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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [1]

(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.

Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words [2]

1: Στοιχεῖον (Strong'S #4747 — Noun Neuter — stoicheion — stoy-khi'-on )

used in the plural, primarily signifies any first things from which others in a series, or a composite whole, take their rise; the word denotes "an element, first principle" (from stoichos, "a row, rank, series;" cp. the verb stoicheo, "to walk or march in rank;" see WALK); it was used of the letters of the alphabet, as elements of speech. In the NT it is used of (a) the substance of the material world,  2—Peter 3:10,12; (b) the delusive speculations of gentile cults and of Jewish theories, treated as elementary principles, "the rudiments of the world,"  Colossians 2:8 , spoken of as "philosophy and vain deceit;" these were presented as superior to faith in Christ; at Colosse the worship of angels, mentioned in  Colossians 2:18 , is explicable by the supposition, held by both Jews and Gentiles in that district, that the constellations were either themselves animated heavenly beings, or were governed by them; (c) the rudimentary principles of religion, Jewish or Gentile, also described as "the rudiments of the world,"  Colossians 2:20 , and as "weak and beggarly rudiments,"  Galatians 4:3,9 , RV, constituting a yoke of bondage; (d) the "elementary" principles (the A.B.C.) of the OT, as a revelation from God,  Hebrews 5:12 , RV, "rudiments," lit., "the rudiments of the beginning of the oracles of God," such as are taught to spiritual babes. See Principles , Rudiments.

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary [3]

στοιχεια , the elements or first principles of any art, whence the subsequent parts proceed. The elements or first principles of the Christian doctrine,  Hebrews 5:12 . St. Paul calls the ceremonial ordinances of the Mosaic law, "worldly elements,"  Galatians 4:3;  Colossians 2:8;  Colossians 2:20; "weak and beggarly elements,"  Galatians 4:9 . Elements, as containing the rudiments of the knowledge of Christ, to which knowledge the law, as a pedagogue,  Galatians 3:24 , was intended, by means of those ordinances, to bring the Jews; worldly, as consisting in outward worldly institutions,  Hebrews 9:1; weak and beggarly, when considered in themselves, and set up in opposition to the great realities to which they were designed to lead. But, in  Colossians 2:8 , the elements or rudiments of the world are so closely connected with philosophy and vain deceit, or an empty and deceitful philosophy, that they must be understood there to include the dogmas of Pagan philosophy; to which, no doubt, many of the Colossians were in their unconverted state attached, and of which the Judaizing teachers, who also were probably themselves infected with them, took advantage to withdraw the Colossian converts from the purity of the Gospel, and from Christ their living head. And from the general tenor of this chapter, and particularly from  Colossians 2:18-23 , it appears, that these philosophical dogmas, against which the Apostle cautioned his converts, were partly Platonic, and partly Pythagorean; the former teaching the worship of angels, or demons, as mediators between God and man; the latter enjoining such abstinence from particular kinds of meats and drinks, and such severe mortifications of the body, as God had not commanded.

Morrish Bible Dictionary [4]

στοιχεῖον, 'rudiments, first steps.'

1. Applied to children at the 'commencement' of their training; and to the law as the 'early' way of God's dealing with Israel; but now called 'beggarly' because it has lost its glory through the failure of man, and the introduction of Christ Himself.   Galatians 4:3,9 . The word, with a similar meaning, is translated 'rudiments' in  Colossians 2:8,20 , and 'principles' in  Hebrews 5:12 .

2. The material elements of the universe, which will be melted with great heat in the day of the Lord.   2 Peter 3:10,12 .

Fausset's Bible Dictionary [5]

( Galatians 4:9): "weak and beggarly" rudiments; the elementary symbols of the law, powerless to justify, in contrast to the justifying power of faith ( Galatians 3:24;  Hebrews 7:18); beggarly, in contrast with the riches of the believer's inheritance in Christ ( Ephesians 1:18). The child ( Galatians 4:1-3) under the law is "weak," not having attained manhood. "beggarly," not having attained the inheritance.

Easton's Bible Dictionary [6]

 2 Peter 3:10 Galatians 4:3,9 Colossians 2:8,20

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [7]

( Στοιχεῖα ) . The etymon both of the English and Greek word conveys their primary meaning: thus, elements, from "elementa," The Alimenta from which things are m de, and Στοιχεῖα , from Στείχω , "to go up by steps" The First Principles whence the subsequent parts of things ( Στοιχοῦσι ) proceed in order. It seems to have been believed, from a very early period, that all bodies consist of certain first, specific ingredients ( Στοιχεῖα ), into which they are all resolvable, although different opinions prevailed respecting the number and nature of these primary constituents of things. Hesychius explains Στοιχεῖα Βψ Πῦρ , Ὕδωρ , Γῆ , Καὶ Ἀήρ , Ἀφ᾿ ῏Ων Τὰ Σώματα fire , water, earth, and air, of which bodies are formed. This, which is the simplest, may be called the primary sense of the word. A secondary use of the word relates to the Organized parts of which anything is framed, as the letters of the alphabet (Hesychius gives also Γράμματα ), these being the elements of words; also the elements, rudiments, or first principles of any art or science.

The word occurs in its primary sense,  Wisdom of Solomon 7:17, Σύστασιν Κόσμου Καὶ Εὐέργειαν Στοιχείων , "the constitution of the world and the operation of the elements;" also 19:18. It is used in the Same Sense,  2 Peter 3:10, Στοιχεῖα Δὲ Καυσούμενα Λυθήσονται , and  2 Peter 3:12, Τήκεται , " the elements burning will be dissolved and melted." The Jews, in Peter's time, spoke Of Four elements (Josephus, Ant. 3:7, 7).

The word occurs in a secondary sense in  Galatians 4:3-9, Τὰ Στοιχεῖα Τοῦ Κόσμου , "the elements or rudiments of the world," which the apostle calls Ἀσθενῆ Καὶ Πτωχὰ Στοιχεῖα , "weak and poor elements." He introduces the word to preserve the unity of his comparison of the law to a Pedagogue (3:24), and of persons under it to children under tutors; and by the elements or Rudiments of the world he evidently means that state of religious knowledge which had subsisted in the world, among Jews and Gentiles, before Christ; the weakness of which, among the Jews, may be seen in  Hebrews 7:18-19;  Hebrews 10:1; and among the Gentiles, in the epistle to the Romans, passim. "The elements of the world" occurs again,  Colossians 2:8-20, in the same sense, as appears from the various allusions both to the terms used in Grecian philosophy, and the dogmas of the Judaizers in the subsequent verses; the phrase being possibly suggested to the apostle by his previous use of it to the Galatians. The word Στοιχεῖα , in  Hebrews 5:12, is restricted, by the addition Τῶν Λογίων Τοῦ Θεοῦ , to the rudiments of Christianity (see Rosenmuller and Benson on the passages).

II. In The Sacraments. The materials used in the sacraments are called the Elements. Water is the element of baptism, bread and wine are the elements of the Eucharist. "This use of the word 'elements' ( Στοιχεῖα ) sprung from the philosophy of the school divines, and evidently had reference to the change supposed to take place after consecration. The Church of England has discarded the term in her services, and has introduced instead the word 'creatures' ('These thy creatures of bread and wine') in the communion-service, though the word 'elements' is found in one of the rubrics of that office" (Eden). "In all the Jewish sacrifices of which the people were partakers, the viands or materials of the feast were first made God's by a pious oblation, and then afterwards eaten by the communicants, not as man's, but as God's provisions, who, by thus entertaining them at his own table, declared himself reconciled, and again in covenant with them. And therefore our blessed Savior, when he instituted the new sacrament of his own body and blood, first gave thanks and blessed the elements that is, offered them up to God as Lord of the creatures, as the most ancient fathers expound that passage; who for that reason, whenever they celebrated the holy Eucharist, always offered the bread and wine for the communion to God upon the altar by this or some short ejaculation: 'Lord, we offer thee thine own out of what thou hast bountifully given us' " (Bishop Patrick, cited by Hook, Church Dictionary, s.v.).

The Nuttall Encyclopedia [8]

Originally the four forms of matter so deemed—fire, air, earth, and water, and afterwards the name for those substances that cannot be resolved by chemical analysis, and which are now found to amount to sixty-seven.