Browsing Daily News

Father Nicholas Nelson: Why are there two different ways of numbering the Ten Commandments?

We are all familiar with the Ten Commandments. During the Exodus from their slavery in Egypt, the Israelites are journeying to the Promised Land. And at one point, Moses goes up Mt. Sinai and receives the Ten Commandments from God. What we may not realize is that while Scripture (Exodus 34:28) tells us there are ten of them, Scripture doesn’t say which of the commandments given to Moses actually constitute the Ten Commandments. 

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

All of our Bibles today have chapter numbers and verse numbers in addition to the names of the books of the Bible. We tend to think that the biblical writers themselves determined the chapters and verses as they wrote the sacred text. That is not the case. 

It wasn’t until the 13th century that Cardinal Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, divided up the Latin Vulgate into chapters, upon which all other modern Bibles have based their own numbering system. It was later on in the 16th century that Robert Estienne or Robert Stephanus, a Protestant layman, separated the Bible further into verses. 

So we can’t just look at the book of Exodus and see the Ten Commandments nicely distinguished by their verses and easily know which are the Ten Commandments. 

Our first record of the Ten Commandments being distinguished as the Ten Commandments comes from Origen in the third century. Origen’s numbering is used today by the Orthodox Churches and Reformed Protestant communities including Evangelical Christians. Later on, St. Augustine in the fifth century came up with a different numbering. St. Augustine’s numbering is the numbering Catholics and Lutherans use to this day. 

The difference in the two lists can be narrowed down to the question, “How do you put eleven commandments into ten?” 

These are the eleven: 

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything.
  3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
  11. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house or anything that is your neighbor’s.

Origen, the Greek Fathers, the Orthodox Churches, and the Reformed Protestant communities keep all of them separate except for ten and eleven. Catholics and Lutherans put the first two together and keep the rest separate. 

I want to defend the Catholic numbering of the Ten Commandments. 

First, why would we want to separate ten and 11 and keep them as two distinct commandments? Well, a good priest once said, “There is a big difference between coveting your neighbor’s lawn mower, and coveting your neighbor’s wife!” We even see this in Jesus’ teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). Jesus doesn’t make the same point with coveting another’s goods. 

On the other hand, why would we want to put one and two together? Catholics have seen “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything” not as an absolute prohibition, but rather as an extension of the First Commandment and that we shouldn’t create things and then worship them as gods instead of the one true God. 

Some Protestants, especially those who number one and two separately, have no statues or images in their churches, and they disparage Catholics for having statues and images in their churches and homes. They point to this commandment and say, “See, you’re doing it wrong. You’re disobeying the Second Commandment. You can’t make any statues or images at all.” But are they right? Is fabrication of anything prohibited by God? 

No, that can’t be the case. It can’t be the case because just five chapters later in the book of Exodus, God actually commands Moses and the Israelites to build the Ark of the Covenant, and specifically he commands them to “make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end” (Exodus 25:18-19). 

Then later on in their journey through the desert, the snakes bite the Israelites who were complaining, so God gives them this remedy: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole” (Numbers 21:8-9). 

The Ten Commandments are central to our Faith and the moral life we lead. I hope this short explainer gives you more confidence in why we number the Ten Commandments the way we do and allows you to impress others at your next ecclesiastical cocktail party. But most importantly, may we faithfully live by each and every one of the Ten Commandments. 

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet and vocations director for the Diocese of Duluth. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected]