Every so often in the news you’ll read in the news where this or that conservative Christian organization wants to either erect a copy of the Ten Commandments outside a courthouse or post it somewhere inside a public building like a school or something similar. For example, back in January of this year the school board of Cleveland County, NC took up a resolution to place a display featuring the Ten Commandments in or outside of all thirty of their public schools. As of right now, the issue has been tabled. It’s a thorny topic since the Supreme Court has signaled varying views on the subject. For example, in 2005 the court ruled that displays of the Decalogue on government lands did not violate the Establishment Clause because it represented something of historical and cultural value and not merely something religious.
For Christians who applaud this testing of the wall of separation, rarely does the question come up, Which Ten Commandments? Most are aware of the version found in Exodus 20:3-17 and often it is some truncated version of this found on displays. But since the Pentateuch wasn’t written by a single author but was the product of a redactor bringing together four different sources, it is no wonder we find different versions of the Ten Commandments within it. In Exodus 34 we find a version of the commandments (v. 28) that includes things like a requirement to keep the festival of unleavened bread (v. 18) or the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (v. 26). Why don’t Christians want to display that version?
Looking beyond the biblical text and into the literature of the Second Temple period, we find various “recensions” of the Ten Commandments, the subject of a post over at thetorah.com by Sidnie White Crawford. Crawford considers specifically the order in which the commandments appear. For example, while the prohibition against murder is listed before those of adultery and theft, in the LXX of Codex Vaticanus it is sandwiched in between them. She also shows how the Decalogue was often incorporated into liturgical documents for worship (e.g., tefillin).
The reception of the Ten Commandments is a fascinating subject in and of itself and there is no time to explore it here. Jews and Christians alike have put it to use for this or that religious, rhetorical, and even political purpose.
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