture are presented they balk. They are not consistent in there interpretations.
In the context of “Middle Platonism”, the following interpretation may hold:
For an overview of the bigger picture see,
Bailey, Kenneth E. (2011). “The Wisdom of God: Revealed Through the Spirit 2:3–16”. Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians. InterVarsity Press. p. 102. ISBN 978-0-8308-6932-9:
The core message of the gospel that Paul preached was that Jesus was crucified (by the Jews) and rose from the dead. This is stated in many passages of Paul. The gospels as testimony to the beliefs of early Christians, are also witness to this fundamental belief. That an element of mysticism should enter the thinking of the early Christians is understandable. (hence the reference to heavenly powers, that is something greater than earthly powers) The Jews were punished in AD70 for killing a physical Jesus. This was also a fundamental teaching of the early church. I don’t understand the attraction to this idea that Jesus was killed in the heavens. Is it to “prove” there was no Jesus? If so it is a very lazy way to do it, and it does not explain the overwhelming body of evidence to the contrary.
What are you talking about? Did you read the above articles?
It’s actually the opposite of lazy. Otto Evelings article(among others) shows its MORE Likely Paul was talking about a spiritual realm and spiritual beings.
It’s the height of laziness actually to blame the Jews when in fact Paul writes positively about them and their part in the whole salvation plan.
Paul George: “I don’t understand the attraction to this idea that Jesus was killed in the heavens.”
Loke, Andrew Ter Ern (2017). The Origin of Divine Christology. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 169. Cambridge University Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-1-107-19926-2:
But the problem is that Paul’s core message does not say Jesus was crucified by the Jews. The single passage where that appears is disputed by mainstream scholars. We cannot take the book of Acts and infer that it represents the teaching of “the early church”. We know from Paul’s letters that there were different teachings in the early church and Paul was certainly not representative of any norm. His first heirs were the “heretics” and Acts had to be written to “tame” Paul to make him “orthodox”.
The Gospel of Nicodemus (=Acts of Pilate) most explicitly shows that spiritual beings have the power to be fully responsible for crucifying human beings on earth. So that rulers of this age are demonic forces does not necessarily mean that they had to crucify Jesus in heaven.
But as for a heavenly crucifixion, it is not an idea that appeals because of some “attraction”. It is a conclusion that some people arrive at through their interpretation of the evidence itself. (It appears from Hebrews and Revelation alone that blood sacrifices certainly were known to have happened in heaven.)