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 Hebrews 5:12. This “principal” or “logical-pedagogical” sense also may apply to the Galatian and possibly the Colossian passages.
A natural extension of the word was to the elemental substances of the world, which is its probable meaning in 2 Peter 3:10. In later times the heavenly bodies and signs of the Zodiac also were so designated. However, the evidence for this is prob. too late to allow its consideration, in spite of the references to “new moons” in Colossians 2:16 and to calendar observances in Galatians 4:10.
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 Colossians 2:8, 20 in this way. Some interpreters have so understood Galatians 4:3, 9 as well.
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., Rom 8:3). Therefore, the elements could here signify the rudiments of the law (Ridderbos, Bandstra). If the modifying words “of the world” (“universe,” Gal 4:3 RSV) are taken to refer to the astral or spirit sphere, it is conceivable that the angels (3:19) are the elemental spirits who transmitted the law and hence have held men in bondage (so Reicke). However, nowhere does Scripture say that angels tyrannize men.
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 (2:18) and ”principalities and powers” (2:10, 15 KJV). The reference to the “new moon” may suggest reverence of spirits behind the heavenly bodies. Similarities between the heresy of Colossians and later Gnostic speculations renders it possible that Gnostic intermediary powers are alluded to here. It also must be noted, however, that much of the language of Colossians applies to Jewish custom (2:11, 14, 16). It may be argued also that the Christian has not “died” to angels or other spirits but to the law (2:20). The interpretation is, therefore, still open to debate.
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, στοιχει̂ον,” 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).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
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"):
(1) In 2Pe 3:10, the constituent parts of the physical universe ("elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat," the [[American Revised Version]], margin "the heavenly bodies").
(2) In Ga 4:3,1, the [[Revised Version]] (British and American) has "rudiments," as in the [[King James Version]] margin, and in Col 2:8,20, where the reference is to imperfect Jewish ordinances.