Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Funny Thing About The Ten Commandments

This morning a friend of mine mentioned that there's usually a senseless (but traditional) mistake in our representations of the 10 Commandments. He was referring to political hacks who put the traditional outline of the stone tablets on campaign posters as a shorthand for "I'm for traditional values." The mistake is prominent on this poster. Do you see it?

If you look closely, you'll see that the mistake is repeated below on an infamous statue outside of a courthouse. Don't get hung up on the extra verbiage they left out from the biblical account in Exodus 20:2-17. Don't do a textual analysis comparing this version to the one in Deuteronomy 5:6-21 either. Both texts are similar but not identical (which you would expect from documents claiming to be the inerrant word of God.) Plus, almost all of our 10 Commandments artwork omits the biblical threats against those who break the commandments.
(This dispute apparently was a plot point on an episode of The West Wing TV series. You can read a compact summary of the discrepancies, and resolution, here.) But that's not the mistake that my friend told me about.
A group called Team Sandtastic made the same mistake in a sand sculpture. Look for an anachronism.
You'd think God would give us some prohibitions against slavery, or define when life begins during pregnancy. A commandment against racism would've been nice, but that would've slowed down the ongoing Jewish campaign against the Canaanites. (Something about being God's chosen people clashes with prohibitions against racism, doesn't it?)
But I digress. The first three commandments on the poster below seem petty. The remainder seem like unnecessary reminders. But the arbitrary nature of the commandments isn't what my friend told me about.
The mistake is on the poster below. Moses is holding it.
This next picture looks like someone went to a lot of trouble to cast the tablets out of cinder blocks. The text isn't legible, but the error is there for everyone to see. (I believe the mistake is usually made in an effort to give the commandments an air of ancient authority.)

If you still haven't found the mistake, let's oversimplify the pictures. This picture came from The Confederate States Of America Website.... (speaking of organizations that try to give themselves an air of ancient authority.)

Give up?

Don't. Here's the same thing on the the door panels to the Supreme Court....(some skeptics claim that this door panel depicts the Bill of Rights.)

The answer is blaring at you.

Ok, here goes. If the 10 Commandments came down from Mount Sinai around 2,300 BCE, they were chipped into stone about 2,000 years before the birth of the Roman empire. That would be 2,000 years before the advent of Roman numerals. So there is abolutely no reason to list the things with Roman numerals.

We traditionally use Roman numerals on grandfather clocks, in our scholarly outlines, and for some reason, copyrights. But all of these came after the Roman empire. We still use the numbers I-XII on sundials, since the Romans had sundials.

But why are they always on the Ten Commandments?
Well, can you imagine this on a statute outside an Alabama courthouse? Lilah Tov !


Dale said...

Excellent article. It took me until the fifth picture, the one of the engraved stone tablets to get it. Probably because then I had to imagine someone, the Mighty Hand of God I suppose, actually engraving the stones.

Anonymous said...

Every time anyone mentions the Ten Commandments, I think of this scene:

Dr Ralph said...

Sort of like how there are some folks who insist that only the King James version of the Bible is God's One True Word.


glennanderson said...

haha! Oh, those traditional values. I never thought of that one, should have added it when I was writing a literary analysis about the Ten Commandment last semester.

Nick M said...

Well, I'm gonna play Devil's advocate here...

In the context of Christianity which is let's face it a sort of syncretic mix of Jewish mythology and Neoplatonist thinking that developed within the Roman Empire then it does make sense to use Roman numerals.

Like I said - just playing Devil's advocate.

Dr Ralph said...

Syncretic mixes?

Jewish mythology?

The Devil you say!

That's going to blow the minds of the "God said it, I believe it" crowd that's so fond of toting around carved marble tablets in the back of their pickup trucks. Too many high-falutin' words.

fembuttx said...

I only live by 1, 2, 5 and 6....oh and 11. THOU SHALL NOT SPEAKTH IN TOUNGES ON MOOSE KNUCKLE WEBSITE

The Whited Sepulchre said...

You are now blogrolled, sir.
If you start another blog when this election nonsense is over, please let me know. I'll delete the redneck one and link to your new effort.

Dr Ralph,
Have you ever googled the phrase King James Only? I once did a presentation on the origins of the KJV (one of the few truly excellent things ever created by a committee....) and the KJV ONLY crowd is an amazing group of people. They tie some logical pretzels that are truly astounding.

Are you sure that an academic type like yourself truly belongs on these pages? In the back of my mind, you're the reader I tend to watch my grammar, logic, and general coherence for.

Nick M,
I think you're showing off for Glenn with your use of "Neoplatonist" and "syncretic".
On the serious side, I agree with your point.
I wish I was familiar enough with Judaism to know if there were any other Roman influences that have stuck around in their tradition. You probably don't see the 10 commandments represented somewhere on something 5 or 6 times a week like we do. And the majority of the time? Roman freakin' numerals. Bizarre.

Go to hell.

Cedric Katesby said...

Loved it.

The 10 commandments thingy reminds me of a wickedly funny video that Steve Colbert did with some politician that was pushing for the 10 commandments to be put up in law courts etc.

Can't find the actual video but it was priceless.
Steve Colbert gently grills the hapless politico and make him look like the fool he it.
Here's a transcript segment from the video.

Shorty said...

How funny! My husband and I were "testing" each other to see how many commandments we could name off. so i decided to post the challenge on a discussion board and went looking for images of the Big Ten. Only found images including Roman number and thought "that's not right" actually took A LOT to find something with Hebrew letters...


Jim said...

Interesting noting the Roman numerals. But, big deal beyond trivia. The Ten Commandments are translated into English, so they use the same outline form for the modern language. While interesting trick question, the rest of the comments are just silly. It is just word games and semantics. It amounts to a childs syllogism: because there are paintings of Jesus as a White Anglo Saxon, and we know Jesus was Jewish. The painting is illogical ergo we can be confident Jesus did not exist... It's one thing to reject God, the Ten Commandments, etc. Its another thing to throw your mind in the waste basket with drivel. Why base your ideas on childish Ad Hominem arguments? Again, I like the trivia part and it was interesting. Yes, I am a Christian, but, I was an atheist. And while I did not become a Christian until later in life, it was exactly this type of argument based on smoke and mirrors that made me examine the emptiness of post-modern thought and the denial of the obvious in a number of real world realities that go beyond what the Bible says or doesn't say.

Anonymous said...

You got to be kidding me... That's all you could come up with? That's like saying "They were written in Hebrew so they don't apply to me!"

Blah, blah, blah...

Mike said...

Some of your attacks seem to stem from a basic lack of understanding of scripture.

You complain about no "commandment" on racism. The Bible starts with us being created from one couple, it shows the world destroyed by a worldwide flood and the earth being repopulated from one family. You see mention of kinds begetting kinds, implying that Humans beget Humans. In the New Testament you see the story of Christ dying for all. You see Christ telling us to love one another as He loved us (in case you forgot, that is self sacrificially... a love that is selfless and giving... described more in the Bible elsewhere)... You see an epistle that was used to fuel the abolition movement in Britain and the United States... I don't know, I look to the Bible and see no justification for racism.

You find obscure, extra Biblical references to the people of Canaan. There is no justification for the argument that that had anything to do with race. Nothing in the Bible speaks towards that..

Unfortunately there are, have been and always will be people who will pry dangerous meaning out of the Bible. Making the words bend to say what they want. That is how some so-called Christians justified slavery. Or banning inter-racial marriage. The Bible calls them wrong. I call them wrong. That doesn't make the Bible wrong... It makes mankind (once again) wrong... Interestingly, the concept of races gets more justification from Darwin and his followers. Work with it... In the Bible you have one race, humankind descending from Adam, created in the image of God... Different shades of skin tone because of regional differences, differences in melanin... In Darwinian or neo-Darwinian evolution you have evolved beings. Evolved from the same animals but evolved in different ways and different speeds... You have races.. Heck the full title of the Origin of Species is "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life"... With evolution you have arguments that some are more evolved or that some are weaker. You have arguments like that recent college professor in the past few years talking about the intellectual capacity among either races or genders (I forget which but it made national news... I believe it was races). You even had horrible situations like that of Ota Benga or, if you prefer a different source, To Summarize --> he was a HUMAN... Some evolutionary scientists decided to kidnap this African pygmy as a display of evolution in action...

Mike said...

As for the rest of the piece. What is it trying to accomplish? There weren't chapters and verses in the original Books of the Bible either. Does that mean we should throw away our Bibles?

I have enjoyed some of your other posts on politics and liberty but you seem really bent on attacking something you feel is a fairy tale. What is the harm in ignoring this bogeyman? If you are right and I am wrong, no one gets the last laugh because we cease to exist. That means you should spend your time being useful and enjoying life, not finding obscure reasons to justify your lack of belief..

If I am right then still no one gets a last laugh because I mourn anyone's entrance into Hell.

Either way, if you believe what you believe then go ahead, I won't be offended. In the meantime let's focus our energy elsewhere but if you try and pull out the separation of church and state I'll ask you to read, re-read and re-read again the First amendment... I just don't see it meaning anything less than what the text and language of the day says it to mean. Take writings from most of the founders, even the concept of Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists where the Separation of Church and state was born... It just doesn't add up to removing God from documents and gatherings... It does tell me, however, that I shouldn't try and make a national religion and force you to join it. I wouldn't do that anyway because the Bible tells me not to.

Anonymous said...

I LOVE God and the 10 commandments everyome should listen to!!!!!!