Thursday, February 11, 2010

Numbering the Ten Commandments

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about numbering the Ten Commandments:

Q:  Why are the Ten Commandments assigned different numbers in different types of churches?

The complete list of Ten Commandments is found in two places in the Bible:  Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.  These two biblical lists are primarily the same, with only slight variations in wording.  However, neither of these lists is numbered.  Beginning very early in Judaism, the commandments have always been numbered as ten, but even among Jewish rabbis, the numbering of the list has varied over the course of time.  Likewise, among Christians the arrangement of the commandments has often varied, although always adding up to ten.

There are two primary ways that the commandments are numbered today among Christians.  The first, and the one with which I am most familiar, is that held by Lutherans and Roman Catholics.  In this system, the commandments are numbered as follows:

  1.  You shall have no other gods.
  2. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
  3. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
  4. Honor your father and mother.
  5. You shall not murder.
  6. You shall not commit adultery.
  7. You shall not steal.
  8. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
  9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. [The words “wife” and “house” may be reversed in different traditions.]
The second way that the commandments are numbered is held by most Protestant denominations and Eastern Orthodox churches, who consider the Second Commandment to be “You shall not make for yourself any graven image.”  Commandments three through eight above are then numbered one higher and commandments nine and ten are combined into a single commandment.  The way that the commandments have been phrased here is condensed for the sake of memorization.  All eleven of the commands listed so far, along with some introduction and commentary, are a part of the commandments as written in the Bible.  The difference is not in the content of the commandments, but only in their numbering. 

St. Augustine, who is considered one of the greatest theologians in Christian history, began the tradition of numbering the commandments in the way familiar to Lutherans and Roman Catholics.  It is a result of his influence that the Roman Catholic Church numbers the commandments as they do.  Martin Luther began his theological studies as a Catholic monk, and was familiar with the writings of St. Augustine.  Since he saw no deficiencies with that numbering of the commandments, Lutherans continued to number them in the same way as Roman Catholics, even after they became separate churches. 

The numbering system used by most Protestants and the Eastern Orthodox comes from another ancient Christian teacher named Origin.  All Christians, regardless of which numbering system they use, acknowledge that all the words of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 are God’s commands.  Lutherans and Catholics still believe that God commands humans not to make or worship idols, but they consider these words to be an explanation of the first commandment against having other gods rather than a separate commandment.

More important than the way in which the Ten Commandments are numbered is that Christians continually examine their lives in light of them, repenting where they have failed, receiving the forgiveness of Jesus, and going forward again with the desire to keep them with a thankful faith toward God which results a fervent love for one another.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article. I'll link this video describing the Dead Sea Scrolls and a later document called "Oriental 4445" if you want further insight:

    In particular, check out about 16:23 into the video, which shows the oldest known Hebraic Old Testament manuscript (Oriental 4445, 850-950 AD) and how the commandments were divided. Augustine used the same convention, and Luther took his convention.