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It is common in many jurisdictions to raise one's right hand before making an oath or affirmation. What is the origin and meaning of such a practice?

This can help answer similar questions. For example, are there religious connotations connected to raising one's right hand? If so, would it be sending mixed signals to raise one's right hand when simply affirming before giving testimony, as opposed to the legally equivalent-but theologically different practice of swearing an oath before testimony? Knowing the origin of raising the right hand will clarify.

Note: To confirm this question was on-topic, I first asked here: https://meta.stackexchange.com/questions/375785/law-english-or-somewhere-else-where-should-these-two-questions-go

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In Western law this surely derives from Biblical precedent. See for example Genesis 14:22, or Exodus 6:8. Some other times when hands are lifted up in the Bible, it's an expression of power. These concepts are linked in that an oath involves appealing to divine power to witness what is promised (and to punish the speaker if they break it).

The story that it comes from forcing witnesses or the accused to display brands is false. While branding was used historically to mark certain criminals, these marks were not often on the palm of the hand, but could be on the cheeks or chest or elsewhere. Courts have never asked witnesses to remove their shirts while taking an oath. Even in the era when branding was used, checking for the marks would not be applied to all witnesses, but perhaps just to the accused.

In contemporary practice, raising the hand is optional, and the oath or affirmation is taken as "good" if the court is satisfied that the witness is taking it seriously. Raising the hand might be seen as a gesture of respect for the law and not necessarily any particular religious tradition. Raising the hand while affirming is not unusual, nor even a mixed signal: affirmation arose because of Quakers wishing to observe the Biblical command "swear not at all".

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  • Thanks for that answer and the detail given! Do you have a source that links the practice in Genesis 14:22 to the modern practice of raising one's right hand? If so, thank you!
    – The Editor
    Feb 6, 2022 at 19:37
  • After having done some more searching myself, it appears that the "brand" interpretation might carry weight after all, so I might make my own answer and say that. However, I'm open to your view if you can provide a source connecting the practice in Genesis 14:22 to the modern practice of raising one's right hand. Again, thanks for contributing!
    – The Editor
    Feb 8, 2022 at 15:59
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All sources that I've been able to find connect raising one's right hand to the 17th-century London practice of branding convicted criminals. For example, consider the following from NWSidebar (bold emphasis mine):

Branding, which literally meant the application of a branding iron to the convicted defendant’s body, was generally imposed upon convicts who received leniency from the court. For example, convicts who successfully pleaded “benefit of the clergy” — a practice which would spare a defendant affiliated with the Church from a death-penalty punishment — “were branded on the thumb (with a “T” for theft, “F” for felon, or “M” for murder), so that they would be unable to receive this benefit more than once.” (The Proceedings of Old Bailey, Punishments at the Old Baily, are available online at http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Punishment.jsp.) Similar brands were issued to convicts who were found guilty of manslaughter instead of murder.

Should the convict appear before the Court again, they would be required to raise their right hand, which would allow the Court to assess whether they had committed any previous crimes or received leniency in the past. This indelible “criminal record” was thus a sort of pre-cursor to the “character evidence” of today.

Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown LLP (GRGB's) following quotation matches the previous one (again, bold emphasis mine):

What about raising your right hand? This question has less concrete answers. Raising your right hand while taking an oath has its roots back in 17th century London. Back then, there was no formal registry of criminals that we have today. Judges did have a variety of punishments to levy against convicted criminals, one of which was an application of a painful branding. This branding would come in the form of an alphanumeric letter. For example, a murderer would receive an “M” on their palm, and a thief would receive a “T.” Thus, when testifying in court, the judge could ask to see the person’s right palm to determine if they had a criminal history. This criminal history would go to their general ability to tell the truth, which is the precursor to the current character evidence rules we have today.

While another answer on this thread connects the modern practice of raising one's right hand to biblical practices, I could know of no sources connecting the modern legal practice to Bible.

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