God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Christopher Hitchens on The Ten Commandments

In a widely viewed video, Christopher Hitchens mocks the Ten Commandments with, among other jabs, the contrast between a commandment and an observation. “#6: Thou shalt not kill,” Hitchens (mis)quotes at 2:46 into the video. Then he notes (2:48 into the video): “Almost immediately after the events at Sinai, and the delivery of these instructions by God at the top of the mountain, Moses orders all his supporters to draw their swords and kill all their friends and brothers for their profanity.”

His point, I guess, is the incongruity between “not killing” and then “killing.”

But it’s widely known that the 6th commandment (numbered 5 by Catholics) doesn’t prohibit all killing. Hitchens is misquoting the commandment based on a mistranslation that dates back to the KJV.

I go through the evidence in my latest book, but the information is well known, and even a cursory look at published translations shows how many people know that the original version didn’t read “do not kill.” The NIV, NRSV, and even ESV translate this commandment as “you shall not murder.”

So I wonder. Does Hitchens really think that the KJV is accurate here? Or is he setting up a straw man just to be argumentative?


June 7, 2010 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , ,


  1. Staw man, of course.

    Comment by Will Fitzgerald | June 7, 2010

  2. Hitchens is a provocateur, a so-called “militant atheist” who wants everyone else to deny God as he thinks the idea of God is preposterous and harmful.

    Comment by Don Johnson | June 7, 2010

    • It’s one thing to use the text of the Bible provocatively. It’s quite another to misquote the Bible as a starting point for attacking it. I wonder if Hitchens knows that he has done the latter in the case.

      Comment by Joel H. | June 7, 2010

  3. Hitchens gets to choose among the major translations and pick the one that suits his purpose, namely to make the Bible look ridiculous. Also, many learn it that way, and pacifists tend to interpret it that way, so it will not sound strange at all to many.

    Comment by Don Johnson | June 7, 2010

  4. Also, the Decalogue is nowhere called the ten ‘commandments’ in the text itself, is it?

    Comment by John | June 7, 2010

    • No, as we discuss here.

      Comment by Joel H. | June 7, 2010

  5. No bashing pacifists here, please. I am a pacifist who understands that the Law doesn’t forbid all killing.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | June 9, 2010

    • I should have written some pacifists quote the commandment in that way.

      I am glad you are not one of them.

      My point was simply that it is EASY for Hitchens to choose to select that text, it is not obscure even if it is not a very accurate translation.

      Comment by Don Johnson | June 9, 2010

      • Let’s concentrate on people everybody agrees on criticizing. First on the list: former presidents. Second: atheists. Third: bears: number one threat to America.

        Comment by Gary Simmons | June 9, 2010

      • I think you’re right. It’s an easy mistake to make, and a popular one. My question is whether Hitchens — who, it now seems, plans to write a book on the Ten Commandments — knows that it’s a mistranslation.

        Comment by Joel H. | June 9, 2010

  6. Straw man, of course.

    Also, the Commandments are the provenance of the Jewish people.
    We may or may not pay attention to commentary from others who have Adopted them, but certainly not to those who haven’t. Unless they have also adopted our age-old tradition of wrestling with layered language (Pshat, Remez, Drash, the Sof).

    Keeping in mind that the ‘old’ testament was once called that because it was the ‘outdated’ testament (as opposed to ‘new’ and ‘relevant’), it would be interesting to know exactly when the Pauline Church folded the Decalogue into its own creed. And what about the other 603 commandments?

    Thanks for the opportunity to speak.

    Comment by Joan Peterdi | July 3, 2010

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