2020-05-20

“Rulers of this Age” as part of an Interpolation into 1 Corinthians

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by Neil Godfrey

This post questions the authenticity of the section in Paul’s writings where we read that “rulers of this age” crucified “the Lord of glory” followed by a passage said to be a citation of Scripture but that appears only elsewhere in the Ascension of Isaiah. The arguments for interpolation are derived from William O. Walker Jr’s chapter 6 of Interpolations in the Pauline Letters.

On the question of the identity of the “rulers of this age” — whether human, demonic, or both — see the posts addressing a range of scholarly interpretations in the archive for Rulers of this Age.

6 We speak wisdom among those who are perfect, although it is not a wisdom belonging to this world, nor to the governing powers [rulers] of this world [age], which are being brought to nothing,

7 but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God purposed before the worlds (or: ages), with a view to our glory.

8 This wisdom none of the governing powers [rulers] of this world (-age) has known. For if they had recognized it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

9 But as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard and that never entered into any man’s heart, all the things that God has prepared for those who love him.”

10 For to us God has revealed them through the Spirit. For the Spirit explores all things, including even the depths of God.

11 For who among men knows what a man is but the man’s own spirit within him? In the same way no one has recognized what God is but the Spirit of God.

12 We, however, have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that comes from God, so that we may know what has been bestowed upon us by God.

13 And it is also of this that we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught us by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things in spiritual terms.

14 The unspiritual (“psychical”) man, however, does not receive the things of God’s Spirit. For they are foolishness in his eyes and he cannot recognize them, because they are (or: must be) spiritually interpreted.

15 The spiritual man, however, judges all things, but is not himself subject to anyone’s judgment.

16 For “who has discerned the mind of the Lord, so as to instruct him?” We, however, have the Spirit of Christ.

(Based on Conzelmann’s translation)

William O. Walker, Jr. (Westar Institute; Trinity University)

For readers impatient to get the main overview, here is a crude list of reasons some scholars have suggested the passage was not originally composed by Paul:

    1. numerous linguistic peculiarities seriously call into question Pauline authorship;
    2. the passage contradicts what Paul says elsewhere;
    3. the consistent use of ‘we’ and other features distinguish 2.6-16 form-critically from its immediate context;
    4. the presence of the passage in 1 Corinthians can plausibly be explained as an attempt by Corinthian ‘pneumatics’ to correct what they saw as Paul’s distortion of their position.

(Walker’s summary of Widman’s discussion: Widmann, Martin, “I Kor 2 6-16: Ein Einspruch gegen Paulus”, ZNW 70 (1979), pp. 44-53.)

Conzelmann writes in his commentary (p. 57),

The section 2:6-16 stands out from its context both in style and in content. It presents a self-contained idea, a commonplace of “wisdom.” It is a contradiction of his previous statements when Paul now announces after all a positive, undialectical possibility of cultivating a wisdom of the “perfect.”

Walker summarizes (p. 128) E. Earle Ellis’s view of the evidence for a non-Pauline origin:

    1. the shift from the singular … to the plural with the “we”, i.e. the pneumatics as the subject …
    2. the unity of the section independent of its context, and
    3. the considerable number of phrases not found elsewhere in the Pauline literature’.

On the basis of such evidence, Ellis concludes that “on balance, 1 Cor. 2.6-16 is probably a pre-formed piece that Paul has employed and adapted to its present context”.

Walker thus points out three possibilities:

  1. it was composed by Paul, using ideas and terminology taken from his opponents,
  2. it was composed by someone other than Paul but was included in the Corinthian letter by Paul, or
  3. it was both written and added to the Corinthian letter by someone other than Paul (not necessarily the same person, however).

Walker argues for #3. In doing so he addresses the counter-claims of Jerome Murphy-O’Connor who concludes that the passage is indeed by Paul (Interpolations in 1 Corinthians – link is to JSTOR article).

No Manuscript Evidence for Interpolation?

Some biblical scholars insist that we cannot make a serious case for interpolations unless we have anomalous manuscript evidence that physically demonstrates variations in editing lines. This is essentially an ostrich argument. The earliest manuscripts we have are those produced by the winners of the theological wars. We know editors fought their battles by modifying source texts. This state of affairs is not unique to the biblical texts since it is well-known that in other ancient literature interpolations were very common, and a problem that even ancient custodians (as in the Alexandrian Library) confronted. (See the Interpolations posts for additional discussion.)

Contextual Evidence for Interpretation

There is an abrupt shift at verse 6

  • from the singular “I” to the plural “we”;
  • from aorist to the present tense;
  • from autobiographical reminiscence to timeless propositions (similar to a “pneumatic eulogy” as found in 1 John)

The passage (6-16) is a completely self-contained unit, of a quite different genre from the surrounding text.

The surrounding autobiographical text (2:1-5 and 3:1-4) “is interrupted by [the anonymous] 2:6-16 with its panegyric to Wisdom and its possessors.” (p. 132) Without the verses 6-16 we have a “smoothly connected passage” addressing Paul’s first visit to Corinth in which he emphasizes his own weakness and the carnal nature of his hearers. The surrounding passages do refer to wisdom but they do so in a quite different sense from sentences in 2:6-16.

The passage is interrupted, however, by ‘an exposition of the exalted status and role of the Christian pneumatic as one who is privy to divine mysteries, a theme that does not appear to have its genesis in the critique of the Corinthian practices’. 

(Walker quoting Ellis, 134)

Murphy-O’Connor has countered with the notion that Paul has taken over the language of his opponents. However, the passage in itself is in no way polemical (despite many translators unnecessarily opening up the section with the word ‘but’ or ‘however’) and no opponents are being addressed in the surrounding passages at all. Paul is merely addressing his converts who are behaving with rivalry.

Walker concludes this section with a six-point set of considerations that point towards interpolation (p.137):

  1. The shift from singular to plural number.
  2. The shift from aorist to present tense.
  3. The interruption of the autobiographical material with a timeless panegyric to Wisdom.
  4. The lack of evidence for the view that 2.6-16 represents Paul’s polemical use of the terminology and ideas of his opponents.
  5. The possibility that the repetition in 3.1 of the κἀγὼ and ἀδελφοί in 2.1 suggests the presence of intrusive material and an attempt in 3.1 to pick up again the threads of 2.1-5.
  6. The possibility that 3.1 in its entirety may represent a secondary link between 2.1-5 and 3.2-4.

Linguistic Evidence for Interpolation

Ellis points to the following phrases as not being found anywhere else in Paul’s letters:

Except for “the Lord of glory” (v.8) which is also in Jas 2:1, none of these phrases is found elsewhere in the New Testament. — Ellis, per Walker, 137
  • rulers of this age (2:6, 8)
  • the Lord of Glory (2:8)
  • the spirit of man (2:11)
  • the spirit of the world (2:12)
  • the spirit who is from God (2:12)
  • the natural (psychic) man (2:14)
  • the mind of the Christ (2:16)

(Also, the word “taught” v.13 and “spiritually” v. 14 are not found elsewhere in Paul’s letters.)

Walker then offers us another list, one from Widmann noting “linguistic, terminological peculiarities in the passage” that suggest interpolation (I translate the Greek terms into English):

  1. Use of ‘solemn mystery-language’ to characterize Christian proclamation rather than Paul’s usual kerygmatic, eschatological terminology.
  2. Portrayal of Jesus’ crucifixion not in kerygmatic terms but rather as a crime perpetrated by “the rulers of this age” (v. 8).
  3. Reference to political or demonic authorities as “rulers of this age”  (v. 8).
  4. Use of “Lord of Glory” as a title for Christ (v. 8).
  5. Presence of an Apocryphal citation (v. 9).
  6. ‘Completely unique development of the word-group “spirit”, “spiritual”, in which “spirit” serves not, as for Paul, ‘as a designation for the “salvation-history” presence of Christ in the community’ but rather ‘as organ of knowledge and … as divine self-consciousness’ (vv. 10-15).
  7. Non-Pauline use of ‘the dualistic anthropological conceptual pair Psychic-Pneumatic, originating from Gnostic speech‘, to differentiate humankind into two classes of people (vv. 14-15).
  8. ‘Further development of the pneumatic-language’ along nonPauline lines with ‘the proud, self-confident statement: “We, however, have the mind of Christ” (v. 16), in which “mind of Christ” is used as a synonym for ‘Spirit’. [Contrast Romans 11:34 where Paul writes that no-one has known the mind of the Lord!]

Walker surveys Murphy-O’Connor’s assertions that the arguments for interpolation are unpersuasive (his main objection is that M-O fails to address all of the points for interpolation and is content to rely upon the weakness of just a few of them in isolation) and makes his own view clear (139-40):

My own judgment is that the linguistic data are more nearly compatible with the interpolation hypothesis than with the opposing view (for example, the presence within the scope of only 11 verses — a total of barely over 200 words — of two words and at least nine phrases not found elsewhere in the authentic Pauline letters surely cannot be disregarded. . . .

[A]rguments for interpolation are inevitably cumulative in nature. No single argument can be taken as conclusive. 

. . . Murphy-O’Connor does not deal with most of these data at all.

Ideational Evidence for Interpolation

Many scholars have commented on the significant differences of thought expressed in 2:6-16 from Paul’s thought elsewhere. We have outright contradictions, in fact. The passage expresses a Gnostic idea of wisdom and is opposed to the discussion of wisdom in the surrounding verses. Walker cites Widmann’s eight ideational differences between the passage and its immediate context (141-42):

  1. Christian speech is viewed as the mysterious hidden divine Wisdom or ‘the deep things of God’ rather than as the openly proclaimed word of the cross.
  2. Crucifixion is seen as an act committed in ignorance by ‘archons of this aeon’ rather than as the ‘ground of salvation established by God in Christ’.
  3. A positive evaluation of wisdom is made rather than rejecting wisdom and, paradoxically, identifying the preaching of the cross as wisdom.
  4. A maturity of pneumatics is exalted rather than such ‘maturity’ being depicted as arrogance and the inferior position and earthly weakness of both preachers and members of the community being emphasized.
  5. A distinction between psychics and pneumatics is made, both with predetermined destinies, rather than between Jews and Greeks, both with equal need of and access to salvation in Christ.
  6. An elaborate understanding is shown of the Spirit as the means of access to ‘the depths of God’ and supernatural wisdom rather than more primitively as the ‘strange miraculous power’ and eschatological gift work in the ‘difficult, weak,  all-too-human task of mission’ and the ‘daily practice of faith’.
  7. Preaching is understood as ‘esoteric mystery-speech’ rather than as the community’s intelligible human ‘missionary and catechetical work’.
  8. An attitude of ‘superiority over all criticism’ is displayed rather than the realization of being weak, fearful, earthly beings, far from self-honor, far from the goal, and ‘therefore ready to submit to every criticism’.

(Italics original, underlining mine)

The 1 Cor.2:6-16 is not an ironical twist with the author throwing back at his opponents their terminology to refute their arguments:

1 Corinthians 2.6-16, in its entirety, appears to contradict Paul’s views as expressed immediately preceding and following in the same letter. 

(Walker, 143)

Revelation schema: long-hidden wisdom is now revealed. Also found in . . .

Col. 1:26-27the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory

Eph. 3:5, 9-10the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets . . . to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms

2 Tim. 1:9-10This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

Titus 1:2-3 eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, and which now at his appointed season he has brought to light through the preaching entrusted to me

1 Peter 1:20He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.

Rom. 16:25-27 –  the revelation of the mystery that had been kept secret for eternal ages, but now has been revealed, and through the prophetic scriptures has been made known according to the command of the eternal God

Interestingly, all of the above references are found in disputed Pauline passages.

See also Just., Apol. 1.13.4; Iren., Haer. 3.13.1; Hipp., Ref. 5.8.5, 26; 6.35.1; 7.25-27; Cl. Al., Strom. 1.55.1,179.1; 5.60f, 64.6, 65.5, 87.1; 6.166.3. – Conzelmann, 58

We have here what has been technically termed the “revelation schema”:

the “mystery” had been decreed by God from eternal ages, but remained hidden, and now is revealed.

Walker notes that this schema

appears only in the pseudo-Pauline, never in the Pauline, writings.

The only two exceptions: Romans 16:25-27 (“widely regarded as an interpolation”) and 1 Cor. 2:6-16.

(I find it interesting that this particular “revelation schema” is a major point in some mythicist arguments, including those of Earl Doherty. It leads one to speculate about the historical trajectories of various early “Christianities”.)

Comparative Evidence for Interpolation

Walker singles out the following aspects of the thought-world of 1 Cor. 2:6-16 that belong more typically to post-Pauline and pseudo-Pauline writings than to the supposedly authentic of Paul’s letters:

  1. The contrast between ‘a secret and hidden wisdom of God’ and ‘a wisdom of this age [and] of the rulers of this age’;
  2. the implied distinction between ‘the mature’ or ‘the perfect’ … and ordinary Christians; and
  3. the presence of … ‘the revelation schema’: ‘the “mystery” had been decreed by God from eternal ages, but remained hidden and now is revealed.

#1 and #2 are typical of later Gnostic ideas but not of the accepted Pauline works.

Conclusion

Recall the danger of the “if it fits” form of argument. Walker is aware that he cannot “prove” a case for interpolation. It is also a mistake, he reminds us, to take each point of the argument in isolation and reject it without considering the cumulative effect “of converging lines of evidence”.

The crucial question must always be in which direction does the cumulative preponderance of the evidence point?

(Walker, 146)

This has been another post I have decided to set down for future reference when I return to a more detailed discussion of the Ascension of Isaiah.


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.

Walker, William Jr. 2002. Interpolations in the Pauline Letters. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark.


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9 thoughts on ““Rulers of this Age” as part of an Interpolation into 1 Corinthians”

  1. A (relatively strong) argument for the passage being “composed by Paul, using ideas and terminology taken from his opponents” is that:

    1) the expression “Lord of Glory” assumes that only Jesus is the supreme god, not even his father. Said otherwise, the Son and the Father are one, hence Jesus is the Son of Father (‘Bar-Abbas’).

    2) later christologies assume that Jesus is subordinated to his father, even only in the relation father-son.

    3) Paul assumes already otherwise that Jesus is pre-existent.

    (1) proves that Paul was not the author, but rival Christians who hated YHWH as inferior god (Jesus being the supreme god tout court)

    (2) proves that the passage can’t be a later insertion in Pauline epistles (as supposed for example by Roger Parvus).

    (3) proves that Paul could have a reason to use the passage for his own goals.

    1. Walker points to the reason your conclusion is, I think, unsustainable. There is nothing polemical in the section. In other places where Paul appears to embrace the language of his opponents (chapters 8-10, for example) Paul makes his own contrary view very clear. There is nothing polemical or contrary in 2:6-16. Nor are there any opponents in the context of this passage, as addressed above.

      1. Why should we define ‘polemical’ the co-optation of ideas from rival Christians ? The fact that our Luke is a co-optation of a rival Gospel makes not it a ‘polemical’ Gospel: only a Gospel that has been usurped/co-opted.

        1. By polemical I mean an attack on opposing ideas. Murphy-O’Connor argues that Paul has used opponents’ language and turned it against them and he cites chapters 8-10 as a clear example where he does that. But Walker points out that 2:6-16 and 8-10 are quite different in tone and that the polemics of Paul in chapters 8-10 are absent from 2:6-16.

          I tried to distil the core ideas in my post and that means I usually bypass much of the subtlety in the original argument. Here is a more complete account of Walker addressing the view that Paul is employing the language of his opponents:

          Yet another contextual consideration is suggested by MurphyO’Connor’s view that in 1 Cor. 2.6-16 ‘Paul deliberately takes over the terminology and ideas of his adversaries’. I find this view highly problematic. As Conzelmann has noted, the passage, taken on its own terms, is not really polemical in nature: the ‘we’ in 2.6-16 are the pneumatics as opposed to ‘the powers of this world’ and the non-pneumatics, and ‘the character of direct polemic against the Corinthians attaches to the “we” only through its being placed between 2.1-5 and 3.1ff. Most translators and commentators, assuming ‘an emphatic antithesis’ between 2.6-16 and what precedes, render the δὲ of v. 6 as ‘but’ or ‘yet’ and the λαλοῦμεν as ‘we do speak’. Often, however, δὲ means ‘and’ or functions simply ‘as a transitional particle pure and simple, without any contrast intended’; moreover, λαλοῦμεν would normally be rendered simply as ‘we speak’ or ‘we are speaking’. Thus, apart from its context, the beginning of 2.6 would be translated in a much more neutral manner: ‘And we speak wisdom among those who are perfect … ‘* If Paul intended the passage to be polemical, one might expect the polemic to be much less subtle and more explicit and direct.

          To carry the point a step further, it is far from clear to me why Paul would at this point choose to adopt in polemical fashion the terminology and ideas of ‘opponents’. Indeed, he has yet to intimate that there are any ‘opponents’ as such. In 1.10-11 he indicates that the source of the difficulty in Corinth is ‘dissensions’ or ‘quarreling among you‘ (not between Paul and his opponents), and he returns to the same idea at 3.3 (‘jealousy and strife among you‘). Only at 1.17 does he first suggest that ‘wisdom’ might be a part of the problem, and even here there is no mention of ‘opponents’). Paul’s rejection of ‘wisdom’ may well be simply the negative aspect of his insistence upon the gospel of
          the crucified Christ. Nowhere in 1.10-2.5 and 3.1-4.21, with the possible exception of 4.8-13, does Paul even hint that there are people in Corinth claiming a superior ‘wisdom’ that sets them apart from other Christians. Indeed, I suspect that 1 Corinthians has too often been read in light of 2 Corinthians and/or that interpretation of other parts of 1 Corinthians has been unduly influenced by 1 Cor. 2.6-16!

          . . . .

          Footnote *
          Indeed, it is far from clear to me that 2.6-16, even in its present context, is polemical in nature. If anything, it is apologetic in tone: far from attacking the ‘wisdom’ claimed by others, it rather can be seen as insisting that ‘we [too] speak wisdom’. Removed from their present context, however, the verses appear neither polemical nor apologetic.

          (Walker, 135)

          and later,

          The only argument cited by Murphy-O’Connor supporting Paul’s use of ideas and terms taken from opponents is ‘the presence of the same phenomenon in the discussion concerning meat offered to idols ( chs.8-10)’. The latter passage (1 Cor. 8-10), however, is not really analogous in this respect. 1 Corinthians 2.2-16, in its entirety, appears to contradict Paul’s views as expressed immediately preceding and following in the same letter. In chs. 8-10, on the other hand, we find a dialectic in which Paul apparently quotes from his opponents and then comments upon or amplifies the quotations in such a way as to correct the opponents and thus make clear his own views regarding the matters at hand. To be sure, there are difficulties of interpretation in chs. 8-10, not to mention questions regarding the integrity of the section, but neither the chapters as a whole nor individual units with the chapters can, in my judgment, be regarded as reflecting sustained use of language or ideology of Paul’s opponents with which he himself disagrees.

          (Walker, 143)

  2. I should add that I don’t believe the interpolation thesis makes much difference to the larger question of Christian origins. It does change one’s view of Paul himself, but really Paul is nothing more than a name on a range of letters expressing quite different views, and a figure in various narratives in which he represents, again, quite different ideas again. Who or what the name originally signified we really don’t know for sure.

    Even if the passage is an interpolation it was made very early by people who evidently had some sort of stake in the writings under Paul’s name. Whether they began as rivals or sympathetic factions or evolutionary developments, I cannot say with any confidence.

  3. ‘we [too] speak wisdom’. Removed from their present context, however, the verses appear neither polemical nor apologetic

    I agree a lot that the verses are apologetical, even when removed from their present context, in virtue of that “But” in the incipit.

    the author feared a confusion of his own ideas, just along the lines of Ephesians 6:12:
    For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers…

    He could specify so only if his views were confused as saying: “we do indeed wrestle against flesh and blood”. In virtue of the same apologetical motive in 1 Cor 2:6-8, Paul were answering against who believed that the crucifixion was a mere earthly fact. No, it was not. The “perfects”, at least them, knew that the demons crucified Jesus, hence it has to be not confused with an earthly crucifixion.

    1. As quoted above, Walker points to evidence that the reason we read “ it” or “however” in our translations is that translators have been persuaded Paul must be writing polemically, but the reasoning is circular. Walker and others show the “but” in our translations is unnecessary and even problematic.

  4. Re “7 but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God purposed before the worlds (or: ages), with a view to our glory.” Scriptures like this and the one in Mark (?) where Jesus explains to his disciples that he used parables so that the listeners do not understand and be thereby saved leave me wondering why “God’s wisdom” wouldn’t be something he would want to share widely. There is an old saying that wisdom isn’t needed because fools do not heed it and the wise do not need it, but there are a great many people between “fools” and “the wise.”

    This sounds more like the lines provided by mystery religions.

    Plus it seems to have been a widespread hobby to “retouch” various writings when copying them. There is an argument that the Gospel we call Mark was written as a defense of the teachings of Paul when Paul was no longer around to defend them.

    As usual I find your posts fascinating, at least the parts I can understand. :o)

  5. In chapter 3 Paul speaks of feading milk not meat to his auditors. They are still fleshly, still psychical. Present/aorist is a red herring; the latter can include the former. Paul is being more specific, it would appear, to get his meaning across. He is trying to clear up arguments afterall. Thinking Paul was being polemical does make the translation choices look awkward, correcting δὲ to the suggested “and” and λαλοῦμεν to ‘we speak’ or ‘we are speaking’ would mak it read better. Indeed ‘we speak’ is the choice of David Bentley Hart in his recent translation.

    Paul’s is a gnosticising mystery cult, of course a “Deacon, elder, and teacher of adult classes at First Presbyterian Church in San Antonio and then at Madison Square Presbyterian Church in San Antonio” would think I Cor. 2:6-16 an interpolation. His is automatically going to be a compromised faith position. He is automatically going to disagree with a Roman Catholic scholar as well – I can vouch from confirmation classes that Roman Catholicism fifty years ago was STILL using the language that gave it away as once being a gnosticising mystery cult.

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