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For the band, see Anathema (band).

Anathema, a term derived from Greek ἀνάθεμα, which meant "something dedicated" and, in the Septuagint and New Testament, "something dedicated to evil and thus accursed",[1] has various meanings.

Generic usage[edit]

Anathema (in the sense of a curse) attributed to Pope Gregory XI

In general usage, the word "anathema" is employed mainly to describe vehement disagreement with or dislike of something.

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."

Religious usage[edit]

In the Old Testament the word was applied to anything set aside for sacrifice and thus banned from profane use and dedicated to destruction, as in the case of the enemy and their cities and possessions in the case of religious wars. In the New Testament, the word is used with the meanings of a curse and forced expulsion of someone from the Christian community.[2]


The Greek word ἀνάθεμα (anathema), meaning something offered to a divinity, was used in the translation of the Jewish Bible known as the Septuagint to render the Hebrew word חרם (herem), and appears in verses such as Leviticus 27:28 to refer to things that are offered to God, and so banned for common (non-religious) use. The Hebrew word was also used of what was devoted by virtue of a simple vow and declared to belong not to the Lord, but to the priest.[3] In postexilic Judaism, the meaning of the word changed to an expression of God's displeasure with all persons, Jew or pagan, who do not subordinate their personal conduct and tendencies to the discipline of the theocracy and who must be purged from the community, thus making anathema an instrument of synagogal discipline.[4]

New Testament[edit]

The noun ἀνάθεμα (anathema) occurs in the Greek New Testament six times: in 1 Cor 12:3; 16:22; 9&src=ESV Gal 1:8, 9; Rom 9:3; Acts 23:14. Its meaning in the New Testament is disfavour of God, a meaning that, according to Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old Testament and New Testament Word, in Acts 23:14 to the sentence of disfavour, and in the other instances to the object of God's disfavour.[5]

Early Church[edit]

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[edit]

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.[6] 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.[7] For the thorns[8] of vanity and the tares[9] 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[edit]

The 1917 Code of Canon Law declared anathema to be another name for excommunication, "especially if it is inflicted with the solemnities described in the Pontificale Romanum".[10]

The same Code abolished all penalties of whatever kind envisaged in previous canonical legislation but not included in the Code,[11] and the Pontificale Romanum, as revised since the Second Vatican Council, has no mention of particular solemnities associated with the infliction of excommunication.

The ceremony described by Joseph Gignac in the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia[12] is thus only of historical interest.

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

Wikisource-logo.svg "Anathema". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainEaston, Matthew George (1897). "Anathema". Easton's Bible Dictionary (New and revised ed.). T. Nelson and Sons.