Definition. In English "blasphemy" denotes any utterance that insults God or Christ (or Allah, or Muhammed) and gives deeply felt offense to their followers. In several states in the United States and in Britain, blasphemy is a criminal offense, although there have been few prosecution in this century. In Islamic countries generally no distinction is made between blasphemy and heresy, so that any perceived rejection of the Prophet or his message, by Muslims or non-Muslims, is regarded as blasphemous.
The biblical concept is very different. There is no Hebrew word equivalent to the English "blasphemy, " and the Greek root blasphem- [βλασφημέω , δυσφημέω], which is used fifty-five times in the New Testament, has a wide meaning. In both Testaments the idea of blasphemy as something that offends the religious sensibilities of others is completely absent.
The Old Testament At least five different Hebrew verbs are translated "blaspheme" in English translations. Translators choose "blaspheme" when, for instance, the verbs "curse" (qalal [קָלַל]), "revile" (gadap [גָּדַף]), or "despise" (herep) are used with God as the object. No special verb is reserved for cursing or insults directed at God.
However, to curse or insult God is an especially grave sin. It can be done by word or by deed. There is little distinction between the sinner who deliberately abuses the name of the Lord (Le 24:10-16), and the one who deliberately flouts his commandments (Nu 15:30-31). For both, the death penalty is prescribed. Similarly, the prayer of the Levites in Nehemiah 9 calls "awful blasphemies" all that Israelites did when they made the golden calf (9:18).
David's flagrant sin with Bathsheba may be called a blasphemy (2 Sa 12:14), but a more likely translation is that David has "made the enemies of the Lord show utter contempt" (NIV). Instead of testifying by lifestyle to the character of the Lord, David's action confirms the blasphemous belief of the nations that the Lord is no different from any other national god.
The New Testament. The Greek root blasphem- [βλασφημέω , δυσφημέω] can be used of strong insults thrown at other people (Mark 15:29; Acts 13:45; Eph 4:31; 1 Peter 4:4), or even unjust accusations (Rom 3:8), but it is more usually used of insults offered to God (e.g., Rev 13:6; 16:9). Jesus is accused of blasphemy for pronouncing forgiveness and for claiming a unique relationship with God (Matt 26:65; Mark 2:7; John 10:33).
Jesus picks up the Numbers 15 passage about blasphemy in his famous saying about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matt 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-29; Luke 12:10). Numbers 15:22-31 distinguishes between unintentional sin committed in ignorance (for which forgiveness is possible), and defiant sin, called blasphemy, for which there is no forgiveness. Jesus teaches that the blasphemy for which there is no forgiveness is that against the Holy Spirit; all other blasphemies, particularly those against "the Son of Man, " may be forgiven. Insults thrown at "the Son of Man" may be forgiven because they are committed in ignorance of who he really is: his heavenly glory does not appear on earth. But to ascribe obvious manifestations of the Spirit to the devil's agency is a much more serious offense not committed in ignorance.
This downgrading of the significance of blasphemy against Christ marks an important difference between Christianity and Islam. Whereas Muslims are bound to defend the honor of the Prophet, for Christians Jesus is the one who says, "The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me" (Rom 15:3, ; quoting Psalm 69:9). He deliberately accepts the vilification of others and prays for the forgiveness of those who insult him (Luke 23:34). In this, he sets an example for Christians to follow. According to Peter (1 Pe 2:19-25), they must accept insult and blasphemy without retaliation, as he did.
There is only one kind of blasphemy that Christians must resist: the blasphemy they will bring on themselves if they cause a fellow believer to stumble through the thoughtless exercise of their freedom (Rom 14:15-16; 1 Cor 10:28-30).
Bibliography. I. Howard Marshall, Theology 67 (1964): 65-67; R. Simpson. Blasphemy and the Law in a Plural Society.