July 20: Galatians 4:10-11

Today I will be concluding the discussion from the previous day’s note (on Gal 4:8-9), and continuing on to discuss verses 10-11. Much attention was devoted to the important (and difficult) expression “the elements [stoicheia] of the world” (in v. 3, 9), drawing upon the similar usage in Colossians 2:8, 20. Being “under the stoicheia of the world” (Gal 4:3), in Paul’s thought, is clearly parallel (and partly synonymous) with being “under the Law”—the former, it would seem, including the latter. If one were to widen the scope of meaning of Paul’s expression, it might proceed as follows, including:

    • The Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah)
    • A basic sense of religious/moral law, such as shared by (all) cultures and societies
    • Human beliefs, ordinances, teachings, etc (including various “superstitions”), which are regarded as authoritative and/or binding according to custom and tradition

We might summarize Paul’s expression in modern idiom, by saying that he refers to “the way of things” or “the way of the world”—which is in marked contrast to the Gospel and the way of (faith in) Christ. This latter point is indicated especially by the way he characterizes the stoicheia in v. 9 as a)sqenh/$ (“without strength”) and ptwxo/$ (“poor”), both words indicating weakness and inability. Again, we are not accustomed to thinking of the Old Testament Law this way, and, as I have previously noted, many commentators are reluctant to take Paul’s statements regarding the Law in Galatians at face value or accept their full force; and yet, already in the early recorded preaching of Acts 13:38-39 (if we accept it as authentically Pauline), we find this emphasis on the Law being powerless. What he says (in Acts and Galatians) regarding salvation/justification is basically affirmed (from an ethical/moral standpoint) in Colossians 2:22-23.

Let us now look at the end of verse 9, where the whole issue regarding slavery vs. sonship in vv. 1-11 is brought to a pointed question, which begins—

“how (is it that) you turn [back] again upon [i.e. to] the weak and poor elements [stoicheia]…?”

and then concludes, dramatically:

“…to which again, as above [i.e. as before], you wish to be slaves?”

 The relationship between these two clauses may be outlined as follows:

    • You turn back again
      • to the stoicheia
      • to which
    • You wish to be slaves

Verse 10—Here Paul gives the only example (in Galatians) of what he means by turning back to be “under the stoicheia“:

“You watch along (the) days and months and seasons and years”

The verb parathre/w can literally mean “(stand) watch/guard alongside (someone)”, or, more generally, to “watch [i.e. look] carefully (at something)”, i.e. “observe carefully, inspect, examine” (cf. Luke 17:20). Here it is used in the technical sense of religious-cultic observance. There are a couple of points worth noting:

    • Paul’s statement itself takes the form of a stoichos, that is, an ordered list or series—days, months, seasons, years.
    • It summarizes an entire range of socio-religious practice, conforming to patterns of time, especially, e.g., the seasons (cycles) related to fertility (agriculture, childbirth, etc). This makes up a significant portion of the Torah commands and regulations as well—Sabbath, New Moon, New Year, the Sabbatical/Jubilee year, the festal days (such as Passover, originally tied to the harvest), the day of Atonement, etc. It is interesting that Paul makes virtually no mention in his letters of the Jewish holy days and seasons, not even the Sabbath (or the Christian corollary, the “Lord’s Day”); cf. Colossians 2:16.

To this may be supplemented information from Colossians 2, where Paul associates the “stoicheia of the world” (vv. 8, 20) with the following:

    • “human tradition”, lit. “(things) given/passed along by men” (v. 8)
    • circumcision (vv. 11-12)
    • written ordinances/resolutions (do/gmata) (v. 14, cf. also v. 20)
    • chief/principal and authoritative things/entities (“principalities and powers”) (v. 15)
    • dietary regulations (“food and drink”) (v. 16)
    • feast days, new moon, and Sabbath days (v. 16)
    • (religious) observance/worship of ‘Angels’ (v. 18)
    • basic prohibitions in the ritual and/or moral sphere (“do not touch/taste/handle”) (v. 21)
    • ordinances/commands (charges laid on a person to keep) (v. 22)
    • “teachings of men” (v. 23, par. to the expression in v. 8)

Clearly, the context is Jewish, and thus is largely parallel to that in Galatians, with the possible exception of the mention of deities/powers/angels in vv. 15, 18. In Gal 4:9, the stoicheia (of the world) are described as “without strength, weak” (a)sqenh/$) and “poor” (ptwxo/$); in Colossians 2, this is expressed in similar, but slightly different terms, as:

    • empty [keno/$] delusion/deceit” (v. 8)
    • “a shadow of the (thing)s about (to come)” (v. 17)
    • causing the mind and flesh to be rashly/carelessly inflated (v. 18)
    • lead to ruin/decay [fqora/] in their use/observance (v. 22)
    • lacking the ultimate honor/dignity/value [timh/] for true religion (v. 23)

Throughout the passage, these things are all contrasted with Christ (“according to the stoicheia of the world and not according to Christ”, v. 8ff); note also:

    • Christ is the head of all “principality and power” (v. 10), having removed their power and triumphed over them (v. 15); Christ as head is also contrasted with the mind/flesh that is inflated by religious observance (v. 18-19)
    • True (spiritual) circumcision (“without hands”) is of/in Christ (vv. 11-13)
    • His death wipes out the written ordinances against us (v. 14, cf. Gal 2:19-20)
    • The reality of these things is in the “body of Christ” (v. 17)

The statement with the closest connection to the argument in Galatians is that of v. 20:

“If you have died off with (the) Anointed {Christ} from the elements [stoixei=a] of the world, (for) what [i.e. why] (then), as (if) living in the world, do you subject yourself to ordinances [dogmati/zesqe]?”

This is essentially the same question Paul asks in Gal 4:9. Since the modern (religious) mind is, in many respects, so different from the ancient Jewish (and Greco-Roman) viewpoint with which Paul is dealing, it may be helpful, in conclusion, to summarize the components connoted (and denoted) by his expression “the elements [stoicheia] of the world”:

    • First, the habitual/customary religious response of human beings to the natural/physical world (the “elements”, literally); this, in a primary sense, is the “shadow”, that which decays and “passes away” (cf. 1 Cor 7:31).
    • Second, the ‘divine’ powers (deities) which, according to the ancient/traditional religious view, inhabited, governed and controlled the various phenomena of the natural world. It is difficult to gauge precisely Paul’s belief in such matters based on what is expressed in his letters; however, he seems to have believed in the existence of “powers” (presumably created heavenly/angelic beings), which, temporarily, had governing authority/control over the world. He likely also shared the early Christian view that the pagan/polytheistic deities were actually a reflection of evil spirits/demons (1 Cor 10:20).
    • Third, authoritative religious and ethical law—commands, regulations, precepts, observances, et al—established by tradition and custom.
    • Fourth, the specific commands, etc. of the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah).

Since the main issue of Galatians is the question of Gentiles observing the Torah, it is really only this last aspect which is dealt with there.

Verse 11—In the concluding verse to this section, Paul turns to an expression of self-doubt (dubitatio) regarding the Galatians’ current course of action (i.e. the inclination to observe the Torah regulations):

“I fear for you, how (might) not [i.e. lest] I have uselessly wearied (myself with work) unto you”

In other words, Paul seems to be expressing fear that his missionary work with the Galatians might have been useless or in vain. It is a clever rhetorical shift: his fear is for the Galatians, yet he moves the focus to himself—this technique allows him to transition to the next argument (4:12-20), which is an appeal based on his own person and example.

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