SPECIAL TOPIC: CURSE (anathema)

I. OT

There are several words in Hebrew for "curse." Herem (BDB 356) was used of something given to God (cf. LXX translates it as anathema, BAGD 54, Lev. 27:28).  It usually denotes destruction (because it was too holy for humans' use, cf. Deut. 7:26; Jos. 6:17-18; 17:12). It was a term used in the concept of "holy war." God told Joshua to destroy the Canaanites and Jericho was the first opportunity, the "first fruits" of this destruction.

II. NT

In the NT anathema and its related forms were used in several different senses:

A. as a gift or offering to God (cf. Luke 21:5)

B. as a death oath (cf. Acts 23:14)

C. to curse and swear (cf. Mark 14:71)

D. a curse formula related to Jesus (cf. 1 Cor. 12:3)

E. a giving of someone or something to the judgment or destruction by God (cf. Rom. 9:3; 1 Cor. 16:22; Gal. 1:8-9)

Number D above is very controversial. I have included my notes from 1 Cor. 12:3:

"Jesus is accursed" is a shocking statement. Why would anyone (except traditional Jews) who claims to speak for God say this? The term (i.e., anathema) itself had an OT background (i.e., Hebrew, herem). It related to the concept of Holy War, where a city was devoted to God and, therefore, it became holy. This meant that everything in it that breathed, human or animal, had to die (cf. Jos. 6:17; 7:12).  The theories of how this term was used in Corinth are:

1. that it has a Jewish setting relating to the synagogue oaths (cf. Acts 26:11, i.e., later, rabbinical curse formulas were used to remove Christians from the  synagogue). To remain a member one had to reject or curse Jesus of Nazareth.

2. that it has a Roman setting relating to Emperor worship where only Caesar could be called "Lord"

3. that it has a pagan worship setting where the curses were called on people by the use of a god’s name. This could then be translated, "May Jesus curse ______" (cf. 1 Cor. 16:22).

4. that someone related the phrase to the theological concept of Jesus bearing the OT curse for us (cf. Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13).

5. Recent studies from Corinth (cf. footnote #1 p. 164 in Bruce Winter’s After Paul Left Corinth) document the curse tablets found on the ancient acropolis at Corinth. Biblical scholars have assumed that a linking verb "is" should be provided in the phrase, "Jesus is accursed," but this archaeological evidence clearly shows that these first century Roman period curses from Corinth lack the verb (as do some of the curses in the LXX of Deut. 22:15-20), as does 1 Cor. 12:3. There is further archaeological evidence that Christians in first century Roman Corinth used curse formulas in burial procedures (i.e., Byzantine period, found on Christian graves (J. H. Kent, The Inscriptions, 1926-50. Princeton: American School of Classical Studies, 1966, vol. 8:3, no. 644).

Some segments of the church at Corinth were reverting to pagan curses in Jesus’ name against other members of the church. Not only is the method a problem, but also the hateful motive. This is another example of the tension within this church. Paul wants them to build up the church, edify the church; they want to curse part of the church!

 

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