Blasphemy: Christian Concept

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The word blasphemy derives from a Greek term meaning "speaking evil," but in the Christian religious tradition the word refers to verbal offenses against sacred values or beliefs. A seventeenth-century Scottish jurist epitomized blasphemy by calling it "treason against God." The concept of blasphemy has never remained fixed. It has ranged from the ancient Hebrew crime of cursing the ineffable name of God to irreverent statements that outrage the religious sensibilities of others. What is deemed blasphemous varies from society to society and may differ with time and place, but whatever is condemned as blasphemy is always regarded as an abuse of liberty and reveals what a society cannot and will not tolerate. Blasphemy constitutes a litmus test of the standards a society feels it must enforce to preserve its religious peace, order, morality, and above all, salvation. Wherever organized religion exists, blasphemy is taboo.

Yet Christianity holds no monopoly on the concept of blasphemy. Every society will punish the rejection or mockery of its gods. Because blasphemy is an intolerable verbal violation of the sacred, it affronts the priestly class, the deep-seated beliefs of worshipers, and the basic religious values that a community shares. Punishing the blasphemer may serve any one of several social purposes in addition to setting an example to warn others. Punishment is also supposed to propitiate the offended deities by avenging their honor, thereby averting their wrath in the shape of earthquakes, infertility, lost battles, floods, plagues, or crop failures. Public retribution for blasphemy also vindicates the witness of believers, reaffirms communal values, and avoids the snares of toleration. Toleration sanctions the offense, inviting others to commit it, and sheds doubt on orthodox truths.

Periclean Greece cherished liberty yet prosecuted its blasphemers. Anaxagoras the philosopher, by imagining a superior intellect that had imposed a purposeful order on the physical world, insulted the Greek gods; Phidias the sculptor, by carving a figure of himself on the shield of his colossal statue of Athena, profaned her; Euripides the tragic poet seemed to doubt the sanctity of oaths witnessed by the gods; Alcibiades the general supposedly mocked the sacred rites honoring Demeter, the grain goddess; Protagoras the mathematician and Diagoras the poet confessed to agnosticism. Finally, Socrates, whose trial for blasphemy is the best known in history next to that of Jesus, was charged with corrupting the youth by disbelieving in the gods of the state and advocating deities of his own.

Christendom's concept of blasphemy derived from the Mosaic injunction of Exodus 22:28, which declares, "You shall not revile God." The precedent for punishing blasphemy as a crime is in Leviticus 24:16, where one who cursed the name of the Lord was put to death by stoning. None of the Old Testament references to the commission of blasphemy quotes the actual crime for fear of repeating it. The Hebrew scriptures distinguished blasphemy from other offenses against religion, in contrast to the Septuagint. Where, for example, Greek usage showed a preference for blasphemy and used that term somewhat loosely, the Hebrew scriptures referred more precisely to "idolatry" or "sacrilege," as in Isaiah 66:3 and 1 Maccabees 2:6, or sometimes to "speaking anything against God," as in Daniel 3:29. On the other hand, the term for "blasphemy" in the Hebrew scriptures is linqov, which means "to specify, enunciate, or pronounce distinctly"; but Leviticus 24:1023 uses it in conjunction with qillel, which means "curse." The word cannotes also "to pierce [the name of God], rail, repudiate, derogate, speak disrespectfully, denounce, insult, and abuse." The blasphemy of Rab-Shakeh in 2 Kings 1819 shows the offense to mean speaking disrespectfully of God, doubting his powers, and comparing him to idols. However, only cursing the personal name of the Lord merited the death penalty; for a lesser blasphemy, the punishment was probably excommunication. To curse was a far more serious offense than in our time. "God damn," a familiar curse, is today mere profanity; in the biblical sense, to curse meant uttering an imprecation in the name of God for the purpose of calling upon his power to perform an evil deed. Although the Septuagint tends to use blasphemy as a broad term for any offenses against religion, with the exception of Ben Sira 3:16 no Greek-Jewish text uses the word or any form of it that is not God-centered. Only God can be blasphemed in Jewish thought. And nowhere in Old Testament or Greek-Jewish sacred books is blasphemy a synonym for heresy. Indeed, no equivalent for the concept of heresy exists in the pre-Christian era. Christianity, though greatly influenced by Greek-Jewish texts, would use the two terms blasphemy and heresy as equivalents and as more than a God-centered offense. Not until Christianity began did the meaning of blasphemy change.

The New Testament retained the God-centeredness of the Mosaic code but expanded the concept of the offense to include the rejection of Jesus and the attribution of his miracles to satanic forces. Although only Mark and Matthew depict a formal trial and condemnation of Jesus by the Sanhedrin, all four evangelists employ the motif that the Jewish rejection of Jesus was blasphemy. Readers understand that whenever the Gospels depicted the Jews as describing Jesus as blasphemous for performing some miracle, or healing on the Sabbath, or forgiving sins, none of which constituted the crime of blasphemy in Jewish law, the Jews by their rejection, and not Jesus, were blasphemous. Thus in the climax of the trial scenes before the Sanhedrin, those who found Jesus guilty were blasphemers because they did not recognize him as the Son of God and the Messiah. Jesus' answer to Caiaphas in Mark 14:62 ("I am") should be understood as post-Easter theology, but it became the basis for a new, expanded concept of blasphemy in Christian thought.

For four centuries after the crucifixion, many different interpretations of Christianity competed with each other as the true faith, producing accusations of blasphemy. Jesus, having joined God as a divine majesty in Christian thought, though not in Arianism, became a target of blasphemers or, rather, the basis for leveling the charge of blasphemy against variant professors of Christianity. Cursing, reproaching, challenging, mocking, rejecting, or denying Jesus Christ became blasphemy. Posing as Jesus, claiming to be equal to him, or asserting powers or attributes that belonged to him, became blasphemy. Ascribing evil or immoral inspiration to any work of God or of the Holy Spirit that moved Jesus also became blasphemy, as did any denial or renunciation of the faith, and any discord, false beliefs, or dissent from Jesus' teachings. Denying the incarnation or calling the Son of God a human being only resulted in the same charge. Blasphemy was a concept of primary concern to Christians, as well as a vile epithet with which to blacken religious enemies. During the four centuries it took for Christianity to define itself and develop its faith, every faction accused its opponents as blasphemers. In time, heresy, which originally meant a factionalism arising from the willful choice of an untrue faith, became not just a form of blasphemy that exposed the true faith to contention; it became a term that eclipsed blasphemy. A point implicit in the deutero-Pauline epistles became explicit in 2 Clement, which stated that blasphemy means "you do not do what I desire" and therefore consists of anything that contravened ecclesiastical authority. This viewpoint became a fixed position in Christian thought.

Any religious view contrary to church policy was blasphemy, a form of heresy, but the doctrine of the Trinity became the focal point in the controversy over blasphemy. The conflict between Arians and Athanasians involved more than a dispute over the right faith; it concerned the right road to salvation for all Christians. The authority of the church, when backed by the coercion of the state, settled the controversy by fixing on the Nicene Creed, which ultimately became the test of orthodoxy. Constantine's decrees against Arians and Arian books eventually led to the Theodosian Code of 438, enthroning Catholic Christianity as the exclusive religion of the empire, and Christians began persecuting each other. Heresy then superseded blasphemy as the great crime against Christianity. Unfreighted with Old Testament origins, heresy was more flexible and spacious a concept than blasphemy and had as many meanings. Both Athanasius and Augustine freely intermixed accusations of blasphemy and heresy, as if the two terms were interchangeable. But heresy became the encompassing term, because the church faced abusive criticism and competing doctrines about the faith, not abusive speech about God. Augustine developed a theory of persecution that lasted more than a millennium. Blasphemers, he wrote, "slay souls," causing "everlasting deaths." Rape, torture, and death were nothing compared to rejection or corruption of the pure faith. The church persecuted "out of love," he declared, "to save souls." Toleration intensified the heretic's damnation and passed his guilt to church and state for allowing him to contaminate others, multiplying his eternal fate among the faithful. Those who knew the revealed truth yet permitted disloyalty to it committed a greater crime than those who rejected it. Indulging willful error in a matter of salvation betrayed the faith and risked the worst calamity in the hereafter. Blasphemy, Augustine wrote, was the most "diabolical heresy."

Theologians who discussed blasphemy in the times of Bede, Gratian, Aquinas, Bernard Gui, and Bellarmine said nothing significantly different from Augustine. Aquinas regarded blasphemy as saying or thinking something false against God; he therefore understood it as a species of unbelief meriting death. But he also condemned all heresies as blasphemy: heretics, he thought, ought to be punished for crimes worse than treason or murder because they victimized God, not merely other human beings. According to Aquinas, "heretics blaspheme against God by following a false faith."

Protestants during the Reformation had to reinvent the crime of blasphemy on the fiction that it was distinguishable from heresy. Because "heresy" was the Catholic description for Protestantism, Protestant leaders tended to choke on the word heretic and preferred to describe as "blasphemy" anything they disliked or disagreed with, just as the church had used "heresy." Luther, for example, impartially if promiscuously condemned as blasphemies Anabaptism, Arianism, Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam. Any denial of an article of Christian faith as he understood it was blasphemy. So too, sin was blasphemy, opposing Luther was blasphemy, questioning God's judgments was blasphemy, persecution of Protestants by Catholics was blasphemy, Zwinglian dissent from Lutheranism was blasphemy, missing church was blasphemy, and the peasantry's political opinions were blasphemy. Luther abused and cheapened the word, but he certainly revived and popularized it. It became part of the Protestant currency. In 1553 Calvin's Geneva executed Michael Servetus, the first systematic antitrinitarian theorist, for his "execrable blasphemies" that scandalized the Trinity and entailed the murder of many souls. Of all the blasphemy cases of the sixteenth century the strangest was that of Ferenc Dávid, the head of the Unitarian church in Transylvania. His allies, the Socinians, denounced and prosecuted him as a blasphemer because of his belief that Christians should not worship Christ. In 1579 the Hungarian Diet convicted him of blasphemy and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

During the seventeenth century blasphemy increasingly became a secular crime. The state began to supplant the church as the agency mainly responsible for instigating and conducting prosecutions. The connection between religious dissent and political subversion and the belief that a nation's religious unity augmented its peace and strength accounted in part for the rising dominance of the state in policing serious crimes against religion. Governments intervened more frequently to suppress nonconforming sectarians and intellectuals. Although Rome had charged Giordano Bruno with blasphemy and burned him for heresy in 1600, Protestant precedents were not without some influence. The church condemned for heresy, the state increasingly for blasphemy, even in Catholic states. On the continent, blasphemy prosecutions continued into the present century, although the death penalty for the crime was abandoned during the eighteenth century.

In England the prosecution of heresy as a capital crime had begun to die out in the reign of Elizabeth. The earliest Protestant codification of ecclesiastical law in England (1553) had the first separate section on blasphemy. Elizabeth burned five or six Arians and Anabaptists whose crimes included the beliefs that Christ was not God and that infant baptism was unnecessary. The last English executions for religion occurred in 1612; both victims were antitrinitarians, the principal targets of suppression throughout the century. John Biddle, the Socinian father of English Unitarianism, was persecuted for seventeen years and finally died in prison in 1662.

In 1648 Parliament had enacted a statute against blasphemy that reached the doctrines of Socinianism but not those of Ranterism, a phenomenon of the disillusioned and defeated political left that turned to religion for expression. Ranters believed that, as God's grace is unbounded, nothing is sinful. Antinomian sentiment run amok into religious anarchy, the Ranters were seditious, obscene, and blasphemous in ways as flagrantly offensive as possible. A 1650 act against blasphemy cataloged Ranter beliefs but punished them lightly compared to Scotland, which carried out the death penalty. The Ranters, believing that life should be enjoyed, recanted easily and disappeared. Unlike the Socinians or the Quakers, they did not have the stuff of martyrs.

George Fox, the founding Quaker, who was prosecuted for blasphemy four times, and his followers endured violent persecution. Their belief in the Christ within seemed blasphemous. In 1656 James Nayler, then the greatest Quaker, was convicted by Parliament for blasphemy because he reenacted Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as a sign of the imminent Second Coming. Nayler was savagely beaten and imprisoned. The first person imprisoned for blasphemy after the Restoration was William Penn, accused of antitrinitarianism.

In 1676 John Taylor, a farmer who really blasphemed ("Religion is a cheat" and "Christ is a bastard"), was convicted by the King's Bench. Chief Justice Matthew Hale delivered an opinion that made Taylor's case the most important ever decided in England; he ruled that the secular courts had jurisdiction of blasphemy and could punish blasphemers, because Christianity is part of the law of the land and the state has to prevent dissolution of government and religion. After the crime of nonconformity died in consequence of the Toleration Act of 1689, blasphemy remained an offense punishable by the state. A blasphemy act of 1698 targeted antitrinitarians, showing that England still regarded them as execrable atheists.

English precepts about blasphemy made the Atlantic crossing. Virginia's first code of laws (1611) specified death for anyone blaspheming the Trinity or Christianity, and most other colonies followed suit. But the actual punishments consisted of fines, branding, whipping, banishment, and prison. Massachusetts regarded Quakers as blasphemous but inflicted the death penalty, technically, for defiance of banishment decrees. In the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment, blasphemy prosecutions on both sides of the Atlantic diminished. All the American colonies produced only half a dozen convictions, and the worst sentence was boring through the tongue and a year in prison. In Great Britain, where there were a dozen convictions, the cases involved important defendants, serious legal issues, and heavier sentences. In one case the first minister to call himself a Unitarian was convicted for writing a book that temperately argued the subordination of Christ to God. A biblical scholar who mocked literal interpretations of miracles lost his appeal when the high court of Britain relied on the judgment in Taylor's case. As the century closed, a series of blasphemy prosecutions began against the publishers and sellers of Thomas Paine's Age of Reason.

The number of blasphemy cases peaked in England and the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. Between 1821 and 1834 English trials produced seventy-three convictions. The defendants, who in the past had professed to be believing Christians, increasingly became agnostics, deists, and secularists who relied on freedom of the press more than freedom of religion, with as little success. In the American cases the courts maintained the legal fiction that the law punished only malice, never mere difference of opinion. The law aimed, that is, not at what was said but the way it was said; the judicial cliché on both sides of the Atlantic rested on the doctrine that manner, not matter, determined criminality. That seemed so in an important New York case of 1811 (People v. Ruggles), in which the court ruled that only Christianity could be blasphemed and judged guilty the defendant, who had declared that Jesus was a bastard, his mother a whore. Such malicious blasphemy found no protection in constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression or separation of church and state. But in the leading American case (Commonwealth v. Kneeland), decided in 1838 in Massachusetts, arguments based on liberty of conscience and press failed even though the defendant was a pantheist who declared in language devoid of scurrility that he did not believe in God, Christ, or miracles. The view that received no judicial endorsement in the nineteenth century was that espoused in 1825 by two old men, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who agreed that blasphemy prosecutions conflicted with the principle of free inquiry; Jefferson also sought to prove that Christianity was not part of the law of the land and that religion or irreligion did not belong to the cognizance of government. In 1883 the Lord Chief Justice of England supposedly liberalized the law by holding that decency of expression would exempt from prosecution even an attack on the fundamentals of Christianitya fairly subjective test. Moreover, the decencies of controversy were also subjective in character. Indeed, the authors of most of the books of the Old and New Testaments as well as many leading saints and the originators of most Protestant denominations and sects gave such offense that they would not have passed the legal tests that prevailed in England and America.

In the twentieth century, blasphemy prosecutions have dwindled in number. In 1977 Massachusetts refused to repeal its three-hundred-year-old act against blasphemy, even though the last prosecutions in that state were conducted in the 1920s and had failed. But in the same year a prosecution succeeded in London, the first in over half a century. In the United States no prosecution has occurred since 1968, despite laws against blasphemy, and no prosecution ending in a conviction could survive judicial scrutiny on appeal, given the contemporary interpretations of First Amendment freedoms by the Supreme Court. Blasphemy prosecutions, relics of the Anglo-American world, are becoming obsolete even elsewhere in Christendom. People seem to have learned that Christianity is capable of surviving without penal sanctions and that God can avenge his own honor.

See Also



Theodore Albert Schroeder's Constitutional Free Speech Defined and Defended in an Unfinished Argument in a Case of Blasphemy (1919; New York, 1970) is, despite its misleading title, a comprehensive history by a passionate, freethinking radical lawyer who opposed any restraints on expression. Not factually accurate, it is nevertheless a still useful pioneering work. Gerald D. Nokes's A History of the Crime of Blasphemy (London, 1928) also has a misleading title. It is a brief and narrowly legalistic study of English cases only, but is well executed. Leonard W. Levy's Treason against God: A History of the Offense of Blasphemy (New York, 1981) is easily the fullest treatment of the concept from Moses to 1700; covering religious thought as well as legal history, it is oversympathetic to victims of prosecution, according to reviewers. A promised sequel will bring the subject up to date. Levy's Blasphemy in Massachusetts: Freedom of Conscience and the Abner Kneeland Case (New York, 1973) reprints the major primary sources on the most important American case. Roland Bainton's Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus (Boston, 1953) is the best introduction to the most important blasphemy case of the Reformation. Donald Thomas's A Long Time Burning: The History of Literary Censorship in England (New York, 1969) is a vivid account that views the subject of blasphemy against a broad canvas. William H. Wickwar's The Struggle for the Freedom of the Press, 18191832 (London, 1928) is a splendid, scholarly book that recounts prosecutions for blasphemy in England at a time when they peaked in number. George Holyoake's The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism in England (1851; London, 1972) is a short autobiographical account by a freethinking victim of a prosecution. Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner's Penalties upon Opinion: Or Some Records of the Laws of Heresy and Blasphemy (London, 1912) is a short account by an opponent of all blasphemy prosecutions and the daughter of the victim of one. William Wolkovich's Bay State "Blue" Laws and Bimba (Brockton, Mass., n. d.) is a well-documented study of a 1926 prosecution. Alan King-Hamilton's And Nothing But the Truth (London, 1982) is a judge's autobiography containing a chapter on a noted blasphemy case in England.

Leonard W. Levy (1987)