Anathema, as used in the New Testament, comes from the Greek ana’thema, meaning “a person or thing accursed or consigned to damnation or destruction.” Used only six times in the Bible, the word anathema is usually translated as “accursed,” “cursed,” or “eternally condemned” in the more modern translations. Young’s Literal Translation, the American Standard Version, and the King James Version transliterate it as “anathema.”
The NIV translates Romans 9:3 as “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race.” Here, the meaning conveyed has to do more with one being consigned to eternal condemnation. It carries with it the idea of complete separation from Christ and His salvation.
Another example of the use of the word anathema is Galatians 1:8–9. The American Standard Version (1901) renders this passage as “But though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach unto you any gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema. As we have said before, so say I now again, if any man preacheth unto you any gospel other than that which ye received, let him be anathema.” In the NIV, the words “eternally condemned” replace “anathema.”
Another use of the word anathema has to do with placing an oath or a vow upon oneself. For example, in Acts 23:12 we read of certain Jews who had “banded together, and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul” (ASV). These Jews had determined that Paul was to be killed and believed it was their duty to put him away. As such, they “anathematized” themselves or, as the NIV renders it, “bound themselves with an oath” to fast until they had done the deed.
Anathema is also used in conjunction with the word maranatha, found only in 1 Corinthians 16:22: “If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed. Maranatha” (1 Corinthians 16:22, NASB, 1995 Update). Maranatha expresses the hope of Christ’s second coming. Other modern versions translate this passage as “If anyone does not love the Lord—a curse be on him. Come, O Lord!” 1 Corinthians 16:22, NIV). The word anathema is related to the Old Testament Hebrew word haram or herem, which was often used in referencing the total annihilation of idolatrous people or nations (Numbers 21:2–3; Joshua 6:17). Haram sometimes pertained to a person or object forever devoted to God (Leviticus 27:21).
Generally speaking, most Bible scholars agree that the word anathema is best understood to mean that which is to be accursed, condemned, or destroyed. When the Lord says something is “anathema,” it is a serious matter.