Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Myth of the "Ten Commandments"

The Ten Commandments have been in the news again; the Christian right has been saying silly things in their effort to convince people that the Founders intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation. There is, for example, the Texas school textbook that says the Constitution was influenced by the Ten Commandments. This is like saying that my Honda owner's manual was influenced by "Hamlet"; there is simply no overlap between the two. Put the two documents side by side and see if you can find any resemblance.

But that brought up another question: Why do Christians attach such importance to the Ten Commandments? It seems awfully, shall we say, Old Testament. Out of all the Old Testament, why is this the part that Christians want to carve into two-ton sculptures?

Actually, not everyone believes that Christians need to follow the Ten Commandments; some hold out for faith alone. But among those who do think they must be followed, many sources, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church, cite this passage from Matthew 19:

16And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 

17And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 

18He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Christians conclude that "Keep the commandments" means "Follow the Ten Commandments." But that raises questions. First, there's the  man's question "Which ones?" Seriously? Ten is too many? Second, why does Jesus put in that sixth item, about loving your neighbor? The usual explanation is that this is a sort of summary of the others. But it's certainly not a summary of the missing ones, which include not worshiping idols and observing the Sabbath.

To an observant Jew (I'm not one, but seemingly Jesus was) this is all way off the mark, a misunderstanding. Any observant Jew knows what "Keep the commandments" means. It refers to the hundreds of commandments (mitzvot) in the Five Books of Moses. So the question "Which ones?" makes perfect sense. How important is eating matzoh on Passover? Not mixing wool and linen? Wearing fringes on your garments? Jesus then lists six that he considers important. The sixth is not his own invention; it's another one of the mitzvot, found in Leviticus 19:18.

In fact, Jesus could not have been talking about those ten things written on the two stone tablets, because in Hebrew they are not even called "the Ten Commandments." They're called something like the Ten Words or the Ten Utterances (hence the Greek Decalogue).  Jews consider the first one to be "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt," so only the remaining nine are actual commandments.

The Ten Utterances are considered to be God's covenant with Israel. Remember "Raiders of the Lost Ark"? The box in which the Israelites carried the two stone tablets was called the Ark of the Covenant, not the Ark of the Commandments. And Jews believe that only some of the commandments in the covenant are binding on non-Jews. Notice that in the First Utterance, God says "...who brought you out of the land of Egypt." Brought whom out of the land of Egypt? You're off the hook, Christians.

Things I don't understand, o my Christian brethren:

(1) Christians are quite emphatic that Jesus gave them a New Covenant to supplant the Old Covenant that Jews had with God. So why would you adopt the Old Covenant in its entirety?

(2) A man asks the central figure in Christianity--the Son of God--what laws to follow. The man is given a list of six laws. Christians do not respond by writing them on the walls of their churches. Instead, they put aside the sixth one, and add five others that Jesus doesn't mention. Why?

Well, for whatever reason, that's what the Christians did. And so the Ten Commandments became "the very cornerstone of Western Civilization, and the basis of our legal system here in America." Surely no one can dispute that.

I do dispute it. Take a look at our nation's prisons.  You will find no one convicted of Sabbath-breaking, adultery, making graven images, coveting, or giving their parents lip. The Puritans, certainly, might have locked up such people, but that's never been part of "our legal system here in America." (Yes, I know, Massachusetts used to have blue laws.) The only Commandments whose violation is a felony in America are those against murder, theft, and perjury, and probably those were felonies in Ming Dynasty China and Egypt under the Pharaohs. Conversely, we managed to come up with laws against rape, sale of narcotics, child molestation, prostitution, and many other things not mentioned in Ten Commandments.

So there you have it. If I were a believing Christian, I'd just try to follow the Six Commandments. And I'd object vociferously if anyone tried to tell me the Ten Commandments are the basis for American law.


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