Don't Swear at All!

Did the New Testament change the Old Testament’s laws about taking oaths and vows?

Yeshua, on the other hand, instructed His disciples not to swear at all. Is this an example of the New Testament overturning the Torah? (Image: © Bigstock/ra2studio)

The Torah allows for people to take oaths and vows, and it strictly warns against falsely swearing in God’s name. Yeshua, on the other hand, instructed His disciples not to swear at all. Is this an example of the New Testament overturning the Torah?

You have heard that the ancients were told, “You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the LORD.” But I say to you, make no oath at all. (Matthew 5:33-34)

At first glance, this teaching looks like a statement of antithesis—as if Yeshua forbids something that the Torah requires. On closer examination, there is no conflict between Yeshua’s words and the Torahs instructions regarding oaths and vows. The Torah warns against making false vows or breaking vows and oaths, but it does not require a man to make a vow or an oath in the first place.

Like Yeshua, many Jewish sages looked askance on taking vows and making oaths. Regarding the practice of vowing to abstain from something otherwise permissible, the sages said, “Are not the prohibitions laid down in the Torah sufficient for you, that you should seek to impose upon yourselves still other prohibitions?” They regarded taking any vow or oath as a risky enterprise best avoided. Several passages from the Talmud seek to dissuade people from the practice of taking vows:

It was taught, “Never make a practice of vowing, for ultimately you will trespass in the matter of oaths.” (b.Nedarim 20a)

Rabbi Nathan said, “Whoever vows is as though he built a high place.” (b.Nedarim 60b)

The sages also warned against taking an oath in God’s name for purposes of verification. Though the Torah sanctioned the practice, and law courts sometimes required it, the rabbis discouraged it. A man might be so certain of the truth that he swears in God’s name, yet at the same time, he might be mistaken or misled. Better not to swear at all.

In the late first century, the Jewish historian Josephus recorded that the Essene community swore off swearing altogether.

They insisted on such a high level of integrity that their simple word could be regarded as binding as an oath or vow. Josephus said, “Any word of theirs has more force than an oath; swearing they avoid, regarding it as worse than perjury, for they say that one who is not believed without an appeal to God stands condemned already.”

These examples illustrate that Yeshua was not overturning the Torah or introducing new standards in contradiction to Judaism. Instead, His words on the subject of taking oaths and vows are right at home in early Judaism and the teachings of the rabbis. They need to be understood within that context—not as a new prohibition on vows and oaths, but a serious check against the impulse to make frivolous ones.

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