(1 Cor. 2:6-8) Who are the “rulers of this age?”

CLAIM: Is Paul referring to Pilate, Caiaphas, and Herod, when he mentions the “rulers of this age?” Or is he referring to demonic rulers?

RESPONSE: It’s possible that Paul could be referring to human rulers.[1] Morris notes that the context mentions the things that “have not entered the heart of man” (v.9).[2] He also points out that “rulers” (archontes) often refers to the ones who crucified Christ (Acts 3:17; 4:5, 8, 26; Rom. 13:3). However, in our estimation, it is more likely that Paul is referring to demonic rulers[3] for a number of reasons:

First, the term “rulers” often refers to demons. Jesus used this same terminology (archōn), when he said, “The ruler [archōn] of this world has been judged” (Jn. 16:11). Elsewhere, Paul refers to the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4), who is clearly Satan—not a human authority. He also writes, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers [archas]… against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Here, as well, Paul refers to rulers “in the heavenly places,” rather than earthly rulers (cf. Col. 1:16).

Second, the human rulers were already out of the picture. Paul also uses the present tense (“who are passing away”). This would be an odd way of describing Herod, Caiaphas, and Pilate, who were either dead or out of power, when Paul wrote his letter.

Third, “passing away” fits better with demonic rulers. The expression “passing away” (katargeō) literally means “to cause something to be unproductive, use up, exhaust, waste” or “to cause something to lose its power or effectiveness, invalidate, make powerless” (BDAG). This would fit with demonic rulers, who have been defeated by the death of Christ (Col. 2:15).

[1] See Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1987), 104.

Alan Johnson, 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 66.

Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: an introduction and commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 59.

[2] Morris, L. (1985). 1 Corinthians: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 7, p. 59). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[3] David Prior argues a middle position, where the demonic forces influence the human rulers. See David Prior, The message of 1 Corinthians: life in the local church (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 51.

Hans Conzelmann is a liberal theologian, and comes to this conclusion based on the “mythical context” in this section. See Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians: a commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 61.