Anathema or anathem is a Christian term for a person who has been officially cast out or excommunicated. It supposedly was derived from 1 Corinthians 16:22 «If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha.» Originally it was a curse pronounced by the goddess Marah or Mari-Anath on her dying god.

During medieval times Anathema in Christianity meant to be castigated from the congregation with the ritual of Book, Bell, and Candle, and irrevocably condemned to hell. This is a curious reminiscence of an accused god’s temporary descent into the underworld, in ancient religions.


The term «Anathema» in Christian context and its evolution over time indeed has a fascinating history, with roots that can be traced back to ancient religious practices and beliefs. Here’s an exploration of its origins, meanings, and use in Christian tradition:

  • Biblical Origin: The term «Anathema» appears in the New Testament, notably in 1 Corinthians 16:22, which says, «If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha.» In this context, «Anathema» means something or someone that is cursed or devoted to destruction for the sake of a higher cause or deity. «Maranatha» is an Aramaic phrase that means «Our Lord, come!» and signifies a call for the Lord’s return.
  • Early Christian Use: In early Christianity, «Anathema» referred to a form of extreme censure or excommunication, where an individual was not just expelled from the church but was also considered accursed. This was a severe punishment, reflecting the early church’s need to define and protect its doctrinal boundaries.
  • Medieval Practices – Book, Bell, and Candle: During medieval times, the ritual of excommunication, often referred to as «Book, Bell, and Candle,» was a dramatic ceremony. The ritual involved closing the book (symbolizing the Word of God), ringing a bell (signifying the public nature of the act), and extinguishing a candle (representing the removal of the individual’s soul from the light of Christ). This ritual underscored the gravity of excommunication and the spiritual consequences believed to accompany it.
  • Condemnation to Hell: The medieval understanding of Anathema included the belief that the excommunicated person was irrevocably condemned to hell. This reflects a more literal and harsh interpretation of the term compared to its early Christian use.
  • Relation to Ancient Religions: The concept of an «accused god’s temporary descent into the underworld» is a motif found in various ancient religions, including those of the Near East. The idea of a deity or a divine figure undergoing a period of exile, death, or descent before a subsequent return or resurrection is a recurring theme in many mythologies. The Christian use of Anathema, particularly in the context of excommunication, may draw on these ancient themes of expulsion and return, albeit in a more punitive sense.
  • Modern Interpretation: In contemporary Christianity, the use and interpretation of «Anathema» have evolved. Many denominations have moved away from the medieval concept of excommunication as a condemnation to hell, focusing instead on reconciliation and restoration.

Source: 56, 32.