BLASPHEMY (Gk. blasphēmia, "a speech or word of evil omen"): Properly any species of calumny and detraction, but technically limited to evil-speaking of God or things held sacred. The conception that such an act is a crime may be traced back to Judaism, whose code imposed death by stoning as a punishment (Lev. xxiv, 15-16; Matt. xxvi, 65; John x, 33). The later Roman law also attached the death penalty (Nov. Justin., LXXVII, i, 1-2). In the earlier church law, blasphemy is not mentioned as a punishable offense. Pope Gregory IX (1227-41) prescribed penance for public blasphemy against God, the saints, or the Virgin; the guilty person must stand for seven Sundays at the church porch during the mass, on the last of the seven without cloak or shoes; he must fast the Fridays preceding on bread and water, and give alms according to his means. The civil authorities were also admonished to impose a fine. By the end of the century the offense came to be more definitely defined as any depreciatory or opprobrious expression concerning God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit, such as the denial of a divine attribute, or the ascription of something unseemly (as falsehood or revenge), or wishing ill to or in any way dishonoring God, the saints, or the Virgin. Leo X (1513-21) imposed fines according to the ability of the offender and bodily punishments which included flogging, boring the tongue, and condemnation to the galleys in extreme cases. Later a tendency to substitute admonition and exhortation for severe penalties becomes apparent. By the common law of England, and in many of the United States by statute law, blasphemy is an indictable offense; prosecutions, however, have become infrequent.
(P. HINSCHIUS †.)
The blasphemy against the Holy Ghost which is pronounced unpardonable (Matt. xii, 31; Mark iii, 29; Luke xii, 10) is best understood to be wilful and persistent resistance to the influences and warnings of God, which renders the subject incapable of repentance and pardon. See HOLY SPIRIT, II.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. D. Michaelis, Mosäisches Recht, part v, § 251, Frankfort, 1770-75, Eng. transl., London, 1810; P. Hinschius, Das Kirchenrecht in Deutschland, iv, p. 793, n. 3, v, 184, 318-319, 325, 699, vi, 188, Berlin, 1869-98; Blackstone, Commentaries, IV, 4, iv; Sir J. F. Stephen, History of the Criminal Law of England, ii, 469-476, London, 1883; Bishop, Commentaries, X, x; DB, i, 305-306; EB, i, 589-590.