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Anathema (in Greek Ανάθεμα) originally meant something lifted up as an offering to the gods; later, with evolving meanings, it came to mean:
  1. to be formally set apart;
  2. banished, exiled, excommunicated;
  3. denounced, sometimes accursed; or
  4. a literary term


There is some difficulty translating this word, especially since it has now become commonly associated with the term accursed. The original meaning of the Greek word, as used in non-Biblical Greek literature, was an offering to a god. Herem meant something 'forbidden' or 'off limits.' The Hebrew word was used in verses such as 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 anathema, under the influence of the Hebrew word herem, was eventually taken as meaning 'set apart,' (like herem) rather than 'an offering to god,' as it had meant in Greek, 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 , 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 ( ; ); 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 ( , ); and "none devoted shall be ransomed. He shall surely be put to death" ( ). The Hebrew word therefore carried the idea of devoted to destruction ( ; ); and hence a majority of scholars have treated the word anathema similarly, generally as meaning a thing accursed. For example, in 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

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 ( , , ). "To call Jesus denounced" [anathema] ( ) 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." ( ); i.e., 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 , the expression "anathema from Christ," i.e., 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 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 Jesus that washed away our sins. Alternatively, the Apostle Paul could be suggesting that those who do not love the Lord should be offered up to God.

According to the former view, an Anathema would be a charge laid against a person to be delivered up for the immediate but temporary judgment of God in order to prevent the spread of false doctrine, with ultimate goal of restoring a person to fellowship, to halt his or her error, and to end false teaching and bad doctrine. Both the Church's process of excommunication and the Lord's bringing tragedy into the offender's life could be understood to unfold with the hope of bringing the offender back into a right understanding of the scripture and into a right relationship with both God and all brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus.

Early Christianity

Since the time of the apostles, the term 'anathema' has come to mean a form of extreme religious sanction beyond excommunication, known as major 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 excommunication evolved, where 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 a 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 merely being restatements in one form or another of previous errors) -- at the Council of Constantinoplemarker 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 , 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 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.

Catholic Church

While "minor excommunication" could be incurred by associating with an excommunicate, and "major excommunication" could be imposed by any bishop, "anathema" was imposed by the Pope in a specific ceremony described in the Pontificale Romanum. Wearing a purple cope (the liturgical color of penitence) and holding a lighted candle, he, surrounded by twelve priests, also with lighted candles, pronounced the anathema with a formula that concluded with the words:

Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive (Name) himself and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment.

The priests respond: "Fiat, fiat, fiat" (Let it be done), and all, including the pontiff, cast their lighted candles on the ground. Notice is sent in writing to the priests and neighbouring bishops of the name of the one who has been thus excommunicated and the cause of his excommunication, in order that they may have no communication with him. Although he is delivered to Satan and his angels, he can still, and is even bound to repent. The Pontifical gives the form for absolving him and reconciling him with the Church.

The 1917 Code of Canon Law, which abolished all ecclesiastical penalties not mentioned in the Code itself (canon 6), made "anathema" synonymous with "excommunication" (canon 2257). The ritual described above is not included in the post-Vatican II revision of the Pontifical.

A Literary Term

Used in literature, an anathema is a thing or person accursed or damned; a thing or person greatly detested; a formal curse or condemnation excommunicating a person from a church or damning something; any strong curse


  1. St. John Maximovitch, "The Word 'Anathema' and its Meaning", Orthodox Life, vol 27, Mar-April 1977, pp. 18-19
  2. Cf. , etc.
  3. Cf. , etc.
  4. Cf.
  5. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Anathema

See also

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