Ten Commandments

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The Ten Commandments on a monument in the grounds of the Texas State Capitol
The Ten Commandments on a monument in the grounds of the Texas State Capitol
This 1768 parchment (612x502 mm) by Jekuthiel Sofer emulated 1675 decalogue at the Esnoga synagogue of Amsterdam
This 1768 parchment (612x502 mm) by Jekuthiel Sofer emulated 1675 decalogue at the Esnoga synagogue of Amsterdam

The Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, is a list of religious and moral imperatives which, according to the Bible, was spoken by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and engraved on two stone tablets. They feature prominently in Judaism and Christianity. In Biblical Hebrew they are termed Aseret ha-Dvarîm עשרת הדברים, and in Rabbinical Hebrew Aseret ha-Dibrot עשרת הדברות both translatable as "The Ten Utterances". The name decalogue is derived from the Greek name δέκα λόγοι or dekalogoi ("Ten Speeches") found in the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew name.

The terms Ten Commandments and Decalogue most frequently refer to the passages Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. However, various commentators, including proponents of the documentary hypothesis and the annotators of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, maintain that the laws mentioned in Exodus 34 are also a decalogue, commonly called the Ritual Decalogue, which may have predated the Exodus 20/Deut. 5 Decalogue discussed here.



According to the Bible itself, the commandments represent the solemn utterances of God on Mount Sinai (sometimes called Mount Horeb), directly revealed by God to Moses and then by Moses to the people of Israel in the third month after their Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites are said to have seen manifestations of divine power marked by thunder and lightning and thick smoke (Exodus 19):

"...God said to Moses, 'I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that all the people will hear when I speak to you. They will then believe in you forever.'...The third day arrived. There was thunder and lightning in the morning, with a heavy cloud on the mountain, and an extremely loud blast of a ram's horn. The people in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward the Divine Presence. They stood transfixed at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was all in smoke because of the Presence that had come down on it. God was in the fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke of a lime kiln. The entire mountain trembled violently. There was the sound of a ram's horn, increasing in volume to a great degree. Moses spoke, and God replied with a Voice. God came down on Mount Sinai, to the peak of the mountain. He summoned Moses to the mountain peak, and Moses climbed up...Moses went down to the people and conveyed this to them." [1]

God's name

God had already revealed his true name to Moses in the past (Exodus 6).

Exodus 20/Deuteronomy 5

Now however, in (Exodus 20) Moses wrote God's name with the Ten Commandments upon two tablets of stone:

"God spoke all these words, saying: I am God your Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, from the place of slavery. Do not have any other gods before Me. Do not represent [such] gods by any carved statue or picture of anything in the heaven above, on the earth below, or in the water below the land. Do not bow down to [such gods] or worship them. I am God your Lord, a God who demands exclusive worship. Where My enemies are concerned, I keep in mind the sin of the fathers for [their] descendants, to the third and fourth [generation]. But for those who love Me and keep My commandments, I show love for thousands [of generations]. Do not take the name of God your Lord in vain. God will not allow the one who takes His name in vain to go unpunished. Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. You can work during the six weekdays and do all your tasks. But Saturday is the Sabbath to God your Lord. Do not do anything that constitutes work. [This includes] you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maid, your animal, and the foreigner in your gates. It was during the six weekdays that God made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on Saturday. God therefore blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Honor your father and mother. You will then live long on the land that God your Lord is giving you. Do not commit murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not testify as a false witness against your neighbor. Do not be envious of your neighbor's house. Do not be envious of your neighbor's wife, his slave, his maid, his ox, his donkey, or anything else that is your neighbor's." [2]

Written in stone

According to the Bible, God inscribed the Ten Commandments into stone: "God said to Moses, 'Come up to Me, to the mountain, and remain there. I will give you the stone tablets, the Torah and the commandment that I have written for [the people's] instruction.'" (Exodus 24:12) also referred to as "tables of testimony" (Exodus 24:12, 31:18, 32:16) or "tables of the covenant" (Deuteronomy 9 verses 9, 11, 15), which he gave to Moses.

Traditional Jewish shources (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, de-ba-Hodesh 5) discusses the placement of the ten commandments on two tablets. According to Rabbi Hanina ben Gamaliel, five commandments were engraved on the first tablet and five on the other, whereas the Sages contended that ten were written on each. While most Jewish and Christian depictions follow the first understanding, modern scholarship favours the latter, comparing it to treaty rite in the Ancient Near East, in the sense of tablets of covenant. Diplomatic treaties, such as that between Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II and the Hittite King Hattusilis III, circa 1270 B.C.E, were duplicated on stone with a copy for each party, and the subordinate party would place their copy of the pact in the main temple to his god, in oath to the king (cf. Ezekiel 17:11-19). In a pact between a nation and its God, then, the Israelites placed both copies in their temple. [3]

Exodus 32:15 records that the tablets "were written on both their sides". The Talmud (tractate Shabbat 104a) explains that there were miracles involved with the carving on the tablets. One was that the carving went the full thickness of the tablets. There is a letter in the Hebrew alphabet called a samech that looks similar to the letter "O" in the English alphabet. The stone in the center part of the letter should have fallen out, as it was not connected to the rest of the tablet, but it did not; it miraculously remained in place. Secondly, the writing was miraculously legible from both the front and the back, even though logic would dictate that something carved through and through would show the writing in mirror image on the back.

Breaking the first tablets

After seeing that the Israelites had gone astray during his absence and his brother Aaron had made the Golden Calf, Moses broke the tablets (Exodus 32:19).

Second set

God subsequently commanded Moses to carve two other tablets like the first (Exodus 34:1). In Exodus 34:27-28 Moses was commanded to rewrite, and did rewrite, the commandments himself. In Deuteronomy 4:13, 5:18, 9:10, 10:24, however, God himself appears as the writer. This second set, brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses (Exodus 34:29), was placed in the Ark, also known as the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:16, 25:21, 40:20), hence designated as the "Ark of the Testimony" (Exodus 22:16, Numbers 4:5; compare also 1 Kings 8:9). Various theories have been advanced as to why the text in Deuteronomy differs on some points with the text in Exodus (see below).

10 Commandments or more?

While Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism all agree that the Bible lists the ten commandments in chapter 20 of the book of Exodus, that passage contains more than ten imperative statements. Reflecting this, the Hebrew term for them translates as "the Ten Utterances" or "the Ten Statements", as Jewish law sees each imperative as representing a separate commandment, totalling 14 or 15 in all. (See Jewish understanding below). Some scholars also believe that there may have been at one time more than 10 commandments, but that these additional edicts have been lost over millennia.

Texts of the commandments

Although the Ten Commandments in the Douay Rheims Bible and King James Version of the Bible are the most well-known in the English-speaking world, they do not conform to today's usage: "Thou shalt not kill" instead of "You shall not murder."

Different groups have divided the commandments in different ways. For instance, Catholics and Lutherans see the first six verses as part of the same command prohibiting the worship of pagan gods, while Protestants (except Lutherans) separate all six verses into two different commands (one being "no other gods" and the other being "no graven images"). The initial reference to Egyptian bondage is important enough to Jews that it forms a separate commandment. Catholics and Lutherans separate the two kinds of coveting (namely, of goods and of the flesh), while Protestants (but not Lutherans) and Jews group them together.

A very similar, but not completely identical, list of commandments is found in Deuteronomy 5:1-22. Reference to each of the commandments and the consequences for not following them as a part of Hebrew Law are found throughout this book. In the New Testament book of Matthew 19 and elsewhere, Jesus refers to the commandments, but condenses them into two general commands: love God (Shema) and love other people (Ethic of reciprocity) (Matthew 22.34-40).

Jewish understanding

Manuscript of decalogue (2nd century?), containing variations from the Masoretic Text.
Manuscript of decalogue (2nd century?), containing variations from the Masoretic Text.
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Popular belief holds that these are "the commandments" of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the Torah has 613 commandments. The Jewish tradition does, however, recognize these "ten commandments" as the ideological basis for the rest of the commandments (see below). According to the Medieval Sefer ha-Chinuch, the first five statements concern the relationship between God and human beings, while the second five statements concern the relationship between human beings. Rabbinic literature holds that the Ten Statements contain 14 or 15 distinct instructions.

The ten statements

  1. "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt..." - This commandment is to believe in the existence of God.
  2. "You shall have no other gods besides Me...Do not make a sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above..."
  3. "You shalt not swear falsely by the name of the Lord..." - This commandment is to never take the name of God in a vain oath. In Exodus, the text reads "in a vain oath" (לא תשא את שם ה' לשוא), while in Deuteronomy it reads "in a false oath" (לא תשא שם ה' לשקר).
  4. "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy" (the version in Deuteronomy mentions "Keep" rather than "Remember")
  5. "Honor your father and your mother..." - This commandment is a development when compared to other laws of the Ancient East (for example, the Code of Hammurabi) that do not call for equal respect of the father and the mother.
  6. "You shall not murder" - The Hebrew Bible makes a distinction between murdering and killing (see Jewish interpretation below).
  7. "You shall not commit adultery"
  8. "You shall not steal" (sometimes interpreted as kidnapping, since there are other injunctions against stealing property in the Bible).
  9. "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor"
  10. "You shall not covet your neighbor's house..." (in Exodus, the text reads "... neighbor's house, ... neighbor's wife, nor his manservant..." etc. while in Deuteronomy, "thy neighbor's wife, ... thy neighbor's house, his field" etc.)

Jewish interpretation

Jewish thought generally divides the Ten Statements into two halves, the first five dealing with the relationship between God and humanity, and the second dealing with relationships between people.

Traditional Jewish belief is that the commandments contained in the Ten Statements apply solely to the Jewish people, and that the laws incumbent on the rest of humanity are outlined in the seven Noahide Laws. In the era of the Sanhedrin, transgressing any one of these theoretically carried the death penalty; though this was rarely enforced due to a large number of stringent evidentiary requirements imposed by the oral law.

  1. "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt..."
    The belief in the existence of God, that God exists for all time, that God is the sole creator of all that exists, that God determines the course of events in this world. This is the foundation of Judaism. To turn from these beliefs is to deny God and the essence of Judaism. (1)
  2. "You shall have no other gods besides Me...Do not make a sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above..."
    One is required to believe in God and God alone. This prohibits belief in or worship of any additional deities, gods, spirits or incarnations. To deny the uniqueness of God, is to deny all that is written in the Torah. (2)
    It is also a prohibition against making or possessing objects that one or other may bow down to or serve such as crucifixes, and any forms of paintings or artistic representations of God. (3)
    One must not bow down to or serve any being or object but God. (4)
    One is prohibited from making sculpture of human beings even for the fine arts. (5)
  3. "You shalt not swear falsely by the name of the Lord..."
    This commandment is to never take the name of God in a vain oath. This includes four types of prohibited oaths: an oath affirming as true a matter one knows to be false, an oath that affirms the patently obvious, an oath denying the truth of a matter one knows to be true, and an oath to perform an act that is beyond one's capabilities. (6)
  4. "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy"
    One is to declare of the greatness and the holiness of the Sabbath, each Sabbath day, on the Sabbath day that God defined for the Jews during the Exodus. Each day of the Exodus, God provided food to the Jews to collect except on the Sabbath. Instead a double portion was provided the day before the Sabbath. (7)
    One is enjoined from performing work on the Sabbath. One may not change the day of the Sabbath. (8)
  5. "Honor your father and your mother..."
    The obligation to honor one's parents is an obligation that one owes to God and fulfills this obligation through one's actions towards one's parents. This commandment is an interesting development when compared to other laws of the Ancient East (for instance, the Code of Hammurabi) that do not call for equal respect of the father and the mother. (9)
    Jewish sages note that the 5th commandment, on the border between commandments on relationship with God and those between humankind, is to "Honor your father and your mother...", and draw lessons from this that a person should respect parents (and by implication, elders) only somewhat less than one would God himself, and that parents should be moral guidance to a person as God is to society.
  6. "You shall not murder"
    The Hebrew word is unambiguously murder; kill is a mistranslation. The Hebrew Bible makes a distinction between murdering and killing, and explicitly notes that murder is always a heinous sin, while killing is sometimes necessary, and in these cases just in the eyes of God. Thus, Jews take offense at translations which state "Thou shall not kill", which Jews hold to be a flawed interpretation, for there are circumstances in which one is required to kill, such as if killing is the only way to prevent one person from murdering another. Another case is killing in self-defense. (10)
    Many Protestant and most Catholic Christians hold that this verse forbids abortion; Judaism does not dogmatically regard abortion as murder (c.f Ex. 21:22-23, and Rashi thereon), although Orthodox Judaism prohibits abortion in most circumstances based on several other prohibitions.
  7. "You shall not have sexual relations with another man's wife." (11)
  8. "You shall not kidnap"
    Theft of property is forbidden elsewhere. Theft of property is not a capital offense. (12)
  9. "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor"
    in a court of law or other proceeding. Lying is forbidden elsewhere. Lying is not a capital offence. (13)
  10. "You shall not covet your neighbor's house..."
    One is forbidden to desire and plan how one may obtain that which God has given to another. (14)
    Maimonides makes a distinction in codifying the laws between the instruction given here in Exodus (You shall not covet) and that given in Deuteronomy (You shall not desire), according to which one does not violate the Exodus commandment unless there is a physical action associated with the desire, even if this is legally purchasing an envied object.

Special status

The special status of the Ten Commandments in Judaism has sometimes been contentious. Indeed, when undue emphasis was being placed on them, daily communal recitation of them was discontinued (Talmud, tractate Berachot 12a). Still, the Ten Commandments are generally considered to be subject headings to larger groups or subdivisions of the 613 commandments of the Torah; a number of works (starting with Rabbi Saadia Gaon) has made groupings of the commandments according to their links with the Ten Commandments.

Samaritan understanding

The Samaritans have a slightly different version of the Torah than the Jews, that is written in the original Hebrew script and harmonizes many of its contradictions. One example of such recension is found in the Ten Commandments: Here the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions have been combined in Exodus, thus removing any difficulties, such as whether to "remember" or "keep" the Sabbath. The commandments are also numbered differently than the Jewish version, making room for a new tenth commandment on the sanctity of Mount Gerizim, which for the Samaritans is equivalent to Jerusalem for the Jews. Thus

the selection of Mount Garizim as the chosen spot where the memorial stones were to be placed, upon which the words of these Commandments were to be written, and where an altar was to be built and the sanctuary established, was thus no longer a mere stray Commandment found in various verses in Deuteronomy.

Exodus 20:24 has been harmonized accordingly. Whereas the Jewish version reads, 'in all places where I will record my Name', the Samaritan version reads, 'in that place where I have caused my Name to be recorded', with that place of course being Mount Gerizim.

The Samaritan tenth commandment is even present in the Septuagint, though Origenes notes that it is not part of the Jewish text.

The verses which follow the Decalogue in Exodus and in Deuteronomy are a direct continuation of the Revelation, containing additional commandments that God gave to Moses. In the Jewish Torah, the discrepancies here are greater than those of the Decalogue, but in the Samaritan recension these have mostly been ironed out.

The Samaritan Tenth Commandment and Succeeding Verses [4]

And it shall come to pass when the Lord thy God will bring thee into the land of the Canaanites whither thou goest to take possession of it, thou shalt erect unto thee large stones, and thou shalt cover them with lime, and thou shalt write upon the stones all the words of this Law, and it shall come to pass when ye cross the Jordan, ye shall erect these stones which I command thee upon Mount Gerizim, and thou shalt build there an altar unto the Lord thy God, an altar of stones, and thou shalt not lift upon them iron, of perfect stones shalt thou build tine altar, and thou shalt bring upon it burnt offerings to the Lord thy God, and thou shalt sacrifice peace offerings, and thou shalt eat there and rejoice before the Lord thy God. That mountain is on the other side of the Jordan at the end of the road towards the going down of the sun in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah facing Gilgal close by Elon Moreh facing Shechem.
And all the people heard the voices and the sound of the trumpets and they saw the flames and the mountain smoking, and all the people saw it and they trembled and stood afar off, and they said unto Moses, "Behold the Lord our God hath showed us his glory and his greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire; this day have we seen that God doth talk with man and he liveth. Now therefore why should we die? for this great fire will consume us; if we should continue to hear the voice of the Lord our God anymore, then we shall die. For who is there of all flesh that hath heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire as have we, and yet live? Go thou near and hear all that the Lord thy God shall say, and speak thou unto us all that the Lord our God shall speak unto thee, and we will hear and do, but let not God speak with us lest we die."
And Moses said unto the people, "Do not fear, for God is come to prove you, and that the fear of him may be before your faces, that ye sin not." And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near to the thick darkness where was God.
And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, "I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken unto thee; they have well said all that they have spoken. I that there were such an heart in them that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them and with their children for ever. [Deut. 19:18] I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee; and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. And it shall come to pass that whosoever will not hearken unto his words which he shall speak in my Name, I will require it of him. But the prophet which shall presume to speak a word in my Name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die. And if thou sayest in thine heart, How shall it be known that the word is not which the Lord hath spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the Name of the Lord, if the thing follow not nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him. [Deut. 5:30] Go say to them, 'Get you into your tents again.' But as for thee, stand thou here by me, and I will speak unto thee all the commandment, the statutes, and the judgments, which thou shalt teach them, that they may do them in the land which I give them to possess it." [Ex. 20:22] And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, "Speak to the children of Israel, 'Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven. Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold. An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, from thy sheep and from thine oxen, and in that place where I have caused my Name to be recorded, thither will I come and bless thee. And if thou make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone, for thou hast lifted up thy tool upon it, and thou hast defiled it. Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered by it."

Christian understanding

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Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity

The official Catholic and Orthodox Christian understanding of the Ten commandments is as follows:

(Deuteronomy, RSV)

The first three commandments govern the relationship between God and humans.
  1. "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments." - The text of what Catholics recognize as the first commandment precedes and follows the "no graven images" warning with a prohibition against worshipping false gods. Some Protestants have claimed that the Catholic version of the ten commandments intentionally conceals the biblical prohibition of idolatry. But the Bible includes numerous references to carved images of angels, trees, and animals (Exodus 25:18-21; Numbers 21:8-9; 1 Kings 6:23-28 1 Kings 6:29; Ezekiel 41:17-25) that were associated with worship of God. Catholics and Protestants alike erect nativity scenes or use felt cut-outs to aid their Sunday-school instruction. (While not all Catholics have a particularly strong devotion to icons or other religious artifacts, Catholic teaching distinguishes between veneration (dulia) -- which is paying honor to God through contemplation of objects such as paintings and statues, and adoration (latria) -- which is properly given to God alone.)
  2. "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain: for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain." -- The moral lesson here involves more than simply a prohibition of swearing; it also prohibits the misappropriation of religious language in order to commit a crime, to participate in occult practices, or blaspheming against places or people that are holy to God.
  3. "Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day." - Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians do not refrain from work on Saturday, the Sabbath, because of their interpretation of Mark 2:23-28. In that verse, Jesus defends his disciples for plucking corn on the Sabbath, saying, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath." Furthermore, it is claimed, Jesus Himself broke the Sabbath by commiting acts of charity on that day (for the counterview to Jesus transgressing the law, see E. P. Sanders). The Catholic Church recognizes Sunday as a fitting day to worship since it commemorates the day that God raised Christ from the Dead; however, it has never conflated Sunday and the Sabbath as later Protestant thinkers did. See Sabbath.

    The next group of commandments govern public relationships between people.

  4. "Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you; that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which the LORD your God gives you." - This commandment emphasizes the family as part of God's design, as well as an extended metaphor that God uses for his relationship with his creation.
  5. "You shall not murder." - Since respect for life includes an obligation to respect one's own life and the lives of people under one's protection, it is legitimate to use force -- even fatal force -- against the threats of an agressor who cannot be stopped any other way. While Catholic teaching recognizes the right of states to execute criminals when necessary to preserve the safety of citizens, the Church argues that other methods of protecting society (incarceration, rehabilitation) are increasingly available in the modern world; thus, there are now few if any cases that really necessitate capital punishment. Catholics and Orthodox also consider abortion sinful and a violation of this commandment.
  6. "Neither shall you commit adultery." - For Catholics, marriage is a sacrament; unlike most Catholic sacraments, which are performed by a priest, in marriage, the husband and wife convey sanctifying graces upon each other. For the Orthodox, marriage is conferred by the priest, but is still seen as a sacred bond. Adultery is the breaking of this holy bond, and is thus a sacrilege.
  7. "Neither shall you steal."
  8. "Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor."

    These last two commandments govern private thoughts.

  9. "Neither shall you covet your neighbor's wife"
  10. "and you shall not desire your neighbor's house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's."

Moreover, within the Catholic tradition, the Commandments are also seen as general "subject headings" for moral theology, in addition to being specific commandments in themselves. Thus, the commandment to honor father and mother is seen as a heading for a general rule to respect legitimate authority, including the authority of the state. The commandment not to commit adultery is traditionally taken to be a heading for a general rule to be sexually pure, the specific content of the purity depending, of course, on whether one is married or not. In this way, the Ten Commandments can be seen as dividing up all of morality.

Protestant Christianity

There are many different denominations of Protestantism, and it is impossible to generalise in a way that covers them all. However, this diversity arose historically from fewer sources, the various teachings of which can be summarized, in general terms.

Lutherans, Reformed and Anglicans, and Anabaptists all taught, and their descendents still predominantly teach that, the ten commandments have both an explicitly negative content, and an implied positive content. Besides those things that ought not be done, there are things which ought not be left undone. So that, besides not transgressing the prohibitions, a faithful abiding by the commands of God includes keeping the obligations of love. The ethic contained in the Ten Commandments and indeed in all of Scripture is, "Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and mind, and soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself", and, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Lutherans, especially, influentially theorized that there is an antithesis between these two sides of the word of God, the positive and the negative. Love and gratitude is a guide to those under the Gospel, and the prohibitions are for unbelievers and profane people. This antithesis between Gospel and Law runs through every ethical command, according to Lutheran understanding.

The Anabaptists have held that the commandments of God are the content of the covenant established through Christ: faith is faithfulness, and thus, belief is essentially the same thing as obedience.

Reformed and Anglicans have taught the abiding validity of the commandments, and call it a summation of the "moral law", binding on all people. However, they emphasize the union of the believer with Christ - so that the will and power to perform the commandments does not arise from the commandment itself, but from the gift of the Holy Spirit. Apart from this grace, the commandment is only productive of condemnation, according to this family of doctrine.

Modern Evangelicalism, under the influence of dispensationalism, commonly denies that the commandments have any abiding validity as a requirement binding upon Christians; however, they contain principles which are beneficial to the believer. Dispensationalism is particularly emphatic about the dangers of legalism, and thus, in a distinctive way de-emphasises the teaching of the law (see antinomianism). Somewhat analogously, Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement typically emphasizes the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the freedom of the Christian from outward commandments, sometimes in antithesis to the letter of the Law. Quakers and pietism have historically set themselves against the Law as a form of commandment binding on Christians, and have emphasized the inner guidance and liberty of the believer, so that the law is fulfilled not merely by avoiding what the Law prohibits, but by carrying out what the Spirit of God urges upon their conscience.

For those Christians who believe that the Ten Commandments continue to be binding for Christians, their negative and positive content can be summarized as follows:

Typical Protestant view

Exodus 20:

Preface: vs 1-2
Implies the obligation to keep all of the commandments of God, in gratitude because of the abundance of his mercy
Forbids ingratitude to God and denial that he is our God.
  1. vs 3.
    Enjoins that God must be known and acknowledged to be the only true God, and our God; and, to worship him and to make him known as he has been made known to us
    Forbids not worshiping and glorifying the true God as God, and as our God; and forbids giving worship and glory to any other, which is due to him alone
  2. vs 4-6
    Requires receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God has appointed; and zeal in resisting those who would corrupt worship; because of God's ownership of us, and interest in our salvation.
    Prohibits the worshiping of God by images, or by confusion of any creature with God, or any other way not appointed in his Word.
  3. vs 7
    Enjoins a holy and a reverent use of God’s names, titles, attributes, ordinances, Word, and works.
    Forbids all abuse of anything by which God makes himself known. Some Protestants, especially in the tradition of pacifism, read this Commandment as forbidding any and all oaths, including judicial oaths and oaths of allegiance to a government, noting that human weakness cannot foretell whether such oaths will in fact be vain.
  4. vs 8-11
    Requires setting apart to God such set times as are appointed in his Word. Many Protestants are increasingly concerned that the values of the marketplace do not dominate entirely, and deprive people of leisure and energy needed for worship, for the creation of civilised culture. The setting of time apart from and free from the demands of commerce is one of the foundations of a decent human society. See Sabbath.
    Forbids the omission, or careless performance, of the religious duties, using the day for idleness, or for doing that which is in itself sinful; and prohibits requiring of others any such omission, or transgression, on the designated day.
  5. vs 12
    The only commandment with explicitly positive content, rather than a prohibition; it connects all of the temporal blessings of God, with reverence for and obedience to authority, and especially for father and mother.
    Forbids doing anything against, or failing to give, the honor and duty which belongs to anyone, whether because they possess authority or because they are subject to authority.
  6. vs 13
    Requires all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life, and the life of others.
    Forbids taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbor, unjustly; and, anything that tends toward depriving life.
  7. vs 14
    Enjoins protection of our own and our neighbor’s chastity, in heart, speech, and behavior.
    Forbids all unchaste thoughts, words, and actions.
  8. vs 15
    Requires a defense of all lawful things that further the wealth and outward estate of ourselves and others
    Prohibits whatever deprives our neighbor, or ourselves, of lawfully gained wealth or outward estate.
  9. vs 16
    Requires the maintaining and promoting of truth between people, and of our neighbor’s good name and our own, especially in witness-bearing.
    Forbids whatsoever is prejudicial to truth, or injurious to our own, or our neighbor’s, good name.
  10. vs 17
    Enjoins contentment with our own condition, and a charitable attitude toward our neighbor and all that is his, being thankful for his sake that he has whatever is beneficial to him, as we are for those things that benefit us.
    Forbids discontent or envy, prohibits any grief over the betterment of our neighbor's estate, and all inordinate desires to obtain for ourselves, or scheming to wrest for our benefit, anything that is his.

Jehovah's Witnesses' perspective

While Jehovah’s Witnesses understand the Bible as saying Christians are not bound by the Ten Commandments, (Colossians 2:13, 14) they recognize the importance the Bible places on these principles for living a Christian life. (Galatians 6:2; Matthew 22:35-40)

The first four commandments define the correct relationship between God and man.

First - Jehovah exacts exclusive devotion; He tolerates no rivalry with other gods. (Ex. 20:3)

Second - Images are never to be used in worship - all forms of idolatry are an open affront to Jehovah. (Vs.4-6)

Third - The use of God’s name is to be dignified, never disrespectful. When the Israelites became unfaithful they, as representatives of Jehovah by bearing his name, "took it up" or "carried" it "in vain"(Vs.7)

Fourth - The Sabbath day was reserved for reflection on spiritual things, a day of rest from work so that the Israelites could meditate on Jehovah's Laws without distraction. (Vs.8-10) In modern times, Jehovah's Witnesses are still commanded to follow this principle, though not keeping any explicit weekday holy. (Colossians 2:16-17)

Fifth- This commandment can be seen as the linking together of the first four (defining man's proper relationship with God) and the final six, (showing the proper relationships between humans) It is the obedience children owe their parents. This is a relationship which extends beyond childhood. To respect one’s parents is to show respect for the ultimate parent – Jehovah God.(Vs.12)

Sixth through Ninth - Murder, Adultery, Stealing and Lying are very pointed thus leaving no room for interpretation. These things are not to be practiced. (Vs.13-16)

Tenth – This makes it clear that not only were the Israelites not to practice the things mentioned in the previous nine commands, but that they were also to not allow a desire for these things to take root in their hearts and minds. (Vs.17)

Muslim understanding

Muslims accept Moses as a prophet, but they reject the Biblical versions of the Ten Commandments. Islam teaches that the Biblical text used in Judaism and Christianity has been corrupted over the years, by carelessness or malice, from its divine original. Muslims believe that the Qur'an is a revelation from God continuing the revelations on which they believe the Torah and Gospels to be based, intended to restore the original Adamic and Abrahamic faith.

The Qur'an has verses that in many ways are similar to the Ten Commandments:

"Say, come, I will recite what God has made a sacred duty for you: Ascribe nothing as equal with God;
Be good to your parents;
You shall not kill your children on a plea of want; we provide sustenance for you and for them;
You shall not approach lewd behavior whether open or in secret,
You shall not take life, which God has made sacred, except by way of justice and law. Thus does God command you, that you may learn wisdom.
And you shall not approach the property of the orphan, except to improve it, until he attains the age of maturity.
Give full measure and weight, in justice; no burden should be placed on any soul but that which it can bear.
And if you give your word, do it justice, even if a near relative is concerned; and fulfill your obligations before God. Thus does God command you, that you may remember.
Verily, this is my straight path: follow it, and do not follow other paths which will separate you from God's path. Thus does God command you, that you may be righteous."
(Qur'an 6:151-153)

Views of other faiths

While other faiths do not generally recognise the Ten Commandments in their unity, many of them (Buddhism, Hinduism, Jain, etc.) have comparable laws or principles[5].


Sabbath day

See main articles: Shabbat, Sabbath

Most Christians believe that Sunday is a special day of worship and rest, every week commemorating the Resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week on the Jewish calendar. Most Christian traditions teach that there is an analogy between the obligation of the Christian day of worship and the Sabbath-day ordinance, but that they are not literally identical - for a believer in Christ the Sabbath ordinance has not so much been removed as superseded, because God's very work of creation has been superseded by a "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17), according to this Christian view. For this reason, most teach that the obligation to keep the Sabbath is not the same for Christians as in Judaism, and for support they point to examples in the New Testament, and other writings surviving from the first few centuries.

Sabbatarian Christians (such as Seventh Day Adventists) disagree with the common Christian view. They believe that custom of meeting for worship on Sunday originated in paganism, and constitutes an explicit rejection of the commandment to keep the seventh day holy. Instead, they keep Saturday as the Sabbath, believing that God gave this command as a perpetual ordinance based on his work of creation. These sabbatarians claim that the seventh day Sabbath was kept by all Christian groups until the 2nd and 3rd century, by most until the 4th and 5th century, and a few thereafter, but because of opposition to Judaism the original custom was gradually replaced by Sunday as the day of worship. They often teach that this history has been lost, because of supression of the facts by a conspiracy of the pagans of the Roman Empire and the clergy of the Catholic Church.


See main articles: Idolatry, Idolatry in Judaism, Idolatry in Christianity

Christianity holds that the essential element of the commandment not to make "any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above" is "and bow down and worship it". Thus, they hold that one may build and use "likenesses", as long as the object is not worshipped. As a result, many Christian buildings and services feature images, some feature statues, and in some Orthodox services, icons are venerated. For most Christians, this practice is understood as fulfilling the observance of this commandment, as the images are not being worshipped.

Eastern Orthodoxy teaches that the incarnation of God as a human, Jesus, makes it permissible and necessary to venerate icons.

For Jews (and some Protestants as well), veneration seems to violate this commandment. Jews read this commandment as prohibiting the use of idols and images in any way.

Very few Christians oppose the making of any images at all, but some groups have been critical of the use others make of images in worship. (See iconoclasm.) In particular, the Orthodox have criticized the Roman Catholic use of decorative statues, Roman Catholics have criticized the Orthodox veneration of icons, some Protestant groups have criticized the use of stained-glass windows by many other denominations, and Jehovah's Witnesses criticize the use of all of the above, as well as the use of a cross. Amish people forbid any sort of graven image, such as photos.

A controversial Ten Commandments display at the Texas State Capitol in Austin.
A controversial Ten Commandments display at the Texas State Capitol in Austin.

Public monuments and controversy in the USA

See also: Roy Moore, Van Orden v. Perry and Separation of church and state in the United States

There is an ongoing dispute in the United States concerning the posting of the Ten Commandments on public property. Certain conservative religious groups, alarmed by the banning of officially-sanctioned prayer from public schools by the U.S. Supreme Court, have sought to protect their right to express their religious beliefs in public life. As a result they have successfully lobbied many state and local governments to display the ten commandments in public buildings. As seen above, any attempt to post the Decalogue on a public building necessarily takes a sectarian stance; Protestants and Roman Catholics number the commandments differently. Hundreds of these monuments – including some of those causing dispute – were originally placed by director Cecil B. DeMille as a publicity stunt to promote his 1956 movie The Ten Commandments.[6]

Secularists and most liberals oppose the posting of the Ten Commandments on public property, arguing that it is violating the separation of church and state. Conservative groups claim that the commandments are not necessarily religious, but represent the moral and legal foundation of society. Secularist groups counter that they are explicitly religious, and that statements of monotheism like "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" are unacceptable to many religious viewpoints, such as atheists or followers of polytheistic religions. In addition, if the Commandments were posted, it would also require members of all religions to likewise be allowed to post the particular tenets of their religions as well.

Some religious Jews oppose the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools, as they feel it is wrong for public schools to teach their children Judaism. The argument is that if a Jewish parent wishes to teach their child to be a Jew (as most do), then this education should come from practicing Jews, and not from non-Jews. This position is based on the demographic fact that the vast majority of public school teachers in the United States are not Jews; the same is true for the students. This same reasoning and position is also held by many believers in other religions. Many Christians have some concerns about this as well; for example, can Catholic parents count on Protestant or Orthodox Christian teachers to tell their children their particular understanding of the commandments? Differences in the interpretation and translation of these commandments, as noted above, can sometimes be significant.

Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have launched lawsuits challenging the posting of the ten commandments in public buildings. Opponents of these displays include a number of religious groups, including some Christian denominations, both because they don't want government to be issuing religious doctrine, and because they feel strongly that the commandments are inherently religious. Many commentators see this issue as part of a wider kulturkampf (culture struggle) between liberal and conservative elements in American society. In response to the perceived attacks on traditional society other legal organizations, such as Liberty Counsel have risen to defend the traditional interperetation.

Fred Phelps sued the city of Boise, Idaho to place a monument stating that gay student Matthew Shepard went to hell because of his sexual orientation. The argument was based partially upon the fact that a Ten Commandments monument was also in the park. The city of Boise, in an attempt to avoid legal costs, moved the Ten Commandments monument to a nearby church yard. Phelps continues his efforts to place the monument over objections of city fathers and gay rights groups.

Recently, adherents to the Summum philosophy have added a new twist to this controversy by suing for placement of their "seven aphorisms" next to the ten commandments in several public parks in Utah. On March 2nd, 2005, the United States Supreme Court heard the case of whether the Ten Commandments are permissible on public land. The court agreed not to order the removal of the ten commandments from all public lands, but struggled on where to draw the line when it comes to the ten commandments in courthouses. "I'm looking for a key. What's too far, what's not?" said Justice Stephen Breyer.


Many historians Citation needed have argued that the Ten Commandments originated from ancient Egyptian religion, and postulate that the Biblical Jews borrowed the concept after their Exodus from Egypt. Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead (the Papyrus of Ani) includes a list of things to which a man must swear in order to enter the afterlife. These sworn statements bear a remarkable resemblance to the Ten Commandments in their nature and their phrasing. These statements include "not have I defiled the wife of man," "not have I committed murder," "not have I committed theft," "not have I lied," "not have I cursed god," "not have I borne false witness," and "not have I abandoned my parents." The Book of the Dead has additional requirements, and, of course, doesn't require worship of YHWH.

Further reading

  • Friedman, Richard E. Who Wrote The Bible?, Harper and Row, NY, USA, 1987.
  • Kaufmann, Yehezkel, Greenberg, Moishe (translator) The Religion of Israel, from Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile, University of Chicago Press, 1960.
  • Mendenhall, George E. The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
  • Mendenhall, George E. Ancient Israel's Faith and History: An Introduction to the Bible in Context, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
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