The Ten Commandments,  core of the Mosaic law

Origin and structure

The Ten Commandments were given to Moses during the Exodus (Ex 20:2-17, Deut 5:6-21) and formed the basis of a covenant between Israel and their God. Hence they are of profound significance to both Judaism and Christianity.

They are broadly divisible into an initial group (1-4), that concern relationship with God, and a later group (5-10), that concern relationship between people. 

Jesus’ approach

Jesus seems to have considered the first three commandments so foundational that they didn’t even need mentioning. Regarding the fourth, Sabbath observance, he claimed that he and his disciples were exempt on the grounds that they were acting as priests. The remaining six he recognised.

When a young man asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to obey commandments 6, 7, 8, 9, then omits  the tenth before citing the fourth, 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 the wrong commandment rather than omit one altogether. Whichever is closer to what really happened, the young man should still have noticed the error and queried it. That was precisely what Jesus was expecting and so when the query failed to materialise, he challenge the young man in that precise area.

Jesus also focuses on these six commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, where after commending those who have obeyed 1-3, in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-10), he affirms the significance of the divine law and then considers what it meant for his followers to obey 5-6 in the light of obeying 1-3.

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. However, opinions vary over how they were distributed between the stones. The 1-4/5-10 split is often favoured and it is common to find the commandments in older Churches, 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.

Abbreviations

  • 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),
2 (J)
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
6 Don’t murder 6 6 5
7 Don’t commit adultery 7 7 6
8 Don’t steal 8 8 7
9 Don’t give false testimony 9 9 8
10 Don’t covet your neighbours wife 10 10
Don’t  covet anything else your neighbour has 10