el’-e-ment, (ta stoicheia, "the letters of the alphabet," "the elements out of which all things are formed," "the heavenly bodies," "the fundamental principles of any art or science"):
A variety of meanings are associated with this word in ancient religion and philosophy. It meant “one of a row,” i.e., anything standing in series, such as the sounds of the alphabet. It aptly described the rudiments (“ABCs”) of a system of knowledge or religion. This is prob. its meaning in
A natural extension of the word was to the elemental substances of the world, which is its probable meaning in
The term also came to designate personified beings or “elemental spirits.” These could be simply personifications of natural forces, or could be individualized as demons or, possibly, as angels. Recent scholarship has tended to interpret the language of
Discussions on the above options usually include some of the following considerations and assumptions. The context of the Galatians passage deals with the Jewish law. The idea of bondage to the elements parallels that of bondage to the law. The description of the elements as “weak and beggarly” (KJV) may be compared to Paul’s statements regarding the weakness of the law, thwarted by human nature (e.g.,
The meaning of the term in Colossians may or may not be equivalent to that in Galatians. The interest in laws, rituals, astral phenomena and seasons could have applied to either Jewish or Gentile heretics. The interpretation of the elements here as spirit beings may be supported by the reference to angels (
Bibliography B. Reicke, “The Law and this World According to Paul,” JBL, LXX (1951), 259-276; H. N. Ridderbos, Commentary on Galatians (1953), 152f.; G. Delling, “στοιχέω, συστοιχέω, στοιχεῖον,” TWNT, VII, 666-687; F. F. Bruce, Commentary on Colossians (1957), 231; C. F. D. Moule, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to Colossians and to Philemon (1962), 90ff.; A. J. Bandstra, The Law and the Elements of the World (1964).