In the most general sense blasphemy is an offense, in word, symbol, or action, against the sacred. The sacred may be the deity, a person, an object, or a doctrine. Blasphemy is usually associated with monotheistic religions—religions that recognize and worship one god. The offense can also occur in polytheistic religions—religions with more than one god. It is often the case, however, that polytheistic religions would use "sacrilege" to connote similar concepts.
The concept of blasphemy in the Hebrew Bible is limited in scope. In the Mosaic law is the regulation "Do not blaspheme (or revile) God or curse the ruler of your people" (Exodus 22:28). The text, however, gives no further indication at this point of what it means. The most notable text on blasphemy in the Hebrew Bible is in Leviticus 24:10–23. In this story, a man whose mother was an Israelite and whose father was an Egyptian fought with another Israelite in the camp. During the fight the former "blasphemed the name of the Lord with a curse" (Leviticus 24:11). The Israelites kept the accused blasphemer in custody until God indicated what should be done. The word came through Moses that the man should be taken outside the camp and stoned to death.
This event in Leviticus indicates that the penalty for blaspheming the name of God was death. Further, interpreters generally agree that the offense against God consisted of pronouncing aloud his ineffable name. Talmudic teaching later expanded this tradition by declaring that in a trial of one having blasphemed by speaking God's name aloud, the exact words of the offender could be repeated only before the judges alone. All others present at the trial had to be dismissed from the room. And having heard the name, the judges stood and tore their clothes as a sign of their grief and mourning over this sinful act.
The New Testament accepted the Jewish teaching on what constituted blasphemy and added the offense of rejecting Jesus as the Christ and speaking evil of him or his actions. Jesus himself was accused of blasphemy on several occasions (e.g., Matthew 9:3, 26:65; John 10:33). But Christian interpreters of these and other verses take the meaning to be that it was Jesus' accusers who actually committed the blasphemy by reviling and not believing in Jesus.
Islam does not have any laws or prohibitions against blasphemy as such. The Qur'an does include teaching against infidelity and apostasy. Infidelity, the Islamic concept perhaps most closely related to blasphemy, is the intentional rejection of God and divine revelation. Islamic law further makes clear that any insult to God, to Muhammad, or to any part of divine revelation is a crime. Without actually using the term, Islam generally considers blasphemy to be any statement that is an indication of apostasy. This concept of blasphemy is more or less equivalent to heresy, which is any teaching at variance with orthodox Islamic teaching. Heresy not only is a crime against Islam but also can be understood as a crime against the state.
The Christian Church has at times made a similar identification between blasphemy and heresy. In the first four Christian centuries many competing forms of Christianity spread around the Mediterranean world. These forms variously claimed that Jesus was human and not divine, or divine and not human; that he had one nature and two wills; that he had two natures and two wills; and so on. Controversies raged over the concept of the Trinity, its nature, and the supposed relationship of the persons of the Trinity. The various advocates of the competing positions frequently leveled the accusation of blasphemy at their opponents. The early Christians used the accusations as a tool to try to win support for their differing positions. Through these early centuries, as an orthodox Christian consensus emerged and was codified at the Council of Nicea (325 c.e.), the emergent majority moved away from calling dissenting opinions blasphemy. "Heresy" was the term that emerged after the great councils of the church established an orthodox doctrine. For the church in the Middle Ages heresy was a more useful concept than blasphemy because it was not weighed down or confined by biblical teaching as to what it meant. Therefore, church leaders could bend or alter the term to fit a variety of situations.
During and after the Reformation in the sixteenth century the Roman Catholic Church leveled the charge of blasphemy against Protestants. Protestants, in turn, later charged Anabaptists, Quakers, Baptists, and others with blasphemy.
Through the centuries following the Reformation the churches used the threat of the allegation of blasphemy with decreasing frequency. However, there was a surge in the number of blasphemy trials in the United States and England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the majority of the cases the issues had more to do with maintaining the peace of a community than with any supposed blasphemy. By the turn of the twentieth century the number of occurrences had again decreased.
In the United States there have been few blasphemy trials in the twentieth century. Even so, several states still have blasphemy laws on the books. However, the current interpretation of the First Amendment by the U.S. Supreme Court renders these laws essentially unenforceable.
From time to time various religious groups still raise the concept of blasphemy. Most recently two specific cases have drawn a good deal of attention, and both occurred in 1988. The first had to do with the release of the film The Last Temptation of Christ. In the film, based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, Jesus is depicted as having the experience of coming down from the cross and living a full and happy life. He married, had children, and lived to his old age. This is his last temptation and one that he ultimately overcomes. Even so, conservative Christians in the United States were outraged by the idea at the heart of the film. Protests were mounted around the country. The film played in movie theaters for a short time before going to video.
The second occurrence was related neither to the Christian tradition nor to the United States specifically. It was the controversy surrounding the publication of The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. The reason this case is mentioned here is that while Islam does not actually have a doctrine on blasphemy, the popular understanding of Rushdie's offense was that he had committed the crime. The Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran rendered a nonbinding decision, called a fatwa, that the book indicated Rushdie's apostasy and proclaimed that the author should die. Popular media interpreted the fatwa as a death sentence. Rushdie was forced to live in seclusion. Even now, after Khomeini's death, some consider the death proclamation still in effect, though it has been officially lifted.
Blasphemy has had different meanings at different times. The threat of punishment for this offense has been used by many majorities to silence dissenting voices and to maintain stability in both church and state.
Brichto, Herbert Chanan. "Blasphemy." In Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.
Buckley, G. A. "Blasphemy." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. 1967.
De Vries, S. J. "Blasphemy." In Interpreters' Dictionary ofthe Bible. 1962.
Ernst, Carl W. "Blasphemy: Islamic Concept." In Encyclopedia of Religion. 1987.
Lawton, David. Blasphemy. 1993.
Levy, Leonard W. Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against theSacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie. 1993.
Levy, Leonard W. Treason Against God: A History of theOffense of Blasphemy. 1981.
Tommy L. Faris
Any expression by word, sign, or gesture that is insulting to the goodness of God. Blasphemy is to be carefully distinguished from profanity, which is without contempt or insulting intent and does irreverence to God simply by a careless, too frequent, or inappropriate use of sacred names or reference to sacred things. Some theologians list blasphemy among the sins opposed to the virtue of religion, for it is the object of that virtue to give to God the reverence that is His due, whereas blasphemy, on the contrary, treats Him with positive irreverence and contempt (see B. Häring, The Law of Christ, 2.205). The 1917 Code of Canon Law also considered blasphemy a sin against religion (1917 Codex iuris canonici [Rome 1918; repr. Graz 1955] c. 2323). St. Thomas Aquinas, however, preferred to consider it as a sin opposed to the virtue of faith inasmuch as the blasphemer asserts some error contrary to a truth of faith that he should confess (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 13.1). Without doubt blasphemy is an offense against both faith and religion, but to see it primarily in its opposition to faith serves to center attention on what is more radical in the transgression as well as to underline its malice, for, other things being equal, sins against the theological virtues are graver than those against the moral virtues.
Blasphemy is a single species of sin, but it can be committed in many ways. Theologians commonly distinguish between heretical and nonheretical blasphemy. It is heretical if it openly asserts something contrary to faith, as when it denies God's mercy, providence, or justice. It is nonheretical if it openly asserts nothing contrary to faith but consists simply in imprecations or contumelious speech against God. Even the latter type of blasphemy, however, implicitly contains some error with respect to faith, for it assumes that God is worthy of contumelious treatment. Theologians distinguish also between blasphemy that is directed immediately against God in His person or attributes and that which is directed against His saints, angels, men, or creation generally, in their relations to Him.
Blasphemy has always been considered to be among the gravest of sins from the point of view of objective malice. The degree of subjective malice in any particular occurrence depends on the greater or lesser willful involvement of the blasphemer in the sin. Although every form of blasphemy supposes a malicious will, in its gravest and most "perfect" form it is a deliberate and direct attack upon the honor of God with intent to insult Him. But blasphemy is also possible without a direct intent to insult the divine goodness, as when one gives expression to what does in fact derogate from the divine goodness. In this sense, expressions of formal heresy or infidelity are always blasphemous. So also are expressions, commands, or invocations calling upon God to do what is un-worthy of Him, such as to curse another or to remove him from the sphere of divine love and favor. Hence if one attends simply to the literal meaning of the words, expressions calling upon God to damn something are objectively blasphemous. But words have meaning in ordinary usage according to the way in which people generally understand them. In many cases they become denatured through overuse and come to have a sense quite different from their literal meaning. The regrettable English expression "God damn" appears to have undergone such a transformation, and its use in ordinary circumstances, when one does not advert to or intend to apply the literal sense, is to be classified as profanity rather than blasphemy.
The Code of Justinian (6th century) prescribed the death penalty for blasphemy, and the crime was listed as capital throughout much of both pre-and post-Reformation Europe. Since the Enlightenment, however, secular authorities have looked upon it as a crime against the sensibilities of citizens rather than against God, and its punishment has been mitigated. Present canon law says that it is to be punished with "a just penalty" (Codex iuris canonici c. 1369).
Bibliography: cajetan, Commentarii in Summa theologiae 2am2ae 13. Adequate treatments of blasphemy may be found in most handbooks of moral theology, e.g., b. hÄring, The Law of Christ, tr. e. g. kaiser, v. 1 (Westminster, Md. 1961) 205–207. b.h. merkelbach, Summa theologiae moralis, 3 v. (8th ed. Paris 1949) 1:610–616. j. a. mchugh and c. j. callan, Moral Theology, rev. e. p. farrell, 2 v. (New York 1958) 1:347–356. v. oblet, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50; Tables générales 1951–) 2.1:907–910.
[g. a. buckley/eds.]
BLASPHEMY , in the broadest (and least precise) sense any act contrary to the will of God or derogatory to His power. Blasphemy is the term employed to translate the Hebrew verbs ḥeref, giddef, and ni'eẓ (e.g., Isa. 37:6, gdf, where the servants of the king of Assyria denied the Lord's power to save Israel; and Ezek. 20:27, where it refers to Israel's sacrifices on the High Places). In the narrower and more precise sense, the word is used to mean speaking contemptuously of the Deity. The classic instance in the Bible is Leviticus 24:10–23, where the pronouncement (nakav, naqav) of the name of God appears in conjunction with the verb killel (qillel). God (Elohim) also appears as the object of the verb qillel in Exodus 22:27 (see also i Kings 21:10, 13, where qillel is euphemistically displaced by its antonym berekh, "to bless" or "to renounce"; see *Euphemism and Dysphemism). The rabbinic interpretation of Leviticus 24:10–23 and Exodus 22:27 as wishing (i.e., wishing harm, Sanh. 7:5) establishes a definition of blasphemy such as to render the actual perpetration (and the application of the penalty, capital punishment) out of the realm of probability. The verb qallel rarely means "to curse." Rather it subsumes a wide range of abuse, often nonverbal in nature. "To curse" the Deity meant to repudiate Him, to violate His norms; blasphemy on the part of an Israelite, in the narrow sense, is a concept alien to biblical thought.
[Herbert Chanan Brichto]
In the Talmud
The Mishnah (Sanh. 7:5), rules that the death sentence by stoning should be applied only in the case where the blasphemer had uttered the *Tetragrammaton and two witnesses had warned him prior to the transgression. In the Talmud, however, R. Meir extends this punishment to cases where the blasphemer had used one of the *attributes, i.e., substitute names of God (Sanh. 56a). The accepted halakhah is that only the one who has uttered the Tetragrammaton be sentenced to death by stoning; the offender who pronounced the substitute names is only flogged (Maim., Yad, Avodat Kokhavim, 2:7). In the court procedure (Sanh. 5:7 and Sanh. 60a) the witnesses for the prosecution testified to the words of the blasphemer by substituting the expressions "Yose shall strike Yose" (yakkeh Yose et Yose). Toward the end of the hearing, however, after the audience had been dismissed, the senior witness was asked to repeat the exact words uttered by the blasphemer. Upon their pronouncement (i.e., of the Tetragrammaton), the judges stood up and rent their garments. The act expressed their profound mourning at hearing the name of God profaned. The custom of tearing one's clothes on hearing blasphemy is attested to in ii Kings 18:37, where it is told that Eliakim and his associates tore their garments upon hearing the blasphemous words of the Assyrian warlord *Rab-Shakeh (Sanh. 60a). It is codified in Shulḥan Arukh (yd 340:37) that whoever bears a blasphemy whether with the Tetragrammaton or with attributes, in any language and from a Jew, even from the mouth of a witness, must rend his garment. The second and any successive witnesses only testified: "I have heard the same words" (Sanh. 7:5); according to the opinion of *Abba Saul, whoever utters the Tetragrammaton in public is excluded from the world to come (Av. Zar. 18a). Besides the sacrilege of God, vituperation against the king, God's anointed servant, was also considered blasphemy (cf. Ex. 22:27 and i Kings 21:10). Gentiles, too, are obliged to refrain from blasphemy since this is one of the Seven *Noachide Laws (Sanh. 56a, 60a). Maimonides also classified as blasphemy the erasure of God's name written on paper or engraved on stone, etc., which was to be punished by flogging (Yad, Yesodei ha-Torah 6:1–6). After Jewish courts were deprived of jurisdiction in those cases where capital punishment was applied, excommunication (see *ḥerem) was the usual sanction against a blasphemer (J. Mueller (ed.), Teshuvot Ge'onei Mizraḥ u-Ma'arav (1898), 27a, responsum no. 103 by Amram Gaon).
Eisenstein, Dinim, 68.
Defaming religion by any words expressing scorn, ridicule, or vilification of God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the doctrine of the Trinity, the Old or New Testament, or Christianity, constitutes the offense of blasphemy. In the leading American case, Commonwealth v. Kneeland (1838), Chief Justice lemuel shaw of Massachusetts repelled arguments based on freedom of the press and on religious liberty when he sustained a state law against blasphemy and upheld the conviction of a pantheist who simply denied belief in God, Christ, and miracles. In all the American decisions, the courts maintained the fiction that the criminality of the words consisted of maliciousness or the intent to insult rather than mere difference of opinion.
The Supreme Court has never decided a blasphemy case. In burstyn, inc. v. wilson (1951) the Court relied on freedom of speech to void a New York statute authorizing the censorship of "sacrilegious" films. Justice felix frankfurter, concurring, observed that blasphemy was a far vaguer term than sacrilege because it meant "criticism of whatever the ruling authority of the moment established as the orthodox religious doctrine." In 1968, when the last prosecution of blasphemy occurred in the United States, an appellate court of Maryland held that the prosecution violated the First Amendment's ban on establishment of religion and its protection of freedom of religion. Should a blasphemy case ever reach the Supreme Court, that Court would surely reach a similar result.
Leonard W. Levy
Levy, Leonard W. 1981 Treason Against God: A History of the Offense of Blasphemy. New York: Schocken Books.
blasphemy, in religion, words or actions that display irreverence toward or contempt for God or that which is held sacred. Blasphemy is regarded as an offense against the community to varying degrees, depending on the extent of the identification of a religion with the society at large or the government. Sedition, an attack on the sovereign, is thus analogous; both it and blasphemy can be seen as subversive of order and authority. Heresy, on the other hand, is a matter of competing claims for doctrinal correctness; the dominant (orthodox) faction, however, often defines the heretic as blasphemous.
Blasphemy has been a crime in many religions and cultures, wherever there is something sacred to protect. Socrates was prosecuted for blasphemy, and Mosaic law prescribed death for cursing the name of God. Jesus was tried for blasphemy, while Christians regarded the action of the Jews in trying him as itself blasphemous.
Secular modern states often retain blasphemy laws, but they are infrequently enforced. In the United States, state blasphemy laws remain on the books, but the Supreme Court's expansive interpretation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes it likely that any blasphemy prosecution would now be regarded as an impermissible establishment of religion. In countries governed under Islamic law, the concept of blasphemy is broad, embracing many kinds of disrespect or denial of religion; the condemnation (1988) of the author Salman Rushdie by Iranian clerics is a recent example of theocratic action.
J. A. Sharpe
In Judaism, ‘blasphemy’ is speaking scornfully of God (Heb., gidduf, ḥeruf) and is described euphemistically as birkat ha-Shem (‘blessing the Name’, i.e. God). According to Leviticus 24. 10–23, the penalty for cursing God is death.
The nearest equivalent in Islam is sabb, offering an insult to God.