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Jesus' Prohibition Against Swearing and his Philosophy of Language


Jo-Ann A. Brant

In an article entitled "Oath Taking in the Community of the New Age (Matthew 5:33-37)," Don Garlington calls Jesus' prohibition against swearing an oddity and the avoidance of swearing by certain Christian sects a superficial application of the logion.[1] As a member of one such group, the Mennonites, I offer an apology rather than a rebutal. Mennonites make affirmations rather than swear oaths in order to fulfil Jesus' command often without wondering if they have fulfilled his intention. When they find rationale for their avoidance of oaths, they tend to point to swearing as an occasion for sin rather than something sinful in itself. According to the Mennonite Encyclopedia, one avoids swearing in order to avoid an inadvertent

sin of error or the habit of lying when one is not under oath.[2] Both of these reasons for minding the prohibition can be extrapolated from the Matthean text, but neither explains why the act of swearing a truthful oath is from evil. In order to comprehend Jesus' intent, we need to examine Jesus' understanding of language as a human activty that is not always accompanied by mindfulness of the reality that makes it potent, possible, and meaningful.

Given that modern usage of "to swear" has come to include the acts of cursing and of using colorful expletives, a definition based upon biblical usage is essential. An oath is a performative utterance; it does not describe something, it does something.[3] According to speech-act theory, an oath accomplishes a number of separate acts. First, it can either expound a view by making a statement of fact regarding past or present events or it can commit the speaker to an obligation in the future. The oath's power to expound or commit relies upon its capacity to execute a second speech-act, the act of invoking God or some divine authority as a witness or guarantor. Finally, the oath puts into place a third speech-act, a conditional curse. Zechariah illustrates the potential of the curse with the metaphor of the flying scroll that consumes the house of any one who swears falsely (Zech 5:1-4). The speech-act of cursing does not depend upon the locutionary act; whether the curse is articulated or not the deed is done.[4] If one's oath proves to be false, God is justified in enacting the curse.[5]

Speech-act theorist John Austin describes how oaths can go wrong under the rubric of the doctrine of the infelicitous.6 While Jesus and his contemporaries, members of second temple Judaism, were not speech-act theoriest, an investigation of the second temple discussion of what constitues a valid oath and how one should use it indicates that Jews who sought to fulfil the Torah were acutely aware of range of things that could render an oath infelicitous. Second temple sources tend to use the biblical term "in vain" to describe both false swearing and flawed oaths. The proper execution of an oath depends upon both its proper invocation -- it must contain a valid oath-term -- and the authority of the oath-taker to utter the oath, either as one with an official juridical office or as one in the position to know the truth or fulfil one's intent. Moreover, oaths can be misapplied by those who do not have the requisite conviction in an oath's efficacy, they may doubt God's power or even his existence, or who utter an oath in situations in which it is not warranted.[7] Problematic oaths are not limited to those that are false or left unfilfilled.

Jesus' prohibition against swearing finds its context in a complicated debate that addresses a particular situation that had become troubling for every major witness to late, second temple Judaism. People had become accustomed to uttering oaths with greater frequency and on a wider range of occasions than spiritual leaders deemed necessary. Oaths had become the language of the marketplace. In contrast, the Hebrew Bible emphasizes the sanctity of oaths. The offerings which often accompany mark its holiness (e.g. Gen 31:53), the performance of oaths in holy places acknowledges the role of God in judicial oaths (e.g., Num 5:16), and the presence of sacred objects witnesses to the binding nature of oaths (e.g., Gen 24:2, 9; 47:29).[8] The preponderance of oaths of promise rather than oaths that assert a fact suggests that oaths were not used in casual contracts. In fact, the record of abuse of oaths is virtually nonexistent in the Hebrew Bible, thereby heightening the sense that oaths are not to be treated lightly or left unfulfilled.

With the increase in international commercial and political interaction during the Graeco-Roman period and the increased bureaucratization of life comes the increased necessity of taking oaths. Swearing now takes place in a secular forum in which the oath's form is preserved, but its religious resonance, lost. Perjury becomes a violation against either the state or human relationships, and the power to punish infractions falls to secular authorities.

During the second temple period, the problem of frequent and unnecessary swearing is complicated by the question of which oath formulae to consider binding? Both scriptural precedent and law (cf. Deut 6:13) call for the explicit invocation of God by one of his names, but under Greek influence, people begin to adopt strange and capricious formulae such as "By the life of the fig picker."[9] Josephus, a Jewish historian from the first century C.E., betrays a pious sensibility against swearing by terms unrelated to God when he claims that Socrates' death was due, in part, to his practice of swearing by strange oaths (AgAp 2.7; 263). Socrates was wont to swear by the dogs.

The appearance of substitute oath formulae may also be attributed to the avoidance of the pronunciation of the divine name, YHWH, during the second temple period. Targum Onqelos, an Aramaic version of the Hebrew scriptures, broadens the crime of Lev 24:16 in which one curses God by name to include the act of pronouncing the name YHWH, so that the penalty of stoning applied to both acts. The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word to curse with ojnamzon, to name or express. For fear of invoking God's name and suffering the consequences of blasphemy, oath takers utilize substitute terms, and as a result, people are left wondering which substitutes to treat as binding.

The second temple discussion on how to utter a felicitous oath focuses upon the topic of proper invocation. The Pharisees seem to have defined valid oaths as those that explicitly mention an appropriate substitute for God's name; therefore, oaths by terms such as heaven or earth



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