God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Tennessee Courthouse Displays Translation Mistake in Ten Commandments

As the debate about public displays of the Ten Commandments heats up again (also via the AP), this time in Mountain City in Johnson County, Tennessee, I think it’s worth remembering that most people are fighting over an inaccurate translation of the Ten Commandments.

In particular, the original Hebrew of the sixth commandment (fifth for Catholics and some others) applies only to illegal killing, so “thou shalt not kill” is overly broad, that is, wrong.

The sixth commandment does not address legal killing such as the death penalty. (As I explain in great detail in Chapter 7 of And God Said, we know this from looking at how the original Hebrew verb in the Ten Commandments is used elsewhere. But most modern translators know that “kill” is wrong, and therefore go with “murder” here. Though that translation is too narrow, it is better than “kill.”)

It’s true that “kill” is a common mistranslation, going back at least to the KJV, but it is nonetheless wrong.

The Johnson County case is particularly interesting because (my emphasis):

The display itself claims that the Ten Commandments are the historical foundation of American law. Accompanying it is a pamphlet written by local clergy that contends U.S. law springs from biblical morality and insists that the United States was founded on Christian principles. (source)

If the point of the Johnson County display is to reflect biblical morality, shouldn’t the best scholarship be used?

Does the fact that the Johnson County display is promoting a specific interpretation of the Bible, rather than the Bible itself, make a difference to the case?

And while we’re at it (and I hope I don’t regret asking), what do you think: Should displays of the Ten Commandments be allowed in public?

[Update: The Tomahawk has more details here.]


January 13, 2011 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , ,


  1. “Should displays of the Ten Commandments be allowed in public?”

    Surely banning them would violate the US constitutional bit about freedom of speech. I understand the real question in the US is about publicly funded displays, which are argued to violate your much vaunted separation of church & state.

    I do find it odd though that that ‘separation’ clause seems to be used to promote the kind of sectarian persecution that many fled Europe to avoid. But perhaps that’s a misreading – I’m an Englishman, resident over here, so only know what the media chooses to tell me.

    Comment by Peter Parslow | January 14, 2011

    • To those who cite the first amendment as reason for excluding God from more and more of our institutions and everyday life, may I just say: The first amendment of the Constitution was not written to protect the people of this country from religious values; it was written to protect religious values from government tyranny. – Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States

      While pondering the ‘separation of Church and State’ issue, I stumbled across this quote.

      While a proponent of ‘separation’ this quote changed my mind as to how I view the topic.

      As a Canadian (somewhat stuck between English and American culture) I value freedom but do not take issue with our national anthem stating “God keep our land”

      Comment by Derek McMillan | March 21, 2011

      • >>>…The first amendment of the Constitution was not written to protect the people of this country from religious values; it was written to protect religious values from government tyranny…

        It was written to protect people from the government coercing people to adopt a religion, or restricting their liberty of conscience:

        “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

        If the government posts a command to worship YHVH and have no other gods before him, to not work on the 7th day (or the 1st), etc, then they are certainly at odds with the spirit of the 1st amendment. It is none of the government’s business whether I think YHVH really rested on the seventh day, Jesus rose of the first day, or any other religious matter. The government is not there to influence such things. Christians need to put a sock in it.

        Comment by WoundedEgo | March 21, 2011

  2. Why is it always the Ten Commandments? Why not the Beatitudes for a change?

    Comment by Russell Allen | January 14, 2011

  3. First, in response to Peter – there is no violation of Freedom of Speech. That applies to private individuals/institutions. There is nothing there that says that the government can say whatever it wants. Indeed, there are many legal limits on government “speech.”

    To answer Joel’s question – I’m against using the Ten Commandments in public. The idea that they are the basis of US Jurisprudence seems like a problematic claim, on many levels. They claim (implicitly) the the authority behind them comes from God; the US legal system doesn’t do that. They also mandate religious behavior (belief in God (possibly), Shabbat), which has no place in secular law, obviously. They also mandate some things which may not be “religious,” but clearly aren’t part of US law – honoring parents, coveting (or however you want to translate it).

    Add in that every translation of the text implicitly selects one religious tradition over another (i.e. different religions divide and translate the text differently, so you must favor one tradition over another when you pick a translation), and I just don’t see how it’s justifiable.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal, and I’m not ready to storm the barricades over this one. But, if it were up to me, I’d lose the tablets from all public settings.

    Comment by Jason Rosenberg | January 14, 2011

    • I was commenting on the phrase “public displays”. As I said & you point out, the issue is with what government should/shouldn’t say (my “publicly funded displays”).

      Comment by Peter Parslow | January 15, 2011

    • Add in that every translation of the text implicitly selects one religious tradition over another (i.e. different religions divide and translate the text differently, so you must favor one tradition over another when you pick a translation), and I just don’t see how it’s justifiable.

      Thanks for weighing in, Jason, and thanks for pointing out that the versification, like the translation, is a divisive issue.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 19, 2011

  4. Thank you for clarifying the scholarly mistake in interpretation of the word kill vs. murder. The best scholarship should be used for clarity. It’s not a guessing game.

    Which religion has a problem with which Commandment? If someone is an atheist and doesn’t believe in God, how does posting these rules affect them negatively? Are they so frail that posting something they don’t agree with will make them crumble? Communist and Socialist states, commonly atheistic, serving the State god, HAVE historically crumbled. This nation is one of the strongest in the world. Why is that, that a majority Christian nation, with In God We Trust on the currency, gratitude to God in every State Constitution and in the founding documents, which allows for all religions to operate peacefully in freedom, and so young is considered a superpower?

    Separation of church and state is nowhere in this nation’s founding documents. It was one sentence in one letter. Liberals-Progressives-Socialists have blown that up to proportions equal to the founding documents and it is not true.

    Here is some information to consider http://canadafreepress.com/index.php/article/23187

    Comment by RoseThistle | January 14, 2011

    • Welcome, Rose, and thanks for your comments.

      Thank you for clarifying the scholarly mistake in interpretation of the word kill vs. murder. The best scholarship should be used for clarity. It’s not a guessing game.

      And yet, all of the displays that I’ve seen have “kill” (to say nothing of “covet,” which is also wrong).

      I wonder if people who advocate displaying the Ten Commandments are really willing to accept the latest scholarship.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 19, 2011

  5. I am for the posting of the Ten Commandments in public. Specifically, you can look at the divinely-given moral absolutes and then look at the US law and then realize how far behind 2500 B.C. Israel U.S. law is, given that we fail to enshrine in law that adultery, etc. is wrong. If we attribute that particular significance to it, then it has value.

    “Congress shall make no law pertaining to the establishment of religion.” Other than the use of the third-person, it sounds like the same kind of legalese one finds in the KJV of the Decalogue. I think it’s hard to deny that the Judeo-Christian tradition informed moral and legal decisions; the only thing that pops out of nothing is nothing, after all. Yet I do not believe that the US was founded solely on right-wing (or left-wing) Christian values.

    Also, there’s nothing in that clause on its own that says the government can’t do religious speech (Didn’t Obama quote Psalm 46 in reference to Rep. Giffords recently?). Rather, the clause forbids congress from doing this or that. Yet our tradition of legal precedents extends this to the government as a whole. Now remind me again: where did we get the idea that legal precedents must be honored in interpreting the law, rather than just the law itself? Starts with a J, and ends with udaism.

    Since Judaism is older than Protestantism or Catholicism, I think it’s completely fair to default to the Jewish numeration. (I speak as a Protestant.)

    And Joel, I still would word the sixth (by Protestant division) as “do not commit manslaughter.” On its own, “slaughter” could refer to killing any creature rather than just humans, and so “manslaughter” is my preferred wording.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | January 14, 2011

  6. I think it would be much more appropriate to post the first ten amendments to the US Constitution:

    The Bill of Rights includes these Amendments:

    Amendment 1- Freedom of speech, press and religion

    Amendment 2 – The right to bear arms

    Amendment 3- Protection of homeowners from quartering troops, except during war.

    Amendment 4 – Rights and protections against unreasonable search and seizure

    Amendment 5 – Rights of due process of law, protection against double jeopardy, self incrimination

    Amendment 6 – Rights of a speedy trial by jury of peers and rights of accused

    Amendment 7 – Rights to trial by jury in civil cases

    Amendment 8 – Protection from cruel and unusual punishment, excessive bail

    Amendment 9 – Protection of rights not specified in the Bill of Rights

    Amendment 10 – States rights, power of the states

    Then, maybe judges would realize that their duty is not to promote religion, but rather to provide a fast, fair trial. Due process. etc.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 15, 2011

  7. Not that I claim to have any particular insight into the matter, but to answer my own question: I have no problem with public displays of the Ten Commandments.

    Even though I think that the Ten Commandments are fundamentally different than U.S. law (as I point out here), it seems to me that the Ten Commandments are historically important. So their value extends beyond their role in religion.

    Also, I think that most people can distinguish between decorations at courthouses (like the Ten Commandments, or even the Magna Carta) and the laws used inside the courthouses.

    Finally, the displays seem pretty important to a lot of people, and I find it hard to believe that they are equally offensive to a similar number of people. (But if you’re one of the people who find it grossly offensive, please let me know!)

    Comment by Joel H. | January 19, 2011

    • Joel, my thoughts on the downside of posting them are:

      * it takes space that would better be occupied with State interest, such as the Bill of Rights;
      * it opens the door for posting other inappropriate things, such as Sharia stuff;
      * it could encourage religious bias in judicial decisions;
      * it gives rhetorical fodder to the antidisestablishmentarians;

      Comment by WoundedEgo | January 19, 2011

      • I agree that there are downsides, but it seems to me that they are trumped by the benefits.

        But do you really think displays of the Ten Commandments will encourage religious bias in judicial decisions?

        On the anniversary of JFK’s great inaugural address, I note that the president referred to doing God’s work: “let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own” (my emphasis).

        I think a certain amount of religion will always be mixed in with life in America, so for me, the goal is only to object to serious problems. So even to the extent that the Ten Commandments are religious, I don’t mind see them on government property.

        Comment by Joel H. | January 20, 2011

  8. I should think that if you’re going to post anything Christian, let it be the Beatitudes. How come no one wants to post THAT??

    Comment by TLH | February 7, 2011

    • Perhaps because it does not have the legal-canon sort of content to be found in the decalogue.

      Comment by Mitchell Powell | February 26, 2011

  9. The problem is the question of, if it does not mean “Do not kill”, what it actually does mean. If it means “Do not illegally kill people”, but is itself the only indication that killing people is illegal then it is a mere tautology. I suppose it could mean, “Do not kill people, except for witches, adulterers, practicing homosexuals, the people whose land I tell you to invade, and the other large number of cases where I explicitly command you to kill people”. Admittedly this is not as good a sound-bite as the original, but as so often God has failed to effectively communicate what he really means. But then I suppose if he could do that you would not need a web-site called God Didn’t Say That.

    Comment by David | May 24, 2011

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.