Librarian’s Lobby

By Daniel D. Stuhlman

June 2008

The Ten Commandments

Last week a Jewish studies professor asked a question on H-Judaic, a listserv for Jewish studies, about the origin of the expression, “Ten Commandments.” This is a question that a librarian could answer. Since the professor is well known for his scholarship and public speaking, perhaps this not such a simple answer? Perhaps he did not know all the search tools available in the library? The actual question was, “When did the expression "Ten Commandments" (specifying commandments) first come into use as opposed to decalogue or its Hebrew equivalent (aseret hadevarim/dibrot)?” I made the assumption that the question can only be answered with literary warrant, that is with a written preferably, published source.

I understood the question to be searching for the English term as the Greek and Hebrew terms differ from the English. The Hebrew term, עשרת הדברות or עשרת הדרים [‘asert ha-dibrot or ‘aseret devarim ] has a different meaning than commandment. The form ‘aseret ha-divarim is used in Deuteronomy 10:4. The Torah uses the term מצוה [mitsvah] when God makes a commandment. The ‘aseret ha-dibrot contain more than ten commandments because each one of the statements is a basis for other commandments. The number, ten is easy to explain. We have ten fingers and toes divided into two groups of five. “Ten” is the basis for a minyan and our numbering system. Even David Letterman has a top ten list. The Greek term “dekalog” is a direction translation of the word and concept of the Hebrew. (deka means ten; logos means word.) “’Aseret Ha-dibrot” is used in many places in the Talmud. (Berachot 5a, Yoma 4a, Megillah 53b, etc.) Rambam in Sefer ‘Avodah uses the words ‘asarah mitsvoth עשרה מצוות but the sentences are taking about 10 mitsvot out of 14 or 30 and nothing to with the ‘asert ha-dibrot in Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5. I can only conclude that the term, “ten commandments” is not a translation of a Hebrew or Jewish concept.

The next step is to search for the English term using Google Books (, a search engine for searching the texts of books. Google Books 1, though agreements with publishers may give access to view selections or the whole text of a document. Google has agreements with many research libraries to scan their print books and some publishers voluntarily send their current content for inclusion. Google does not publish any lists of the materials included in their searches. Google finds matches by keywords and subject headings. Through its advanced search option, one may search by author or restrict output by date. One amazing feature is the ability to retrieve alternative spellings of words. If one searches on "ten commandments" without a restriction, you will 10,000’s of hits that have nothing to do with the Biblical Ten Commandments. Since we want to find early English sources I limited the search to books published before 1550 with “ten commandments” in the subject and the text of the book. Google gave about 97 hits. These were not unique titles because some of the hits were variant printings and editions of other books. Google did not offer an image of the pages.

The next step to be sure the search is comprehensive is to search WorldCat, which is the combined data base of books and non-book material from OCLC. In Illinois, this data base is made available for free with the state library paying the fee. I used the subject heading, Ten commandments -- Early works to 1800 2 with a date limit of 1400 – 1600. This gave me 221 hits. Some of the works are just variant editions. I don’t know how many are unique titles. All were written from non-Jewish points of view since no Jews would have written in English during those years. 3

To find the image of the pages I used the data base, Early English Books Online (EEBO), which I accessed it through the Rutgers University Library. This data base contains digital facsimile page images of virtually every work printed in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and British North America and works in English printed elsewhere from 1473-1700. This data base is only available through large research libraries. Below are some examples of books with “ten commandments” in their title and defiantly referring to the Decalogue of the Torah.

Author: Hooper, John, d. 1555.

Title: A declaratyon of the ten holy commaundementes of almyghtye God [electronic resource] : wryten Exo. xx. Deu. 5. Collected out of the scrypture canonycall, by Iohn Houper, with certeyne newe addisions made by the same maister Houper.

Published: [Imprynted at London : In Paules churche yarde at the sygne of ye Byble by [T. Gaultier? for] Rycharde Iugge], Anno. M.D.L. [1550]

Title: Ihesus. The floure of the commaundementes of god [electronic resource] : with many examples and auctorytees extracte and drawen as well of holy scryptures as of other doctours and good auncient faders, the whiche is moche vtyle and prouffytable vnto all people. The. x. commaundementes of the lawe. Thou shalt worshyp one god onely. And loue hym with thy herte perfytely ... The fyue commaundementes of the chyrche. The sondayes here thou masse and the festes of co[m]maundement. ... The foure ymbres vigyles thou shalte faste, [and] the lente entyerly.

Published: [Enprynted at London : In Flete strete at the sygne of the sonne by Wynkyn de Worde. The seco[n]de yere of ye reygne of oure moost naturell souerayne lorde kynge Henry ye eyght of that name, Fynysshed the yere of oure lorde. M.CCCCC.x. [1510] the. xiiii. daye of Septembre]

Laurent, Dominican, fl. 1279.

This book was compyled [and] made atte requeste of kyng Phelyp of Fraunce ... whyche book is callyd in frensshe. le liure Royal· that is to say the ryal book. or a book for a kyng. ... 1485

¶Here after ben conteyned & declared the x comandementes of the lawe which god wrote with his propre fyngre / & delyuerd them to Moyses the prophete for to preche to the peple for to holde & kepe capitulo primo

[The book is not paged. The above is from image 2.] This is the earliest literary evidence that I could find. Based on this published evidence, the expression, “ten commandments” existed in Middle English, but the current spelling is from the early 17th century.

The author was the confessor of King Philip and this work was written about the year 1277. The book was not printed until 1485.

Based on this print evidence, the term in English "x comandementes of the lawe" existed in the Middle Ages, but the modern spelling, "ten commandments" was first used in early 1600's. The system of enumeration of the statement is from St. Augustine's Quæstiones in Exodum, (5th century) and was adapted by the Council of Trent. Since he wrote in Latin not English, I am not sure if this counts as the earliest use of the term. This essay just deals with the actual term, “ten commandments” and not with the theological or philosophical concept.

The term “ten commandments” was not universally accepted. In the book: The main principles of Christian religion in a 107 short articles or aphorisms, generally receiv'd as being prov'd from scripture : now futher cleared and confirm'd by the consonant doctrine recorded in the articles and homilies of the Church of England ... / by Tho[mas] Adams... Date: 1675 (page 75). Adams uses three terms, Decalogue, Ten Words and Ten Commandments as synonyms, as if the reader would not be sure what was the best term. Throughout the work Adams uses two or three terms.

Expl. 41. By a Law in the general, we are to understand, the Will of the Lawgiver requiring duty: But here by the Moral Law we are to understand, (1.) More generally, the revealed Will of God, of what man is to believe and do in order to salvation. (2.) More particularly, the Decalogue, which is the sum of all Moral Laws, which are scattered up and down in the Scripture. And this Decalogue (or Ten Words, or Ten Commandments) may be called Moral, (1.) Because of the universality of it; for the Decalogue doth oblige all mankind, it being that very Law, for substance, which was written in very legible Characters in the heart of Adam, and is not quite blotted out of the minds of the veryest Gentiles in the world. (2.) It doth oblige at all times. (3.) The whole man, for it requires as well the internal obedience of the soul, and all its powers and faculties, as outward obedience of the body.

The Early English Books data base has 1223 hits for Ten Commandments and 750 for Decalogue. Here is an example from 1581 with multiple terms in the title, Sermons of M. Iohn Caluin, vpon the x. Commandementes of the Lawe, giuen of God by Moses, otherwise called the Decalogue. Gathered worde for worde, presently at his sermons, when hee preached on Deuteronomie, without adding vnto, or diminishing from them any thing afterward. Translated out of French into English, by I.H. , Imprinted at London: [At the three Cranes of the Vinetree, by Thomas Dawson,] for George Bishop, 1581.

Based on the evidence from English books before 1675, the terms “Ten Commandments” and “Decalogue” were both used in print and in sermons. Some authors used multiple terms to make sure the audience understood. The concept of the use of the term “Ten commandments” probably dated to the 5th century. By the 18th century “Ten commandments” was more common in Christian works than “Decalogue.” The answer to the original question depends what one is looking for, the English term (rather than Latin, Greek or Hebrew), the concept, or popular usage. 4


Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Visit the web site at to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at: E-mail author.

1 If you want to test how many people have quoted your book, search your own name with Google Books, the results are very different than searching the web with Google. I found authors had my name in their bibliography. I also found a government report published in 1970 that included my full address and phone number. Since Google did not display the full text, I have not yet read the report and I am curious as to why my name was there.

2 Compare this to the French subject heading: Décalogue -- Ouvrages avant 1800 or German Dekalog Note that English uses the French spelling, not the German even though the German is a better transliteration of the Greek.

3 Officially England had no Jews from the expulsion in 1290 until their formal return in 1655.

4 Jewish use of the term, “Ten Commandments” seems to be quite recent, but I can’t date this with certainty. In Joseph H. Hertz’s humash (The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, edited by J.H. Hertz. London, first edition published in 1936) is an article on the subject on page 400, “The Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue.” Except for the title and the second paragraph in this article Hertz uses “Decalogue.”