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?

  • This answer and this question are both somewhat related.
    – Kazark
    Mar 24 '12 at 16:19
  • Seems to me Paul is referring to common morality, as we would think of it today. But, he was aiming at exposing false religion. There was much religious activity then (as now), but apart from Christ, no one can meet God's standard of righteousnes, holiness.
    – Thureos
    Oct 22 '14 at 10:52

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.

  • 3
    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
  • 2
    @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
  • 1
    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.

  • 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.
    – user862
    Nov 5 '13 at 6:44
  • 1
    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

I realize that I am alone in this but I'm convinced that John and Paul used KOSMOS not to refer to "the whole world" or even "the Roman empire" but to temple-centric Judaism.

If we understand KOSMOS as "Judaism" it becomes clear what Paul is on about in Colossians:

Colossians 2:20-23 English Standard Version (ESV) 20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits [principles] of the world [Judaism], why, as if you were still alive in the world [Judaism], do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion [ceremonies] and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

This runs completely parallel to this:

[Mar 7:15-16 KJV] 15 There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man. 16 If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.

Paul's words to the Galatians become meaningful and lucid when we understand KOSMOS as "Judaism":

[Gal 4:1-31 KJV] 1 Now I say, [That] the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; 2 But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. 3 Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world [Judaism]: 4 But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, 5 To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. 6 And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. 7 Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. 8 Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. 9 But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? 10 Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. 11 I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.

Was Paul's concern related to "regulations" and "ascetics" and "days and months..." from the secular world? No, he was dealing with Jews who insisted on gentile observance of the Torah AND Oral Tradition!

Notice how these run parallel:

[Gal 3:2-3 KJV] 2 This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? 3 Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?

[Gal 4:9-11] 9 But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? 10 Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. 11 I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.

So in my view it was God's great love for Israel that he gave his son. It was a covenant love. His son was the "death introduced by the testator (God)" to ratify the new covenant with the Jews.

John said "He came to his own". It does not say, "He came to everyone in the world". There are anecdotal contacts with gentiles but he clearly avowed "I was not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

It was because of this new covenant that John the baptizer was sent and the spirit was poured upon all flesh. It was to raise Israel (IE: the remnant) from the dead and prepare the elect for the arrival of the kingdom.

It was because the leaders of the Jews were blinded by God as Isaiah had prophesied so that they would reject their king/messiah allowing the gentiles to "come in".

That God had a plan to bring in the gentiles was not known to John.

Jesus' disciples were part of Judaism but Jesus brought them out:

[Jhn 10:8-9 KJV] 8 All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. 9 I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.


My thesis is based on Paul's comment in Colossians 2:8 and 2:20-23; "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου A person who has abused alcohol for years and goes to AA and with the help of his higher power (rather than according to Christ) and the support of fellow alcoholics obtains sobriety. (I have attended AA meetings and been shouted down for speaking of Christ, it's not allowed.) He then feels much better about himself and his circumstances and the consequences he once suffered no longer are part of his life. He then believes he is saved based on the 12th step of AA. "12.Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs." The 12 stps are common morality, and when a person follows them, the negative consequences they once suffered, in large part end. He feels "saved." But in the biblical sense he is not. Sobriety is confused with salvation. Read Paul's comments "If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence." Christ is the only source of power to overcome "fleshly indulgence." Following common morality is not salvation. The 12 steps are not a formula for salvation, they do not bring a spiritual awakening. Only Christ can do that, apart from anything man does (see John 1:12-13). Paul defines his meaning of τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου 2:8, in the passaage 2:20-23.

  • 2
    This looks like it might be interesting but is very hard to follow because of the lack of formatting. Can you add some structure like paragraphs, headings, conclusion etc as appropriate? Oct 24 '14 at 16:32
  • Welcome to BH.SE! Please take our site tour. and check out what makes us different from other sites that study the Bible. We value answers that show their work, which is a requirement on this site. I'm struggling to understand what a twentieth century organization that helps alcoholics has to do with understanding a first century text.
    – Dan
    Oct 24 '14 at 21:04
  • This is a question about a Greek phrase. It is expected that answers will deal with the Greek language and cite reliable lexical and other relevant resources.
    – Dan
    Oct 24 '14 at 21:05

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