Either a votive offering set up in a temple (2 Macc. 2:13; Philo, De vita Mosis 1.253) or, in general terms, that which is devoted to a divinity either consecrated or accursed. In New Testament times, the meaning was moving in the direction of the latter, the best example being in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 12:3): No one who speaks by the Spirit of God says “Jesus is accursed.” Added to this was the sense of swearing an oath that would involve a curse if it was not fulfilled. Thus, in Acts 23:14 it is recorded that the conspirators against Paul “bound themselves to the plot by oath” (anathemati).
Paul also used the term to denote separation from the church of an offender guilty of sins such as preaching a gospel other than his (Gal. 1:8) or not loving the Lord (1 Cor. 16:22). The term most usually retains this sense in the history of the early church. It is noticeable that the bishops who judged the opinions of Paul of Samosata at Antioch in 265 merely stated that he who did not acknowledge the preexistence of Christ was “alien from the Catholic Church” (the text of the council’s letter is in Mansi (1901), Vol. 1, cols. 1033-40). In the West, the Council of Elvira (in southeast Spain c. 309) used the term “anathema” to castigate offenders (see canon 52). At Nicaea in 325 the term was applied to what the council deemed to be the opinions of Arius: “And those who say, “Once he was not’ and “Before His generation he was not’ and “He came to be from nothing’ . . . the Catholic Church anathematizes” (Socrates Historia ecclesiastica 1.8).
With the example of the Council of Nicaea in front of them, the fourth-century church councils regularly anathematized their opponents. The only exception was the statement of the Third Council of Sirmium in 357, that while there “was no question that the Father is greater than the Son” and that the terms HOMOOUSION and HOMOIOUSION were objectionable, dissidents were not subject to anathema (Hilary of Poitiers Liber de synodis 11).
In Egypt the ferocity of ecclesiastical debate, first between ATHANASIUS I and his opponents and then between CYRIL I and NESTORIUS, made anathema and counteranathema part and parcel of the armory of vituperation. The most important example of doctrinal statements, opposition to which would involve the culprit in anathema and deposition from clerical office, was Cyril’s Twelve Anathemas, drawn up in November 430 (Cyril, Epistula 17), which Cyril required Nestorius to accept on pain of excommunication. Nestorius’ Counter Anathemas to Cyril precipitated the summons of the First Council of EPHESUS in June 431 by Emperor Theodosius II.
Anathemas continued to be appended to doctrinal statements agreed by the councils in the Eastern and Western churches through the Middle Ages. Anathema was regarded as the most serious disciplinary measure, involving complete separation from the faithful (Gratian, Decretum 11, canon 106). It survives to the present day in the Coptic church as a means of imposing severe ecclesiastical discipline on refractory clergy and laymen.
- Bindley, T. H., and F. W. Green. Oecumenical Documents of the Faith, 4th ed., pp. 124-37. London, 1950.
- Cyril. Epistolae. In PG 77, cols. 9-390. Paris, 1864.
- Hilary of Poitiers. Liber de synodis. In PL 10, cols. 479-546. Paris, 1845. Translated as On the Councils by L. Pullam in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace, ser. 2, Vol. 9, pp. 4-29. Repr. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1955.
- Vacant, A. “Anathème.” In Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, Vol. 1, cols. 1168-71. Paris, 1923.
W. H. C. FREND