Anathema by wild trees via Flickr

Anathema is a term with Koiné Greek roots. Koiné Greek is an ancient form of Greek that was prevalent in the ancient world, having spread along with the conquests of Alexander the Great (4th century BCE). Koiné Greek is also the language of the New Testament and early Church Fathers.

The meaning of anathema is slightly ambiguous in some contexts, mainly because the word evolved over the centuries, leaving room for interpretation by experts. Anathema can mean something offered up to the gods or, alternately, to God. In the case of the gods, the offering can be be unholy. So one meaning of anathema, the most commonly understood today, is an offering “dedicated to evil.”

A good example of a currently debated instance of the word anathema is found in 1 Corinthians 16:22, where St. Paul says “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha.”

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.¹

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Anathema’s promotional material (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Catholicism it came to mean a severe denunciation of some theological idea or practice contrary to orthodox teaching, and usually the complete separation of the culpable person or persons from the saving power of the Church. Essentially, this meant that guilty parties were condemned to eternal hellfire with Satan and his demons lest he or she repent and display obedience to the Church.

The first instance of anathema as applied to “heretics” is found in 306 CE at the Council of Elvira, where it soon became the preferred terminology for cutting religious deviants off from the alleged saving power of the Church. In short, anathema meant total excommunication. With its newfound bent for systematizing, the 5th century Church made a distinction between anathema and “minor” excommunication.

“…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.²

In 1983 the Code of Canon Law replaced the now archaic word anathema with excommunication.

Anathema is also the name of a British rock band from Liverpool, originally called Pagan Angel.


² Ibid.

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