(A9) The Decalogue as a Religious, Ethical and Political Base Text

Lucas Cranach the Elder: The Ten Commandments
Lucas Cranach the Elder: The Ten Commandments
© wikipedia

The examination of early Jewish sources and the corresponding findings on the intertextual references to the Decalogue that have been worked out impressively refute the thesis which is common in research, i.e. that of the “Decalogue silence” in Second Temple literature. It clearly showed that the Decalogue was part of the Jews’ collective traditional good of the period in question.

Concentrating on the Decalogue, Philo sees in it the expression of the “natural law” and, thus, a norm with a universal claim which transcends everything that is political-institutional. Decalogue sentences appear as epitomes of a universally valid ethos, as with most of the other early Jewish authors, too.

An analysis of the early Jesus tradition shows references to the Decalogue without the Torah discourse of Jesus being restricted to the Ten Commandments, according to the sources. On the other hand, it cannot be found that the significance of the Decalogue was to be consciously minimised.

Paul’s Decalogue reception, due to the theological and ethical focus being shifted to messianology, is less distinctive than the Decalogue reception of Philos. In Paul, this focusing involves a certain depoliticisation.

In the Epistle of James, the prohibition of adultery and of murder (Jas 2:11) epitomise the negative theological and anthropological tenors. The epistler sees the positive theological and anthropological tenor in the love of God (Jas 1:12, 2:5) and of man (2:8).

Rembrandt: Moses with the Tablets of the Law
Rembrandt: Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law
© wikipedia

Generally, there is a tendency in the New Testament to regulate the moral conduct by means of a few basic principles: the double commandment of love and the so-called Golden Rule. 

A first analysis of the so-called New Testament apocrypha revealed in particular that the First Commandment is used to discuss fundamental theological and christological issues. Beyond that, the Decalogue appears as a fundamental moral code of early Christianity.

In early Christian writings of the second and third centuries, the Decalogue, particularly the second table, was used in the interaction with the Roman-Hellenistic culture of the Christians in order to show them that their ethics were venerable and older than the pagan ethics. In addition, it was presented as the epitome of natural justice.

We know from the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas and the pagan Epistulae that the Decalogue, at least the second table, also played a major role in Christian gatherings.

We can see two types of Decalogue reception in early rabbinic literature. On the one hand, the Decalogue, as a part of the Jewish self-conception, is taken for granted and interpreted accordingly. On the other hand, there is the tendency to emphasise the importance of all 613 commandments and prohibitions including the Decalogue itself.