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Founding precepts

24 October 2014

Anthony Phillips on an early dating for the Decalogue

The Ten Commandments: A short history of an ancient text
Michael Coogan
Yale University Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT912 )

MICHAEL COOGAN's aim is to ascertain the relevance and authority of the Ten Commandments today. He first examines the giving of the Decalogue in its covenant context, recognising its reliance on the form of the ancient suzerainty treaty common throughout the ancient Near East.

Identifying three versions of the Decalogue (Exodus 20, Exodus 34, and Deuteronomy 5), and relying on the traditional documentary hypothesis, he next argues that, while no version is original, they all reflect a settled rather than a nomadic society. Noting the lack of reference to either the Davidic monarchy or Jerusalem, he holds that they must come from a period between the exodus and the establishment of the monarchy.

This leads him to conclude, "against a current fad in biblical studies", that the original Decalogue was the foundation text of the confederation of tribes that made up Israel. Indeed, it might go back to Moses himself, the founder of Yahwism.

Coogan examines each of the commandments for its original meaning, arguing that the last six were essential for any society. In my view, more could be said about a number of the commandments. For instance, the concern of the prohibition of adultery, with its limited application to sexual intercourse with a married or betrothed woman, is to do with paternity, not sexual fidelity at all.

An examination of the importance of the Decalogue in the intertestamental period and New Testament follows. Coogan argues that both St Paul and Tertullian, while rejecting the Torah, saw the Decalogue as natural law, and therefore still valid. This led the Jews to exclude it from phylacteries and mezuzahs or recite it in worship. For them, it now became part of the 613 precepts of Torah, all of equal value.

But are the Ten Commandments immutable? Coogan's conclusion is that from biblical times the words of the Decalogue were "up for grabs". Different writers and religious authorities have expanded, revised, amended, and even disregarded them. They belong to a particular people at a particular time. The first four should be left to faith communities and not imposed on our pluralistic society, while the remainder are essentially secular, and found in most legal systems.

While many will question Coogan's analysis, it is refreshing to find a scholar who, on the one hand, recognises the antiquity of the Decalogue in the formation of ancient Israel, while, on the other, he sees the text in its historic context. In my view, the conclusion to be drawn from Coogan's study is that it is no longer meaningful for the Decalogue to have a place in contemporary Christian worship.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King's School, Canterbury.

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