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Introduction to the Ten Commandments:

What are they?
When were they written?
Where are they now?
Do Christians follow them?
Should everyone follow them?

Part 1 of three parts

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10 Commandments plate What are the Ten Commandments?

The Ten Commandments (a.k.a. Decalogue) are a listing of some of the most important of the 613 mitzvot (God's behavioral rules) in the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament). Jewish tradition teaches that they were written by God on sapphire rocks

bullet Within Judaism, they have historically been accepted as a summary of the most important ten rules of behavior which God expects all Jews to follow. The Torah records that God gave the Decalogue to Moses on Mount Sinai, inscribed on stone tablets, and the intended for the guidance of the ancient Hebrews. They form a small but vital part of the total of 613 laws in the Hebrew Scriptures.

bullet Within Christianity, the Decalogue has traditionally been regarded as the foundational laws to which all Christians are to conform. Most Christians continue to hold them in high regard, even though they have rejected most of the other laws in the Mosaic Code as no longer applicable to or binding on them. Examples of the latter are following strict behavior rules on the Sabbath (Saturday), prohibition of the eating of pork, shell fish, etc., prohibition of tattoos, a man engaged in sexual behavior with a woman during her menses, allowing disabled persons to be admitted to religious services, allowing women to be ordained, requiring a female victim of rape to marry her rapist, allowing human slavery, etc.


Within Islam, the religion's holy book -- the Qur'an -- appears to refer to the Decalogue and to urge that they be followed; however it does not contain the actual text:

007.145 "And We ordained laws for him in the tablets in all matters, both commanding and explaining all things, (and said): 'Take and hold these with firmness, and enjoin thy people to hold fast by the best in the precepts'..."

The term "Decalogue" or "Decalog" is derived from the Middle English "decaloge" which comes from the Latin "decalogus," which in turn originates from the Greek "dekalogus." "Deka" in Greek means "ten".

The Ten Commandments are a brief summary of certain basic rules of behavior. They do not specifically address some of the most active of today's moral controversies, such as abortion access, corporal punishment of children, the death penalty, equal rights for homosexuals, equal rights for transgender persons and transsexuals, same-sex marriage, physician assisted suicide, pre-marital sex, etc.

There are three versions of the Decalogue mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament). All are different. They are at:

  • Exodus 20:2-17. This version in is by far the most commonly cited.

  • Exodus 34:12-26.

  • Deuteronomy 5:6-21.

Depending upon how Ten Commandments are interpreted, the Exodus 20 version contain a total of 19 to 25 separate instructions. These have been traditionally sorted into ten groups. Unfortunately, various faith groups sort them differently. This makes inter-faith dialog difficult at times, and can cause conflicts over which version of the Decalogue is to be accepted, displayed, and followed. A comparison of the Jewish, Catholic and Protestant versions are listed in the web site. 1

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When were the Ten Commandments written?

  • The Hebrew Scriptures describe the Ten Commandments as having been written by God during the Exodus of Jews from Egypt. Unfortunately, the name of the Pharaoh under which the Exodus occurred is not stated in the Scriptures. Dates of the Exodus from the 15th to the 13th Century BCE have been suggested. However, most present-day archeologists believe that the Exodus, as described in the Bible, never happened.

  • Some have suggested that the Ten Commandments were derived from earlier Hittite writings during the 14th to 12th century BCE.

  • Archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman argue for a seventh century BCE origin.

  • David H. Aaron has suggested sometime after 586 BCE. 2

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Where are the two rocks containing the original Ten Commandments now?

The Hebrew Scriptures state that original tablets were broken by Moses when he found that his people had abandoned Yahweh, had built a golden calf, and had adopted ancient Egyptian pagan behavior. Later, God had Moses create two new tablets onto which God inscribed the words of the Commandments.

Some believe that the:

  • second set of Ten Commandments that Moses carried down from Mount Sinai, along with:

  • a jar of manna -- a food that God provided to the ancient Hebrews during their exodus from Egypt, and

  • the staff that belonged to Aaron the High Priest, and

  • a jar of oil to anoint the High Priest of the Third Temple -- if and when it is rebuilt --

all still exist and are located at an unknown location in an underground passage somewhere under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. 3

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Do Christians follow the Ten Commandments?

Although the Ten Commandments are held in high respect by many Christians, two of them are routinely broken by some Christian denominations -- at least if they are interpreted literally: 

bullet The prohibition against "any graven image, or any likeness of any thing...," if interpreted literally, would seem to forbid a wide range of objects, including a statue in a church, a cross, a crucifix, or even to a photograph or drawing of a person. However, many denominations do not interpret this passage in isolation or do not interpret it literally. This allows Eastern Orthodox churches to display icons. Roman Catholic cathedrals generally contains statues. Many Protestant churches contain drawings and/or photographs, even if only on their pamphlets and books.


Reserving the Sabbath (Saturday) as a day of rest. The vast majority of churches have their main services on Sunday. Only Sabbatarian denominations, like the Seventh Day Adventists and Seventh Day Baptists, have services on Saturday.

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Should everyone follow all of the Ten Commandments?

The U.S. is the most religiously diverse country in the world. Southern Ontario in Canada is regarded as the most religiously diverse region of any country in the world. Both nations share a legacy of religious freedom and religious tolerance. The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as requiring a complete separation of church and state. Canadian culture largely separates church and state by tradition.

However, the Ten Commandments were created within an entirely different culture with very different expectations of its citizens. It was a ancient Hebrew theocracy where church and state were blended. Everyone was expected to follow the state religion. A person proselytizing a different faith among the ancient Hebrews could find themselves sentenced to death as proscribed in the Hebrew Scriptures.

This culture clash has produced criticisms of some of the commandments within the Decalogue:

bullet The first commandment requires that no god other than Yahweh is to be worshipped. This is in open conflict with the "first freedom" in the U.S. and Canada. This is religious freedom which allows people to freely believe, or to refuse to believe, in any specific God, Goddess, or a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. Since the attributes assigned to God within Judaism, Islam, Christianity and other theistic religions differ significantly, following the first commandment would ban freedom of belief, freedom of speech, freedom of religious assembly, freedom of proselytizing, etc. by followers of different religions.

bullet The second commandment, interpreted literally, punishes a person's children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and perhaps even great-great grandchildren if the person has sinned by serving other Gods. Scapegoating, the transfer of the responsibility for one person's sin onto innocent other people was common in the ancient Middle East. However, most contemporary ethical systems -- both secular and religious -- prohibit scapegoating. Modern ethical systems hold a person responsible only for their own actions. Punishing innocent children for deeds performed by their parents or more distant ancestors is widely considered a profoundly immoral act. Similarly, holding an entire group responsible for an evil deed of one member or a small sub-group of that group is profoundly immoral by most moral and ethical systems.
bullet The fifth commandment requires that children honor their parents. Many would feel that it is unreasonable to require a child to honor a parent who was a sexual molester, a physical abuser, was guilty of neglect, or had abandoned their children.

bulletThere are two problems associated with the tenth commandment:
bullet It treats women as pieces of property, and

bullet It condones slavery. The terms "manservant" and "maidservant" in the King James Version of the Bible do not refer to butlers and maids; they refer to male and female slaves.

Equal treatment and freedoms for men and women form an integral part of the beliefs and teachings of many religious groups and secularists.

Essentially all North American religious groups reject the concept of owning another human being in a state of slavery.

Thus, many would consider Commandments 1,2,5, and 10 to be deficient in terms of modern ethical and religious criteria. Some might suggest that the four Commandments should be retired from service, leaving only 7 commandments to be followed.

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This topic continues in the next essay

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 Home page > Religious LawsTen Commandments > here

 Home page > ChristianityBible themes & topicsTen Commandments > here

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  1. John J. Parsons, "Ten Commandments," Hebrew for Christians web site, undated, at:
  2. "Ten Commandments," Wikipedia, as on 2016-NOV-23, at:
  3. Zev Kassman, "Do the original Ten Commandments still exist?," Jewish Magazine. 1998 New Year Edition. Online at:

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Copyright © 2004 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-SEP-22
Latest update: 2016-NOV-23
Author: B.A. Robinson

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