Anathema was originally used as a term for exile from the church, but evolved to mean "set apart, banished, denounced". The word comes from Koine Greek ἀνάθεμα, meaning "something dedicated, especially dedicated to evil", from ἀνατίθημι (anatithēmi), meaning "offer as a votive gift", from ἀνά (ana), meaning "on", and τίθημι (tithēmi), meaning "I put". It originally meant something lifted up as an offering to the gods; it later evolved to mean:
"Anathema" is a word used mainly in the English language to describe vehement disagreement to something. It is not a commonly used word, particularly in spoken language, perhaps because its meaning is often confused.
Examples: "Some people will consider this definition anathema;" or "Doing homework after school is a complete anathema to her;" or "That political party would paint as anathema any idea not their own, no matter how good it is."
There is some difficulty in etymologically translating this word, especially since it has now become commonly used with the term "accursed" or "accustomed". The original meaning of the Greek word, as used in non-Biblical Greek literature, was an offering to a god. The Hebrew word "herem" (חרם) referred to something forbidden or off-limits. It was used in verses such as Leviticus 27:28 to refer to things offered to God, and hence off limits to common (non-religious) use. Because the Greek word anathema meant things offered to God, it was used to translate the Hebrew word herem in such contexts. Thus, the meaning of the Greek word, under the influence of the Hebrew word, was eventually taken as meaning "set apart", (like herem) rather than "offering to god", and eventually the word came to be seen as meaning "banished" and to be considered beyond the judgment and help of the community.
In Greek usage, an anathema was anything laid up or suspended; hence anything laid up in a temple or set apart as sacred. In this sense the form of the word was once (in plural) used in the Greek New Testament, in Luke 21:5, where it is rendered 'gifts.' It is used similarly in the Book of Judith, where it is translated as 'gift to the Lord.' In the Septuagint the form anathema is generally used as the rendering of the Hebrew word herem, derived from a verb which means (1) to consecrate or devote; and (2) to exterminate. Any object so sacrificed or devoted to the Lord could not be redeemed (Numbers 18:14; Leviticus 27:28-29); and hence the idea of exterminating was connected with the word. The Hebrew verb (haram) is frequently used of the extermination of idolatrous nations. It had a wide range of application. The anathema or herem was a person or thing irrevocably devoted to God (Leviticus 27:21, KJV); and "none devoted shall be ransomed. He shall surely be put to death" (KJV). The Hebrew word therefore carried the idea of devoted to destruction (Numbers 21:2-3; Joshua 6:17); and hence a majority of scholars have treated the word anathema similarly, generally as meaning a thing accursed. For example, in Deuteronomy 7:26 an idol is called a herem = anathema, understood to mean a thing accursed. There is however, an alternative view that the Greek word 'anathema,' in these passages, was used by the Greek Septuagint translators to mean "offered up to God."
In the New Testament the word anathema often implies denouncement and banishment. In some instances an individual pronounces an anathema on himself if certain conditions are not fulfilled (Acts 23:12, 23:14, 23:21). "To call Jesus denounced" [anathema] (1 Corinthians 12:3) is to pronounce him execrated or accursed. "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8–9); that is, let his conduct in so doing be accounted banished.
Sometimes, however, the word anathema in the New Testament invokes an alternative meaning, that of being "offered up to God".
In Romans 9:3, the expression "anathema from Christ", that is, excluded from fellowship or alliance with Christ, has occasioned much difficulty. The traditional view is that the apostle here does not speak of his wish as a possible thing. It is simply a vehement expression of feeling, showing how strong was his desire for the salvation of his people. The word "anathema" in 1 Corinthians 16:22 might suggest that they who love not the Lord are objects of loathing and execration to all holy beings; they are unrepentant of a crime that merits the severest condemnation; they are exposed to the sentence of "everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord" for they do not embrace saving beliefs, as was the sentence of all mankind before the atonement, justification and sanctification of the blood of Christ that allowed for the redemption of sins. Alternatively, the Apostle Paul could be suggesting that those who do not love the Lord should be offered up to God.
Since the time of the apostles, the term 'anathema' has come to mean a form of extreme religious sanction, known as excommunication. The earliest recorded instance of the form is in the Council of Elvira (c. 306), and thereafter it became the common method of cutting off heretics; for example, the Synod of Gangra (c. 340) pronounced that Manicheanism was anathema. Cyril of Alexandria issued twelve anathemas against Nestorius in 431. In the fifth century, a formal distinction between anathema and "minor" excommunication evolved, where "minor" excommunication entailed cutting off a person or group from the rite of Eucharist and attendance at worship, while anathema meant a complete separation of the subject from the Church.
Eastern Orthodox churches
The Eastern Orthodox churches distinguishes between "separation from the communion of the Church" (excommunication) and other epitemia (penances) laid on a person, and anathema. While undergoing epitemia, the person remains an Eastern Orthodox Christian, even though his or her participation in the mystical life of the church is limited; but those given over to anathema are considered to be completely torn away from the Church until repentance. Epitemia or excommunication is normally limited to a specified period of time — though it is always dependent upon the repentance of the one penanced, but the lifting of anathema is dependent solely upon the repentance of the one condemned. The two causes for which a person may be anathematized are heresy and schism. Anathematization is only a last resort, and must always be preceded by pastoral attempts to reason with the offender and bring about his restoration.
For the Orthodox, anathema is not final damnation; God alone is the judge of the living and the dead, and up until the moment of death repentance is always possible. The purpose of public anathema is twofold: to warn the one condemned and bring about his repentance, and to warn others away from his error. Everything is done for the purpose of the salvation of souls.
On the First Sunday of Great Lent, which is known as the "Sunday of Orthodoxy", the church celebrates the Rite of Orthodoxy, at which anathemas are pronounced against numerous heresies. This rite commemorates the end of Iconoclasm -- the last great heresy to trouble the church (all subsequent heresies -- so far -- merely being restatements in one form or another of previous errors) -- at the Council of Constantinople in 842. The Synodicon, or decree, of the council was publicly proclaimed on this day, including an anathema against not only Iconoclasm but also of previous heresies. The Synodicon continues to be proclaimed annually, together with additional prayers and petitions in cathedrals and major monasteries throughout the Orthodox Church. During the rite (which is also known as the "Triumph of Orthodoxy"), lections are read from Romans 16:17-20, which directs the church to "...mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine you have learned, and avoid them. For they … by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple", and Matthew 18:10-18 which recounts the parable of the Good Shepherd, and provides the procedure to be followed in dealing with those who err:
"… if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he shall neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, whatever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
After an ektenia (litany), during which petitions are offered that God will have mercy on those who err and bring them back to the truth, and that he will "make hatred, enmity, strife, vengeance, falsehood and all other abominations to cease, and cause true love to reign in our hearts…", the bishop (or abbot) says a prayer during which he beseeches God to: "look down now upon Thy Church, and behold how that, though we have joyously received the Gospel of salvation, we are but stony ground. For the thorns of vanity and the tares of the passions make it to bear but little fruit in certain places and none in others, and with the increase in iniquity, some, opposing the truth of Thy Gospel by heresy, and others by schism, do fall away from Thy dignity, and rejecting Thy grace, the subject themselves to the judgment of Thy most holy word. O most merciful and almighty Lord … be merciful unto us; strengthen us in the right Faith by Thy power, and with Thy divine light illumine the eyes of those in error, that they may come to know Thy truth. Soften the hardness of their hearts and open their ears, that they may hear Thy voice and turn to Thee, our Saviour. O Lord, set aside their division and correct their life, which doth not accord with Christian piety. … Endue the pastors of Thy Church with holy zeal, and so direct their care for the salvation and conversion of those in error with the spirit of the Gospel that, guided by Thee, we may all attain to that place where is the perfect faith, fulfillment of hope, and true love …." The Protodeacon then proclaims the Synodicon, anathematizing various heresies and lauding those who have remained constant in the dogma and Sacred Tradition of the church.
The same Code abolished all penalties of whatever kind envisaged in previous canonical legislation but not included in the Code, and the 'Pontificale Romanum, as revised since the Second Vatican Council, has no mention of particular solemnities associated with the infliction of excommunication.
- Not to be confused with the Attic Greek term ἀνάθημα "an offering".
- St. John Maximovitch, "The Word 'Anathema' and its Meaning", Orthodox Life, vol 27, Mar-April 1977, pp. 18-19
- Cf. Matthew 13:5, etc.
- Cf. Matthew 13:7, etc.
- Cf. Matthew 13:25-40
- 1917 Code of Canon Law, canon 2257
- 1917 Code of Canon Law, canon 6, 5°
- Joseph Gignac, "Anathema" in Catholic Encyclopedia (New York 19070
|Look up anathema in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- "Anathema" from Catholic Answers
- "Anathema" in New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
- Anathema sit in Everything2
- St. Paul's Anathema Esto in Galatians One by Gerald O. Hoenecke
- Christian Cyclopedia article on Anathema
- The Word "Anathema" and its Meaning Eastern Orthodox view by St. John Maximovitch
- What is Anathema by Theophan the Recluse
- The Sunday of Orthodoxy