Ten Commandments

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A group of moral precepts in the Pentateuch, known also as the Decalogue, always regarded as of basic importance in both Judaism and Christianity. This article treats the Biblical data, the moral theology, and the catechistic role of the Ten Commandments.


The group of precepts traditionally known as the Ten Commandments are found in the Bible in two separate pericopes: Ex 20.117 and Dt 5.621. Both these pericopes are contained in narrations of the Sinaitic revelation and making of the covenant. The importance of these laws is shown by the fact that they are presented as written by Yahweh Himself on two tablets of stone (Ex 24.12; 31.18; Dt 4.13; 5.22). In fact, these laws represent a substantial part of the covenant, so that the covenant itself could be referred to as the Ten Commandments in Dt4.13; 10.4; Ex 34.28. They correspond to the stipulations of obligation in the Hittite suzerainty treaty form.

A comparison of the two lists of commandments shows that, while they are very similar, there are some variations between them. The principal variations are the different motives assigned for the Sabbath observance and the different ways of considering possessions. In Exodus a man's wife is ranked with his servants and his animals as forming part of his "house," i.e., his possessions, whereas in Deuteronomy she is placed first as distinct

from the rest of his possessions. This indicates that, behind the present form of the laws, there was a process of formation from more primitive forms.

Apodictic Law. The basic characteristic of the Ten Commandments is that they are apodictic laws, that is, they are in the form of brief imperatives or prohibitions, complete in themselves without any explanation. Studies have shown that this form of law is closely, though not exclusively, bound up with the history of Israel, in contrast to the form of casuistic law usually found in the ancient Near East. The apodictic form of the Ten Commandments thus gives important insight into their background and time of composition.

Their form, coupled with the realization that these precepts reflect ideas known in the ancient Near East as witnessed by the 125th chapter of the Egyptian Book of the Dead [J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (2d, rev. ed. Princeton 1955) 3436], the Babylonian hymn to Shamash (ibid., 387389), and the Assyrian exorcisms [H. Gressmann, Altorientalische Texte zum Alten Testament (2d ed. Berlin 1926) 912], has today led critical scholars generally to abandon the position that the Ten Commandments resulted from the preaching of the later classical Prophets. Rather, it is affirmed that they had their origin in Mosaic times and that there is no reason to doubt the tradition that connects them with Moses' activity as law-giver.

Since several of the commandments still retain their characteristically brief, negative form, the amplifications and assignment of motives to several others can be considered as secondary. Note, however, that the complete text as found in the Bible is certainly inspired and the consideration of certain phrases as secondary is done only to see more clearly the work of the inspired redactor(s).

The Number Ten. With this understanding, it is possible to proceed to an examination of the principal difference between the two lists with regard to the last commandment. This commandment is given in Ex 20.17 as a general prohibition against the desire of another's property, including his wife. In Dt 5.21 this commandment has a more elevated moral sense: the wife is considered first and separately, followed by a prohibition against the desire of another's property. The use of two different verbs to achieve this separation naturally leads to an apparent increase in the number of commandments. What then of the number ten, which seems to be the traditional number as appears from the use of the phrase "ten words" in Dt 4.13; 10.4; Ex 34.28? Some scholars hold that ten is only a round number in this context, especially when considered alongside of other lists of apodictic laws that appear in the Pentateuch.

The reality of this problem is felt even today, since the acceptance of the enumeration of commandments as found in Deuteronomy by St. Augustine and many Fathers of the West has led the Latin Church, as well as the Lutherans, to use this enumeration. Confusion arises from the fact that the enumeration as presented by the text of Exodus, which appears also in Jewish Rabbinic tradition, was adopted by St. Jerome and the Greek Fathers and so has resulted in a usage by the Greek Church differing from that of the Latin Church. Protestants other than Lutherans and the Jews also use the enumeration of Exodus.

Jewish tradition maintains the number ten by considering the first commandment to be Ex 20.2, which is viewed by others as a prologue to the Commandments. The Christians who follow the tradition of Exodus seek to maintain the tradition of ten by splitting into two commandmentsEx 20.3 and Ex 20.46what is considered as one commandment by the tradition of the West, namely, Dt 5.710. Such a split is considered to represent the more original form of the Decalogue. The fusion into one commandment would have taken place after the dividing of the last one as an attempt to maintain the number ten.

This opinion, that Ex 20.4a was originally a separate commandment, seems to be a satisfactory solution, especially if it is maintained that it represents a prohibition against making idols of Yahweh, since it would then conform to the nature of apodictic law by regulating a matter different from that of the first commandment.

Nothing definite can be said regarding the division of the original ten commandments on the two stone tablets, even though the tablets are mentioned several times in the Pentateuch, e.g., Ex 34.29 and Dt 4.13.

Bibliography: j. j. stamm, Le Decalogue, tr. p. reymond (Cahiers Théologiques 43; Neuchâtel 1959). g. e. mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh 1955) repr. from Biblical Archeology 17 (1954) 2646, 4976. g. von rad, Old Testament Theology, tr. d. m. g. stalker, 2 v. (New York 1962) v.1.

[s. m. polan]


Among all the directives of God, the Ten Commandmentsthe Decalogue, from the Greek δέκα and λóγοι, literally "the ten words"are given preeminence in the Scriptures of the Old Testament and especially in the theological reflection of the people of the covenant. Indeed, the literary genre of the account makes this clear: in the midst of the mighty revelation of the holiness and goodness of God, the Commandments as the conclusion of the covenant of Sinai were directly announced to Moses alone, who in turn communicated them to the people, imposing them as a perpetual remembrance (Exodus ch. 19, 25). In Ex 20.117 they are found in their oldest redaction. In contrast with the other ancient legal maxims that were handed down along with "the ten words" only the Decalogue was said to have been written by the finger of God upon the two tablets (Ex 24.12; 31.18). In the account of the renewal of the tablets, Exodus says explicitly that God "wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments" (34.28).

The Law of the Covenant and Moral Norms. The Decalogue must be viewed basically in terms of the covenant of God with the people. The covenant is a pure gift. And thus also the observance of the Ten Commandments of God is not primarily an accomplishment through which man first merits membership in the covenant. The negative character of the formulation has a deep theological meaning. The Israelite must be careful lest he fall out of the unique reality of the covenant. And yet the fulfillment of the Decalogue is eminently positive: gratefully remaining within the covenant and acting according to the gift of the covenant. Primarily the Decalogue concerns the people as a whole; each individual is personally addressed as a member of the people. Belonging to the salvific community is the most manifest basis of his personal obligation. Solidarity and personal obligation are united in perfect synthesis. The salvific-social basis determines the individuals place, duties, and rights in the community. The community of the Israelites with one another has its ultimate and strongest basis in the covenant of God with His people.

Structure and Meaning. From antiquity there has been a diversity of opinion with respect to the enumeration and ordering of the individual Commandments. Catholics consider the Commandment "You shall not have other gods besides me" along with the First Commandment as a positive specification or explanation, following St. Augustine. Othersabove all, the Reformersconsider this as the Second Commandment. (Accordingly, what Catholics consider as the Second Commandment, others consider as the Third, etc.) Likewise, they then take the Commandment forbidding the coveting of a neighbor's wife together with that regarding the coveting of a neighbor's goods. In so doing they follow the oldest tradition, going back to Philo and Origen.

The first three Commandments (according to the other reckoning, the first four) govern the relation to the covenant of God. In them the primacy of the religious sphere is clearly expressed. The observance of the whole of the Decalogue, but especially and in a unique way the absolutely exclusive worship of Yahweh, is an act of thanksgiving for liberation from Egypt and for the gift of the covenant. The following Commandment forbidding idolatry serves as a protection for the exclusive worship required of the people with whom God has entered into covenant. The destiny of the people of the covenant is shaped by the purity of the worship of God. Honoring the name of God and keeping holy the Sabbath are expressions of worship and loving reverence for the God of the covenantexpressions of fidelity to Him. As indicated in the first tablet, the purity of divine worship decides the destiny of the people. The focal point of the second tablet is the relation of the members of the people of the covenant to each other, family sense, piety toward one's parents. It bears the promise for prosperity in the social order and participation in the land of the covenant. The next Commandments protect life, marital fidelity, property, and the trustworthiness of testimony. At the conclusion, morality of the heart is enjoined: an evil act and an evil desire are both opposed to the fidelity owed to the God of the covenant and the people of the covenant. The close juxtaposition of the Commandments concerning the desire for one's neighbors wife and for his property and home is to be understood in terms of the sociological background, which imposes certain limitations upon his freedom of action. Basically, it is a question of the social aspect of marital chastity in conjunction with the morality of the heart.

The Decalogue and the Law of Christ. Already among the teachers of the Old Testament there was great freedom in formulating the Decalogue. Distinguished exegetes believe that the primitive form of the Decalogue was as short as that in the catechism today. In any case, both of the main texts (Ex 20.117; Dt 5.621) present noticeable variationsfor example, the different bases for the Sabbath Commandment: in one place the basis is considered to be the transcendence of God the Creator; in the other, it is considered to be the salvific acts of God, which lay the foundation for a salvific-social thought. Deuteronomy (5.21) displays a finer sense of the dignity of womanhood, while Exodus (20.17) first forbids desiring the neighbor's house and then his wife. It would be an understatement to say that in presentation of the Decalogue Christ offered a still greater freedom, and in a manner still clearer than that of the teachers of the Old Testament, He gathered all together under the law of love. Jesus pedagogically began with the knowledge of the Decalogue proper to the Jews. But He is infinitely more than a promulgator of law: He is Himself "the new law and the new Covenant" (Justin, Dial., 11, 43; Patrologia Graeca 6:497499, 568). For the Christian, the greater reality on which his duty is founded is life in Christ. Christ has expressed this blessed reality in the form of the new law through His words and example, and above all through the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew ch. 57) and the farewell discourse (John ch. 1417) The Decalogue falls far short of this directive toward perfection. To attempt to represent it as a summa of Christian morality implies an inadmissible impoverishment. Whoever wishes to consider it, following Augustine, as the basis for a moral schema must present it in the light of the New Testament and New Testament law (Sermon on the Mount and the farewell discourse) and this in the light of Christ and of life in Christ. Each individual Commandment must be seen as demanding that love that God has given us in Christ.

When it is said that the Decalogue is not the characteristic expression of the New Testament and the Law of the New Testament, it should not be understood, however, that the Ten Commandments do not apply to the Christian [H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum (32 ed. Freiburg 1963) 1569]. Apart from the two commandments of purely positive law forbidding the veneration of images and commanding observance of the Sabbath, which were abolished and indirectly fulfilled in a higher mode of divine worship, the Commandments of the Decalogue remain as an enduring expression of the natural law and thus are contained, though surpassed as a partmodest indeedof the New Testament law.

Bibliography: p. althaus, Gebot and Gesetz (Gütersloh 1952). m. p. butler, "Must We Teach Morality according to the Decalogue," Worship 37 (1964) 293300. w. dress, "Die Zehn Gebote und der Dekalog," Theologische Literaturzeitung 79 (1954) 415422. l. hartman, "The Enumeration of the Ten Commandments," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 7 (1945) 105108. h. h. rowley, "Moses and the Decalogue," The Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 34 (195152) 81118, also separately pub. (Manchester 1951).

[b. hÄring]


The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "Ever since St. Augustine, the Ten Commandments have occupied a predominant place in the catechesis of baptismal candidates and the faithful"(2064). The statement needs to be qualified because it was only when the Church's penitential rites became linked to confessional practice, sometime about the beginning of the 8th century, that the Decalogue became a standard formula in catechesis.

The Twofold Commandment of Love. Although a number of passages in both the Gospels and the Epistles cite individual commandments, the Ten Commandments are not listed in their entirety anywhere in the New Testament nor are they referred to collectively. In the gospels of Mark and Matthew Jesus identifies love of God and love of neighbor as the two commandments that are the basis of the law and prophets. In response to the scribe in Mark's gospel who asks, "Which is the first of all the commandments?," Jesus replies quoting the Shema and Deuteronomic text (6.45): "The first is this: 'Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment great than these" (Mk 12.2831). In Matthew's gospel a Pharisee asks much the same question and Jesus responds in much same way again quoting Deuteronomy, calling it "the greatest and the first commandment," and then adds, "The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments"(Mt 22.3340).

Augustine's Enchiridion (c. 419/422) outlines the contents of catechesis on the basis of the Creed (faith), the Lord's Prayer (hope), and the twofold commandment of love. The last section is by far the shortest. He writes, "every commandment concerns charity" (par. 120). The only explicit reference to the Decalogue, and it is by way of example, is the text, "You shall not commit adultery" (Ex 20.14; Dt. 5.18). Augustine repeatedly cites the twofold commandment of charity in his sermons and in a text quoted in the Catechism (2067), he clearly links it to the Ten Commandments.

As charity comprises the two commandments to which the Lord related the whole Law and the prophets so the Ten Commandments were themselves given on two tablets. Three were written on one tablet and seven on the other (Sermo 33, 2, 2).

For him the first three commandments (through to Sabbath-observance) center on love of God, the remaining seven on love of neighbor.

St. Thomas Aquinas expounded the Decalogue in the context of the twofold commandment of love in a series of catechetical instructions delivered in the vernacular during Lent of 1273. At the beginning of the sermons on the Commandments he quoted Augustine's Enchiridion, "Three things are necessary for salvation, knowledge of what must be believed; knowledge of what must be hoped for; and knowledge of what must be done." The first written catechism, The Lay Folks' Catechism commissioned by the Archbishop of York, John Thoresby (1357), continued the tradition of listing the Commandments in groups of three and seven. But as the sacrament of penance and confession became an occasion for catechesis, the division was lost sight of and the list of the Ten Commandments became a free-standing formula to be memorized. The Lay Folks' Catechism directed confessors to ask whether the penitents knew the Ten Commandments. They were one of six items that parish priests were to inquire about when people made their annual Lenten confession. If not always observed in practice, the tradition of examining the laity about the Ten Commandments became well established in the late Middle Ages. In 1518 Martin Luther had a poster printed with the heading, "A Short Explanation of the Ten Commandments" as an aid to assist people preparing for confession.

Reformation and Post-Reformation Catechisms. Luther's catechismsboth large and smallgave new prominence to the Ten Commandments. His theology of Law and Gospel caused him to position the Ten Commandments first, before his explanation of the Creed and the Lord's Prayer. Catholic catechisms generally continued to follow the traditional order of treating the Creed before the Commandments. The Summa of St. Peter Canisius which exercised a major influence on the contents of post-Reformation catechisms adopted the Augustinian pattern of Faith, Hope, and Charity but added a fourth element, Sacraments. The Catechism of the Council of Trent, the so-called Roman Catechism, has four parts but in a different sequence: Creed, Sacraments, Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. The first edition of the Baltimore Catechism (1885) that provided the syllabus for Catholic religion textbooks in the United States for half a century followed the basic plan of Trent. The revised edition (1941), however, changed the order to Creed, Commandments, Sacraments and Prayer, again to give greater emphasis to the Decalogue.

To the extent that the Ten Commandments became the only and almost exclusive framework for teaching Catholic moral doctrine, the emphasis on the Decalogue in catechesis was criticized. The principal criticisms were two. First, in making the Ten Commandments a standalone list of moral norms to be committed to memory, they became dissociated from the Shema and Covenant theme in Exodus and Deuteronomy of which they were an integral part. Second, they overshadowed, even displaced, the twofold commandment of love, that in the New Testament is clearly the basis on which the law and prophets depend. The Catechism of the Catholic Church corrects the one-dimensional presentation of the Ten Commandments and rejoins them to the twofold commandment of love (20522074). The CCC acknowledges that the Decalogue is one of the "four pillars of catechesis." It follows the order of the Catechism of the Council of TrentCreed, Liturgy, Commandments, and Lord's Prayerand it reaffirms St. Augustine's dictum, "every commandment concerns charity."

Bibliography: j. a. slattery, The Catechetical Use of the Decalogue from the End of the Catechumenate through the Late Medieval Period (PhD. disseration, The Catholic University of America, 1980). b. l. marthaler, The Catechism Yesterday and Today (Collegeville, MN 1995). w. langer in j. gevaert, ed., Dizionario di catechetica (Turin 1986).

[b. l. marthaler]

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Ten Commandments or Decalogue [Gr.,=ten words], in the Bible, the summary of divine law given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. They have a paramount place in the ethical systems of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Listed in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, the commandments are divided into divided into duties toward God and toward one's family and neighbors and society. Their normative status is indicated by their prescriptive and unconditional language. They function as general stipulations decreed by God as part of His covenant with the people of Israel. In both Exodus and Deuteronomy, the case law following the listing of the commandments is based on them and deduced from the principles contained in them. In Islamic tradition, Moses brings new revelation in the form of the commandments.

See M. Coogan, The Ten Commandments: A Short History of an Ancient Text (2014).

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Ten Commandments (Decalogue) Code of ethical conduct held in Judaeo-Christian tradition to have been revealed by God to Moses on Mount Sinai during the Hebrew exodus from Egypt (c.1200 bc). They represent the moral basis of the Covenant made by Yahweh (God) with Israel.

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Ten Commandments. The Decalogue, the ten laws proclaimed by God to Moses as the representative of the Jewish people. The Ten Commandments are recorded in Exodus 20. 2–14 and Deuteronomy 5. 6–18. Although they have been made a foundation for morality in general, they are in fact addressed only to adult Israelite males.

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