Partner with as God uses us to make a difference for those displaced by Russia's war on Ukraine.
Click to donate today!

Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature


Additional Links

(JEWISH), an appeal to God, or to authorities recognized by the respective adjurers, or to anything esteemed sacred, in attestation of an assertion or in confirmation of a given promise or a duty undertaken. The following statement as to Hebrew oaths gives the ancient information with whatever light modern research has thrown upon it. (See SWEARING).

I. Scriptural Terms. " Oath" is the rendering in the A. V. of two Hebrew words, alah', אָלָה, and shebuah' שְׁבוּעָה, each of which is used in the three significations: 1. A n oath as an appeal to God in attestation of the truth of a statement (Nehemiah 10:30; Exodus 22:10); 2. A sworn covenant (Genesis 26:28;.2 Samuel 21:7) 3. A curse or imprecation (Numbers 5:21; Daniel 9:11). In the first of these senses, which answers to our word "oath," the Sept. renders both words by ὅρκος, and the Vulg. byjuramentum or jusjurandum; while in the last sense we have the rendering ἀρά, maledictio. The two words אלה and שבועה, however, are by no means synonymous. They denote two different modes of swearing, or rather two classes of oaths. Thus אלה (from hא; to lament; to wail, to express woe; or, according to Gesenius, Thesaur. p. 44, 99, akin with אֵל , God) properly means the invocation of woe upon one's self, and shows that the mode of swearing which it describes was connected with an invocation of divine vengeance on the party, if the asseveration made were not true; while שבועה (from שבע, seven) literally signifies to seven one's self, to produce seven, i.e. to make a declaration confirmed by seven victims, or before seven witnesses, because, as Ibn-Ezra (comp. צחות, p. 41 a), who is followed by most modern expositors and lexicographers, rightly remarks, seven animals were used in ancient times when mutual promises were given and when alliances were effected (Genesis 21:28-30). This -is moreover confirmed by the practice of the ancient Arabians, who, in pledging their faith, drew blood by an incision made in their hands, and smeared it on seven stones (Herod. 3:8). The primary distinction, therefore, between the two oaths is, that in the case of the former an imprecation was used, while in the latter no imprecation was employed. Hence in Numbers 5:21, where an oath with an imprecation is described, the phrase שבועת האלה is used, and the formula of imprecation is forthwith given.

II. Nature and Sanction of Oaths. The term jusjurandumn is defined by Cicero (De Offciis, 3:29) as an affirmation vouched for by an appeal to a divinity. To these two elements which every oath contains

1, an affirmation or promise;

2, an appeal to God as omniscient and the punisher of falsehoods a third is commonly added, a solemn or judicial occasion. To these three requisites the canon law refers when it enumerates judicium, veritas, justitia, as entering into the constitution of an oath. An oath is accordingly a religious undertaking either to say (juramnentum assertoriumn) or to do (juramentum. promnissorium) something entered into voluntarily with the customary forms. Being a religious undertaking, the appeal will vary according to the religion of him who makes it. In some instances it will be an appeal immediately to God.; in others, to objects supposed to have divine power; and by a natural declension, when men have left the only true God, they may appeal in their oaths even to stocks and stones. Accordingly the Romans swore by their own heads or those of their children, or by the genius of the emperor. We shall find similar errors and abuses among the Jews.

The essence of an oath lies obviously in the appeal which is thereby made to God, or to divine knowledge and power. The customary form establishes this, "So help me God." The Latin words (known to have been used as early as the 6th century), whence our English form is taken, run thus: "Sic me Deus adjnvet et haec sancta Evangelia," So may God and these holy Gospels help me; that is, "as I say the truth." The present custom of kissing a book containing the Gospels has, in England and the United States, take in the place of the latter clause in the Latin formula.

1. The cardinal principle on which an oath is held to be binding is incidentally laid down in Hebrews 6:16 viz. as an ultimate appeal to divine authority to. ratify an assertion (see the principle stated and defended by Philo, De Leg. Alleg. 3:73; 1:128, ed. Mang.). There the Almighty is represented as promising or denouncing with an oath, i.e. doing so in the most positive and solemn manner (see such passages as Genesis 22:16; Genesis 12:7 compared with 24:7; Exodus 17:16 and Leviticus 26:14 with Daniel 9:11; 2 Samuel 7:12-13 with Acts 2:30; Psalms 110:4 with Hebrews 7:21; Hebrews 7:28; Isaiah 45:23; Jeremiah 22:5; Jeremiah 32:22). With this divine asseveration we may compare the Stygian oath of Greek mythology (Homer, I1. 15:37; Hesiod, Theog. 400, 805; see also the Laws of Men, ch. viii, p. 110; Sir W. Jones, Works, 3:291).

2. On the same principle that oath has always been held most binding which appealed to the highest authority, both as regards individuals and communities.

(a) Thus believers in Jehovah appealed to him, both judicially and extra- judicially, with such phrases as "The God of Abraham judge;" "As the Lord liveth; ""God do so to me and more also;" "God knoweth," and the like (see Genesis 21:23; Genesis 31:53; Numbers 14:2; Numbers 30:2; 1 Samuel 14:39; 1 Samuel 14:44; 1 Kings 2:42; Isaiah 48:1; Isaiah 65:16; Hosea 4:15). So also our Lord himself accepted the high-priest's adjuration (Matthew 26:63), and Paul frequently appeals to God in confirmation of his statements (Acts 26:29; Romans 1:9; Romans 9:1; 2 Corinthians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 11:31; Philippians 1:8; see also Revelation 10:6).

(b) Appeals of this kind to authorities recognized respectively by adjuring parties were regarded as bonds of international security, and their infraction as being not only a ground of international complaint, but also an offense against divine justice. So Zedekiah, after swearing fidelity to the king of Babylon, was not only punished by him, but denounced by the prophet as a breaker of his oath (2 Chronicles 36:13; Ezra 17:13, 18). Some, however, have supposed that the Law forbade any intercourse with heathen nations which involved the necessity of appeal by them to their own deities (Exodus 23:32; Selden, De Jur. Nat. 2:13; see Livy, 1:24; Laws of Men, ch. viii, p. 113; Smith, Dict. of Antiq. s.v. Jus Jurandum).

3. As a consequence of this principle,

(a) appeals to God's name on the one hand, and to heathen deities on the other, are treated in the Scripture as tests of allegiance (Exodus 23:13; Exodus 34:6; Deuteronomy 29:12; Joshua 23:7; Joshua 24:16; 2 Chronicles 15:12; 2 Chronicles 15:14; Isaiah 19:18; Isaiah 45:23; Jeremiah 12:16; Amos 8:14; Zephaniah 1:5).

(b) So also the sovereign's name is sometimes used as a form of obligation, as was the case among the Romans with the name of the emperor; and Hofmann quotes a custom by which the kings of France used to appeal to themselves at their coronation (Genesis 42:15; 2 Samuel 11:11; 2 Samuel 14:19; Martyr. S. Polycarp. c. ix; Tertull. Apol. c. xxxii; Sueton. Calg. c. xxvii; Hofmann, Lex. s.v. Juramentum; Michaelis, On Laws of Moses, art. 256, vol. iv, p. 102, ed. Smith).

4. Other objects of appeal, serious or frivolous, are mentioned: as, by the "blood of Abel" (Selden, De Jur. Nat. v. 8); by the "head;" by "heaven," the "Temple," etc., some of which are,condemned by our Lord (Matthew 5:33; Matthew 23:16-22; and see James 5:12). Yet he did not refuse the solemn adjuration of the highpriest (Matthew 26:63-64; see Juv. Sat. 6:16; Mart. 11:94; Mishna, Sanh. 3:2, compared with Amos 8:7; Spencer, De Leg. Hebrews 2:1-4).

III. Occasions when Oaths were taken. From time immemorial the Hebrews used oaths both in private intercourse and public transactions.

1. In private intercourse, or on extra-judicial occasions, oaths were taken or demanded when promises were made (2 Samuel 15:21; 2 Samuel 19:23) or exacted (Genesis 24:2-4; Genesis 1, 5, 25; Joshua 2:12-21; Joshua 6:26; Joshua 9:15; Ezra 10:5); when covenants were concluded (Genesis 31:53; 2 Kings 11:4; 1 Maccabees 7:15; Joseph. Ant. 14:1, 2); when a solemn asseveration was made (Genesis 14:22; Judges 21:1-7; 1 Samuel 14:39; 1 Samuel 14:44; 1 Samuel 19:6); and when allegiance to God, fealty to a sovereign, or obedience from an inferior to a superior was professed (1 Kings 18:10; 2 Kings 11:17; 1 Chronicles 11:3; 1 Chronicles 29:24; 2 Chronicles 15:14-15; 2 Chronicles 36:13; Ecclesiastes 8:2; Joseph. Ant. 12:1; 15:10, 4). A vow was in the nature of an oath (Leviticus 5:4).

2. Public or judicial oaths were demanded by the Mosaic law on the four following occasions:

(a) When goods deposited with any one were stolen or destroyed, the depositary was to take an oath that he was not guilty in the loss, and the proprietor was bound to accept it without restitution (Exodus 22:10-11; 1 Kings 8:31; 2 Chronicles 6:22). A willful breaker of trust, especially if he added perjury to his fraud, was to be severely punished (Leviticus 6:2-5; Deuteronomy 19:16-18).

(b) When one was suspected of having found or otherwise come into possession of lost property, he was to take an oath, and thereby vindicate himself of the charge (Leviticus 6:3).

(c) When a wife was suspected of incontinence, she was required to clear herself by an oath (Numbers 5:19-22).

(d) When a theft was committed or an injury sustained, and the offender remained undetected, a judicial oath was to beimposed upon the whole community, or every one was adjured to make known the criminal; and if any one knew the culprit and refused to make him known after hearing this public adjuration, he bore the guilt (Leviticus 5:1; Judges 17:2).

(e) It appears that witnesses were examined on oath, and that a false witness, or one guilty of suppression of the truth, was to be severely punished (Proverbs 29:24; Michaelis, . c. art. 256, vol. iv, p. 109; Deuteronomy 19:16-19; Grotius, in Crit. Sacr. on Matthew 26:63; Knobel on Leviticus 5:1, in Kurzg. Exeg. Handb.).

It will be observed that a leading feature of Jewish criminal procedure was that the accused person was put upon his oath to clear himself (Exodus 22:11; Numbers 5:19-22; 1 Kings 8:31; 2 Chronicles 6:22; Matthew 26:63).

IV. As to the forms of oaths, the Jews appealed to God with or without an imprecation in such phrases (cited above) as "God do so and more also if," etc. (1 Samuel 14:44); "As the Lord liveth" (1 Samuel 14:39; 1 Samuel 19:6; 2 Samuel 15:21; 1 Kings 18:10); "As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth" (1 Samuel 20:3); "The Lord be between thee and me forever" (1 Samuel 20:23); "The God of Abraham judge between us" (Genesis 31:53). The Jews also swore "by heaven," "by the. earth," "by the sun," "by Jerusalem,?' "by the Temple" (Mishna, Shebuoth, 4:2; Matthew 5:34; Matthew 23:16; Berachoth, 55; Kiddushin, 71 a; Maimonides, Jad ha-Chezaka, Hilchoth Shebuoth, xii); "by the angels" (Joseph. War, 2:16, 4); by the lives of distinguished persons (Genesis 42:15; 1 Samuel 1:26; 1 Samuel 17:55; 2 Samuel 11:11; 2 Samuel 14:19).

V. The external manner observed when taking an oath was one of the following:

1. Originally the oath of a covenant was taken by solemnly sacrificing seven animals, or it was attested by seven witnesses or pledges, consisting either of so many animals presented to the contracting party, or of memorials erected to testify to the act, as is indicated by one of the Hebrew names for oath (שבועה ), which properly denotes seven, and by the verb to swear (נשבע ), which means to seven, to produce seven (comp. Genesis 21:28-31; Knobel, Comment. on Genesis ad oc.).

2. Another primitive custom which obtained in: the patriarchal age was that the one who took the oath "put his hand under the thigh" of the adjurer (Genesis 24:2; Genesis 47:29). This practice evidently arose from the fact that the genital member, which is meant by the euphemistic expression "thigh" (ירִ), was regarded as the most sacred part of the body, being the symbol of union in the tenderest relation of matrimonial life, and the seat whence all issue proceeds, and the perpetuity so much coveted by the ancients (comp. the phrase!יוצאי יר, Genesis 46:26; Exodus 1:5; Judges 8:30). Hence this creative organ became the symbol of the Creator and the object of worship among all nations of antiquity (comp. Ezekiel 16:17; Jerome, Comment. in ilos. iv; Nork, Etymologisch-symbolisch- mythologisches Real- Worterbuch, s.v. Phalluscultus; Pauly, Real- Encyklopadie d. classischen Alterthumswissenschaft, s.' v. Phallus); and it is for this reason that God claimed it as the.sign of the covenant between himself and his chosen people in the rite of circumcision. Nothing, therefore, could render the oath more solemn in those days than touching the symbol of creation, the sign of the covenant, and the source of that issue who may at any future period avenge the breaking of a compact made with their progenitor. To this effect is the explanation of the Midrash, the Chaldee paraphrase of Jonathan ben-Uzziel, Rashi, and the oldest Jewish expositors, though it simply specifies the covenant of circumcision. Further from the point is the opinion of Aben-Ezra, followed by Rosenmü ller and others, that it is used as a symbol of submission on the part of the servant to his master. "It appears to me more probable," says Aben-Ezra, "that it was the custom of those days for a servant to place his hand on his master's thigh; and the meaning of the phrase is, Now if thou art under my subjection, put thy hand on my thigh. The master sat with [the servant's] hand on his thigh, as if saying, Behold my hand is in subjection to thee to execute thy will. And this custom still obtains in India" (Comment. on Genesis 24:2). More unnatural is the explanation of Grotius, that Eliezer put his hand on Abraham's thigh, where the sword was hanging (Psalms 45:3), as much as to say, "If I falsify my word, may I perish by thy sword;" or that of Michaelis, that it alludes to a supposed custom of pressing blood from the hand by putting it under the thigh.

3. A less usual form of oath or ratification was dividing a victim and passing between or distributing the pieces (Genesis 15:10; Genesis 15:17; Jeremiah 34:18). This form was probably used to intensify the imprecation already ratified by sacrifice according to the custom described by classical writers under the phrases ὄρκια τέμνειν , fledus ferire, etc. We may perhaps regard in this view the acts recorded in Judges 19:29; 1 Samuel 11:7; and possibly in Herod. 7:39.

4. The more general custom, however, was to lift up the right hand towards heaven, pointing to the throne of him who was invoked as witness to the truth and avenger of falsehood (Genesis 14:22; Deuteronomy 32:40; Daniel 12:7; Revelation 10:5-6). Hence the phrase, "to lift up the hand," came to denote to swear, to take an oath, and is even applied to the Deity (Exodus 6:8; Psalms 106:26; Ezekiel 20:5). These practices chiefly refer to oaths taken in private intercourse, or on extra-judicial occasions. The manner in which a judicial oath was taken is thus described in the Jewish codes: "The oath-taker held the scroll of the Law in his arms, stood up and swore either by the name of God or by any one of his attributes, with or without an imprecation (או באלה בשבועה ), uttering it either by himself or repeating it after the judge; and this judicial oath, according to the enactment of our rabbins, had to be taken in the Hebrew language. If he pronounced the oath by himself, and without an imprecation, he said, I swear by Jehovah, the God of Israel, or by him who is merciful, or by him who is compassionate, that I owe nothing to this man;' and if with an imprecation he said, Behold I am accursed of Jehovah, or of him who is merciful, if I possess anything belonging to this man.' And if the judges spoke the oath, they said to him, We adjure thee by Jehovah, the God of Israel, or by him who is merciful, that thou hast nothing which belongs to that man.' To which he replied, Amen!' Or they said, Behold A, the son of so-and-so, is accursed of Jehovah, the God of Israel, or of him who is merciful, if he has any money in his possession and does not confess it to the owner;' and he responded, Amen!'" (Maimonides, Jad ha-Chezaka, Bilchotl Shebuoth, 11:8-10). Instead of holding the Law, the oath-taker was also allowed to touch the phylacteries (Maimonides, ibid.). This simple response, Amen (אמן ), or Thou hast said it (σὺ ειπας), which was all that was required to constitute an oath in case any one was adjured (Numbers 5:19; Mishna, Shebuoth, 3:11; 4:3), explains the reply of our Savior (Matthew 26:63-64).

On the same analogy witnesses laid their hands on the head of the accused (Genesis 14:22; Leviticus 24:14; Deuteronomy 32:40; Isaiah 3:7; Ezekiel 20:5-6; Sus. 5:35; Revelation 10:5; see Homer, 11. 19:254; Virgil, En. 12:196; Carpzov, Apparatus, p. 652).

Oaths were sometimes taken before the altar, or, as some understand the passage, if the persons were not in Jerusalem, in a position looking towards the Temple (1 Kings 8:31;. 2 Chronicles 6:22; Godwyn, 1. c. 6:6; Carpzov, p. 654; see also Juvenal, Sat. 14:219; Homer, II. 14:272).

VI. Sanctity of an Oath. The only oath enacted in the Mosaic code is a clearance oath, i.e. the prosecutor is not to be put on his oath to prove the guilt of the accused, but the defendant is to swear and thereby clear himself of the charge or suspicion (Exodus 22:11; Leviticus 5:1; Leviticus 6:3; Numbers 5:19-22). Hence the great care exercised in inculcating the sacredness of oaths, and the heavy punishment for perjury or frivolous swearing (Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 19:12; Deuteronomy 19:16-19; Psalms 15:4; Jeremiah 5:2; Jeremiah 7:9; Ezekiel 16:59; Hosea 10:4; Zechariah 8:17; Mishna, Shebuoth, 3:11; 4:3). Whether the "swearing" mentioned by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 23:10) and by Hosea (Hosea 4:2) was false swearing, or profane abuse of oaths, is not certain. If the latter, the crime is one which had been condemned by the Law (Leviticus 24:11; Leviticus 24:16; Matthew 26:74).

From the Law the Jews deduced many special cases of perjury, which, are thus classified:

1, Jusjurandum promissorium, a rash inconsiderate promise for the future, or false assertion. respecting the past (Leviticus 5:4);

2, Vanum, an absurd self-contradictory assertion;

3, Depositi, breach of contract denied (Leviticus 19:11);

4, Testinonii, judicial perjury (Leviticus 5:1; see Nicolaus and Selden, De Juramentis, in Ugolini, Thesaurus, xxvi; Lightfoot, Hor. Hebr. on Matthew 5:33, vol. 2:292; Mishna, Shebuoth, 3:7; 4:1; 5:1, 2; Otho, Lex. Rabb. s. v, Juramentum).

The Jewish canons enacted that when the demand of the prosecutor is very trifling, the defendant's simple denial is sufficient, and he cannot be compelled to take the judicial oath to clear himself (Mishna, Shebuoth, 6:1- 3). For the same reason it is enacted that when the complainant is deaf and dumb, silly, or a minor, the defendant need not take the oath, because such people not being able to appreciate the solemnity of an oath, may multiply swearing on too trivial grounds; and that a minor is not to be asked to take an oath (Shebuoth, 6:4). Women, though forbidden to bear witness on oath (Deuteronomy 19:17 with Mishna, Shebuoth, 4:1), may take the clearance oath (Mishna, ibid. v. 1). If one simply says to another, "I adjure thee," the oath is valid; but if any one swears by heaven, earth, or Jerusalem, or any other creature, the oath is invalid (Mishna, Shebuoth, 4:13). As this oath could be taken with impunity, it became very common among the Jews, who thought that, because it involved nothing, it meant nothing. Hence the remarks of our Savior (Matthew 5:34-36; Matthew 23:16-22). If any one swears frivolously, which is defined by the Jewish canons as follows: If he swears that something is different from what it is known to be, e.g. if he says that a stone pillar is gold, that a woman is a man; or if it is about anything impossible, that he saw a camel flying in the air; or if any one says to witnesses, "Come and give testimony to what you have seen," and they say, "We swear that we will not bear witness" (Leviticus 5:1).; or if one swears to transgress a commandment, e.g. not to make a tabernacle, or not to put on phylacteries, this is a frivolous oath, for which, if taken deliberately, the man must be scourged (Mishna, Shebuoth, 3:8). So great was the sanctity with which the pious Jews, prior to the days of Christ, regarded an oath, that they discountenanced swearing altogether (comp. Sirach 23:11, etc.; and especially Philo, De decem oraculis, sec. xvii, in Opp. 2:194, etc., ed. Mang.). The Pharisees took great care to abstain from oaths as much as possible (comp. Shebuoth, 39 b'; Gittin, 35 a; Midrash Rabba onl Numbers 22), while the Essenes laid it down as a principle not to swear at all, but to say yea yea, and nay nay. How firmly and conscientiously they adhered to it may be seen from the fact that Herod, who, on ascending the throne,' had exacted an oath of allegiance from all the rest of the Jews, was obliged to absolve the Essenes from it (comp. Joseph. Ant. 15:10, 4; Ginsburg, The Essenes, their History and Doctrines [Lond. 1864], p. 34). Whether our Savior's prohibition of swearing (Matthew 5:33-37) refers to the same total abstinence from all judicial oaths, or to profane and careless oaths, is a matter of dispute.

VII. Oaths of contemporary and later Nations. The stringent nature of the Roman military oath, and the penalties attached to infraction of it, are alluded to, more or less certainly, in several places in the N.T., e.g. Matthew 8:9; Acts 12:19; Acts 16:27; Acts 27:42; see also Dionys. Hal. 11:43, and Aul. Genesis 16:4. (See SACRAMENT).

The most solemn Mohammedan oath is made on the open Koran. Mohammed himself used the form, "By the setting of the stars" (Chardin, Voy. 6:87; Sale's Koran, lvi, p. 437).

Bedouin Arabs use various sorts of adjuration, one of which somewhat resembles the oath "by the Temple." The person takes hold of the middle tent-pole, and swears by the life of the tent and its owners (Burckhardt, Notes on Bed. 1:127 sq.; see also another case mentioned by Burckhardt, Syria, p. 398).

The Christian practice in the matter of oaths was founded in great measure on the Jewish. Thus the oath on the Gospels was an imitation of the Jewish practice of placing the hands on the book of the Law (P. Fagius, on Onkel. ad Exodus 23:1; Justinian, Nov. c. viii, Epil.; Matthew Paris, Hist. p. 916). Our Lord's prohibition of swearing was clearly always understood by the Christian Church as directed against profane and careless swearing, hot against the serious judicial form (Bingham, Antiq. Eccl. 16:7, § 4, 5; Aug. Ep. 157, c. v. 40); and thus we find the fourth Council of Carthage (c. 61) reproving clerical persons for swearing,' by created objects. (See PROFANITY).

VIII. Literature. The Mishna, Tractate Shebuoth; Maimonides, Jad ha-Chezaka, Hilchoth Shebuoth, 3:1 sq.; Lightfoof, Hebrew and Talnmudical Exercitations on Matthew 5:33; Frankel, Die Eidesleistung der Juden in- theologischer und historischer Beziehung (2d ed. Breslau, 1847); by the same author, Der gerichttlche Beweis nach:losaisch- talmudischem Rechte (Berlin, 1846), p. 304 sq.; Saalschiltz, Das JIosaische Recht (Berlin, 1853), p. 608 sq.; Ewald, Die Alterthumer des Volkes Israel (Gottingen, 1854), p, 15 sq. (See PERJURY).

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Oath'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry
Oates, Titus
Next Entry
Oath (2)