by Piet Coetzer

Putting your hand on the Bible

When a witness goes low to testify

Final word – putting your hand on the Bible

Before someone is about to testify in a court of law he or she is usually asked to place the right hand on a Bible and take an oath to speak the truth. Usually such a person is called a witness. This custom and the two terms, 'testify' and 'witness', are quite appropriate considering their origins, although there is an interesting twist to it all. 

Do you ever, when requested to sign a document as witness to the signature of one or both parties to a contract (or a final will and testament) think that you might one day be called upon to testify on the occasion of the signing? More than likely the answer is no. This is probably because we have forgotten how solemn such occasions are supposed to be.

The first record in history of the use of witnesses to a commercial transaction can be found in chapter 23 of Genesis in the Bible, when Abraham bargained with Ephron of the Hittites for a burial site for his recently deceased wife Sarah. The transaction took place at the gate of the city, as was the custom of the time, where people gathered to witness what was happening.

Once there was agreement on the price, the presence of the people (gathered at the gate) gave legal status to the transaction and Genesis 23:17 states among others that the site for the burial “... was legally made over to Abraham as his property in the presence of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of the city”.

The first record of the signing of a legal document by witnesses, a 'deed of purchase' to boot, that I could trace is in the book of Jeremiah, chapter 32:11-12 where it is written: “I took the deed of purchase – the sealed copy containing the terms and conditions ... and gave this deed to ... in the presence of my cousin Hanamel and of the witnesses who had signed the deed ....”

The word 'witness' itself came into English from Greek, originally in Old English as 'witnes'  from the word 'wit', meaning 'knowledge', plus the suffix 'ness' indicating a state of 'understanding' from that 'knowledge' or 'wit', if you want.

But it is when a witness is being called upon to 'testify' about his firsthand  knowledge or understanding that things become really interesting.

While it is expected of witnesses today to place their right hand on the Bible to swear that they will speak “the truth and nothing but the truth,” when they give evidence or testify, it was quite a different story in ancient Rome. 

In ancient Rome only men, verified as men by the fact that they actually had testicles, were allowed to give evidence or 'testify' in legal matters. Women were excluded by definition.

To swear by one’s testicles was an ancient form of oath and when a Roman gave evidence in court, he placed his hand on his testicles as a sign that he was telling the truth. Our ancient brothers, and many modern ones too, regarded their testicles as sacred.

But the link between modern words like 'testimony' and 'testify' to 'testicles' goes even deeper. The word 'testicles' itself comes from the Latin testiculi, which means “little witnesses”.

And now, before you immediately say, “That is what could have been expected of the pagan-worshipping, orgy-loving Romans,” there is some other evidence to consider before passing judgement on the Romans.

In Genesis 24, immediately after he secured a burial site for his wife Sarah, we read that Abraham, worried about the purity of his descendants, also anatomically speaking, goes south to secure an oath.

He instructed the servant in charge of his household, “the one in charge of all he had”, to “put your hand under my thigh. I want you to swear by the Lord ... that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites”.

In the Afrikaans 'new translation' of the Bible of 1983 the picture is even less subtle and instead of “under my thigh”, this translation has Abraham say “put your hand under my hip”.

Why the servant could not go south on his own body with his hand, and had to place his hand under his master's hip, is not clear from this passage. But it is clear that the Romans were by far not the first to regard that area of a man’s body as sacred.

To those of my female readers who now think or say, “Men will never change,” my reply is that you are absolutely correct!

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This edition

Issue 392


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