The Old Testament speaks of the עשרת הדברים in Deuteronomy 4:13, a phrase which is translated almost without exception to be the "Ten Commandments" (see here). However, the word הדברים is never else translated as "commandments", and usually translated as "words" (see, for example, Deuteronomy 1:1). To the best of my knowledge, nowhere in the OT do words that would be accurately translated as "Ten Commandments" appear.

Historically, when was the wording "Ten Commandments" first used? Does a phrase similar to this (obviously not in English) appear in the New Testament anywhere, or is it of later origin (and if so, when was it coined)?

Thank you!

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    We still call the Ten Commandments the "Decalogue" which I never understood until reading your question. It might be better served on Biblical Hermeneutics though, as this isn't necessarily a question about Christian doctrine.
    – Peter Turner
    Mar 9, 2018 at 22:33
  • Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. For more on what this site is all about, see: How we are different than other sites. Interesting question. I doubt Biblical Hermeneutics is the place for this question, since it's not about the interpretation of the Bible (@PeterTurner). However, it might be worth also asking it at Judaism StackExchange, but using "Hebrew Bible" instead of "Old Testament." Mar 10, 2018 at 17:54
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    Meanwhile, I think the question is okay for this site, since it is a historical question about a term ("Ten Commandments") in common use among Christians. Oh, and of course, if you do ask at Judaism StackExchange, you'd want to lose the part about the New Testament. Mar 10, 2018 at 17:55
  • @LeeWoofenden, Peter thanks for your thoughtful comments. I am actually an observant Jew, as well as a Mi Yodeya and Biblical Hermeneutics user. I asked it here for exactly the reason given by Lee, that it is a chiefly Christian term, and I am not asking about interpretation of the Bible. This could be turned into a BH question, if I were to focus on that element, and I will consider asking it there as well. The question actually originates from a chat conversation here
    – user40626
    Mar 11, 2018 at 0:48

2 Answers 2


"Ten Commandments" is not a mistranslation of עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים, but is justified based on the Hebrew and Greek Bibles themselves.

The meaning of דָּבָר in the Hebrew Bible

In the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), though the word דָּבָר commonly means "a word," it has a wide range of meanings based on its root meaning (on which see the next subheading below). Here are the meanings given for דָּבָר in the Gesenius Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon:

(1) word, often collective: words, speech, discourse
   (a) a promise, something promised
   (b) a precept, an edict
   (c) a saying, a sentence (as of a wise man), especially the word of the Lord, an oracle
   (d) a counsel, proposed plan
   (e) rumor, report
(2) thing, thing done, affair, business
(3) anything, something
(4) a cause, reason
(5) cause (in a forensic sense)

Clearly the text in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21 cannot be described literally as "ten words." There are far more than ten words in these passages. At minimum, דָּבָר in this context means a saying of the Lord. But these are more than "sayings." They are, in fact precepts or edicts, in line with definition (1)(b).

This is the basis on which עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים is commonly translated into English as "the Ten Commandments" where it appears in Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; 10:4. (עֲשֶׂרֶת is a form of the Hebrew word עֶשֶׂר (`eser), "ten.")

Further, this is not the only context in which דָּבָר is translated as "commandment." As seen in its definition in Gesenius linked above, the King James Version translates it as "commandment" twenty times. The search algorithm used at the linked site to identify those occurrences is flawed, giving many more results than it should. Here are the actual verses in which the KJV translates דָּבָר as "commandment":

  1. Exodus 34:28
  2. Deuteronomy 4:13
  3. Deuteronomy 10:4
  4. Joshua 8:8
  5. 1 Samuel 15:11
  6. 1 Samuel 15:13
  7. 2 Samuel 12:9
  8. 1 Chronicles 28:21
  9. 2 Chronicles 31:5
  10. Esther 1:12
  11. Esther 1:19
  12. Esther 2:8
  13. Esther 3:15
  14. Esther 4:3
  15. Esther 8:14
  16. Esther 8:17
  17. Esther 9:1
  18. Psalm 103:20
  19. Daniel 9:23
  20. Daniel 9:25

The first three are the familiar "Ten Commandments." The instances in Esther refer to commandments of King Ahasuerus. Most of the rest refer to commandments of the Lord. In each case, though דָּבָר could be translated as "words" or "sayings," its most natural and reasonable meaning in context is that of a "commandment" of the Lord or of a powerful human being such as a king. These are "sayings" that are meant to be obeyed. In other words, they are edicts, or in more common English, commandments.

The root meaning of דָּבָר

The word דָּבָר is a noun form coming from the root דָּבַר, whose core meaning is not "word" but rather "setting in a row, ranging in order." As a verb it is used of leading, guiding, ruling, directing, and of course in its most common meaning of "speaking," or "putting words in order."

This derivation of דָּבָר shows that both in its verb form and as a noun it has more force than the more informal (and also very common) Hebrew word אָמַר, referring to common conversation and speech. דָּבָר has more of a sense of directed, purposeful speech intended to arrange things and bring them into order.

In short, based on its root meaning, דָּבָר lends itself to being used of "words" that are edicts, precepts, and commandments.

Support in the Greek Bible

The term "Ten Commandments" or "Ten Words" does not occur in the Greek Bible (the New Testament).

However, in the Gospels Jesus does refer to various of the "sayings" in the Ten Commandments as "commandments":

Then someone came to him and said, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?"

And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments."

He said to him, "Which ones?"

And Jesus said, "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 19:16-19, New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added)

Here, when Jesus is asked which commandments are to be followed, he lists five of the Ten Commandments, plus one other commandment from Leviticus 19:18.

See also the parallel passages in Mark 10:17-19 and Luke 18:18-20.

The Greek word for "commandment" used here is ἐντολή, which is a basic Greek word for an order or command.

A similar usage occurs in the Epistles:

Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. (Romans 13:8-9, KJV, emphasis added)

Many newer translations supply "commandment" where the Greek more literally reads "For this" in verse 9. However, "commandment" (ἐντολή) does appear where I have added emphasis, showing that Paul also referred to the "sayings" of the Ten Commandments as commandments.

These examples from the New Testament show that as early as the first century, the "sayings" of the Ten Commandments were referred to as "commandments."


It is not necessary to look to subsequent Christian history to find the basis for translating עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים as "the Ten Commandments."

The word דָּבָר itself carries that meaning and force based on its root meaning and on its usage in various contexts in the Hebrew Bible.

Further, the directives comprising the Ten Commandments are referred to as "commandments" in the New Testament, suggesting that in the first century this was already a well-established common understanding of עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים.

Later English translations of עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים as "the Ten Commandments" are therefore neither mistranslations nor innovations, but draw on a usage long established in the Hebrew and Greek Bibles themselves.

  • I would like to write a long rebuttal, but for now, I will outline my main points. The literal translation of דבר is certainly saying/word (and sometimes perhaps even "thing"). Sometimes, contextually, the KJV, and other translations following it, have rendered it as commandment. However, the only time in the Penteteuch it is rendered this way is the Ten commandments. There are numerous other places which would be more fitting contextually, and not one of them is translated as commandments. See for example Exodus 16:16, Genesis 44:2, and most shockingly, Exodus 19:8, 24:3, 24:7. continued>
    – user40626
    Mar 15, 2018 at 22:29
  • It is also interesting to note that in Exodus 34:28, דברי הברית is translated as words, not commandments. This question is compounded by the fact that there doesn't seem to be an easy splitting of the Decalogue into ten commandments, see here, as noted by many scholars, but it can be easily divided into ten sayings. continued>
    – user40626
    Mar 15, 2018 at 22:36
  • In determining what criteria KJV uses to decide to render it thusly, in almost all of the cases (except for those in Daniel and II Chronicles, and the Decalogue), it is specifically "the command(ment) of" or "my comman(ment)", rather than the word דבר or דברים by itself. In those three outliers, there is a very strong contextual reason to suggest that the translation is commandments. While Deuteronomy 4:13 fits this second criterion (but not the first), the other two mentions fit neither criteria. continued>
    – user40626
    Mar 15, 2018 at 22:59
  • Finally, not one single other time that the Bible uses the word דברים to refer to the Decalogue itself (and there are many), does the KJV translate it as commandments. For example, see Exodus 20:1 and Deuteronomy 5:22. This seems to indicate that "The Ten Commandments" was already some sort of term, whether due to later Christian sources or otherwise, before the modern translations were written. I welcome your response.
    – user40626
    Mar 15, 2018 at 23:05
  • I am not quite clear whether you are saying the number ten is mentioned in the original Hebrew or, if not, where it comes from.
    – davidlol
    Mar 15, 2018 at 23:37

Catholics, for one, have traditionally referred to the Ten Commandments as "The Decalogue". Which is literally 10 Words. The number 10 is clearly in the Bible, the fact that there are 10 of them is there too. But why they're ever referred to just as "Words" instead of as "Commandments" or "Precepts" is a mystery (to me at least) and I'd like to see it specifically addressed. I'll give a historical picture of the use of the words by some of our most popular people and councils.

The Council of Trent solidified the last 500 years of Catechesis, in it, on the Doctrine on Justification Canon 19 says:

Si quis dixerit, nihil præceptum esse in evangelio præter fidem, cetera esse indifferentia, neque præcepta, neque prohibita, sed libera; aut decem præcepta nihil pertinere ad Christianas: anathema sit.

If anyone says that nothing besides faith is commanded in the Gospel, that other things are indifferent, neither commanded nor forbidden, but free; or that the ten commandments in no way pertain to Christians, let him be anathema.

That's a relatively modern use of the phrase Ten Commandments.

St. Thomas Aquinas referred to the "ten precepts of the decalogue"

It would seem that not all the moral precepts of the Old Law are reducible to the ten precepts of the decalogue.


In the Summa Theologica written 1265–1274.

St. Augustine called them decem praecepta:

Quaeritur, decem praecepta Legis quemadmodum dividenda sint:

From Quæstionum in Heptateuchum

This reference is what is used at the Catholic Reasoning for the ordering 3/7 split of the Commandments in the Bible, instead of the 4/6 split the Protestants use.

Luke 18:18, Jesus says:

Thou knowest the commandments, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother.

τὰς ἐντολὰς οἶδας: μὴ μοιχεύσῃς, μὴ φονεύσῃς, μὴ κλέψῃς, μὴ ψευδομαρτυρήσῃς, τίμα τὸν πατέρα σου καὶ τὴν μητέρα.

The first part of which, in the Latin Vulgate is "Mandata nosti" which is "you know the drill...".

You can translate mandata as "commands". And if Jesus called them Commands, it is not too hard to think that His followers would call them "Commandments". As adornments are that which adorns and ornaments are that which make more ornate. Commandments are that which command, which seems appropriate for the spoken words of God.

Lastly, and this is more of an exercise left to the reader, to go and find the extant works of Philo (who predates Christ's teaching by 60 years), and see if he too called them commandments. I can only find digital fragments on archive.org, not enough to produce anything but hogwash.

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    Philo has: "τοὺς δέκα λόγους ἢ χρησμούς, νόμους ἢ θεσμοὺς πρὸς ἀλήθειαν ὄντας..." (=The ten words or oracles, in reality laws or statutes) (translation and text from the Loeb Philo vol VI, pp 20-21, line 32).
    – magicker72
    Mar 12, 2018 at 18:47
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    In decalogue the root deca- is combined with logos, Greek for "word". In the Biblical book of Exodus, the original Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, was handed to Moses by God atop Mount Sinai. - Definition of Decalogue. The word [ הדברים](doitinhebrew.com/Translate/default.aspx?kb=IL+Hebrew+Phonetic) seems to transliterate as things, but can be expanded to mean: object, thing, item ; event, occurrence, happening ; anything ; דברים - belongings ; דברים - what one has to say; writings ; לדברי - in the words ...
    – Ken Graham
    Mar 13, 2018 at 14:40
  • See an interesting article on this at jstor.org/stable/23504347
    – user40626
    Mar 18, 2018 at 5:00

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