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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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OATHS.—Christ’s teaching on the subject of oaths is set forth in one of the sections of the Sermon on the Mount, in which He contrasts His doctrine with that of the earlier dispensation (Matthew 5:33-37). The position of the Law on the subject is summed up in the statement, ‘Thou shalt not forswear thyself,’ but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths.’ This is a combination of different passages in the Law (Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:3, Deuteronomy 23:22), of which the first deals specially with oaths, the others with vows. But in point of obligation oaths and vows were recognized in the Rabbinical schools as on the same footing (Wünsche, Neue Beitriäge zur Erläuterung der Evangelien aus Talmud und Midrasch, p. 57), and the statement in which Christ here represents the position of the Law was, no doubt, the current formula in which, in these schools, the doctrine of the Law on the question was summed up. in opposition to this dictum of the Law, Christ lays down an absolute prohibition, ‘Swear not at all’ Matthew 5:34), and proceeds to draw out the full meaning of the ‘at all’ (ὅλως) by showing that His prohibition covers every appeal to anything beside us in confirmation of our word, and not merely such as expressly introduce the name of Jehovah. The casuists among the scribes made a distinction between more and less binding oaths. The former class consisted of those which invoked the name of God; the latter used such forms as ‘by heaven,’ ‘by earth,’ ‘by Jerusalem,’ ‘by the life of my head.’ An oath by heaven and earth, for instance, was not considered to be binding, because one did not require to think of the Creator; whereas if one swore by one of the letters of the Divine name, or by one of the Divine attributes, that was regarded as binding, and he who treated such an oath lightly was punishable (Wünsche, op. cit. p. 59; Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. ii. 122).

Our Lord Himself gives other examples of such casuistical distinctions in the matter of oaths in Matthew 5:16-22. He refers to them here because the full import of His prohibition of oaths might not be realized by those who were familiar with such distinctions. It might be thought that He was merely forbidding a direct appeal to the name of Jehovah. And so He proceeds to show how utterly different is His standpoint on the question of oaths from that of the Rabbinical authorities. They endeavoured to empty the oath of reference to God, so as to narrow the scope of the commandment against perjury. Christ sought to make explicit the reference to God virtually contained in every asseveration, so as to widen the scope of His prohibition of swearing. With this object He takes some of the common forms of oaths which were regarded as less binding, and shows how, though the name of God be not expressly mentioned, they are meaningless unless they involve an appeal to Him. Thus to call heaven or earth to witness our statement is an empty form, unless we be thinking not merely of heaven or earth, but of the Power they suggest, who will punish unfaithfulness (Matthew 5:34-35 a), i.e. God, of whom heaven is the throne and earth the footstool (Isaiah 66:1). To appeal to Jerusalem (Matthew 5:35 b) is meaningless unless we be thinking of the great King, who has made Jerusalem His city (Psalms 48:3). And to swear by one’s head Matthew 23:36) involves an appeal to Him in whose hands our destiny lies, and who alone can bring upon our heads the punishment of perjury. For ourselves, we cannot make one hair black or white. Black hair is here used as the symbol of youth; white, of old age. The very colour of our hair, Christ would say, reminds us that we are in the hands of a higher Power. It is to that Power we appeal when we swear by the life of our head. Every form of asseveration, then, Christ concludes, every appeal to anything beside us in confirmation of our word, is an oath, for it virtually involves an appeal to God. All such forms come under Christ’s prohibition. His command is: ‘Swear not at all; but let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay’ (Matthew 5:34; Matthew 5:37).

These last words have received different interpretations. Beza renders them, ‘Let your affirmation be yea, and your negation nay,’—an attempt to bring the present verse into harmony with James 5:12 at the sacrifice of grammar. Equally unjustifiable grammatically is Grotius’ attempt to secure the same object by his translation, ‘Let your yea and nay of speech correspond to a yea and nay of fact,’ with the additional fault that it is questionable whether that is the meaning of the passage in James. The simplest way of taking the words is to regard the ναὶ ναί, οὒ, οὔ, as a repetition, such as was common in actual speech (cf. 2 Kings 10:15, 2 Corinthians 1:17), to confirm a statement. ‘Let your speech,’ says Christ, ‘be a clear and forcible yes or no. For whatsoever is more than these,’ He continues, ‘cometh ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ.’ Again there is difference of opinion as to these last words. Many take them as equivalent to ἐκ τοῦ διαβόλον. But B. Weiss (Matthäusevangelium, ad loc.) contends that such a view is incompatible with the fact that the OT requires oaths (Exodus 22:11), and even puts them into the mouth of God (Genesis 22:16; Genesis 26:3). It is better to take the πονηροῦ as the gen. of the neuter; so that the statement will mean that the oath springs from evil, either in the sense that it is the presence of evil in the world that leads to the oath in confirmation of one’s word, and that in the Kingdom of God, in which truth prevails, the oath must altogether disappear (so Weiss), or that the practice of confirming one’s statement by an oath springs from the tacit assumption that when one does not so confirm it, one is not bound to speak the truth (so Wendt, Lehre Jesu, ii. 210).

Before proceeding to discuss the conclusion to be drawn from the passage, we must note an interpretation of Matthew 5:34-36 which has gained considerable acceptance, but which puts quite a different meaning upon Christ’s prohibition in Matthew 5:34 from what we have given above. It is suggested that the prohibition is not meant to embrace all oaths, but merely the thoughtless swearing of everyday life whereby the name of God is profaned (so Calvin, Ewald, Tholuck, and many others). The ὀμόσαι ὅλως of Matthew 5:34, it is contended, does not include swearing by God; for, as Ewald (Die drei ersten Evangelien, p. 267) says, that was done only in courts of law, and Christ is not referring to this at all. If He had meant to forbid oaths absolutely, He would certainly have mentioned the direct oath in which the name of God is expressly invoked. As He has not done so, we must conclude that His prohibition is not meant to apply to it, i.e. that he means to forbid only such thoughtless oaths of common life as He proceeds to exemplify.

This attempt to empty the ὅλως of its meaning does not commend itself. It is evidently inspired by fear of the consequences which seem to ensue from the absolute prohibition Christ lays down, and such a motive does not tend to sound exegesis. It fails to do justice to the original. The only permissible translation of μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως is that which regards it as an absolute prohibition. Only thus does Christ’s position present a proper contrast to that of the Law. The Law forbids swearing falsely; Christ forbids swearing at all. Thus we have a sufficient contrast to, and advance beyond, the position of the Law. But on the present interpretation Christ sets over against the commandment against perjury in the name of God a prohibition merely of frivolous swearing, and that of a kind which does not mention the name of God at all, which is somewhat of an anti-climax. It is true, as the supporters of this interpretation point out, that Christ does not expressly mention the oath by the name of God in the instances He adduces. But it is much more reasonable to suppose that He omits it because it is evident that it is included under the swearing He prohibits, while there may be doubt as to these indirect oaths He specifies, than to argue that, when He prohibits swearing ὅλως, He includes under the prohibition only those forms of oath which were hardly regarded as oaths at all by His contemporaries, and omits the one oath that was universally so esteemed.

We conclude, then, that Christ’s word in Matthew 5:34 is to be understood as an absolute prohibition of swearing, and that it cannot be restricted to the thoughtless, irrelevant oaths of common life. And it remains to consider in what spirit this absolute prohibition is laid down, and what are the conclusions that follow from it. Christ has Himself given the reason for His prohibition of swearing. Whatsoever goes beyond the distinct and forcible affirmation and negation, He says, cometh of evil (Matthew 5:37). As we saw above, this saying may be interpreted in different ways. It may be taken to mean that it is the presence of evil among our fellow-men that necessitates oaths, to convince them of the good faith of the speaker. So Augustine (Sermon on the Mount): ‘Tu autem non malum facis, qui bene uteris juratione, quae, etsi non bona, tamen necessaria est, ut alten persuadeas quod utiliter persuades, sed a malo est illius, cujus infirmitate jurare cogeris.’ But, as Tholuck (Sermon on the Mount, English translation p. 252 f.) remarks, this is open to a twofold objection—first, that in such a case the evil in question rests with him who requires the oath, whereas all the stress of the prohibition is directed against taking oaths; and, second, that on this interpretation the fulfilment of our Lord’s command would be deferred to the realization of that ideal state in which no evil exists, in which case the present command would stand on a different footing from the others of the Sermon on the Mount, which plainly apply to a world in which evil is prevalent. For this reason we accept the other interpretation of the words given above—that whatever goes beyond the plain affirmation and negation cometh of evil, in the sense that behind it is the tacit assumption that, when our word is not confirmed by an oath, we are not bound to adhere strictly to the truth. This brings the present passage into harmony with the general spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. The theme of that Sermon is righteousness of the heart. When Christ opposes His commands to those of the Law, it is to show that He requires more than the Law demanded, that He insists not only upon righteousness of outward conduct, but upon righteousness of the heart. The Law required strict truth whenever an oath was taken. The tendency of the Pharisaic formalism of Christ’s day was to keep the letter of the Law by strict fulfilment of one’s promise and scrupulous adherence to the truth whenever the Divine name was invoked, but to break its spirit by assuming that whenever such an oath was not taken, greater latitude was allowed. Christ insisted upon such a regard for truth that the absence of the oath should make no difference. To feel that one is more bound by an oath than by one’s simple word is to have the spirit of falsehood in one’s heart. In such a case whatsoever is more than the direct yea and nay cometh of evil.

Once we realize what is the spirit in which Christ’s prohibition is given, we are in a position to decide some of the questions raised as to the practicability of the observance of the command in existing social conditions. If the prohibition is absolute, on what ground can the practice of taking oaths in courts of law be defended? The answer is that the spirit in which the oath is taken in such a case is very different from that which our Lord condemns in the present instance. In a court of law we take the oath to convince our fellow-men, who cannot see our heart and judge of our regard for truth, of our good faith. That is a very different thing from thinking that we are not required to speak the truth unless bound by an oath; and it is the latter view that Christ condemns in His dictum upon swearing. We may still keep the spirit of our Lord’s command though we break the letter of it by taking an oath in court, just, as we may keep the spirit of many other injunctions of the Sermon on the Mount, e.g. that with regard to praying in private (Matthew 6:6), though we break them in the letter. Christ Himself, according to the Gospel in which the present passage occurs, did not refuse to answer when the high priest adjured Him by the living God (Matthew 26:63). And though Mark omits the adjuration, so that we cannot with confidence appeal to the conduct of Christ Himself on this occasion, all the Gospels represent Him as frequently strengthening His declarations by the solemn ἀμήν, which in the Fourth Gospel becomes ἀμὴν ἀμήν. In a word, while the prohibition of swearing is absolute, and is on no account to be modified in the manner we have referred to above, we must remember that what Christ is aiming at is not the mere outward oath, but the spirit of evil which inspired it, and regard as an infraction of His command only such conduct as cometh of the evil He seeks to destroy. When we regard the commandment in that light, there is no need to defer the fulfilment of it to an ideal state. It does not describe the conditions which should prevail between the members of the Kingdom of God only in their relations to one another, but lays down a, principle which should guide the member of the Kingdom in his relation to all with whom he comes in contact. And though, owing to the conditions of the society in which he lives, he may have to depart from the strict letter of the precept by taking a solemn oath on occasion, so long as he does not do so from the unworthy motive which inspires the oaths against which Christ contends, he may still claim to remain faithful to the command of Christ.

Literature.—The various Commentaries; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , art. ‘Oath’ and Extra Vol. p. 28; PRE [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , art. ‘Eid’; Tholuck, Sermon on the Mount; Wendt, Lehre Jesu, ii. 210–213; Gore, Sermon on the Mount; Rothe, Theol. Ethik, § 1067; Dykes, Manifesto of the King, p. 265; Martensen, Christ. Ethics, ii. 226. A full list of the relative literature will be found in Tholuck and Rothe.

G. Wauchope Stewart.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Oaths'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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