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Anathema

ANATHEMA, ɑ-nath´e-mɑ: Among the Greeks the word anathēma denoted an object consecrated to a divinity; a use of the word which is explained by the custom of hanging or fastening (anatithesthai) such objects to trees, pillars, and the like. The weaker form anathema was originally used side by side with anathēma in the same sense. The double form explains the frequent variations of manuscripts between the two, which later become confusing, since anathema took on a restricted signification and was used in a sense exactly opposite to anathēma. This later usage arose partly from the use of anathema in the Septuagint as an equivalent for the Hebrew erem, which is correct enough according to the root-idea of the Hebrew word; but the latter had acquired a special meaning in the religious law of the Old Testament, designating not only that which was dedicated to God and withdrawn from ordinary use as holy, but also and more especially that which was offered to God in expiation, to be destroyed. In like manner anathema came to denote not only what belonged irrevocably to God, but what was abandoned to him for punishment or annihilation. This double meaning is explicable by the interrelation of law and religion under the old covenant. The declaration of herem recognized God’s right to exclusive possession of certain things and to the annihilation of whatever offended his majesty. Under this law booty taken in war was wholly or partly destroyed (Deut. xiii. 16; Josh. vi. 18, viii. 26), idolatrous peoples were put to death, and cities were razed, never to be rebuilt (Josh. vi. 26; I Kings xvi. 34). The same double sense of erem, anathema, is found in the early Greek and Roman law, which has the same combination of religious and secular bearing; devotio in one aspect is the same as the Greek kathierōsis, in another as imprecatio, maledictio, exsecratio.

In postexilic Israel the herem found a new use as a penal measure directed to the maintenance of the internal purity of the community. It then denoted the penalty of exclusion or excommunication, sometimes with confiscation of property (Ezra x. 8). It was developed by the synagogue into two grades, niddui (Luke vi. 22; John ix. 22, xii. 42) and herem, which included the pronouncing of a curse. It was now an official act with a formal ritual. The connection between exclusion and cursing explains the use of anathema in the sense of simple cursing (Mark xiv. 71) or of binding by a solemn vow (Acts xxiii. 12). In the technical sense the word anathema occurs in four passages 167 of Paul’s epistles, all of which show that he was thinking of a definite and recognized conception and a purely spiritual one (Rom. ix. 3; I Cor. xii. 3, xvi. 22; Gal. i. 8, 9). The falling under this solemn curse is conditioned and justified by the act of the subject, in failing to love God or in preaching a false gospel. These passages show that Paul was not thinking of anathema as a disciplinary measure of the community, as under the synagogue; there is no connection between it and the penalties inflicted on moral offenders (I Cor. v. 5, 11; I Tim. i. 20). It is pronounced only against those who set themselves in treasonable opposition to God himself, to his truth and his revelation. Paul’s use of the word, therefore, goes back of the practise of the synagogue to the Septuagint use. This explains the fact that in the development of ecclesiastical discipline the word “anathema” is not used as a technical term for excommunication before the fourth century. It occurs in the canons of Elvira (305) against mockers and in those of Laodicea (341?) against Judaizers; and after the Council of Chalcedon (451) it becomes a fixed formula of excommunication, used especially against heretics, as in the anathemas of the Council of Trent and later papal utterances. No settled unity of belief has, however, been arrived at in regard to it; now absolute finality of operation is claimed for it, now it is considered as revocable. And there is as little agreement as to its effects, the limits of its use, and its position in the scale of penalties. Du Cange includes the prevalent conceptions of it when he defines it as “excommunication inflicted by bishop or council, not amounting quite to the major excommunication, but still accompanied by execration and cursing.” See Excommunication.

(G. Heinrici).

Bibliography: See under Excommunication.

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