Anathema Sit! Good Anathema!


Random biblical nerdery: today I learned that the meaning of the Greek word “anathema” had shifted during the time of Biblical composition. We see both usages in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures which actually predates the current Hebrew version of the Old Testament. The LXX was composed and compiled in about 132 BC in Alexandria. The purpose of this text was to give to Jews living out in the world, who no longer spoke a fluent Hebrew, their Sacred Texts in their own language. Tradition says that 70 (or 72) scholars compiled the text, hence the name Septuagint and the abbreviation LXX, both of which mean 70. Some Biblical Texts were written in Hebrew, of course, others were in Aramaic. A few books, however, were written in Greek with no precursors in other languages that we can find today. For this reason (and for others) when the Official Hebrew text was recompiled and standardized in the 9th century or so, these texts are no longer part of the “Hebrew” Bible since they were not in Hebrew at all. These books, seemingly composed in Greek (possibly not), are part of the Non-Hebrew, Jewish tradition. Is their Greek usage older or newer than the Translations of the Torah? I don’t know.

Anyway: In the book of Deuteronomy we see a use of “Anathema” which might make sense to us.

– Neither shalt thou bring any thing of the idol into thy house, lest thou become an anathema, like it.
Nec inferes quippiam ex idolo in domum tuam, ne fias anathema, sicut et illud est.
-καὶ οὐκ εἰσοίσεις βδέλυγμα εἰς τὸν οἶκόν σου καὶ ἔσῃ ἀνάθημα ὥσπερ τοῦτο
Deut 7:26 (Douay, Vulgate, LXX)

Anathem here renders the Hebrew, חֵ֖רֶם or harem. Pretty much the same as the Arab word haram. It means really, really bad (forbidden).

However, in the book of Judith, using the Douay, we find “anathema” with a whole other meaning.

– And Judith offered for an anathema of oblivion all the arms of Holofernes,
Porro Judith universa vasa bellica Holofernis, quae dedit illi populus,
– καὶ ἀνέθηκεν Ιουδιθ πάντα τὰ σκεύη Ολοφέρνου ὅσα ἔδωκεν ὁ λαὸς αὐτῇ
Judith 16:23 (Douay, Vulgate) 16:19 (LXX)

Here, anathema is used in its original, Greek meaning of “Dedicated Votive Offering.” I think it’s interesting that St Jerome did not use “anathema” at all in the Latin since, by his time, the word had come to mean something literally the opposite of its original understanding.

That’s it. No conclusions, just an interesting Biblical word commentary. But here is a bit of wordplay: The Protestants say the Mass is Anathema, but not Anathema, which makes them Anathema.

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in tech (mostly) since 1999 and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.