Jesus' Prohibition Against Swearing and His Philosophy of Language

Jesus' Prohibition Against Swearing and His Philosophy of Language

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Jesus' Prohibition Against Swearing and His Philosophy of Language


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 inadvertant 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.

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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 are declarative language but not binding oaths., while "by Shaddai" or "by the Torah" (writings that contain the divine name) are binding.[10] The Qumran community avoids invoking God's name and allows itself only one oath-formula, "by the curse of the covenant" (CD 15.1-5). This is probably an allusion to the curses enumerated in Deut 29. Just as the Israelites at Sinia ratified their covenant with God by responding "Amen, Amen" to the curses, the initiate in the covenant ceremony at Qumran responds "Amen, Amen." In effect, the covenanaters synthesize two components of the oath: the imprecation is treated as the witness to the oath. According to Lawrence Schiffman, members of the community also take oaths only before judges, thereby preventing needless swearing.[11] Philo, an Alexandrian Jew, recommends alternatives such as earth and heaven (Spec 2.4-5), the oaths that the Pharisees reject. On the basis of his understanding of physics, Philo argues that these terms represent the divine quality of changelessness. To these he adds the oath "by one's parents, " for parents' procreative abilities are analogous to God's creative capacity, and an oath formula that leaves God's name unspoken, "yes, by -- or no, by --." (Spec. 2.4). These terms are to be used for oaths that one is compelled by law to swear. For Philo, vocalizing the divine name is an act of arrogance tantamount to claiming that one can comprehend God. (Mos. 2.114; Post. 169; Leg. 3.207). Other than oaths required by law, the Qumran community and the circumspect Philo eschew swearing (JW 2.8.6; Prob. 84; Decal. 84),. The Pharisees demonstrate their scrupals against inappropriate oaths by refusing to swear oaths of loyalty to Herod and to Caesar even at the cost of their lives (Ant. 15.10.4; 17.2.4).
Jesus' prohibition against swearing marks his entry into the second temple debate over what constitutes a binding oath. The two legal citations with which the prohibition is introduced express the standards by which Jesus' contemporaries evaluate the integrity of their positions. The first, "You should not swear falsely (ouk episokeseis)," expresses the intention of Lev 19:2, "You shall not swear by my name falsely," and the Second Temple reading of Exod 20;7, "you shall not take the name of your Lord in vain." The wording of the second quotation "perform (apodoseis) to the Lord what you have sworn" recalls the idiom of vows more closely than that of oaths. A search through Hellenistic and Greek literature, however, demonstates that apodidomi can be used to mean take an oath in which case the citation means that one is to fulfil Deut 6:13 and name God in one's oaths and that fulfillment of oaths is an obligation made to God. Given the antithetical structure of the pericope that sets how people have treated the law in apposition to his own teaching, Jesus' prohibition against all oaths is a radical solution to the sundry problems that his Jewish contemporaries address and is not simply a safeguard against lies.
Given that Jesus' contemporaries' interpretations of the law of oaths try to limit the definition of binding and necessary oaths, Jesus' further restriction certainly applies to juridical oaths. Legally prescribed oaths are rare in the Hebrew Bible and the occasion to demand or take an oath presupposes distrust. An oath is required only in one of the following situations: either a woman is supected of adultery, but there are no witnesses, or a man is suspected of not faithfully disposing of a trust, or one is adjured to come forth and give evidence if one is a witness to a transgression. In the last case, one must presuppose that the witness has failed to come forth voluntarily. In effect, all are adjurations not unlike modern juridical oaths. Not surprisingly, the Mishnah's discussion of oaths is directed to adjurations, that is, when one states masbiya ani ("I make someone swear"), rather than oaths in general.[12] In order for these oaths to be felicitious, they require that the person uttering it to have the proper authority. In the case of the oath of the adulteress, this would be the priest.
If one follows Jesus' teaching assiduously, oaths become problematic on two counts. Jesus demands uprightness (Matt 5:20), abstinenance from condemning others (Matt 7:1), and reconciliation with one's accuser before a dispute could come to trial (Matt 5:25 par.). With a view toward the kingdom of God, Jesus certainly does not envision situations where an oath is warranted. Secondly, if one utters an oath, one may be claiming an authority for one's own speech that Jesus would not be willing to grant. Even the most cautious members of the Jesus Seminar, such as E. P. Sanders, grant historical value to Jesus' claim to an unmediated and exceptional authority to speak and act on God's behalf.[13] The Gospels depict Jesus as unwilling to grant the same authority to the priesthood or any other earthly authority. While historical critics tend to minimize the conflict between Jesus and temple authorities, John Dominic Crosson situates Jesus within a Jewish messianic movement that can be encapsulated with the slogan "No Lord but God" and sees Jesus' action and speech in the temple as a symbolic destruction of that institution.[14] The act of uttering an oath and the implicit claim to authority then places one in an antithetical relationship with God. Thus, according to the Matthean pericope, oaths come from evil.
Some historical critics doubt the authenticity of the prohibition against swearing because the phrase "Amen, amen" is surely part of Jesus' habitual speech.[15] While amen may not actually constitute an oath -- it is the affirmation of an adjuration and thus only a part of an oath -- Jesus may have accorded himself the authority to use this form of speech.
If we take the examples of Matthew 5:34-35 to be the words of the historical Jesus -- few members of the quest will grant this -- Jesus concern lies with the fulfillment of Deut 6:13, "swear by God's name."[16] Jesus objects to the substitute terms of heaven, earth, or Jerusalem because all of them can euphemistically refer to God. According to the prophecy of Isaiah, "Heaven is my [God's] throne and the earth is my [God's ] footstool" (Isa 66:1), and the Psalmist pronounces Jerusalem "the city of the Great King" (Ps 48:2). Oaths made with these phrases fulfil the law in that they are made to God; therefore, they are all valid and binding.
Jesus is playing a different language game than his contemporaries. Whether one's words constitute an oath does not depend upon a tightly defined convention. In the early rabbinic halakot, legal deliberations, language constitutes the fact of an oath based upon a public understanding. For example, the oath term "by Shaddai" is binding (m. Sebu 4:13) but "by earth" is not because we do not conventionally refer to God as earth. Philo, on the other hand, can advocate swearing "by the earth" because by his definition he is refering to God. Philo does not directly address the issue of whether the audience to the oath will automatically recognize this as a valid formula; the occasion of being forced to swear provides the conditions in which one's words become recognizable as swearing.
The early rabbinic and Philo's treatment of speech with reference to swearing can be compared to an actual game. There are four downs in American football and three in Canadian. Just as neither American nor Canadian football is right or wrong, the Pharisees and Philo are both swearing valid oaths; they simply live in different communities operating under different conventions.[17] In the case of Philo's position, one might also note that running over the gaol line with the ball counts only as a touch down in the context of a game. Similarly, his use of the phrase "by earth" counts as an oath only in a legal context in which one is adjured to swear.
At the basis of Jesus' prohibition against swearing lies a notion of linguistic realism that he shares with his Jewish contemporaries. The word YHWH is not merely a conventional term which denotes a conceptual construct, God. I can have a wrong-headed understanding of YHWH, but YHWH is a proper name that denotes the independent referant,YHWH. The word denotes the transcendent reality which is God and by its utterance, one summons that reality. The Pharisees seem to limit the extension of reference to public or conventional language. Jesus seems to suggest that whether one replaces YHWH with Adonai (my Lord) or a term further removed, such as heaven, one still refers to God and God is still invoked. The meaning of a word is not defined, insofar as it can relate to God, by one particular human community but by a larger social reality that includes God. Any term can refer to God, because there is no reality that is not constituted or comprehended by God. If we return to our football analogy, it is as though an external authority can claim that if one is using football equipment then one is indeed playing a game of football. If the ball touches the ground and the players still act as though it is in play, they cannot appeal to the claim that they are not playing a serious game. They have violated the rules of the game. The same can be said for swearing. Whether an utterance is a valid oath is not determined by the agreement of the human participants in the oath, but rather by God. The assertion that one should not swear by one's head -- a formula that vocalizes a curse that places one's life at stake -- because one "cannot make one hair white or black" (Matt 5:36) draws attention to God's perogative to enact or disregard the curse and, thereby, underscores Jesus' focus upon divine authority over the meaning or potency of speech.
The preceding analysis does not answer the question of why Jesus considers the act of swearing an evil speech-act. In its literary context in the Gospel of Matthew, this assertion is substantiated by the fact that all the oaths are infelicitous. Herod's oath leads to the death of John the Baptist. Caiaphas' adjuration becomes the basis for his claim that Jesus has committed perjury, and Peter swears falsely that he does not know Jesus.[18] Don Carlington's analysis of the second temple debate and the gospel material leads him to the conclusion that Jesus' prohibition has an eschatological setting that allows for the abrogation of the law insofar as, heaven and earth are passing away.[19] I agree that the eschatological setting has a bearing upon the prohibition, but Jesus is radicalizing the law rather than rejecting it when he declares all oaths binding.[20]
Jesus' objection to oaths rests upon an understanding of the intended power of the oath to pair human intent with divine intent. By invoking God's name in an oath, the words and intent of the oath are transformed from a mere human uttterance to an utterance with all the authority and immutability that the divine name confers. The fact that an oath entails a curse makes this even more problematic. This sort of behavior does not accord with the conditions of the eschaton, perhaps, best articulated in the Lord's Prayer. In this prayer -- probably based upon the Kaddish, the Jewish eschatological prayer -- the hallowing or sanctification of God's name and the priority of God's will are essential to the Kingdom.
The sanctification of God's name refers to a broader range of activity than proper use or avoidance of the name itself. Nevertheless, Jesus' own habits suggests that God's name is to be hallowed in speech as well as actions. Jesus' reverence for the name is born out by his propensity to use the divine passive.[21] For example, he casts beatitudes -- e.g., "blessed are those who mourn" (Matt 5:4) -- in the passive voice ; the agent, God, is not named. Joachim Jeremias concludes that Jesus' use of the divine passive for God's present activity indicates that Jesus announces the presence of the time of salvation.[22]
The prohibition against swearing is not the only occasion on which Jesus demonstrates his concern for the sanctity of speech. The possibility that human utterance can defile is reflected in his condemnation of sins of the tongue. Words against sinful speech appear in all three of the synoptic gospels. Evil thoughts often expressed in speech, such as slander, deceit, pride and foolishness, proceed from one's heart and defile one (Mark 7:20; Matt 15:18; Luke 6;45). Angry words place one under condemnation (Matt 5:22), and one will be judged by one's words (Matt 12:37).
Jesus' proclamation hinges upon an earnest ciriticism of people's orientation toward God. Implicit to his call is the belief that neither the Torah nor tradition is a sufficient basis upon which one can direct one's life. The reign of God demands a response from people; they "accept' it or "inherit" it, but they must be "fitted" for it.[23] As E.P. Sanders explains, Jesus' antitheses, including the absolute prohibition of swearing, do not reflect a demand for perfectionism but for an awareness of one's relationships with others and with God.[24] The trust of Jesus' words is to usher in that kingdom, a kingdom that calls for radical circumspection of word and deed insofar as they impinge upon others and upon God.
Jesus' views that the utterance of the divine name is blasphemous and that improper speech reflects impurity jar with modern sensiblity. Equally unpopular is the claim that Jesus means to prohibit all oaths. The total elimination of oaths would create problems for the administration of legal systems, economies, and the state's authority. But Jesus does not affirm the social order of his contemporaries, this much is clear. Conversely, his rejection of the social institution of swearing does not make him an ancient anarchist. The oath as the agent of social order is not at issue; the invocation of God is the focus of Jesus' pronouncement. This thinking seems out-of-date today. Why should God be offending by such seemingly innocent utterances especially if they are faithfully performed? Certainly swearing may bind one to a course of action that perhaps should not be taken or may associate God's name with a lie. The problem with swearing, however, does not lie on the contingency that the oath may be false or may have to be broken. The utterance of the oath itself is sinful speech. At the basis of Jesus' ban lies an understanding that speech does not simply describe reality but that it participates in reality independent of human intentionality. If one concedes to this view of language then one must assume greater accountabilility for one's speech. The focus is not upon simple truthfulness between people but upon an orientation toward God. The oath has no place in God's eschatological community in which God's name is hallowed.
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