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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Elements

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(στοιχεῖα, elementa)

στοιχεῖον is properly a stake or peg in a row (στοῖχος); then, one of a series, a component part, an element. The special meanings or στοιχεῖα are: (a) the letters or the alphabet; (b) the physical elements or constituents of the universe; (c) the heavenly bodies; (d) the rudiments or principia of a subject; (e) the elementary spirits, angels, genii, or demons of the cosmos. Each of these meanings, with the exception of the first, has been found by exegetes in one or other of the NT passages in winch στοιχεῖα occurs. In one case (Hebrews 5:12) the interpretation (d) is beyond dispute; the others have given rise to much discussion.

From Plato downwards στοιχεῖα frequently denotes the elements of which the world is composed. Empedocles had already reckoned four ultimate elements-fire, water, earth, and air-but called them ῥιζώματα (ed. Sturz, 1805, p. 255ff.). Plato preferred to speak of the στοιχεῖα τοῦ παντός (Tim. 48 B; cf. Theœt. 201 E). In the Orphic Hymns (iv. 4) the air (αἰθήρ) is called κόσμου στοιχεῖον ἄριστον. Aristotle distinguished στοιχεῖα from ἀρχαί (though the terms were often interchanged) as the material cause from the formal or motive (Metaph. IV. i. 1, iii. 1). The Stoic definition of a στοιχεῖον is ‘that out of which, as their first principle, things generated are made, and into which, as their last remains, they are resolved’ (Diog. Laert., Zeno, 69). στοιχεῖοα has this meaning in Wisdom of Solomon 7:17 : ‘For himself gave me an unerring knowledge of the things that are, to know the constitution of the world, and the operation of the elements’ (καὶ ἐνέργειαν στοιχείων; cf. Wisdom of Solomon 19:18). In 2 Maccabees 7:22 a mother says to her seven martyr sons: ‘It was not I that brought into order the first elements (στοιχεἰωσιν) of each one of you.’

This is probably the meaning of the term in 2 Peter 3:10 : ‘The day of the Lord shall come as a thief; in which … the elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat’ (στοιχεῖα δὲ καυσούμενα λυθήαεται [or λυθήαονται]); and 2 Peter 3:12 : ‘the elements shall melt (τήκεται) with fervent heat.’ Here Revised Version margin gives the alternative ‘heavenly bodies,’ which is a meaning the word came to have in early ecclesiastical writers. The stars were called στοιχεῖα either as the elements of the heavens, or-a less likely explanation-because in them the elements of man’s life and destiny were supposed to reside. Justin speaks of τὰ οὐράνια στοιχεῖα (Apol. ii. 5). Theoph. of Antioch has στοιχεῖα θεοῦ (ad Autol. i. 4), and the word bears the same meaning in Ep. ad Diog. vii. 2. In 2 Peter 3:10 the situation of στοιχεῖα between οὐρανοί and γῆ favours this interpretation; the universe seems to consist of the vault of heaven, the heavenly bodies, and the earth. But as the writer of the Epistle is not methodical, and as, in painting a lurid picture of final destruction, he evidently uses the strongest language at his command, it is probable that the στοιχεῖα whose burning he contemplates are the elements of the whole universe.

The Gr. word frequently denoted the rudiments or principia of a science, art, or discipline. The στοιχεῖα of geometry, grammar, or logic are the first principles; στοιχεῖα τῆς λέξεως are the parts of speech (Aris. Poet. xx. 1); στοιχεῖα τῆς ἀρετῆς, the elements of virtue (Plut. de Lib. Educ. xvi. 2). The word unquestionably has this meaning in Hebrews 5:12, ‘the rudiments of the first principles (τὰ στοιχεῖα τῆς ἀρχῆς) of the oracles of God’-the ABC of Christian education, what is milk for babes but not solid food for men (Hebrews 5:13).

The phrase in regard to which there is most division of opinion is τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόαμον (Galatians 4:3, Colossians 2:8; Colossians 2:20; τοῦ κόαμον is clearly implied in Galatians 4:8). (i.) Many take στοιχεῖα in the intellectual sense: ‘the elementary things, the immature beginnings of religion, which occupy the minds of those who are still without the pale of Christianity’ (Meyer on Galatians 4:3); ‘the elements of religious training, or the ceremonial precepts common alike to the worship of Jews and of Gentiles’ (Thayer Grimm’s Gr.-Eng. Lexicon of the NT, tr. Thayer , s.v.). To this view there are strong objections. Those who are in bondage to the στοιχεῖα of the world are compared with heirs who are still under guardians and stewards (Galatians 4:2-3), where the parallel suggests the personality of the στοιχεῖα. To serve the στοιχεῖα is the same thing as serving them that by nature are no gods (Galatians 4:8)-a statement by no means evident if the στοιχεῖα are the rudiments of religious instruction. The relapse from God to the στοιχεῖα (Galatians 4:9) can scarcely be a return to a mere abstraction. The observance of times and seasons is according to the στοιχεῖα of the world, not according to Christ (Colossians 2:8)-a contrast which suggests that the στοιχεῖα and Christ are personal rivals. When men died with Christ from the στοιχεῖα of the world (Colossians 2:20), this was more than a death to rudimentary teaching. The στοιχεῖα are apparently identical with the principalities and powers of which Christ is Head and over which He triumphs (Colossians 2:10-15). Finally, a man’s knowledge of the στοιχεῖα is not approved as his beginning of religious education, but condemned as his ‘philosophy and vain deceit’ (Colossians 2:8).

(ii.) Those interpreters come nearer the facts of the case who suggest that the στοιχεῖα to which the Galatian and Colossian Christians were reverting were the heavenly bodies conceived as animated and therefore to be worshipped. Such worship was certainly common enough among the Gentiles. ‘They say that the stars are all and every one real parts of Jove, and live, and have reasonable souls, and therefore are absolute gods’ (Aug. de Civ. Dei, iv. 11). Nor was the belief in astral spirits confined to pagans. In the Prœdicatio Petri (ap. Clem. Alex. Strom. vi. 5) the Jews are represented as λατρεύοντες ἀγγέλοις καί ἀρχαγγέλοις μηνὶ καὶ σελήνῃ, and this worship is classed with that of the heathen. Clear evidence of this belief is found in Philo (de Mundi Op. i. 34) and in the Book of Enoch (xli, xliii.). The animated heavenly bodies, however, would rather be described as τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, and the στοιχεῖα of the ‘cosmos’ must include those of earth as well as those of heaven.

(iii.) Many recent expositors therefore maintain that the στοιχεῖα are the angels or personal elemental spirits which were supposed to animate all things. There is evidence that this view was wide-spread. The Book of Enoch (lxxxii. 10f.) speaks of the angels of the stars keeping watch, the leaders dividing the seasons, the taxiarchs the months, and the chiliarchs the days. Stars are punished if they fail to appear when due (xviii 15). The Book of Jubilees (ch. ii.) refers to the creation of the angels of the face (or presence), and the angels who cry ‘holy,’ the angels of the spirit of wind and of hail, of thunder and of lightning, of heat and of cold, of each of the seasons, of dawn and of evening, etc. The same species of animism is found in the Ascension of Isaiah (iv. 18), 2 Esdras 8:21 f, Sibyll. Orac. (vii. 33-35). In the Testament of Solomon (Migne, Patr. Gr. cxxii. 1315) the spirits who come before the king say: ‘We are the στοιχεῖα, the rulers of this under world’ (οἱ κοσμοκρἀτορες τοῦ σκότους τούτου). The belief survives in modern Greek folk-lore, in which the tutelary spirit who is supposed to reside in every rock, stream, bridge, and so forth, is called a στοιχεῖον.

Not a few passages in the NT indicate the prevalence of this conception. The four winds have their four angels (Revelation 7:1-2), and the fire has its angel (Revelation 14:18). Each of the Seven Churches has its angel (Revelation 2:3). Angels take the form of winds and fire (Hebrews 1:7 || Psalms 104:4). The inferiority of the law to the gospel is due to its administration by angels (Galatians 3:19). The belief in a world of intermediate spirits is the basal thought of Gnosticism, which St. Paul encounters in its incipient forms. ‘Jewish worship of law and pagan worship of gods are for him fundamentally the same bondage under the lower world-powers which stand between God and men.’ Grant that this language is paradoxical, ‘it is still extremely significant that Paul dares to speak in this way of the law’ (Bousset in Die Schriften des NT, ii. 62).

Even in 2 Peter 3:10; 2 Peter 3:12 it is possible that the στοιχεῖα, which are to be ‘dissolved,’ or ‘melted,’ are elemental spirits. ‘This may or may not seem strange to us, but we must ever learn anew that bygone times had a different conception of the world’ (Hollmann in Die Schriften des NT, ii. 594), Schœttgen quotes the Rabbinical words: ‘No choir of angels sings God’s praises twice, for each day God creates new hosts which sing His praises and then vanish into the stream of fire from under the throne of His glory whence they came.’ A closer parallel is found in Test. of the XII. Patr., ‘Levi,’ 4, where it is said that on the Judgment Day all creation will be troubled and the invisible spirits melt away (καὶ τῶν ἀοράτων πνευμἀτων τηκομένων).

Literature.-Hermann Diels, Elementum: Eine Vorarbeit zum griechischen und lateinischen Thesaurus, 1899; E. Y. Hinks, ‘The Meaning of the Phrase τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου’ in JBL [Note: BL Journal of Biblical Literature.] , vol. xv. [1896], p. 183ff.; articles by G. A. Deissmann in Encyclopaedia Biblica ; by M. S. Terry in Hastings’ Single-vol. Dictionary of the Bible ; by J. Massie in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) .

James Strahan.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Elements'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/e/elements.html. 1906-1918.

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Wednesday, November 13th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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