The Ten Commandments, core of the Mosaic law
Origin and structure
The Ten Commandments were, according to the scriptures, divinely
inscribed on tablets of stone during Israel's escape from captivity in
Egypt, for Moses to present to the people of
Israel (Ex 20:2-17, Deut 5:6-21) as the basis of
their covenant with God. Hence the Ten Commandments are of
profound significance to both Judaism and Christianity.
The Ten Commandments are set within a broader law code that was adopted by Israel and shares many of its characteristics (though not its contents) with other nation's law codes from around the time at which the Bible sets the Exodus. The Ten Commandments themselves are broadly divisible into an initial group (1-4), that concern people's relationship with God, and a later group (5-10), that concern relationships between people.
Jesus seems to have considered the first four commandments, those defining people's relationship to God, so foundational that he didn't always mentioned them when dealing with the commandments, but instead referred to just referred to the latter six, the inter-personal ones. Though the fourth, Sabbath observance, might, on some occasions, be omitted because of his disciples special status with regard to it (as discussed below). The final six commandments, Jesus seems to have recognised as a distinct group, which he sometimes chose to emphasise in isolation from the rest.
Jesus' use of the final six commandments as a unit is illustrated by the account of his meeting with a rich young ruler. When a young man asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to obey commandments six to nine, then omits the tenth, before citing the fifth, just to make the omission more obvious (Matt 19:16-22, Luke 18:18-23). The parallel passage in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:17-22) has Jesus substitute a hint at the tenth commandment rather than omit it altogether. Whichever is closer to what really happened, Jesus was expecting the young man to notice the error and queried it. When the expected query failed to materialise, Jesus knew to challenge the young man in that precise area.
Jesus also focuses on the final six commandments in the Sermon on the
Mount, where after commending those who have obeyed 1-3, in the
5:3-10), he affirms the fifth in his discussion of the
significance of the divine law (Matt 5:13-20), and
then, in the antitheses, considers what it meant for his followers to
obey the final five commandments in the light of obeying the first
Rules for relationships
The Apostle Paul notes that ‘Honour your father and mother’ was the first commandment to come with a promise (Eph 6:2), the last six commandments were different from all the earlier ones as they related to the relationships between people, rather than that between people and God.
Scope of the Sabbath commandment
Jesus taught that, as he and his disciples were priests and therefore servants of God, God required them to work on the Sabbath (Luke 6:2-4, Matt 12:5). As these priests served Jesus, it was up to him what they did or did not do on the Sabbath (Luke 6:5). just like any other priest in Israel. He argued that the nature of their service was comparable to drawing a valued animal or your son out of a pit, an activity anyone would undertake on the Sabbath in order to preserve such a valuable life (Luke 6:8, 14:5). Likewise, so they would not die, animals were untied and led to water of the Sabbath (Luke 13:15). If such work was permitted to save an animal or a son, then surely it was permitted to save a man’s soul.
The tablets of stone
Exodus 24:12 states that God wrote the commandments and law on two tablets of stone as a sign to Israel (a common practice at that time). Many consider this a reference to the Ten Commandments, the full law being rather too extensive to fit on two tablets. Opinions, however, vary over how the commandments were distributed between the stones. A 1-4/5-10 split is often favoured and, in older Churches, it is common to find the commandments depicted on stylised tablets where they are divided in that manner. Yet, as the Mosaic law advocates that important issues requiring testimony were to be decided by two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15), the possibility that these tablets were two identical copies, each bearing 1-10, should not be ruled out.
Variations in numbering
In referring to the commandments, this site follows the Anglican and Reformed Church numbering, which is close to that used within the Orthodox Church (Mastrantonis 1996, n.p.). The catechism of the Roman Catholic church subsumes Deut 5:8-10 within the meaning of Deut 5:7, effectively merging two elements that others see as distinct commandments. The Smaller Catechism of the Lutheran Church (Luther 2015, n.p.) follows the Catholic practice. Even within Judaism, which would assert that all the 613 mitzvot (=commands) carry equal weight (just as Jesus does in Matt 5:19-20), the Aseret ha-Dibrot (those Christians which think of as the ten commandments, but with slightly differing divisions) are given prominence, being listed as the first ten of the 613 (Rich 2011, n.p.). Whilst the order for the Aseret ha-Dibrot, as understood by later Judism, differed from the Anglican/Reformed division, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus reports a sub-division which agrees with theirs (Antiquities 3.91). The following table summarises these differences.
- A = Anglican Church, Reformed Church, Judaism (Josephus, 1st C. C.E.)
- J = Judaism (Talmudic)
- L = Lutheran
- O = Orthodox Church
- Rc = Roman Catholic
- Re = Reformed Church
|Summary of commandment||Conventional numbering|
|I am the Lord your God||Preface (A, Re),
1 (J, O, Rc, L)
|You shall have no other Gods||1 (A, Re, O, Rc, L),
|Not to make for yourself any idol or image||1 (Rc, L),
2 (A, Re, J, O)
|Take the name of God in vain||2 (Rc, L),
3 (A, Re, J, O)
|Keep the Sabbath day holy||3 (Rc, L),
4 (A, Re, J, O)
|Honour your parents||4 (Rc, L),
5 (A, Re, J, O)
|Don’t murder||5 (Rc, L),
6 (A,Re, J, O)
|Don’t commit adultery||6 (Rc, L),
7 (A,Re, J, O)
|Don’t steal||7 (Rc, L),
8 (A,Re, J, O)
|Don’t give false testimony||8 (Rc, L),
9 (A,Re, J, O)
|Don’t covet your neighbours wife||9 (Rc, L),
10 (A,Re, J, O)
|Don’t covet anything else your neighbour has||10 (Rc, L, A, Re, J, O)|
|Anglican Church, Reformed Church||Summary of passage||Judaism (Talmudic)||Orthodox Church||R.C., Luth.|
|Preface||I am the Lord your God||1||1||1|
|1||You shall have no other Gods||2|
|2||Not to make for yourself any idol or image||2|
|3||Take the name of God in vain||3||3||2|
|4||Keep the Sabbath day holy||4||4||3|
|5||Honour your parents||5||5||4|
|7||Don’t commit adultery||7||7||6|
|9||Don’t give false testimony||9||9||8|
|10||Don’t covet your neighbours wife||10||10||9|
|Don’t covet anything else your neighbour has||10|