The transliteration of a Gr. word which is used in the LXX to represent the Heb. ḥērem, ‘a person or thing devoted or set apart, under religious sanctions, for destruction’ (Lv 27:28, 29, Jos 6:17). It is capable of use in the good sense of an offering to God, but was gradually confined to the sense of ‘accursed,’ which is the rendering adopted in AV in all NT passages except 1 Co 16:22. Around the Heb. term there gathered in course of time an elaborate system of excommunication, with penalties varying both in amount and in duration, the purpose being sometimes remedial of the offender and sometimes protective of the community; but these developments are mainly later than our period.
They may have suggested lines on which a system of official discipline in the Christian Church was afterwards constructed, but it would be an anachronism to read them into the simpler thoughts of the apostolic literature. In patristic times the word denoted some ecclesiastical censure or form of punishment, for which a precedent may have been sought in the teaching or practice of St. Paul. To the Apostle, the OT allusion would be predominant, and his chief, if not his only, thought would be that of a hopeless spiritual condition, from which emergence could be effected, if at all, only with extreme difficulty and by special forbearance on the part of God.
In the Pauline Epistles the word ‘anathema’ occurs four times, once in reference to the Apostle himself, and on the other occasions in reference to the maltreatment of his Lord.
- The personal passage is Ro 9:3, where there is no serious difficulty to those who do not look for strict reasoning in the language of the heart. St. Paul has just expressed (8:39) his belief that nothing conceivable could separate him from the love of God; and now, in his yearning over his fellow-countrymen, he announces that for their sakes he would be willing, if it were possible, to be even hopelessly separated from Christ. Clearly ‘anathema’ need not, and does not here, carry any sense of formal excommunication; it denotes a spiritual condition of which the two features are exclusion from the redemption in Christ and permanent hopelessness.
- Greater difficulty attaches to Gal 1:8, where the Apostle, again under strong emotion, imprecates anathema upon others. The case he imagines is one that would warrant extreme indignation, though the language is that of justifiable passion and not to be interpreted literally. St. Paul would be the last of Christian teachers to withdraw all hope from a man, and it is possible that in this case he thought of anathema as being remedial and temporary. He was the bondservant of Christ, and as such he resented entirely any conduct or teaching that dishonoured his Lord. That such teaching reflected also on himself would be a matter of little consequence; but Christ was sacred to him, and the preacher of another gospel, whether one of his own colleagues or even ‘an angel from heaven,’ was not to be tolerated. His teaching made and proved him a person set apart for destruction; but whether that destruction was final or only corrective would depend upon the man’s impenitence or reform. Free association with him would be no longer possible, and to that extent the beginnings of a system of discipline may be traced in the phrase, as in 1 Ti 1:20 and 1 Co 5:5, where the ultimate restoration of the man is distinctly in view. But the reference to ‘an angel from heaven’ is sufficient to prove that ecclesiastical censure, carrying finality with it, was not the main thought.
- and 4. Twice in 1 Cor. the word ‘anathema’ occurs in the course of the sharp conflict excited by the extreme party among converted proselytes to Judaism; and the great idea is that everything in the religion of a professed Christian is determined by his real relationship to Christ. Over against the party of which the watchword was ‘Jesus is Lord,’ was a party whose irreligion was manifested by their cry ‘Jesus is anathema’ (1 Co 12:3). They were in a sense within the Christian community, and conscious therefore of certain obligations to Christ; but they were so provoked by the attempt to set Jesus on the same level with the supreme God, and by the apparently absolute incompatibility of that belief with their fundamental conviction of the unity of God, that they were prepared to renounce Jesus and even to denounce Him rather than to confess His Godhead and submit to His claims. Or, introduced into the Church from some form of paganism, they had been so familiar with the evil inspiration that swept them along to the worship of ‘dumb idols’ (12:2) as to be disposed to plead inspiration for any tongues or doctrines of their own, to whatever extent Jesus was degraded therein. In response St. Paul sets up the great antithesis between real inspiration and counterfeit. The Spirit of God is the author of any confession that Jesus is Lord; ecstasy or even demoniac possession may be pleaded for the assertion that Jesus for His teaching is destined to Divine destruction, but never the breath of the Holy Spirit. Between those two extremes there are many halting-places, and the insecurity of each of them is in proportion to its remoteness from the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. So much is the Apostle affected by this dishonour done to his Lord, that it recurs to his memory as the Epistle is being closed, and suggests the footnote of 1 Co 16:22. He adopts the word need by the men of whom he was thinking, and condenses his indignation into a curt dismissal, ‘If any one loveth not the Lord, let him be anathema. Maran atha.’ In such a place again the word cannot denote official ecclesiastical censure. It is really an antithesis to the prayer for grace in Eph 6:24, the handing over of the unloving man to Satan, the refusal to have anything more to do with him until at least some signs of a newborn love for Christ are given.
As to the addition of Maran atha, both the meaning of the words and their relation to the context have been subjects of controversy. For a discussion of the Aramaic phrase, with related questions, see HDB iii. 241ff. It is either an assertion, ‘Our Lord cometh’ (so RVm), or, more probably, an ejaculatory prayer, ‘O Lord, come,’ with parallels in Ph 4:5, 1 P 4:7, Rev 22:20, devotional rather than minatory in its character and intention.
If it be taken as an assertion, it may mean, ‘Let those who do not love the Lord fear and be quick to amend, for He is at hand in triumph,’ though the expected Parousia is not a recurring feature of the Epistle. Or the idea may be, ‘The Lord is coming soon, and there is no need to trouble further with these men, for with greater wisdom thought may be given to Him.’ But the term is better detached entirely from the reference to anathema, and considered simply as a little prayer, in which the normal yearning of the Apostle expresses itself, before he closes a letter or group of letters, in the writing of which his pastoral heart must have been pained again and again.
The sudden way in which the expression is introduced suggests that it had already become a popular form of something like greeting in common use among the disciples, and had supplanted the earlier ‘The Lord is risen,’ unless both were used, the one on meeting and the other on parting. That would explain the absence of any attempt to translate it from the vernacular, and is confirmed by the usage of the next generation; cf. Didache, x. 6, where also the word follows a warning; and Apost. Constitutions, vii. 26, where any thought of enforcing a penalty is rendered impossible by the jubilant tone of the section.
In course of time ‘anathema’ came to mean excommunication, for which sanction was found in the Pauline use of the word, which again was carried back to our Saviour’s teaching (Mt 18:17). Such men as are referred to in 1 Co 16:22 would of necessity find themselves excluded from association with disciples, and rules for their treatment were prescribed (1 Co 5:9, Tit 3:10, 2 Jn 10, 11), and eventually expanded in great detail. But, while this kind of ostracism was a natural accompaniment of anathema from the beginning, the word itself implied a certain relation to God, a spiritual condition with which God alone could deal, and with which He would deal finally or remedially. Execration and not official discipline is the dominant idea, with the censure of the Church as a corollary. See also artt. Discipline, Excommunication.
Literature.—See artt. ‘Curse,’ ‘Excommunication,’ ‘Maranatha,’ in HDB; Grimm-Thayer and Cramer, s.v. ἀνάθεμα; and the NT Comm. on the passages cited.
AV Authorized Version.
HDB Hastings’ Dict. of the Bible (5 vols.).
RVm Revised Version margin.
Grimm-Thayer Grimm’s Gr.-Eng. Lexicon of the NT, tr. Thayer.