Ten Commandments in schools a bad idea

The stupidest bill introduced in the Oregon legislature late in March was a proposal to post the 10 Commandments in public schools. Supposedly, according to a parade of supporters, this would help stop the outbreaks of violence and what some boosters termed “moral depravity” among youth.

Charles Starr, Republican senator from Hillsboro and sponsor of the bill, hoped for passage out of the Senate Education committee. Opponents said the bill would never stand up under a constitutional challenge. The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the idea on those familiar grounds of separation of church and state. Supposedly the commandments would be considered a historical document and be accompanied by other historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta. This would theoretically step around the church and state argument.

I’m not going to make the church and state argument. I’m arguing against posting the 10 Commandments in schools on grounds of bad scholarship. Which one of the four different versions of the 10 Commandments would be posted? There are four different versions, affording different interpretations or emphases. At least three of these remain in current use.

Orthodox Jews theoretically follow the Decalogue (as it’s called) brought down by Moses from the mountain on tablets of stone. But Moses, according to the Old Testament, brought down two slightly different versions with slightly different slants.

Then there is a third version, followed today by Catholics and Lutherans. Finally, the Greek Orthodox and Protestant Reformed traditions adhere to a fourth. To compound the violations of good scholarship, the second, third and fourth revisions jiggle the numbers by eliminating the Jewish first commandment and splitting up others to retain the magic total of 10.

The 10th commandment of the Jewish version, Exodus 20:1-17, you shall not covet your neighbor’s house or your neighbor’s wife, gives precedence to house over wife. In the Deuteronomy 5:6-21 version, desire for the wife takes precedence over coveting the house. The Deuteronomy version of the fourth commandment urges keeping the Sabbath as a remembrance of the deliverance from Egyptian slavery. In the Exodus version the Israelites are to observe the Sabbath in honor of the Creation. Slight differences textually, significant philosophically.

Orthodox Judaism regards the first commandment as demanding obeisance to God, declaring “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

The Catholics didn’t like that as a commandment, suggesting God was a special God of the Jews, so they lopped it off. They then combined the second and third Mosaic commandments into one commandment, bunching “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” with “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images” into a first commandment. Then they divided the Israelite ban on coveting houses and wives into two, getting back to the required total of 10.

The Greek Orthodox and Protestant Reformed didn’t go for that division. Reflecting the strong Protestant distaste for Catholic images, they divided the Catholic opening commandment on false gods and graven images into two to emphasize the ban on images. The Greek Orthodox church doesn’t approve images either, but does use icons, although these, too, were forbidden during an ancient “iconoclastic controversy.”

To balance the list out to 10, the Protestants joined the Jews in combining the coveting of houses and wives into a single commandment.

This jimmying with the numbering can create confusion. If you talk to a Catholic about the seventh commandment, you’re talking about “thou shalt not steal,” but to a Reformed Protestant number seven would be “thou shalt not commit adultery.” Christians following the 10 Commandments run into related Biblical problems. Paul in First Timothy 1:10 seems to expand the Decalogue’s ban on adultery to include homosexuality (“for them that defile themselves with mankind,”) and also kidnapping, which he terms “manstealing.”

How can we call any version of the 10 Commandments the version which should be exhibited in public schools as an historical document? We have original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta, but no such conclusive historical document for the Decalogue. It is the jimmied-up King James version that played the greatest influence on historical America. Regardless of the moral message, posting any version of the 10 Commandments represents a bad idea from the standpoint of scholarship.