No ancient law collection is as well-known today as the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, thanks in part to American politics and cinema as well as, of course, the Bible. The Decalogue exhibits an unmatchable simplicity of expression, making it one of the most memorized passages in the Bible. It is also the most fought-over biblical passage in American civil culture. To display or not to display the Ten Commandments on government property remains a controversial issue in light of the establishment clause in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Did you know…?
- The right translation from the Hebrew for the Ten Commandments is literally, “ten words.” The Greek translation, “Decalogue” (deca = ten, logos = word) is more accurate.
- There are two distinct versions of the Decalogue in the Hebrew Bible (
Exod 20:2-17, Deut 5:6-21).
- The Decalogue contains a well-structured movement from the religious to the civil.
- The Decalogue contains much more than simply commandments.
- There are three different traditions of numbering the ten “words” (Jewish; Eastern Orthodox and Reformed; Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran). While the first “word” in the Jewish numbering tradition is God’s self-presentation in
Exod 20:2, the various Christian traditions consider Exod 20:3to be the beginning of the series.
- The Decalogue contains no reference to penalties for violation.
- The Decalogue assumes the existence of other gods (see
Is the Decalogue simply a list of prohibitions?
Popular versions of the Decalogue as found in souvenir shops and front yards are typically stripped-down versions of what is found in the Bible. Look at
Most abbreviated versions of the Decalogue omit the first verse (
Several of the Decalogue’s commandments are part carrot, part stick. They feature a God who persuades: Honoring parents leads to a long life “in the land” (
Are the Ten Commandments the foundation of western civil law?
No, and for three reasons. The first is that the “commandments” in
The second reason is that as foundational as it may seem, the Decalogue is not rigidly fixed in the Bible itself. Another version appears in
The third reason is that the Decalogue is not the only law collection in the Hebrew Bible. Immediately following its presentation in