Let Your Yes Be Yes

By Fitzgerald, John T. | The Christian Century, July 28, 1999 | Go to article overview

Let Your Yes Be Yes


Fitzgerald, John T., The Christian Century


NOW THAT the President Clinton--Monica Lewinsky affair is off the front pages, it may be possible to comment on the moral and legal issue of perjury without arousing a host of partisan arguments. And it might be of interest to consider how perjury was defined in the ancient world of Greece and Israel and in New Testament times.

In the U.S. today perjury is usually restricted to false statements made under oath in judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings. To be guilty of perjury, one must give false testimony knowingly and willfully on a matter that is material to the judicial proceeding. That is, both intentionality and materiality are essential aspects of the crime. A person who unintentionally makes a false statement under oath, whether through ignorance of the truth or through an honest mistake, is not guilty of perjury. Nor is a person guilty of perjury if he deliberately makes false statements on matters that are unrelated to the judicial proceeding; to constitute perjury, the false testimony must be germane to the case. Finally, perjury today is primarily a matter of criminal law, not civil law. Individuals suspected of committing perjury may be charged and prosecuted by the state and, if convicted, punished by the state.

Ancient Greeks and Israelites had a quite different understanding of perjury. For them, perjury was above all a religious offense, not a legal one. Stated in terms of the Decalogue, perjury was a violation of the commandment not to take the name of the Lord in vain (Exod. 20:7), not a transgression of the injunction against bearing false testimony against one's neighbor (Exod. 20:16). The former commandment was understood to apply to all times and circumstances; the latter dealt above all with judicial proceedings.

In keeping with this distinction, witnesses in ancient Israelite and Greek trials were not usually placed under oath; indeed, there is no Old Testament text in which a witness is said to take an oath. Similarly, in ancient Athens most witnesses were not placed under oath, and prosecution for false testimony did not depend on whether a witness testified under oath or not. Those suspected of giving false testimony were, moreover, prosecuted by private citizens, for false testimony was viewed fundamentally as a civil offense, not a criminal one.

To swear in the ancient world was to invoke the gods as both the witnesses and guardians of an oath. A person's oaths could be either assertory or promissory--the former involving assertions about the past and the present, the latter containing pledges about the future. One could commit perjury in regard to both kinds of oaths--for failing to keep one's vows about the future as well as for making false assertions about the past and present. In modern America, by contrast, perjury is restricted to assertory oaths.

The perjurer's fundamental offense was not lying or failing to keep a promissory oath; it was the invocation of the god's name in connection with the lie or the unkept promise. Perjury was thus a matter of personal injury, and the gods were believed to punish perjurers in retaliation for the abuse of their name and honor. The precise penalty for perjury was never set but varied from god to god and from perjurer to perjurer. It ranged from woes of various kinds to death and could even involve punishment after death.

Indeed, postmortem punishment is mentioned in the Iliad (3.278-79), and the crime that merits it is perjury. …

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