Deliverance from religious bondage

Peter Leithart, writing in First Things, makes a very provocative comparison between Judaism and the pre-Christian Gentile religions:

According to Pauls’ letter to the Galatians, the Father sent his Son and Spirit into the world to raise up the Jews (“we,” v. 3) from childhood, which Paul characterizes as a state of slavery under the “elementary principles of the world” (stoicheia tou kosmou). For Paul, the gospel is an inherently eschatological message: The end has come, the end of the old age and the beginning of the new. The New Testament has many ways of saying this, most strikingly in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “Whoever is in Christ, Behold! A new creation!”

In Galatians 4, he talks about old and new by referring to the “elementary principles.” There is little agreement on what Paul means. Bondage to the stoicheia is tied in somehow to slavery to the “not-gods” (Gal. 4:8), and this and other considerations have led some to conclude that the stoicheia are the powers and principalities that Paul elsewhere says governed human beings in their minority. That may be; Israel received the law through angels (cf. Gal. 3:19). But the connection between Paul’s reference to stoicheia and his earlier description of the Torah as “schoolmaster” is more suggestive (Gal. 3:23). Bondage under the stoicheia correlates to being under the custody of the schoolmaster Torah. Israel was in bondage under the stoicheia when she observed the institutions of archaic religion, marking the bodies of male Hebrews with the sign of circumcision and submitting to the dietary, sacrificial, purity regulations imposed by Torah. Life under stoicheia is life in the highly regulated childhood that Israel was always destined to outgrow in the fullness of time. That is the bondage from which Jews are delivered.

Paul is not only talking about Jews, however. “We” (Jews) were in bondage until the one who came born under the Torah, but elsewhere in Galatians 4 he refers to Gentiles (“you,” vv. 6, 8 ) who did not know God but who have also been liberated by receiving the Son and Spirit. In his letter to the Romans, Paul flattens the difference of Jew and Gentile by saying that all are “under sin.” Paul flattens out the difference between Jew and Gentile again in Galatians, but in a different manner: All are slaves “under the stoicheia.” For Gentiles as much as Jews, this bondage involved animal sacrifice, keeping days, the avoidance of contamination, taboos, holy places, and sacred temple.

I don’t think that I have seen such an explicit comparison between Judaism and other religions of the ancient world.  I know from reading his blog that Leithart believes that the practices described in the Old Testament were revealed by God to the Hebrews, point to Christ, and should inform Christian worship today.  I think that his intention is to emphasize the uniqueness of the Christian faith and community: “Christians were also a people without a fixed temple, without sacrifice.  Like the dispersed Jews, they were an entirely new sort of people, teaching an entirely new sort of religion.”  Christ, he says, offers exodus to all peoples enslaved by the world.


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