Tag Archives: News

Swearing Oaths on Bibles

With the upcoming inauguration of the President of the United States, much ado is being made

Image by Wonderlane, http://www.flickr.com/photos/wonderlane/

Image by Wonderlane, http://www.flickr.com/photos/wonderlane/, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

about the Bibles that will be used for the cermonies. According to an article from ABC News, Obama will be using three different Bibles. For a first, private ceremony, the day before the public inauguration, he’ll use the Robinson family Bible, which has been in the First Lady’s family since 1958. During the public celebration, he’ll swear his oath of office on two Bibles: the one used by Lincoln in 1861 and Martin Luther King’s personal travel Bible. How exactly a person can swear on two Bibles at once is a mystery.

Presidential Oaths on the Bible

George Washington was the first President to swear his oath of office on the Bible. The oath was administered by Robert Livingston, the Chancellor and Grand Master of Masons of the State of New York. It was sworn on a Bible used for Masonic ceremonies at the St. John’s Lodge in New York City. (Oath-taking is a big part of freemasonry. You can read Charles Finney’s condemnation of it here.) This Bible was again used for swearing in Harding, Eisenhower, Carter and George H.W. Bush. It was supposed to be used in 2001 for George W. Bush, but was not because of rain. There is no constitutional requirement that the President use a Bible to swear in, but it is a tradition from the founding. Most interesting is the case of President Franklin Pierce, who “affirmed,” and did not swear his oath of office on a law book, not a Bible. He was a reportedly devout Episcopalian and some sects within the Episcopalian camp objected to oath-taking. So the Constitution built in an option for those who objected to oaths, that they could solemnly “affirm” a commitment rather than swearing an oath.

Objections to Oaths on the Bible

In Matthew 5:34-37, Jesus teaches:

But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
(Mat 5:34-37 ESV)

And then in James 5:12, we read: “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. (Jam 5:12 ESV)

On the basis of these two scripture passages, several Christian groups have objected to oath-taking, as against the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. Notably, Mennonites and Quakers have objected to oath-taking on these grounds. The problem, suggested by both of these passages, is that oath-taking seems to imply a double standard for truth telling, even to hint that under regular circumstances one is not obliged to faithfully tell the truth.

In fact, in Leo XIII’s condemnation of Freemasonry, which forbids Catholics from becoming Masons, he highlights the objectionable oaths of Masons:

“Candidates are generally commanded to promise – nay, with a special oath, to swear – that they will never, to any person, at any time or in any way, make known the members, the passes, or the subjects discussed. Thus, with a fraudulent external appearance, and with a style of simulation which is always the same, the Freemasons, like the Manichees of old, strive, as far as possible, to conceal themselves, and to admit no witnesses but their own members.” (Humanum Genus, 1884)

Now, what do Catholics have to say about oaths, especially oaths on Bibles?

A Catholic View of Oath-Taking

Catholics have a lot of oaths. Married persons take vows at their weddings, religious persons profess vows in special ceremonies, priests take vows at their ordination ceremonies. In addition, Pope Pius X commanded that all priests take the “Oath Against Modernism.” Catholic theology teachers often take the “Oath of Fidelity” to promise to hold to Catholic teaching–interestingly, the Oath includes placing one’s hands on the Book of the Gospels. The Catholic Encyclopedia takes a rather sanguine view of oath-taking and describes its various forms.

Thomas Aquinas has quite a lot to say about oaths (ST II-II, q. 89). He teaches that is “in itself lawful and commendable.” In specific, he cites, Hebrews 6:16-17, “For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath” (Heb 6:16-17 ESV). From this example, we see a New Testament author mentioning oaths as a normal part of life, without condemnation. Also, the author to the Hebrews insists that God himself makes an oath, swearing by himself (see earlier in Hebrews 6 for context). Now, to the problem of the Bible passages I listed above (Matt 5:33-37 and James 5:12), Thomas quotes Jerome and Augustine:

Reply to Objection 1.Jerome, commenting on Matthew 5:34, says: “Observe that our Saviour forbade us to swear, not by God, but by heaven and earth. For it is known that the Jews have this most evil custom of swearing by the elements.” Yet this answer does not suffice, because James adds, “nor by any other oath.” Wherefore we must reply that, as Augustine states (De Mendacio xv), “when the Apostle employs an oath in his epistles, he shows how we are to understand the saying, ‘I say to you, not to swear at all’; lest, to wit, swearing lead us to swear easily and from swearing easily, we contract the habit, and, from swearing habitually, we fall into perjury. Hence we find that he swore only when writing, because thought brings caution and avoids hasty words.” (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 89, a. 2)

Augustine’s argument is rather weak. He argues that Scripture forbids something just to help us avoid the habit of it. I hope he wouldn’t say the same thing about murder or adultery! The Catechism of the Catholic Church does a better job explaining:

2154 Following St. Paul,83 The tradition of the Church has understood Jesus’ words as not excluding oaths made for grave and right reasons (for example, in court). “An oath, that is the invocation of the divine name as a witness to truth, cannot be taken unless in truth, in judgment, and in justice.”84

The citations in there are to 2 Cor 1:23, “But I call God to witness against me– it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth” (2Co 1:23 ESV), where Paul actually takes an oath in writing; and to Galatians 1:20, “(In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)” (Gal 1:20 ESV), where the same thing happens. The last citation is to the Code of Canon Law 1198, which has lots of rules concerning oaths. For example, an oath becomes non-binding if the thing sworn becomes evil.

So it seems, from a Catholic perspective, that oaths can only be sworn by God (e.g., “so help me God”) and can only be done for serious reasons. Oaths should not be taken lightly. Swearing an oath on the Gospels is part of an official Catholic ritual, so swearing oaths on Bibles does not seem objectionable. One must constantly keep in mind the gravity of the oath and one’s obligation to fulfill it.

Scripture and the Synod on the New Evangelization

I was pleased that the final propositions of the recently concluded Synod on the New Evangelization included something about Scripture. The first mention is in Proposition 9 where the Synod fathers recommend the composition of an instructional book for training evangelists. They propose that this book contain, “Systematic teaching on the kerygma in Scripture and Tradition of the Catholic Church.” The “kerygma” is a favorite word of the synod and it refers to the core message of the Gospel, the essential truth about the life of Jesus that ought to be proclaimed whenever the Gospel is proclaimed.

The synod’s Proposition 11 is all about Scripture:

Proposition 11 : NEW EVANGELIZATION AND THE PRAYERFUL READING OF SACRED SCRIPTURE
God has communicated himself to us in his Word made flesh. This divine Word, heard and celebrated in the Liturgy of the Church, particularly in the Eucharist, strengthens interiorly the faithful and renders them capable of authentic evangelical witness in daily life. The Synod Fathers desire that the divine word “be ever more fully at the heart of every ecclesial activity” (Verbum Domini, 1).
The gate to Sacred Scripture should be open to all believers. In the context of the New Evangelization every opportunity for the study of Sacred Scripture should be made available. The Scripture should permeate homilies, catechesis and every effort to pass on the faith. 
In consideration of the necessity of familiarity with the Word of God for the New Evangelization and for the spiritual growth of the faithful, the Synod encourages dioceses, parishes, small Christian communities to continue serious study of the Bible and Lectio Divina, the — the prayerful reading of the Scriptures (cf. Dei Verbum, 21-22).

These guidelines from the synod fathers are not necessarily surprising. Rather, they re-emphasize themes from recent magisterial documents on the Bible, explicitly citing Dei Verbum (of Vatican II fame) and Verbum Domini (the most recent post-synodal apostolic exhortation penned by Benedict XVI). The proposition highlights the connection between the “Word made flesh” and the Bible itself, emphasizing their identity and difference. The “divine Word” is the Scripture, yes, more so it is Jesus himself. In the context of the New Evangelization, the synod teaches here that Scripture strengthens the faithful and is an essential component in spiritual growth. Also, they emphasize the centrality of Scripture to the teaching and preaching that goes on in the life of the Church. And, just as if they were intending to warm a CatholicBibleStudent’s heart, they insist twice that study, and even serious study of Sacred Scripture should be part and parcel of what the Church does in her daily life and in promotion of the New Evangelization. The mention of “small Christian communities” is interesting. The phrase shows up here and in Proposition 42. I think it refers to any kind of small group that meets within a parish or movement, but I wonder if it is inspired by the kinds of ideas in a book by Stephen Clark called Building Christian CommunitiesThere’s a bit more about Catholic Small Chrisitian Communities on CatholicCulture.org. Lastly, the synod fathers recommend the prayerful reading of Scripture, Lectio Divina. Lectio Divina has been a consistent theme over the past few years in magisterial documents, most notably in in Verbum Domini. I hope that Catholics are able to take it to heart. I think though that since there is not an agreed upon structure for it apart from monastic traditions that it will be hard for most lay Catholics to practice. Some clear instructions on how to do it would be helpful. All in all, I’m happy the synod took time to talk about Scripture in its final propositions. We’ll see how much of this makes it into Benedict’s next post-synodal apostolic exhortation.

 

Noah’s Ark (in real life!)

For all you Genesis enthusiasts out there, a Dutchman by the name of Johan Huibers is building a giant life-size replica of Noah’s ark (or “Ark van Noach” in Dutch). It’s well worth taking time to scope out the photos on his website. Pretty soon, it should be open for tourist business. So next time you’re in Europe, maybe you could swing by and walk around inside. If you get  a chance, send me some pictures!

And, if you’d like, you can see the Today Show video on the boat:

If you can’t make it all the way to the land of wooden shoes, maybe you can pay a visit to the Bluegrass state to visit the Ark Encounter theme park with a life-size Noah’s Ark.

I’m not sure why there’s a surge in Ark-interest, but hey, whatever floats your boat!

Iran, Israel, “Myrtus”, Esther and a Worm

When the Iranians announced that a worm had got into their computers last week, I was a little surprised. I mean, most computers have hard plastic cases and are not usually placed in muddy puddles. But then I realized, “Oh, they meant a virus, a trojan a computer worm, not just any old worm.” With that cleared up, the NY Times released a related story yesterday which prompted some Catholic Bible Student interest. (In case you have not read about what happened–basically, a big ugly computer worm called “Stuxnet” infested the computers at Iran’s nuclear facilities.) Apparently, one of the files in the worm is entitled “Myrtus.” The NY Times intelligently relates how this title may be an allusion to the Book of Esther. This allusion may indicate that the Stuxnet worm is connected to the Israelis, specifically their cyberwarfare unit in their intelligence service. Unfortunately, the Times article does not get into explaining the exact connection between the word “Myrtus” and Esther until late in the article, except for saying it is connected to the myrtle plant. So what is the connection?

The NY Times tells us this:

Then there is the allusion to myrtus — which may be telling, or may be a red herring.

Several of the teams of computer security researchers who have been dissecting the software found a text string that suggests that the attackers named their project Myrtus. The guava fruit is part of the Myrtus family, and one of the code modules is identified as Guava.

It was Mr. Langner who first noted that Myrtus is an allusion to the Hebrew word for Esther. The Book of Esther tells the story of a Persian plot against the Jews, who attacked their enemies pre-emptively.

“If you read the Bible you can make a guess,” said Mr. Langner, in a telephone interview from Germany on Wednesday.

Carol Newsom, an Old Testament scholar at Emory University, confirmed the linguistic connection between the plant family and the Old Testament figure, noting that Queen Esther’s original name in Hebrew was Hadassah, which is similar to the Hebrew word for myrtle. Perhaps, she said, “someone was making a learned cross-linguistic wordplay.”

Ok, so that’s all fine, but let’s get into the details about this so-called allusion.

The word at issue is actually a Latin word. In the Latin Vulgate, the word only shows up in Isaiah 55:13 (“pro saliunca ascendet abies et pro urtica crescet myrtus et erit Dominus nominatus in signum aeternum quod non auferetur”).  The word in Hebrew here is “hadas”. In Latin, it is less common than the adjectival form, myrteus.  Here’s the dictionary entry from Lewis and Short’s Latin Dictionary, provided by Perseus Digital Library:

myrtus (murtus), i and ?s, f.,

I. a myrtle, myrtle-tree, Plin. 15, 29, 37, § 122: “viridi caput impedire myrto,Hor. C. 1, 4, 9.—Poet., for a spear of myrtle-wood: “et pastoralem praefix? cuspide myrtum,Verg. A. 7, 817.—Nom. plur. myrt?s, Verg. G. 2, 64.—As masc., Cato, R. R. 8.—Anteclass. also, myrta or murta , ae, f.: “murta nigra,Cato, R. R. 125.—Murtus for myrtus: “murti nigrae baccae,Scrib. Comp. 109.

A Latin Dictionary. Founded on Andrews’ edition of Freund’s Latin dictionary. revised, enlarged, and in great part rewritten by. Charlton T. Lewis, Ph.D. and. Charles Short, LL.D. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1879.

So that’s the word which shows up in the Stuxnet computer worm files. We have three more questions to answer. What does myrtle look like? How is the Latin word myrtus related to Esther? Why would an allusion to Esther indicate any kind of Israeli involvement?

1. I have attached a picture of myrtle to this post, courtesy of Wikipedia.Myrtus

2. The Latin word myrtus translates into Hebrew as “hadas”, which I stated above. This exact Hebrew form shows up only in Isaiah 55:13 and Nehemiah 8:15. Other forms of the same word occur in Isaiah 41:19 and Zechariah 1:8, 10 and 11. In every case, the word is translated as myrtle. But…where this gets interesting is that the name of Esther in Hebrew is “Hadassah”. The word only appears once in the Bible in Esther 2:7. The Bible is talking about Mordecai who “was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther.” Hadassah is her Hebrew name and “Esther” is her name in Persian. The Hebrew name, Hadassah, comes from the same root as the word for myrtle (hadas). So…by a long, circuitous, multi-langugage path, the word myrtus which is “hadas” in Hebrew, the basis for “Hadassah,” the Hebrew name for Esther, connects us to the biblical story of Esther.

3. Ok, great. We have traced the linguistic connections, but why Esther? Well, in Esther, the Jews beat the Persians. Esther and Mordecai are living in the capital of the Persian empire and are under attack by a certain high Persian official. Through a series of twisty-turny events, Esther and Mordecai avoid the persecutions of the official and win peace and prosperity for the Jews in the Persian empire. It is a story of the underdog overcoming a powerful foe. In addition, the Persian empire was the ancient version of Iran. Susa, the capital, was in modern-day Iran. Iranians speak the Persian language. And modern-day Iranians think of themselves as the heirs of the great Persian empire of ancient times.

So, the connection is rather apt, if a little obscure. Just as Esther subverted the power of the Persian empire in ancient times, so the Stuxnet worm is subverting the neo-Persian-Iranian empire in modern times.

Then there is the allusion to myrtus — which may be telling, or may be a red herring.

Several of the teams of computer security researchers who have been dissecting the software found a text string that suggests that the attackers named their project Myrtus. The guava fruit is part of the Myrtus family, and one of the code modules is identified as Guava.

It was Mr. Langner who first noted that Myrtus is an allusion to the Hebrew word for Esther. The Book of Esther tells the story of a Persian plot against the Jews, who attacked their enemies pre-emptively.

“If you read the Bible you can make a guess,” said Mr. Langner, in a telephone interview from Germany on Wednesday.

Carol Newsom, an Old Testament scholar at Emory University, confirmed the linguistic connection between the plant family and the Old Testament figure, noting that Queen Esther’s original name in Hebrew was Hadassah, which is similar to the Hebrew word for myrtle. Perhaps, she said, “someone was making a learned cross-linguistic wordplay.”

Then there is the allusion to myrtus — which may be telling, or may be a red herring.

Several of the teams of computer security researchers who have been dissecting the software found a text string that suggests that the attackers named their project Myrtus. The guava fruit is part of the Myrtus family, and one of the code modules is identified as Guava.

It was Mr. Langner who first noted that Myrtus is an allusion to the Hebrew word for Esther. The Book of Esther tells the story of a Persian plot against the Jews, who attacked their enemies pre-emptively.

“If you read the Bible you can make a guess,” said Mr. Langner, in a telephone interview from Germany on Wednesday.

Carol Newsom, an Old Testament scholar at Emory University, confirmed the linguistic connection between the plant family and the Old Testament figure, noting that Queen Esther’s original name in Hebrew was Hadassah, which is similar to the Hebrew word for myrtle. Perhaps, she said, “someone was making a learned cross-linguistic wordplay.”

Has anything really changed?

Global Climate Change is the new Apocalypse.
Health is the new salvation.
Doctors are the new healers.
Government is the new Savior.
News is the new Gospel.
Abortion is the new sacrament.
Professors are the new theologians.
Teachers are the new priests.
Activists are the new evangelists.
Chemical imbalances are the new demons.
Psychologists are the new exorcists.

All this progress is not really new at all, is it?