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.

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.