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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Oath

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An oath may be defined as an assertion that a statement is true (Germ. assertorischer Eid) or shall be true (promissorischer Eid), or a promise of loyalty and fidelity, made binding by invocation of the Deity, or of some person or thing revered or dreaded. The motive for telling the truth may be regard for what is thus invoked (e.g. the honour of God) or the fear of avenging punishment. It is generally held that the latter thought is dominant and determinative, even when only implicit. In an adjuration one person states the terms of the oath and another accepts it, thus owning the solemn sanction invoked by the first party as the ground and guardian of the truth he vows to tell. The other use of the ambiguous words ‘oath,’ ‘swear,’ viz. for meaningless profanity of speech, does not immediately concern us, in spite of Mark 14:71 (English Version ) (see Encyclopaedia Biblica iii., article ‘Oath’). An oath in the primary sense guarantees truth-telling under necessity, and, like the ‘necessary’ lie (Notlüge), belongs at best to the higher, and too frequently to the lower, casuistry. A NT example of the latter, which Jesus vigorously denounced, occurs in Matthew 23:16-22. On such casuistry, irreverence is a close attendant. To the present writer it appears that the customary views on this subject need considerable revision if they are to be harmonized with the Gospels, with justice to certain ‘sects’ (Quakers, Mennonites, etc.), with practical experience of the law-courts, and with the possibility that even of a thing which is ‘woven into the common law’ it may be necessary to say, in Milton’s words (Of Reformation touching Church Discipline, 1641, p. 78): ‘Let it weave out again.’

The chief NT passages concerned are Matthew 5:33-37, where Jesus gives the command, ‘Swear not at all,’ and the parallels in Matthew 23:16-22 and James 5:12. It is maintained by Zahn and others, with much probability, that St. James has here preserved the original words of Jesus in a purer form than St. Matthew (T. Zahn, ‘Matt.,’ in Kommentar zum NT, 1903 ff., p. 244). The chief grounds for this view are:-(1) that certain ancient writers quote the first part of Matthew 5:33-37 as it now stands, but substitute James 5:12 for St. Matthew’s ending; (2) that some of these writers appear not to have known this Epistle, and therefore they and St. James will have derived these words from a common source, older and better than Matthew 5:37; (3) that James 5:12 is free from an apparent inconsistency which attaches to Matthew 5:37, for Jesus has been urging that His followers should keep to the simplest possible form of affirmation, and ‘yea, yea’ is not strictly that; the second ‘yea’ seems almost a vain repetition. On the other hand, James 5:12 may possibly be secondary; for instead of ‘Let your “yea” be (a reliable and unadorned) “yea” and your “nay,” “nay,” it may be rendered: ‘Let yours be the “yea, yea,” “nay, nay” (enjoined in Mt.).’ Further, while St. Matthew’s double ‘yea’ can scarcely be defended (but see H. H. Wendt, The Teaching of Jesus, Eng. translation , 1892, i. 269) as securing clearness-for what illumination does the repetition convey?-yet the emphasis added by the second word is by no means extreme, and Jesus may therefore have used it; it falls short of the ‘verily’ which He used so often. However this may be, the two passages yield the common and unmistakable general principle of a characteristic Christian simplicity and moderation of speech. This is further enforced by the words, ‘Swear not at all’ (μὴ ὅλως). Any exceptions to this strongly exclusive phrase must bear the burden of proof, and to apply it strictly in the meantime is the only natural course, and the precise reverse of ‘hair-splitting’ (T. Keim, Jesus of Nazara, Eng. translation , iii. [1877] 314). This strictness is made still more binding by the parallel in St. James: ‘nor by any other oath.’ The forbidden oaths specified in Matthew 5:34-36 are illustrations only-selected, not exhaustive. The ground of the prohibition is the link with God which in the thoughts of our Lord’s hearers (ch. 5) and also in the teaching of the Pharisees (ch. 23) had been snapped; this He replaces with reiterated emphasis. These evasive or frivolous oaths are condemned expressly because, in principle, the name of God is involved in them. The main appeal in both chapters is, as J. Köstlin (in PRE [Note: RE Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche.] 3 v. 239 f.) has already maintained, an appeal to reverence, though this is indissociably combined with the demand for veracity. All false swearing amounts indirectly to profane swearing. For it must be irreverent either because God’s presence is invoked in order to make a lie more credible, or else because men adopt a formula (as in Matthew 5, 23) which seeks to exclude Him while the lie is told. The ‘evil’ which is the source of ‘whatsoever is more than’ a simple affirmation consists of casuistry and irreverence alike.

That Jesus is not attacking untruthfulness alone is further shown by this, that He offers His teaching as a conscious correction of that which had been given to the ancients, viz. that vows or oaths by God must be kept (cf. W. C. Allen, International Critical Commentary , ‘St. Matthew,’3 1912, p. 53). If Jesus meant that the oath by God should be left standing (so Keim, op. cit. p. 311 f.) in the interests of veracity, He only confirmed the OT. Moreover, if that were His only object, then instead of ‘Swear not at all’ (for one cannot evade the reference to God), He would have needed to say, ‘Never let any matter of importance be settled without an oath, and that directly by the name of God.’

Wendt (op. cit. p. 269 f.) and others hold that the oath is ‘of the evil’ because it implies that the truth need not be told on other occasions. But that seems to imply that the oath itself is not ‘of the evil,’ but a highly commendable act of exceptional virtue. It is true that oaths on special occasions encourage a double standard of truthfulness. This is, indeed, denied in a vigorous article by W. C. Magee (CR [Note: R Contemporary Review.] xlix. [1886] 1 ff.), in which it is maintained that oaths are only a forcible reminder of a duty which applies equally at other times; but the oath actually uttered by witnesses always concerns itself quite specially with the particular case under trial. Yet this limitation of the veracity due outside the oath cannot be the chief evil in the oath. That chief evil, so far as it is lying at all, must be lying which is committed in and under the oath; and this is not merely nor chiefly unveracity; by it a despite is done to God which seems to have been, in the judgment of Jesus, an additional and greater sin. Now the admissions of writers of all views show that a very large proportion of those who have strong motives for untruth will not be deterred by any oath that can be devised (cf. Magee, op. cit. p. 3). In any case, their testimony will be false, and thus a certain irreverence will be implied in it, but only remotely; the requirement of an oath will simply make it far more pointed and direct; for it is known beforehand that a large number, if they take an oath at all, will commit perjury; moreover, few of these perjuries will be investigated, and the number punished will be negligible. At the other end of the scale are those who would tell the truth under any circumstances-the earnest Christians whom the oath only forces into a certain lowering of tone, and the high-minded unbelievers who, when the case is over, will have been truthful in everything except in the oath by which their truthfulness is ‘ensured.’ And with both of these undesirable results the name of God will be concerned in a way which is at least indelicate.

The ideal of Jesus is clear. A man is to be so truthful that his possible untruthfulness need not be reckoned with, and therefore he will take no oath, nor be asked to take one. But if men will not always trust him, owing to the general lack of trustworthiness, is he or is he not to submit to this indignity (cf. Clem. Alex. Stromata, vii. 8, and Kant’s epithet ‘State blackmail’ or ‘civil extortion’ [bürgerliches Erpressungsmittel] in Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft, 1793, p. 226; Eng. translation , 1838), in which he will feel that God is implicated? It may be said that this surrounding ‘evil’ of the world would make only the demanding of the oath to be wrong, not the taking of it. But any submission to or compromise with the ‘evil’ can be regarded as an unworthy surrender, and as itself evil. Another vital point is the shrinking attitude towards God which is taken in the oath by the explicit or implicit invocation of His powers of punishment. The question arises whether that is a Christian or a sub-Christian conception of Him; whether the Christian does not tell the truth, in the ordinary course, from far higher motives; and whether, by suddenly accepting an official injunction to ‘believe and shudder’ before Him whom he is usually permitted to love, he does not do an injustice to God and to himself. Magee admits that the oath has lost its power increasingly with the decline of superstitious dread (op. cit. p. 13 f.), and Köstlin admits that the non-swearing sects have been influenced largely by a reverence and delicacy which lie upon the unspoiled Christian spirit like bloom.

In face of all this, can the oath be re-instated by the actual practice of Jesus or of St. Paul? In the case of the latter, ‘the disciple is not above his master’ (see Barclay, quoted by A. Tholuck, Sermon on the Mount, Eng. translation , 1860, p. 261); and apart from that, the actual examples of asseveration in his Epistles are not very convincing (see H. Weinel, St. Paul, Eng. translation , 1906, p. 358, and C. H. Watkins, St. Paul’s Fight for Galatia, 1914, pp. 108, 159 f.). This is especially evident at 1 Corinthians 1:14-16, which, in view of the ‘I thank God,’ reveals a strange lack of clarity; and, where the witness is himself uncertain, strong expressions of affirmation and invocation can but add to the difficulties.

As to Jesus, it is curious that Matthew 26:63-65 should be thought so conclusive. There are two important variations in the Synoptic accounts, thus:

Matthew 26:63 ff.

Mark 14:61 f.

Luke 22:67 f.

I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ.

Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?

Art thou the Christ? Tell us.

Thou hast said.

I am.

If I tell you, ye will not believe.

For the adjuration, we have the authority of St. Matthew alone; and an adjuration would not in any case be an ordinary oath. If one who is ‘adjured’ does not, by one explicit word, say that he makes the adjuration his own, it remains the utterance of the other party only, and no one can prove that he answers, or answers truly, because of it (see Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) , article ‘Adjure’). The Jewish use of ‘Amen’ in acceptance of an adjuration is often appealed to as if it occurred here (see Tholuck, op. cit. p. 254), but Jesus said no such word. He makes reference only to the question asked Him, not to the adjuration in itself. And is that reply explicit? According to St. Mark, He answers, ‘I am (the Messiah)’; but probably St. Mark is secondary here, for Messianic utterances are usually the more confident the later they are. [Note: Mark’s confidence and emphasis show how far he is from the thought of an unwilling confession extorted solely by an adjuration. He mentions no adjuration, and on his showing the question might have been answered earlier if it had been asked.] Moreover, ‘I am’ can be understood as St. Mark’s interpretation of ‘Thou hast said,’ but not vice versa. J. Weiss has argued with much force that Jesus could not, to any purpose, answer either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (Schriften des NT2, i. [1906] 393 f., 516 f.; cf. W. C. Allen on Matthew 26:63 [op. cit. p. 283 f.] and Swete on Mark 14:62 [St. Mark2, 1902]). In St. Luke this evasiveness, or indefiniteness, is patent, but in St. Matthew also the emphatic pronoun (‘Thou hast said’-not I; cf. Luke 22:70) suggests that a definite answer was refused. That the high priest treated the answer (or perhaps the following prophecy) as a plain self-condemnation proves nothing except that he wished to do so (cf. Swete on Mark 14:61 and article Conspiracy). The tone of Jesus’ reply is at any rate lofty, and not in the least submissive. Essentially the same reply is given by Jesus to Pilate (who has no interest in making it more definite than it is), and it is not regarded as closing the case (Mark 15:2, Matthew 27:11, Luke 23:3).

On this evidence it cannot be held, with any confidence, that Jesus accepted the adjuration, and His example does not, therefore, justify oaths in law, as distinguished from private conversation. In Matthew 5 He is not dealing directly with law-courts, but we do not know that He would have exempted them from His prohibition, if questioned.

The expression εἰ δοθήσεται σημεῖον (literally ‘if a sign shall be given’) in Mark 8:12, if an abbreviated oath-formula, goes far to decide the practice of Jesus. In opposition, however, to Piscator’s Strafmich-Gott-Bibel (Herborn, 1606), and to various commentaries, it must be questioned whether the invocation of God’s punishment, undoubtedly absent from His words, was present to His mind. Nothing could be more foreign to His usual attitude to the Father. Much more prominence has been assigned to His habitual expression ‘Verily’ (= ‘Amen’), which He used in an unprecedented way (G. Dalman, The Words of Jesus, Eng. translation , 1902, pp. 226-229). It lends some support to the double and thus emphatic ‘yea’ and ‘nay’ in Matthew 5:37, though the view can scarcely be accepted (see, e.g., E. Klostermann, and cf. H. J. Holtzmann, in loc.) that this doubling constituted not only an emphasis but an oath, for then the whole context makes Matthew 5:37 impossible, and James 5:12 must be substituted. Dalman speaks as if Jesus, feeling the need of asseveration, and embarrassed by the recollection that He had said ‘Swear not at all,’ fixed upon ‘Amen’ as an evasive but virtual oath (cf. Achelis on early ‘Christian’ oaths [Christentum, 1912, Excursus 62]). But it is only fair to suppose that Jesus regarded ‘verily’ as differing from the oath in principle; for by it a man neither cringes before God’s punishments, nor presumptuously offers to suffer them on certain conditions of his own.

Regarding Hebrews 6:13 f., Hebrews 7:20 f. and Revelation 10:5 f., from which the conclusion is often drawn that Jesus cannot have forbidden all oaths, since oath-taking is here ascribed to God and His angels, and commended when practised by men, it may be said: (1) that not all the genuine teachings of Jesus were everywhere known, understood, and practised in the churches of the 1st cent.; (2) that the Divine example, especially in the handling of something dangerous, is not always enjoined upon man. The lex talionis is forbidden to men that it may be left entirely to God (Matthew 5:44-45, Romans 12:19, 2 Timothy 4:14). There are also the objections that the ascription of oath-taking to God may be simply anthropomorphic-which is the very opposite of following a Divine example; and that His swearing ‘by Himself’ is irreconcilable with the ordinary definition of an oath (see above), for it avowedly does not include an appeal to a higher power (Hebrews 6:13), still less the invocation of a penalty.

Exegetically, the best conclusion is perhaps Augustine’s: that to swear falsely is perdition, to swear truly is perilous, and that the only safe course is to leave the oath alone. Practical experience tends in the same direction. Defender after defender admits that perjury is committed constantly, increasingly, and with impunity. This has the most deadening effect on morality and religion alike, and there is a very general desire to limit oaths to a few matters on which truthfulness is specially vital, or to abolish preparatory oaths altogether and accept sworn testimony only to evidence already given. The latter suggestion, however, would have positively bad effects unless witnesses were solemnly reminded beforehand that they would have to take an oath afterwards; otherwise, if they had once uttered falsehood, they would almost certainly not go back on it. On the Continent there is a strong movement within the legal profession to substitute declarations for oaths (cf. F. Paulsen, System der Ethik7, 8, 1906, ii. 208-209); in certain Swiss cantons, where the experiment has been tried, false evidence has not increased. In any case, the best deterrent would be more frequent prosecutions and severer sentences for untrue witness. It would probably be best to lay upon the magistrate the duty of impressing on witnesses the seriousness of their position, but to leave him free to do this when and how he thought best. A set form becomes almost inevitably a formality. Finally, it is necessary to realize that much of the argumentation on this whole subject is double-edged. If, for instance, as the advocates of the oath say, the word ‘verily’ is practically the equivalent of an oath, could they not be satisfied with this equivalent? They could then, perhaps, settle the controversy by accepting as adequate some such words as these: ‘Recognizing the solemn duty of truthfulness, I verily promise that the evidence which I shall give in this case shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.’

Literature.-Besides the works mentioned in the article , see articles ‘Oath’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) (G. Ferries), ‘Oaths’ in Dict. of Christ and the Gospels (G. Wanchope Stewart), and ‘Eid (Ethisch)’ in RGG [Note: GG Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart.] (O. Scheel), with the recent literature there quoted. Reference may also be made to the Commentaries on Matthew, by B. Weiss10 (in Meyer’s Kommentar, 1910), T. Zahn3 (Kommentar zum NT, 1910), E. Klostermann and H. Gressmann (in Lietzmann’s Handbuch zum NT, 1909), H. J. Holtzmann3 (Handkommentar zum NT, 1901), W. C. Allen3 (International Critical Commentary , 1912), A. B. Bruce (Expositor’s Greek Testament , 1897), A. Plummer (1909); on Mark, by B. Weiss8 (in Meyer, 1892), G. Wohlenberg1, 2 (in Zahn, 1910), E. Klostermann and H. Gressmann (in Lietzmann, 1907), H. J. Holtzmann3 (Handkom., 1901), E. P. Gould (International Critical Commentary , 1896), A. B. Bruce (Expositor’s Greek Testament , 1897), H. B. Swete (1902); on Hebrews, by B. Weiss6 (in Meyer, 1897), E. Riggenbach (in Zahn, 1913), H. Windisch (in Lietzmann, 1913), M. Dods (Expositor’s Greek Testament , 1910); on James, by W. Beyschlag (in Meyer, 1897), W. O. E. Cesterley (Expositor’s Greek Testament , 1910), R. J. Knowling (1904), J. B. Mayor (31910). See also the text-books on Ethics by I. A. Dorner (Eng. translation , 1887), C. E. Luthardt (Eng. translation , 1889), H. Martensen (Eng. translation , 1881-85), G. C. A. v. Harless (Eng. translation 8, 1868), R. Rothe (21867-71), F. H. R. Frank (1884-87), K. Köstlin (1887), L. Lemme (1905). Nearly all the German work is marked by a strong emphasis on loyal citizenship; see especially Lemme and Frank.

C. H. Watkins.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Oath'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/o/oath.html. 1906-1918.

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