The Ten Commandments is often shown as a nice list with ten short statements, whereas in the Bible it exists as a long block of text in Exodus 20:2–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21. For reference:

Exodus 20:2-17 (HCSB)

2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.

3 Do not have other gods besides Me.

4 Do not make an idol for yourself, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. 5 You must not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the fathers' sin, to the third and fourth [generations] of those who hate Me, 6 but showing faithful love to a thousand [generations] of those who love Me and keep My commands.

7 Do not misuse the name of the LORD your God, because the LORD will punish anyone who misuses His name.

8 Remember to dedicate the Sabbath day: 9 You are to labor six days and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. You must not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the foreigner who is within your gates. 11 For the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy.

12 Honor your father and your mother so that you may have a long life in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

13 Do not murder.

14 Do not commit adultery.

15 Do not steal.

16 Do not give false testimony against your neighbor.

17 Do not covet your neighbor's house. Do not covet your neighbor's wife, his male or female slave, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

If I were given the above text without paragraphs nor verse markers (which are a later addition), I'd have trouble spotting how it should be divided to exactly ten commandments. This might be a reason that there are multiple "competing" divisions.

The different divisions that I know of are (adapted from a better table on Wikipedia):

I am the Lord your God pre 1 1
You shall have no other gods before me 1 1 1
You shall not make for yourself an idol 2 2 1
Do not take the name of the Lord in vain 3 3 2
Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy 4 4 3
Honor your father and mother 5 5 4
You shall not murder 6 6 5
You shall not commit adultery 7 7 6
You shall not steal 8 8 7
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor 9 9 8
You shall not covet your neighbor's wife 10 10 9
You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor 10 10 10

For fun, see if you know which is used by whom! The answer is below, mouse-over to see it:

A: Anglican, Reformed (pre = preface)
B: Orthodox; Jewish (Talmudic)
C: Catholic, Lutheran
As far as I know, almost all other denominations use A or B.

What are the reasonings for these different divisions? Especially since the first division didn't stick, I'm quite sure the differences can't be arbitrary.

  • 27
    Heh heh. My Lutheran summer camp has coffee mugs that say "Remember the seventh commandment" on them. A Baptist friend once visited, looked at the mugs, and asked "just what are you folks getting up to here after the campfire?"
    – user116
    Commented Aug 26, 2011 at 22:31

2 Answers 2


The reason why different groups view the Ten Commandments differently is because each group assumes different priorities from the text. Some of the commandments are long because they include a justification or explanation, so it's natural to shorten those to a single phrase when compiling the list. It is these expanded commandments that leave room for different number orders.

A lot of Protestants say that Catholics lumped "Thou shalt not make unto thyself graven images" in with the first commandment in order to avoid the issue of venerating icons. This shouldn't be the case, since Jews have put "Thou shalt have no other Gods before me" with "graven images" since antiquity. During the time of Exodus, the Jewish worldview at the time stands out among it's Middle East peers. The first commandment in their version lays the basis for monotheism. It is the foundation of all the commandments.

Christians see the Jewish first command as a preface. For a long time, Jewish understanding of the Scriptures was lost to the Christian world, whether by lack of contact or simple ignoring. Therefore, in Protestant and Catholic minds, there is no need to establish monotheism, and the division of ten can only be in the rest of the list. At the same time, there is a different wording near the end of the list in the Exodus/Deuteronomy versions: Catholic tradition emphasizes the latter, where coveting your neighbor's wife comes before coveting your neighbor's house, so from a Protestant perspective, which emphasises the earlier decalogue, it doesn't even enter the mind to split them, so they go to the most natural section. Furthermore, Protestants are protesting, among other things, the veneration of icons, so they emphasize the commandment against graven images.

Even if making carved idols is a sub-unit of the first commandment, then it still would seem apparent that the rest of the explanation and justification for that commandment is concerned primarily with making idols. For ancient Jewry this is understandable since false worship always included idols in the world around them. Catholics also know that they only worship one God, so they don't see the reason to separate two ideas that are so connected. Protestants are critical of Catholic practices after the Reformation period, and they don't have the option of making two different covets because of the way the text they use is worded. Protestants feel like this commandment of God (even as a sub-unit of one of the ten, it still is a command) has been understated, and they elevate its status.

The divisions are competing merely because of historical reasons. They don't actually contradict each other. The Law is summed up in "Love the LORD your God" and "Love your neighbor.".

  • 1
    Esp. like the last paragraph summation.
    – user32
    Commented Sep 3, 2011 at 20:10
  • "Protestants are protesting, among other things, the veneration of icons"... but Lutherans are included in this (AFAIK), so why don't Lutherans also split the making of idols into the second Commandment?
    – Matthew
    Commented Apr 19 at 18:33

Good question, I didn't know for the different divisions. Searching about it I found the following information very helpful.

That there were “ten words” is expressly stated (Ex 34:28; Dt 4:13; 10:4); but just how to delimit them one from another is a task which has not been found easy. For a full discussion of the various theories, see Dillmann, Exodus, 201-5, to whom we are indebted for much that is here set forth.

A. Josephus is the first witness for the division now common among Protestants (except Lutherans), namely,

a. foreign gods,

b. images,

c. name of God,

d. Sabbath,

e. parents,

f. murder,

g. adultery,

h. theft,

i. false witness,

j. coveting.

Before him, Philo made the same arrangement, except that he followed the Septuagint in putting adultery before murder. This mode of counting was current with many of the church Fathers, and is now in use in the Greek Catholic church and with most Protestants.

B. Augustine combined foreign gods and images (Ex 20:2-6) into one commandment and following the order of Dt 5:21 (Heb 18) made the 9th commandment a prohibition of the coveting of a neighbor’s wife, while the 10th prohibits the coveting of his house and other property. Roman Catholics and Lutherans accept Augustine’s mode of reckoning, except that they follow the order in Ex 20:17, so that the 9th commandment forbids the coveting of a neighbor’s house, while the 10th includes his wife and all other property.

C A third mode of counting is that adopted by the Jews in the early Christian centuries, which became universal among them in the Middle Ages and so down to the present time. According to this scheme, the opening statement in Ex 20:2 is the “first word,” Ex 20:3-6 the second (combining foreign gods with images), while the following eight commandments are as in the common Protestant arrangement.

The division of the prohibition of coveting into two commandments is fatal to the Augustinian scheme; and the reckoning of the initial statement in Ex 20:2 as one of the “ten words” seems equally fatal to the modern Jewish method of counting. The prohibition of images, which is introduced by the solemn formula, “Thou shalt not,” is surely a different “word” from the command to worship no god other than Yahweh. Moreover, if nine of the “ten words” are commandments, it would seem reasonable to make the remaining “word” a commandment, if this can be done without violence to the subjectmatter. See Eerdmaus, The Expositor, July, 1909, 21 ff.

Orr, James, M.A., D.D.: Orr, James (Hrsg.): The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia : 1915 Edition. Albany, OR : Ages Software, 1999

  • This seems to more answer what happened than what the reasons were (e.g. for changing an existing division). Commented Aug 26, 2011 at 10:20
  • Did you mean Heb 13? Are you referring to Heb 13:5? How do you link that to the tenth/ninth commandment?
    – dleyva3
    Commented Aug 30, 2011 at 18:53

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