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Which Ten Commandments?

4th July 2005

The Ten Commandments have been in the news quite a bit since the recent ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States. It has been noted by a number of news agencies — and the Supreme Court decision itself — that the Ten Commandments are actually listed in two places in the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) with a number of variations, and — more significantly — that there are actually different enumerations of the Ten Commandments depending on which religious tradition you turn to (see, for instance, the article “Which faith’s Ten Commandments is court talking about, and does it matter?” or “The Commandment Mystery“). So while there are always Ten Commandments, you need to know what tradition someone is following if they confess to breaking number five as it may make the difference between whether of not you need to phone the police!

Part of the problem is that the Commandments are not numbered in the biblical text. The title “Ten Commandments” is derived by the reference to ‏עֲשֶׂ֖רֶת הַדְּבָרִֽים “ten words” in Exod 34:28 (see also Deut 4:13; 10:4). Thus, there have developed different ways of dividing the Commandments into ten. It is typically noted that there are three different enumerations of the Ten Commandments: (1) Modern Jewish, (2) Roman Catholic/Lutheran, and (3) Reformed and Evangelical Protestant/Eastern Orthodox.

Tradition 1
(Modern Jewish)
Tradition 2
(Roman Catholic, Lutheran)
Tradition 3
(Reform and Evangelical Protestant, Eastern Orthodox)
1 “I am the Lord…” “No other gods… idols” “No other Gods”
2 “No other gods… idols” “No wrongful use of the name” “Shall not make idols”
3 “No wrongful use of the name” “Observe Sabbath day” “No wrongful use of the name”
4 “Observe Sabbath day” “Honour father and mother” “Observe Sabbath day”
5 “Honour father and mother” “You shall not murder” “Honour father and mother”
6 “You shall not murder” “Nor shall you commit adultery” “You shall not murder”
7 “Nor shall you commit adultery” “Nor shall you steal” “Nor shall you commit adultery”
8 “Nor shall you steal” “Nor shall you bear false witness” “Nor shall you steal”
9 “Nor shall you bear false witness” “Nor shall you covet wife” “Nor shall you bear false witness”
10 “Nor shall you covet” “Nor shall you covet house” “Nor shall you covet”

What is typically not noted by these news stories is that these different enumerations all have their basis in Jewish tradition. In fact, all three divisions are displayed simultaneously by the cantillation of the Hebrew Masoretic text (see, for example, Exod 20:2 and Deut 5:6 in BHS where ‏‏ עֲבָדִֽ֑ים has both an atnach and a silluq).

  • Tradition 1. The first enumeration often noted is the contemporary Jewish division, which has the first verse “I am the Lord your God” as the first commandment, while the commands to “have no other gods” and “no idols” are combined to make the second commandment. This division is supported by the “upper accentuation” tradition, which treats each commandment as a complete verse. This division creates a nice pattern with five positive and five negative commandments.
  • Tradition 2. The second way of dividing the commandments is followed by the Roman Catholic and some Anglican and Lutheran churches. In this enumeration the commandments “have no other gods” and “no idols” form the first commandment, while the last two commandments are “do not covet wife” and “do not covet house, etc.” St. Augustine is often credited with this tradition (see his Quæstionum in Heptateuchum libri VII, Book II, Question lxxi), though it is supported by the Masoretic division of the pericope into open (ס) and closed (פ) paragraphs. The first sub-section occurs at Exod 20: 6 and Deut 5:10, encompassing the first two commandments, while the two laws concerning coveting are divided at Deut 5:21.
  • Tradition 3. The third and final tradition of dividing the commandments follows the “lower accentuation” of the text which divides the text into equal length verses. This tradition is arguably the oldest, being followed by Philo in his De Decalogo and Josephus, as well as the church fathers. Today it is followed by the Reformed Christian, Evangelical, and Greek Orthodox churches.

So while the different enumerations not only reflect differences among religious groups today, they also all go back to varying Jewish traditions in antiquity. So the question, “Which Ten Commandments?” is not as easy to answer as you may first think! No matter what enumeration you follow, the bigger issue revolves around whether or not it is desireable or even possible to observe them! But that issue requires another blog entry….

Note: The issue of the division of the Ten Commandments is far more complex than I was able to represent here. For more information, see the following excellent collection of essays: The Ten Commandments in History and Tradition (Ben-Zion Segal, ed.; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1990).

One Response to “Which Ten Commandments?”

  1. Codex Blogspot » Blog Archive » Jesus Junk and Christian Kitsch, 3.1 - Special Edition: Talking Bible Dolls Says:

    [...] I was a bit surprised, however, that despite the popularity of ancient Aramaic and Hebrew since the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, these dolls speak modern English. Another shocker is that the Talking Moses doll is not Jewish! He appears to be Protestant — at least that is what I would think from his recitation of the Ten Commandments (see my previous blog entry on the Ten Commandments here if you don’t know what I am referring to). [...]