Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 9/1-2 (1998): 310-317.

       Article copyright © 2000 by Keith A. Burton.  Cited with permission.




          The Decalogue as Essential Torah

                 in Second Temple Judaism


                                            Keith A. Burton

                                           Oakwood College


       In my 1994 Northwestern University dissertation, I argue that in his letter to

the Romans, Paul most often uses the term no<moj (nomos) to refer to the De-

calogue.1 Those among us who are students of New Testament Theology will

immediately recognize the radical nature of this thesis. We are no doubt aware

of the scholarly consensus that limits the major understanding of nomos in the

New Testament to the Mosaic law--particularly in the letters of Paul. However,

after years of careful research, I am convinced that the possibility that Paul uses

nomos as a reference to the Decalogue must be taken seriously. Of course, this

thesis goes against such giants as Sanders, Dunn, Thielman, Hubner, Raisanen,

etc. In fact, Thielman, who recently conducted a pre-publication review of my

revised dissertation,2 likes the argument, but is extremely hesitant to concede

this possibility. The tough opposition notwithstanding, I am willing to be a

David in this field of giants, and feel that there is enough linguistic and histori-

cal evidence to support my thesis.


                        The Decalogue and the Semantic Dilemma

            Students of Paul's theology are aware of the problems encountered in

Pauline studies with the enigmatic nature of nomos, which is sometimes de-

picted positively and other times negatively. This apparent contradiction has

yielded studies on Paul's incoherence,3 his psychological shift in attitude,4 a


    1 "So That You May Be With Another: The Status of Nomos in the Mystical Life of the Be-

liever in the Rhetoric of Analogy in Romans 7:1-6," PhD Dissertation, Northwestern University,


    2 Rhetoric, Law, and the Mystery of Salvation in Romans 7:1-6 (New York: Mellen Biblical P,


    3 Heikki Raisanen, Paul and the Law (Tubingen: Mohr, 1987).

    4 Hans Hubner, Law in Paul's Thought (Edinburgh: Clark, 1984).





tension in his teaching,5 and his reinterpretation of nomos.6  I propose that the

problem with the interpretation of nomos has little to do with Paul's inconsis-

tency, but is due to the nature of language.

Linguists have long recognized that the understanding of a term is deter-

mined by the context of its usage. The primary contexts are the literary and so-

cial. From a literary perspective, many scholars have recognized the semantic

possibilities for nomos in the writings of Paul and have suggested several refer-

ents: generic law,7 Torah (Mosaic law),8 Pentateuch,9 Tanak,10 collection of holy

writings precious to Jews,11 Decalogue,12 Christianity as "new law,"13 revealed

will of God,14 figurative law,15 and custom/tradition of Jews.16

Although many will concede that there is a range of ways in which nomos

can be understood, most studies automatically assume that the major referent is

Mosaic Law. This assumption is based on the presupposition that nomos is the


   5 E. P. Sanders, Paul, the Law and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983).

   6 James Dunn, "The New Perspective on Paul: Paul and the Law," 299-309 in Karl P. Donfried,

ed. The Romans Debate, 2d ed. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991).

   7 BAGD, 542, proposes that this is the reference in Rom 3:27a, 7:lf, and Douglas J. Moo, Ro-

mans 1-8 (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 146-47, suggests 2:14d.

   8 BAGD, 542-43, suggests that this is the reference in a total of 92 of the 118 times Paul uses

the term. Stephen Westerholm, "Torah, Nomos, and Law: A Question of ‘Meaning’” SR 15

(1986), 336, suggests, "Usually.... Paul means by nomos the sum of obligations imposed upon

Israel at Mount Sinai, with the accompanying sanctions." See also J. A. Sanders, "Torah and

Christ," Int 29 (1975), 373; W. Gutbrod, "Nomos," TDNT 4 (1967), 1070; Joseph H. Thayer,

Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), 427-28; Louw and

Nida, Lexical Semantics, 33.55; D. M. Davies, "Free from the Law: An Exposition of the Seventh

Chapter of Romans," Int 7 (1953), 156-57; E.D. Burton, "Nomos," in A Critical and Exegetical

Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (New York: Scribner's, 1920), 447, refers to it with

the terms: "par eminence nomos."

   9 Westerholm, "Torah," 336; J. A. Sanders, "Torah," 373; Gutbrod, "Nomos," 1071.

   10 BAGD, 543; Louw and Nida, Lexical Semantics, 33.56; Gutbrod, "Nomos," 1071.

   11 BAGD, 543, suggests that in a strict sense the Pentateuch is often the intended reference,

while in a wider sense the referent is Holy Scripture in general. See also Westerholm, "Torah,"

336; W. D. Davies, "Law," 4.

   12 Gutbrod, "Nomos," 1069, states: "As in Rabb. usage, the gist of the nomos can be stated in

the Decalogue, which is thus to some basic degree the Law in a specific sense (R. 13:8ff.; 2:20ff.;

7:7)." See also Best, Romans, 26, who comments: "The conception of 'the Law' was central to the

Jewish religion; the term itself was used in different ways. It could mean the set of laws which

God gave to the Jews at the time of the Exodus: at its simplest this consisted of the Ten

Commandments." See also D. M. Davies, "Law," 157.

   13 BAGD, 543, proposes this reference for Rom 3:27b and 8:2a.

   14 Gutbrod, " Nomos," 1069-70; Burton, " Nomos," 455; W. D. Davies, "Law," 4; J. A. Sand-

ers, "Torah," 373.

   15 Gutbrod, "Nomos," 1071 (Rom 3:27; 7:21).

   16 J. M. Winger, By What Law? (Atlanta: Scholars, 1992), passim; D. M. Davies, "Law," 156;

J. A. Sanders, "Torah," 373.




typical Greek rendering for the Hebrew noun torah. However, a growing num-

ber of scholars are challenging this understanding.17

E. D. Burton demonstrates the semantic flexibility of both torah and nomos.

Torah is not as rigid as some perceive and has a number of referents in the Ta-

nak.18 While it most often refers to the law attributed to Moses (e.g. Josh 8:31; 2

Kgs 14:6; 23:25), it is also used as a reference to the "book of the law" (Neh 8:2,

8; 1 Kgs 2:3; 2 Chr 23:18), and the Decalogue (Exod 24:12). The flexibility of

nomos is demonstrated by the fact that the LXX translators use it to translate not

only torah, but also huqah, dat, and other related terms.19 Given the probability

that the theology of Paul and his audiences was shaped by the Septuagint and the

Tanak, one cannot automatically assume that Paul mostly uses nomos as a refer-

ence to torah as Mosaic law.

As I mentioned before, Paul's use of nomos must be understood in the liter-

ary and social contexts of the particular letter under observation. My investiga-

tion demonstrates that the literary context of Romans provides ample support for

the thesis that the primary referent of nomos is the Decalogue. Using semantic

theory of reference, I establish that whenever Paul reveals the contents of no-

mos, he only lists stipulations from the Decalogue.20 Indeed, it is precisely be-

cause he has the Decalogue in mind that he takes great care to defend its contin-

ued usefulness. An investigation of the social context provides further support

for my thesis.


Centrality of Decalogue in Jewish Tradition

Paul's use of nomos as a reference to the Decalogue was by no means

unique in Second Temple Judaism. While the Decalogue is a part of the Torah,

it was not unusual for Jewish authors to refer to it as a nomos by itself. In his

summary of the Decalogue's status in Jewish tradition, Moshe Weinfeld heralds

its unique characteristics:

    By contrast with many laws and commands, the performance of

which depends on special circumstances in the life of the individual

or his social group; for example sacrifices, which depend on the obli-

gations of the person (a vow to fulfill, a sin to expiate) or of the

community (maintenance of the sanctuary), or other laws that flow

from the incidence of certain events, like the laws of ritual purity and

impurity, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years; the civil law and the laws

of marriage and divorce; the laws affecting tithes and priestly offer-

ings, and so on, and so on--by contrast the commands in the De-


   17 See discussion in Westerholm, "Torah," passim, who lists Julius Wellhausen, Solomon

Schecter, C. H. Dodd, J. Parkes, H. J. Schoeps, R. T. Hereford, and P. Lapide, among those who

object to the translation.

   18 See Burton, " Nomos," 415. See also article by Sheldon Blank, "The Septuagint Rendering

of the Old Testament Terms for Law," HUCA 7 (1930), 259-83.

   19 Burton, " Nomos," 445.

   20 Cf. 2:21-22; 7:7; 13:9.




calogue obligate everyone. Every single individual, regardless of his

condition or the circumstances in which he finds himself, is required

to observe them. Every Jew undertakes not to worship idols, not to

perjure himself, to keep the Sabbath, to honor his parents, not to

commit murder, adultery or theft, not to bear false witness and not to


Weinfeld's observation is shared by a number of scholars who recognize

that the Decalogue has traditionally been understood as a law in itself.22 Indeed,

for Weinfeld, the fact that the tenth commandment forbids an act of the mind

shows that these commands are based on divine and not human judgment. For

the ancient Jew, the rules of the Decalogue "were perceived ... as uniquely re-

vealed imperatives, demands made by the Deity directly on the individual hu-

man being.23


Decalogue Recital and the Liturgy of the Temple and Diaspora

The important place of the Decalogue in Second Temple Judaism is

strongly supported in Rabbinic: literature. This is made most evident in the de-

scription of the daily temple liturgy (Mishnah Tamid 5:1):

    A. The superintendent said to them, "Say one blessing."

    B. They said a blessing, pronounced the Ten Commandments,

the Shema (Dt. 6:4-9), And it shall come to pass if you shall hearken

(Dt. 11:13-21), and And the Lord spoke to Moses (Num. 15:37-41).

    C. They blessed the people with three blessings: True and sure,

Abodah, and the blessing of priests.

     D. And on the Sabbath they add a blessing for the outgoing

priestly watch.

     In his comments on this passage, Rabbi Ba states: "... the Ten

Commandments are the essence of the Shema. And once one has re-

cited them, he has fulfilled his obligation to recite the Shema and

need not recite it again with its blessings."24

It has also been observed that the practice of reciting the Decalogue during

daily prayers was not only confined to the temple liturgy, but was a part of the

religious rites throughout diasporic Judaism. Several phylacteries containing the

Decalogue alongside the Shema have been discovered in Qumran.25 Addition-

ally, evidence of the Decalogue's liturgical centrality has been unearthed in

Egypt. For instance, the Nash Papyrus, a first century document,


   21 Moshe Weinfeld, "The Uniqueness of the Decalogue and Its Place in Jewish Tradition,"

Ben-Zion Segal, ed. The Ten Commandments in History and Tradition (Jerusalem: Magnes,

 Hebrew U, 1990), 4.

   22 Peter Stuhlmacher, "Paul's Understanding of the Law in the Letter to the Romans," SEA 50

(1985), 103, comments: "The decalogue was (and is) for Jews and Christians alike, the heart

of the Law." See also Gutbrod, " Nomos," 1069.

    23 Weinfeld, "Decalogue," 10.

    24 yBer 1.4,3.

    25 See Y. Yadin, "Teffilin from Qumran," Eretz Israel 9 (1969), 60-83. (In Hebrew)




... represents a leaf from the daily liturgy giving the Ten Com-

mandments and the Shema' separated from each other by the verse

(found only in the LXX before Deut 6:4 but given here in Hebrew),

‘And these are the statutes and the commandments which Moses gave

the children of Israel in the wilderness when they went forth from the

land of Egypt.26

Furthermore, phylactery discoveries in Babylonia add credence to the recogni-

tion of the Decalogue as the essential Torah.27

The religious importance of the Decalogue for Jewish life was also noticed

by Jewish thinkers who "have often regarded the Ten Commandments as the

essence of the Torah."28 For example, in his essay "About the Decalogue, Being

the Principal Laws of Moses," Philo contends that the individual laws of the

Torah derive from each of the commandments.29 In a similar vein, Pseudo Philo

describes the giving of the Decalogue as God establishing "the nomos of his

eternal covenant with the sons of Israel and ... his commandments that will not

pass away."30 He further suggests that it is by this "everlasting law" that God

judges the entire world.31


Reciting the Decalogue Prohibited

The liturgical esteem for the Decalogue was to wane during the Second

Temple era. In fact, a Rabbinic prohibition halted its recital in the daily liturgy.

Rabbi Levi offers a rational for the prohibition with his argument that the full

recital was not necessary since "the Ten Commandments are embodied in the

paragraphs of the Shema'."32 However, the Talmud traditions are probably more

honest in their explanations. The Jerusalem Talmud reports:


   26 Jacob Mann, "Genizah Fragments of the Palestinian Order of Service," HUCA 2 (1925), 283.

For full commentary see ibid , 269-:338. See also Weinfeld, 29. For further information on the

text of the Nash Papyrus see F. C. Burkitt, "The Hebrew Papyrus of the Ten Commandments,"

JQR 15 (1903), 392-408, and Alfred Jespen, "Beitrage zur Geschichte and Auslegung des

Dekalogs," ZAW 79 (1967), 277-304.

    27 For further information on the continuation of this liturgical practice in Babylonia, see A. M.

Haberman, "The Phylacteries in Antiquity," Eretz Israel 3 (1964), 174- 7. (Hebrew)

   28 Moshe Greenberg, "The Decalogue Tradition Critically Examined," in The Ten Command-

ments in History and Tradition, ed. B.-Z. Segal (Jerusalem: Magnes, Hebrew U, 1990), 117.

   29 Philo, Decalogue 154. "Never forget this, that the ten words (nomos) are the sources of the

laws (nomos) which are recorded (nomos) in appearance before the entire legislation in the

Sacred Books." Elsewhere (Decalogue 176) he refers to them as "ten laws" (nomos).

    30 PsPhil 11:5. The rest of the prescriptions that follow the Decalogue are termed "statutes" and

"judgments" by the author, as they are in Deuteronomy 4:13.

    31 PsPhil 11:2.

   32 yBer 1.4, 2. E. E. Urbach, "The Role of the Ten Commandments in Jewish Worship," in The

Ten Commandments in History and Tradition, ed. B.-Z. Segal (Jerusalem: Magnes, Hebrew U,

1990), 167, comments: "It would appear that Rabbi Levi's midrash was spoken at a time when the

Ten Commandments were no longer recited every morning, for when that practice was still

followed there was no need to seek out parallels to the Decalogue in the paragraphs of the





Both Rav Matna and Rav Samuel bar Nahmani stated that by rights

the Ten Commandments should be recited every day. Why then is

this not done? Because of the antipathy of the Minim. The purpose

was to deny their claim that these Ten, and no more, were spoken to

Moses at Sinai.33

A similar reason is given by the Babylonian Talmud in its comment on the

clause, "They recite the Ten Commandments":34

    Rabbi Judah quoted Samuel: People wanted to recite the Ten

Commandments together with the Shema outside the Temple, but the

practice had long been abandoned because of the arguments of the

Minim. The same has been taught in a baraita: R. Nathan said, people

outside the Temple wanted to read in this manner, but the custom had

long been abolished because of the arguments of the Minim. Rabbah

bar Rav Huna thought to institute the practice in Sura, but R. Hisda

said to him: The custom was set aside because of the arguments of

the Minim. Amemar considered doing the same in Nehardea, but Rav

Ashi said to him: It was set aside because of the arguments of the


Both the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmuds agree that the prohibition was

due to a controversy with the Minim, who viewed the Decalogue as the center of

the law revealed on Sinai. If Minim is a designation for those Jews who em-

braced Christianity (as is generally accepted),36 then these statements portray a

Christian-Rabbinic controversy in which Christians maintained that the De-

calogue was the only "essential" law.

Apparently, the dispute with the Minim affected Rabbinic Judaism to such

an extent that "rabbinic writings retain but few references to the centrality of the

Decalogue."37 However, in spite of this apparent censure, even in the later period

of Rabbinic Judaism "there [remain] vestiges of the ancient view that the Ten

Commandments are the essence of Torah, or that they include all of Torah."38


   33 yBer 1:5 (emphasis mine).

   34 mTam 5.1.

   35 bBer 12a (emphasis mine).

   36 For a comprehensive study that identifies the term Minim with Christians, see R. Travers

Hereford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (London: Williams & Norgate, 1903), 97-396.

After surveying all the Talmudic and Midrashic statements about the Minim, he concludes, 379,

"wherever the Talmud or the Midrash mentions Minim, the authors of the statement intend to

refer to Jewish Christians."

   37 Greenberg, "Decalogue," 119.

   38 Greenberg, "Decalogue," 1. 19, refers to A. J. Heschel for support: Theology of Ancient Ju-

daism (London/New York: Sonico„ 1965), 108-110. However, he advises that Heschel is to be

taken critically, for E. E. Urbach has argued against the elevation of the Decalogue in The Sages

(Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1975), 360-365. Nevertheless, I agree with Greenberg that this

disagreement in the interpretation of the primary sources "reflects the ongoing polemic of the

matter." 119 fn. 57. See also Mann, "Genizah Fragments," 284, who suggests that the Nash

Papyrus, which he feels is at most second century, "shows that in Egypt the Ten Commandments

were recited in spite of the objections from the Rabbis."





An example of this esteem is evidenced in the following excerpt from a second

century rabbinic homily:

    Why were the Ten Commandments not placed at the very be-

ginning of the Torah? This can be explained by a parable: Once a

king entered a city and said to the people, "Let me by your ruler."

They said to him, "Why should we? What good thing have you done

for us?" What did he do then? He built a wall around the city, he

brought in a supply of water, he fought their battles. After all that, he

said to them, "May I be your king?" They answered "Oh yes! Yes!"

So it was with the All-Present. He brought the Israelites out of Egypt,  

He divided the red sea for them, He gave them manna, He brought up

the well in the desert, He assembled the quail, He fought the battle       

with Amalek. And then He said to them, "Shall I be your King?" And

they answered "Oh yes! Yes!"39


The Decalogue in the Liturgy of Emerging Christianity

Given the esteemed place of the Decalogue in Judaism, it was only natural

that it would have a central place in emerging Christianity. Indeed, the problem

between the Rabbis and the Minim is an indication that adherence to the De-

calogue was one of the early articles of Christian faith. Additional support for

the centrality of the Ten Commandments in Christianity is apparently present in

one of Pliny's letters to Trajan, in which he describes the worship habits of

Christians.40 He informs the emperor that one of the Christian meetings, which

was held on a "certain fixed day before it was light", involved the recital of an

oath in which the participants swore "never to commit any fraud, theft or adul-

tery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called

upon to deliver it up."41 Assuming that Pliny was not giving a verbatim report

but was recording that which he had heard from his informers, this is more than

likely a loose paraphrase of what was really said. It is quite possible that Pliny

was misquoting Christians who were continuing the Jewish tradition of reciting

the Decalogue in public worship.42

Further evidence in support of the centrality of the Decalogue in Christian

teaching and worship, is found in two of the common prayers recorded in the


   39 Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael Na-Hodesh V. Cited in Urbach, "Ten Commandments," 172. A

similar sentiment is cited by Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2d ed. (Grand

Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 507, who in referring to the Rabbinic attitude towards the stipulations

of the Torah, writes: "As is characteristic of most legalisms, there were more negative than

positive commands: 365 negative (the days in the solar year) and 248 positive (the limbs in the

body according to the Targum Yerushalmi on Gen 1:27). The numerical symbolism noted that the

Decalogue in Hebrew has 620 letters, representing the whole Torah plus 7 rabbinical commands."

   40 Pliny, Letters 10.96.

   41 Pliny, Letters 10.96.

    42 In my opinion, the synagogue provides a more likely place to find a parallel than a pagan

shrine, as is suggested by A. D. Nock, "The Christian Sacramentum in Pliny and a Pagan

 Counterpart," Classical Review 38 (1924), 58-69, who could probably have made a more forceful

argument with the Decalogue than he has with the fragment from the shrine at Philadelphia.




second century Apostolic Constitutions. In 7.36.4, the "ten oracles" (Decalogue)

are referred to as a nomos:43 "You gave to them a Law, ten oracles uttered by

your voice, and engraved by your hand." And again in 8.9.8 we read about God

"who gave an implanted and written law to wo/man, so that s/he might live law-

fully as a rational being.”44 Thus we see that as late as the second century, es-

teem for the Decalogue was still central for Christian life and liturgy.



       In conclusion, we have seen that the Decalogue, which Weinfeld refers to as

"the basic constitution ... of the Community of Israel,"45 was highly esteemed

within Second Temple Judaism. The earliest Christian communities joined their

Jewish parent and siblings in this reverence for God's central law. Although

rejecting the ceremonial aspects of Pentateuchal law, Christians recognized the

Decalogue as a timeless principle with divine origin and affinity. One could say

that the Christian viewed the Decalogue as the essential Torah. The Christian

elevation of the Decalogue directly affected Jewish religious practice, as is evi-

denced by the Rabbinic prohibition of the Decalogue's recital in the daily lit-

urgy. The centrality of the Decalogue in such biblical books as Romans and He-

brews suggests that this interdiction did not affect the Christian theology of law.

In fact, both the prayers from the Apostolic Constitutions, and the Letter of

Pliny to Trajan show that even in the second century some Christians still

viewed the precepts of the Decalogue as central to community life.


   43 Apostolic Constitutions 7.36.4. This particular prayer defends Sabbath observance, which

causes D. A. Fiensy ["Hellenistic Synagogal Prayers," in James H. Charlesworth, ed., Old

Testament Pseudepigrapha (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 2.671] to believe that it is probably a

remnant of a Jewish synagogal prayer.

    44 Apostolic Constitutions 8.9.8.

    45 Weinfeld, "Decalogue," 27-28.



This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Adventist Theological Society and Keith Burton

P. O. Box 86

Berrien Springs, MI 49103

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: