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Sidnie White Crawford





The Many Recensions of the Ten Commandments



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Sidnie White Crawford





The Many Recensions of the Ten Commandments






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The Many Recensions of the Ten Commandments

Beyond the two versions of the Decalogue in Exodus and Deuteronomy, and the usual differences between MT, SP, and LXX, in Second Temple times, liturgical texts in Qumran (4QDeutn) and Egypt (Nash Papyrus), Greek references in the New Testament and Philo, and even tefillin parchments, reflect slightly different recensions of the text.


The Many Recensions of the Ten Commandments

Nash Papyrus (MS Or.233) University of Cambridge (CC BY-NC 3.0)

The Decalogue, עשרת הדברים, the Ten Words or Sayings (Deuteronomy 4:13),[1] first appear in Exodus as God’s commandments to Israel at Mount Sinai (Exod 20:1-17). They are presented again in Deuteronomy as the commandments that God spoke to the Israelites directly on Mount Horeb (Deut 4:10), and which Moses is now repeating to their descendants on the plains of Moab, before they enter the Promised Land.

Although in Deuteronomy Moses is supposedly repeating verbatim what God spoke a generation before, the two versions of the Decalogue (Exod 20:2–17, Deut 5:6–21) are different in a number of details. Moreover, when we widen the lens and look at variants in Second Temple literature, or non-Masoretic forms of the text, we can see that the Decalogue existed in many slightly different recensions.  

The Big Three

One relatively straightforward example of such differences can be found in the commandments concerning murder, adultery and theft. The Masoretic Text (MT) of Exodus and Deuteronomy for these three laws contains a slight difference:

Exodus (20:12) Deuteronomy (5:16)
לֹא תִּרְצָח
Do not murder
לֹא תִּרְצָח
Do not murder
לֹא תִּנְאָף
Do not commit adultery
וְלֹא תִּנְאָף
And do not commit adultery
לֹא תִּגְנֹב.
Do not steal.
וְלֹא תִּגְנֹב.
And do not steal.

These extra conjunctions do not appear in the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP), the Septuagint (LXX), or the Vulgate, whose Deuteronomy reads like Exodus.[2] This, of course, is a very minor variant, though an important one, since the version in Deuteronomy can be read as comprising a single verse, and thus a single commandment or set of commandments, while Exodus unambiguously contains three distinct commandments.

A larger variation of these three laws is found outside MT, in different textual traditions, and concerns the order of the commandments. 

Murder First

The order familiar from MT, murder, adultery, then theft, is also found in the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Syriac Peshitta, and in several Septuagint manuscripts. This is also the order in Mark 10:19, according to which Jesus responds to a questioner:

You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud;[3] Honor your father and mother.” (NRSV)

Here Jesus lists commandments 6 through 9 in the familiar order, then jumps back to the fifth commandment (honoring parents). In a parallel story, found in Matthew 19:18–19, Jesus tells a questioner about the commandments:

And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (NRSV)

In this version, Jesus lists the same commandments in same order, but finishes with an entirely different passage, Leviticus 19:18, which can be understood as a summary statement for the preceding commandments.[4]


4QDeutn is a small Hebrew manuscript found in Cave 4, Qumran.  It dates paleographically (according to the handwriting style) to the last third of the first century B.C.E.[5]  It consists of six columns, before breaking off in the sixth column; column 1 contains Deut 8:1-5, while cols. 2-6 contain 5:1-6:1.  The aberrant order of the chapters indicates that 4QDeutn was not a complete manuscript of the book of Deuteronomy, but rather a liturgical or study text (like a prayer book).[6]

The order of the sixth, seventh, and eighth commandments in 4QDeutn is in agreement with MT and SP,[7] though it follows the latter in leaving out the “and” before the second and third commandments. Since 4QDeutn was copied in Judea, it makes sense that it follows the order at home in Palestine.

Adultery First

In the Septuagint manuscript Vaticanus[8] (both Exodus and Deuteronomy) and in certain other Exodus Septuagint manuscripts,[9] the order is adultery, murder, and theft.  This order is also reflected in Philo (On the Decalogue 24–26):

121 Having then now philosophized in this manner about the honor to be paid to parents, he closes the one and more divine table of the first five commandments. And being about to promulgate the second which contains the prohibitions of those offenses which are committed against men, he begins with adultery, looking upon this as the greatest of all violations of the law… 132 The second commandment of this second table is to do no murder… 135 The third commandment of the second table of five is not to steal. (Yonge trans.)

This order also appears in certain New Testament passages. For instance, in Luke 18:20, which is a parallel text to the Mark and Matthew stories quoted above, Jesus says to “a certain ruler”:

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.” (NRSV)

Paul’s epistle to the Romans (13:9) also has this order:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In addition to using the alternative, adultery first order, Paul skips over the commandment not to testify falsely and finishes with the final commandment not to covet.[10]

Nash Payrus

The Nash Papyrus, named after W. L. Nash, who acquired it in Egypt in 1903,[11] consists of four Hebrew fragments that date paleographically to the second century B.C.E.,[12] and preserves the text of the Decalogue and the Shema (Deut 6:4-9).  It appears not to have been a full manuscript of the book of Deuteronomy, but some kind of liturgical text, used in the recitation of daily prayers.[13]

The sixth, seventh, and eighth commandments in the Nash Papyrus read:

לוא תנאף
18–19 Do not commit adultery;
לוא תרצח
  Do not murder;
לו[א] [תג]נב
  Do no[t st]eal.

The papyrus preserves the order found in the Septuagint and Philo, rather than the Masoretic order. Since the Nash Papyrus was found in Egypt, and both the Septuagint and Philo are also from Egypt, it is probable that a Hebrew text of the Ten Commandments, which preserved the order adultery, murder, theft, was in circulation in Egypt in this period.  The scribe of the Nash Papyrus is simply copying the order he knew from his source text(s).

In short, this difference in order indicates that the order of the elements of the Decalogue was fluid through the first century C.E.

Two Revisions of an Older Sabbath Command

The most pronounced difference between the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions of the Decalogue appear in the fourth commandment on Sabbath observance.[14] The text begins with relatively small differences (bolded), namely, the very first word (“remember” vs. “observe”), the addition of specific animals in Deuteronomy, as well as the Deuteronomic formula “as YHWH your God has commanded you.” (The dashes in the tetragrammaton throughout are not in the original text)

Exodus 20 Deuteronomy 5
שמות כ׃ח זָכוֹר אֶת־יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ׃ כ׃ט שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל־מְלַאכְתֶּךָ׃ כ׃י וְיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבָּת לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא־תַעֲשֶׂה כָל־מְלָאכָה אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ וּבְהֶמְתֶּךָ וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ׃
דברים ה׃יב שָׁמוֹר אֶת־יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ׃ ה׃יג שֵׁשֶׁת ימִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל־מְלַאכְתֶּיךָ׃ ה׃יד וְיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבָּת לַי-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה כָל־מְלָאכָה אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ־וּבִתֶּךָ וְעַבְדְךָ־וַאֲמַתֶךָ וְשׁוֹרְךָ וַחֲמֹרְךָ וכָל־בְּהֶמתֶּךָ וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ …
Exod 20:8 Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. 20:9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 20:10 but the seventh day is a sabbath of YHWH your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.  Deut 5:12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as YHWH your God has commanded you5:13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 5:14 but the seventh day is a sabbath of YHWH your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements…

The text then continues with its most obvious difference, namely the reason for the commandment:

Exodus 20 Deuteronomy 5
שמות כ׃יא כִּי שֵׁשֶׁת־יָמים עָשָׂה יְ-הוָה אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ אֶת־הַיָּם וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּם וַיָּנַח בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי עַל־כֵּן בֵּרַךְ יְ-הוָה אֶת־יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת וַיְקַדְּשֵׁהוּ׃
דברים ה׃יד …לְמַעַן יַנַוַּח עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמתְךָ כָּמְוֹךָ׃ ה:טווְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וַיֹּצִאֲך יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִשָּׁם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה עַל־כֵּןצִוְּךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־יוֹם הַשָּׁבַּת׃
Exod 20:11 For in six days YHWH made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore YHWH blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. Deut 5:14 …so that your male and female slave may rest as you do5:15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and YHWH your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore YHWH your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day.

In Exodus the reason is theological, harking back to the creation story in Gen 1:1-2:4a, where God rests on the seventh day after the labor of creation (Gen 2:2).  In Deuteronomy the reason is historical remembrance; as the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, they should allow their own slaves one day of rest per week.  This is in keeping with Deuteronomy’s humanistic emphasis and concern for the social good.[15] 

In both cases, these reasons were most likely added to an older, shorter version of the Decalogue, that predates its incorporation into Exodus and Deuteronomy respectively.[16] In this sense, the Decalogues as we have them can be seen as receptions of a now lost older Decalogue.  

The differences between the Exodus and Deuteronomy texts led to the creation of yet other hybrid versions in two manuscripts that were copied by ancient Jewish scribes in the last two centuries B.C.E.: the Nash Papyrus and 4QDeutn. Each offers a slightly different text of the Decalogue, influenced by both the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions, but for different reasons.

The Nash Papyrus—Working from Memory

The text of the fourth commandment in the Nash Papyrus, mentioned earlier, reads as follows ([brackets] are reconstructed text, underlines are Deuteronomic elements, bold are unique elements):[17]

זכור את יום השבת [לקדשו]  
9 Remember the sabbath day [to keep it holy].
[ששת ימי]ם תעבוד ועשית כל מלאכתך וביום [השביעי]
10 [Six day]s you shall labor and do all your work; but on the seventh day is
[שבת לי-הוה] אלהיך לוא[18]תעשה בה כל מלאכה [אתה]
11 [a sabbath to YHWH] your God; you shall not do in it any work—[you,]
[ובנך ובתך] עבדך ואמתך שורך וחמרך וכל ב[המתך]
12 [or your son or your daughter,] your male or female slave, your ox or your ass or any of [your] c[attle,]
[וגרך אשר] בשעריך כי ששת ימים עשה י[הוה]
13 [or the stranger who] is within your settlements.  For six days Y[HWH] made
[את השמי]ם ואת הארץ את הים ואת כל א[שר בם]
14 [the heaven]s and the earth, the sea and all that i[s in them,]
וינח [ביום] השביעי עלכן ברך י-הוה את [יום]
15 and He rested [on the] seventh [day.]  Therefore, YHWH blessed
השביעי ויקדשיו[19]
16 the seventh [day] and hallowed it.

It is immediately obvious that the Nash Papyrus preserves the Exodus version of the fourth commandment.  It begins with זכור (“remember”) and gives the theological reason for the commandment found in Exodus.  However, an element from the Deuteronomy version has crept in, at line 12: “your ox or your ass or any…” 

It seems likely that this scribe—or the scribe who wrote his base text—was writing from memory.  Scribes could work in two ways; they would copy from a written text in front of them, or they could write from memory.  Writing from memory produces a text with small variations from what we know as the written text, as we find here in the Nash Papyrus.[20]  In the case of our scribe, he must have known both the Exodus and the Deuteronomy versions of the Decalogue very well.  Although he seems to have intended to produce the Exodus version of the commandment, an element from Deuteronomy intruded from his memory. 

One element where the Nash Papyrus differs from the MT and SP of Exodus is in the final line (16), where YHWH blesses “the seventh day” as opposed to “the sabbath day.” This is the reading in the LXX (τὴν ἑβδόμην), however, and implies that the scribe had either this text or its Hebrew Vorlage (base text of a translation) in mind.

Another element where the papyrus differs from MT and SP of both Exodus and Deuteronomy is the particles ב “on” in line 10 and בה “in it” in line 11 (bolded above).[21] These new particles may be just an updating of the grammar of the older text by the scribe of the papyrus, or they may indicate that the scribe’s source text had the particles, as the Hebrew vorlage of the LXX also had.[22] Evidence for the latter is that these particles also appear in 4QDeutn.

4QDeutn—A Harmonistic Text

The text of the fourth commandment in 4QDeutn, described above, reads as follows (underlines are Deuteronomic elements, bold are the particles, bold and underlined are unique features):

שמור את יום השבת לקדשו כאשר צוך י-הוה
3.9 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as YHWH
אלוהיך ששת ימים תעבוד ועשית את כול מלאכתך
3.10 your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work,
וביום השביעי שבת לי-הוה אלֹהיך לוא תעשה בו כל מלאכה
3.11 but on the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall not do on it any work
אתה בנך בתך עבדך ואמתך שורך וחמורך
3.12 you, your son, your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass,
ובהמתך[23] גריך אשר בשעריך למען ינוח עבדך ואמתך
4.1 or your cattle, the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest
כמוך וזכרתה כי עבד היית בארץ מצרים ויציאך
4.2 as you do. And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and
י-הוה אלֹהיך משם ביד חזקה ובזרוע נטויה
4.3 YHWH your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm;
על כן צוך י-הוה אלוהיך לשמור[24] את יום השבת
4.4 therefore YHWH your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day
לקדשו כי ששת ימים עשה י-הוה את השמים ואת הארץ
4.5  to hallow it.  For in six days YHWH made heaven and earth,
את הים וכול אשר בם וינוח ביום השביעי על כן ברך י-הוה
4.6 the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore YHWH blessed
את יום השבת לקדשו
4.7 the sabbath day to hallow it.

As discussed at length in Esther Eshel’s “The Oldest Known Copy of the Decalogue,”( 2015), this version of the fourth commandment begins with Deut 5:12, as is clear from the use of the verb שמור (“observe”).  It then continues on in Deuteronomy with minor variants from the received text.  As noted above, 4QDeutn contains the particles ב and בו,in exactly the same place as the Nash Papyrus,[25] supporting the likelihood that a version of the Decalogue older than either 4QDeutn or the Nash Papyrus included those particles (as did the LXX’s Vorlage).

At the end of the Deuteronomic version of the commandment, 4QDeutn adds לקדשו, “to hallow it” (col. 4, line 5).  Following this, it offers the reason for Sabbath observance from Exodus, ending with the same לקדשו, what scholars call a Wiederaufnahme, a resumptive repetition, which is often a sign for scribal additions.[26] In this case, the scribe has harmonized the Deuteronomy and Exodus versions of the fourth commandment, by adding the reason for the sabbath as recorded in Exodus to the end, thereby creating a “mixed” text,[27] which must have been to him a more complete, better text.

Fluidity in Liturgical Texts

What do the Nash Papyrus and 4QDeutn demonstrate to us about the status of the Decalogue in the Second Temple period?  First, the Ten Commandments were excerpted from those books to create liturgical or study documents.  This coincides with the evidence of the tefillin found in the Qumran caves.  Over half of those tefillin slips contained the Ten Commandments, often with the same kind of mixed text we observed in 4QDeutn and the Nash Papyrus.[28] 

In addition, according to m. Tamid 5.1, the recital of the Ten Commandments was part of the daily Temple service.  Thus, in the Second Temple period the use of the Decalogue was a vital part of Jewish liturgical life, although this did not continue in the rabbinic period.

Second, both manuscripts exhibit the kind of “mixed” text that is most common among the Qumran biblical manuscripts.  Whether a scribe was working from memory (the Nash Papyrus) or deliberately creating a harmonized text (4QDeutn), scribes played important roles in the passing down of ancient texts, even such central texts as the Decalogue.


August 13, 2019


Last Updated

December 30, 2020


View Footnotes

Prof. Sidnie White Crawford is Willa Cather Professor (emerita) of Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and a Visiting Scholar in the Dept. of Bible at Princeton Theological Seminary.  She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1988, where she was a student of Frank Moore Cross.  Crawford was a member of the international team responsible for the editio princeps of the Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts, with special responsibility for the manuscripts of Deuteronomy (see Discoveries in the Judaean Desert XIII and XIV).  In her most recent publication, Scribes and Scrolls at Qumran (Eerdmans, 2019), a synthetic treatment of the texts and archaeology of Qumran, she argues that Qumran was founded in the early first century B.C.E. as a scribal center and library for the wider Essene movement in Second Temple Judaism. Crawford serves on the Council of the Society of Biblical Literature, and is Board Chair Emerita of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.