The Ten Commandments A Short History of an Ancient Text Michael Coogan

Publication date:
15 Apr 2014
Yale University Press
192 pages: 210 x 140 x 17mm
9 b-w illus.
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The complex and surprising history of one of the world’s most famous texts

In this lively and provocative book, Michael Coogan guides readers into the ancient past to examine the iconic Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue. How, among all the laws reportedly given on Mount Sinai, did the Ten Commandments become the Ten Commandments? When did that happen? There are several versions of the Decalogue in the Old Testament, so how have different groups determined which is the most authoritative? Why were different versions created?
Coogan discusses the meanings the Ten Commandments had for audiences in biblical times and observes that the form of the ten proscriptions and prohibitions was not fixed—as one would expect since they were purported to have come directly from God—nor were the Commandments always strictly observed. In later times as well, Jews and especially Christians ignored and even rejected some of the prohibitions, although the New Testament clearly acknowledges the special status of the Ten Commandments. Today it is plain that some of the values enshrined in the Decalogue are no longer defensible, such as the ownership of slaves and the labeling of women as men’s property. Yet in line with biblical precedents, the author concludes that while a literal observance of the Ten Commandments is misguided, some of their underlying ideals remain valid in a modern context.

Michael Coogan is director of publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum, lecturer on Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at Harvard Divinity School, editor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, and author of God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says. He lives in Concord, MA.

“Devastating. . . . [Coogan] knows the Bible inside out.”—Globe and Mail on God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says, also by Michael Coogan


"Readers… can trust Coogan, a biblical scholar of the highest order.”—Publishers Weekly on God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says

“Coogan is interested in the commandments not only as an ancient text but as a living, social one, and enjoys grappling with the issues that surround them today as much as he does providing historical background. Legislators, particularly, should read this book, before they try to mount tablets on the courthouse steps.”—Nicholas Mancuso, The Daily Beast

“[An] engrossing and enlightening guide.”—Ray Olson, Booklist

"Coogan offers a nice, concise history of the Ten Commandments, in which he shows the development of the text itself, drawing on earlier legal codes which appear to have influenced them. He takes the reader through the code itself, comparing and contrasting the three versions in the OT."—Paul Mueller, Religious Studies Review