Anathema Sit

by Jimmy Akin

in Canon Law

A reader writes:

Hi Jimmy,

What is the difference between anathema & anathema "sit"?

Okay, before I answer, let me clear away something that is BOUND to come up if I don’t deal with it.

You heard about the apologist who named his dog "Anathema," so he could tell his dog "Anathema, sit"?

That was funny about the first thirty times I heard it.

Now here’s the deal: Anathema refers to a form of excommunication that used to exist under Church law. It no longer does exist, having been eliminated with the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Sit is the Latin third person singular form of the verb "to be" when it’s in the subjunctive mood and the present tense. It means "Let him be" or "May he be." (You can also switch the gender to feminine or neutral in these translations."

So "Anathema sit" means "Let him (or her or it) be anathema."

This formula is a Latin translation of what Paul says in Galatians 1:8:

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel
contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be anathema.

The Greek for that phrase is Anathema esto, and when you bring it across into Latin, it’s Anathema sit.

This phrase got picked up by the Church (either from Galatians or oral tradition) and used when excommunicating heretics. Ever since the first ecumenical council–the First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325)–ecumenical councils used this formula to pass laws indicating who needed to be excommunicated.

Typically the formula went like this:

If anyone says . . . <INSERT SOME AWFUL HERESY HERE> . . . let him be anathema.

Only writing in Latin, they’d say . . . anathema sit at the end.

Some things that it’s important to note:

1) These anathemas were not thought of as damning a person to hell. That’s something only God can do. (Though the fact someone needed to be excommunicated was not considered a good sign for the state of his soul.)

2) The penalty of anathema did not take effect automatically. In fact, there was a special ceremony that the bishop had to perform, and the mere fact that someone in his diocese has uttered an awful heresy does not magically compel the bishop to get up and perform the ceremony.

3) The penalty of anathema, like all excommunications, was medicinal and meant to prompt the person to repent. Thus there was also a special ceremony for lifting the anathema and receiving him back into fellowship once he did.

4) The penalty was only applied to Catholics. If someone ain’t part of the Catholic Church then there’s no point excommunicating them. (Bishops got better things to do with their time than a bunch of ceremonies excommunicating folks who don’t make any pretense of being Catholic.)

5) The penalty was so infrequently used (typically for people like priests who had committed major crimes) that it was eventually abolished when the 1983 Code came out, so nobody today is under a sentence of anathema.

6) The canons from the ecumenical councils that use the formula "anathema sit" continue to express theological truths in an infallible manner, and you can still get excommunicated for teaching heresy. The special, ceremonial form of excommunication known as "anathema" is what’s gone.

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{ 10 comments }

Funky Dung October 17, 2005 at 7:10 am

The reader might be interested to know that “anathema”, used in this context means “accursed”.

Kevin Jones October 17, 2005 at 7:17 am

The old excommunication ceremony is actually referenced in Shakespeare’s King John:
“Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back
When gold and silver becks me to come on.”
Bell book and candle featured prominantly in the rite of excommunication. Humorously enough, some neo-pagans ignorant of the origins of the phrase have adopted it into their rituals.

Jimmy Akin October 17, 2005 at 7:52 am

Funky, I’ve just explained what “anathema” means. I do not know which context you are referring to as it meaning “accursed” in. It doesn’t mean that in canon law, and it is not at all clear that it means that in St. Paul.
He also may be using the term as a way of telling his readers to expel the offenders from the Christian community without implying damnation by God, which is not in humans’ power to let or prevent from happening.

Marty Helgesen October 17, 2005 at 9:17 am

I can’t necessarily claim to be the first, much less the only one, but some years ago I independently came up with the idea of naming a dog “Anathema” so I could say to it, “Anathema, sit”. On another occasion I thought of naming a dog “Gum” so I could chew and walk Gum at the same time.
Once I was outside the rectory of my parish when I saw one of the priests talking with another parishoner. The priest had a dog on a leash. From a distance I heard the priest say, jokingly, “I’ll sic the dog on you.” I was too far away to say anything without shouting but the thought that immediately came to mind was, “No, father, that was the old Church. Now you have to thus the dog on him.

Funky Dung October 17, 2005 at 9:31 am

I meant that “let him be anathema” is not a complete translation into English. Reading your post, one might suspect that it must translate to “excommunicated”. If modern translations are any indication, it is clear that St. Paul meant something like “accursed” in Galatians 1:8.
NIV: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!”
NASB: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!”
ESV: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”
RSV: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed.”
NAB: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach (to you) a gospel other than the one that we preached to you, let that one be accursed!”
Obviously, you are more knowledgable than I on this subject, Jimmy, and I meant no disrespect by my comment. I merely felt that the explanation was based on an assumed understanding of the proper translation of “anathema”.

Funky Dung October 17, 2005 at 9:38 am

Also of interest:
“For I could wish that I myself were accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kin according to the flesh.” – Romans 9:3 (NAB)
“Therefore, I tell you that nobody speaking by the spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be accursed.’ And no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the holy Spirit.” – 1 Corinthians 12:3 (NAB)
“If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed. Maranatha.” – 1 Corinthians 16:22 (NAB)

Jimmy Akin October 17, 2005 at 10:14 am

Contemporary translations are generally misleading on this point. When they hit technical terms like “anathema” (which was technical even then) they try to paraphrase and generally tell you more about the translators’ guesses about what the passage means than anything else.
The “let him be anathema” passages in the New Testament are classic illustrations of this. The translators (Protestant and Catholic) are paraphrasing their own understandings of the text rather than allowing it to speak for itself and have the reader figure out what it means.
The idea that Paul meant “y’all let God damn that person” when he says “let him be anathema” is only one possibility of what he meant (and, in my view, not the most likely understanding). The translators are at fault for rendering the text in a way that suggests that what their own guess about what Paul means is definitely what he means.
It’s not, and for passages as contentious as this the reader really shouldn’t be misled in this way.

Funky Dung October 17, 2005 at 10:30 am

I wasn’t aware there was any contention involved in translating “anathema”. Ya learn somethin’ new ev’ry day. :)
Could you go into some detail about various ways to translate it and their rationales?

Peter Kirk October 18, 2005 at 3:14 pm

Jimmy, what evidence do you have that the term “anathema” as used in Paul’s letters “was technical even then”? Even if it had acquired the technical sense of excommunication as early as the 50′s of the first century, which seems unlikely, it is impossible that it was being used in such a way in Galatians 1:8, of an angel, or in 1 Corinthians 12:3, of the risen Jesus! It is surely much more likely that at least in these contexts in its normal Greek sense of “something accursed”. To translate “anathema” in this way is by no means a translators’ guess, but a good and accurate rendering of a Greek word being used in its normal sense.
As an professional Bible translator, I would also like to correct your serious misrepresentation of the Bible translation process, but as there is no space here I will instead point you to the Better Bibles Blog at http://englishbibles.blogspot.com/, where you can learn more about this.

Jimmy Akin October 19, 2005 at 9:20 am

I’m sorry, but I’m in the middle of something and don’t have time to respond to this at the moment. Will try to respond next week.

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