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
Keith A. Burton
In my 1994
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,
2 Rhetoric, Law, and the Mystery of Salvation in Romans 7:1-6 (
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
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.
JOURNAL OF THE ADVENTIST THEOLOGICAL SOCIETY 312
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.
of the Old Testament Terms for Law," HUCA 7 (1930), 259-83.
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-
Decalogue Recital and
the Liturgy of the
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
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
21 Moshe Weinfeld, "The Uniqueness of the Decalogue and Its Place in Jewish Tradition,"
Segal, ed. The
Ten Commandments in History and Tradition (
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
JOURNAL OF THE ADVENTIST THEOLOGICAL SOCIETY 314
... 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
phylactery discoveries in
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
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
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
"The Phylacteries in Antiquity," Eretz
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,
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
together with the Shema outside 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
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
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
which he feels is at most second century, "shows that in
were recited in spite of the objections from the Rabbis."
JOURNAL OF THE ADVENTIST THEOLOGICAL SOCIETY 316
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
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
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
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
Please report any errors to Ted