A pair of Supreme Court rulings dealing with the display of the Ten Commandments on public property are only the most recent illustration of the power of the Decalogue (from the Greek, meaning "ten words") to illuminate philosophical, religious, and cultural fault lines. For two thousand years, it has served as a potent symbol of the clash between moral cultures.

The identity of the cultures has changed, but this most familiar of all biblical law codes has remained the ultimate token of victory: He who controls the meaning of the Ten Commandments and the purpose to which they may be put, has won the culture war. Ancient Christians and Jews, 20th-century fascists, and 21st-century political liberals and conservatives have all understood the stakes in the tug-of-war over the Decalogue.

That this would prove to be the case wasn't necessarily obvious to the first people to hear the Ten Commandments.

The Bible's Book of Exodus relates how the Jews were liberated by their God from Egyptian slavery, fled into the desert, and, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, heard the Lord's voice speaking the commandments that would become the heart of Jewish faith, as well as of the Christian religion. After the Hebrew tribes had spent 40 years in the wilderness, immediately before entering the promised land of Israel, Moses reviewed for them the whole Teaching (or "Torah," as the Five Books of Moses are called in Hebrew) that God had revealed at Sinai. As given in the written text of the Torah, this Teaching actually comprises 613 commandments (according to Jewish tradition)-including rules for everything from distinguishing between kosher and forbidden foods to circumcising baby boys-of which the Ten Commandments add up to less than one-sixtieth.

Yet neither in Exodus, nor in a slightly different version given in Deuteronomy, is there any explicit indication that the Decalogue stands out for special regard among all the other commandments in the Torah. Distinctions that later religious thinkers would make between the Ten Commandments and all the rest, or between "moral" and "ritual" commandments, are nowhere evident in the Torah itself, which recounts the giving of the whole body of the commandments in the form of a narrative of those 40 years in the desert. The commandments are simply recorded in the order in which God chose to reveal them.

Thus, in the Exodus narrative, the Decalogue is followed almost immediately by instructions on a matter that some much later biblical interpreters would anachronistically regard as being of "merely" ritual significance--how to build an altar for animal sacrifice. The latter subject is treated in the Bible with no hint of a suggestion that we're making a transition from commandments of ultimate, permanent importance to others of lesser or transient value. The fact that God makes no distiction of the kind that these later Bible readers would make should suggest to us that either in his eyes, or (if you prefer the conventional academic viewpoint) in the eyes of the Pentateuch's editors, there was no such distinction to be made. In any event, from the Bible's own perspective, the Decalogue is simply 10 out of 613.

So where, then, did there arise the idea that these ten are The Ten-the vaunted Ten Commandments, as if the other 603 were little more than chopped liver?

That idea didn't arise in Judaism, though the ancient rabbis did grant a certain elevated status, of purely symbolic significance, to the Decalogue. The rabbis taught--as an oral tradition which they said went back to a body of teaching given by God to Moses at Sinai, called the Oral Torah, as an accompaniment to or explanation of the Written Torah and finally written down for the first time about 200 C.E. in the Mishnah-that the Ten Commandments were different from other commandments in one respect.

That was, besides being commandments in their own right, they functioned as a sort of a table of contents for the rest of the commandments. The 10 items of the Decalogue are like chapter headings to a book, with the other commandments each falling under one of these 10 headings. Just as a book's table of contents is only that-the table of contents, not the full text-so the Decalogue is not the whole account of what God told Moses to command the Jewish people.

In this sense, as a summary of the 613 commandments, the Ten Commandments still held a special place in Jewish eyes. That is why, according to the Mishnah, when the Jerusalem Temple still stood, before its destruction by Roman forces in 70 C.E., the reading of the Ten Commandments was a central fixture of the Temple liturgy. In the order of prayers, it came immediately before recitation of the Sh'mah, the central statement of Jewish belief in God's indivisible oneness. When Jesus attended worship services in the Temple, as historians assume, he undoubtedly witnessed this liturgy.

The experience of hearing how the Decalogue was venerated in the priestly liturgy conveyed to Jesus that the Ten Commandments were special laws. Perhaps this is what he had in mind when he said, "Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:19).

After Jesus died, the status of Jewish law became a point of contention among his followers. Some insisted on the continuing obligation to observe all the Mosaic legislation without differentiating between the Ten Commandments and the other laws. St. Paul seemed to take a dim view of "the Law" (his term for the Torah) altogether, calling it a "captor" and a "curse" (Romans 7:6, Galatians 3:13) to those who believed that observing Jewish law was what God wanted from them. For, he wrote in his letter to the Romans, "now the law has come to an end with Christ" (10:4).

The church had to decide how to adjudicate the dispute between the legalists and the antinomians-that is, between those believers in Jesus who argued against Paul's jettisoning of Jewish law, on one hand, and Paul's own disciples on the other. The heretic Marcion repudiated the entire Torah explicitly, including the Ten Commandments, which Paul hadn't done. The church fathers, however, recognized the continuing validity of the Ten Commandments while rejecting all the other laws Moses had received at Sinai. This was the position of Justin Martyr, who wrote a Christian polemic against Judaism, the "Dialogue with Trypho."

Other early Christian theologians saw in the Ten Commandments a symbol of God's having rejected the other 603 commandments. In the Torah itself, the story is told of how Moses, descending from Mt. Sinai with the two tablets of the Decalogue in his hands, observed the Jews engaged in worshiping the notorious Golden Calf. In his anger at this shocking reversion to idolatry, Moses smashed the tablets upon the ground. God later made him another, identical pair. According to the church fathers Barnabas and Origen, the breaking of the first set of tablets shows the low opinion Moses had of the commandments-that is, apart from the Decalogue.