Decalogue-37Rudolf Koch: Christian SymbolsThe Decalogue or Ten Commandments:
Similarities and Differences in Religious Traditions
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

 

The "Ten Commandments" (also called the "Decalogue") obviously come from the Hebrew Bible, but it is not so obvious to determine exactly what they are or how to count them. These commandments are recorded in two different biblical chapters (Exodus 20:1-17 & Deuteronomy 5:6-21), yet each text is slightly different, and neither passage explicitly numbers the commandments one through ten.

Although there are actually more than ten imperative verbs (at least 15) in each of these texts, several other biblical passages refer specifically to the "ten words" or "ten statements" (Heb: aseret ha-dibrot; Gk: deka logoi) that God gave to Moses (Exod 34:28; Deut 4:13; 10:4). In several books of the New Testament, Jesus, Paul, or other apostles quote some of the Jewish commandments, both from the Decalogue and from other parts of the Torah, although they never ennumerate a list of exactly ten.

Most Christians believe that the Ten Commandments form the core of God's Law (the "Torah" or "Instruction" given by God through Moses, in the first five books of the Bible). Yet these are far from the only commandments contained in the Hebrew Bible. Rabbinic Jewish tradition maintains that the Torah contains a total of 613 commandments ("mitzvot"): 248 positive ones (injunctions, what one must do) and 365 negative ones (prohibitions, what one must avoid).

Moreover, in Jewish understanding, all 613 mitzvot are equally important, so the Decalogue is not really considered the "core"; ritual and dietary commandments are considered just as important as theological or ethical commands. If you break any one of them, you've broken God's Law. When Jesus is asked which of the commandments is the first or most important, he does not quote the Decalogue directly, but rather combines quotations from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (love God; the "Shema" of Judaism) and Leviticus 19:18 (love your neighbor).

As a result of all the discrepancies, Jews, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and other Protestants have subdivided and numbered the Decalogue differently over the centuries. Jews, Orthodox Christians, and most Protestants more closely follow the version of Exodus 20, while Catholics more closely follow the version of Deuteronomy 5. The main discrepancies come at the beginning and end of the lists of the Ten Commandments, as explained below:

Exodus 20:1-17 (NRSV) Jewish Orth. Prot. Luth. Cath. Deuteronomy 5:6-21 (NRSV)
1 Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;
1 1 0 1 1

6 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;

7 you shall have no other gods before me.

8 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
9 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me,
10 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

3 you shall have no other gods before me. 2 1
4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,
6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
2 2
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 3 3 3 2 2 11 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.
9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.
11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
4 4 4 3 3 12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you.
13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.
15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 5 5 5 4 4 16 Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
13 You shall not murder. 6 6 6 5 5 17 You shall not murder.
14 You shall not commit adultery. 7 7 7 6 6 18 Neither shall you commit adultery.
15 You shall not steal. 8 8 8 7 7 19 Neither shall you steal.
16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 9 9 9 8 8 20 Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.

17a You shall not covet your neighbor's house;

17b you shall not covet your neighbor's wife,
or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey,
or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

10 10 10 9
&
10
9
&
10

21a Neither shall you covet your neighbor's wife.

21b Neither shall you desire your neighbor's house, or field,
or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey,
or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Exodus 20 Jewish Orth. Prot. Luth. Cath. Deuteronomy 5

NOTES:


Quotations and Applications of the Decalogue elsewhere in the Bible:

Nowhere else in the Bible is the entire Decalogue quoted, although many passages of the Old and New Testaments obviously mention one or more of the Ten Commandments. The following texts mention several of the commandments together:


Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

Decalogue-Hebrew Decalogue-Bookends Decalogue-Monument Decalogue-Six-Four Decalogue-One-Column
Decalogue-Hebrew Decalogue-Three-Seven Decalogue-RSV Decalogue-55

 


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