The Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians concerning their former lifestyle. In this regard, he mentions the following.

Galatians 4:8-9 (NASB)
8 However at that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?

The Christian Jews to whom Paul wrote were not idolaters, so idolatry is not evident in this context. But Paul yet mentions that they were "slaves to those which by nature are no gods."

To whom, or to what, is Paul referring by this term "no gods," if idolatry is not part of this context?

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    Good question. But why do you assume they are Jews and not Gentiles? Commented May 28, 2013 at 18:58
  • @MatthewMiller - Paul warns them in the following verses (Gal 4:9-10) that they had risked lapsing back into observation of the Law, which suggests that they were at one time either observing Jews and/or Jewish proselytes (converted Gentiles).
    – Joseph
    Commented May 28, 2013 at 19:23

1 Answer 1


Galatians is directed to Gentiles who were being persuaded to become circumcised and adopt the Mosaic law (Torah).

The lapse which Paul mentions in the verse following does not mean that they had followed the law previously. Rather, he has an overarching salvation-historical shift in mind. The world prior to (and outside of) Christ is made up of "elements" (Greek stoicheia), just as in the classical philosophical imagination the world was literally made up of earth, wind, water, and fire. For Paul, Torah belonged to that old creation and was one of its constitutive "elements."

Thus, when these Gentiles began to be convinced of circumcision and practicing Torah, Paul's claim is that they were returning to the same aeon (age; see Gal 1:4) from which they had been rescued by the gospel. They were being "unbirthed" from the new creation, so that Paul was labouring in birth for them again (4:19).

The reference to slavery must be understood within the broader context. In 3:23ff Paul has described Torah as a paidagogos, which was a household slave who served as a child custodian. If the child is subject to the governance of a slave, that implies (says Paul in 4:1–2) that his own position differs nothing from a slave. The advent of Christ is the coming of the mature Heir, who is born of a woman (and thus under the conditions of the kosmos as a whole) and born under Torah (and thus subject to it). His death provides "redemption" (liberation, like that of the slaves from Egypt) from Torah for Jews; it also triggers the sending of the Spirit promised to all flesh (i.e. including Gentiles).

Seen in this overall light, the before- and outside-Christ world is a realm of slavery, while the "in Christ" new creation is a realm of inheritance and freedom. By adopting circumcision and the calendar of Torah, the Galatians were regressing from the new creation and becoming subject again to the elements of the old kosmos.

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    "No gods" in v 8 refers to their past to the worship as God of what were not in fact gods, i.e. idols. The present is referred to in v 9, and here Paul uses the language of elements. Commented May 29, 2013 at 22:32
  • Thanks, Monica. I'm working on a commentary on Galatians at the moment, so a lot of my answers will likely end up in those topics. Commented May 29, 2013 at 23:02
  • @TimGallant - thank you for the references. (I voted you up.) Do you see a relationship between the "elemental things" in Gal 4:3, which is in reference to the Law of Moses, and to the "elemental things" described in Gal 4:9? In other words, they are the same Greek words occurring in the same chapter. Is there a direct relationship between both references, or does one refer to the Law of Moses and the other to pagan idolatry?
    – Joseph
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 3:07
  • Thanks, Joseph. I guess my earlier explanation wasn't quite clear... In my view, Paul uses "elements of the world" (stoicheia kosmou) analogously to how the ancients viewed the constitutive elements of the world, but in a sort of eschatological/metaphorical sense. That is, the world (kosmos) before/outside of Christ is made up of certain things. Those elements include Torah, but Torah is one of a subset. One of the tricky things to deal with is that Paul goes back and forth between "we" and "you," and in my view that's very intentional in this context. (to be continued) Commented May 30, 2013 at 3:17
  • Viz, "we Jews" were under the stoicheia in the form of Torah; "you Gentiles" were under the stoicheia when you served those which are not in fact gods; and thus, now that you are adopting Torah, you are again turning to bondage to the stoicheia. Commented May 30, 2013 at 3:18

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