One of the most important scenes of the Torah and Old Testament is when Moses ascends Mount Sinai and receives the stone tablets that bear the Ten Commandments.
These divine laws dictate how God’s people should live and worship. These laws are fundamental to Jewish and Christian theology alike.
In America, we have another revered set of ten: the Bill of Rights, or our first ten amendments to the Constitution. These amendments are so important to us that we know them by number—it’s our First Amendment, first for a reason, that protects our right to free speech. When we speak of the First Commandment, however, it’s much less clear what that is. It depends whether you ask, as if to set up an old joke, a rabbi, a priest, or a minister. Different editions of the book of Exodus subdivide these Mosaic prescriptions in different ways. So, why are there different versions of the Ten Commandments? Let’s explore.
Differences in Translation
Despite the importance of the Decalogue in Jewish and Christian scripture, translators of Exodus, one of the first books of the Bible, have played fast and loose with its subclauses. Closer examination reveals that we only arrive at ten because of how we choose to consolidate different parts. Alas, ten is a round number, and much easier to remember than 13 or 14. It’s hard to imagine ABC airing The 13 or 14 Commandments every Passover.
The Ten Commandments as they appear in the Hebrew Bible differ slightly from Christian interpretations. Here, the First Commandment is a preamble of sorts, stating simply, “I am the Lord, thy God.” It is in the Second Commandment that we reach a two-part command: “thou shalt have no other gods before me” and “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” an explicit call to resist polytheism and idolatry.
Augustine of Hippo’s translation of the Ten Commandments is the one that the Roman Catholic Church uses today. Augustine merged what rabbinical Judaism regards as the First and Second Commandments into one proscription against idolatry. This is controversial, however, because Catholic teaching often omits the section forbidding the worship of graven images, leading some to believe that the Church sanctions the worship, rather than the veneration, of religious iconography. To get back to ten, Augustine partitioned the Tenth Commandment—the “thou shalt not covet” one. In the Catholic Church, coveting a neighbor’s wife, a person, and coveting his house, his property, are separately forbidden.
Protestants, particularly Reformed Protestants who deviate further from Catholicism than Episcopalians and Lutherans do, have their own organization of the Ten Commandments as well. Drawing from the Masoretic Text and Septuagint, the Protestant Decalogue is much closer to the Jewish one, other than separating laws against polytheism and idolatry into First and Second while God’s self-identification does not constitute a law unto itself. While followers of Abrahamic religions agree on many points, there are always disagreements as well. It should come as no surprise that there are different versions of the Ten Commandments across faiths.
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