Restoration Quarterly 42 (2000) 193-209.

       Copyright © 2000 by Restoration Quarterly, cited with permission.







             MATTHEW 15:3-6//MARK 7:9-13


                                      JON NELSON BAILEY

                                                  Dallas, TX


                                                I. Introduction


Religious vows are prominent in ancient Judaism. This study examines the

evidence that in the first-century CE a son could make a vow that would keep

him from honoring his parents as commanded in the fifth of the Ten

Commandments (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16). This practice, mentioned in Matt

15:3-6//Mark 7:9-13, had the effect of vowing away the fifth commandment.

The practice may have been rare and controversial, but it was a phenomenon that

could occur in ancient Judaism.

Since God required that vows be kept, problems arose when a vow was

made that violated the Torah. In this study, I trace the development of such vows

within Judaism and show that the NT bears witness to the practice by which a

person could make a vow that superseded requirements of the fifth command-

ment. I also show that such vows encountered opposition by the rabbis and

eventually became unthinkable for pious Jews by the time of the Babylonian



             II. Significant Terms

A vow is a promise made in a religious context, usually to God. Vows tend

to be promises to perform, or to abstain from, specific actions. In biblical and

rabbinic Hebrew, the most common terms for "vow" are the verb rdanA and the

noun rd,n,. The corresponding Aramaic terms are the verb rdan; and the noun rdan;.1

The most common Greek terms for "vow" are the verb eu@xomai and the noun


     1 F. Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old

Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1907; repr. 1981) 623-24 (hereinafter cited

BDB, Lexicon); M. Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and

Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature (New York: Judaica, 1903; repr. 1985) 879-80

(hereinafter cited Jastrow, Dictionary).



eu]xh<.2  A vow is a solemn promise or assertion directed toward God. Vows in

ancient Judaism can be divided into two basic types. The positive vow promises

to perform an act or to offer a gift or sacrifice as a votive offering. The negative

vow promises to abstain from something, imposing a prohibition on the one who

made the vow or others.3

Vows in ancient Judaism were closely related to oaths, and sometimes the

terms were used interchangeably. The common Hebrew terms are hfAUbw; "oath,"

and fbawA "swear, take an oath."4 The Greek terms are o@rkoj, "oath," and o]mnu<w,

swear, take an oath.”5 An oath is a solemn, formal calling upon God as witness

to the truth of words directed toward other human beings 6

Another important term is the Hebrew noun NBAr;qA.  In rabbinic Hebrew this

noun introduces a vow to abstain from something by declaring an object to have

the status of a consecrated offering as far as the one prohibited by the vow is

concerned. This usage is a development from biblical Hebrew in which the term

occurs frequently but simply to denote a literal "gift, offering, or sacrifice.”7 In


      2 H. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (9th ed., H. Jones and R.

McKenzie; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940) 739 (hereinafter cited LSJM,

Lexicon); W. Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early

Christian Literature (trans. W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, 2nd ed. rev. F. W. Gingrich

and F. W. Danker; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) 329 (hereinafter cited

BAGD, Lexicon); J. Hermann and H. Greeven, "eu@xomai," TDNT 2:775-808.

     3 "Vows and Vowing," Encyclopedia Judaica (ed. Cecil Roth; 16 vols.; New York:

Macmillan, 1971) 16:227-28; "Vow," Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period: 450

B.C.E. to 600 C.E. (ed. Jacob Neusner and William Scott Green; 2 vols.; New York:

Simon & Schuster/Macmillan, 1996) 661-62; "Vows and Oaths," The Oxford Dictionary

of the Jewish Religion (ed. R. Werblowsky and G. Wigoder (Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 1997) 716-17.

      4 BDB, Lexicon, 989-90; Jastrow, Dictionary, 1511, 1515.

      5 LSJM, Lexicon, 1223, 1252; BAGD, Lexicon, 565, 581; J. Schneider, "o]mnu<w,"

TDNT, 5:176-185; idem, "o!rkoj et al.," TDNT, 5:457-67.

     6 E. Klinger, "Vows and Oaths," The Encyclopedia of Religion (ed. Mircea Eliade;

15 vols.; New York: Macmillan, 1987) 15:301. In this study it will be evident that the

Jews often blurred the distinction between oaths and vows, especially in regard to vows

that negatively affected others.

     7 BDB, Lexicon, 898; Jastrow, Dictionary, 1411; J. Kuhlewein, Theological

Lexicon of the Old Testament (ed. E. Jenni and C. Westerman; trans. M. Biddle; 3 vols.

(Peabody: Hendrikson, 1997) 3:1164-69; R. Averbeck, New International

Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (ed. W. VanGemeren; 5 vols.; Grand

Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) 3:979-82. The noun occurs 80 times in the Hebrew Bible, with

40 of those occurrences in Leviticus. Both the noun and cognate verb are associated with

the Israelite concept of drawing near to God in worship by presenting a consecrated gift

as a sacrificial offering. While the law specified many gifts such as burnt offerings, grain

offerings, and peace offerings, it also was possible to vow voluntarily to God other gifts

from one's property. After the loss of the Temple, even the study of the Torah concerning




rabbinic literature it is used both as a designation for actual sacrificial offerings

and as a technical term that introduces a vow of abstinence from some object

consecrated to God. In rabbinic texts, to avoid use of the actual word for sacri-

ficial offering, the term commonly is replaced by the euphemism MnAOQ.8


III. The Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible indicates that vows were important in Israelite religion

from an early period.9 With a vow a person was placed under solemn obligation

to God to do something or to refrain from doing something. Vows were volun-

tary. Yet, once taken, they were to be fulfilled. The motive for vows was often

a desire to obtain divine favor. They regularly have the form "If God does

something for me, then I will do something for God." Except for the Nazirite

vow, negative vows or vows of abstinence are rare in the Hebrew Bible. Vows

intended to affect others negatively are even less common.

A few examples will demonstrate the importance of positive vows in the

Hebrew Bible.10  Jacob vowed that if God would keep him safe, fed, and clothed

until he returned, he would make the pillar at Bethel into a sanctuary and pay

tithes (Gen 28:20-22; 31:13). The people of Israel vowed that if God would give

them the land of Canaan, they would destroy its cities (Num 21:2). Jephthah

vowed that if God would bring him home victorious, he would offer as a

sacrifice whatever first came out of his house when he returned (Judg 11:30-40).

Hannah vowed that if God would give her a son, she would dedicate him to God

(1 Sam 1: 11). In addition, the Psalms include many texts associated with making

and fulfilling vows (Pss 22:22-31; 50:14-15; 56:12-13; 61:8; 65:1; 66:13-20;


Much of the information concerning vows is in the Pentateuch. Everything

offered in fulfillment of a vow was to be of the highest quality (Lev 22:17-25).

The vow of valuation allowed one person to vow another person, an animal, a

building, or a portion of land, but then redeem what had been vowed by paying


sacrifice was considered an offering to God.

      8 Jastrow, Dictionary, 1335.

      9 The text of the Hebrew Bible used for this study is the Hebrew-Aramaic text of

E. Elliger and W. Rudolph, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibel-

stiftung, 1977), and the Greek text of Alfred Rahlfs, Septuaginta (Stuttgart: Deutsche

Bibelgesellschaft, 1935). English quotations are taken from The New Oxford Annotated

Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books: New Revised Standard Version (ed.

B. Metzger and R. Murphy; New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

     10 F. W. Cartledge, "Vow," The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (rev.

G. W. Bromiley; 4 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979-1988) 4:998-999; idem, Vows

in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East (JSOT Supplement Series 147; Sheffield:

JSOT Press, 1992).


196                             RESTORATION QUARTERLY


what it was worth to the priests (Lev 27:1-33). Whether made by a man or a

woman, vows were absolutely binding (Num 30:1-2). However, a vow made by

an unmarried woman could be annulled the same day by her father, and a vow

made by a married woman could be annulled the same day by her husband (Num

30:3-16). Vows were to be fulfilled at the place God chose: the temple in

Jerusalem (Deut 12:6-18). Payment of a vow was not to be made with money

obtained by immoral means (Deut 23:18); and even though vows were voluntary,

they were most serious:

            If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not postpone fulfilling it; for

the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you would incur

guilt. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not incur guilt. Whatever

your lips utter you must diligently perform, just as you have freely vowed

to the LORD your God with your own mouth (Deut 23:21-23).


       The most notable vow of abstinence is the Nazirite vow. It required a person

to abstain from grape products, from cutting the hair, and from contact with the

dead (Num 6:1-21; Judg 13:4-5; 1 Sam 1:11; Amos 2:11-12). Another negative

vow is the vow made by David that he would not enter his house, go to bed, or

sleep until he had found a place for God's house (Ps 132:1-5). Also worth

considering is an oath imposed by Saul upon Israel (1 Sam 14:24-45), when Saul

laid an oath on the people, saying, "Cursed be anyone who eats food before it is

evening" (1 Sam 14:24).

Later passages suggest that vows created practical difficulties and conflicts

with the Law. Vows resulted in promises people failed to fulfill (Mal 1:14). The

author of Ecclesiastes advises: "When you make a vow to God, do not delay

fulfilling it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Fulfill what you vow. It is better that

you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it" (Eccl 5:4-5).

Similarly, the book of Sirach teaches: "Let nothing hinder you from paying a

vow promptly, and do not wait until death to be released from it. Before making

a vow, prepare yourself; do not be like one who puts the Lord to the test" (Sir



IV. Qumran

The most relevant source from Qumran is the Damascus Document (CD).11

Two incomplete medieval copies of this document were discovered in an old

Cairo synagogue in 1896. Extensive fragments of the document were later found


      11 The text used for this study is The Dead Sea Scrolls: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek

Texts with English Translations (ed. J. Charlesworth; 10 vols.; Louisville: Westminster/

John Knox, 1994-) vol. 2: Damascus Document, War Scroll, and Related Documents.

English quotations are from The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (ed. G. Vermes;

New York: Penguin, 1997).



in Caves 4, 5, and 6 at Qumran. The oldest fragments date from the early first

century BCE. The most important text for this study begins at CD 16:6 and

continues to CD 9:1.12

And concerning the saying, "You shall keep your vow by fulfilling it (Deut

23:24),"  let no man, even at the price of death, annul any binding oath by

which he has sworn  to keep a commandment of the Law. But even at the

price of death, a man shall fulfill no vow by which he has sworn to depart

from the Law. Inasmuch as He said, "It is for her husband to cancel her

oath (Num 30:9)," no husband shall cancel an oath without knowing

whether it should be kept or not. Should it be such as to lead  to transgression

of the Covenant, he shall cancel it and shall not let it be kept.

The rule for her father is likewise. No man shall vow to the altar anything

unlawfully acquired. Also, no Priest shall take from Israel anything

unlawfully acquired. And no man shall consecrate the food of his house to

God, for it is as he said, "Each hunts his brother with a net (Mic 7:2)." Let

no man consecrate.... And if he has consecrated to God some of his own

field ... he who has made the vow shall be punished.... Every vow by which

a man vows another to destruction by the laws of the Gentiles shall himself

be put to death.


            This passage emphasizes the solemn nature of oaths and vows. It allows for

annulment of vows of women that violate the law. It prohibits vows that dedicate

wrongfully acquired property. It forbids vowing or consecrating personal

property to affect others negatively. And it condemns the practice of vowing

another person to destruction. The entire passage is based on Deut 23:21-23

(Matt 23:22-24) and Num 30:2-15 (Matt 30:3-16). However, the texts from the

Hebrew Bible have been paraphrased, and the terms for oath and vow are used

interchangeably. In addition, CD 16:6-18 uses Mr,He ("something consecrated,

dedicated, removed from profane use, vow"), hbAdAn; ("freewill-offering, dona-

tion"), wDeqi ("sanctify, consecrate, dedicate"), MUq ("swear, vow"), hfAUbw;

("oath"), and fbawA ("swear, take an oath").13

The text upholds the inviolability of the Law, requiring individuals to pay

the price of death rather than transgress a commandment. The text does address

the annulment of oaths and vows made by women, but any such annulment is

limited only to oaths or vows that violate the community's covenant. Significant

for this study are the admonitions concerning unacceptable vows, particularly the

ruling "No man shall consecrate the food of his house to God, for it is as he said,


       12 D. Dimant, "Qumran Sectarian Literature," Jewish Writings of the Second Temple

Period: Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Qumran Sectarian Writings, Philo, Josephus (ed.

M. Stone; CRINT; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 490-97. Manuscript evidence from

Qumran indicates that CD 16 originally was followed by CD 9. See Charlesworth and


      13 BDB, Lexicon, 355, 356, 21,872, 873; Jastrow, Dictionary, 503, 504, 877, 1319,



198                             RESTORATION QUARTERLY


‘Each hunts his brother with a net’ (Mic 7:2).” The prohibition is supported by

a quotation from Mic 7:2:  Mr,He UdUcyA Uhyfere tx, wyxi. In CD 16:15, the noun

Mr,He should be understood as "something consecrated, dedicated; vow;" rather

than the homonym meaning "trap, net, snare." According to Fitzmyer, the text

forbids "the dedication of any food to God so that it might not be used to help

one's neighbor."


V. Philo

Philo of Alexandria, who lived from about 20 BCE to 50 CE, provides still

another link in the tradition concerning vows.15  He regularly uses eu]xh< and

eu@xomai for "vow."16  His most extensive treatment of vows occurs in On the

Special Laws. In 1.247-54 he discusses the `great vow' of the Nazirite. In

2.1-38 he discusses rash oaths and vows, oaths and vows of women, and vows

of valuation, all under the category eu]orki<a, "fidelity to one's oath, the duty of

keeping oaths."17  In 2.16 he comments on people who make oaths that negatively

affect others. Here Philo uses o!rkoj, "oath," rather than eu]xh<, "vow." But he

often uses the terms interchangeably, and his statements in this text show how

negative oaths or vows affecting others could be made by Jews in his time

contrary to the law or good moral judgment:

But there are some who, either because through excessive moroseness their

nature has lost the sense of compassion and fellow-feeling or because they

are constrained by anger which rules them like a stern mistress, confirm the

savagery of their temper with an oath. They declare that they will not admit

such and such a person to their board or under their roof, or again, that they

will not render assistance to so and so or accept anything from him till his

life's end. Sometimes they carry on their vindictiveness after that end has

come and leave directions in their wills against even granting the customary

rites to the corpse.


Although the practice was not considered acceptable by Philo, this example

provides evidence that oaths, and probably also vows, were used by Jews in his


    14 J. Fitzmyer, "The Use of Explicit Old Testament Quotations in Qumran Literature

and in the New Testament," New Testament Studies 7 (1961) 323. See also L. Schiffman,

"The Laws of Vows and Oaths in the Zadokite Fragments and the Temple Scroll," Revue

de Qumran 15 (1991-1992) 199-214.

     15 The Greek and English texts used for this study are from F. H. Colson, G. H.

Whitaker, and R. Marcus, Philo (Loeb Classical Library, 10 vols.; Cambridge: Harvard

University Press, 1929-1962).

     16 Philo, Allegorical Interpretation 1.17; 2.63; On the Unchangeableness of God 87;

On Husbandry 175; On Drunkenness 2; On Mating with the Preliminary Studies 99; On

Flight and Finding 115; Life of Moses 1.252; On the Decalogue 126; et al. See also

Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 8.7.

     17 LSJM, Lexicon, 725.




day to prohibit individuals from receiving any assistance from the one who made

the oath or vow.


VI. Archaeological Evidence

Two archaeological discoveries provide valuable information regarding the

Jewish practice of making vows during the Second Temple period. In each case

the term Nbrq was used to deny others the use of something by declaring an

object to have the status of a consecrated offering.

The first discovery is a fragment of a stone vessel recovered from an

excavation of a first-century-BCE Herodian street near the Temple in Jerusalem.18

The vessel, found among coins and other vessels, bears the inscription Nbrq,

most likely representing the Hebrew noun NBAr;qA. Along with this inscription is

a carved depiction of two birdlike figures, suggesting some connection with the

offering of two doves or pigeons (Lev 12:8). The vessel's inscription and its

discovery along with coins indicate that its use was similar to the practice

debated in the following passage from the Mishnah:

Any coins that are found are deemed unconsecrated, even if it was a golden

denar found with silver coins. If a potsherd was found with them and on it

was written ‘Tithe,’ they must be deemed (Second) Tithe (redemption

money). If a man found a vessel and on it was written "Korban," R. Judah

says: If it was of earthenware the vessel is to be deemed unconsecrated but

its contents Korban; and if it was of metal it is to be deemed Korban but its

contents unconsecrated. They said to him: It is not the way of men to put

what is unconsecrated into what is Korban (m. Ma 'aser Sheni 4:9-10).19


The second discovery is an ossuary found southeast of Jerusalem.20 On the

ossuary lid, written in a Herodian script from the end of the first century BCE, is

the Aramaic inscription: hvgbd Nm Nbrq hd FtlHb hnhtm wnx yd lk

hlx  ("Everything that a man will find to his profit in this ossuary (is) an offering

to God from the one within it)."21 According to Milik, NBar;qA is used as a male-

diction or imprecation toward others." Fitzmyer claims the term still means

"offering," but is used here as "a warning that whatever of value is in the ossuary


     18 B. Mazar, "The Excavations South and West of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem:

The Herodian Period," Biblical Archaeologist 33 (1970) 55.

     19 H. Danby, The Mishnah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933).

     20 J. Milik, "Trois tombeaux juifs recemment decouverts au Sud-Est de Jerusalem,"

Studii Biblici Franciscani Liber Annuus 7 (1956-1957) 232-39; J. A. Fitzmyer, "The

Aramaic Qorban Inscription from Jebel Hallet et-Turf and Mark 7.11 /Matt 15.5," JBL

78 (1959) 60-65. See also J. A. Fitzmyer and D. J. Harrington, A Manual of Palestinian

Aramaic Texts (Rome: Biblical Institute, 1978) 168-69, 222-23.

     21 Fitzmyer and Harrington, A Manual of Palestinian Aramaic Texts, 168-69.

     22 Milik, "Trois tombeaux juifs," 235, 238, 239.


200                             RESTORATION QUARTERLY


has been dedicated to God and is not intended for any profane use."23

Significantly, the term NBar;qA, did not transfer the ossuary or its contents to the

temple. Rather, this vow formula was used simply to declare something to be

sacred and thus prohibit others from using it or obtaining benefit from it in any



VII. The New Testament

The practice of vowing is not common in the NT.24 The verb eu@xomai is

not used meaning "vow," but only "pray" or "wish" (Acts 26:29; 27:29; Rom 9:3;

2 Cor 13:7, 9; Jas 5:16; 3 John 2). The noun eu]xh< is used once meaning "prayer"

(Jas 5:15) and twice meaning "vow" (Acts 18:18; 21:23).25 References to oaths

are more common. The noun o@rkoj, "oath," occurs ten times, and the verb

o]mnu<j, "swear, take an oath," occurs twenty-six times.26  Most significantly, with

the exception of oaths made by God or an angel, swearing of oaths is always

portrayed in the NT as an undesirable act. Other significant terms include

a]na<qema ("anything dedicated, a curse") and a]naqemati<zw ("curse, bind with

an oath").27

The one clear NT example of a negative vow forbidding the use of some-

thing by others is in Matt 15:3-6 and Mark 7:9-13. Here Jesus speaks to some

Pharisees about a conflict between their oral tradition and the Scriptures. The key

sentence occurs in Matt 15:5 and Mark 7:11-12. It describes a practice by which

a son could make a vow prohibiting his parents from receiving any benefit from

him, thus exempting him from honoring them with material support. This

violated not only the commandment to honor one's parents (Exod 20:12; Deut

5:16) but also the commandment not to speak evil of one's parents (Exod 21:17;

Lev 20:9). According to both Matthew and Mark, Jesus accused the Pharisees

of upholding the validity of such a vow that would prevent a person from doing

anything for his parents.


     23 Fitzmyer and Harrington, A Manual of Palestinian Aramaic Texts, 222.

     24 The Greek text used for this study is The Greek New Testament (4th ed., B. Aland,

K. Aland, J. Karavidopolous, C. Martini, and B. Metzger; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibel-

geselschaft, 1993). English quotations are from The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the

Apocryphal Deuterocanonical Books: New Revised Standard Version, ed. B. Metzger and

R. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

     25 BAGD, Lexicon, 329.

     26 BAGD, Lexicon, 565, 566, 581. See also: e]norki<zw, "cause someone to swear";

e]corki<zw "charge under oath"; and o]rki<cw, "cause someone to swear"; o]rkwmosi<a,

"oath, taking an oath."

     27 LSJM, Lexicon, 104-5; BAGD, Lexicon, 54. See Acts 23:12; Rom 9:3.




Matt 15:3-6                                                   Mark 7:9-13

3) He answered them, "And why                  9) Then he said to them, "You have a

do you break the commandment                  fine way of rejecting the

of God for the sake of your                          commandment of God in order to

tradition?                                                        keep your tradition!

4) For God said, ‘Honor your                      10) For Moses said, ‘Honor your

father and your mother,’ and                        father and your mother,’ and

‘Whoever speaks evil of father or               Whoever speaks evil of father or

mother must surely die.’                               mother must surely die.’

5) But you say that whoever tells                 11) But you say that if anyone tells

father or mother, ‘Whatever                         father or mother, ‘Whatever support

support you might have had from                 you might have had from me is

me is given to God,’                                      Corban’ (that is, an offering to

then that person need not honor                   God)--

the father.                                                       12) then you no longer permit doing

6) So, for the sake of your                           anything for a father or mother,

tradition, you make void the word              13) thus making void the word of God

of God."                                                          through your tradition that you have

handed on. And you do many things

like this."


According to Mark 7:11, the vow was introduced by the formula "Whatever

support you might have had from me is Corban." The term korba?n is simply a

transliteration of the Hebrew NBar;qA or the Aramaic NBar;qA.  Mark explains this term

with the clause o! e]stin dw?ron, "that is, an offering to God."28  Matthew simply

has the translation dw?ron. Thus NBar;qA or NBar;qA was understood in the first

century CE to mean "gift, offering" while also functioning as a technical term in

a vow formula that prohibited others from deriving benefit from that which was


Scholars are divided over whether a vow formula like the one preserved in

Mark 7:11 actually dedicated the designated object to the temple or simply

declared the object to have the status of consecrated property as far as certain

individuals were concerned.29  Derrett has argued that the person who made the

vow could not continue to use the property, but was required to give the property


     28 BAGD, Lexicon, 210-11.

     29 S. Zeitlin, "Korban," Jewish Quarterly Review 33 (1962) 160-63; G. W.

Buchanan, "Some Vow and Oath Formulas in the New Testament," HTR 58 (1965)



202                             RESTORATION QUARTERLY


or its value to the Temple.30  However, Derrett's argument is based entirely on

later rabbinic rulings concerning vows of valuation and does not consider earlier


In an age when the Temple still stood, the formula may well have been

used to dedicate property that would subsequently be given as an offering to God.

Yet the previous evidence examined in this study suggests that the formula was

also used to prohibit others from using something by declaring it consecrated as

far as they were concerned. The person who made the vow could retain possession

of the property as before, and only those toward whom the vow had been

directed could have no further use of it. Still, the effectiveness of this vow was

based on the belief that such a declaration gave objects consecrated status, even

if only with limited application.31

However, would the Pharisees actually have upheld a vow that violated the

Law of Moses? For scholars such as E. P. Sanders, this would not have been

possible. At least not as it is portrayed in the Gospels. According to Sanders,

even if some odd Pharisee may have done this at some time, the Pharisees as a

whole were not guilty of teaching people to act in this way. Instead, according

to Sanders, most Pharisees would have condemned the practice just as Jesus did.

Thus the story preserved by Matthew and Mark must be considered part of the

anti-Jewish or anti-Pharisaical polemic of the early church and not dependable

evidence for an accepted practice within the tradition of the Pharisees in the first-

century CE.32

In response to Sanders, it must be pointed out that his claim is based on the

presupposition that the teaching of the Pharisees is preserved in later rabbinic

texts. However, the tradition passed on by the Pharisees was not identical with

that of the later rabbis, but underwent considerable development.33  One area in

which such development occurred was the tradition concerning vows. As Saul

Lieberman has shown, the practice of making all kinds of oaths and vows


    30 J. D. M. Derrett, "KORBAN, O ESTIN DWRON," NTS 16 (1970) 364-68.

    31 J. Hart, "Corban," Jewish Quarterly Review 19 (1907) 615-50; H. Strack and

P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum neuen Testament aus Talmud and Midrasch (4 vols.;

Munich: C. H. Beck, 1922-1928), vol. 1: Das Evangelium nach Matthaus, 711-17;

Z. Falk, "On Talmudic Vows," HTR 59 (1966) 310; K. Rengstorf, "korba?n, korbana?j,"

TDNT 3:862-63.

     32 E. P. Sanders, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah (Philadelphia: Trinity Press

International, 1990) 55-57; idem, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin,

1993) 218-19.

    33 J Neusner, The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees before 70 (3 vols.;

Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970); E. Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of

Jesus Christ (rev. and ed. G. Vermes et al.; 3 vols.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1973-1987)





presented a constant challenge to rabbis in the formative period of Judaism.34

Albert Baumgarten has argued very convincingly that the Pharisees of the first-

century CE probably taught that only a limited number of vows could be released

and that they probably would have required a son to fulfill a vow even like the

one recorded in the Gospels."

The vow described by Jesus may have been due to anger, selfishness, or

even misguided religious zeal. However, to uphold the sacredness of vows, the

Pharisees were apparently bound by oral tradition to enforce and not annul such

a vow.

VIII. Josephus

The writings of the Jewish author Josephus contain two passages that include

korba?n, a transliteration of either the Hebrew noun NBar;qA or the Aramaic noun

NBar;qA similar to Mark 7:11.36  In Antiquities 4.73, Josephus says that the term

korba?n was used as a vow by those who declared themselves a "gift," dw?ron,

for God, apparently referring to the vow of valuation (Lev 27:1-33). In Against

Apion 1.167, he reports that according to Theophrastus the use of korba?n as an

"oath"(o!rkoj) was forbidden by the people of Tyre. Josephus then comments:

"Now this oath will be found in no other nation except the Jews, and, translated

from the Hebrew, one may interpret it as meaning ‘God's gift.’”  Josephus's

translation "God's gift," dw?ron qeou?, confirms that the idea of an offering or

consecration of something to God was still behind the formulaic use of the term

in the first century CE.

IX. The Mishnah

The Mishnah treats oaths and vows at length.37  Although primarily

informative regarding the time of its completion around 200 CE, the Mishnah

also provides some insight into earlier development of Jewish law. The rulings

on vows before 70 CE dealt with the invalid nature of vows made in error or

under constraint. From 70-140 CE, general principles for abrogating vows were


     34 S. Lieberman, Greek in Jewish Palestine: Studies in the Life and Manners of

Jewish Palestine in II-IV Centuries C. E. (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of

America, 1942) 115-43.

     35 A. Baumgarten, "Korban and the Pharisaic Paradosis," Journal of the Ancient

Near Eastern Society 16 (1984) 5-17.

     36 The Greek text and English translation used for this study are from Josephus

(Thackeray, LCL).

     37 The Hebrew/Aramaic text of the Mishnah used for this study is Shishah Sidrei

Mishnah (ed. C. Albeck; 6 vols.; Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1959), with comparison of Mishnayoth

(2d ed.; ed. P. Blackman; 7 vols.; New York: Judaica, 1963-1964). English quotations are

from the Mishnah (ed. H. Danby; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933).


204                             RESTORATION QUARTERLY


worked out. After 140 CE, the language of vows was subjected to greater

clarification. The general trend was to restrict frivolous vows and to annul

unacceptable ones.38

The main treatment of oaths is found in tractate Sebu’oth ("Oaths").39  The

most extensive treatment of vows is found in tractates Nazir ("Nazirite Vow"),

Arakin ("Vows of Valuation"), and especially Nedarim ("Vows").40  According

to Neusner, the predominate concern of the tractate Nedarim is "the power of a

person to affect his or her concrete and material relationships with other people

through invoking the name of heaven."41  In this tractate, the rabbis attempt to

regulate the practice of vowing, to prevent improper vows, and to provide for

release from harmful or unjust vows because "vows will be taken primarily

under emotional duress and express impatience and frustration. They are not

predictable and never follow upon a period of sober reflection."42

The passages in the Mishnah of primary interest for this study are those that

deal with negative vows, or vows of abstinence or prohibition. Many of these

passages use NBar;qA.43 Even more frequent is the euphemism MnAOq.44 The following

passages from the Mishnah are significant because they include the use of these

terms in negative vows, or vows of abstinence intended to prohibit the use of

something by someone other than the person who made the vow:

(If a man said to his fellow,) "May I be to thee as a thing that is banned!" he

against whom the vow is made is forbidden (to have any benefit from him);

(if he said,) "Be thou to me as a thing that is banned!" he that makes the

vow is forbidden (to have any benefit from the other); (if he said,) "May I

be to thee and thou to me (as a thing  that is banned)," then each is

forbidden (to have any benefit from the other). (m. Nedarim 5:4)


     38 J. Neusner, Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (Chicago: University of

Chicago Press, 1981) 59, 61, 93.

     39 See also m. Seqal. 2:1; m. Ketub. 8:5; 9.2; 10:5; 13:1-4; m. Ned. 1:1, 2; 2:1, 2, 3;

3:4; m. Git. 4:3; 5:3, 4; m. Kidd. 1:5; m. B. Qam. 9:5; 10:3; m. Baba Mezi'a 1:1, 2; 3:1,

2; 4:7; 6:8; 7:8; 8.2; 9:12; m. Sanh. 3:2.

     40 See also m. Sebu. 9:7; m. Ter. 1:3; m. Hal. 1:2; m. Sabb. 24:5; m. 'Erub. 3:1; m.

Meg. 1:6,7; m. Wed Qat. 3:1, 2; m. Hag. 1:8; m. Yebam. 2:10; 13:13; m. Ketub. 7:6; m.

Git. 4.-3; m. Qidd. 2:5; m. Sanh. 3:2; 7:6; m. Menah. 12:2; m. Hul. 8:1; m. 'Arak. 5:1; m.

Nid. 5:6.

      41 Jacob Neusner, Nedarim, Nazir, vol. 3, A Histony of the Mishnaic Law of Women

(5 vols.; Leiden: Brill, 1980) 4.

    42 Neusner, Nedarim, Nazir, 5.

    43 m. Nedarim 1:2-4; 2:2, 5; 9:7; 11:5; m. Nazir 2:1-3; m. Ma'aser Sheni 4:10.

     44 m. Nedarim 1:2, 4; 2:1-2, 5; 3:1-4, 11; 4:6; 5:3; 6:1-4, 7, 10; 7:3, 6-8; 9:2-3,

7-10; 11:1-4, 6, 11; m. Gittin 4:7; m. Baba Kamma 9:10; m. Sebu'oth 3:4.



If a man was forbidden by vow to have any benefit from his fellow, and he

had naught to eat, his fellow may give (the food) to another as a gift, and

the first is permitted to use it. It once happened that a man at Beth Horon,

whose father was forbidden by vow to have any benefit from him, was

giving his son in marriage, and he said to his fellow, "The courtyard and the

banquet are given to thee as a gift, but they are thine only that my father

may come and eat with us at the banquet." His fellow said, "If they are

mine, they are dedicated to Heaven." The other answered, "I did not give

thee what is mine that thou shouldst dedicate it to Heaven." His fellow said,

"Thou didst give me what is thine only that thou and thy father might eat

and drink and be reconciled one with the other, and that the sin should rest

on his head!" (m. Nedarim 5:6)

So, too, if a man said to his fellow, "Konam be the benefit thou hast from

me if thou come not and give my son a kor of wheat and two jars of wine!"

R. Meir says: The vow is binding until he gives (him them). But the Sages

say: He, too, may break his vow without recourse to a Sage, and he can say

to his fellow, "Lo, it is as though I had already received them.." (m.

Nedarim 8:7)

R. Ehezer says: They may open for men the way (to repentance) by reason

of the honour due to father and mother. But the Sages forbid it. R. Zadok

said: Rather than open the way for a man by reason of the honour due to

father and mother, they should open the way for him by reason of the

honour due to God; but if so, there could be no vows. But the Sages agree

with R. Eliezer that in a matter between a man and his father and mother,

the way may be opened to him by reason of the honour due to his father and

mother. (m. Nedarim 9:1)

If a man said to his son, "Konam be any benefit thou hast of mine!" and he

died, the son may inherit from him; (but if moreover he said) "both during

my life and at my death!" when he dies the son may not inherit from him

and he must restore (what he had received from his father at any time) to

the father's sons or brothers; and if he has naught (wherewith to repay) he

must borrow, and the creditors come and exact payment. (m. Baba Kamma


The preceding passages demonstrate that at the time of the Mishnah

negative vows could affect other people, even spouses, parents, or children. Some

vows were declared with the intent of denying benefit to others. The most

significant texts are m. Ned. 9:1 and m. B. Qamma. 9:10. In m. Ned. 9:1, in spite

of debate, the Sages agreed "in a matter between one and his father and his

mother," a son could be released from a vow "by reason of the honor due to his

father and his mother." A vow such as that described in Mark 7:11 was a vow that

could be annulled. This is a change from the situation in Mark 7:12, where Jewish

teachers would not permit one who made such a vow to do anything for his

parents. And in m. Baba Kamma 9:10, it is the father who declares MnAOq any

benefit that his son might have from him. It was possible for a son to vow away

obligations toward his parents, but the rabbis of the Mishnah would declare such

a vow voidable. As Z. W. Falk observed, "had the son approached them, they

206                             RESTORATION QUARTERLY


would have taught him to annul his vow and abide by the rules of filial duty."45

Still, the Mishnah considers rules of release from vows to "hover in the air and

have naught to support them" (m. Hagigah 1:8).46

Sometimes, he says, when money-lenders fell in with stubborn debtors who

were able but not willing to pay their debts, they consecrated what was due

to the account of the poor, for whom money was cast into the treasury by

each of those who wished to give a portion of their goods to the poor

according to their ability. They, therefore, said sometimes to their debtors

in their own tongue, "That which you owe to me is Corban," that is, a gift,

"for I have consecrated it to the poor, to the account of piety towards God."

Then the debtor, as no longer in debt to men but to God and to piety

towards God, was shut up, as it were, even though unwilling, to payment of

the debt, no longer to the money-lender, but now to God for the account of

the poor, in the name of the money-lender. (Commentary on Matthew 11.9)


X. The Yerushalmi

The Yerushalmi, also known as the Palestinian Talmud or Talmud of the

Land of Israel, is the next significant source for this study.47 Completed around

400 CE, it contains a systematic exegesis of thirty-nine of the Mishnah's sixty-

two tractates.48 The Yerushalmi contains numerous stories concerning the sages

and how they found grounds for absolving vows. Some passages speak of oaths


     45 Falk, "On Talmudic Vows," 311.

     46 Origen was a contemporary of the Mishnah's redactors and appears to have had

firsthand knowledge about Jewish teaching of the time. For information on Origen and

his knowledge of Judaism, see J. Danidiou, Origen (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1955);

C. Kannengiesser and W. L. Petersen, eds., Origen ofAlexandria: His World and His

Legacy (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1988); H. Crouzet, Origen

(San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989. Origen preserves the following explanation of

korba?n, which he learned from a Jew. The translation is from A. Roberts and J. Donaldson,

The Ante-Nicene Fathers (rev. A. C. Coxe, 10 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,


     47 The Hebrew/Aramaic text of the Yerushalmi used for this study is from Talmud

Yerushalmi, (7 vols.; New York: M. P., 1976). English quotations are taken from

J. Neusner, ed., The Talmud of the Land of Israel (35 vols.; Chicago: University of

Chicago Press, 1982-1986). There were other compilations of Jewish law produced

between the Mishnah and Yerushalmi. The work m. Aboth, compiled around 250 CE,

contains only two brief references to vows (3:14; 4:18), neither of which concerns

negative vows. The Tosefta, compiled around 300 CE, omits much of the Mishnah's

discussion of negative vows, especially expletive vows. Of the Mishnaic texts discussed

previously, the Tosefta does not include m. Nedarim 5:6 and 9:1 and includes only a

small portion of m. Nedarim 8:7.

     48 J Neusner, Judaism in Society: The Evidence of the Yerushalmi (Chicago: Univer-

sity of Chicago Press, 1983), x-xi; idem, The Oral Torah: The Sacred Books of Judaism

(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986) 73.




and vows interchangeably (y. Ned. 1:1 VI; 5:4 IV; 9:1 V). Other passages dis-

tinguish oaths from vows by claiming that only vows were capable of being

absolved by the rabbis (y. Ned. 11: 1 II). According to Jacob Neusner, what is

important is that "in its account of the public conduct of the rabbis, the Talmud

provides ample evidence that rabbis found grounds for absolution of vows and

told people about them."49

The Yerushalmi discusses m. Ned. 5:4; 5:6; and 8:7, but it provides no

additional information. It treats m. Ned. 9:1 more thoroughly, including some

material found only here in rabbinic literature. In particular, y. Ned. 9:1 I-IV

contains various rulings on the proper grounds for release from vows.

Immediately afterward y. Ned. 9:1 V attempts to explain what the rabbis of the

Mishnah must have meant in m. Ned. 9:1 in the matter between a son and his


How shall we interpret the matter? If he says, "Benefit deriving from me is

forbidden to father," then we must invoke that which was said by R. Jacob

bar Aha, R. Samuel bar Nahman in the name of R. Jonathan: "They force

the son to provide maintenance for the father." But thus we must interpret

the matter: It is a case in which he has said, "Benefit deriving from father is

prohibited to me."

The rabbis of the Yerushalmi record an interpretation that the son had made a

vow forbidding his father from receiving "benefit" (hyyAnAHE), the financial support

due to his parents.50  But they conclude this could not be the correct meaning of

the Mishnah. The command to "honor" one's parents was sufficient reason to

absolve the vow and force the son to provide for his father. Therefore, they

explain the text to mean that the son had vowed not to receive any benefit from

his father.

XI. The Bavli

The Bavli, also called the Babylonian Talmud, dates from 500-600 CE.51

Like the Yerushalmi, the Bavli provides an exposition of over half the Mishnah.

In addition to organizing the work around the structure of the Mishnah, the

compilers of the Bavli produced a synthesis of all rabbinic literature, drawing on

previous Mishnah exegesis in the Tosefta, the Yerushalmi, and previous

Scripture exegesis in the various midrashim. All this material was selectively

shaped into the "classical statement" of rabbinic Judaism." As Louis Jacobs has


     49 Neusner, Judaism in Society, 169-70.

     50 Jastrow, Dictionary, 357-58.

     51 The text and translation of the Bavli used for this study is from I. Epstein, ed.,

Hebrew-English Edition of the Babylonian Talmud (London: Soncino, 1962-).

     52 J. Neusner, Judaism: The Classical Statement, The Evidence of the Bavli (Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 1986) 4-46, 114, 211-40.


208                             RESTORATION QUARTERLY


observed, "the compilers were creative artists, reshaping all the earlier material

to produce a literary work."53

The Bavli shows significant developments in rabbinic attitudes toward

vows. These include emphasis on fulfilling all binding vows, opposition to vow

taking in general, and increased efforts to find ways of releasing people from

improper vows. In b. Shabbath 32b the rabbis say failure to fulfill a vow can result

in the death of one's wife and children.54  In b. Ta'anith 4a the rabbis criticize the

vow of Jephthah (Judg 11:30-40) and link it with worship of Baal.55 In dealing

with annulling vows, b. Yebamoth states: "R. Nathan said, ‘If a man makes a vow

it is as if he has built a high place and if he fulfills it, it is as if he has offered up a

sacrifice upon it."56 After quoting the biblical injunction on vows in Eccl 5:4, b.

Hullin 2a says: "And it has been taught: Better than both is he who does not vow

at all; this is the opinion of R. Meir. R. Judah says, Better than both is he who

vows and pays."57

As in the Mishnah and Yerushalmi, the most extensive treatment of vows

in the Bavli is Nedarim ("Vows"). Here the Bavli intensifies its opposition to

vows, offers examples of rabbis granting release from vows, but demands

fulfillment of binding vows. Numerous passages repeat that any vow that appears

to violate biblical commands must not really violate them or must be annulled

(b. Nedarim 13b; 14a; 15a; 15b; 16a; 16b; 17a; et al.). The practice of taking

vows is discouraged: "Never make a practice of vowing, for ultimately you will

trespass in the matter of oaths" (b. Nedarim 20a). Occasionally, rulings attempt

to save the practice from condemnation (b. Nedarim 21b). However, in general,

vowing is seen as undesirable, as the rabbis once told a man who sought release

from a vow: "Go and pray for mercy, for you have sinned. For R. Dimi, the

brother of R. Safra, learnt: He who vows, even though he fulfills it, is designated

a sinner" (b. Nedirim 77b).


     53 L. Jacobs, The Talmudic Argument: A Study in Talmudic Reasoning and

Methodology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984) 20.

     54 Similar warnings concerning vows are found in Leviticus Rabbah 37:1, where a

man's unfulfilled vows result in idolatry, fornication, and bloodshed, including the death

of his wife and himself. Also Genesis Rabbah 81:1 explains that when a man delays to

fulfill his vow, God examines his ledger.

     55 A similar disapproval occurs in Genesis Rabbah 60:3 and Leviticus Rabbah 37:4,

where it is emphasized that Jephthah should have obtained release from his vow by

appealing to Phineas.

      56 Opposition to vows was so strong that sayings attributed to the rabbis in Leviticus

Rabbah 37:2-3 state that whoever takes a vow and whoever annuls a vow deserve to be

stabbed with a sword. Still, anyone who makes a vow is urged to go to a rabbi and beg

for release. See also b. Nedarim 22a.

     57 See also b. Nedarim 9a; Leviticus Rabbah 37:1.




The passages of the Mishnah concerning negative vows of prohibition that

affect others are not at all important for the compilers of the Bavli. For example,

the Bavli's treatment of m. Nedarim 9:1 in b. Nedarim 64a-65a lacks the

discussion that is found in y. Nedarim 9:1 V A-B. The rabbis of the Yerushalmi

concluded that the Mishnah could not have meant that a son could make a vow

forbidding him from supporting his parents, but they did record the earlier view

that it could happen. The rabbis of the Bavli omit all discussion of this issue. The

issue had been settled, and it was no longer even a faint memory that a person

seeking to live as a faithful Jew could vow away the fifth commandment.


XII. Conclusion

A major issue in the development of Jewish law concerning vows is the

possible conflict between keeping a vow and keeping the commandments of the

written Torah. Evidence from the Hebrew Bible, Qumran, Philo, and

archaeological information indicates that prior to the first century AD negative

vows that affected others were already being made. Mark 7:9-13 shows that, in

the first century CE, a son could make a vow using the term qorban and prohibit

his parents from receiving support from him. Even though such a vow violated

the fifth commandment, some Jewish teachers upheld such a vow, perhaps

because of the biblical teaching on the inviolability of vows. The NT and

Josephus indicate that the use of the term qorban as a vow formula was still

associated with the idea of an offering. Later the Mishnah set forth rulings

making such a vow clearly voidable because of the honor due to one's parents.

For rabbis of the Yerushalmi, the practice was understandable, though rejected.

By the time of the Bavli, the rabbis did not contemplate it, for one could no

longer vows away the fifth commandment.



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