Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Ten-ish Commandments

One of the most well known and important passages of scripture for all Christians is the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments. These ten commands are a succinct summary of the moral law and often serve as a symbol of biblical morality in its entirety. It is probably for this reason that arguments about displaying them or removing them from public buildings such as courthouses and schools evoke such passionate responses from both sides. Posting them is not only a recognition of the various commands but also of the authority of the lawgiver from whence they arose. After all, there are many other commands and prohibitions in scripture but the bible tells us that these ten were written by the very finger of God (Exodus 31:18). Although many of these laws are recognized as good standards by people who do not believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob this particular compilation, especially with its first commandment, cannot be separated from the authority and character of the God of the Bible.

Given the importance of the Ten Commandments and their foundational theological function one would assume that there is a cut and dried list upon which all orthodox Christians (and Jews for that matter) agree. What many people do not realize is that while all orthodox Christians accept the same set of imperatives there is not agreement about how those commands should be grouped. The following chart is a general comparison of how each tradition approaches the grouping.


The Jews categorize these texts in a grouping of 10 sayings rather than commands primarily as a result of the way in which these texts are referred to elsewhere in the Old Testament whereas the Christian categorization tends to focus more on the commands or moral imperatives grouped together in such a way as to be related to ten distinct emphases. Notice that there are more than 10 specific commands listed. Exodus 20:17 alone contains seven specific commands which are combined into either one or two “commandments” depending upon the tradition. Since the last of these, not coveting anything of your neighbors, entails the other 6 (wife, house, ox, etc.) plus the fact that the order of these is different in the listing given in Deuteronomy 5:21 the idea that they are all part of a single categorical command is reasonable.

Protestants often allege that the Roman Catholics essentially deleted the second commandment in order to support their use of iconic statues. Catholics claim that Protestants changed the grouping in order to support their opposition to the use of such figures. Did the various groupings arise as the result of an iconoclastic dispute?

If so, it was not the iconoclast disputes of the 1500’s. The current Jewish grouping can be found in the rabbinical literature going back at least as far as the third century. The Catholic grouping can also be found as far back as the third century, most prominently in the writings of Augustine (around 400 a.d.).  The Orthodox grouping also goes back to the early church and can be found in the writing of Origen (around 200 a.d.). Perhaps most interesting is that both Josephus, the Jewish historian, in his Antiquities of the Jews (around 93 a.d.) and Philo, the Jewish philosopher, in his De Decalogo (before 50 a.d.) both give a grouping that supports the Orthodox categorization.

Though some Catholics claim that the Protestant grouping is an innovation it is essentially the same grouping that is accepted by the Orthodox churches and is found in 1st century Jewish sources as well. It is clear that this categorization did not arise as solely out of a response to the Catholic use of figures but was well attested traditional grouping. It is also clear that the Catholic ordering did not come as a response to Protestant criticisms.

It seems likely that the Roman Catholic Church made changes to the grouping as a result of an earlier theological concern. I say this because the division of the 10th looks like a deliberate attempt to retain 10. This would only make sense if the 2nd was actually absorbed. In fairness, however I must point out that the Catholics do not delete the prohibition against graven images; they simply append it to the first commandment. The prohibition is not removed but rather interpreted differently. For example, the Orthodox who retain the prohibition as a separate command do not use graven figures but do use painted icons.

I accept the Protestant/Orthodox reading primarily because it seems to be the plain interpretation of the biblical text in both Exodus and Deuteronomy that the prohibition against graven images is a separate command (it is introduced with the “you shall not” formula found at the beginning of all the other negative commands).

Even if we understand the 2nd commandment to be an extension of the 1st it does not mean that the prohibition is solely related to worship rather than production. The interpretation of the imperatives is of more importance than the particular order or grouping. In fact, the commands themselves do not always appear in the same order in ancient manuscripts containing the Exodus and Deuteronomy passages. For example, the order of the commands against murder, adultery, and theft, as now given in the Masoretic text (and therefore most English bibles), in Josephus, and in the Syriac Hexapla, is not followed by the Septuagint, the Codex Alexandrinus, and Ambrosianus (which are ordered "murder, theft, adultery"), nor by Philo (who orders it "adultery, murder, theft"), nor by the Codex Vaticanus (which has adultery, theft, murder").

The grouping is, however, important in teaching and memorization with appropriate emphasis. This is no small matter. It is fashionable over recent decades to point to the role of the Decalogue as the moral foundation for our laws and culture but in reality it has a much more important function. In addition to being a moral guide and legal cornerstone the Law of God is a schoolmaster who teaches us our need for a savior and points us to Jesus Christ.

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