Paul’s “Rulers of this Age” — Conclusion (Part ?)

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by Neil Godfrey

Is this really the concluding post? No doubt I will find more reasons over time to add to the arguments.

Earlier 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. More older arguments for Paul’s “rulers of this age” being spirit powers
    6. Once more on the “Spiritual Rulers” in Paul’s Cosmic Drama

(Addendum: “Demons Crucified Jesus ON EARTH” – according to ancient sources and modern analysis)


Here we return to the arguments of Robert Ewusie Moses [REM] in favour of the Paul’s “rulers of this age” who “crucified the Lord of Glory” being spirit powers.

Argument #1: Context

I have had several people try to convince me that “rulers of this age” has to refer to human rulers because in the preceding chapter and more Paul has been talking exclusively about the divide between human and godly wisdom. Yes, he has. But it does not follow that he will not shift into a higher gear in 1 Cor. 2:6.

The first reason REM offers for Paul’s “rulers of this age” being a reference to demon rulers is that the term would be “arbitrary and redundant” if it was speaking about human rulers. Recall that Paul has already (in the preceding “paragraphs” leading up to 1 Cor 2:6) made it very clear that “earthlings” — sages, scribes, philosophers, all the wise of this world — cannot and never could understand the “wisdom of God”. Had Paul said “none of the wisest persons on earth could understand God’s wisdom, and not only those wisest of all, but even our rulers, too!” — no, it would not work. Most subjects are discreet about it but they snickeringly know that their Herods and Pilates and Caiaphases are not really all that bright no matter how powerful they are. Paul has prior to 2:6 made it clear that the lowly believers are privy to a wisdom beyond the very wisest of this world.

What Paul is doing here is furthering the crescendo: not only the wisest of humans but even “the rulers of this age who are even right now in the process of being disemboweled.” Woops, disemboweling cannot apply to demons, surely, but Paul used another word that means being sapped of all power, being rendered inoperative”. The rulers of this age, Paul said, are in the process right now of being conquered. Later, in chapter 15, he will refer to a time in the future when that conquest will be complete (see point #2).

So, the logic of Paul’s argument goes like this:

  1. not only all the wisest men on earth
  2. but even those powers that rule this age and who are in the process of right now being conquered by Christ with God’s angels
  3. are bereft of the wisdom of God.

The implication here is that these rulers of this age

  • would be expected to have superior knowledge but they don’t
  • would be expected to have superior power but they are in the process right now of losing that power
  • would be expected to be immortal — though if so, the status of that immortality is now in doubt

It is no coincidence, suggests REM, that “superior knowledge”, “superior power” and “immortality” are the three attributes that define “gods” in the Greco-Roman world.

Argument #2: Rulers are now being disempowered

Let’s look again at that detail about the rulers of this age currently losing their power and becoming inoperative. The verb Paul uses is καταργέω (katargeo). He uses the same verb again in 15:24 but this time to describe a past action, something has been completed.

then the end, when He shall hand over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He shall have annulled all dominion, and all authority and power.

When we read that chapter it is evident that Paul is talking about all powers in both earth and heaven. In 1 Cor 2:6 Paul uses the present passive participle of the verb καταργέω to depict an event currently underway. REM returns to the insight of Dibelius who pointed out that Paul cannot be saying that “the High Priest, Herod, and Pilate” are in the process of losing their power. Paul’s words only make sense of the battle between spirit powers that will culminate in total victory for Christ at the end.

Believers are already the bearers of a revelation that the cross was the site of the powers’ demise; but the powers are still at work in the world, though believers know that their days are numbered, for they are being rendered inoperative.

(REM, p. 134)

Argument #3: Apocalyptic passing of ages

Note, further, that the wisdom that the rulers of this age are ignorant of has been hidden in a mystery since even before “this age” began. And the reason it was hidden till now? Answer: For the unique glory of the believers.

As noted by Clifton Black, these are apocalyptic terminologies that portray the death of Jesus as an apocalyptic event, the turning point of the ages. For Paul, then, the advent of Christ is the decisive moment in history which ushers in a new age and, in turn, sets in motion the gradual fading out of the old cosmos (1 Cor 7:33).

(REM, p. 134)

Up till 1 Cor 2:6 Paul is clearly addressing human wisdom. He speaks of human reversal so that the low-class people become exalted in God’s eyes above the powerful “in the flesh”.

But Paul’s argument takes a dramatic turn at 2:6, when Paul speaks of a wisdom hidden in mystery, which also existed before this age came into being. The argument seems to move to a supra-terrestrial realm whose inhabitants existed before this age of humans (2:8). These inhabitants seem to have superior knowledge; so that information kept from them must be shrouded in mystery (2:7).[See 1 Enoch 16:3 below] If Paul’s reference is to humans, this information is unnecessary in light of his argument about the epistemological transformation available only to believers (1:26-31). Paul’s argument, then, assumes entities thought to have superior knowledge and an otherworldly lifespan. This view that God’s mysterious plan (which includes judgment on evil forces and salvation for the elect) is hidden yet revealed to the elect is routinely encountered in Jewish apocalyptic texts (1 Enoch 1; 16:3; 83-90; 91; 93; Dan 7-12; 4 Ezra; 2 Baruch).

Indeed, in 1 Cor 4:9 Paul will describe his apostolic sufferings as being put on display to the cosmos, angels, and men; and it is this same tripartite division that is at work in 1 Cor 1:18-2:16, when, as we have argued, Paul’s argument moves through “the cosmos” (ο κόσμος; 1:27- 28) and “human wisdom” (σοφός ανθρώπων; 2:5) to angelic powers (οί άρχοντες τοΰ αΐωνος τούτου [“the rulers of this age”]; 2:6-8)

(REM, p. 135, my formatting and bolding)

1 Enoch 16:3 You have been in heaven, but all the mysteries had not yet been revealed to you, and you knew worthless ones . . .

Argument #4: Satan does not work alone

Once more on Romans 13

Paul uses the plural, άρχοντες, in Rom 13:3 in a context where earthly rulers are in view. But, as shown [in previous posts in this series], the argumentative context of 1 Cor 1-2 rules out this interpretation for 1 Cor 2:6-8. In the end, one cannot stake one’s argument on Rom 13, for this same passage also poses a problem for the earthly rulers interpretation, since it seems contradictory to what Paul says about the rulers in 1 Cor 2:6-8: the rulers in Rom 13 are God’s servants; but the rulers in 1 Cor 2:6-8 are being destroyed. But cf. Dan 10:13 (LXX), where the plural, αρχόντων, is used for the angels. In the LXX, αρχών translates the Hebrew שר (“prince”). In the Qumran documents, שר at times refers to the “Prince of Lights” (also known as “Angel of Truth” [IQS 3.24-25]), who is opposed to Belial or the “Angel of Darkness” (CD 5.18; IQS 3.20; lQSb 4.24-25; 1QM 13.10; 1QM 13.14; 4Q266f311.11; 4Q267f2.1; 6Q15f3.1). The word שר is also used for Belial, the “Prince of the Kingdom of wickedness” or the “Prince of Malevolence” (1QM 17.5; 4Q225f2ii.13-14). In addition, Matt 15:41 speaks of “the Devil and his angels.” Cf. also Matt 9:34; 12:24; Mk 3:22; Lk 11:15; Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; Eph 2:2.

REM, pp. 136f

Paul’s “rulers of this age” ( των αρχόντων τοΰ αΐωνος τούτου) appears to be a close parallel to “the god of this age” (ο θεός τοΰ αΐωνος τούτου) in 2 Cor. 4:4. In that latter reference Satan is said to blind the minds of unbelievers from the gospel. At this point REM whacks on the head a common argument for rulers of this age being human, the argument that in other places in Paul’s letters we find the singular form of ruler (αρχων) for demonic powers, but in 2:6, of course, we meet the plural — therefore we must expect Paul’s use of the plural in “rulers of this age” most likely refers to human powers. So goes the argument. But such an argument, as REM observes, “tells us more about Western individualism than Pauline theology”:

It would be an egregious error to think that Paul would conceive of Satan (or some singular “ruler”) as working against God’s purposes individually. The god of this age does not operate alone; he works with his minions. For Paul, the powers span the whole gamut of existence, so much so that none of the powers can be judged in isolation from the others.

(REM, p. 136)

Argument #5: Hidden from the ages before humans were created

Finally, in 2:9 Paul brings his point home by quoting “Scripture.” Paul’s point, which we have attempted to spell out, is that the wisdom believers possess is God’s mysterious wisdom, long hidden, and this wisdom is inaccessible even to spiritual entities that are thought to possess superior knowledge. At the center of this wisdom is the cross as the site of manifestation of God’s power. That God would make his hidden wisdom available to believers is, by definition, unprecedented. It is unheard of that humans would be the bearers of a wisdom that has been long hidden, about which even spiritual powers are ignorant. But this knowledge, which “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor entered the human heart,” is “what God has prepared for those who love him” (2:9).

(REM, p. 137)

Supporting Backup Argument

The letter to the Ephesians is generally classified as a post-Pauline product but that does not necessarily make it irrelevant. REM points out that at the very least the epistle must be seen as one of our earliest interpreters of Paul’s thought.

In order that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph 3:10-11).

For REM this passage (like 1 Enoch 16:3 above) encapsulates the point of 1 Cor 2:6-10.

The wisdom of God is hidden from the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realm; yet this wisdom has been made available to those who are in the body of Christ (cf. Col 1:26). For Paul, God has chosen the weakness of the cross (1:24; 2:2), the folly and unimpressive rhetoric of proclamation (1:21; 2:1, 3-5; 2 Cor 1:10), the lowly status of the church (1:26) as the locus of manifestation of God’s wisdom and power.

(REM, pp. 138f)

One more point: cognate terms

Stepping aside here from REMs study, I want to leave a point made by Guy Williams in The Spirit World in the Letters of Paul the ApostleIt addresses one more argument sometimes raised by those who believe Paul’s “rulers of this age” in 1 Cor 2:6 are human authorities. This “human rulers” argument focuses on the different terms for “rulers” —

  • ἀρχαὶ in Colossians 2:15 that unambiguously speak of angelic or demonic spirit power, and
  • ἄρχοντες in 1 Corinthians 2:6 — the term in dispute.

Carr contends that αρχαι [archai] and άρχοντες [archontes] need not be related in Paul’s thinking. Carr, Angels and Principalities, 115 [This should read 118].

Williams suggests that Carr is cutting too fine a line here since the two words are clearly

cognate forms, both linked to the same verb, both in an apocalyptic setting, and both used for the destruction of Christ’s enemies

Concluding, therefore, that

it seems more likely that they are connected. See Kovacs, J.L., ‘The Archons, the Spirit, and the Death of Christ: Do we Need the Hypothesis of Gnostic Opponents to Explain 1 Corinthians 2.6 16?’, in J. Marcus/M. Soards, (ed.) Apocalyptic and the New Testament: Essays in Honour of J. Louis Martyn (JSNTSup 24; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989) 217-236.

We looked at Kovacs’ chapter in an earlier post.

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.





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