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When someone is deposed in court, they are (at least in the old movies) asked to swear on the Bible.

My premise is that the use of the printed paper of the Bible in this instance is more of a pagan ritual than a practice that the holy Scriptures themselves would encourage. Can anyone offer scriptural evidence either way? I am in no way dismissing the seriousness (legal, personal, spiritual) of the sin of lying; I am talking about putting your hand on the Bible itself.

The closest stackexchange question on this topic doesn't get into a theology of the printed Bible itself.

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I think you'll find that today, this is something best answered on an individual level. For some, it would have significance, for others it wouldn't. I don't think there is an official Church stance on it from any major denominations. It more likely stemmed from a time when people took God and the Bible more seriously, and there was some fear associated with breaking an oath sworn on a Bible. Atheists would call it superstition, those who would tremble at the thought of a God angered by a false oath using His word might think there's more significance. And there are all those in between. –  David Stratton May 8 '13 at 5:15
Jesus says let your "No" be "no" and your "yes" be "yes." There's no need to swear unless you need some higher authority to vouch for your honesty and fidelity. As a Christian, you shouldn't need to. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 May 8 '13 at 5:45

5 Answers 5

A very straight reading of Matthew and James would lead you to believe what Jeff wrote. But that may not be the end of it, or have anything to do at all with judicial oaths.

Christ meant, as the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers explain, to be so truthful that men could believe them without need of oath to confirm what they say. He did not forbid the use of oaths under proper conditions, when necessary to satisfy others of our truthfulness.

Oaths - Catholic Encylopedia

All the sacraments are oaths. Saying Amen is an oath. Every covenant God made is an oath. There's no reason you shouldn't "swear to God" when you're seriously "swearing to God". Just like you can say "God help us" or "Mother of the Saints!" without using God's name or other holy names in vain.

You shouldn't go down a path that is going to lead to perjury.

However, swearing on a Bible, or swearing on "The Precious" or your mother's ashes, etc doesn't seem necessary does it? Almost seems idolatrous. But, then again, you're not swearing on a Bible, you're just touching a Bible and swearing on the Holy Word of God and as long as you're not perjuring yourself and you're fulfilling your obligations, you're doing the right thing.

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Good counterpoint. I havent made the leap from the straight reading to the allowances in the Catholic Encyclopedia. Consequently I don't think that I agree with the encyclopedia. However, it is a good opportunity to challenge my current understanding. –  Jeff May 8 '13 at 17:40

Gospel Truth

The practice of swearing an oath on the Bible sits in the uncomfortable median between secular and religious practice. John Bouvier explains the motivation behind the practice in his Law Dictionary:

OATH. A declaration made according to law, before a competent tribunal or officer, to tell the truth; or it is the act of one who, when lawfully required to tell the truth, takes God to witness that what he says is true. It is a religious act by which the party invokes God not only to witness the truth and sincerity of his promise, but also to avenge his imposture or violated faith, or in other words to punish his perjury if he shall be guilty of it.

He cites Novisimi Recopilacion de las Leyes de Espafia as tracing the practice of holding a book back to Roman law. What book would have been used, I don't know. Bouvier notes that the "Gospel" is the usual book taken in hand. This seems appropriate since the words gospel and truth have had a strong association going as far back as Paul:

In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation...
—Ephesians 1:13a (ESV)

These days, a Bible is not required by most courts nor do they require true oaths, but allow simple affirmations. One reason is that the Bible itself warns against taking oaths. Notice that the reason is not because oaths on the Bible are powerless superstition, but because oaths are supremely significant. Even God swears oaths:

Therefore he raised his hand and swore to them
    that he would make them fall in the wilderness,
and would make their offspring fall among the nations,
    scattering them among the lands.

—Psalm 106:26-27 (ESV)

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How does this reconcile with the fact that to join a military, someone first has to do the oath "swear loyalty to country, officers, etc, etc"? Are Christians not to join military because of that oath requirement? –  Pacerier Nov 5 '14 at 19:17
@Pacerier: We aren't commanded not to take oaths. (I, myself, swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution as an ROTC student. I swore another oath to get married.) But we are commanded to honor the oaths we make—even if we aren't holding a Bible when we make them. –  Jon Ericson Nov 5 '14 at 19:40
That's what I'm talking about. What are we to do when the oaths we are forced to swear aren't biblical? It seems to be that we have 2 options: 1) Honor the unbiblical oath we are forced to make, which means doing the unbiblical actions sworn. 2) Dishonor the unbiblical oath we are forced to make, which means we violate the command, but which also means we don't have to do unbiblical actions sworn. Which then should a Christian choose? –  Pacerier Nov 5 '14 at 23:44

It can, yes.

The fourth commandment in the decalogue is, "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain," which in some readings is not to break an oath that has been made in the name of God. The consequence is that any such perjury, in this context, is then a mortal sin rather than a mundane sin.

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The question was not asking about the oath aspect but about the use of a physical Bible as part of the oath-taking process. The use of a Bible might evidence which God is meant or be a reminder of the seriousness of the action, but Jesus' comments on swearing "by the temple" (Matt 23:16-22) seems to imply that swearing on a Bible is not effectively different than swearing by God without the physical presence of a Bible. –  Paul A. Clayton May 8 '13 at 12:41
Can you sight your the readings you speak of. –  rob Feb 26 '14 at 5:46
@rob en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… "The expression "to take in vain" is also translated less literally as "to misuse" or variants. Some have interpreted the commandment to be against perjury, since invoking God's name in an oath was considered a guarantee of the truth of a statement or promise." It's a reasonably well-referenced article. –  Kaz Dragon Feb 26 '14 at 8:15
@KazDragon, Thx, all I was looking for was the "some readings" you were referring to. I did understand your answer. –  rob Feb 26 '14 at 15:42

Matthew 5:33-37 and James 5:12

The bible is clear that swearing on anything and taking oaths is sinful. The premise is that you should always be trustworthy. If you are known to always tell the truth, then you would not need additional corroboration or incentive that you are telling the truth.

Does it swearing an oath on the bible have any additional significance beyond swearing on oath on nothing? I am not aware of any bible passages that directly deal with the question. One could argue that to knowingly lie while invoking God would be to treating Him with contempt. There is much the bible says on that topic but that is another question.

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I see what you're saying there, it's like you've hit upon St. Thomas's first objection in his upcoming quodlibet and this is just objection 1. It needs to be followed up by why your initial assumption is wrong to make a good answer. –  Peter Turner May 8 '13 at 16:19
Thanks for the link for quodlibet. That seems like an interesting topic for further study. Per your suggestion, I didnt have an initial position on this question so I'm not sure where that leaves me on improving the answer. –  Jeff May 8 '13 at 16:33
that's OK, I'm just kidding mainly. I don't think swearing on a Bible is at all sinful. I'd say it's a very good thing to do even in light of the straight reading of the Matthew and James. –  Peter Turner May 8 '13 at 17:12
Any encouragement to provide a more detailed answer is always welcome. –  Jeff May 8 '13 at 17:19
There couldn't be a passage in the bible about the bible since the bible didn't exist at the time the books were originally written. –  The Freemason May 8 '13 at 17:24

It seems to me that the words reported in Mathew 5 are very clear: Do not swear by heaven - it is not yours - by earth it is heavens footstep, etc. Let your words be yes or no. But be truthful.

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Welcome to the site. As you're a new visitor, I'd like to recommend the following posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": help page, How we are different than other sites? and What makes a good supported answer? –  David Stratton Dec 4 '13 at 0:54

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