In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ten Commandments

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Histories of Research
  • Numbering
  • The So-Called Cultic Decalogue: Exodus 34:10–26
  • The Decalogue as Law
  • The Decalogue and Ethics
  • Source Criticism and the Quest for the Original Form
  • Age and Origin
  • New Testament Reception History
  • Extra-Biblical Reception History
  • Religious Comparative Perspectives

Biblical Studies Ten Commandments
Klaus-Peter Adam
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0208


The Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20:1–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21, are a list of prohibitions and, to a lesser extent, commands. The name “Decalogue,” literally “ten words” (deka logous), reflects the Greek translation of Exodus 34:28. Decalogue is also the designation for the twelve commandments in Exodus 34:12–26. The Decalogues request absolute loyalty to the Israelite God Yahweh. They reject the worship of other deities and call for honoring God’s name and his holy day, the Sabbath. Furthermore, they call for the honoring of parents and reject homicide, adultery, stealing/kidnapping humans, false witness, and coveting. Soon after they were composed, the early reception history distinguishes a first (stone) tablet of the Decalogues with cultic themes, for instance, idols, the name of Yahweh, the festival day. The second tablet refers to social life, with the commandment to honor the previous generation and with prohibitions against homicide; adultery, theft, and so on. With respect to its origin, the material of the Decalogue is deduced from various lines of thought including law, ethical and wisdom traditions, and, in general, the monotheism of the Hebrew Bible. Most prominent is the location of the Decalogues within the law. When seen as part of biblical law, the Decalogues cover covenantal law (the only God Yahweh and his privilege of exclusive veneration, for instance, on the festival day), criminal law (homicide, stealing, kidnapping, false witness, coveting), procedural law (false witness, coveting), and cultic law (prohibition of cultic images and worship, festival day). Notably, the Decalogues only refer to specific actions (murder, adultery, kidnapping), without pointing to the thoughts that lead to those actions, such as hating someone, desiring another partner, or greed. Note also that parallels of directives from the Decalogue in the Hebrew Bible concerning homicide, adultery, theft, and false testimony are surprisingly rare. Consequently, with respect to the audience and to the function of the Decalogues in Israelite society, few scholars suggest an immediate use of the Decalogues as criminal law. Many determined its function in the current arrangement of law primarily as a summary of legal rules: The law collections that follow the Decalogues appear as interpretive specifications that unfold the Decalogue in detail; see for instance, Schmidt and Delkurt 1993 (cited under Individual Commands), Miller 2009 (cited under Individual Commands), and Kaufman 1978–1979 (cited under the Decalogue as Law). Reading the Decalogues in the context of biblical law has also posed the source-critical question of when they originated and how they developed, an important topic of 20th century scholarship. Earlier scholarship attributed Exodus 20:1–17 to a 9th century BCE Elohist source while, as a result of 20th century source-criticism, many commentators of the so-called documentary hypothesis determined the Decalogue’s origin in the laws of Deuteronomy 12–26. The Decalogues precede the legal collections and function as their summaries or preambles.

General Overviews

Any of the numerous commentaries on Exodus and Deuteronomy provide introductions to the Decalogues. Each of the six dictionary entries listed below gather basic information on the Decalogue and the numbering of the commands and introduce to the basic scholarly questions. Bartusch 2014 and Greenstein 2015 also locate the Decalogue in the field of biblical ethics and in the field of law, respectively. These sources give a general overview with most including glimpses into the history of research; Collins 1992 and Miller 2009 cover briefly each instruction. The bibliography in Collins 1992 is concise; the one of Perlitt 1981 is slightly dated; for more elaborate bibliographies, see Bartusch 2014 and Greenstein 2015. Collins 1992 is easily available, widely used, and suited for undergraduate use. Perlitt 1981 and Otto 2007, the latter in condensed style, brought source-critical and redaction historical aspects to the foreground. They provide a satisfying introduction to the subject matter at the graduate level. A monograph, Phillips 1970 offers an elaborate, albeit dated, introduction, based on a scholarly minority’s assumption of the Decalogue as part of criminal law. Harrelson 1980 puts the focus on the value of the Decalogue in ethical discourses on human rights. Ben-Zion 1990 offers samples of insights into the reception history. Like many others, Olson 1994 reads Deuteronomy 6–11 as interpretation and expansion of the first command and Deuteronomy 12–28 as interpretations and extensions of the remainder of the Decalogue. The collected essays in Brown 2004 combine exegetical perspectives with a broad sampling of the history of interpretation, including contemporary perspectives. Coogan 2014 offers a brief overview for a broad audience. Holbert 2002 comments from a Christian homiletics’ perspective on the Decalogue as a basis of sermons.

  • Bartusch, Mark W. “Decalogue.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Ethics. Vol. 1. Edited by Robert L. Brawley, 161–169. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1093/acref:obso/9780199829910.001.0001

    Covers numbering, the date, the history of research and audience and purpose, the Decalogues and ethics, and controversies on the interpretation of the Decalogues today.

  • Ben-Zion, Segal, ed. The Ten Commandments in History and Tradition. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1990.

    A collections of essays on the Ten Commandments.

  • Brown, William P. ed. The Ten Commandments: The Reciprocity of Faithfulness, Library of Theological Ethics. Westminster, UK: John Knox, 2004

    An introduction by expert P. D. Miller to the Decalogue’s meaning for biblical ethics opens this anthology (pp. 12–32). Subsequently the volume covers eight major interpretive approaches throughout history, such as Thomas Aquinas, Rabbinic Judaism, Martin Luther, various Reformed theologians, including John Calvin and others (chapters 3–10, pp. 45–132). Chapters 14–23, pp. 133–318 cover each of the ten stipulations and can serve as ideal textbook for a college course.

  • Collins, Raymond F. “Ten Commandments.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 6, Si-Z. Edited by David N. Freedman, 383–387. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    Provides a survey of scholarship identifying major themes and contributors and brief annotation to each of the stipulations.

  • Coogan, Michael. The Ten Commandments: A Short History of an Ancient Text. New Haven, CT: Yale, 2014.

    Reflections on selected aspects of the Decalogue and its meaning in biblical time and today’s culture. Written for a broad audience, this short monograph can also be of use as an introduction in college courses.

  • Greenstein, Edward L. “Decalogue.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Law. Vol. 1. Edited by Brent S. Strawn, 164–172. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    Covers form, number, arrangement, the legitimization of the Decalogues as divine law spoken as divine speech in the first person singular, the literary contexts in Exodus and Deuteronomy, the reception history and theories on function and origin.

  • Harrelson, Walter. The Ten Commandments and Human Rights. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980.

    Monograph that embeds the Decalogues foremost in ethical discourses. Introduces to the historical background and the outline and structure of the Decalogue (pp. 3–49) and offers explanations to each commandment (pp. 51–193). A dated but excellent resource for college classes.

  • Holbert, John C. The Ten Commandments: A Preaching Commentary. Nashville: Abingdon, 2002.

    This commentary for preachers is based on brief historical exegetical remarks and aims at suggestions for ideas to preach in the form of “sermonic notes.” A good resource for practical application of the Decalogues in Christian sermons.

  • Miller, Patrick D. “Ten Commandments.” In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 5, S-Z. Edited by Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, 517–522. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

    Introduction to the relation to the context, the order, and numeration; the literary and the redactional features; as well as the individual commands. Summary of current exegetical questions that enables students of a college class to get condensed information on each individual command.

  • Olson, Dennis T. Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses: A Theological Reading. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994.

    Olson elucidates the condensed character of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5 in light of the subsequent material in Deuteronomy 6–11 and 12–28. His explanation of the material of Deuteronomy is based on approaches in antiquity and, more recently, of Stephen Kaufman and Georg Braulik. Olson (pp. 62–125) demonstrates how Deuteronomy 6–11 expand on the first command and how then Deuteronomy 12–28 lay out the same legal topics as the Decalogue in roughly the same order. A resource for graduate students.

  • Otto, Eckart. “Decalogue.” In Religion Past and Present. Vol. 3. Edited by Hans Dieter Betz, 709–712. Leiden, The Netherlands, Boston: Brill, 2007.

    Concise introduction mainly on the backdrop of Israelite Law, offers a condensed debate on hallmark 19th–20th century German source-criticism. Summary of scholarship that introduces graduate students to the source-critical debates; can serve as orientation for those students with an interest in a source-criticism. Translated from the German.

  • Perlitt, Lothar. “Dekalog.” In Theologische Realenzyklopädie. Vol. 8. Edited by Gerhard Krause and Gerhard Müller, 408–413. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1981.

    Provides a detailed overview on the source-critical questions and on the comparison of both versions of the Decalogue. Also includes bibliography with classic works that can serve as excellent orientation for graduate students. The ample bibliography is thematically organized. In German.

  • Phillips, Anthony. Ancient Israel’s Criminal Law: A New Approach to the Decalogue. Oxford: Blackwell, 1970.

    Monograph based on the older understanding of the Decalogue as a constitution of Ancient Israel revealed on the occasion of the covenant. This partially outdated concept of the Decalogue’s role as a constitution is the framework on which the author unfolds the meaning of the individual commands. See esp. pp. 3–13.

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