July 19: Galatians 4:8-9

Today’s note is the first of two on Galatians 4:8-11, and is supplemental to my article on Gal 4:1-11 (part of “Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians”). This first note is on vv. 8-9, and will cover two areas:

    1. The structure and syntax of the verses
    2. The relationship of the stoicheia to the Law

Structure and Syntax

In verses 8-9, Paul makes us of a me/nde\ construction. The primary particle me/n serves as a marker in narrative or discourse, linking items or clauses together; as such, it is often followed by the coordinating particle de/ (“and, but”). Syntactically, the clauses are connected, usually in a continuative (“so [first]… and then…”) or adversative (“so [on the one hand]… but [on the other hand]…”). Paul coordinates in the latter sense, contrasting the believers’ condition before faith in Christ with that after faith:

“But (consider that) on the one hand [me\n] then [to/te], having not seen [i.e. known] God, you were slaves to the (thing)s being ‘not gods’ by nature; but now [nu=n] on the other hand [de\], knowing God—and more, being known under [i.e. by] God—how do you turn again upon the weak and poor stoicheia?…”

The adverbs to/tenu=n (“then…now…”) correspond to, and qualify, the me/nde\ construct. Moreover, the temporal contrast is understood specifically in terms of knowledge (that is, knowledge of God)—before faith, they were “not knowing”, after faith, “knowing”. In the condition prior to faith, the verb ei&dw is used (lit. “to see”), probably to indicate perception, recognition, etc. After faith, ginw/skw is used, the principal verb for knowledge (esp. of God); and Paul further qualifies this by interjecting the parallel adversative clause “but (even) more, known by God”, to indicate the priority (and governing character) of God’s role in the revelatory and salvific process. It is interesting to compare vv. 8-9 here with the famous Areopagus speech of Acts 17:22-31 (on this, cf. the articles and notes in my series on the Speeches of Acts). The theme of knowledge of God dominates the speech (knowing/unknowing, vv. 23, 30), and there too Paul addresses the condition of humankind prior to faith in Christ (cf. also Acts 14:15-17; Rom 1:18-23). The contrast is characterized by two additional details which are also found in other passages:

  • The emphasis on pagan idolatry—”the things being by nature not gods“. A particular and important point of the Old Testament (Prophetic) polemic against pagan/polytheistic religion was that the gods they worshiped did not really exist, often being equated simply with their images (idols) so as to reinforce this idea. Paul draws upon this line of thinking in Acts 14:15; Rom 1:23; 1 Cor 8:4ff; 10:19, though in 1 Cor 10:20 he appears to follow the belief, common in early Christianity, that the pagan gods did have real existence, but were actually evil spirits/demons. Here, he offers a more general ‘philosophical’ description: that the things which the Galatians previously worshiped and served were “by nature” (fu/sei) “not gods”—the construction of this latter phrase (mh\ ou@sin qeoi=$) indicates that they have no real existence (cf. Plato Laws 10.889E for a classical distinction between the “gods” existing “by (artistic) production” (te/xnh|) rather than “by nature” (fu/sei), and note Acts 17:29).
  • Conversion as turning—The verb e)pistre/fw (“turn [back] upon”), though rare in the Pauline letters, is frequently used in regard to people turning (back) to God, and, in a specifically Christian sense, of coming to faith/trust in Christ, cf. Acts 3:19; 9:35; 11:21; 26:18, 20, etc. In Acts 15:36, it is used of the Gentiles coming to faith; the parallel with Gal 4:9 is even closer in Acts 14:15, where Paul urges the people of Lystra to “turn upon the living God, away from these empty/worthless [matai/wn] (thing)s”. In other words, this turning is away from something old (sin, idolatry, etc) and toward something new (God/Christ).

Stoicheia and the Law

The Greek work stoixei=on (stoicheíon) can be difficult to translate into English; it is related to the verb stoixe/w (stoichéœ) “go in order, in a line/row”, also stoixi/zw (stoichízœ) “set (something) in order, in a row, etc”. A stoi=xo$ is a ordered line/row (or series), and a stoixei=on is something that is so arranged, an element or component of such an ordered arrangement. Indeed the plural stoixei=a is often rendered generally as “elements”. This noun is rare both in the Greek Old Testament (only in the deutero-canonical Wisdom 7:17; 9:18; 4 Macc 12:13), and the New Testament. Apart from the two occurrences in Galatians, it is used only in Col 2:8, 20; Hebr 5:12; 2 Pet 3:10, 12:

    • 2 Peter 3:10, 12—here the reference is to the physical elements/components of the universe (also in the LXX)
    • Hebrews 5:12—the context indicates the “first/rudimentary principles” (of learning), in English idiom, something like “the A, B, C’s”
    • Colossians 2:8, 20—we have the same expression as in Gal 4:3, ta\ stoixei=a tou= ko/smou (“the stoicheia of the world”), and, it would seem, with the same meaning (cf. below)

In Galatians 4:1-2, Paul uses the example (par. with that in 3:24-25)—of a child who is under the control and guardianship of household servants until he reaches the age of maturity—in order to illustrate the condition of human beings (i.e. believers prior to faith) under the Law. Up to the this point, the emphasis has been upon Israelites/Jews who are living under the Old Testament Law (Torah), bound and required to observe its commands and regulations. Now, suddenly, Paul extends the argument to include the non-Jewish (Gentile) Galatians: “So also we, when we were infants/children (i.e. before the age of maturity)…” (v. 3a). Instead of being “under the Law” (u(po\ to\n no/mon), we find the parallel expression “under the stoicheia of the world” (u(po\ ta\ stoixei=a tou= ko/smou). Because of the apparent connection with (polytheistic) idolatry in vv. 8-9, stoicheia here is sometimes translated as “elemental spirits”, but this is not especially accurate or appropriate. The more general rendering “elements of the world” is better, but this also can be quite misleading, especially if is understood in the sense the word is used in the LXX and 2 Pet 3:10, 12. Paul seems to use it as a shorthand expression to summarize and include a range of religious phenomenology; the following points of contact should be considered carefully:

  • The natural order of things—that is, the ordered and orderly components of the world, created by God, and to which human beings respond within their own (natural) environment. While differing in many respects from a modern objective/scientific study of the phenomenology of religion, Paul does, in at least two passages, present a basic outline of the process—in Acts 17:22-31 (if the speech is accepted as genuinely Pauline), and Romans 1:18-23. Both of these passages describe human beings responding to the existence and (providential) presence of God evident in the natural order and arrangement of creation. Acts 17:26-27 specifically refers to: (a) seasons of nature, and (b) natural/physical boundaries (i.e. mountains, rivers, seas, forests, etc), both of which allow for humans to “feel their way” toward God (however imperfectly).
  • The powers of nature—in all cultures and places, human beings have glimpsed the Divine presence within the various natural phenomena, with resulting beliefs and conceptions of God either in terms of (a) an embodiment/personification of the particular phenomenon, or (b) as an intelligent being controlling/governing the phenomenon. This certainly applies, for example, to the celestial phenomena (sun, moon, stars and constellations), seasons and cycles of nature and fertility (agriculture and childbirth), processes of birth, growth and death, and so forth. Ancient and traditional societies typically saw the universe as governed and inhabited by many divine powers—Gods (qeioi) and (lesser) deities (daimonia)—and it is this very religious context which Paul draws upon in the narrative of Acts 17:16ff (esp. vv. 22-23).
  • The laws/principles of the natural order—we might commonly refer to this as “natural law”, but that is rather a more abstract concept than Paul would have used. However, it is clear that the stoicheia—that is, the (divinely-created) order and arrangement of things in the world—carry along with them governing laws and principles. Paul only just faintly spells this out in his writings, but modern comparative study of religion finds all sorts of basic (and natural) similarities especially as related to religious and moral laws, customs, standards, etc, between disparate cultures. In other words, Gentiles unfamiliar with the Old Testament/Jewish Law, still observe many basic beliefs, precepts, regulations, and so forth, which are similar to those in the Torah. This is described a bit more precisely by Paul in Romans 2:12ff, but it must be inferred from the context in Galatians.

How exactly do these “elements” (stoicheia) relate to the Law? We are accustomed to view the Old Testament Law (Torah) as part of “special revelation” (directly from God), and, as such, quite distinct from “natural revelation” (and natural law). And yet, Paul would seem here to treat the Law as very much part of the larger dynamic of the “stoicheia of the world”. In this regard, he offers only one brief example (in verse 10, to be discussed in the next note); but this can be fairly supplemented from the usage of the same expression (“stoicheia of the world”) in Colossians:

  • In Col 2:8, Paul warns believers against being led away (as booty/prey) through ‘philosophy’ and “empty deceit/delusion”, this is qualified by two parallel expressions—”according to the (things) passed along by men [i.e. human tradition]” and “according to the elements [stoicheia] of the world”—both of these are contrasted as “not according to Christ”. The context here is similar to that of Galatians, as both expressions are explained in terms of observing the (Jewish) Law, especially circumcision (vv. 11-14); note the connection between v. 14 and Gal 2:19-20.
  • In Col 2:20, Paul affirms that, as believers, they have “died away from the elements [stoicheia] of the world” (note again the similarity to Gal 2:19f). Here, instead of the Jewish Law (Torah) as such, the reference appears to be to a more general sense of religious/ethical law (“[authoritative] opinions… ordinances and teachings of men”), vv. 21-23. He states in verse 23 that such commands—especially in terms of prohibitions such as “do not touch/taste/handle” (v. 21)—are ultimately ineffective in curbing the desires of the flesh.

This analysis will be continued in the next day’s note, where I will also be examining the next two verses, Gal 4:10-11.

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