Why are there 2 Different Lists of Ten Commandments?

Did you know that if asked what the Fourth Commandment is, a Catholic will answer differently than a Protestant (except for Lutheran)?

Yes, there is a different numbering system for the Ten Commandments depending on who did the counting. The Bible itself never numbers the Commandments. There were not even any chapter or verse numbers until a thousand years after the last book was written. So, how were the Ten Commandments delineated?

Saint Augustine (fifth century AD) was the first one to give a definite number to each Commandment. Until then, everyone knew the Commandments; they just did not refer to them as the fourth, fifth, or sixth as people do today.

Exodus 20:1–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21 list the Commandments with slight variations each. Without the sacred author telling you where number one begins or ends (remember that ancient Hebrew, Latin, and Greek had no punctuation marks), it is anyone’s guess.

Augustine numbered them this way:

  1. I am the Lord, thy God, thou shalt not have any strange gods before me.
  2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
  3. Remember to keep holy the Sabbath Day.
  4. Honor thy father and mother.
  5. Thou shalt not kill.
  6. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  7. Thou shalt not steal.
  8. Thou shalt not bear false witness.
  9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.
  10. Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s goods.

Martin Luther, even though he initiated the Protestant Reformation (1517), had been a Catholic priest (Augustinian monk) and retained this numbering system.

It was John Calvin (1536) and the Swiss Protestants who changed the numbering to be as follows:

  1. I am the Lord, thy God, thou shalt not have any strange gods before me.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images.
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
  4. Remember to keep holy the Sabbath Day.
  5. Honor thy father and mother.
  6. Thou shalt not kill.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  8. Thou shalt not steal.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness.
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, nor his wife nor anything that belongs to him.

Both lists have Ten Commandments. The main difference is in how the first two and last two commandments are broken up. The Catholic and Lutheran list (based on Saint Augustine) considers the injunction against graven images just a continuation of the first Commandment, which prohibits all kinds of idolatry or false worship. The Swiss Reformed list considers the proscription of idols to be a completely distinct Commandment. Coveting thy neighbor’s wife is number nine in the Catholic/Lutheran system but it is part of number ten (along with coveting thy neighbor’s goods) in the Calvinist system.

The older system (Augustine’s) makes a connection between the sixth and the ninth and between the seventh and the tenth Commandments. Number six forbids the act of adultery, while number nine forbids the desire for it. Number seven forbids the very act of theft, while number ten forbids the desire to take what someone else has.

The discrepancy between the two lists is one reason why it can be problematic to post the Ten Commandments in public—if you use one system over another, one group is going to feel discriminated against. Better to just put the text with no numbers as originally found in the Bible.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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