Once more on the “Spiritual Rulers” in Paul’s Cosmic Drama

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

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
    6. More older arguments for Paul’s “rulers of this age” being spirit powers


Paul foresees the crushing of every spiritual ruler who has been against God in 1 Corinthians 15:24-26

24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed every ruler (ἀρχὴν), every authority (ἐξουσίαν) and power (δύναμιν). 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is Death.

But where did he get that idea? Matthew Black has proposed that there was an early Christian “meme” (as we might say today) — more correctly a “pesher” or “interpretation” — that combined Psalm 110:1 with Daniel 7:13ff.

Psalm 110:1

The Lord says to my lord:

“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”

Daniel 7:13-14, 27

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. . . .  27 Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.’

Compare Mark 14:62 where these two passages are again intertwined:

62 “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Who are these rulers in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians? If we interpret Paul’s words in the context of related documents in that general time period we are likely to conclude they are angelic rulers. Notice:

Ephesians 1:20-21

That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet. . .

Those powers over whom Christ rules appear to be in the heavenly places.

1 Peter 3:22

Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

That surely seals it. Yes, the angels and authorities and powers in those heavens are all subject to him.

Guy Williams in his published thesis comments

So, then, this forms an early Christian (perhaps, ‘mythical’) narrative. Certain angelic powers are assumed somehow to have become estranged from and hostile towards God, thus making their eventual defeat a part of the new Christian message. (p. 134)

So we come to the last name listed by Robert Ewusie Moses to represent the “immense” “scholarly literature” favouring the position that the rulers of this age in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 are in fact spiritual, not human, powers.

Guy Williams, 2009

Williams, Guy. 2009. The Spirit World in the Letters of Paul the Apostle: A Critical Examination of the Role of Spiritual Beings in the Authentic Pauline Epistles. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Guy Williams

We are moving well beyond the “what they used to say” era but I include Williams’ viewpoint here because it is the last cited by Robert Ewusie Moses of the “immense” “scholarly literature” favouring the position that the rulers of this age are spiritual powers.

Williams summarizes five reasons for viewing the rulers of this age as “angelic and spiritual rulers”, not human powers, “although the influence of human powers is not unrelated to this idea.” (p. 136)

(a) it is the earliest known interpretation of these verses, [Ignatius (Eph 18-19); Marcion (Tertullian, Marc 5.6.5) and Ascension of Isaiah (11:24)]

(b) the verb used here (καταργέω – meaning ‘destroy’, ‘nullify’) refers to the destruction of angelic ἀρχαὶ by Christ in 15.24 – a highly suggestive parallel,

(c) the rulers are ignorant of the wisdom which God “established before the ages – a point of some relevance to immortal angels, but meaningless in connection with humans,

(d) the rulers are presently being destroyed, an assertion which might fit with angelic rulers but not with Herod and Pilate, who died long before Paul’s letter was written, and

(e) Paul writes specifically of “the rulers of this age“, suggesting a narrative of cosmic conflict between certain powers of evil and Christ (cf Gal 1.4; 2Cor 4.4; also Eph 2.2; Ascen. Isa. 2.4). In early Christian tradition, the ‘current age’ is most commonly associated with the rule of Satan and his subordinates.

These arguments suggest that this text is similar in scope to 1 Cor 15.24 and Col 2.15.

(p. 137, my formatting and bolding; italics original)

I will not repeat Williams’ detailed discussion of each of the above points because we have addressed some of the same essential arguments in earlier posts. I will quote some sections where I think further elaboration is helpful.

Miller objects that Paul does not suggest that the rulers are in any sense responsible for false wisdom. Miller, APXONTON. However, if this is so, it is difficult to see what type of contrast Paul is trying to draw. If the rulers of this age are not the source of any type of wisdom, then why juxtapose them with God’s wisdom? Furthermore, the idea that this age has its own particular brand of wisdom clearly is assumed in 1 Cor 1.20. (Williams, p. 235)

The “wisdom” of which Paul speaks is contrasted with “this age” and also with “the rulers of this age”. The implication is, then, that these rulers are understood to have their own particular type of wisdom which sets up the negative comparison. Paul speaks of true wisdom; they stand for false wisdom. The rulers play a typological role, representing what is inferior or wrong. On this point, Everling correctly observed that it is very difficult to make a connection with the human rulers who crucified Jesus: what could the characteristic wisdom of Herod or Pilate possibly be? By contrast, the idea that the angels are ignorant of what the Spirit reveals is found elsewhere in the NT (1 Pet 1.12), while the claim that angels offer “rejected mysteries” is set against God’s wisdom in some apocalyptic literature (7 En. 16.3). 28

[28. Compare also 2 En. 24.3: “For not even to my angels have I explained my secrets.”]

Again, on that little point about the rulers being currently destroyed:

Finally in verse six, we may add two brief points . . . . Firstly, the participle here (καταργουμένων) is present tense, implying an activity which is currently ongoing. So, this translates into the observation that the rulers of this age are (currently) being destroyed or nullified. As both Everling and Dibelius argued, it seems altogether meaningless to apply this expression to the human individuals who crucified Jesus, since they were already long dead at the time of Paul’s writing. This statement also makes little sense when applied lo the idea of ‘rulers’ in more abstract terms (i.e. the Roman authorities), since Paul was writing at a time of stability and prosperity. However, the claim that angelic powers were being destroyed might have seemed justified to Paul.

Indeed, this is hinted at in 1 Cor 15.24, which brings us to the second point, the end will only come when Christ has “destroyed every ruler, and every authority and power”. Precisely the same verb used in 1 Cor 2.6 (καταργέω) is here employed for the destruction of angelic enemies. (pp. 235f – my formatting)

And again on that detail about the wisdom in question preceding “the ages”:

This idea that God’s wisdom was pre-ordained “before the ages” has made almost no impact on the critical interpretation of these verses thus far, but it should probably be regarded as an important matter. Fundamentally, the rulers of this age are held to be ignorant of God’s hidden wisdom (2.8), and it is actually in this verse that Paul gives his essential qualification to the nature of this secret. It is older than all the ages, even than creation. So, if we now consider the possible targets of this language, it helps lo clarify Paul’s (most likely, angelic) terms of reference. If Paul were referring to the human individuals who crucified Jesus, then the qualification that they were ignorant of what was hidden “before the ages” would seem to be overdoing it. Self-evidently, mere mortals would be ignorant of any of God’s secrets, regardless of when they were established. By contrast, keeping a secret from an immortal and heavenly power would be a more difficult matter, and so the observation that it was established even “before the ages” would provide relevant, additional explanation. In fact, the belief that God kept the appearance of his Son from the angels as a long-standing secret is explicitly articulated elsewhere in the NT, in 1 Pet 1.12. (pp. 236f)

Next, the significance “of this age”

Paul continues with the point that this wisdom – the deepest secret from the depths of time – was entirely unknown lo the rulers of this age. He doggedly maintains the qualification τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου [“of this age”] (he could simply have written ‘the rulers’), which says something about the importance he attaches to this phrase. By implication, then, these are not just rulers which happen to live in this age: the genitive is more likely to be proprietorial. Thus, the rulers are global in their scale of power, possessing and dominating this age. Again, this type of description fits best with an angelic interpretation of the term ἄρχων here.” (p. 237)

Earlier I observed that “the lord of glory” is associated in 1 Enoch with wisdom and spiritual rulers of this earth. Williams makes the same point explicit further adding a link with a Qumran fragment of 1 Enoch 22:14 where God descends to destroy the angelic powers for spreading their rejected mysteries”. (pp. 237f)

Wisdom of the heavenly powers taught to humanity –  in 1 Enoch:

16:3 And now as to the watchers who have sent thee to intercede for them, who had been aforetime in heaven, (say  to them): “You have been in heaven, but all the mysteries had not yet been revealed to you, and you knew worthless ones, and these in the hardness of your hearts you have made known to the women, and through these mysteries women and men work much evil on earth.

8:1-3 And Azazel taught men to make swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates, and made known to them the metals of the earth and the art of working them, and bracelets, and ornaments, and the use of antimony, and the beautifying of the eyelids, and all kinds of costly stones, and all colouring tinctures. And there arose much godlessness, and they committed fornication, and they were led astray, and became corrupt in all their ways. Semjaza taught enchantments, and root-cuttings, ‘Armaros the resolving of enchantments, Baraqijal (taught) astrology, Kokabel the constellations, Ezeqeel the knowledge of the clouds, Araqiel the signs of the earth, Shamsiel the signs of the sun, and Sariel the course of the moon. And as men perished, they cried, and their cry went up to heaven . . .

7:1-2 And all the others together with them took unto themselves wives, and each chose for himself one, and they began to go in unto them and to defile themselves with them, and they taught them charms and enchantments, and the cutting of roots, and made them acquainted with plants

Where do humans fit in this scenario?

Guy Williams says that “common sense” would oblige us to believe that the demons used humans as their tools to crucify Jesus. (Maybe, but recall in Acts and elsewhere in Paul that demons are known to destroy, kill, humans directly.)

Is not the wisdom Paul has been speaking of up to 1 Cor 2.6-8 a ‘human wisdom’? Yes. But again keep in mind the thought-world in which Paul was immersed.

The underlying contrast is not between God and humans, but between divine wisdom and the current age. An assumed connection between human and angelic wisdom would fit well with this. For instance, the “rejected mysteries” of 1 En. 16.3 are the angelic secrets which underlie human knowledge: weapon-making, ornamentation, alchemy, etc. (8.1; cf. 7.1). Similarly, angels also disseminate the good aspects of human learning; in some texts, we even find a group designated as the ‘gods of knowledge’ (…4Q400 2.1; 4Q403 1, i. 31). In much of Jewish angelology, human learning and science is nothing other than the wisdom of angels. (p. 239)

Descent into and return from Hell

One added detail introduced by Williams is that when the angels crucify Jesus they find themselves destroyed by the return of Jesus from Sheol, the underworld. Notice Romans 10:7 and compare Ephesians 4:8-10. Williams’ point is that this motif of descent into and return from the underworld appears to have preceded the gospels, thus being part of the earliest tradition and not a late accretion.


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

Williams, Guy. 2009. The Spirit World in the Letters of Paul the Apostle: A Critical Examination of the Role of Spiritual Beings in the Authentic Pauline Epistles. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.


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!

8 thoughts on “Once more on the “Spiritual Rulers” in Paul’s Cosmic Drama”

  1. Paula Fredriksen has two good quotes on this issue. She writes:

    (1) But the gods struck back. These lower deities, the archontes tou aiones toutou, the cosmic “rulers of this age,” had crucified the son of Paul’s god (1 Cor 2.8); now they persecuted and afflicted Paul and Paul’s Christ following gentiles, all of whom thereby shared in the suffering of Christ. The theos tou aiones toutou, “the god of this age,” blinded the minds of those who refused Paul’s message (2 Cor 4.4). Paul acknowledges these god’s hostility but also holds them in contempt: their power, after all, was already broken and would soon be overwhelmed by the returning Christ, to whom they would submit (Phil 2.10). (Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagan’s Apostle, 89)

    (2) “Rule,” “authority,” and “power” sound like earthly governments. But in antiquity these words also indicated cosmic “governments” as well, the realm of hostile superhuman forces (cf. the “many gods and many lords” of 1 Cor 8.5-6, and the “god of this world,” 2 Cor 4.4). So to the archontes tou aiones toutou (1 Cor 2.8): “the rulers of this age (if by this phrase Paul intends astral powers rather than Roman) have crucified the son of Paul’s god. These are the superhuman entities whom the returning Christ will subjugate (cf. Romans 8.38, angels, principalities, and powers; also cf. Eph 6.12). These entities are the supercelestial powers who ruled over gentile nations, and whom, in turn, these nations worshipped. And these are the beings who provide the superhuman knees in Philippians that “will bend” when acknowledging Jesus as the eschatological Lord Messiah. (Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagan’s Apostle, 140)

    – I was curious as to what Fredriksen thought on the mythicism issue so I sent her an Email saying:

    In your book you mention that when it says Jesus was crucified by ” τῶν ἀρχόντων τοῦ αἰῶνος “, this may have meant that he was killed by Demons. If this is so, when Paul says “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures”, could this be another way of saying that the first Christians learned of Christ’s crucifixion through an allegorical reading of the scriptures? After all, Paul says “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).”

    I just sent the Email last night so I haven’t heard back from her yet.

      1. Thanks for sharing that. In “Paul: The Pagan’s Apostle (2017),” Fredriksen says the best piece of evidence that Paul thought Jesus was a man is that Paul calls Jesus an “anthropos,” “human. One question I would have for Dr. Fredriksen is that if she believes Paul thought Jesus was crucified by demons, how did the original Christians learn about this kind of death of Jesus. Presumably they wouldn’t have been witnesses.

        1. I suspect PF’s reply will be that the demons crucified Jesus by manipulating humans not completely unlike a puppeteer controlling puppets. That’s how Luke and John portray the crucifixion as being carried out by Satan.

          Even without human agencies spirits have the power to kill people before eyewitnesses. Recall Ananias and Sapphira, and Herod, in the book of Acts.

          That Satan crucified Jesus did not mean there were no eyewitnesses.

          (At the same time it is worth keeping in mind that “man” itself does not always mean an earthly human in our sense of the word. Paul in 1 Cor 15 spoke of two types of anthropos: one made of earthly stuff and the other of heavenly.)

          1. Yes, and as McGrath said, “The Book of Revelation illustrates very well the sort of viewpoint that Doherty himself acknowledged was widespread in that time, with demonic forces manifested through and in cahoots with earthly rulers.”

  2. I don’t think he addresses that specific detail. He does cite Kovacs approvingly in other areas and dwells heavily on the relationship between angelic and human wisdom.

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