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Jesus and the Ten Commandments

The way I started my talk this past week at the University of Michigan on Jesus, the Law, and the New Covenant was by discussing the confusion a number of my students have about the Jewishness of Jesus.  The first day of class, in my New Testament course, I give the students a pop quiz to see how much they know about the New Testament.  The quiz deals with basic, factual information:  How many books are in the NT?  What language were they written in?  Etc.

Well, I do throw in a couple of curve balls for good measure….  But mostly it’s just factual information.  One of the questions asks the students to indicate which of the following persons was Jewish: John the Baptist, Alexander the Great, Jesus, Simon Peter, Tacitus, the Apostle Paul.  As it turns out, most of the students get all these right.  Including Jesus.  I’m not sure that, when I started teaching over thirty years ago now, it was as widely recognized that Jesus was Jewish.  But today, virtually everyone knows that he was.

But what does it mean?  Sometimes I ask my students: does it mean that Jesus lived like a Jew?

“Yes, of course. “

“OK, does that mean he kept the Jewish law?”

Some students think: “Yes, he must have.  He was Jewish!”

Other students think: “Well, he was accused by Pharisees of breaking the Sabbath, so maybe he didn’t keep the law.”

“OK, then, if he didn’t keep the law, in what sense was he Jewish?”

They aren’t really quite sure.  And then

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Anti-Judaism in the Gospels: A Blast From the Past
(Later) Early Christian Understandings of Heaven and Hell



  1. Avatar
    mark1947  October 13, 2016

    Most people don’t realize that there are three versions of the Ten Commandments; Exodus 20, Exodus 34 and Deuteronomy 5. I personally have a problem with Commandment 10 in Exodus 34 , ” You should not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” – not real relevant in today’s world.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2016

      Ah, but it is why Jews who keep kosher cannot each a cheeseburger: it is mixing dairy and meat.

  2. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  October 13, 2016

    it is your understanding that the writer who wrote the 10 commandments clearly linked them to the 613 ?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2016

      I don’t think the writer probably knew there were exactly 613 commandments. Probably never counted them. But yes, they were all connected.

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 13, 2016

    If I remember the Commandments correctly, the one about the Sabbath just says something like “Thou shall keep holy the Sabbath.” Am I right in thinking the actual “Commandment” doesn’t spell out *how* it was to be kept holy?

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  October 13, 2016

    It’s almost as if politicians are mere demogogues who pay lip-service to religion in an attempt to pander to religious conservative voters. But, as we all know, politicians are the most ethical men and women in the country, so that can’t possibly be true.

  5. Avatar
    XanderKastan  October 13, 2016

    That show was funny. That was a perfectly fair question for Westmoreland. He is going around saying the ten commandments are so important and he wants them posted everywhere and people need to learn them, but he doesn’t even know what they are; manages to come up with only 3. It’s not just hilarious; it illustrates quite well that the reverence for the ten commandments by politicians is often more about symbolism than substance.

  6. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  October 13, 2016

    I know it’s been interpreted this way but did “bearing false witness” really mean the same as lying in discussions of the Jewish Law? The former sounds more like perjury – in any event a lot less all-encompassing than lying. And if they don’t mean the same, then not prohibiting lying in general is a major oversight.

    Similarly, in philosophical ethics, keeping promises is often used as a paradigmatic example of a moral rule. It strikes me as odd that it’s not included in the 10 Commandments, especially with the emphasis on covenants in the Hebrew Bible. But maybe it’s one of the other 603 commandments.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2016

      No, bearing false witness was not simply lying. It was providing false testimony in a judicial context.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 15, 2016

      I notice a lot of confusion surrounding the Ten Commandments, especially by Gentiles who are unfamiliar with the Hebrew. There is a subtext to the Ten Commandments that comes out from the surrounding context, and that can only be fully grasped within the Hebrew idiom. As a case in point, take the passage that has the “Neither shalt thou bear false witness against they neighbor” verse. In the Hebrew this isn’t actually a seperate verse but is rather the last part of one verse that contains the “not murder,” “not commit adultery,” and “not steal” commandments. In the English translation, simply out of the necessity for clarity, this verse is terribly verbose, creating a list of seemingly four distinct proscriptions, but in the original, much more terse Hebrew, they all flow together as one line. Phonetically, it sounds like this: lo thirtzach; lo thin’aph; lo thignov; lo tha’aneh bre’akha ‘ed shaqer (‘ed shawa in Deuteronomy). To better capture the flow and prosody of the Hebrew, we can translate it thus: “Murder not; fornicate not; steal not; answer not of your peer false testimony.” Now, the context of this whole line is of your “peer,” which in the original Hebrew is רֵעַ , which means something like how we might say “compatriot” — i.e. within this context your fellow Israelite. In other words, within the context of its time, this proscription has the implication of “your fellow Israelite”: “Murder not [your fellow Israelite]; steal not [from your fellow Israelite], etc. So the overall intention behind the passage is to order Jews to not harm other Jews: Do not kill other fellow Jews; do not fornicate against other fellow Jews; do not steal from other fellow Jews; and, finally, do not falsely accuse your fellow Jews [of an infraction]. That is, within the context of the passage it’s clearly making reference to perjury specifically, and not lying in general.

  7. Avatar
    Jayredinger  October 14, 2016

    Brilliant post. So so typical.

  8. Avatar
    Samuel Riad  October 14, 2016

    Hey Bart,
    Good luck with your debate with Dr. Price. I hope it would be constructive and he will turn out to be more knowledgeable than some of the lesser-known mythicists. (wink)
    For those like me watching at home, will the debate be posted here or on youtube? I can’t wait to see it!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2016

      It will be live-streamed and I assume available elsewhere, afterward, on the internet.

  9. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  October 14, 2016

    I found this very interesting. Back in the day when I identified myself as a Christian many Christians would say I was not a Christian and that was due to the fact that I strayed from orthodox beliefs and practices. Does this also apply to Jesus? He strayed from Jewish orthodox beliefs and practices. If you go by the logic many Christians apply to other Christians, using that same criteria, the answer would be no.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2016

      Judaism in Jesus’ day was not a doctrinal religion the way Christianity is today in some circles. Jesus never was accused of not being a Jew.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 15, 2016

      There were no “orthodox” Jewish beliefs and practices in Jesus’ day. Judaism was far more diverse back then, even than today’s. The orthodox Rabbinical Judaism of which we are familiar today was really a product of the Middle Ages (roughly around the same time as the origins of Islam, funny enough).

  10. Avatar
    Judith  October 14, 2016

    This is good!

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 14, 2016

    Of course, there are also two different sets of Ten Commandments because, after God clearly stated that he was giving to Moses the same commandments God had previously given to Moses, God gave Moses a different set. So, which set goes on the building?

    I saw the Colbert interview and I thought he was pretty rough on you and really did not give you much chance to say anything. I actually felt sorry for you for the way you were treated and misrepresented by him.

  12. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 14, 2016

    According to the scripture Jesus commands that you keep not only the details of the law but also justice and mercy ( everyOne loves justice and mercy ). NotIce Jesus says not to neglect the details of the law.

    Matthew 23:23
    “Woe to you.For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.

    Most of Jesus’s teaching is general in nature while the Pharisees only taught details .

    What does “tithe mint and dill and cumin” mean?
    Sounds like an order for a hamburger

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2016

      It means that you give 1/10 of your spices to the Lord.

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  October 19, 2016

      It is nonsense to say that the Pharisees taught only details. Oh, and by the way, Jesus may have been a Pharisee.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 20, 2016

        It’s a bit of a stretch to think Jesus was a Pharisee. There are somethings that Jesus says that sound exactly like what a Pharisee would believe (e.g. that belief in the coming Mass Resurrection of the dead was necessary for entrance into the Kingdom of God). But there are also things that Jesus says that sound a lot like something an Essene Jew would believe (e.g. God will destroy the current, defiled Temple and erect a new, purified one in its place). But there are also things that Jesus says that sound a lot like precursors to what the Zealots would say only a few decades later (e.g. on the Day of Judgment God will separate the wicked from the righteous and destroy the wicked in a great conflagration like chaff separated from wheat). Jesus’ preaching — and likely very early Jewish Christian belief — was probably a hodge podge of ideas from these various Jewish groups.

  13. Avatar
    joeydag  October 14, 2016

    Isn’t there an issue about which commandments exactly are the 10? I’m too lazy to look but I’m sure I’ve read that, as is not unusual, the commandments are listed in two locations and they are not the same. Then there are the Hebrew, Roman Catholic, and Protestant listings, aren’t there?

  14. Robert
    Robert  October 15, 2016

    Stephen Colbert is pretty funny and very smart too. I remember you called him ‘whip smart’ once.

  15. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 15, 2016

    The historical Jesus inconsistentin his teaching..
    Publicly, he is a pacifist giving out wonderful moral teachings of love compassion and justice and mercy. Encouraging othersnot buy the material world.
    Privately he is telling his disciples of a coming kingdom where The son of God will overthrow everything in place him in charge .
    He tells the Pharisees to practice Thevlaw and then Calls them hypocrites because they do not practice the intent of the law of justice and mercy.
    While on the other hand Jesus does not practice some aspects of the law claiming that he was above the law by doing the work of the father.
    His works signs and miracles, if true, prove that he was the Messiah and God.
    Again if Jesus was God why didn’t he bring about the kingdom that he predicted God would bring about? Why did he have to be crucified in order to bring about the predicted kingdom?
    It’s a very convoluted, complex story Full of intellectual inconsistencies .
    By selectively focusing on various scriptures and ignoring others, pastors can reach completely different conclusions concerning Jesus of Scripture .

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  October 19, 2016

      I believe that the texts we describe as the gospels (especially the 4 cannical ones) are actually what we would now call historical fiction. They contain (probably) actual historical materials, but they have been arranged and retold as stories to make them more compelling.

  16. Avatar
    twiskus  October 15, 2016

    Excellent Post!

  17. Avatar
    roycecil  October 21, 2016

    The first commandment is rather strange and does not look like much of a command. It merely states that ” I am the LORD thy God who brought you out of the land of Egypt , from the house of bondage” . It merely establishes the relationship of God with man. I think the law is directly addressed to the reader and hence both “the land of Egypt” and “house of bondage” are allegoric. In a sense LORD thy God is the one who liberated humans from some bondage and made him free.

    If you read Jesus teachings in the New Testament it is clear to see the freedom in the teachings of Christ. For eg. If you compare what Jews practiced vs how Jesus interpreted a law to be practiced , you can see that Jesus interpretation of law reflects this aspect of his understanding of Jewish law. If you read the tractate sabbath of Talmud it just is a detailed account of what you can and cant do on sabbath. On the contrary Jesus did not find it a violation of law when his disciples plucked corn when passing through cornfields. He truly understood sabbath means internal rest . Such a rigid adherence of law would in Jesus’ view continuing to live “in the house of bondage”

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2016

      There are different ways of numbering the commandments; in Protestant traditions, as one example, what you cite is only the beginning of the first commandment. The rest is “You shall have no other gods before me” For those who do hold the shorter form, it is often noted that the ten commandments in the Hebrew are actually called the “ten words”

  18. Avatar
    Bibi  October 22, 2016

    On the command not cook a kid in its mother’s milk, which occurs three times in the Hebrew Scriptures, the ethical relevance of this precept is impressive. Our rabbis interpreted these commandments in different ways, for example, do not mix red meat with any milk’s animal, or not take economic advantage of that sale, etc. From a nutritional point of view (I am naturopath) the relevance is impressive because we know today that the mixture of milk with meat, especially red meat, is harmful to our digestive system. So the relevance is evident. However, most importantly, I think, it is the ethical derivation of this commandment in the sense that it is forbidden in Judaism embarrass the children before parents and by extension, embarrass someone in public. This action is prohibited. From where does the Rabbis get this teaching in Judaism? From the commandment not cook a kid in his mother’s milk! Clearly it is seen, that this particular commandment, like the rest of the commandments, are not only relevant, are critically important to the modern world where most of the great ethical values ​​are disappearing from the earth.

  19. Avatar
    Newbhero  October 29, 2016

    From what I understand, the earlier stories of Jesus involved him simply being a Torah Jew, admonishing other Jews to obey the law as well, even answering “the law” as an answer when asked what to do to obtain salvation. He also emphasizes works/Torah with most parables (if not all his parables about how to be saved) talking about those that do charity. It isn’t until john or Paul that Jesus becomes blatantly anti-Torah and turning himself into the center of attention and means of salvation. For example, in the Synoptics, you have “anti-Torah incidents” such as healing on the sabbath (which is not even considered forbidden in Judaism), while in John, you have Jesus blatantly not keeping Torah, such as by telling someone to carry a mattress around on Saturday presumably precisely because he wasn’t supposed to. This is why there are denominations that emphasize works, while others say works are not required, and even that works would be sinful because it means “Christ isn’t enough” etc. The reason is that both are taught. The NT teaches “you need works to be saved, and good works is what will get you saved”, and also teaches that you don’t need works and that the law was temporary/harmful. Marcion, and many others probably quickly stumbled upon the blatant contradiction between the OT saying the law was good and to be obeyed for ever as long as Jews existed and that anyone that taught otherwise was to be ignored even if they could perform great miracles, and the teaching that Jesus and especially Paul taught it was over. Easy solution for a pagan like Marcion that never believed the OT to begin with: the OT was wrong! Good luck getting people that had believed the OT prior to having Christianity preached to them (ie Jews, some Gentiles). Wait, that has a solution too, God blinded them because reasons, or they secretly DID know Jesus was (God? Messiah? Prophet?), but they simply hate God so much and love sin so much etc.

  20. Avatar
    JoshuaJ  November 1, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, what is your view on the commandment not to kill/murder? Did this mean “thou shalt not kill *anyone*” or did it simply mean “thou shalt not kill *other Israelites*”? I ask, of course, because of the many stories in the OT in which Israelites are absolutely just butchering folks. Does the answer lie in the semantics of kill vs. murder, which somehow excuses these OT slaughterings?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 2, 2016

      Yes, I think it must have meant “Do not murder an Israelite.”

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