Do Most Christians Even Know the 10 Commandments?
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The American Bible Society funds an annual “State of the Bible” survey, and this spring the Christian Post cheered some of their findings: “The Bible continues to dominate both mind space and book retail space as America's undisputed best-seller.” According to the study, conducted by Barna, over 88 percent of American homes contain a Bible. In fact, the average is 4.7 copies per household.
Now, I should note that a young non-religious friend once came home from school with a bright green Gideon’s New Testament that she later touted as a reserve of fine rolling papers, which may explain why the household average isn’t a solid 5.
But most Americans treat the Bible with some degree of deference.
Among adults who responded to the survey, 56% were classified as “pro-Bible” meaning they think it is the actual or inspired word of God with no errors. More than a quarter said that they read from the Good Book daily or at least several times a week. Fully half said the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to lead a meaningful life.
Surveys about religious behavior and belief are highly susceptible to social desirability bias, meaning the very human tendency to tell researchers want we think they want to hear and to polish our self-image a little. Survey responses are selfies with mood lighting and make-up.
Even so, it’s hard to dispute the fact that the Bible has an enormous influence on our society, not only American society in 2014, but Western society going way back.
That’s what makes all of the pages devoted to useless things like tribal spats, genealogies, rules for slaveholders, menstrual rituals, misogynist trash talk, and loquacious donkeys such a wasted opportunity. But even that would be less painful if core moral mandates like the Ten Commandments were of higher caliber.
Secularists had a good laugh a few years back, when Stephen Colbert nailed Georgia Representative Lynn Westmoreland, who had co-sponsored a bill requiring display of the Ten Commandments in the House and Senate chambers. “What are the Ten Commandments?” asked Colbert. Westmoreland came up with three.
In the darkest part of my heart I hope the esteemed congressman from Georgia spends the rest of his life wearing a scarlet H for hypocrite, even if no one can see it but him. But the truth is, very few Christians know the Ten Commandments from memory, for two very good reasons.
One reason is that the Bible actually gives two different sets of Ten Commandments, and they don’t match. In Exodus 20, Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with a set of stone tablets. (This is the most popular version.) Then he gets mad and smashes them and has to go back up and get another set. And God says, “Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest.” (Exodus 34:1). But then, apparently, God can’t resist tweaking them a little. Ok, a lot.
Here, from the perennially popular King James Version, is the Exodus 20 set:
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
5. Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.