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What does Paul mean by the word στοιχεῖον, and in particular the phrase τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου? Here is a list of occurrences of the word in the New Testament. Feel free to respond concerning the meaning of the word in 2 Peter and Hebrews, too.

I'm already aware of some of the discussion concerning the meaning of this word, but what interpretation(s) do you consider the most convincing, and why?

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This answer and this question are both somewhat related. –  Kazark Mar 24 '12 at 16:19

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

In classic Greek, the word has an astounding variety of meaning:

I. in a form of sun-dial, the shadow of the gnomon, the length of which in feet indicated the time of day...
II. element
1. a simple sound of speech, as the first component of the syllable...
2. in Physics, στοιχεῖα were the components into which matter is ultimately divisible, elements, reduced to four by Empedocles, who called them ῥιζὤματα...
3. the elements of proof...
4. generally, elementary or fundamental principle...
5. ἄστρων στοιχεῖα the stars...
6. ς. = ἀριθμός, as etym. of Στοιχαδεύς, Sch.D.T.p.192 H.

Of these, I think we can eliminate I., which relates to the sun-dial. But we must also remember that the word would have continued to carry the connotation of the passage of time. Therefore the link between στοιχείων τοῦ κόσμου and special days in Galatians and Colossians less of a coincidence.

The author of 1st Peter seems to have had II. 5. (stars) or possibly II. 2. (the physics term) in mind:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.

Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat!—1st Peter 3:10-12 (NASB)

This is apocalyptic language that indicates the total destruction of the current state of affairs to make way for a new heavens, a new earth, and a new relationship between God and people. Destruction of the stars would fit naturally in the usual imagery of "the day of the Lord". I lean against the technical physics term as at the time fire was considered an element. It's also not clear if the audience would have conceived of water and air being "melt[ed] with intense heat". That leaves just one element under the classical system.

Meanwhile the author of Hebrews uses strictly the II. 4. sense:

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.—Hebrews 5:12 (NASB)

My loose paraphrase would be:

You ought to be teachers, but you still don't know the first thing about the Bible...

That leaves Paul's two letters. We have two good interpretations of those passages. (One of them is mine and the other is in answer to my question, so I have possible bias on this point.) To me, Paul is following closer to the meaning from Hebrews than from 1st Peter, but I don't think he minds the connection to astrology and the passage of time. Thayer's Greek Lexicon makes the case against heavenly bodies:

Hence some interpreters infelicitously understand Paul's phrase τά στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου, Galatians 4:3, 9; Colossians 2:8, 20, of the heavenly bodies, because times and seasons, and so sacred seasons, were regulated by the course of the sun and moon; yet in unfolding the meaning of the passage on the basis of this sense they differ widely.

And makes the case for a more philosophical readings of Liddell and Scott II. 3. and 4.:

The elements, rudiments, primary and fundamental principles (cf. our 'alphabet' or 'a b c') of any art, science, or discipline; e. g. of mathematics, as in the title of Euclid's well-known work...

The elements of religions training, or the ceremonial precepts common alike to the worship of Jews and of Gentiles, Galatians 4:3, 9... specifically, the ceremonial requirements especially of Jewish tradition, minutely set forth by theosophists and false teachers, and fortified by specious argument, Colossians 2:8, 20.


Paul uses phrase "the elements or principles of this world" in contrast to the principles of God's paradigm for the Church. Other connotations of the phrase are not unwelcome, but must be strictly secondary in order to follow his argument.

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It is not linguistically defensible to carry connotations across senses of words without outside evidence for doing so. For example, if I get fired from my job, I do not expect you to picture an ejection from a rifle or a flame. It just means I lost my job. If you were to say I was implying that my boss had lost his cool or that I had been physically ejected in some form, I might reply that I was not meaning to imply that at all! Nevertheless, this is an detailed, excellent answer. +1 (and may accept in the future depending on how many others join the conversation) –  Kazark Mar 28 '12 at 14:00
@Kazark: I mostly agree. But since we can chose from several different words in many cases, we might chose one word for it's connotations in other senses. You might have said you were laid off or let go or dismissed or asked to leave or given a pink slip or etc. Each of those would have the same primary meaning (you were fired), but by virtue of connotations have secondary meanings that are fully intended. Paul in particular had a talent for finding just the right word to express his meaning. –  Jon Ericson Mar 28 '12 at 16:32
Okay, that is a good point. I think that is usually taken too far by theologians (denotation sometimes becomes lost in connotation in some explanations), but your comment is a good one. –  Kazark Mar 28 '12 at 17:27
I am marking this as the accepted answer, but I am hoping that there will be further discussion. I will upvote any answers that add detail or advance a different viewpoint unless they are extremely low quality. –  Kazark Mar 30 '12 at 13:43
@Kazark: As will I. It would be lovely to have a defense of the idea that Paul meant heavenly bodies or spiritual forces. –  Jon Ericson Mar 30 '12 at 15:50

I know that this is an old topic, but for what it's worth, there may be some credibility to taking Paul's meaning to include "heavenly bodies."

The Galatians were migrant Gauls, or Celts, whose primary religion was Druidism, which was a form of animism. In Galatians 4:8, Paul says "Formerly... you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods." This would imply a background, not in Judaism, which professes the true God, but in Druidism. The jarring possibility here is that Paul may be comparing their interest in perfecting their faith through Mosaic law (including its festival calendar), with an interest in returning to a Druidian worship of the elements and heavenly bodies. These are based in the same thing: Salvific confidence in the "flesh" or, natural world. This would be as jarring an argument as the one he poses at the end of the chapter, where he identifies the religious jews to Ishmael rather than Isaac, and denounces them as banished slaves.

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Just a quick question: why wouldn't τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου meaning "heavenly bodies" be credible in the first place? One of the usages of τὰ στοιχεῖα elsewhere is indeed heavenly bodies. And, that's always been my understanding of that passage. I don't know about Druidism though. At the least, we're talking about Pagan idolatry. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Nov 5 '13 at 6:44
Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics - Stack Exchange. It's absolutely no problem that the question is old since we are a little different than most internet sites. I like the idea that Paul is speaking against animism. Do you have a source for that? Please consider registering your account, which will give you access to more of the site's features. –  Jon Ericson Nov 5 '13 at 17:12

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