Notes on “Curse” and “Accursed” in GalatiansPosted: June 30, 2010
Photo: Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, the Mountains of Blessing and Cursing (Dt. 27-28)
Two Different Curses
In Galatians, Paul begins by denouncing those who have mislead the church with a “contrary Gospel” other than that Paul first preached to them (1:8f.), reiterates the proof of his Gospel, then launches into his great treatise against Judaizers who would enslave them again to the Law. Paul pronounces that those Judaizing preachers should be “accursed” (Greek ANATHEMA).
ANATHEMA originally referred to a votive gift to a god intended to assuage the god’s wrath. In the Septuagint (ancient Greek OT), ANATHEMA is regularly used to translate Hebrew CHEREM, “ban.” “What is banned (persons or things) is directly given up to God and so cannot be redeemed (Lev. 27:18).”* Such curse is applied variously to the people of Canaan (Num. 21:3, Jud. 1:17), to Jericho (Josh. 6:17f., and to Achan (Josh. 7:1), etc.
In the NT, Paul wished that he might be accursed to save Israel (Rom. 9:3), and declared that “no man speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed” (1 Cor. 12:3). In Acts (23:12f.), a verbal form of the word is used to express the binding oath unto death taken by Jews who intended to assassinate Paul.
Note that ANATHEMA expresses the sentence of final, utter destruction which is by God alone. It is NOT used, however, of the “damnation” of those who take the Lord’s supper unworthily (1 Cor. 11:27-34), which is rather “judgment,” (KRINO, DIAKRINO), meant to “chasten,” not utterly destroy. Similarly, it is NOT used of those whom Paul “delivered unto Satan . . . that the spirit might be saved” (1 Cor. 5:5) or “that they might learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:20).
It remains arguable whether the final ANATHEMA curse was that applied to those who, under Moses’ Law, committed sins worthy of being “cut off” from the covenant people, as in Num. 9:13. To some scholars, the latter constitutes exile and excommunication “from the sphere of salvation, but they are not, as in the case of the banned, directly given over to God and destroyed,”* a rather fine distinction having more to do with timing than consequence. The OT idea of banishment is probably that expressed by Paul in Galatians 5:12, although Christian teachers as early as John Chrysostom (4th c.) have construed a reference to castration.#
So in what way is Christ cursed in Galatians 3:13? Is He ANATHEMA, accursed? The word used in Gal. 3:10 and 13 is KATAROS, and an intensified form, EPIKATARATOS.
KATAROS is used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew QeLaLaH, describing the pronouncement or placement of a formal curse. It is literally, as multiple sources assert, “the opposite of blessing.” EPIKATARATOS is used to introduce each of the many curses pronounced upon the Hebrews if they transgress the Law (Deut. 27-28), contrasted with the blessings (participle of EULOGEO, “good words”) for those who “hearken diligently unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments” (Deut. 28:1). These blessings and cursings are summarized by Moses in Deut. 11:26 ff. and 30:1 ff.
Balaam attempted to pronounce curses upon Israel, but could only prophesy blessings (Num. 22-24), and Jezebel was worthy of a curse (2 Kings 9:34). This form of a curse was not irrevocable, but in the case of Israel was meant to chasten a rebellious nation to repentance. A curse meant the withholding of blessings for disobedience, as when Christ cursed the fig tree for withholding fruit (Mk. 11:21). Any Hebrew who did not confirm and obey the words of the Law lived under a curse (Deut. 27:26).
The Law prescribed that a man put to death and hung on a tree was accursed and not allowed to be buried till sunset, “that thy land be not defiled” (Deut. 21:22f.), without further elaboration as to purpose, but taken to be prophetic of Christ. The Apostle Paul relates this curse to that of the Law (Gal. 3:10). In the New Covenant, one is justified by the law of faith, not the rules of the Law. That faith is based on the One who was hanged on a tree, becoming cursed for us, thereby redeeming us from the curse of the Law. That curse was not one of God’s utter disapproval unto annihilation (ANATHEMA), but one meant to chasten unto obedience (KATAROS).
Paul’s strict adherence to the terminology used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew Bible, along with correct inference, is one of many evidences that the Apostles used the Septuagint as their Bible when preaching and teaching among Greek-speaking peoples.
* The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Zondervan, 1986), vol. I, pp. 413 ff.
# Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd. ed. (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979).
© 2010 Paul A. Hughes