Why do people swear on a Bible?

People are often depicted in courtroom dramas as swearing on a Bible. A lot of public officials are sworn in on a Bible, though it is not legally required. Keith Ellison was sworn into Congress on a Quran. You can be sworn in on nothing at all if you want, but it seems that officials taking national office find it important to virtue-signal religion, even if the only time they’ve seen a Bible is when they’re sworn in.

Was that at one time used to coerce people who would otherwise commit perjury, and somehow appeal to their religious conscience? Or at one time, was that just how you swore an oath?

It seems to me that it should be sufficient to say that you know that lying in court is against the law. I don’t know why swearing at all is required.

It goes way back into English history, which is where almost all our customs stem from.

The earliest Western use of oath books in a legal setting dates to ninth-century England when, in the absence of a structured royal government, certain transactions were conducted at the altar, the participants swearing on a gospel book. Three centuries later, English courts adopted the practice, requiring jury members and individuals in particular trials to take an oath on the Bible.

Why a bible? Obviously, in a religion-crazed society it make perfect sense that swearing on the holy book of that religion insured that the person had to be telling the truth. Who could think otherwise?

You are swearing before God, which means you should be taking it more seriously. I think that’s why.

The way I understand it, nobody is actually worn into the United States Congress on any tome whatsoever. The bit with the book-of-choice is nothing at all like what’s done with a presdient who decides to swear on a book or whatever.

Page 2 of this PDF has the procedure for the Senate. You will note that the new Senator may be holding their book-of-choice but it has absolutely nothing to do with the ceremony, and IMHO is nothing more than a good luck charm.

This non-PDF link has information for the House of Representatives. The bit with the book-of-choice in the House is done afterwards as a video/photo op.

Actually, it’s kind of amusing to me how so many people (and I am not saying you are doing that) demand others “swear on the Bible” when the New Testament itself prohibits doing so (verses 31~37).

People swear on a Bible because to most, it seems more appropriate than swearing at it.

It’s a lot easier to get a Bible into a courtroom than your mother’s grave.

Well, that’s really the crux of it, isn’t it? If you are a follower of the Abrahamic God, then you believe that God is omniscient and if you swear to something, then lie, He’s going to know it whether or not you invoked His name. It smacks of magic words.

But really, I am not here to belittle the practice so much as to understand why this is true.

I find it interesting that swearing on a Bible is used in government proceedings, but not bona fide religious ceremonies. When I swore an oath to love and honor till death do us part, nobody put out a Bible for me to swear on.

If you’re taking the bible seriously, you probably shouldn’t swear on in. Mathew 5 advises against it. It seems odd to swear on a book which instructs the user not to swear on such things

In my hearings, I administer oaths, but no specific wording is required. I say, “…under penalty of perjury.”

The bible is just tradition, which I would just as soon were dispensed with.

The downside of course is that, where the Bible is seen as the ultimate when it comes to respect, the testimony of those that swear on something other than the Bible, or “merely” affirm, can be seen as less trustworthy by the jury, the judge and the public at large.

Really religious people would not forswear an oath made on a bible. I had a friend who was having a dispute with a merchant who was essentially accusing my friend of lying. Finally, he asked the merchant to bring out a bible that he would swear on and, just like that, the merchant believed him. My friend wasn’t especially religious, but the merchant was and just didn’t believe that someone would lie on a bible.

Well I think it’s kind of like when you swear on your mother’s life (or so I remember doing so when I was younger). You swear on the most important thing to you - and for a lot of people through history that was their religious faith.

It would probably be far more awkward if you brought your mother forward and put your hand on her head while swearing :D.

So is this a superstitious/religious thing that is like, “If I am lying may God strike down my mother!” And everybody believes that would really happen?

Which just shows that many (probably most) people who take the bible seriously have never read the damn thing.

Nowadays, it’s just window dressing. But, it used to be if you weren’t Christian (sometimes Jews were allowed), you couldn’t swear an oath and your testimony was not admissible in court.

I think people are taking too skeptical a view on this. You have to realize that people used to believe in the presence of God in a way we can’t follow in our modern society. Having somebody swear an oath on a Bible wasn’t based on their religious belief; people realized that liars existed and would have no problem swearing a false oath, with or without a Bible. But there was a general belief that God was present and that he would take action against anyone who blasphemed against his holy book. Swearing an oath on the Bible was part of the same mentality that produced trials by ordeal; you were basically invoking God to judge the situation and declare the outcome.

Little Nemo, if that were true non Christian Chinese immigrants who came here to work on the railroad would have been allowed to swear on the Bible and testify in court. They were not.

I think the idea here isn’t so much whether God knows you lied or not - it’s the difference between lying to your neighbor, which is a small sin, and lying directly to God, which is, presumably, a much graver sin.

Well, he’s talking about the origins of the practice in pre-Modern England, not how it was viewed centuries later on the other side of the world. Cultural ideas and practices change and evolve, and are often hijacked for entirely unrelated reasons. The exclusion of non-Christian Chinese from being able to testify in the courts was less about a nuanced understanding of the relationship between God, the individual, and civil society, and more about fucking over the Chinese.

Yes, the United States in the nineteenth century was well into modern secular society.