20 Common Misbeliefs About the Ten Commandments

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Think you know the Ten Commandments inside out? Think again! From Hollywood portrayals to Sunday school tales, these ancient directives have sparked many misunderstandings and myth-making over the centuries.

These beliefs about the Ten Commandments aren’t entirely accurate, whether due to cultural shifts, misinterpretations, or just plain myths many of us hold. 

The Ten Commandments Are Universally Interpreted the Same Way

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Though originating from the same biblical texts, the Ten Commandments are subject to diverse interpretations across Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For instance, in Judaism, the Ten Commandments (“Aseret Hadibrot”) are part of the 613 commandments given in the Torah. They are interpreted within the larger framework of Halakha (Jewish law). 

In Islam, while the Ten Commandments are not formally enumerated in the Quran, many moral principles are embedded into a broader legal and ethical framework known as Sharia. 

They Are Unique to Judaism and Christianity

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The Ten Commandments are also acknowledged and respected within Islam, although they are not explicitly listed in the Quran. For instance, many of the laws governing ethical behavior in Islam align closely with the commandments’ prohibitions against theft, murder, and bearing false witness.

According to historian Karen Armstrong, in her book The Case for God, the values expressed in the Ten Commandments align with ethical principles found in multiple ancient cultures, including Mesopotamian and Egyptian law codes.

They Were Given Exclusively to Moses

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The Hebrew Bible, known as the Torah in Judaism and the Old Testament in Christianity, details how Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17). However, these divine laws were intended for the Israelite community, not just for Moses alone.

Other ancient Near Eastern cultures have similar traditions. For example, the Code of Hammurabi, one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length, was received by the Babylonian king Hammurabi from the sun god Shamash.

All Ten Commandments Are Legally Enforceable Today

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Contemporary legal frameworks, particularly in secular countries, aim to uphold the principle of separation of church and state. For instance, commandments like “You shall not murder” and “You shall not steal” align closely with universally accepted legal statutes against homicide and theft. 

However, other commandments, particularly those relating to religious observance, are not legally enforceable. North American and European legal frameworks, which often champion freedom of religion, do not enforce laws restricting individual religious practices to adhere to monotheism.

They Are Old Testament Laws and Not Relevant to Christians

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Jesus references the commandments in Matthew 19:17-19 and Mark 10:19, emphasizing their importance in his espoused moral teachings. Furthermore, the Apostle Paul reiterates the commandments in Romans 13:9, encapsulating them as timeless principles that guide Christian behavior.

 In many Protestant liturgies, the commandments are recited during worship services, reinforcing their importance as a moral compass. Similarly, the Roman Catholic Catechism dedicates sections to explaining the commandments.

The Commandments Only Address Religious Duties

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The first few commandments certainly deal with religious aspects, such as the prohibition of idolatry and the observance of the Sabbath. Yet, many of the commandments are devoted to ethical and societal norms. 

Commandments like “Honor your father and mother” and “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:12-13) serve as the building blocks for familial, social, and legal responsibilities, underscoring their comprehensive influence.

They Were Initially Written in Hebrew

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The Ten Commandments are part of the Torah, traditionally believed to have been written by Moses around the 13th century BCE during the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. Archaeological evidence suggests that early script forms were used then, such as Paleo-Hebrew (a proto-script of the Hebrew language). 

According to “The Bible Unearthed” by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, the earliest known fragment of the Ten Commandments, written in Greek, dates back to the 3rd century BCE and was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. 

There Is Only One Version of the Ten Commandments

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In the Hebrew Bible, two distinct versions of the Ten Commandments are presented, one in the Book of Exodus (Exodus 20:1-17) and another in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 5:4-21). While these versions are similar, they contain variations in wording and emphasis.

In Judaism, the commandments are numbered differently than in some Christian traditions. For example, Catholics and Lutherans consider the first commandment to be two separate commandments in the Jewish tradition and in most Protestant churches.

The Tablets Were Made of Stone

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While the traditional depiction in religious art and cultural references often show stone tablets, some scholars suggest that the original tablets described in the Hebrew Bible could have been made of other materials, such as clay or even metal. 

Ancient cultures had various writing materials at their disposal, including clay tablets impressed with stylus marks, metal plates, and other materials used for inscribing important texts. 

They Were Meant to Be Kept as Is, Without Interpretation

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The idea that the Ten Commandments should be adhered to strictly as written does not account for the evolution of religious thought and legal frameworks. Religious traditions have developed extensive commentaries and interpretations to make these ancient precepts relevant to different circumstances and social contexts.

For example, interpretations of the commandment “You shall not kill” explore the nuances of issues like self-defense, just war, and capital punishment.

The Commandments Are Listed in Order of Importance

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The Ten Commandments serve as a holistic framework for ethical and moral conduct rather than a ranked list of rules. For instance, the commandment to honor one’s parents might be supremely important in one context, while the directive against murder might be seen as the ultimate moral imperative in another.

Each commandment deals with fundamental aspects of human behavior and spirituality, from the worship of God to interpersonal relationships.

Honoring Parents Is Absolute

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This interpretation can lead to the assumption that any form of dissent or criticism towards parents is inherently disrespectful and violates divine law- overlooking the complexities and potential ethical dilemmas. 

For instance, in situations where parents are abusive or neglectful, demanding absolute obedience and honor can perpetuate harm and injustice. Therefore, it is essential to balance respect with moral discernment.

“Thou Shalt Not Kill” Means All Killing is Forbidden

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The Hebrew verb used in this commandment is “ratsach,” which more accurately translates to “murder” rather than “kill.” This distinction is crucial, as it differentiates unlawful killing motivated by personal malice (murder) from other forms of killing that might occur in different contexts, such as self-defense or war.

The ancient Israelites made a legal distinction between murder (ratsach) and other acts of killing, which included accidental killings and killings sanctioned by legal authorities. Exodus 21:12-14 distinguishes between premeditated murder and involuntary manslaughter, prescribing different legal treatments for each. 

The Sabbath Commandment Requires Rest on Sunday

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This belief likely stems from the practices of many Christian denominations, particularly after the Roman Emperor Constantine’s edict in 321 AD, which established Sunday as a day of rest in the Roman Empire. In Judaism, the Sabbath (Shabbat) is observed from Friday evening to Saturday evening. 

Some Christian groups maintained the traditional Jewish Sabbath on Saturday, while others began to gather on Sunday to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which was believed to have occurred on the first day of the week. 

Bearing False Witness Only Applies in Court

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Biblical scholars argue that the Hebrew term “sheqer,” translated as “false witness,” encompasses more than just courtroom scenarios. The commandment addresses any form of deceitful speech. 

Misleading others, spreading rumors, and slandering someone’s character fall under this prohibition. The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) highlights that the moral principle extends to workplace interactions, media representations, and casual conversations. 

The Ten Commandments Were the First Laws Ever Written

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Structured legal systems existed long before the era of the Ten Commandments. One of the most notable examples is the Code of Hammurabi, which dates back to around 1754 BCE in ancient Babylon. 

This legal code, carved into a large stone stele, includes approximately 282 laws covering various subjects, from property rights and trade to family law and criminal justice. The Sumerians developed one of the earliest known law codes, the Code of Ur-Nammu, which dates to around 2100-2050 BCE.

Adultery Refers Only to Physical Infidelity

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In the New Testament, Jesus broadens the definition by stating, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28, NIV). 

In Judaism, the Talmudic tradition states that any form of emotional infidelity, such as forming an intimate relationship with someone other than one’s spouse, can be seen as a violation of the trust and exclusivity expected in a marital relationship. 45% of men and 35% of women have acknowledged engaging in emotional affairs that do not necessarily involve physical intimacy but still breach marital trust. 

Coveting Is Simply Strong Desire

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Coveting, in the context of the Ten Commandments, is about the yearning for something that belongs to someone else, driven by envy and discontentment. This desire can lead to actions that harm relationships and undermine social harmony.

It’s not wrong to desire success, happiness, or a better life, but coveting, as understood in the Decalogue, extends beyond harmless ambition. It focuses on the destructive nature of jealousy and the moral decay it can foster within an individual.

The Commandments Were Given in One Instance

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Many people believe that the entire Decalogue was given in a dramatic event atop Mount Sinai. The first set of tablets, inscribed by God, was famously broken by Moses in response to the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. 

This necessitated a second set of tablets, which were also written by God but were delivered to Moses after a subsequent period of divine instruction and interaction. 

“No Idols” Means No Religious Art

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The commandment against making idols (Exodus 20:4) aimed to prevent worshipping physical objects or images as gods. In the ancient Near Eastern context, it was common for cultures to create statues or images as representations of deities, and these objects were worshiped as though they embodied the gods themselves. 

The Ark of the Covenant, adorned with cherubim, indicates that sacred art was not only allowed but ordained for worship spaces.

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