John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v.4, ch. 33: The Prohibition of Oaths,
pp 182-234

(Detailed summary)

Does Jesus distance himself from the Mosaic Law by forbidding the oath?


The answer is yes: Jesus attacks an institution of the Mosaic law, the oath, head-on by prohibiting it completely. In Judaism, the guardian of rented property was obliged to take an oath when the property was damaged, or the woman accused of adultery was obliged to take an oath of fidelity. Even if some, like Ben Sirach or Philo of Alexandria, invited their compatriots to avoid taking an oath, they never dared to prohibit it completely.

Are we sure that this prohibition comes from the historical Jesus? We have only two testimonies: Matthew 5:34-37 and James 5:12. When we eliminate what clearly appear to be editorial additions in Matthew and James, we are able to isolate two literary forms that reflect the same oral tradition that may have had this form: "Do not swear at all; let your yes be yes, let your no be no."

We can confirm that this prohibition goes back to the historical Jesus using the discontinuity criteria and multiple attestations. We speak of discontinuity not only in relation to Judaism, for whom the oath was an important institution, but also in relation to the early church, which continued to use the oath. We speak of multiple attestations because Matthew and James are two works independent of each other, but at the same time echo a word of Jesus, even if in the case of James it is not explicitly said that it comes from Jesus; but James is not a unique case of quoting words of Jesus without clearly affirming it.

The Prohibition of Oaths

  1. Introduction

    As we have shown, Jesus accepted the institutions and teachings of the Law like any good Jew. However, we have identified a first exception concerning divorce: while divorce was an important institution, accepted and governed by the Law, Jesus nevertheless claimed that the person who divorced committed adultery. Is such an exception unique? It would seem not when we consider that other issue, oaths.

  2. Oaths: From the Jewish Scriptures to the Mishna

    1. Initial Clarification

      Let's begin by defining two terms. An oath is an affirmation or promise that calls upon God to be a witness to the truth of what one affirms. In contrast, in a vow the person addresses God directly and promises an object or action that will please him, or alternatively, promises to abstain from an object or action.

      The Mishna (3rd AD) distinguishes between affirmative oaths where one takes God as a witness to a past or present event ("I have not committed adultery," Num 5:11-31; "I am not in possession of stolen goods," Ex 22:6-12), and promissory oaths where one refers to future actions ("I will fulfill your request by going abroad to arrange the marriage of your son," Gen 24:1-9). But with promissory oaths the distinction between oaths and vows becomes somewhat blurred, since both refer to a promise, so that for many people there is no difference. For our purposes, we will maintain a difference.

    2. Oaths in Ancient Israel and Judaism

      In the Jewish Scriptures, as in the whole of the ancient Near East, oaths are part of daily life. They are found everywhere: the Law, the Prophets, the Writings. The only restrictions concern the abuse of oaths. There are even cases where there is a legal obligation to take an oath to establish the truth, such as in the case of property that has been entrusted to someone and has been damaged, or in the case of a woman accused of adultery.

      In the pre-exilic period in general and in the Pentateuch, there are no reservations about the institution of the oath. Occasionally, the prophets may denounce those who make false oaths, without questioning the institution. There are small changes in the postexilic period, especially with the arrival of Hellenic culture in Palestine. For example, Ben Sirach (Sir 23:9-11) will denounce those who take frequent and frivolous oaths. In the Qumran scrolls, there are reservations about private oaths where it is recommended to avoid invoking the name of God. But this does not prevent a solemn oath from being required on entering the community. In general, there is no general prohibition of oaths at Qumran, and this is indicative of Palestinian Judaism as a whole.

      In Diaspora Judaism, particularly in Philo, there is a certain tension between his fidelity to the Mosaic Law and to his Greek culture. This leads him to ask that oaths be avoided as much as possible, and that they be used only as a last resort. But he does not go so far as to speak of a complete ban. The Jewish historian Josephus, on the other hand, sees no problem with the oaths he had to accumulate during his life.

      The Mishna has a treatise on oaths. It tries to bring some order to it. One novelty is the permission to avoid swearing in the case of stolen or lost or found goods, provided that the person responsible agrees to offer compensation. However, this is not a general ban on the oath. On the contrary, the oath was too much a part of ordinary life to be eradicated.

  3. The Prohibition of Oaths in the New Testament

    1. The Special Situation of the New Testament Sources

      The total prohibition of the oath attributed to Jesus in Matthew 5:33-37 appears both understandable and shocking. It is understandable when one notes the rise of criticism of oaths in Judaism as seen in Ben Sirach or Philo; one would expect similar reservations from a religious leader like Jesus. But what is shocking is the extreme position of Jesus: it is no longer a question of reservation, but of total prohibition. It is therefore legitimate to ask the question: does this prohibition really come from Jesus or does Matthew add to his gospel a position coming from the Jewish circles of the first Christian communities. This question is all the more legitimate since this passage in Matthew is unique in the gospels and the only parallel is found in the epistle of James (James 5:12).

    2. An Initial Comparison of the Two Texts (identical words are underscored)

      Matthew 5: 34-37 James 5: 12
      34a But I say to you
      34b do not swear at all
      34c either by the heaven,
      34d for it is the throne of God
      12a But above all, my brothers,
      12b do not swear
      12c either by the heaven,
      35a or by the earth,
      35b for it is the footstool of his feet
      12d or by the earth,
      35c or by Jerusalem
      35d for it is the city of the great King.
      12e or by any other oath
      36a Do not swear even by your head,
      36b for you cannot make one hair white or black.
      37a But your speech must be "yes yes, no no";
      37b anything more than these (words) is from the Evil (One)
      12f But your yes must be a yes, And (your) no (must be) a no,
      12g lest you fall under judgment.

      Biblical scholars agree that we have here two forms of the same tradition.

      1. We have the same content: a prohibition (not to swear) with three examples, followed by a positive commandment: that the yes or no reflects reality
      2. We have the same literary structure: a negative command with three examples followed by a positive command
      3. We have a similar vocabulary: swearing, heaven, earth, the possessive adjective "your", the verb to be in the imperative ("be"), yes, no

      However, the differences are notable.

      1. In Matthew it is Jesus who speaks, not in James
      2. In Matthew the text is part of an antithesis (You have heard again that it was said to the ancestors ... Well, I say to you), which is not the case in James
      3. Words and sentences have different grammatical forms
      4. The list of examples in Matthew is longer than in James
      5. The total prohibition is expressed at the beginning in Matthew, but in James it occurs as the last of the three examples
      6. The form of the imperative of the verb to be in Greek is different: estō in Matthew, ētō in James
      7. The final command to tell the truth takes a different form.

      One could explain these differences by a different editorial framework for each author. But these differences are such that they eliminate the possibility of a common literary source. Instead, biblical scholars speak of two literary forms of a common oral tradition.

    3. The Earliest Available Version of the Tradition

      1. Reconstruction of the oral source

        This source must have resembled that part of the texts of Matthew and James which correspond almost word for word.

        Matthew 5 James 5
        Do not swear at all
        either by the heaven, or by the earth;
        Do not swear (by any other oath)
        either by the heaven, or by the earth;
        but your speech must be "yes yes, no no." But your yes must be a yes and your no must be a no.

      2. Additions to this oral source

        We must now attempt to explain the secondary nature of the elements of Matthew that we have eliminated to reconstruct this common source.

        Let us begin with Mt 5:36: "Do not swear by your head either". This phrase is not only absent from the text of James, but it interrupts the sequence of the three examples (heaven, earth, Jerusalem). The first three examples refer to Scripture with the expression "for", while the example of the head simply appeals to common sense. Moreover, the word "swear" is suddenly changed from the 2nd person plural to the 2nd person singular, and the verb "to swear" is repeated, as if we were unaware that it had been pronounced in the previous verse. Finally, it is in the Greco-Roman world rather than in Palestinian Judaism that we find references to swearing on someone's head. In short, v. 36 appears as an interpolated clause in the text and would come either from Matthew himself or from his particular M document.

        Matthew writes not to swear "by Jerusalem, for it is the City of the great King." Unlike the oath by heaven or earth, the oath by Jerusalem was rarely used in the Jewish world. Moreover, stylistically we note a change: whereas the Greek preposition en (by) + dative is used to speak of the oath by heaven and by earth, here the preposition eis (literally: towards) is used to speak of the oath by Jerusalem. This would therefore be an addition to the original source.

        Both Matthew and James add a general conclusion to the request not to swear. Matthew writes, "What is said more (perisson) comes from the Evil One (ponēros)." Now, the Greek words perisson and ponēros are favorite words of Matthew's, and thus point us to either a composition by Matthew himself or his M document. For his part, James writes, "lest you fall under judgment." Now, James has a tendency to speak regularly about judgment. In fact, just before our text, he speaks of the coming of the Lord and writes: "Do not complain about one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged". In short, as in Matthew, this conclusion seems to be an addition to offer a rhetorical and logical conclusion. Thus, we are left with the following core:

        Matthew 5 James 5
        34b Do not swear (at all):
        34c either by the heaven,
        35a or by the earth.
        12b Do not swear
        12c either by the heaven
        12d or by the earth.
        12e (or by any other oath)
        37a But your speech must be "yes yes, no no." 12f But your yes must be a yes and (your) no (must be) a no.

      3. The wording of the total ban

        Matthew formulates the total prohibition as follows: "Do not swear at all", while James writes: "Do not swear... with any other oath". Which formulation is original? In Matthew, we note that the adverb "at all" (Greek: holōs) is extremely rare in the New Testament, whereas it is found only here and three times in the first epistle to the Corinthians. Thus, we do not have a typical Matthew expression here. In James, the word "oath" (horkos) is also very rare in the New Testament and appears only here in his epistle. Here again, we must conclude that this phrase does not come from James. In short, Matthew and James had in hand two different literary forms relating to a common oral tradition.

        One could go further and ask whether the examples of oaths in Matthew and James are not redundant and only aim at accentuating the total prohibition. Indeed, to speak of heaven and earth is to speak of the totality of existence, and to swear neither by heaven nor by earth is in itself to swear by nothing. So Jesus' words could have been very terse like this: "Do not swear at all; let your yes be yes, let your no be no."

      4. A substitute for the oath?

        Matthew 5: 37a James 5: 12f
        But your speech must be "yes yes, no no." But your yes must be a yes and (your) no a no.

        Some biblical scholars wonder if Jesus' command to simply tell the truth is a new form of oath, or rather a substitute for an oath. Let's take a closer look.

        It is Matthew's strange formula that lends itself to this interpretation when both "yes" and "no" are all predicates of the same subject, language. Some biblical scholars assume that Jesus' prohibition must have been shocking in Jewish circles and that the Matthean community tried to mitigate its impact: the expression "yes, yes" and "no, no" would not be a simple metaphor, but a substitute for the oath and would indirectly appeal to God. This would be a typical Judeo-Christian trend of re-judaization. But such an interpretation of the text of Matthew runs up against major objections.

        1. It is precisely Matthew who is the most formal about the total prohibition of the oath. And it would be very strange, after having so clearly forbidden the oath, to see him come back at the end with a solemn declaration on a substitute for the oath: it would be a clear case of self-contraction.

        2. There is no example of a substitutionary oath in first-century Judaism that would use the double "yes" and "no." Reference is sometimes made to 2 Enoch, an apocryphal writing on the Old Testament probably composed in the Middle Ages, which has come down to us in both short and long Slavonic versions and which says this (49:1):

          For I am swearing to you, my children - But look! I am not swearing by any oath at all, neither by heaven nor by earth nor by any other creature which the Lord created. For the Lord said, "There is no oath in me, nor any unrighteousness, but only truth." So, if there is no truth in human beings, then let them swear by means of the words "Yes, Yes!" or, if it should be the other way around, "No, No!"

          It should be noted at once that this text on swearing appears only in the long Slavonic version, that it breaks the sequence of ideas of the whole book, and above all contradicts itself: the seer begins by swearing, before quoting the Lord who asks not to swear. We are probably faced with the interpolation of a Christian author who, embarrassed by the seer's oath, introduces a reference to Matthew and James. For all these reasons, we cannot use this passage from 2 Enoch to illuminate Mt 5:37.

          Other biblical scholars give as an example the Babylonian Talmud (b. Seb. 3a), whose final redaction also dates from the Middle Ages. In it, Raba bar Joseph Hama (probably 4th century AD) states that an oath is only formulated when "yes" or "no" is repeated twice. But this is an intellectual discussion with Rabbi Eleazar, and the idea that this could replace the oath is totally outside their mental horizon. In short, in Judaism at the time of Jesus, there is no text to support a double "yes" or "no" as a substitute oath.

  4. Does the Prohibition Go Back to the Historical Jesus?

    Let us first recognize that the early tradition used by Matthew and James probably dates back to the first Christian generation (30-70 AD) for the following reasons:

    • The Gospel of Matthew and the Epistle of James were written during the second Christian generation (70-100 AD)
    • The two works are independent of each other
    • The forms that the prohibition on oath takes in the two authors presuppose a development in several stages

    But we can go even further and argue that this prohibition goes back to the historical Jesus using the discontinuity and multiple attestation criteria.

    1. The discontinuity criterion

      1. As we have shown, there is no teaching on either the Jewish or the Christian side (apart from these passages from Matthew and James) at the beginning of the first century that dares to prohibit the oath.

      2. This discontinuity appears even within the New Testament. Indeed, we find several authors who practice the oath: Paul on several occasions (e.g., 2 Corinthians 1:23: "As for me, I take God as witness on my soul"), the author of the epistle to the Hebrews who assumes it as a common practice (Heb 6:16: "Men swear by a greater, and the guarantee of an oath puts an end to all disputes among them"), and Revelation who puts the oath in the mouth of an angel (Rev 10: 5-6: "Then the angel whom I had seen standing on the sea and the earth raised his right hand to heaven and swore by Him who lives forever and ever"). If the first Christians practiced the oath, they could not have invented its prohibition.

    2. The multiple attestation criterion

      Before recognizing that we have here a case of multiple attestations, we must first settle the fact that the epistle of James does not report the prohibition of oaths as a word of Jesus. Would this not be a case of implicit reference?

      1. The existence of implicit references to the words of Jesus

        1. The New Testament

          We find examples of implicit reference to Jesus' words in Paul's epistles. For example, he refers to Jesus' request to missionaries to live off the offerings given by their hosts (1 Cor 9:14 || Lk 10:7: "Likewise, the Lord commanded those who preach the gospel to live by the gospel"). Or again at the Last Supper (1 Cor 11:23-25: "For I received from the Lord what I have also given to you: the Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took bread..."), or again this phrase which is known to come from Jesus without mentioning him (Rom 12:14: "Bless those who persecute you; bless, do not curse.") Other examples could be found in the epistles of 1 Peter or Hebrews.

        2. The epistle of James

          Thus, the moral teaching of Jesus was transmitted in various ways, either by explicitly attributing it to Jesus through the literary genre of the gospels, or by inserting it indirectly in the exhortations outside the gospels. The epistle of James is an example of the latter case. Indeed, James 1:5 ("If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask (aiteitō) of God - he gives to all generously, without recrimination - and it will be given to him (dothēsetai)") echoes words of Jesus found in Mt 7:7 and Lk 11, with the same verbs ask (Greek: aitete) and give (Greek: dothēsetai), and even in Jn 16:23-24 ("Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask (aitēsēte) of the Father, he will give (dōsei) to you in my name. .. ask (aitēsēte) and you shall receive"). It is impossible to say whether the author of the epistle of James knew that these exhortations came from the words of Jesus, but it is likely that he was not familiar with the written gospels.

        3. Outside the New Testament

          With The Didache (ca. 150), we have a clear case of insertions of words that are known to come from Jesus but without explicitly saying so. For example, Did 1:2-5:

          2. - The way of life is this. First of all, you shall love the God who made you; secondly, your neighbour as yourself. And do nothing to another that you would not have befal yourself.
          3. - Now of these words the doctrine is this. Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies and fast for those who persecute you;
          4. - for what merit is it, if you love those who love you? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
          5. - But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy.

          So we find in The Didache a series of sayings of Jesus that belong mostly to Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, which the author certainly knew, and perhaps even to Luke's Discourse on the Plain. What James did in his epistle is in the same vein.

      2. The uniqueness of this oath prohibition in the epistle of James

        This passage (James 5:12) is unique, for no other text of such length in the epistle will be found that offers such a close parallel with the content, structure and vocabulary of the synoptics. It is also different from all the other paraenesis found in the epistle, for these, instead of being very specific like this prohibition of oaths, are confined to general exhortations, without specific reference to Jewish or Judeo-Christian practices. This last point is a major argument to refute the idea that the author of the epistle would be James, the brother of Jesus, who was an ardent defender of circumcision and the rules of ritual purity. In short, our passage, by attacking an important institution of the Mosaic law, stands out from the epistle as a foreign body.

      In conclusion, we can say that we have here a case of multiple attestations: 1) James 5:12 is an alternative form of the same word attributed to Jesus in Mt 5:34-37; 2) this tradition about Jesus was transmitted very early in an oral way by the Christian tradition in two forms, the evangelical form retained by Matthew, and the epistolary form, without attributing it to Jesus, retained by James.

    3. What are the original words of Jesus?

      In Matthew, we have: "Let your language be: Yes? Yes, No? No", while in James we have: "Let your yes be yes, let your no be no ». So we can ask ourselves: which of these two forms is original? Unfortunately, this question cannot be answered satisfactorily for two reasons: 1) the prohibition of the oath must have been so shocking that Jesus probably had to repeat it several times and in various ways; 2) the wording of the prohibition in James is simpler and could appear to be original, but Aramaic, the language of Jesus, does not allow for a possessive adjective with yes or no (i.e. your yes, your no) as it does in James. So the Greek formulations in Matthew and James could both represent a translation of the Aramaic, if indeed the same Aramaic word is behind the Greek translations.

Next chapter: Does the rebuke of Jesus healing on the Sabbath correspond to reality?

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