Where Are Your Roots
The confrontation of the elements and Christ already indicates that they are conceived of as personal powers. Furthermore, the context as a whole shows that the elements of the universe are precisely those demonic principalities who want to exercise their tyranny over men (2:10*, 15*).41 Against this teaching about the “elements of the universe,” which control men’s lives and which bring demands men must satisfy (cf. 2:16–23*),42 the clear antithesis stands: there is only one authority that can rightfully claim to be Lord over everything and thus to be the only Lord over the life and conduct of the community—Christ. The community must not be led astray to acknowledge other authorities beside him. For the community’s course must be solely under the command of the Lord, who alone gives it direction and purpose: “according to Christ” (κατὰ Χριστόν).
In Hellenistic syncretism the teaching about the elements was mythologized, so that the “elements” were described as animated spirits. In the Orphic hymns it says: “Eminent fire, the world’s best element” (ὑψιφανὴς Αἰθέρ, κόσμου στοιχεῖον ἄριστον 5:4) and “[Vulcan], workman, destiny of the world, pure element” ([Ἥφαιστʼ] ἐργαστήρ, κόσμοιο μέρος, στοιχεῖον ἀμεμφές 66:4 [Trans.]). At a later period, in the Testament of Solomon, the “elements” are described as beings who appear to be persons. Solomon sees seven spirits coming and asks them who they are. He receives the answer: “We are the elements, the cosmic rulers of darkness” (ἡμεῖς ἐσμεν στοιχεῖα κοσμοκράτορες τοῦ σκότους 8:2). A group of thirty-six spirits likewise introduces itself with the words: “We are the thirty-six elements, the world—rulers of the darkness of this age” (ἡμεῖς ἐσμεν τὰ τριάκοντα ἓξ στοιχεῖα, οἱ κοσμοκράτορες τοῦ σκότους τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου 18:2 [Trans.]). The term στοιχεῖα not only designates the elements of the universe but also the stars which consist of the elements, and whose constellations control the order of the entire universe as well as men’s fate. Consequently, the twelve signs of the zodiac are called “the twelve elements” (τὰ δώδεκα στοιχεῖα Diogenes Laertius 6:102). Whoever knows how to discern and chart the course of the stars gains powerful knowledge. It is told of the Egyptian king Nectanebos that he had magical power at his disposal, “for all the elements of the universe were subject to his word” (τὰ γὰρ κοσμικὰ στοιχεῖα λόγῳ πάντα αὐτῷ ὑπετάσσετο Ps.-Callisthenes 1, 1, 3 [Trans.]). And in the Paris Magical Papyrus 4, 1303 the constellation of Ursa Major, which never sets, is called: “beautiful-shining goddess, incorruptible element” (καλλιφεγγὴ <ς> θεά, στοιχεῖον ἄφθαρτον PreisZaub 1, p. 116 [Trans.]). With the help of magical knowledge a person can harness for his own purposes the power of the “elements” and release supermundane forces.
Interwoven with the syncretistic embroidery of notions about the “elements of the universe” are also strands of Jewish speculations about how the universe hung together. To be sure, in Judaism no divine dignity is ascribed to the stars. They are, however, related to the angels, be it that the angels ruled over the stars, or be it that the stars themselves were thought of as a distinct class of angels. In apocalyptic vision the order of the stars was revealed to the seer: “And I saw other lightnings and the stars of heaven, and I saw how He called them all by their names and [how] they hearkened unto Him. And I saw … their revolution according to the number of the angels, and [how] they keep faith with each other” (1 En 43:1f). Just as God gave his orders to the angels, so too he prescribed the course that the stars should take (1 En 60:11f; 69:20–25, etc.). Full of reverential awe, the seer beholds the established relationships of the cosmic order: “And there I saw seven bands of angels, very bright and very glorious, and their faces shining more than the sun’s shining … And these make the orders, and learn the goings of the stars, and the alteration of the moon, … and the good government of the world. And when they see evil-doing, they make commandments and instruction, and sweet and loud singing, and all songs of praise. These are the archangels … and the angels who are appointed over seasons and years, and the angels who are over rivers and sea, and the angels who are over the fruits of the earth, and the angels who are over every grass, giving food to all, and the angels of all the souls of men” (2 En 19:1–4 [Charles, APOT modified]). Angels are “the elders and rulers of the stellar orders.” They have power over “the stars and the composition of heaven” (2 En 4:1 [Charles, APOT modified]).
While in Judaism worship and reverence were alone offered to the one God, in the world of syncretism the cosmic powers were worshipped as divine powers: “And this is said with regard to those gods who rule over the elements, those who preside over all the elements” (καὶ πρὸς τοὺς στοιχειοκράτορας λέγεται θεούς, τοὺς τῶν ὅλων στοιχείων ἐπιβεβηκότας Simplicius, Comm. in IV libros Aristotelis de caelo 1, 3 [Trans.]). From ancient times the stars and powers which determine and preserve the universe received offerings and were worshipped. Herodotus narrates of the Persians: “They sacrifice also to the sun and moon and earth and fire and water and winds” (θύουσιν δὲ ἡλίῳ τε καὶ σελήνῃ καὶ γῇ καὶ πυρὶ καὶ ὕδατι καὶ ἀνέμοισι 1, 131). In Hellenistic times this reverence was explained by the assertion that man is formed out of the same elements from which the entire cosmos had been fashioned. This correlation of microcosm and macrocosm implies that “just as light is apprehended by the luciform sense of sight, and sound by the aeriform sense of hearing, so also the nature of all things ought to be apprehended by its kindred reason” (καὶ ὡς τὸ μὲν φῶς ὑπὸ τῆς φωτοειδοῦς ὄψεως καταλαμβάνεται, ἡ δὲ φωνὴ ὑπὸ τῆς ἀεροειδοῦς ἀκοῆς, οὕτω καὶ ἡ τῶν ὅλων φύσις ὑπὸ συγγενοῦς ὀφείλει καταλαμβάνεσθαι τοῦ λόγου Sextus Empiricus, Adv. math. 1:93). Where faith in God and gods had grown weak, magical fear of sinister forces often supplanted it. Either a person strove to do justice to all the gods, to those of the heavenly world as well as to those of the underworld and to those of the realm in between, and to implore them all together; or a person adhered to the stars and elements and swore by them: “I adjure you by the sun and the moon and by the courses of the five planets, by nature and providence and the four elements” (ὁρκίζω σε Ἥλιον καὶ Σελήνην καὶ τῶν πέντε ἀστέρων τοὺς δρόμους φύσιν τε καὶ πρόνοιαν καὶ τὰ τέσσαρα στοιχεῖα Vettius Valens 7, 5 [p. 293, 27]) [Trans.].37 Man’s cry to God went upward through the elements: “You are god. This is what the man who belongs to you cries through fire, through air, through earth, through water, through spirit, through your creatures” (σὺ εἶ ὁ θεός. ὁ σὸς ἄνθρωπος ταῦτα βοᾷ διὰ πυρός, διʼ ἀέρος, διὰ γῆς, διὰ ὕδατος, διὰ πνεύματος, διὰ τῶν κτισμάτων σου Corp. Herm. 13:20 [Trans.]). Thus it is necessary not only to possess knowledge about the elements, the movements of the stars, and the powers of the cosmos; man must also become part of the cosmic order insofar as he proffers the powers and principalities the requisite reverence and submits to the laws and prescriptions they impose upon his life.