The Elemental Spirits of the Universe: St. Paul, Cosmology, and David Bentley Hart

It is often said that everytime you read Scripture you see something you didn’t see before. I have found this to be true, and for me, it would appear that this is even more true each time I hear Scripture during the Liturgy.

I recall the first time I consciously heard “. . . we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe” (Αἰκατερίνης Μεγαλομάρτυρος, 25 Νοεμβρίου, Γαλ. 3,23-4,5). I was like, what? as I looked around and no one seemed startled at the words. I still look around now. As far as I know all Greek Orthodox parishes in North America, unfortunately, use the RSV when reading the New Testament in English so the translation will differ; however, the Greek text(s) at that point all agree: “ὑπὸ τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου ἦμεν δεδουλωμένοι.”

For those of you able to attend Liturgy on secular New Year’s day as I was would have heard similarly, “. . . according to the elemental spirits of the universe” (Περιτομὴ τοῦ Κυρίου, Βασιλείου τοῦ Μεγάλου, 1 Ἰανουαρίου, Κολ. β′ 8-12). Again, the translations differ, but the Greek text(s) agree: “κατὰ τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου.”

Biblical cosmology (especially the cosmology of Second Temple Judaism) I have come to find fascinating. With all the interest these days in secular society with Flat Earth Theory and in the Church with the τελώνια, a proper understanding of cosmology makes all the difference. The problem arises though when those who suffer from what Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor has termed disenchantment apply their disenchanted post-Enlightenment cosmology upon the past, completely unaware that one of the worldviews of the past was hierarchical. (This also would have saved the Mormon ψευδοπροφήτης Joseph Smith and the LDS et al. a lot of embarrassment vis-à-vis third heaven/seven heavens, q.v.). This one needs to keep in mind when approaching the issue of the τελώνια.

My point in writing about all this is because of an article that came my way this morning before Ὄρθρος by the brilliant Eastern Orthodox philosopher, scholar of religion, writer, and cultural commentator David Bentley Hart, Everything you know about the Gospel of Paul is likely wrong. It deals with a cosmological worldview lost by most (as I vaguely hinted at above, i.e., translation differences and the τελώνια) and is well worth reading.

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