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SBL e-journal

J. Cornelis de Vos

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2023

)

.

Adapting the Decalogue to Your Religion

.

TheTorah.com

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https://thetorah.com/article/adapting-the-decalogue-to-your-religion

APA e-journal

J. Cornelis de Vos

,

,

,

"

Adapting the Decalogue to Your Religion

"

TheTorah.com

(

2023

)

.

https://thetorah.com/article/adapting-the-decalogue-to-your-religion

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Adapting the Decalogue to Your Religion

Jewish Greek philosophy, the New Testament, Christian theology, Samaritan law, Rabbinic Judaism, the Church Fathers—all shaped and interpreted the Decalogue to meet the needs of their community.

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Adapting the Decalogue to Your Religion

The Decalogue displayed under the names of the twelve tribes. Maastricht Synagogue, Netherlands. Wikimedia.

The Decalogue is the only extensive passage in the Torah that is explicitly repeated.[1] It is the centerpiece of the divine theophany at Sinai,[2] where YHWH speaks directly to the Israelites:

שמות כ:ב= דברים ה:ו אָנֹכִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים....
Exod 20:2 = Deut 5:6 I am YHWH your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery….[3]

In Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the Israelites that they witnessed YHWH speaking the Decalogue, and that its laws were inscribed by YHWH on stone tablets:

דברים ה:כב אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה אֶל כָּל קְהַלְכֶם בָּהָר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ הֶעָנָן וְהָעֲרָפֶל קוֹל גָּדוֹל וְלֹא יָסָף וַיִּכְתְּבֵם עַל שְׁנֵי לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים וַיִּתְּנֵם אֵלָי.
Deut 5:22 These words YHWH spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, and he added no more. He wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me.

Considering its prominence in the Torah, it is not surprising that it eventually came to be seen as encapsulating the Torah itself.[4]

Philo and Augustine

Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish Bible commentator and philosopher (ca. 20 B.C.E. – ca. 50 C.E.), uses the Decalogue as headings under which he subsumes almost all of the commandments of the Torah.[5] In a discussion of other examples of the number ten in biblical narrative, he writes:

Congr. 120 But why note such examples as these, when the holy and divine law is summed up by Moses in precepts which are ten in all, statutes which are the general heads, embracing the vast multitude of particular laws, the roots, the sources, the perennial fountains of ordinances containing commandments positive and prohibitive for the profit of those who follow them?

Philo was also the first to divide the Decalogue into two parts, reflecting piety and justice, respectively, which he considered to be the main virtues in ancient Judaism:[6]

Her. 168 Further, the ten words on them, divine ordinances in the proper sense of the word, are divided equally into two sets of five, the former comprising duties to God, and the other duties to men.

Philo further claimed that the Decalogue, with its ten commandments, comprises the whole visible world. He reasons that the world consists of points, lines, surfaces, and solids, forms with 1, 2, 3, and 4 sides, respectively, and then notes that the sum of 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 is 10.[7]

Four centuries later, Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E.) Christianized the Decalogue. Instead of dividing its contents equally across the two tablets, he argued the first tablet contained three commandments:

1. not to worship other gods or make idols; 2. not to misuse God’s name; and 3. to observe the Sabbath.

These commandments symbolized the threefold nature of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The remaining seven commandments on the second tablet related to human behavior towards fellow humans, with the prohibitions against coveting divided into two parts. This became the standard way that the commandments were enumerated in the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches (see the Appendix for a comparison of how different Jewish and Christian traditions divide the Decalogue into ten commandments).[8]

The Decalogue in the New Testament

In the rare cases where the New Testament quotes specific laws from the Torah, it almost always quotes the Decalogue.[9] For example, several parallel accounts depict Jesus citing the Decalogue in response to a question about what a person must do to gain eternal life. Thus, when the question is posed by “a certain ruler,” Jesus replies:

Luke 18:20 “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery. You shall not murder. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. Honor your father and mother.’”[10]

In the New Testament, the Decalogue seems to be the law par excellence. The gospel of Mark describes how a group of Pharisees and scribes question Jesus about why his disciples eat without first washing their hands:

Mark 7:5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”[11]

The questioners refer here to purity laws that were transmitted orally (the tradition of the elders). Jesus answers by rebuking the Pharisees and scribes for privileging oral tradition over the commandments, the direct word of God:

Mark 7:9 Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep[12] your tradition![13]

Rather than responding directly to their query, he uses a different example, citing the Decalogue, to show how the oral tradition can undermine God’s law:

Mark 7:10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 7:11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is korban’ (that is, an offering to God), 7:12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 7:13 thus nullifying the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”[14]

Alterations in the Decalogue

The Decalogue was also modified to meet contemporary needs. The oldest extant Septuagint manuscript, manuscript Vaticanus (4th century C.E.), differs from the Masoretic Text in beginning the short commandments with the prohibition against adultery rather than murder. That the prohibition of adultery occurs at the pole position may reflect the importance of sexual purity in the Greek-Hellenistic world.[15]

The Samaritans added a new tenth commandment to give divine legitimation to their central cult site. Compiled from material in Deuteronomy,[16] the tenth commandment obligates the Israelites to build an altar on Mount Gerizim[17] as soon as they have passed the Jordan.

The Didache, an early Church statute from the late 1st or early 2nd century C.E., expands upon the Decalogue at several points. Thus, appended to the Decalogue’s prohibition against adultery are thematically-related commandments against pederasty and fornication:

Did 2:2 You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not commit pederasty. You shall not fornicate.[18]

Pederasty was apparently a significant problem in the early church and the prohibition of it was considered highly important.[19] Other additions in the Didache address issues of magic and medical practice, including abortion and infanticide:

Did 2:2 You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not mix poison. You shall not murder a child, whether by abortion or by killing it once it is born. You shall not covet what belongs to your neighbor.[20]

Undoing the Importance of the Decalogue

The Decalogue was once incorporated into Jewish ritual and liturgy. In the caves of Qumran, several tefillin and one mezuzah were found containing the Decalogue, among other texts that are not found in the rabbinic version of these small scrolls.[21] On Papyrus Nash, from the 2nd century B.C.E., the text of the Decalogue occurs together with the Shema. The Mishnah lists it among the prayers recited as part of the daily Temple rituals:

משנה תמיד ה:א אָמַר לָהֶם הַמְמֻנֶּה, בָּרְכוּ בְרָכָה אֶחַת, וְהֵן בֵּרְכוּ. קָרְאוּ עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים, שְׁמַע, וְהָיָה אִם שָׁמֹעַ, וַיֹּאמֶר
m. Tamid 5:1 The one in charge said to them: “Recite a single blessing,” and they recited the blessing. They recited the ten commandments (Exod 20:2–17 or Deut 5:6–21, Shema (Deut 6:4–9), And it shall be if you obey (Deut 11:13–21), and And he said (Num 15:37–41).[22]

Later it was deprecated because the so-called “minim”—perhaps referring to Jewish Christians or Christians in general—were said to reduce the revelation of the Torah to that of the Decalogue:

ירושלמי ברכות א:הדְּרַב מַתָּנָה וְרִבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָן תְּרַוֵּיהוֹן אָֽמְרִין בְּדִין הֲוָה שֶׁיְּהוּ קוֹרִין עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדִּבְּרוֹת בְּכָל־יוֹם וּמִפְּנֵי מַה אֵין קוֹרִין אוֹתָן מִפְּנֵי טַעֲנַת הַמִּינִין שֶׁלֹּא יְהוּ אוֹמְרִין אֵלּוּ לְבַד נִיתְּנוּ לְמֹשֶׁה בְּסִינַי.
j. Ber. 1:5, 3c Rav Mattanah and Rebbi Samuel ben Naḥman both say that it would have been logical to require that the Ten Commandments should be recited every day. Why does one not recite them? Because of the arguments of the minim, that they should not say that only these were given to Moses at Sinai.[23]

The Decalogue Today

While the rabbis demoted the Decalogue from its central place within Jewish liturgy and ritual, it nevertheless retains some prominence, at least on a symbolic level. In many synagogues, images representing the Ten Words are included on the cover of the Torah scroll, or on the Ark or the curtain to the Ark. The text holds a similar significance within Christianity, as many churches display a picture or wood carving of Moses with the tables of the Decalogue, and sometimes also the full text of the Decalogue.

 

Appendix:

The Varying Divisions of the Decalogue

Exod 20

Deut 5

Josephus Philo

Calvinist

Jewish

Roman Catholic

Lutheran

Samaritan

2

6

I am the LORD your God, […].

 

(1)

 

 

3

7

you shall have no other gods before me.

(1)

(2)

(1)

(1)

4–6

8–10

You shall not make for yourself an idol, […].

(2)

 

 

 

7

11

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of God […].

(3)

(3)

(2)

(2)

8–11

12–15

Remember/Keep the sabbath day, […].

(4)

(4)

(3)

(3)

12

16

Honor father and mother, […].

(5)

(5)

(4)

(4)

13

17

You shall not kill.

(6 [Philo: 7])

(6)

(5)

(5)

14

18

You shall not commit adultery.

(7 [Philo: 6])

(7)

(6)

(6)

15

19

You shall not steal.

(8)

(8)

(7)

(7)

16

20

You shall not bear false witness […].

(9)

(9)

(8)

(8)

17

21

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house;

(10)

(10)

(9)

(9)

 

 

you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, […]. [both coveting commandments occur in reverse order in Deut 5:21]

 

 

(10)

 

 

 

[Samaritan tenth commandment]

(10)

Published

July 28, 2023

|

Last Updated

March 10, 2024

Footnotes

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Prof. J. Cornelis de Vos is Extraordinary Professor of New Testament and Ancient Judaism at Münster University, Germany. He received his PhD in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament from the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, and his Habilitation in Ancient Judaism and New Testament from the University of Münster. He specializes in ancient ethics and the meaning of the land of Israel for Jews and Christians. His publications include Rezeption und Wirkung des Dekalogs in jüdischen und christlichen Schriften bis 200 n.Chr. (Brill, 2016) and Heiliges Land und Nähe Gottes: Wandlungen alttestamentlicher Landvorstellungen in frühjüdischen und neutestamentlichen Schriften (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012).