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Bible Encyclopedias

Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature


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Anath´ema, literally anything laid up or suspended, and hence anything laid up in a temple, set apart as sacred.

The corresponding Hebrew word means a person or thing consecrated or devoted irrevocably to God (Leviticus 27:21; Leviticus 27:28): hence, in reference to living creatures, the devoted thing, whether man or beast, must be put to death (Leviticus 27:29). The prominent idea, therefore, which the word conveyed was that of a person or thing devoted to destruction, or accursed. Thus the cities of the Canaanites were anathematized (Numbers 21:2-3). Thus, again, the city of Jericho was made an anathema to the Lord (Joshua 6:17), that is, every living thing in it (except Rahab and her family) was devoted to death; that which could be destroyed by fire was burned and all that could not be thus consumed (as gold and silver) was for ever alienated from man and devoted to the use of the sanctuary (Joshua 6:24). The prominence thus given to the idea of a thingsaccursed led naturally to the use of the word in cases where there was no reference whatever to consecration to the service of God, as in Deuteronomy 7:26; it is sometimes used to designate the curse itself (e.g. Deuteronomy 20:17).

In this sense, also, the Jews of later times use the Hebrew term, though with a somewhat different meaning as to the curse intended, employing it to signify excommunication or exclusion from the Jewish church. The more recent Rabbinical writers reckon three kinds or degrees of excommunication. The first of these is merely a temporary separation or suspension from ecclesiastical privileges, involving, however, various civil inconveniences, particularly seclusion from society to the distance of four cubits. The person thus excommunicated was not debarred entering the temple, but instead of going in on the right hand, as was customary, he was obliged to enter on the left, the usual way of departure; if he died while in this condition there was no mourning for him, but a stone was thrown on his coffin to indicate that he was separated from the people and had deserved stoning. This kind of excommunication lasted thirty days, and was pronounced without a curse. If the individual did not repent at the expiration of the term, the second kind of excommunication was resorted to. This could only be pronounced by an assembly of at least ten persons, and was always accompanied with curses. A person thus excommunicated was cut off from all religious and social privileges: and it was unlawful either to eat or drink with him (compare 1 Corinthians 5:11). If the excommunicated person still continued impenitent, a yet more severe sentence was pronounced against him, which, is described as a complete excision from the church and the giving up of the individual to the judgment of God and to final perdition. There is, however, reason to believe that these three grades are of comparatively recent origin.

As it is on all hands admitted that the Hebrew term which is the equivalent of anathema properly denotes, in its Rabbinical use, an excommunication accompanied with the most severe curses and denunciations of evil, we are prepared to find that the anathema of the New Testament always implies execration; but it is very doubtful whether it is ever used to designate a judicial act of excommunication. The phrase 'to call Jesus anathema' (1 Corinthians 12:3) refers not to a judicial sentence pronounced by the Jewish authorities, but to the act of any private individual who execrated him and pronounced him accursed. The term, as it is used in reference to any who should preach another gospel, 'Let him be anathema' (Galatians 1:8-9), has the same meaning as, let him be accounted execrable and accursed. There is very great diversity of opinion respecting the meaning of the word in Romans 9:3; some understand it to signify excommunication from the Christian church, whilst most of the fathers, together with a great number of modern interpreters, explain the term as referring to the Jewish practice of excommunication. On the other hand, many adopt the more general meaning of accursed. The great difficulty is to ascertain the extent of the evil which Paul expresses his willingness to undergo; Chrysostom, Calvin, and many others understand it to include final separation, not indeed from the love, but from the presence of Christ; others limit it to a violent death; and others, again, explain it as meaning the same kind of curse as that under which the Jews then were, from which they might be delivered by repentance and the reception of the Gospel. There seems, however, little reason to suppose that a judicial act of the Christian Church is intended, and we may remark that much of the difficulty which commentators have felt seems to have arisen from their not keeping in mind that the Apostle does not speak of his wish as a possible thing, and their consequently pursuing to all its results what should be regarded simply as an expression of the most intense desire. The phrase 'let him be anathema maran-atha,' seems to be intended as simply an expression of detestation. Though, however, we find little or no evidence of the use of the word anathema in the New Testament as the technical term for excommunication, it is certain that it obtained this meaning in the early ages of the church.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Anathema'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature".

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