The Offense of Jesus’s Teaching on Adultery and Oaths

Perhaps an audience of Jewish listeners would have resonated with Jesus’s statements on murder (5:21-26) and adultery (5:27-30). At least in principle everyone can agree that anger and lust are the internal motivations for the external sins of murder and adultery. Even if one is not a follower of Jesus, controlling anger and lust is a positive and healthy goal. Greek philosophy encouraged people to balance their passions and to be in control of their inner thoughts.

But when Jesus taught on divorce and oath-making, he was challenging accepted practices of the Jewish world of the first century. It is likely few people who heard Jesus teach were adulterers and maybe no one was a murderer. But divorce was a far more common issue and everyone has made a promise or two they regretted and would like to have a legal way out of their oath. For some in the original audience, Jesus has moved from preaching to meddling.

After writing over one hundred pages on Jesus’s view of divorce, John Meier comments his prohibition of divorce would have disturbed his otherwise sympathetic listeners (Marginal Jew, 3:182). The same is true for his prohibition of oath-making in Matthew 5:33-37. As Meier points out, no Jewish teaching in the first century completely prohibited making oaths and vows. Even the closest parallel to Jesus, the Essenes, swore vows to obey the rules of the Community. The Pharisees would have reacted strongly to Jesus’s teaching on both divorce and oath-making (Meier, 3:205). Unfortunately we do not have their side of the argument, nor does Jesus explain his rationale for making these sweeping prohibitions.

It would appear the earliest Christians either did not know Jesus’s prohibition on oaths or they interpreted it differently. Paul made oaths in his letters. For example, 1 Corinthians 1:23, God calls on God as a witness, more or less swearing his claims are true by invoking God! Similarly, in Philippians 1:8 he says “with God as my witness.” The book of Acts appears to describe him taking a Nazarite vow (Acts 18:18) and later participating in the conclusion of vows (Acts 21:26). The writer of Hebrews refers to swearing an oath by something greater (6:16). Although the command against oath making was taken literally in the early days of the church, by the Middle Ages “the entire tradition of the major churches has almost uniformly disregarded Matt 5:33-37 and accepted oaths, even if it often did so with a bad conscience” (Matthew 1-7, 267–268).

So Jesus says “do not swear an oath at all” and the rest of church history figures out ways around the command. In his recent commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Jonathan Pennington says “Jesus is not overturning or abolishing the original commandment. He is not opposed to oath or vow making” (293). Charles Quarles argues Jesus prohibited “misleading oaths” intended to allow a person to break their promise if it was to their advantage (Sermon, 144). For Pennington, oaths and vows can be made only if the disciple of Jesus intends to fulfill them.


These interpretations allow Christians to serve in the military (which demands oaths) or give testimony in court, or even have a mortgage, which is more or less an oath to pay back a loan. Modern society demands oath-making, so we have to find some way to deal with Jesus’s actual words. Modern society demands the possibility of divorce, so we need to find a way around Jesus’s actual words.

But did Jesus intend for his disciples to find ways around his words when modern culture finds them too inconvenient? I would suggest the ideal disciples of Jesus honor marriage in such a way that divorce is not an issue; the idea disciple honors truth to the point there is no need for making an oath. For the ideal disciple of Jesus, all their words are “with God as my witness.”

16 thoughts on “The Offense of Jesus’s Teaching on Adultery and Oaths

  1. this is a rather hard thought to ponder on. I myself have wondered why we go over this all the way back in Sunday school, that you should not promise anything, and your word should be enough, then later at home when we would get in trouble as kids our parents would make us promise that we did not do something. we missed the point of the sermon! when we were little, at least me, we were not very trustworthy, and our parents made us promise because they knew we may not tell the truth unless they told us to tell the truth. this is just the point that Jesus is making in Mathew 5:33-37 is that it is not as much about verse 34 “but I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is Gods threw” (ESV 1830) but more so about verse 37 when it says “All you need to say is a Yes, or no” it is about your word is true, and firm, it is less about making oaths. I think if we did a message on this passage and we made it for takeaway for the people was to never make an oath, I think we would have the wrong point, but rather the meaning of the passage is that Jesus wants to make it clear for us that in order for us to be trustworthy we need make sure that our word is true, with or without a vow.

  2. The reason why this was a “problem” was because it was a common sin among the culture. Even though its consequences were serious it was a sin that we seen very frequently. Someone once told me that its not an issue until you approach the person who created the problem. Meaning that everything was fine because nobody was saying anything and that person was getting their way, but as soon as someone spoke up about it, that’s when it became a problem and the person who spoke up is the blame in almost every case. As for this case, adultery was a serious offense and Jesus spoke up about it but never condemned the sinner, always the sin. Jesus called out to the sinner and told them there is more to live for and that through Himself, they can be free from their sin. What an awesome promise. McKnight reminds us that even Jesus was seen as the problem maker even though the problem started before He spoke up. We are walking in His path now and it’s up to us how we deal with it; and that is to call out the sin but not the sinner because ultimately, everyone falls short but it’s how we deal with our sin that will change how we live.

  3. Your blog comments—focused on the “events/statements of Jesus as described” in Matthew to Jesus’ Jewish audience—are very helpful and to the point!
    But how do you think Gentile Christians in the Greco- Roman in Asia, Greece, etc., (probably without too much knowledge of the Jewish/OT context) would have heard these words of “the Gospel of Matthew [and the other three]” as they were read to them? Would this reception/interpretation have been different than the audience of Jesus? And, did the Gospel writers have this audience in mind as they “penned” their manuscripts?

    • Thanks for the (very difficult) question, Carl! I tend to think of the Gospels as having at least three interpretive horizons. First, the “historical Jesus” taught as a Jewish rabbi in a Jewish context. Second, these things were remembered and passed along in an oral tradition phase, the third, some of these remembered stories were included in the written Gospels. Whether those Gospels were written to a community is an open question in Gospels studies right now, but it seems to me that the original audience of Matthew was aware of the Jewish cultural background to these sayings. (I have the same view about John, even if the original audience was Asia Minor, it was a Hellenistic Jewish audience). Mark and Luke are less connected to the Jewish culture (Mark uses Latinisms and explains Aramaic phrases, Luke 14 describes Jesus at Sabbath meal but it looks more like a Greek symposium). So you could argue Matthew was least aware (or did not care to explain) the Jewish nuances, Mark and Luke were more aware a Greek reader would not fully appreciate the “more Jewish” aspects of Jesus’s life and teaching and either explained a few things for the Gentile reader, or told the story in a way which would resonate with the Gentile reader.

      We could include a fourth horizon, the reception of these documents by the increasingly Gentile church. I have not worked very hard in this area, but it would be interesting to read Augustine and Jerome on the Sermon on the Mount and track how they understood the Jewish-ness of the Sermon. I recently bought a copy of Luther’s commentary on the Sermon (Lexham Press has an inexpensive reprint), he is either unaware or uninterested in the original context of Jesus, his goal is to argue against the papists.

      As for me, I tend to focus on the first horizon, the historical Jesus and the way Jesus was remembered in the canonical gospels.

  4. This is definitely a teaching where Jesus seems to be black and white in the fact that we should not make oaths at all. You bring up many good points about how modern society is so involved in making oaths. I did not realize this as I thought the only reason we make oaths is to make ourselves seem more valid. I think a huge part of this is realizing that we should not make oaths because we do not know what the future holds. I could promise a friend to give them a ride to school next week, however, I could get in a car accident on the way. It reminds me of how Dr. Vinton always ended class saying “See you Wednesday, Lord willing.” In saying this he is realizing that he is not in control, we have plans but ultimately we are not the ones who bring them to fruition. McKnight also brings up the thought that this is an issue revolving around how God wants us to be honest (117). Jesus calls us to say either yes or no. In reference to divorce, culture should not consider the idea, because it is a covenant oath and in marriage, we said yes, so, in essence, saying no should not be an option. This is rather confusing because Jesus is so black and white about it. However, as you mentioned, early Christians such as Paul made oaths, and God has made oaths as well.

  5. I think that when Jesus was trying to clarify his stance on oaths, it was to a very specific group of people at a certain time frame. It is hard to draw parallels to oaths nowadays because of the context and time. This is something that Jesus seems to be pretty black and white on yet we find ways to justify oaths. Oaths are something that you partake in while pledging your dedication to a specific cause, need, task etc… while also pointing out to whom is holding you accountable for that oath. As talked about in another one of your blog posts on oaths, you need to be wary of who you pledge to. As Christians, making an Oath and saying something like “As God as my witness” then failing to follow through on that oath reflects poorly upon not only you but also the one who you made the oath to. When it is talking the context of divorce and marriage, we cannot compare those to other oaths because marriage is supposed to be in unity and Christ centered. Therefor we are still pledging an oath to God. McKnight states it very well in his text about what Jesus meant when we talk about oaths within marriage. He says “As marriage is inviolable, so honesty in words should be invariable. Jesus’ concerns here here are theological: words were being mapped on an honesty or obligation scale by the magnitude of the source of their vow, and Jesus’ counters scaling of words by requiring truth” (McKnight, pg.110). The point of an oath is that it requires truth, truth in which you are not willing to compromise. Marriage is something of God that should not be compromised by divorce. We made an oath to God and we must abide in that. I don’t think Jesus abolished oaths completely because we still make oaths to him. Or perhaps this is us putting human conditions on God so we think that we must make oaths with God?

  6. The Gospel of Matthew also has Jesus saying:

    Mat 23:16  “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 
    Mat 23:17  You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 
    Mat 23:18  And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 
    Mat 23:19  You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 
    Mat 23:20  So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 
    Mat 23:21  And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 
    Mat 23:22  And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. 

    where swearing is swearing an oath in context. So Jesus seems to be giving somewhat contradictory advice, at least on the surface. This suggests to me that one needs to dig deeper in order to try to figure out what is going on.

  7. Similarly for divorce with Matt 19. For divorce, see David Instone-Brewer’s Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context where he shows how to understand these verses in 1st century Jewish cultural context. P.S. They do not mean what many think they mean.

    • David Instone-Brewer is excellent on divorce in the first century, and I would add the chapter on divorce in John Meier’s Marginal Jew, Volume 4. There is a ten-page footnote with a comprehensive bibliography (at least at the time it was printed!)

  8. I would agree with your statement that, “For the ideal disciple of Jesus, all their words are ‘with God as my witness.’” And as McKnight says, “Because messianic, kingdom people are honest, they do not need oaths” (McKnight, 110). The issue here is the honesty – the keeping of one’s word not necessarily the oaths. Interestingly enough James 5:12 restates the command, “Above all, my brothers, do not swear, not by heaven or earth or by any other oath. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be yes, and your ‘No,’ no, so that you will not fall under judgment”. Judgment is the reason given for avoiding an oath, even as Jesus says, “anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matt. 5:33-37). So, to summarize my opinion, the less oaths made the better, and let all you say be exactly what you mean.

  9. I found this blog post very eye opening and I strongly agree with a lot of the things P.Long mentions throughout the blog post, especially in regard to making oaths. I think that making oaths and promises are very important and should not be taken lightly. Thus, when P.Long states “. For Pennington, oaths and vows can be made only if the disciple of Jesus intends to fulfill them (P.Long). I really like this passage from the blog post because this is exactly what people need to do in their lives. One should not make any sort of oath or a promise if they know in their heart that they cannot fulfill it. People need to be more honest and truer to themselves in this case. Thus, divorce is at its highest point in the modern society that we currently live in; and it is simply because they are not completely sure of this decision, or they are trying to see a way around said oath or promise that will benefit them in the long run. Charles Quarles states a very provocative statement mentioning how Jesus prohibited “misleading oaths intended to allow a person to break their promise if it was to their advantage” (Sermon, 144). I think that this is cruel and should not exist because it is so easy for someone to make a promise but not have serious intent of fulfilling it. Just because there are a mild inconvenience people should not have the pleasure of just throwing it away because it is convenient or because they no longer see any value in the situation. Marriage is sacred and divorce is a very tough situation for all parties involved and leads to bad blood and an impure heart. In conclusion one should not be able to make vows and oaths especially in the name of God if it can be so easily tarnished.

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