Swearing by the Book: Oaths and the Rise of Scripture in the Roman Empire

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The rise of scriptures as the main source of authority was a major shift in the religious culture of the ancient Mediterranean. I examine this shift from the second century BCE to the sixth century CE through a study of the relationship between scriptures and oaths, a competing mode of religious authorization. The traditional perspective, expressed bath in Jewish Second Temple literature and in contemporary Greek culture, saw the covenant (defined as oaths which create adherence to a group) as the foundation of a group's law and/or scripture, and did not differentiate clearly between oath and covenant. After the first century BCE, however, Jewish and Christian writers frequently saw private oaths as challenging the group''s covenants, scriptures and laws and competing with them. I demonstrate two ways in which this perception was manifested : in the concern of Jewish and Christian writers about private «criminal oaths » , which subvert authorized scriptures ; and in the innovation in bath communities (of the third-fourth century CE) of the gesture of swearing on scriptures, physically expressing the foundation of private oaths in universal law. This innovation, though a uniquely Judaeo-Christian phenomenon, may have been part of a general trend in the Roman Empire towards the subordination of private oaths to universal law, as expressed in an earlier innovation : the swearing of all legal and official oaths by the name of the Emperor or his tyche.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-72
Number of pages19
JournalASDIWAL. Revue genevoise d'anthropologie et d'histoire des religions
StatePublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes


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