Jewish, Catholic, Protestant commandments differ

Published March 5, 2005|Updated Aug. 25, 2005

On Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases challenging the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays on government property.

Opponents of such displays say they violate the First Amendment by promoting religion. Supporters counter that they simply pay homage to the Decalogue's role in history.

Observers nationwide and locally may well question which set of commandments are being considered in this debate. Jewish, Catholic and Protestant versions differ.

For Jews, there are 613 commandments, not just the "top 10," said Rabbi Jacob Luski of Congregation B'nai Israel of St. Petersburg.

The Rev. Robert Schneider noted that Catholics and Protestants number the commandments differently.

"The first three commandments we say deal with our relationship with God, and the last seven commandments deal with our relationship with others," said Schneider, pastor at Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia Web site, the system for numbering the commandments in Bible translations used by Catholics was determined by St. Augustine. The first commandment combines injunctions against false worship and the worship of false gods.

Protestants generally separate the two and make them their first and second commandments.

For Jews, the first commandment is a verse considered introductory by some Christians: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage."

"In the context of the ancient world where polytheism was the norm, the concept of one and only one God was a most unique gift given to the children of Israel," Luski said.

Notwithstanding different numerical designations, Jews, Catholics and Protestants all end up with a total of 10 commandments. All believe, as well, that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

But people opposed to Ten Commandments displays in public buildings say the choice of one version over the other shows favoritism on the government's part.

Erwin Chemerinsky is the attorney for Thomas Van Orden, a homeless man who filed the case in Texas. Chemerinsky has noted that Catholics, Protestants and Jews use different versions of the commandments. The Jewish version says, "You shall not murder," but the one used on the Texas monument says, "Thou shalt not kill," the wording in the King James Version of the Bible used by many Protestants.

But attorneys for Texas said in a court filing that the Fraternal Order of Eagles made the monument neutral. "To ensure that their monument would not be identified with any particular religious group, the Eagles carefully selected a nonsectarian text of the Ten Commandments that had been developed by representatives of the Jewish, Protestant and Catholic faiths."

The legal ramifications of commandments may be a courtroom debate, but the religious aspects are clear to people of faith.

"At Mount Sinai, Moses entered into a covenant with God on behalf of the children of Israel. A sign of that covenant was Moses returning to the people with the Ten Commandments," Luski said.

Jews celebrate the event at the festival of Shavuot, which falls seven weeks and one day after Passover.

Of the 613 commandments in the Torah, 248 are dos and 365 are don'ts, Luski said.

He doesn't teach dire consequences for breaking the commandments. "My approach is that of positive reinforcement rather than negative fear," Luski said.

The Catholic Church adopts the same attitude, Schneider said.

"We primarily use the Ten Commandments as an examination of conscience. They are general precepts and they don't really define individual sins," he said.

For example, the commandment "Thou shalt not steal" also means one should not cheat on a test, Schneider said.

The Rev. J. Phillip Miller-Evans of American Baptist Church of the Beatitudes in St. Petersburg said the Ten Commandments "are a concise, clear understanding that good living is important."

He added, however, that "they don't hold any higher value than the other commandments of God, such as simple things as gossiping."

The punishment for breaking the commandments is death, Miller-Evans said, but "Jesus Christ offers us eternal life through grace."

Miller-Evans said American Baptists were among the 32 Baptist denominations that filed a friends of the court brief stating that displays actually diminish the Decalogue's sacred value.

The Catholic Church has issued no statement about the controversy, said Schneider, who offered an opinion of his own.

"I see it as part of our spiritual history," he said of the commandments, "but I see it also as part of our moral code that helps form our ethics today."

The last seven commandments are not particularly religious, Schneider added.

"They don't say anything about God. They are a lot of ethical codes," he said.

Unlike their monotheistic cousins, Muslims have no Decalogue. They follow similar precepts, said Askia Muhammad Aquil, an imam, or Muslim prayer leader, from St. Petersburg.

"There are some basic beliefs and some basic principles. They are essentially scattered throughout the Koran," he said.

Aquil said he can see both sides of the public display issue. On one hand, he thinks supporters are attempting to establish a state religion, he said.

"On the other hand, it is an attempt to confront this oversecularization of society, where there is no clear basis for right or wrong," he said.

"The challenge is to be able to balance that and to develop a democratic society that will embrace all of the citizens in our diverse makeup."

Information from Times files was used in this report.


Wording may vary depending on scriptural translations.


1. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

2. You shall have no other gods besides Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.

3. You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God.

4. Remember the Sabbath and 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 house (anything that belongs to your neighbor).

Protestant (King James Version)

1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

5. Honor thy father and thy mother.

6. Thou shalt not kill.

7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

8. Thou shalt not steal.

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house (or anything that belongs to your neighbor).


1. I, the Lord, am your God. You shall not have other gods besides me.

2. You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.

3. Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.

4. Honor your father and mother.

5. You shall not kill.

6. You shall not commit adultery.

7. You shall not steal.

8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

9. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.

10. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Sources: Rabbi Jacob Luski, the Rev. Robert Schneider, the King James Version of the Bible