The Ten Commandments (Hebrew: עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדִּבְּרוֹת, Aseret ha’Dibrot), also known as the Decalogue, are a set of biblical principles relating to ethics and worship that play a fundamental role in Judaism and Christianity. The text of the Ten Commandments appears twice in the Hebrew Bible: at Exodus 20:2–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21.
Scholars disagree about when the Ten Commandments were written and by whom, with some modern scholars suggesting that they were likely modeled on Hittite and Mesopotamian laws and treaties. According to the book of Exodus in the Torah, the Ten Commandments were revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai and inscribed by the finger of God on two tablets of stone kept in the Ark of the Covenant.
In Biblical Hebrew, the Ten Commandments, called עשרת הדיברות (transliterated aseret ha-dibrot), are mentioned at Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13 and Deuteronomy 10:4. In all sources, the terms are translatable as “the ten words”, “the ten sayings”, or “the ten matters”.In the Septuagint (or LXX), the “ten words” was translated as “Decalogue”, which is derived from Greek δεκάλογος, dekalogos, the latter meaning and referring to the Greek translation (in accusative) δέκα λόγους, deka logous. This term is also sometimes used in English, in addition to Ten Commandments. The Tyndale and Coverdale English biblical translations used “nine verses”. The Geneva Bible used “ten commandments”, which was followed by the Bishops’ Bible and the Authorized Version (the “King James” version) as “ten commandments”. Most major English versions use the word “commandments”.The stone tablets, as opposed to the ten commandments inscribed on them, are called לוחות הברית, Lukhot HaBrit, meaning “the tablets of the covenant”.
The biblical narrative of the revelation at Sinai begins in Exodus 19 after the arrival of the children of Israel at Mount Sinai (also called Horeb). On the morning of the third day of their encampment, “there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud”, and the people assembled at the base of the mount. After “the LORD came down upon mount Sinai”, Moses went up briefly and returned to prepare the people, and then in Exodus 20 “God spoke” to all the people the words of the covenant, that is, the “ten commandments” as it is written. Modern biblical scholarship differs as to whether Exodus 19–20 describes the people of Israel as having directly heard all or some of the decalogue, or whether the laws are only passed to them through Moses.The people were afraid to hear more and moved “afar off”, and Moses responded with “Fear not.” Nevertheless, he drew near the “thick darkness” where “the presence of the Lord” was to hear the additional statutes and “judgments”, all which he “wrote” in the “book of the covenant” which he read to the people the next morning, and they agreed to be obedient and do all that the LORD had said. Moses escorted a select group consisting of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and “seventy of the elders of Israel” to a location on the mount where they worshipped “afar off” and they “saw the God of Israel” above a “paved work” like clear sapphire stone.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tablets of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them. 13 And Moses rose up, and his minister Joshua: and Moses went up into the mount of God.
The mount was covered by the cloud for six days, and on the seventh day Moses went into the midst of the cloud and was “in the mount forty days and forty nights.” And Moses said, “the LORD delivered unto me two tablets of stone written with the finger of God; and on them was written according to all the words, which the LORD spake with you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly.” Before the full forty days expired, the children of Israel collectively decided that something had happened to Moses, and compelled Aaron to fashion a golden calf, and he “built an altar before it” and the people “worshipped” the calf.
After the full forty days, Moses and Joshua came down from the mountain with the tablets of stone: “And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tablets out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.” After the events in chapters 32 and 33, the LORD told Moses, “Hew thee two tablets of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tablets the words that were in the first tablets, which thou brakest.” “And he wrote on the tablets, according to the first writing, the ten commandments, which the LORD spake unto you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly: and the LORD gave them unto me.” These tablets were later placed in the ark of the covenant.
Although both the Masoretic Text and the Dead Sea Scrolls show the passages of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 divided into ten specific commandments with spaces between them, many Modern English Bible translations give the appearance of more than ten imperative statements in each passage.
Different religious traditions divide the seventeen verses of Exodus 20:1–17 and their parallels in Deuteronomy 5:4–21 into ten commandments in different ways, shown in the table below. Some suggest that the number ten is a choice to aid memorization rather than a matter of theology.
All scripture quotes above are from the King James Version unless otherwise stated.Traditions:
T: Jewish Talmud, makes the “prologue” the first “saying” or “matter” and combines the prohibition on worshiping deities other than Yahweh with the prohibition on idolatry.
R: Reformed Christians follow John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, which follows the Septuagint; this system is also used in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
LXX: Septuagint, generally followed by Orthodox Christians.
P: Philo, has an extensive homily on why the order is so important, with the prohibition on adultery “the greatest of the commands dealing with persons”, followed by the prohibitions against stealing and then killing last.
L: Lutherans follow Luther’s Large Catechism, which follows Augustine but subordinates the prohibition of images to the sovereignty of God in the First Commandment and uses the word order of Exodus 20:17 rather than Deuteronomy 5:21 for the ninth and tenth commandments.
S: Samaritan Pentateuch, with an additional commandment about Mount Gerizim as 10th.
A: Augustine follows the Talmud in combining verses 3–6, but omits the prologue as a commandment and divides the prohibition on coveting in two and following the word order of Deuteronomy 5:21 rather than Exodus 20:17.
C: Catechism of the Catholic Church, largely follows Augustine. Combines the Exodus language prohibiting images of God with the command to have no other gods but the Lord, as the first commandment. Changes “the sabbath” into “the lord’s day”. Divides Exodus 20:17, prohibiting covetousness, into two commandments.
The Ten Commandments concern matters of fundamental importance in Judaism and Christianity: the greatest obligation (to worship only God), the greatest injury to a person (murder), the greatest injury to family bonds (adultery), the greatest injury to commerce and law (bearing false witness), the greatest inter-generational obligation (honour to parents), the greatest obligation to community (truthfulness), the greatest injury to movable property (theft).The Ten Commandments are written with room for varying interpretation, reflecting their role as a summary of fundamental principles. They are not as explicit or as detailed as rules or as many other biblical laws and commandments, because they provide guiding principles that apply universally, across changing circumstances. They do not specify punishments for their violation. Their precise import must be worked out in each separate situation.The Bible indicates the special status of the Ten Commandments among all other Torah laws in several ways:
They have a uniquely terse style.
Of all the biblical laws and commandments, the Ten Commandments alone are said to have been “written with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18).
The stone tablets were placed in the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:21, Deuteronomy 10:2,5).
The Ten Commandments form the basis of Jewish law, stating God’s universal and timeless standard of right and wrong – unlike the rest of the 613 commandments in the Torah, which include, for example, various duties and ceremonies such as the kashrut dietary laws, and the rituals to be performed by priests in the Holy Temple. Jewish tradition considers the Ten Commandments the theological basis for the rest of the commandments. Philo, in his four-book work The Special Laws, treated the Ten Commandments as headings under which he discussed other related commandments. Similarly, in The Decalogue he stated that “under [the “commandment… against adulterers”] many other commands are conveyed by implication, such as that against seducers, that against practisers of unnatural crimes, that against all who live in debauchery, that against all men who indulge in illicit and incontinent connections.” Others, such as Rabbi Saadia Gaon, have also made groupings of the commandments according to their links with the Ten Commandments.According to Conservative Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, Ten Commandments are virtually entwined, in that the breaking of one leads to the breaking of another. Echoing an earlier rabbinic comment found in the commentary of Rashi to the Songs of Songs (4:5) Ginzberg explained—there is also a great bond of union between the first five commandments and the last five. The first commandment: “I am the Lord, thy God,” corresponds to the sixth: “Thou shalt not kill,” for the murderer slays the image of God. The second: “Thou shalt have no strange gods before me,” corresponds to the seventh: “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” for conjugal faithlessness is as grave a sin as idolatry, which is faithlessness to God. The third commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain,” corresponds to the eighth: “Thou shalt not steal,” for stealing results in a false oath in God’s name. The fourth: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” corresponds to the ninth: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” for he who bears false witness against his neighbor commits as grave a sin as if he had borne false witness against God, saying that He had not created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day (the holy Sabbath). The fifth commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother,” corresponds to the tenth: “Covet not thy neighbor’s wife,” for one who indulges this lust produces children who will not honor their true father, but will consider a stranger their father.The traditional Rabbinical Jewish belief is that the observance of these commandments and the other mitzvot are required solely of the Jewish people and that the laws incumbent on humanity in general are outlined in the seven Noahide laws, several of which overlap with the Ten Commandments. In the era of the Sanhedrin transgressing any one of six of the Ten Commandments theoretically carried the death penalty, the exceptions being the First Commandment, honouring your father and mother, saying God’s name in vain, and coveting, though this was rarely enforced due to a large number of stringent evidentiary requirements imposed by the oral law.
The arrangement of the commandments on the two tablets is interpreted in different ways in the classical Jewish tradition. Rabbi Hanina ben Gamaliel says that each tablet contained five commandments, “but the Sages say ten on one tablet and ten on the other”, that is, that the tablets were duplicates. This can be compared to diplomatic treaties of the ancient Near East, in which a copy was made for each party.According to the Talmud, the compendium of traditional Rabbinic Jewish law, tradition, and interpretation, one interpretation of the biblical verse “the tablets were written on both their sides”, is that the carving went through the full thickness of the tablets, yet was miraculously legible from both sides.
Use in Jewish ritual
The Mishna records that during the period of the Second Temple, the Ten Commandments were recited daily, before the reading of the Shema Yisrael (as preserved, for example, in the Nash Papyrus, a Hebrew manuscript fragment from 150 to 100 BCE found in Egypt, containing a version of the ten commandments and the beginning of the Shema); but that this practice was abolished in the synagogues so as not to give ammunition to heretics who claimed that they were the only important part of Jewish law, or to dispel a claim by early Christians that only the Ten Commandments were handed down at Mount Sinai rather than the whole Torah.In later centuries rabbis continued to omit the Ten Commandments from daily liturgy in order to prevent confusion among Jews that they are only bound by the Ten Commandments, and not also by many other biblical and Talmudic laws, such as the requirement to observe holy days other than the sabbath.Today, the Ten Commandments are heard in the synagogue three times a year: as they come up during the readings of Exodus and Deuteronomy, and during the festival of Shavuot. The Exodus version is read in parashat Yitro around late January–February, and on the festival of Shavuot, and the Deuteronomy version in parashat Va’etchanan in August–September. In some traditions, worshipers rise for the reading of the Ten Commandments to highlight their special significance though many rabbis, including Maimonides, have opposed this custom since one may come to think that the Ten Commandments are more important than the rest of the Mitzvot.In printed Chumashim, as well as in those in manuscript form, the Ten Commandments carry two sets of cantillation marks. The ta’am ‘elyon (upper accentuation), which makes each Commandment into a separate verse, is used for public Torah reading, while the ta’am tachton (lower accentuation), which divides the text into verses of more even length, is used for private reading or study. The verse numbering in Jewish Bibles follows the ta’am tachton. In Jewish Bibles the references to the Ten Commandments are therefore Exodus 20:2–14 and Deuteronomy 5:6–18.
The Samaritan Pentateuch varies in the Ten Commandments passages, both in that the Samaritan Deuteronomical version of the passage is much closer to that in Exodus, and in that Samaritans count as nine commandments what others count as ten. The Samaritan tenth commandment is on the sanctity of Mount Gerizim.
The text of the Samaritan tenth commandment follows:
And it shall come to pass when the Lord thy God will bring thee into the land of the Canaanites whither thou goest to take possession of it, thou shalt erect unto thee large stones, and thou shalt cover them with lime, and thou shalt write upon the stones all the words of this Law, and it shall come to pass when ye cross the Jordan, ye shall erect these stones which I command thee upon Mount Gerizim, and thou shalt build there an altar unto the Lord thy God, an altar of stones, and thou shalt not lift upon them iron, of perfect stones shalt thou build thine altar, and thou shalt bring upon it burnt offerings to the Lord thy God, and thou shalt sacrifice peace offerings, and thou shalt eat there and rejoice before the Lord thy God. That mountain is on the other side of the Jordan at the end of the road towards the going down of the sun in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah facing Gilgal close by Elon Moreh facing Shechem.
Most traditions of Christianity hold that the Ten Commandments have divine authority and continue to be valid, though they have different interpretations and uses of them. The Apostolic Constitutions, which implore believers to “always remember the ten commands of God,” reveal the importance of the Decalogue in the early Church. Through most of Christian history the decalogue was considered a summary of God’s law and standard of behaviour, central to Christian life, piety, and worship.Distinctions in the order and importance of said order continues to be a theological debate, with texts within the New Testament Romans 13:9 confirming the more traditional ordering, which follows the Septuagint of adultery, murder and theft; as opposed to the currently held order of the Masoretic of murder, adultery, theft.
References in the New Testament
During his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explicitly referenced the prohibitions against murder and adultery. In Matthew 19:16–19 Jesus repeated five of the Ten Commandments, followed by that commandment called “the second” (Matthew 22:34–40) after the first and great commandment.
And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul the Apostle also mentioned five of the Ten Commandments and associated them with the neighbourly love commandment.
In Catholicism, Jesus freed Christians from the rest of Jewish religious law, but not from their obligation to keep the Ten Commandments. It has been said that they are to the moral order what the creation story is to the natural order.According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church—the official exposition of the Catholic Church’s Christian beliefs—the Commandments are considered essential for spiritual good health and growth, and serve as the basis for social justice. Church teaching of the Commandments is largely based on the Old and New Testaments and the writings of the early Church Fathers. In the New Testament, Jesus acknowledged their validity and instructed his disciples to go further, demanding a righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees. Summarized by Jesus into two “great commandments” that teach the love of God and love of neighbour, they instruct individuals on their relationships with both.
The great commandments contain the Law of the Gospel, summed up in the Golden Rule. The Law of the Gospel is expressed particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that, “the Law of the Gospel fulfills the commandments of the Law. The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, far from abolishing or devaluing the moral prescriptions of the Old Law, releases their hidden potential and has new demands arise from them: it reveals their entire devine and human truth. It does not add new external precepts, but proceeds to reform the heart, the root of human acts, where man chooses between the pure and the impure, where faith, hope, and charity are formed and with them the other virtues.” The New Law “fulfills, refines, surpasses, and leads the Old Law to its perfection.”
The Eastern Orthodox Church holds its moral truths to be chiefly contained in the Ten Commandments. A confession begins with the Confessor reciting the Ten Commandments and asking the penitent which of them he has broken.
After rejecting the moral theology of Roman Catholicism, giving more importance to biblical law and the gospel, early Protestant theologians continued to take the Ten Commandments as the starting point of Christian moral life. Different versions of Christianity have varied in how they have translated the bare principles into the specifics that make up a full Christian ethic.
The Lutheran division of the commandments follows the one established by St. Augustine, following the then current synagogue scribal division. The first three commandments govern the relationship between God and humans, the fourth through eighth govern public relationships between people, and the last two govern private thoughts. See Luther’s Small Catechism and Large Catechism.
The Articles of the Church of England, Revised and altered by the Assembly of Divines, at Westminster, in the year 1643 state that “no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral. By the moral law, we understand all the Ten Commandments taken in their full extent.” The Westminster Confession, held by Presbyterian Churches, holds that the moral law contained in the Ten Commandments “does forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof”.
The moral law contained in the Ten Commandments, according to the founder of the Methodist movement John Wesley, was instituted from the beginning of the world and is written on the hearts of all people.
As with the Reformed view, Wesley held that the moral law, which is contained in the Ten Commandments, stands today:
Every part of this law must remain in force upon all mankind in all ages, as not depending either on time or place, nor on any other circumstances liable to change; but on the nature of God and the nature of man, and their unchangeable relation to each other” (Wesley’s Sermons, Vol. I, Sermon 25).
In keeping with Wesleyan covenant theology, “while the ceremonial law was abolished in Christ and the whole Mosaic dispensation itself was concluded upon the appearance of Christ, the moral law remains a vital component of the covenant of grace, having Christ as its perfecting end.” As such, in Methodism, an “important aspect of the pursuit of sanctification is the careful following” of the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments are a summary of the requirements of a works covenant (called the “Old Covenant”), given on Mount Sinai to the nascent nation of Israel. The Old Covenant is fulfilled by Christ at the cross. Unbelievers are still under the Law. The law reveals man’s sin and need for the salvation that is Jeshua. Repentance from sin and faith in Christ for salvation is the point of the entire Bible. They do reflect the eternal character of God, and serve as a paragon of morality.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
According to the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jesus completed rather than rejected the Mosaic law. The Ten Commandments are considered eternal gospel principles necessary for exaltation. They appear in the Book of Mosiah 12:34–36, 13:15–16, 13:21–24 and Doctrine and Covenants. According to the Book of Mosiah, a prophet named Abinadi taught the Ten Commandments in the court of King Noah and was martyred for his righteousness. Abinadi knew the Ten Commandments from the brass plates.In an October 2011 address, the Church president and prophet Thomas S. Monson taught “The Ten Commandments are just that—commandments. They are not suggestions.” In that same talk he used small quotations listing the numbering and selection of the commandments. This and other sources don’t include the prologue, making it most consistent with the Septuagint numbering.
The Abrahamic religions observe the Sabbath in various ways. In Judaism it is observed on Saturday (reckoned from dusk to dusk). In Christianity, it is sometimes observed on Saturday, sometimes on Sunday, and sometimes not at all (non-Sabbatarianism). Observing the Sabbath on Sunday, the day of resurrection, gradually became the dominant Christian practice from the Jewish-Roman wars onward. The Church’s general repudiation of Jewish practices during this period is apparent in the Council of Laodicea (4th century AD) where Canons 37–38 state: “It is not lawful to receive portions sent from the feasts of Jews or heretics, nor to feast together with them” and “It is not lawful to receive unleavened bread from the Jews, nor to be partakers of their impiety”. Canon 29 of the Laodicean council specifically refers to the sabbath: “Christians must not judaize by resting on the [Jewish] Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ.”
Killing or murder
Multiple translations exist of the fifth/sixth commandment; the Hebrew words לא תרצח (lo tirtzach) are variously translated as “thou shalt not kill” or “thou shalt not murder”.The imperative is against unlawful killing resulting in bloodguilt. The Hebrew Bible contains numerous prohibitions against unlawful killing, but does not prohibit killing in the context of warfare (1Kings 2:5–6), capital punishment (Leviticus 20:9–16) or a home invasion during the night (Exodus 22:2–3), which are considered justified. The New Testament is in agreement that murder is a grave moral evil, and references the Old Testament view of bloodguilt.
German Old Testament scholar Albrecht Alt: Das Verbot des Diebstahls im Dekalog (1953), suggested that the commandment translated as “thou shalt not steal” was originally intended against stealing people—against abductions and slavery, in agreement with the Talmudic interpretation of the statement as “thou shalt not kidnap” (Sanhedrin 86a).
In Judaism there is a prohibition against making or worshipping an idol or a representation of God, but there is no restriction on art or simple depictions unrelated to God. Islam has a stronger prohibition, banning not just representations of God, but also in some cases of Muhammad, humans and, in some interpretations, any living creature.
In the non-canonical Gospel of Barnabas, it is claimed that Jesus stated that idolatry is the greatest sin as it divests a man fully of faith, and hence of God. The words attributed to Jesus prohibit not only worshipping statues of wood or stone; but also statues of flesh. “…all which a man loves, for which he leaves everything else but that, is his god, thus the glutton and drunkard has for his idol his own flesh, the fornicator has for his idol the harlot and the greedy has for his idol silver and gold, and so the same for every other sinner.” Idolatory was thus the basic sin, which manifested in various acts or thoughts, which displace the primacy of God. However, the Gospel of Barnabas does not form part of the Christian bible. It is known only from 16th- and 17th-century manuscripts, and frequently reflects Islamic rather than Christian understandings, so it cannot be taken as authoritative on Christian views.
In Christianity’s earliest centuries, some Christians had informally adorned their homes and places of worship with images of Christ and the saints, which others thought inappropriate. No church council had ruled on whether such practices constituted idolatry. The controversy reached crisis level in the 8th century, during the period of iconoclasm: the smashing of icons, and again in the Middle Ages, becoming a critical point of contention in the Protestant Reformation.
In 726 Emperor Leo III ordered all images removed from all churches; in 730 a council forbade veneration of images, citing the Second Commandment; in 787 the Seventh Ecumenical Council reversed the preceding rulings, condemning iconoclasm and sanctioning the veneration of images; in 815 Leo V called yet another council, which reinstated iconoclasm; in 843 Empress Theodora again reinstated veneration of icons. This mostly settled the matter until the Reformation, when John Calvin declared that the ruling of the Seventh Ecumenical Council “emanated from Satan”. Protestant iconoclasts at this time destroyed statues, pictures, stained glass, and artistic masterpieces.The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Theodora’s restoration of the icons every year on the First Sunday of Great Lent. Eastern Orthodox tradition teaches that while images of God, the Father, remain prohibited, depictions of Jesus as the incarnation of God as a visible human are permissible. To emphasize the theological importance of the incarnation, the Orthodox Church encourages the use of icons in church and private devotions, but prefers a two-dimensional depiction as a reminder of this theological aspect. Icons depict the spiritual dimension of their subject rather than attempting a naturalistic portrayal. In modern use (usually as a result of Roman Catholic influence), more naturalistic images and images of the Father, however, also appear occasionally in Orthodox churches, but statues, i.e. three-dimensional depictions, continue to be banned.
Originally this commandment forbade male Israelites from having sexual intercourse with the wife of another Israelite; the prohibition did not extend to their own slaves. Sexual intercourse between an Israelite man, married or not, and a woman who was neither married nor betrothed was not considered adultery. This concept of adultery stems from the economic aspect of Israelite marriage whereby the husband has an exclusive right to his wife, whereas the wife, as the husband’s possession, did not have an exclusive right to her husband.Louis Ginzberg argued that the tenth commandment (Covet not thy neighbor’s wife) is directed against a sin which may lead to a trespassing of all Ten Commandments.
Critical historical analysis
Critical scholarship is divided over its interpretation of the ten commandment texts.
Julius Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis suggests that Exodus 20–23 and 34 “might be regarded as the document which formed the starting point of the religious history of Israel.” Deuteronomy 5 then reflects King Josiah’s attempt to link the document produced by his court to the older Mosaic tradition.
In a 2002 analysis of the history of this position, Bernard M. Levinson argued that this reconstruction assumes a Christian perspective, and dates back to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s polemic against Judaism, which asserted that religions evolve from the more ritualistic to the more ethical. Goethe thus argued that the Ten Commandments revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai would have emphasized rituals, and that the “ethical” Decalogue Christians recite in their own churches was composed at a later date, when Israelite prophets had begun to prophesy the coming of the messiah. Levinson points out that there is no evidence, internal to the Hebrew Bible or in external sources, to support this conjecture. He concludes that its vogue among later critical historians represents the persistence of the idea that the supersession of Judaism by Christianity is part of a longer history of progress from the ritualistic to the ethical.By the 1930s, historians who accepted the basic premises of multiple authorship had come to reject the idea of an orderly evolution of Israelite religion. Critics instead began to suppose that law and ritual could be of equal importance, while taking different form, at different times. This means that there is no longer any a priori reason to believe that Exodus 20:2–17 and Exodus 34:10–28 were composed during different stages of Israelite history. For example, critical historian John Bright also dates the Jahwist texts to the tenth century BCE, but believes that they express a theology that “had already been normalized in the period of the Judges” (i.e., of the tribal alliance). He concurs about the importance of the decalogue as “a central feature in the covenant that brought together Israel into being as a people” but views the parallels between Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, along with other evidence, as reason to believe that it is relatively close to its original form and Mosaic in origin.
According to John Bright, however, there is an important distinction between the Decalogue and the “book of the covenant” (Exodus 21–23 and 34:10–24). The Decalogue, he argues, was modelled on the suzerainty treaties of the Hittites (and other Mesopotamian Empires), that is, represents the relationship between God and Israel as a relationship between king and vassal, and enacts that bond.”The prologue of the Hittite treaty reminds his vassals of his benevolent acts.. (compare with Exodus 20:2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”). The Hittite treaty also stipulated the obligations imposed by the ruler on his vassals, which included a prohibition of relations with peoples outside the empire, or enmity between those within.” (Exodus 20:3: “You shall have no other gods before Me”). Viewed as a treaty rather than a law code, its purpose is not so much to regulate human affairs as to define the scope of the king’s power.Julius Morgenstern argued that Exodus 34 is distinct from the Jahwist document, identifying it with king Asa’s reforms in 899 BCE. Bright, however, believes that like the Decalogue this text has its origins in the time of the tribal alliance. The book of the covenant, he notes, bears a greater similarity to Mesopotamian law codes (e.g. the Code of Hammurabi which was inscribed on a stone stele). He argues that the function of this “book” is to move from the realm of treaty to the realm of law: “The Book of the Covenant (Ex., chs. 21 to 23; cf. ch. 34), which is no official state law, but a description of normative Israelite judicial procedure in the days of the Judges, is the best example of this process.” According to Bright, then, this body of law too predates the monarchy.