08.02.06 Mt. 5:33-37
HONESTY WITHOUT SWEARING OR OATHS
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to our ancestors, You must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord. 34 But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, because it is His footstool; or by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. 36 Neither should you swear by your head, because you cannot make a single hair white or black. 37 But let your word ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’ Anything more than this is from the evil one.
The words of Jesus are rather straight forward, which might make the modern student wonder why the matter was addressed in the first place. While there was solid biblical instruction on this matter, by this time there were three kinds of swearing – something that appears to be rather ridiculous today.
- There was the frivolous swearing, that is, taking an oath when none was needed.
- There was an oath that included the name of God which was absolutely binding.
- There was the oath that did not include the name of God and, therefore, was not regarded as binding.
With three possible ways to affirm a commitment, little wonder that Jesus simply wanted to simplify the matter with the words, “Let your word ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes.’ ” Anyone who makes an oath (Gk. homologeo) makes a treaty with a deity, so that to lie under oath is to lie to one’s deity. The honor of one’s word was common practice among righteous Jewish people.
Jesus was obviously not talking to everyone, but to those who were breaking the divine commandment. Yet He most certainly was also aware that when His Passion Week would come, He would be on trial six times and, on at least one occasion, He would be under oath to declare whether He was the Christ, the Son of God (Mt. 26:63). Furthermore, anyone in a Roman court was under oath. His primary concern was for the horizontal relationships between people. Jesus raised the level of personal integrity and added clarity to the meaning of “righteousness” that it is a matter of the heart (cf. Mt. 5:6). It should be noted that Scripture clearly indicates that God swore by Himself.
There were very few agreements between the Essenes and Jesus, yet on this issue, they were close. Josephus recorded their strict moral code regarding speaking only the truth:
They are eminent for fidelity, and are the ministers of peace; whatsoever they say also is firmer than an oath; but swearing is avoided by them and they esteem it worse than perjury. For they say that he who cannot be believed without [swearing by] God is already condemned.
Josephus, Wars 2.8.6 (135)
While Jesus supported the Mosaic Law, He did not refer to the law but to the principles of God. Moses said that one should not swear falsely by the name of God because it would profane the Divine Name (Ex. 20:7; Deut. 5:11). But Jesus said that the “yes” or “no” of an honest man was far more credible than a sworn name by someone with questionable character. His followers were to have unquestionable character.
A righteous man has no need to swear because every word he utters is truthful, but the sinful man has no respect for any higher authority and, therefore, swearing to him is meaningless. Again, Jesus did not refer to the Mosaic Law, but to the principles of God. There is a prohibition against perjury in Leviticus 19:12, which states that one should not swear by the name of God falsely, as this would profane the divine name (cf. Ex. 20:7; Deut. 5:11). Jesus was against the swearing of oaths because oaths were used to conceal dishonest intentions.
It was believed that whoever needed to swear to the truth was afraid and whoever swore about a falsehood was a deceiver and traitor. The first believed that the power evoked could punish him and the other is an imposter who profited by the faith of others. In both cases swearing is wrong. At the time of Jesus the Jewish people were under such heavy Roman economic bondage that swearing a falsehood to a tax collector was acceptable by the rabbis. Consequently, the Oral Law had many ways to break an oath. Yet in response, Jesus said that one’s word is to be bond. Truthfulness is essential to righteousness.
Taking an oath was problematic for two reasons:
- It was a failure of honesty, a characteristic concerning the image of God and,
- A major objection to the taking of oaths is related to the civil court system. Jews who were called to testify were required to swear upon a pagan god, an action that violated their law. To foreigners it made little difference as to which god one would swear an oath, but to a righteous Jew or Christian, this was of paramount importance (cf. 1 Cor. 6:5-8).
The religious leaders had laws that permitted one to break a vow and disregard the commitment completely. Below are four reasons.
Four kinds of vows the Sages have declared not to be binding: vows of incitement, vows of exaggeration, vows made in error, and vows (that cannot be fulfilled by reason) of restraint.
Mishnah, Nedarim 3.1
Since a marriage covenant is held together by an oath, a man could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever. In essence, this was no-fault divorce similar to what is found in most Western countries today. Vows could be broken for the so-called right reasons.
Men may vow to murderers, robbers, or tax collectors that what they have is heave-offering even though it is not heave-offering; or that they belong to the king’s household even though they do not belong to the king’s household. The School of Shammai say: “They may so vow in any form of words except in the form of an oath.” In addition, the School of Hillel says: “Even in the form of an oath.”
Mishnah, Nedarim 3.4
None may take change for money from the counter of excise men or from the wallet of tax collectors, or take any alms from them; but it may be taken from them at their own house or in the market.
If tax collectors took a man’s donkey and gave him another, of if robbers robbed a man of his coat and gave him another, they became his own, since the owner cherishes no hope of recovering them.
Mishnah, Baba Kamma 10.1b – 2a
If tax collectors entered a house (all that is within it) becomes unclean. Even if a Gentile was with them they may be believed if they say, “We did not enter,” but they may not be believed if they say, “We entered but touched nothing.” If thieves entered a house, only that part is unclean that was trodden by the feet of the thieves. What do they render unclean? Foodstuffs and liquids and open earthenware vessels; but couches and seats and earthenware vessels having a tightly stopped-up cover remain clean. If a Gentile or a woman was with them all becomes unclean.
Mishnah, Tohoroth 7.6a
Clearly, this is a volume of rabbinic comments concerning the exceptions of honesty of character, while maintaining so-called righteousness, and is indicative of the extent that dishonesty had permeated Jewish society. In contrast, Augustine made this comment about oaths:
Swear not at all; words, which were in my opinion spoken, not because it is a sin to swear a true oath, but because it is a heinous sin to foreswear ones’ self.
Augustine, To Publicola
At this point there is some difficulty in understanding the first century Jewish mind-set concerning vows and oaths. While the Mishnah is seen as encouraging the making of vows, the Babylonian Talmud advised great care in making solemn promises. The following example is in reference to a vow made for an offering:
For it was taught, “better it is that you do not vow, than that you vow and not pay” (Ec. 5:4). Better than both is not to vow at all.
Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 9a
Concerning the differences, the following two explanations are suggested:
- The Mishnah was recorded in the second century, while the more exhaustive Talmud was completed around the year 500.
- Differences also exist because not all rabbis were in agreement on this matter.
08.02.06.Q1 What were the differences between the vow, the oath, and a ban (Mt. 5:33-37)?
In Jewish thinking, an oath was absolute while the vow was conditional because it had conditional phrases attached such as “if I…” or “that if.” Anything that was banned was restricted from common use and assigned to the temple priesthood. However, even these rules were broken.
. Ex. 20:7; Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2-3; Deut. 23:21-24; Ps. 49:14.
. This had become such a complex matter in the Oral Law, that the entire tractate of the Mishnah, Shebouth, is dedicated to the subject of oaths.
. Vine, “Oath.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:438.
. Furst, “Confess.” 1:344; Link and Tuente. “Swear, Oath.” 3:737-43.
. To place one under oath always meant a relationship with a deity of the one who administered the oath.
. Brown, “Righteousness, Justification.” 3:352-54.
. Gen. 22:16; Ps. 110:4; Isa. 45:23.
. Insert by Whiston, ed.; See also Josephus, Antiquities 15.10.5 (371).
. Link and Tuente. “Swear, Oath.” 3:737-43.
. See Mishnah, Nedarim 9.10 in 08.02.04, as this highlights how permissive divorce laws were at the time of Jesus. However, not all rabbis were in agreement with these laws.
. Thomas, The Golden Treasury of Patristic Quotations: From 50 – 750 A.D. 191.
. See also Babylonian Talmud, Nedar 22a.
. The wide range of rabbinic opinions is evident in various Jewish writings. See 02.02.01.V for more information on this subject.
. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. 487-88.