Further older arguments for Paul’s “rulers of this age” being spirit powers

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by Neil Godfrey

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
  4. What they used to say about Paul’s “rulers of this age” who crucified the “lord of glory”
  5. Seven problems for the view that Paul’s “rulers of this age” were human authorities

(Related topic: “Demons Crucified Jesus ON EARTH”. . . . )


1 Corinthians 2:6-10

(6) But we speak wisdom among the perfect, wisdom which does not belong to this age nor to the rulers of this age, who are being destroyed. (7) But we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God foreordained betöre the ages with a view to our glory. (8) This wisdom none of the rulers of this age knew, for if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
(9) But as it is written: ‘Things which eye has not seen nor ear heard, which did not enter into the heart of man, things which God has prepared for those who love him’. (10) But to us God has revealed (these things) through the Spirit.

Translation by Judith Kovacs (see below)

(Contrary to what I learned years ago in a certain church, in Kovacs view, the new revelation of verses 9-10 refers to the cross as the pivotal turning point in history and the grand cosmic drama: from the that moment on the hidden ruling powers of this age were in the process of being conquered and humanity would soon be released from their clutches and this evil age would pass away.)


Charles Kingsley Barrett, 1968, 1971

Barrett, C. K. 1971. A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. 2nd ed.. Black’s New Testament Commentaries. London: Black. p. 70-72

C.K. Barrett

C.K. Barrett saw the same “rulers of this age” being condemned in

  • John 12:31  Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.
  • John 14:30 I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me
  • John 16:11 the prince of this world now stands condemned.

The wisdom that these rulers do not know is the wisdom of this “evil age” (Gal 1:4), a wisdom that sets itself against God. As far as men are concerned it is a “man-centred” wisdom (as Paul has discussed in the preceding passages). Yes, it is a human wisdom, but….

He calls the evil powers ‘archontas‘. If these themselves were ignorant how much more were also the men by the intermediary of whom the demons crucified the Lord.” —

Héring, Jean. 1962. The First Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians. Translated by A. W. Heathcote and P. J. Allcock. Epworth Press. p.16

But more than men are concerned. It is the wisdom of the rulers of this age (compare verse 8; and 2 Cor. iv. 4). Paul, like very many of his contemporaries, conceived the present world-order to be under the control of supernatural beings, often represented by or identified with the planets, or other heavenly objects. These (except in so far as the power of God was available to overthrow or hold them in check) controlled the destiny of men. The wisdom they themselves entertained, and perhaps communicated to men, was naturally of the kind described. (p. 70)

Paul understood that these rulers were in the process of “being brought to nothing”.

Up until now I have made much of the difference between the hidden wisdom being about God’s plan for salvation through the cross on the one hand and the identity of Jesus as God’s Son and Christ by whom salvation was to be wrought. So I find myself pulled up when I read C.K. Barrett writing:

None of the rulers of this age . . . knew . . . this true, divine wisdom. Either: they did not understand God’s plan for the salvation of the world, based as it was on the cross; or: they did not recognize Christ crucified as the agent chosen by God for the world’s salvation. These two interpretations are distinguishable, but the difference between them is not great. (p. 71)

Of course, Christ is himself the wisdom of God according to 1 Cor. 1:24 and 1:30.

Barrett treats the “rulers of this age” as the supernatural powers controlling the events of this age, at least up till the time of the crucifixion, but acknowledges that a few others at that time differed. One of these was J. B. Lightfoot who held them to be earthly rulers such as Pilate and Caiaphas. Barrett responds:

This view is possible in verse 8 but much less likely in verse 6; and the gospels represent the ministry, and not least the death, of Jesus as a record of conflict with supernatural powers. On this question, see Héring, . . . . Man may, however, properly recognize himself in the inability of the world-rulers to see God’s wisdom in the cross. (p. 72)

We have seen this argument before, that the gospels, or at least the gospel of Mark, presents Jesus’ conflicts on earth as a contest between supernatural powers. When we do turn to Héring as Barrett suggests we find the source of Barrett’s own understanding of “rulers of this age”.

To understand these verses we must first ask who are the ‘rulers of this age’ (‘hoi archontes tou aionos toutou“). With Origen and Theodore of Mopsuestia and in contradistinction to Chrysostom we think that this expression must be linked with ‘archon tou kosmou toutou‘ (Jn 12:13, 14:30, 16:11), where there is no question that supernatural powers are meant. If this is so, there is then here no reference to Pontius Pilate or the Roman emperors, but to powers of the invisible world. This seems to be supported by:

  • the parallel text of Colossians 2:15, where Christ triumphs by the Cross over hostile powers, called ‘archai kai exousiai’;
  • as well as by Romans 8:38, where the ‘archai‘ (along with other supernatural powers) are mentioned as being likely to hinder the work of Redemption;
  • the fact that the Roman Empire was looked upon by the Apostle as a providential and beneficent power (Rom 13 1-7);
  • possibly also by the use of the verb ‘katargein‘ (2:6), which is sometimes a technical astrological term for the nullifying of an astral influence by a superior power;
  • the fact that they diffuse a wisdom, i.e. teaching, which is in no way characteristic of the political powers.

We are concerned, then, with astral powers, directly related to the ‘stoicheia’ = ‘the elements’ of Galatians. There is nothing to show that the Apostle ranked these among the beings which were evil by nature, like the ‘daimones‘ of 10:20-22 or like Satan or Beliar. All we are told is that they were opposed to the Gospel. But they would not have been, had they possessed divine wisdom. For in such a case, they would have known that it was not in their own interests to crucify the Lord, since his death struck a terrible blow at their rule (Col 2:15). Some scholars further think that they did not even recognize the Lord, recalling in this connection the gnostic (oriental) myth of a god who deceived the ‘devil’ by hiding his identity. (On this see. . .  Ignatius, Ep. to the Ephes. 19; as well as the Ascension of Isaiah X.11ff)

(Héring, pp. 16f)

Following Héring Barrett notes that the expression “lord of glory” is found most commonly in 1 Enoch:

22:14 Then I blessed the Lord of glory and said: ‘Blessed be my Lord, the Lord of righteousness, who ruleth for ever.’

25:3-7  And he answered saying: ‘This high mountain which thou hast seen, whose summit is like the throne of God, is His throne, where the Holy Great One, the Lord of Glory, the Eternal King, will sit, when He shall come down to visit the earth . . . . Then blessed I the God of Glory, the Eternal King, who hath prepared such things for the righteous, and hath created them and promised to give to them.

27:3-5 In the last days there shall be upon them the spectacle of righteous judgement in the presence of the righteous for ever: here shall the merciful bless the Lord of glory, the Eternal King. In the days of judgement over the former, they shall bless Him for the mercy in accordance with which He has assigned them (their lot).’ Then I blessed the Lord of Glory and set forth His glory and lauded Him gloriously.

63:2 Blessed is the Lord of Spirits and the Lord of kings, And the Lord of the mighty and the Lord of the rich, And the Lord of glory and the Lord of wisdom

75:3 For the signs and the times and the years and the days the angel Uriel showed to me, whom the Lord of glory hath set for ever over all the luminaries of the heaven, in the heaven and in the world, that they should rule on the face of the heaven and be seen on the earth, and be leaders for the day and the night, i.e. the sun, moon, and stars, and all the ministering creatures which make their revolution in all the chariots of the heaven.

Not mentioned by either Barrett or Héring (unless I have missed something) is the association in 1 Enoch of the Lord of Glory with both wisdom and spiritual rulers of the earth.

It is difficult to avoid bringing these two associations in to the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians, and especially to 1 Cor 2:6-8.


No portrait, a boring cover, and most of HC’s interesting information is in his footnotes that I do not include here.

Hans Conzelmann, 1975

Conzelmann, Hans. 1975. 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Edited by George W. MacRae. Translated by James W. Leitch. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. p. 61

Conzelman acknowledges those who disagree with his view:

The question whether the άρχοντες, “governing powers,” are demons or political powers has long been in dispute.44 The mythical context suggests the interpretation demons,45 and so also does the solemn predication των καταργονμινών, “which are being brought to nothing.”46 They are the minions of the “god of this aeon” (2 Cor 4:4).47


Judith Kovacs, 1989

Kovacs, Judith L. 1989. “The Archons, the Spirit and the Death of Christ: Do We Need the Hypothesis of Gnostic Opponents to Explain 1 Cor. 2.6-16?” In Apocalyptic and the New Testament: Essays in Honor of J. Louis Martyn, edited by Marion L. Soards and Joel Marcus, 217–36. Sheffield, Eng.: JSOT Press.

Judith Kovacs

Judith Kovacs took to task previous scholarship that had interpreted the “rulers of this age” and other terms in the 1 Cor 2:6-8 passage through gnosticism. Kovacs sees no need to turn to the gnostic myth of the redeemer who descended to earth unrecognized by the demons to understand Paul’s point. Nor does she believe Paul is sarcastically imitating gnostic language. Rather, she believes the passage can be fully understand by reference to other statements by Paul and the context of Jewish apocalyptic writings. (A search on academia.edu and elsewhere informs us that Kovacs has a special interest in Jewish apocalyptic and its relevance to New Testament literature and has made some interesting papers freely available.)

The “rulers of this age” are in Kovacs’ chapter definitely demonic spirits and not human agents and we will see her reasons for this identification below.

Parallels in Jewish apocalyptic texts
Many of these terms (‘wisdom’, ‘mystery’, idea of ‘hidden’ wisdom) were in common use in the ancient world:

  • in  Jewish wisdom circles,
  • in mystery religions,
  • in Gnosticism,
  • and in apocalyptic literature

So no need to assume a gnostic background to Paul’s use of them.

ho aiōn houtos
(of this age)
(rulers = demonic powers)
mystērion apokekrymenos
(hidden mystery)
(spirit — as a revealer)
kyrios tēs doxēs
(lord of glory)

Others had noticed the overlap with apocalyptic terminology but Kovacs focused on the particularly apocalyptic way in which Paul used these terms.

The central idea here is also a key theme in many Jewish apocalyptic texts, the notion that God has a secret plan for the consummation of history which is revealed only to the apocalyptic seer and which consists of judgment on the forces of evil and salvation for the elect. The hidden wisdom of which Paul speaks in 1 Cor. 2.6ff. is not, as in gnostic texts, a speculation on the origin and destiny of the elect soul, nor is it concerned to identify a Christian elite, as several Interpreters suggest. It is concerned with God’s plan for salvation and judgment, a plan carried out in the arena of history. (p. 219)

The Corinthians passage is, in Kovacs’ view, addressing an apocalyptic moment in which hidden powers are involved through and in parallel with events on earth in a great cosmic struggle. Paul speaks of this hidden reality of warring powers, with one side now currently being destroyed, as a mystery throughout 1 Corinthians and refers to these hidden powers in each of his undisputed letters except for Philemon.

At this moment in history demonic powers have authority over the world, but their authority is in the process of being destroyed “as the present tense of katargoumenon indicates.”

ἀρχόντων τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου τῶν καταργουμένων
rulers the age of this who are being destroyed

Paul’s description of the archons as katargoumenoi [= are being destroyed] (v. 6) deserves close attention. It means that we should not attempt to understand the passage as a timeless speculation on epistemology or a ‘common-place of “wisdom”’. The present tense of the verb points to the character of the present time as Paul experiences it, as a time in which the God is still engaged in conflict with the evil rulers. The force of this verb should not be minimized . . . . (p. 224)

Humanity is involved but the death of Christ does not only affect them. It has cosmic implications:

It affects not only humanity but also the superhuman powers which exercise control over human history. In apocalyptic fashion Paul views reality on two levels: behind the events of human history lies the cosmic struggle of God with the forces of evil. (p. 222)

The crucifixion of Jesus is said to be a “confrontation between the demonic rulers and God.” Kovacs points to analogies in Galatians and Romans where the death of Jesus paradoxically overthrows the apocalyptic powers intending to destroy him, the Law and Sin.

Against the gnostic interpretation (of the redeemer descending in disguise to trick the demons) of Wilckens and Bultmann and others Kovacs writes

The plausibility of this theory is considerably diminished when we note the gender of the relative pronoun in v. 8: if Paul is alluding to the failure of the archons to recognize the redeemer, we would expect him to say hon [=whom] oudeis egnöken and not hēn [=which]. The parallel with gnostic texts thus becomes rather slight. There is also, it should be noted, considerable difference between the gnostic descriptions of the descent of the redeemer through the heavens and the present reference to the historical event of the crucifixion. (p. 221)

Much more needs to be said to do full justice to Kovacs’ detailed case against the gnostic interpretation of the entire passage (in particular her view that the pivotal event of the death or cross itself is a revelation) but enough has been covered here to present the core idea that rulers of this age is a reference to the hidden spirit powers of Paul’s world.


Raymond Collins, 1999

Collins, Raymond F. 1999. First Corinthians. Vol. 7. Sacra Pagina. Collegeville, Minn: Michael Glazier.


Raymond Collins

Collins picks up Kovacs’ apocalyptic (as distinct from gnostic) interpretation of the passage and likewise prefers the view that the rulers of this age are “cosmic powers who control the physical universe” rather than political authorities.

Since patristic times interpreters have disputed with one another as to the meaning and origin of “the rulers of this age” (ton archonton tou aionos toutou). Who are the rulers of this age? The expression “of this age who are passing away” postulates an apocalyptic frame of reference. . . .  The apocalyptic character of this epistolary unity with its reprise of biblical motifs makes it likely that Paul has superhuman forces, angelic, demonic, or astral, in mind as he writes about the rulers of this age (cf. 2 Cor 4:4; compare Gal 1:4). Various terms are used in the NT to designate the cosmic forces popularly believed to hold sway over the universe (see 1 Cor 15:24; Rom 8:38, etc.). Among them are archōn, “ruler” (singular) or the related archai, “elementary principles” (plural). In 2:6 Paul uses archontōn, the genitive plural of archōn, to designate the cosmic powers (cf. EDNT 1:168). Paul’s apocalyptic worldview was such that he saw the human drama as one that was played out under the influence of supernatural forces (see 1 Thess 2:18). That the rulers of this age are passing away (katargoumenōn; cf. 15:24-26) suggests that their power is already in the process of being destroyed. (p. 129)




Barrett, C. K. 1971. A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians / C.K. Barrett. 2nd ed.. Black’s New Testament Commentaries. London: Black.

Collins, Raymond F. 1999. First Corinthians. Vol. 7. Sacra Pagina. Collegeville, Minn: Michael Glazier.

Conzelmann, Hans. 1975. 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Edited by George W. MacRae. Translated by James W. Leitch. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Héring, Jean. 1962. The First Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians. Translated by A. W. Heathcote and P. J. Allcock. Epworth Press.

Kovacs, Judith L. 1989. “The Archons, the Spirit and the Death of Christ: Do We Need the Hypothesis of Gnostic Opponents to Explain 1 Cor. 2.6-16?” In Apocalyptic and the New Testament: Essays in Honor of J. Louis Martyn, edited by Marion L. Soards and Joel Marcus, 217–36. Sheffield, Eng.: JSOT Press.

Moses, Robert Ewusie. 2012. “Powerful Practices: Paul’s Principalities and Powers Revisited.” Doctor of Theology, Divinity School of Duke University.

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12 thoughts on “Further older arguments for Paul’s “rulers of this age” being spirit powers”

  1. Hi, Neil

    Is Kovacs – in arguing against the gnostic notion of a redeemer who descended to earth unrecognized by the demons – suggesting that “the rulers of this age” crucified the redeemer in full knowledge of who he was?

    1. That is how I interpret Kovacs’ article. She writes

      So here the archons think they will destroy the ‘Lord of glory’ by causing his death, but instead the reverse happens: by killing Christ they have sealed their own destruction, a destruction alluded to in katargoumenön (v. 6). (Compare Rom. 8.3, where the effect of the cross is the condemnation of another apocalyptic power, Sin.) (p. 223)

  2. This is interesting. I did some research.

    Bartholomew writes:

    I would argue that an analysis of the scenario and semantic prototypes 1 Cor. 2:6-8 doesn’t bode well for an exclusively spiritual (angelic/demonic) referent for: τῶν ἀρχόντων τοῦ αἰῶνος “the rulers of this age.”

    First of all, the language seems to support the view that “the rulers of this age” were human agents in crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Not neccessairly direct agents but agents close to the action. I am not sure if Paul would say that evil spiritual beings “crucified the Lord of glory.” I suppose it is possible. In the gospels we find evil spiritual beings depicted in the semantic role of agents. That question leads into the next.

    I am working with a semantic prototype of “spiritual authorities/rulers” which assumes that they are immortal beings who have a factually correct knowledge about the identity of Jesus Christ. The exorcism pericopes in the gospels make it plain that demons knew who Jesus Christ was and made factually correct statements about him. For this reason they would not appear fit into the scenario depicted in 1Cor. 2:6-8 where Paul states that the “the rulers of this age” would not have crucified Jesus if they had been in possession of the “hidden wisdom.” An objection might be that knowledge about the identity of Jesus Christ isn’t what Paul was talking about. However, attributing any sort of wisdom deficiency to “spiritual authorities/rulers” as the reason for the crucifixion would seem to identify the nature of spiritual evil as a wisdom deficiency which could be addressed by “enlightening” the evil spiritual agents. I suspect that this is not what Paul would say in regard to evil spiritual agency, that it was deficient in wisdom.

    However, a counter argument might run some thing like: The spiritual authorities behind the agents who crucified Jesus Christ didn’t understand all the consequences of the crucifixion or they would not been pursuing that course of action through their human agents. Paul might be saying that the deficiency was such that the spiritual powers of evil didn’t understand that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was a victory not for them but for their enemies. All of this hang’s on the meaning of “hidden wisdom” which makes the argument somewhat precarious.

    Paul says that “the rulers of this age” are “passing away” which appears to situate the scenario within an historical space and time framework. Perhaps this is another reason to question an exclusively spiritual referent for: τῶν ἀρχόντων τοῦ αἰῶνος “the rulers of this age.” This isn’t an air tight argument, since in the apocalyptic literature both the “spiritual authorities/rulers” and their earthy representatives will be overthrown at consummation of history.

    While it seems improbable that “the rulers of this age” has a primary or exclusive reference to spiritual beings, this doesn’t rule out a composite view where the earthly representatives of the “spiritual authorities/rulers” are primary but understood as acting on behalf of supernatural beings who are depicted in apocalyptic literature as the real powers behind their human agents. While human agents might have crucified Jesus Christ because of some sort of blindness, their spiritual rulers knew exactly what they were doing. Again, one could argue that this is missing Paul’s point; that according to Paul, the blindness behind the crucifixion was something shared by both the spiritual rulers and their human agents.

    see https://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/19383/are-the-rulers-of-this-age-of-1-corinthians-28-human-rulers-or-demonic-rulers

    1. Of course, if τῶν ἀρχόντων τοῦ αἰῶνος does mean demons, there is a sense in which the act of atoning sacrifice by crucifixion might be entirely derived from an allegorical reading of scripture. After all, Paul writes”

      “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’ (Galatians 3:13).”

    2. If we accept the arguments in the earlier post(s) against “rulers of this age” being human authorities then it follows that the term cannot refer to a combination of human and spirit powers, either. The human rulers are ruled out by the earlier arguments if we accept them.

      No, I think one of the decisive points against humans or a combination of humans and spirits being the rulers is that Paul says that these rulers are right now in the process of being destroyed. That makes no sense if applied to Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas or Annas.

      The passage is a climax — after discussing the human wisdom of this age coming to nought Paul says that even the hidden cosmic powers ruling this human world are coming to an end because of this newly revealed wisdom of the cross. The new age is on the horizon. Then in the 15th chapter he says the spirit rulers will finally be completely destroyed and even humans will no longer suffer death.

      1. Neil said: “No, I think one of the decisive points against humans or a combination of humans and spirits being the rulers is that Paul says that these rulers are right now in the process of being destroyed. That makes no sense if applied to Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas or Annas.”

        Couldn’t it just mean that the process of the apocalypse was underway with the resurrected Jesus as the “firstfruits,” and so “the first will be last and the last will be first” is underway?

  3. Kovacs says that the demons knew who they were killing.

    The Ascension of Isaiah says that the demons didn’t know who they were killing.

    The archontic knowledge of the identity of the victim is not really embarrassing for someone like Paul who was totally persuaded that the eschaton is nigh.

    While the same archontic knowledge of the identity of the victim becomes ipso facto embarrassing for someone who sees the delay of the parousia.

    Hence, the archontic ignorance of the identity of Jesus in Asc. Isa. can only be an apology for the delay of the parousia.

    So Kovacs is right: only the demons and the Christians knew the identity of the victim. But then any other possible testimony by other witnesses (who are neither demons nor Christians: for example, a Pilate) was completely useless from the beginning, since it was not a real testimony of the Son but only, at most, of a mere man crucified by the Romans (if this man existed).

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