In Greek usage, an anathema was anything laid up or suspended; hence anything laid up in a temple or set apart as sacred. In this sense the form of the word was once (in plural) used in the Greek New Testament, in , where it is rendered 'gifts'. It is used similarly in the Book of Judith, where it is translated as 'gift to the Lord'. In the Septuagint the form anathema is generally used as the rendering of the Hebrew word herem, derived from a verb which means (1) to consecrate or devote; and (2) to exterminate. Any object so sacrificed or devoted to the Lord could not be redeemed (); and hence the idea of exterminating was connected with the word. The Hebrew verb (haram) is frequently used of the extermination of idolatrous nations. It had a wide range of application. The anathema or herem was a person or thing irrevocably devoted to God (); and "none devoted shall be ransomed. He shall surely be put to death" (). The Hebrew word therefore carried the idea of devoted to destruction (); and hence a majority of scholars have treated the word anathema similarly, generally as meaning a thing accursed. For example, in an idol is called a herem = anathema, understood to mean a thing accursed. There is, however, an alternative view that the Greek word 'anathema,' in these passages, was used by the Greek Septuagint translators to mean "offered up to God."
Under an alternative view, however, the word anathema in the New Testament was used meaning, "offered up to God."
In , the expression "anathema from Christ," i.e., excluded from fellowship or alliance with Christ, has occasioned much difficulty. The traditional view is that the apostle here does not speak of his wish as a possible thing. It is simply a vehement expression of feeling, showing how strong was his desire for the salvation of his people. In the alternate view, Paul is expressing the wish that he be 'offered up to God,' from (by) Christ.
The traditional view is that the word anathema in denotes that they who love not the Lord are objects of loathing and execration to all holy beings; they are unrepentant of a crime that merits the severest condemnation; they are exposed to the sentence of "everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord" for they do not embrace saving beliefs, as was the sentence of all mankind before the atonement, justification and sanctification of the blood of Christ Jesus that washed away our sins. The alternative view is that Paul is saying that those who do not love the Lord should be offered up to God.
It must be said that an Anathema in the New Testament is merely a serious charge laid against a person to be delivered up for the immediate but temporary judgment of God in order to prevent the spread of false doctrine. The ultimate goal is meant to restore one to fellowship and to cease their error and to end false teaching and bad doctrine. Both the Church's process of excommunication and the Lord bringing tragedy into the offender's life is performed with the hope of bringing the offender back into a right understanding of the scripture and into a right relationship with both God and their brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus.
The offenses which preclude Anathema such as to preach another gospel or to not love the Lord and prescribed against those that walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and despise government are forgivable as with all offenses and sins except unbelief in the Lord Jesus Christ which may be called blasphemy against the Holy Ghost for it is written if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (). The Lord is long suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (). To our Lord Jesus Christ's preaching that all sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme (). For if one could not repent from not loving the Lord then who could be saved, for we are all born enemies of the cross until we are converted and born again of the spirit. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life ().
It is valuable to note that the offense of preaching the gospel of circumcision was also dealt with in , these "false teachers and those being led astray" were to be strongly reprimanded to make them strong in the faith. 1 Corinthians 7:19 NLT deals with this topic another way, "For it makes no difference whether or not a man has been circumcised. The important thing is to keep God’s commandments." It is interesting that those teaching circumcision were said to have "intentiontially" departed from the truth in order to make money from teaching circumision or to glory in the flesh of those they deceived while those that innocently believed it is what God wanted were to be reprimanded to make them strong in the faith. It is as though the false teachers, being unwilling to repent of their false teaching, would not be corrected through reprimand as someone who made an innocent mistake, as was Saul before his enlightenment, would be corrected through reprimand.
For the Orthodox, anathema is not final damnation; God alone is the judge of the living and the dead, and up until the moment of death repentance is always possible. The purpose of public anathema is twofold: to warn the one condemned and bring about his repentance, and to warn others away from his error. Everything is done for the purpose of the salvation of souls.
On the First Sunday of Great Lent, which is known as the "Sunday of Orthodoxy", the church celebrates the Rite of Orthodoxy, at which anathemas are pronounced against numerous heresies. This rite commemorates the end of Iconoclasm, the last great heresy to trouble the church (all subsequent heresies merely being restatements in one form or another of previous errors), at the Council of Constantinople in 842. The Synodicon, or decree of the council, was publicly proclaimed on this day, and includes not only an anathema against Iconoclasm but also of previous heresies. The Synodicon continues to be proclaimed annually, together with additional prayers and petitions in cathedrals and major monasteries throughout the Orthodox Church. During the rite (which is also known as the "Triumph of Orthodoxy"), lections are read from , which directs the church to "...mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine you have learned, and avoid them. For they … by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple", and which recounts the parable of the Good Shepherd, and provides the procedure to be followed in dealing with those who error:
"… if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he shall neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, whatever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
After an ektenia (litany), during which petitions are offered that God will have mercy on those who error and bring them back to the truth, and that he will "make hatred, enmity, strife, vengeance, falsehood and all other abominations to cease, and cause true love to reign in our hearts…", the bishop (or abbot) says a prayer during which he beseeches God to: "look down now upon Thy Church, and behold how that, though we have joyously received the Gospel of slavation, we are but stony ground. For the thorns of vanity and the tares of the passions make it to bear but little fruit in certain places and none in others, and with the increase in iniquity, some, opposing the truth of Thy Gospel by heresy, and others by schism, do fall away from Thy dignity, and rejecting Thy grace, the subject themselves to the judgment of Thy most holy word. O most merciful and almighty Lord … be merciful unto us; strengthen us in the right Faith by Thy power, and with Thy divine light illumine the eyes of those in error, that they may come to know Thy truth. Soften the hardness of their hearts and open their ears, that they may hear Thy voice and turn to Thee, our Saviour. O Lord, set aside their division and correct their life, which doth not accord with Christian piety. … Endue the pastors of Thy Church with holy zeal, and so direct their care for the salvation and conversion of those in error with the spirit of the Gospel that, guided by Thee, we may all attain to that place where is the perfect faith, fulfillment of hoe, and true love …." The Protodeacon then proclaims the Synodicon, anathematizing various heresies and lauding those who have remained constant in the dogma and Sacred Tradition of the church.
Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive (Name) himself and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment.
The priests respond: "Fiat, fiat, fiat" (Let it be done), and all, including the pontiff, cast their lighted candles on the ground. Notice is sent in writing to the priests and neighbouring bishops of the name of the one who has been thus excommunicated and the cause of his excommunication, in order that they may have no communication with him. Although he is delivered to Satan and his angels, he can still, and is even bound to repent. The Pontifical gives the form for absolving him and reconciling him with the Church.
The 1917 Code of Canon Law, which abolished all ecclesiastical penalties not mentioned in the Code itself (canon 6), made "anathema" synonymous with "excommunication" (canon 2257). The ritual described above is not included in the post-Vatican II revision of the Pontifical.