Bible scholar J. Cornelis de Vos presents the first full study of all ancient texts about the Decalogue – Jewish and Christian groups tightened or extended the prohibitions and commandments in order to strengthen their group identity – sexual ethical norms were added, but none of the Ten Commandments was ever rejected in the course of the centuries.
by Domenico Beccafumi/Wikimedia Commons
“Groups of Jews and Christians changed them from time to time. One group tightened the prohibition of killing, another extended the prohibition of adultery by sexual ethical norms, a third group added a new commandment for the construction of a sacred site”, explains bible scholar adjunct professor Dr. J. Cornelis de Vos from Münster University’s Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics”.
The monograph, “Rezeption und Wirkung des Dekalogs in jüdischen und christlichen Schriften bis 200 n. Chr.” (Reception and Impact of the Decalogue in Jewish and Christian Writings until 200 AD) was published by Brill in Leiden and Boston. It shows a range of changes to the Ten Commandments, among them frequent extensions to the prohibition of adultery concerning sexual ethical norms. “Like many of their contemporaries, numerous ancient writers – be they Jewish, Christian or Gentile – believed that desire was the root of all evil and harbored a certain aversion to sexuality”, according to the researcher.
Samaritans changed the original Ten Commandments
In his fundamental study, the author analyses all Jewish and Christian sources from about 300 BC to 200 AD that have recourse to the Decalogue. Methodologically, he analyses them in their smallest linguistic details such as changed letters, syllables or repositioned text sections, and he elaborates variations from the two biblical versions of the Decalogue (Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21). He also classifies the sources historically and socio-religiously.
The Samaritan Jews went to the lengths of making an insertion in the original itself. “Without further ado, the Samaritans concentrated the Ten Commandments of the Torah into nine, only to add a different tenth commandment probably towards the end of the 2nd century BC”, according to the author. “With it, in competing with the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, they legitimized the construction of a sacred site on Mount Gerizim in Samaria – a deliberate dissociation from the majority of Jews.”
Sermon on the Mount demands tighter commandments of Christians
Even the famous Sermon on the Mount from the New Testament was affected, as the biblical scholar shows: “Evangelist Matthew demands the tightening of some of the commandments. For example, Jesus says in the Gospel, which originated 80-90 AD, that not only killing is a serious offence but even already wrath or dispute, as these can lead to manslaughter. Dispute is thus for the first time included in the prohibition of killing”, says de Vos. The Sermon on the Mount extends the prohibition of adultery in a similar manner, according to him: it is adultery in heart to even desire the wife of another man. “The Ten Commandments of the Jewish Torah thus remain valid for Christians, but they are tightened in the Gospel according to Matthew.”
Another finding is that “the Ten Commandments were universally valid for all people – many Jews and Christians were positive about this”, according to de Vos. This was shown in the encounter with the politics, philosophy and ethics of the non-Jewish and non-Christian environment. “In order to convince non-Jews of the Decalogue’s universal connectivity, Jewish aspects such as the prohibition of visualising God were minimised.” The Jews Aristobulus and Philo of Alexandria, for example, portrayed the Decalogue as a universal and the very best philosophy. “According to Philo, the Decalogue was equivalent to the universal law of nature. Aristobulus even deduced from the Sabbath commandment that Jews were the best philosophers.”
What are the Ten Commandments?
The Ten Commandments are a series of commandments and prohibitions of the God of Israel in the Hebrew Bible. In it, they appear in two slightly different versions in two passages. For example, it is explained in a little more detail in the Book of Deuteronomy than in the Book of Exodus why everybody should observe the Sabbath as a day of rest.
Literature: Vos, J. Cornelis de: Rezeption und Wirkung des Dekalogs in jüdischen und christlichen Schriften bis 200 n. Chr. (Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, Vol. 95), Leiden/Boston: Brill 2016, ISBN 978-90-04-32438-1, X + 510 pages, € 185.00.