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Friday, June 21, 2024

Ten Commandments and Denominational Differences

Many posts have discussed the role of religion in American life.    

Steven Lubet at The Hill:
Posting the Ten Commandments is an essentially religious act — not only because it favors religion over non-religion, but also because it invariably favors one faith tradition over others.

The Louisiana statute requires a distinctly Protestant text, with Elizabethan language based on the King James Bible, which differs significantly from the versions used by Catholics, Jews and others. Some differences are inconsequential, but others have deep theological implications.

The Ten Commandments first appear in Exodus, and again in Deuteronomy. Although it is clear that God gave Moses a covenant of Ten Commandments, the relevant Exodus chapter comprises 17 verses, with no instructions for numbering or organizing them into 10 laws.

It is an act of interpretation to reduce the 17 verses to 10 poster-sized commandments, omitting some while abbreviating or combining others. Thus, any specific text always denotes a choice for one tradition or another.

The first commandment for Jews is “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This commandment is missing from Christian texts, as it is from the Louisiana statute, likely because it is not considered an imperative (the Hebrew speaks of 10 d’varim, or words, rather than commandments.)

The Jewish second commandment — “You shall have no other gods before me”– is where Christians begin, as does the Louisiana legislature (using King James’s “thou” and “shalt”), with numerical adjustments down the line.

Theological disputes then arise, as the leading Christian texts diverge. For Protestants, the second commandment is a variation on “Thou shalt not make for yourself a graven image,” which is also used in the Louisiana statute.

This commandment, however, is found nowhere in standard Catholic iterations, which instead divide the erstwhile 10th Commandment — against coveting — in two.