Christians have disputed nearly everything at one time or another. The first generations of Christians debated Jesus’ identity as God or what it meant for God to die. They came up with numerous answers, many of them became the first heresies. Not all disputes center on the most important doctrines of the faith, however. Looking through our 10 Commandments products , you may have noticed that the number and placement of the 10 commandments differs from product to product. The different versions of our 10 Commandments shirts and 10 Commandments mugs represent different ways of numbering the 10 Commandments in history. Here’s a brief introduction to how different people have numbered them and why.
You can find the 10 Commands in two places in the Old Testament. Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. There are few differences between the two versions, and they are mostly different word choices or extra description in one or the other. What makes them all common is that each section begins with a command, hence their name.
There are three different traditions for numbering the 10 commandments, each with a historical perspective. Lutherans and Catholics have one tradition. Jews have another. And the protestants and Orthodox churches have still a third. Why so many different ways to number the commandments? The split lies in how people treat the first commandment. Each has a historical perspective that informs how they approach the commands of God to Israel.
Lutherans and Catholics merge together the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” with the next line, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image.” Augustine of Hippo developed this system. He argued that these two imperatives are actually the same command. Worshipping other gods is part of making a carved image to worship it. Since they both reflect the same idea, Augustine combined the two.
This tradition also differs from others in that they don’t put together the two imperatives on coveting. Lutherans and Catholics consider, “You shall not covet your neighbor's wife,” and, “You shall not desire your neighbor's house,” to be different commandments.
Augustine’s numbering became the traditional way for the Catholic church to number the Ten Commandments, and Lutherans followed them, too. Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk, and he saw no need to change the numbering system from the one people already knew.
Protestants and the Orthodox number their commandments similarly. The second commandment for both is the command not to make carved images to worship them. They also do not separate the commands regarding coveting into two separate ones.
Orthodox churches have a slightly different version of the first commandment from Protestant ones, however. Their first commandment begins with the words, “I am the Lord your God.” The author of the above article writes that it is important for God to identify himself as the God who was to be worshipped. The God who brought the Hebrews out of Egypt is the only one we should worship.
The Protestant emphasis on the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image,” may come from the conflict between Protestants and the Catholic Church. Many of the first reformers believed that images of saints, including statues, paintings, and relics, were a form of idol worship. They pointed to God’s command in the 10 Commandments to show how the Catholic Church was going the wrong way.
Jews, however, number the commandments in another way. Their first commandment is the opening statement, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The second commandment includes both the prohibition against worshipping other gods and against creating idols. After that, it follows the standard protestant delineation.
This numbering system focuses on God’s identity. It points those who follow the commandments to the God who saved Israel and made this covenant with them on that basis. It reminds us of God’s grace to Israel and to the church which he gave before he told then the 10 Commandments.
Why so many? The accounts of the 10 commandments do not number them for us. We don’t even know that they were ten until Exodus 34:28. There weren’t even verse or chapter numbers in the Old Testament, so we can’t look at that division. Additionally, there are more than 10 imperatives in these passages, 14 in total.
When one reads an English Bible, it might seem obvious where the divisions should be. The Bible even has spaces between the proper commandments. These divisions, all the spacing and paragraph formatting, come from contemporary editors. Even punctuation is not original to the text. Our English versions, then, are the result of the translators and editors preferred theological divisions rather than coming straight from the source.
People struggled with the 14 imperatives in the 10 Commandments, and they arrived at different conclusions. None of these systems are better or worse than any other. They simply emphasize different aspects of the commandments and offer a different way to look at them. However you number the commandments, the message is still the same, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
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