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.

I am offendedBut 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.

Perhaps.

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.”

25 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.

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  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.

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  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?

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    • 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.

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  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.

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    • I think an oath goes beyond giving someone a ride to school. I think it’s ore of when you are making a commitment to someone or something (like the military.) But you had some good thought!

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    • Mary, I agree with what you are saying about divorce. We need to say a yes or no, we should not be in the middle. We should take our in a sense “oath” in marriage seriously. As going into oaths I believe that we should be able to make them but like Sam Vinton says ” Lord willing” we take these saying for granted because we are not promised a tomorrow. I do not think taking an oath is a sin.

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  5. The message that Jesus is telling us in these verses seems pretty clear about how we are not supposed to make oaths. However, we seem to find ways to get around what Jesus is telling us. There are even examples of Paul making oaths. I found it interesting how you pointed out that our society requires us to make oaths. An example of this would be taking out a mortgage and how we are making an oath to pay it back. I had never thought how we are constantly making oaths in so many different ways. I do not think Jesus intended for the ideal disciples to find ways around his word because a world finds it inconvenient. We are to live in a way that makes our word true without having to make oaths. However, I am really wondering how this would look when it comes to the example of a mortgage?

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    • Great post Alex!!!!!
      I really like the example you brought into your post it clarifies and helps make easier sense of what an oath is. I also like the part in your post that you bring up that our society is the ones that want us to take the oaths I also like the real-life situation you brought in to your post about the mortgage.

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  6. I think taking an oath is important for when you are making a big decision that will change your life. When you get married you take an oath, you promise your significant other to love them no matter what. There is the oath that absolutely cannot be broken like you mentioned “military (which demands oaths) or give testimony in court, or even has a mortgage” (Long, 2018). I know that marriage is a serious oath, but I believe that it can be broken, and it’s okay for people to get a divorce. depending on the circumstances. If someone is being abused or neglected, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be able to get a divorce. I think they should try to work things out before coming to this, but if it is not working out then they should go their separate way.

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    • Jess,
      Excellent post!
      The first thing I think of when I think of an oath is marriage. I’m really glad you mentioned that. My personal definition of an oath is, “A promise that you make that will and shall not be broken under any means.” Your stance on divorce is also very interesting. Going back to McKnight and his chapter on divorce, he mentions the one and only reason for divorce. That was sexual immorality. I also see your point as well though. Domestic Violence is a major problem and it cannot be ignored. I truly believe counseling should be involved so they can work it out. This is so they can keep their oath. Divorce is a tough topic to look at, because Jesus says that there is only one reason for divorce, but then there are issue like domestic violence. So, what should happen with that, because it does seem like a reason for the couple to separate.
      Dr. Long also mentions a very interesting question. He says, “Did Jesus intend ways for his disciples to get around his words (Long, 2018)?” I think this applies in this situation as well. Are there oaths that we can get around or are oaths set. I think that when we take an oath, we are making a promise that cannot be broken. As a Christian, I believe marriage is the best example of that. As Christians, we also take an oath to live a life that is holy and pleasing to God. But, nobody lives that life. How does that apply to the oath we have made to God?

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  7. There are some specific questions like this that I truly don’t have the answer for. However I do know that what Jesus says is true. When Jesus said let your yes be yes and your no be no. I took him at his word. That being said at this point I don’t know if it would be considered wrong to swear that what you say is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Because it is something that Jesus commanded us not to do, but the people putting you on trial do not know if your word can be trusted and likely wont trust it even if you do swear by the God you put your faith in. Even after reading the chapter and the passages I still am a little foggy on this and have not been swayed one way or the other.

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  8. Oaths should be huge moments in your life. I think of oaths that we use here on earth, like a marriage oath. That no matter what, I will be by your side. Or an oath that a President has to take. Each one of these is a huge commitment. And that’s how they should be treated. However, since we are sinful we really are not that good at keeping up our promises. That is why I think that God is so clear already with this subject. And I don’t think that they disciples were supposed to find ways around it, but once again this brings up the sinful acts that we commit. Since God already knows our thoughts, and our motives He knows if we will commit to these.

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  9. 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?

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  10. It is clear that Jesus set the standards very high when giving The Sermon on the Mount. He raised the bar higher, to a point that most people would argue is very very difficult to reach. His teachings about oaths is no exception. Just like Jesus taught to “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44), he teaches to never make an oath. He did this because “his people do not need any buttressing words or any oaths that scale human words from lower to higher levels of obligation. They will be known as truth-tellers…” (McKnight, p. 115). The reason behind Jesus’ request to never make oaths is because his goal is to have a place in which people always tell the truth. This would eliminate any need of vows. Jesus’ words were not taught intending for his disciples to find ways around his words when modern culture finds them too inconvenient. If so, we would overlook the whole Sermon on the Mount and find ways around all his words because they are too inconvenient. I believe his teaching on oaths is very much like the rest of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus gives a solution to our problems by raising the bar higher, so that we aim towards that goal instead of feeling comfortable with our lower standards.

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  11. This sin was seen very frequently among that culture and time. Jesus, being a redeemer always stated not that the person was bad but that their sin was. In this way a person who even though gave a vow and broke it can still be apart of the kingdom of heaven if they repent and retake that vow.

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  12. The Bible permitted oaths, but as McKnight notes, Jesus puts a stop to that by saying that kingdom people, being indwelling in the kingdom now, always tell the truth, and don’t need to be bound by oaths (McKnight, p. 115). I don’t think that Jesus intended for his disciples to find ways around his words when others find it inconvenient, as we are called to be the lights, such as in Matthew 5:14, and to show others what it means to simply follow the instructions to say yes or to say no in Matthew 5:37. In an ideal world, there is no need for oaths, because we always follow the truths, such as heeding to the concept of honoring marriage so that divorce is not even an issue. Overall, we made an oath to God, giving our lives up to Him, and to follow Him rightly, this is the only oath we need, and we must act truthfully and follow the commands in Scripture that are laid out for us.

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  13. Oaths are very important and meaningful this what I am getting out of the reading. Oath to me means making a big promise or a commitment. It sounds like Jesus does not want us to make oaths. A few ways that I think of oaths to me are like borrowing a something and the person you borrowed it from is expecting it back the way u had borrowed it. I think the reason behind Jesus’ request to never make oaths is because his goal is to have a place in which people always tell the truth. Being able to have trust with everyone around you and that what is expected of us so God does not want us to make oaths.

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  14. 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.

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  15. 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.

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    • 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!)

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  16. Oaths are something that should not be broke, such as a marriage. A marriage is making an oath to that person forever. Divorce is breaking that oath, which is something that is very popular in today’s world. I do not think that Jesus intended for his disciples to change the words with the changes of the world. Jesus to not make any oaths, “Jonathan Pennington says “Jesus is not overturning or abolishing the original commandment. He is not opposed to oath or vow making” (293) (Par. 5). I believe that Jesus wants us to make oaths that we will keep forever, like they were meant to be. Another way we can look at an oath is by being truthful, “being indwelling in the kingdom now, always tell the truth, and don’t need to be bound by oaths” (McKnight, p. 115). If we are being truthful then that is similar to an oath, so we can be truthful rather than calling it an oath.

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