14 March 2014

The Ten Misnomers

The “Ten Commandments” so beloved by American fundamentalist Christians are, in truth, anything but.  Well, there are ten of them, but they are not “commandments”, not really.  In fact, the idea that they are “commandments” dates no earlier than the Reformation.

In Hebrew, they are known as “Asereth ha-Devarim”, or the “Ten Words”, “Words” here meaning “Statements” or “Sayings”.  This same meaning is reflected in the Greek word “Dekalogous” and the Latin word “Decalogi”.  The first time that the Ten Statements are referred to as “commandments” in any language came with the publication of the Geneva Bible in 1560, translated under the supervision of Anthony Gilby and William Whittingham. leaders of a team of Calvinist scholars in Geneva exile from England.

Actually, there are not merely 10 “commandments” (“mitzvot” in Hebrew) in the Jewish and Samaritan Torah (usually translated as “Law” in English, or “Pentateuch” in Greek), but 613 altogether.  The Ten Statements, used in the temple until its destruction in 70 CE and in synagogue prayers until the 3rd century CE, were meant to summarize all the mitzvoth in the Torah.  A Summary of the Law, like that in the Gospels of Matthew (22:35-40), Mark (12:38-41), and Luke (10:25-28).

In the first two Gospels, this Summary of the Law is presented as the answer of Jesus to a Pharisee inquiring which of the commandments of the Torah is greatest; in the third, it is the reply of the Pharisee after Jesus turns the question back on him.  The text in Mark is best because it includes the full text of the Shema (from the KJV): “ The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”

Interestingly, all three Gospels misquote Deuteronomy 6:4, which reads:  “And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”

A better translation, in modern English, of the text in Mark would be: “The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: Yahweh your God, Yahweh is One.  Love Yahweh your God with all your hear, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no other commandment greater than these two.”

One wonders why American fundamentalist Christians hold out the Summary of the Law given in the Torah and ignore the Summary of the Law given by the one whom they claim to follow, especially since most of those would describe themselves as Dispensationalists.

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