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Who wrote them?
Were they original, or were they based on earlier material?

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Who wrote the Decalogues?

As with almost every other belief about the Bible, religious conservatives, liberals, historians, secularists, etc. have very different beliefs about the author(s) of the Pentateuch -- the first five books of the Hebrew Scripture (a.k.a. Old Testament). In particular, they have different beliefs about the source and authorship of the Decalogue.

There are three basic beliefs about the origin of the Decalogue:

bullet They were written and/or dictated by God at Mount Sinai, circa 1450 BCE.
bullet They were written by three Hebrew authors (or groups of authors) between 922 and 622 BCE based upon ancient Hebrew myths and legends.
bullet Their original source was in Pagan documents written by Hittites or Egyptians which were plagiarized and added to by ancient Hebrew writers.

Many politicians and religious conservatives regard the Decalogue to be the original source of the legal system of the U.S., Canada and other western countries, subsequently supplemented by Jewish, Roman and British jurisprudence. They may be wrong; the original source may be found in the religious writings of the Hittites or Egyptians -- Pagan groups.

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Beliefs of religious conservatives:

Religious conservatives typically believe that God inspired the authors of the Bible to write text that is inerrant -- free of error.

The preambles to the three versions of the Ten Commandments state:

bullet Exodus 20:1-2:
"And God spake all these words, saying..."
bullet Exodus 34:11:
"Observe thou that which I [God] command thee this day..."
bullet Deuteronomy 5:4-6:
"The LORD talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire...saying, 'I am the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.' "

Thus, the Decalogues were first spoken by God. There are almost two dozen verses in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures which state or imply that Moses was the author of Exodus and Deuteronomy. 1,2 Thus, religious conservatives generally believe that God spoke the Ten Commandments to Moses who later recorded them circa 1450 BCE, as part of the Pentateuch -- the first five books of the Bible.

The first version of the Ten Commandments is described as having been engraved on stone by God. Since Moses broke the original set in anger, God had to create a copy, as recorded in Exodus 34. The third set in Deuteronomy is often considered to be a review of the previous two sets.

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Beliefs of religious liberals, secularists, etc:

Religious liberals and others who believe neither in the inspiration nor the inerrancy of the Bible generally accept the "Documentary Hypothesis." This asserts that the Pentateuch was written independently by a group of four anonymous authors, (or groups of authors) from various locations in Israel and Judah, over a period of centuries. 3,4 Each wrote with the goal of promoting his/her own group's religious views:

bullet J: a writer who used Yahweh/Jehovah as the divine name.
bullet E: a writer who used Elohim as the divine name..
bullet D: the author of the Book of Deuteronomy, and other parts of the Pentateuch.
bullet P: a writer who added material of major interest to the priesthood.

These writings were later shaped and assembled into a unified text by an unknown redactor, referred to as "R." The Redactor did a minimum of editing and deleting; he left intact multiple identical (or near identical) descriptions of the same events by different authors throughout the Pentateuch.

The three versions of the 10 Commandments give major support for the Documentary Hypothesis. If one rejects the inerrancy and inspiration of the Bible, the most logical explanation for multiple versions is that three different authors described a single event: that of God giving the Ten Commandments to the Israelites. Each did it from their own vantage point in history, in order to promote their own and their groups' unique religious beliefs.

Most liberals reject the belief that the second set of the Decalogue was a replacement for the first set that Moses broke. The content of the first set has been preserved in Exodus 20; there would have been no need for a second set. Also, it would seem strange for God to adopt different wording for the second or third sets. All three sets are quite different from each other. This conflicts with one of the classical attributes of God -- that he is unchanging.

According to a consensus reached on the Documentary Hypothesis, the three authors were:

bullet Exodus 20: This is author "E's" version of the Decalog. He inserted the text into the middle of his description of God's descent onto Mount Sinai, written circa 922 to 722 BCE. The motivation for the Sabbath observance in the 4th commandment was to emulate God's day of rest after the 6 days of creation, as described by "P" in Genesis 2. According to "E," the Ten Commandments were engraved by God on the tablets.
bullet Exodus 34: Author "J" originally wrote verses 10 to 28 probably between 848 and 722 BCE. Since the story of the creation of the Sabbath in Genesis had not been written at the time that this version was composed, the story of God having rested after 6 days of creation was unknown to "J." Thus, no specific reason was given for the Israelites to observe the Sabbath. The Ten Commandments were said to have been written down by Moses, presumably with brush and ink. Some theologians believe that the Exodus 34 passage is much older than the other two.
bullet Deuteronomy 5: "D's" version, in Deuteronomy, was written circa 622 BCE, by an author who was probably a Levitical priest in Judah. He wrote the book during the time of the exile to Babylon, but used pre-exilic material. He is often referred to as the Deuteronomist. The late German Old Testament theologian, Martin Noth, suggested that the Deuteronomist wrote the book of Deuteronomy as well as Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings. One historian has suggested Jeremiah as the author; others suggest a "close-knit group of Temple scholars rather than a single individual." 5 In this version of the Decalogue, the Sabbath was to be observed in memory of the Israelites' slavery in Egypt. As in the Exodus 20 version, the commandments were written on the tablets by God.

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The original source of the Ten Commandments:

Many religious liberals believe that In all three cases, the original source of the Ten Commandments was an ancient document that predated the work of "E," "J," and "D."

bullet Hittites: The original texts appear to be similar to "treaties imposed by Hittite kings on their vassals in the 14th-13th centuries" BCE. 6,7 The Hittite documents and the Ten Commandments appear to be both divided into the same six sections: stating the name of the ruler, his status, benefits to the people, detailed description of their obligations, "Heaven and earth and various natural features... called to witness" the treaty, 6and sanctions for non-compliance.
bullet Egyptians: Part of the Egyptian religion's  Book of the Dead (a.k.a. the Papyrus of Ani) bears an amazing resemblance to the Ten Commandments. They involve prohibition of adultery, murder, theft, lying, cursing God, false witness, abandonment of parents. 8 Since the Book of the Dead predates the date attributed to the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, and since the Ten Commandments postdate the Exodus, it would appear that the Book was the source of the Decalogue rather than the opposite. Of course, the similarities between the two might have been coincidental. If an ethical person of any era and any religion were asked to compose a minimal set of moral behaviors, they might well come up with a similar selection of commands. More details.

Thus, many religious liberals and secularists assume that the Hebrew Scripture's Ten Commandments were based on documents written by the Hittites, Egyptians, or some similar neighboring Pagan group.

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  1. P.N. Benware, "Survey of the Old Testament", Moody Press, Chicago IL, (1993) Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. Larry Richards, "Bible Difficulties Solved," Revell, Grand Rapids, MI, (1993), Pages 13 to 15. 
  3. C.M. Laymon, Editor, The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, Abingdon Press, Nashville TN (1971), P. 122 
  4. R.E. Friedman, "Who Wrote the Bible?" Harper Collins, San Francisco, CA, (1997). Read reviews or order this book
  5. "Deuteronomist,", at:
  6. C.M. Laymon, Editor, "The Interpreters One-volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon, (1971), Pages 53-55.
  7. Ronald Youngblood, "Counting the Ten Commandments," Biblical Review, 1994-DEC. See:
  8. "Ten Commandments: Origins," Wikipedia, 2006-JAN-04, at:

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Copyright 1999 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-JAN-05
Author: B.A. Robinson

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