What Did Paul Mean By "Anathema"?
By Jonathan Mitchell
The KJV made famous an unfortunate translation of the Greek word "anathema," as Paul used the word in the NT. It renders it "accursed" four times, "curse" once, and transliterates it "anathema" once. Other translations (e.g., the NRSV, NASB) have followed suit, and the NIV is even worse, adding the word "eternally" to its rendering of this word ("eternally condemned") in Gal. 1:8-9 (the word "eternally" is not even in the Greek text here). We see this word first used in Scripture in Lev. 27:28 (LXX, JM), so let us investigate its use there:
"Now everything set, or placed, up [i.e., as an offering] which a person may set up (or: should dedicate) to, or for, the LORD, which he owns... every set, or placed, up thing (or: dedicated offering) shall be fully set-apart (literally: a holy of holies; the most set-apart) to, or for, the LORD."
The word which I have translated as "set, or placed, up" or "dedicate" is our word "anathema." The Greek elements of this word are "ana" (up; back up) and "thema" (the result of a setting or a placing). This word was used in situations of setting or placing an offering or a sacrifice up on an altar before God (or, in paganism: a god). It was a time-honored technical word which Johannes Behm informs us that, "It denotes 'something dedicated or consecrated to the deity'" (Theological Dictionary of the NT, Vol. 1, WM. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1977, p 354), i.e., an act of devotion. Our verse in Lev., above, instructs us as to how God viewed and received this act of worship.
We come across the participle form of this word in Nu. 18 (LXX) where Yahweh is telling Aaron the things that will be his, and for the priests and Levites, from the offerings that the people of Israel would bring to the tabernacle/temple. In vs. 14 Yahweh says,
"Everything being set, or placed, up (anathematized) among the sons of Israel shall be yours."
Now in Nu. 21:2-3 we find another application of this concept with a verb form, and then with the noun that Israel would use to newly designate what had been a Canaanite kingdom that had made war against Israel, carrying off some of them as captives.
"Then Israel vowed a vow to the LORD, and said, 'If You would give this people over to me as subjects under my hand, I will set it up (dedicate it; anathematize it), along with its towns. So the LORD listened to the voice of Israel and handed over Chananis as subjects under his hand and He set him up (dedicated him; anathematized him), along with his towns. And so they called the name of the place Anathema (or: Set-up; Dedicated)." (LXX, JM)
Now it would seem that Israel conquered Chananis' kingdom, but it does not mean that they killed everyone. That must be read into the text. This kingdom became a subject of Israel and it was dedicated to God. By using this verb, Israel was offering this people to God, and God accepted them as His. How that worked out existentially, for that people, is not disclosed to us. But the concept was that they became God's just like all offerings made to Him.
Next, in Deut. 7: 25, we find instruction concerning "carved objects of their gods" (or, idols) which Israel was told to burn. Also, they were not to take the silver or gold from them, for this would be an offense and an abomination to Yahweh. Vs. 26 instructs them not to bring such abominations into their houses, for if they did, He said that,
"you shall exist being a thing set up before a deity (a dedicated thing [to that idol]; an anathema), like as this thing [that you have brought into your house]."
Then He continues on, instructing them how they should regard doing such a thing:
"With an offense you shall take offense, and with abhorrence you shall abhor it, for it is a thing set up [before a deity] (or: because it is an anathema)."
Note that He said to them that they would become what they worshiped.
In Deut. 13:15, those who went to cities of the land in order to serve other gods were to be killed and the city was to be "set up and dedicated [as an offering before the deity of that city]." They were to "anathematize it with an anathema." Note the continued theme of an offering to a deity - and its association with the people themselves. We become what we worship. In actuality, Israel dedicated such cities to God, and in 13:17 Israel was told not to take anything of that which was set up - either because it had been offered to an idol, or because the whole city was given to God in its having become an anathema. Deut. 20:17 speaks of setting up a variety of tribes of people as an offering to a deity, taking nothing alive. If we understand that Israel only offered sacrifices to Yahweh, then this verse (terrible as it sounds to our ears) is telling Israel to offer these tribes to Him. And if we remember what was said in Lev. 27:28, above, all those folks became holy to Him. Indeed, the Law brought death in all its setting of things apart. This covers the use of anathema in the Pentateuch.
One example from the book of Joshua should suffice to understand the use of this word in this book. In Josh. 6:17 we can observe the view, and ultimate intent, of the conquest of Jericho:
"And so the city, and all the things within it, shall continue being a thing set up [as an offering] and dedicated to the Lord of Hosts." (LXX, JM)
In the next chapter, the sin of Achan was that he
"stole from the thing set up [i.e., offered] and dedicated" (7:11) to God.
But we have a prophecy of an end of that system of sacrifice, for in Zech. 14:8 we are told that,
"in that Day, living water shall come forth out of Jerusalem,"
and then in vs. 11,
"And they shall permanently dwell in her, and there shall not any longer be something set up or placed [as an offering to God] (or: and so it (i.e., the city) will no longer be anathema), and Jerusalem will continue dwelling securely." (LXX, JM)
If we tie these two thoughts of Zech. 14:8 and 11 with Jn. 4:14, 21-24, we see a fulfillment of this prophecy announced in the statements by Jesus to the woman at the well.
With these OT examples in mind, let us see how Paul used "anathema" in Rom. 9:3 (with comments from, Just Paul, comments on Romans),
3. For you see, I kept on claiming, while having goodness, holding well-being and possessing ease, that I myself am to be (or: to continuously exist [as]) a result or an effect of something set up as an offering devoted to God (= a sacrifice; [comment: this would correspond to Jesus telling His disciples to follow Him, bearing their crosses]), forth from the Anointing (or: = [thus being separated] from [the body] of Christ; or: arising from the Christ) over [the situation of] (or: for the sake of) my brothers, my relatives (kinsmen; joint or commonly born ones; fellow countrymen) according to flesh (= in the sphere of natural human birth),
Rendering the first verb "euchomai" (claiming... having... holding... possessing - together with its modifier, eu-) as I did, and the direct object "anathema" in accord with its earlier meaning (which may well have continued, even though in some circles it became degraded), we get a different picture - and to my thinking, one that is more logical and in accord with Paul's anointed communicating. Paul has just said that nothing can separate us from God's love. So would he now "almost wish himself accursed from Christ" (as the common translations offer)? I think that his words have been grossly misunderstood.
What I offer, in regard to the object of the verb, is the literal meaning of the noun: from ana- (up) and thema (the result or effect of setting or placing). This was used in situations of setting or placing an offering or a sacrifice up on an altar before God (or, in paganism: a god). It was a time-honored technical word (cf Theological Dictionary of the NT, Vol. 1, WM. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1977, p 354). Paul was claiming - while having God's goodness and ease about it - that he was to follow Christ in being an offering to God - forth from the Anointing - over the situation of [his] brothers, his fellow Jews or Israelites. We see this happening with Paul and his associates in 2 Cor. 4:
11. For we, ourselves - the continuously living ones - are ever being repeatedly handed over into death (or: = continuously delivered into life-threatening experiences) - because of Jesus - to the end that the life, also, of Jesus (or: so that also the life which comes from and is Jesus; or: so that Jesus' life) can (may; could; would) be set in clear light and manifested - within our mortal flesh!
12. So then (or: Consequently), the Death is repeatedly and progressively operating and inwardly working within us, yet the Life [is constantly operative] within you folks.
And we read in 2 Tim. 4:6, "You see, I, myself, am already being progressively poured out as a drink offering" and the words of Jesus in John 15:13 come to mind,
"No one continues holding (or: having) greater love than this: that someone should place (set; lay; lay down) his soul (or: soul-life; inner being; self; person) over [the situation or circumstances of] (or: on behalf of) his friends."
Furthermore, in 16:4, below, Paul commends Pricilla and Aquila,
"who, over my soul (= person, or, life), placed their own necks under the axe."
Paul's, words here, in vs. 3, call to mind the response of Moses to Yahweh in Ex. 32:32 where in light of Israel's sin (the golden calf), Moses offers to have himself removed from the scroll of God's plan for Israel's story. He essentially offered himself as a sacrifice to cover the sin of the people. But it was not God's plan to take him up on the offer.
In his letter to the province of Galatia, Paul used our word anathema twice in the first chapter. Here is an excerpt from my Comments on Galatians (from, John, Judah, Paul & ?):
8. However, even if we - or an agent from the atmosphere or sky (or: a messenger from out of the midst of heaven)! - should ever bring or announce something as "good news" (as the message of goodness; as being the evangel or gospel) to you folks which is to the side of that which we announce (or: is parallel to what we announced) to you folks in the message of goodness, ease and well-being, let it be placed on the altar before the Lord (set up as a result of a divine offering [i.e., to see if it is "accepted" by God, or "rejected," as Cain's was]; or, possibly: cursed).
Paul addresses the potential of deceptive visionary experiences - things that have plagued the called-out communities for centuries, and even to this day. But he even includes himself and his associates ("we") in this warning against an altered or distorted teaching about the Christ event, its effectiveness and the good news that was given to and through him. The issue upon which he focuses is circumcision, but in 5:3 he instructs them that this issue involves "the whole Law." In 5:2 & 4 he shows that this "yoke of slavery (or: a cross-lever [of a pair of scales] whose sphere is bondage)" - 5:1b - effects them to the extent that "Christ will benefit [them] nothing (will be of use to [them] [for] not one thing)," and that those who turn to the Law as a part of their relationship to God, and to others, will experience a fall "from out of the grace and favor!"
Here, he makes reference to that "which is to the side of that which we announce, or is [even] parallel to what we announced" to them. Nothing should be added that would even be "beside" or "parallel" to the message that was originally brought to them. If anything of this nature would be proclaimed or taught to them, "let it be placed on the altar before the Lord."
In this rendering I have turned to the original meaning of the word "anathema." This was a technical term for any sacrificial cultus. The Greek elements mean "to set, place or put [something] up," and the idea was to put it on an altar as an offering to God. Because what was put on an altar was something that had been killed, the word came to have an associated meaning of being "dedicated." But to render the word in this latter sense is foreign to the theology of Paul, the messenger of grace.
The verb of the last clause is simply the third person singular, imperative of the verb "to be." Since there is no expressed subject of the verb, we must supply one from the context: her, him or it. Most translators have taken the antecedent of this verb to be the "we or an agent" in the first clause. But a closer antecedent, and of much greater importance, is the potentially false teaching - and this is the issue of this whole letter. The called-out congregations have a long history of teachings being brought in that are "to the side" of the revelation which was given to Paul. It is these variant teachings that need to be taken to the Lord, placed upon the figurative "altar" within the midst of the assembly (His temple, the place of the altar), and within the midst of each person's heart, so that the Spirit of God can make the decision about it - whether it is acceptable to Him or not. Cf how prophecy is to be treated: 1 Cor. 14:29, "...and let the other folks continue thoroughly sifting and sorting so as to fully evaluate and reach a decision."
The first offerings that are described in Scripture were those of Cain and Able in Gen. 4:3ff and the issue came to be which one was acceptable to Yahweh, and which one was not. Cain was not rejected by God; the issue was what he presented to God. When the Judaizers were bringing circumcision (a figure in this letter of the whole Law) to be the identity marker for the newly created covenant communities, it cut directly against the path of faith/trust that was the heart of the good news of God's grace, and covenant-inclusion that was based upon the faith and faithfulness of the Messiah.
Saying that the person should be "accursed," or rejected - either by the assembly or by God - misses the point of the greater issue: the deceptive teaching which could far outlast the existence of the one who brought it. So I have taken the deceptive and false evangel to be the antecedent of the final verb, and have chosen the word "it" as the subject.
9. So as we have said before (or: = above [in vs. 8]), and I am right now presently saying again, if anyone is habitually announcing (proclaiming) as "good news" that which is to the side of that which you receive (or: took to your side), let it be placed on the altar before God (set up as a result of a divine offering [to see if it's acceptable]; or, possibly: cursed).
His restatement is rhetorical emphasis: he wants his point to sink in deeply.
The word is also used in 1 Cor. 16:22. Here are my renderings of the last 3 verses of 1 Cor. 16:
22. If anyone continues having no fondness or affection for the Lord, let him constantly be a person placed up [in prayer to be consecrated before the Lord] - [you see,] our Lord is present (has come).
23. The joyous favor and grace of the Lord Jesus, [the] Christ (or: [the] Anointed Master, Jesus,) [continues] with you folks!
24. My love (unambiguous acceptance and drive toward union) [is] with all of you folks, in union with Christ Jesus. It is so (Amen; Count on it)! Quite a concept in vs. 22: hold him/her up before the Lord in prayer, not curse him/her. Paul instructed us to "bless, and not curse" (Rom. 12:14). And here is its use in Acts 23:14,
13. Now there were more than forty men forming this oath-bound conspiracy,
14. who, upon coming to the chief priests and the older men (or: elders), said, "We placed ourselves under an oath in a gift devoted (anathema) [to God] to taste nothing until which [time, or, occasion] we can kill off Paul.
They were not "cursing" themselves, but rather were dedicating their lives to God for this brutal cause. There is one more place where "anathema" is used in the NT: 1 Cor. 12:
3. Wherefore, I am now proceeding to make known to you folks that no one - speaking within God's Spirit (or: speaking in union with the Breath-effect of God; speaking in the sphere of a Breath which is God) - is in the habit of saying, "Jesus [is] a result of something set up as an offering to a deity (or thus: Jesus [is] accursed)!" And no one is able (normally has power) to say, "Jesus [is] Lord (or: Lord Jesus; perhaps: = Jesus [is] Yahweh)!" except within and in union with [the] Holy Spirit (or: in a set-apart and consecrated spirit and attitude; in [the] Sacred Breath).
This final verse would, in my opinion, witness against Pinal Substitutionary Atonement. Jesus was not a sacrifice set up as an offering to God. God was within Christ reconciling the aggregate of humanity to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19). He was offering His life to humanity. But this is another topic : )
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