“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made…’”
In case you’re wondering, Jesus wasn’t quoting the Old Testament when he said that. At least not exactly.
Bible scholars think that this point in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount was instead a kind of colloquial summary of several Scriptures, lumped into a saying that Jesus’ hearers already recognized (i.e., “You have heard…”). The first part of his statement might have been a reference to the command of Leviticus 19:12, “Do not swear falsely by my name…” The second part is less obvious, but probably related to Psalm 50:14, “Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High.”
In light of this “creative paraphrasing” of Scripture, some question why Jesus opted to misquote the Old Testament here. Did he simply forget the exact phrasing? Was he unconcerned about textual accuracy, or implying that the original language was unreliable? Was he not quoting Scripture at all, but referencing some other source instead?
Given the context of his broader teaching here, that last option seems most likely. It’s very possible his phrasing quoted familiar rabbinical teachings rather than the Bible itself. That choice highlighted for listeners, at least subtly, how extra-biblical traditions had become so prevalent and revered they were often regarded on par with God’s Word—and used in place of the actual words of Scripture.
In essence, by quoting what his audience had been taught instead of what was accurate according to Old Testament texts, he may have been suggesting to his listeners, “What you’ve heard all your lives—and the way you’ve heard it—isn’t exactly what is true.”
Similar to religious leaders of ancient Israel, we modern Christians have had copious amounts of teaching between Jesus’ time and ours. One has to wonder where we too are susceptible to allowing our familiar, accepted traditions to overshadow God’s original truth.
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