The Ten Commandments are a set of ten basic rules of behavior, mostly negative in construction, that appear in the ancient Hebrew scriptures and are directed at the Hebrews as God’s chosen people. Tradition holds that these rules were delivered to them by God via Moses, who climbed to the top of Mount Sinai during the Hebrews’ journey through the desert from Egypt to Canaan. They are, then, God’s requirements for how the Hebrews are supposed to behave.
The Ten Commandments are also called the Decalogue (or Decalog). This is a word derived from the Greek deka, which means ten, and logos, which means word. It is common in some religious circles to refer to the Ten Commandments as the Ten Words and even list them in the form of “First Word, Second Word, etc.”
How Many Commandments?
The Ten Commandments are not the only commandments that exist in the Hebrew scriptures. There are, in fact, 623 commandments or laws in the scriptures, but these ten are given extra weight by Jewish scholars because of their very basic nature. This attitude has been carried on in Christianity and Islam. Christian scriptures depict Jesus as reducing the basic laws to two, loving one’s neighbor and loving God. Muslim scriptures don’t specifically list or address the commandments by name at all but they do contain similar commands.
According to Jewish traditions, the Ten Commandments were delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai when the Hebrews stopped there during their journey from Egypt (where they were enslaved) to Canaan (where they would wipe out the local inhabitants). Jewish scholars have generally treated these ten rules as foundational for the rest of Jewish law.
To say that they are foundational suggests that they are not themselves laws. One reason for this is that none of them, at least in their shorter forms, contain punishments, explanations, or means of implementation. They don’t look at all like the laws we see elsewhere in the Hebrew legal code and may be best described as fundamental principles that justify and support the rest of the law.
How Many Versions of the Commandments?
Of the three versions of the Ten Commandments that appear in the Hebrew scriptures, two are similar and one is very different. The presence of the two similar versions is not entirely surprising. One can claim that the first in Exodus 20 was delivered to Moses by God, but Moses broke the two tablets when he came down from Mt. Sinai and discovered that people were worshipping a Golden Calf. God then instructed Moses to create two new tablets and these became the Deuteronomy 5 version. If both are supposed to be from God, though, why are there any differences at all?
The version from Exodus 34 is radically different from the other two. It really does have ten distinct commands rather than a larger set that is only divided into ten through creative editing. It also gives commands that are completely unlike those in the other two versions. These commands all involve ritual acts and laws, thus leading to their designation as the “ritual decalogue” by some.
The present form of the Ten Commandments is considerably more recent than the time of Moses, assuming that Moses even existed, but it is likely that some simpler form existed during that earlier era. At the very least there is nothing about such a version that would require a much later dating.
Origin of the Ten Commandments
Although religious conservatives generally believe that the Ten Commandments we currently have were given directly to Moses by God, religious liberals who accept that the Bible was written by multiple authors believe that each of the three versions comes from a different hand. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the version in Exodus 20 was written by the “E” author between 922 and 722 BCE, the Exodus 34 version was written by the “J” author between 848 and 722 BCE, and the Deuteronomy version was written by the “D” author around 622 BCE.
Regardless of whatever special importance the Ten Commandments may have had to the ancient Hebrews, a full listing of the them only occurs in Exodus and Deuteronomy. They are referenced elsewhere and a couple of the commandments may be mentioned, but no full listings can be found in the other Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament, or various non-canonical works.
It is thought that the form of the Ten Commandments was deliberately chosen to facilitate regular, even ceremonial, recitation. They do, after all, number the same as the number of human fingers, and the format of repeated “you shall” or “you shall not” would lend itself to memorization and public recitation on festivals or other religious events (especially if it is true that they were all originally very short).
The Deuteronomy text even indicates that they were recited directly to the people by God, though it’s unclear if that happened in the context of Exodus 20. There is no actual record of a public ritual during which the Ten Comments might have been ritually recited, though. This means that their status as ritual or not is questionable and shouldn't be taken too far when trying to understand their origin.