Did the Catholic Church Change the Ten Commandments?

April 28, 2013 | 13 comments

My mother recently sent me an email from a friend who was being challenged by an Evangelical to re-consider her Catholicism. He claimed the Catholic Church had perniciously omitted what he referred to as the second commandment—“You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4)—in order to keep the Catholic faithful in darkness as to the truth that they should not have statues in their churches.

Despite appearances, we know Exodus 20 is not a prohibition against making “any likeness of anything” in a strict sense because we clearly see God either commanding or praising the making of images and statues in multiple biblical texts (see Exodus 25:18; Numbers 21:8-9; I Kings 6:23-28, 9:3). Just five chapters after this so-called prohibition against statues, for example, God commands Moses to make statues representing two angels to be placed over the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant:

And you shall make two cherubim of gold… The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another…. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark… There I will meet with you (Ex. 25:18-22).

There are five key points to be made concerning this common misunderstanding among Protestants as well as many quasi-Christian sects.

1. Exodus 20:4 is part of the first commandment that begins in verse 3 and stretches through part of verse five:

You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.

Verses 3 and 5 make clear that this commandment is not simply condemning making statues; It is condemning making gods that you bow down to or serve. In a word, this first commandment forbids idolatry, i.e., the worship of anything or anyone other than God. The Catholic Church condemns this as well.

2. By lifting out part of the first commandment appearing to prohibit the making of “any likeness of anything,” not only do you have God contradicting himself in later commanding the making of statues, but you also end up making the first two commandments repetitive. They are both essentially condemning idolatry.

3. Though the commandments are said to be “ten” in Exodus 34:28, they are not numbered by the inspired authors of Sacred Scripture. If you count the “you shall nots” along with the two positive commandments of keeping holy the Sabbath and honoring father and mother, you end up with 13 commandments. So the actual numbering of the commandments depends upon which “you shall nots” you lump together as one commandment and which ones you separate. And in the end, which “you shall nots” you lump together depends upon your theology. 

4. We believe the Catholic Church alone has the authority to give to God’s people an authoritative list of the Ten Commandments. And the Catechism of the Catholic Church does exactly that. At least, it gives us a list as a sure norm for us.

5. The problem with creating a second “commandment” where there actually is not one really comes to the fore at the bottom of the list. The common Protestant listing of the Ten Commandments combines coveting your neighbor’s wife, the Catholic ninth commandment, with coveting your neighbor’s property, the Catholic tenth commandment. And really it just can't be any other way because you run out of room. I can’t imagine many women being happy with being equated to property!

Some may argue at this point: “Well, that is what the Old Testament teaches. We're just going with what the inspired author teaches." Are you really? Let’s take a look. Now, it is true that Exodus 20’s version of the 10 commandments appears to place both women and servants in the place of property.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

I say it seems because Genesis 1:26-27 does reveal God himself to have said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness… So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” There is an essential equality between male and female revealed even in the Old Testament, though this revelation is not as clear and unambiguous as what we have in the New Testament. Exodus 20 certainly does anything but add to the clarity of the point.

When I say the revelation of this essential equality is not as clear in the Old Testament, we need to understand why this is so. The Old Testament consists of 46 books written over a period of ca. 1500 years, representing a progressive revelation. Hebrews 1:1-2 says, “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets.” The Greek word for “many ways” is polumeros, which means “in many portions;” God gave his revelation in piecemeal fashion over the centuries, taking an ancient people right where they were and gradually beginning to reveal more and more truth as they were able to receive it and as he gradually gave them more and more grace to be able to receive it, all the while respecting their freedom. “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son…” (Galatians 4:4) to communicate the fullness of the revelation God willed for his people.

For example, the divorce God permitted in Deut. 24:1-4, he later says “[he] hates” in Malachi 2:16. And when Jesus elevated marriage to the level of sacrament eliminating divorce and remarriage absolutely in Matt. 19:5-6, he explained that this allowance by God through Moses was never intended from the very beginning citing Genesis 2:24, “the two shall become one flesh.” God permitted things early that he would not have ever willed in an antecedent sense as he helped his people to grow much like a parent does not treat a four year-old the same as he would treat a fourteen year-old.

In a similar way, though God revealed the essential equality of man and woman very early in salvation history (Gen. 1:26-27), this revelation was given by God to an ancient people who did not have the same understanding of the essential equality of man and woman we so often take for granted given the fullness of revelation we have enjoyed in the New Covenant for 2,000 years. God did not expect his people to change immediately, nor did he give them the fullness of the revelation that we have in Christ all at once; rather, he helped them along as we’ve said. In fact, we can see this development of understanding even in the Old Testament itself. We cited the earlier version of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, but notice the change by the time God gave his people Deuteronomy:

Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox. Or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

The inspired author of Deuteronomy now makes the distinction between wife and property sharper by using two different Hebrew words for “covet” and “desire” and by only using the word “covet” with regard to the wife. The two separate commandments now become undeniable.

We’ll leave the discussion of the status of the servants for another blog post!


Tim Staples is Director of Apologetics and Evangelization here at Catholic Answers, but he was not always Catholic. Tim was raised a Southern Baptist. Although he fell away from the faith of his childhood, Tim came back to faith in Christ during his late teen years through the witness of Christian...

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Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  mark gilbert - Bixby, Oklahoma

When Cathlolics Pray to Mary are they not putting Mary before Jesus? Bible clearly states that we Pray to the Father,,, and once Jesus was risen we are in him so he is our redempter so Pray to the Father in Jesus Name ... I dont see Mary as being in this,,, what does the Catholic church beliefs say

August 23, 2013 at 12:33 pm PST
#2  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Staff

The Catholic Church teaches in agreement with Scripture that there is "one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ" (I Tim. 2:5). However, as members of the body of Christ, Christians can mediate graces in and through Christ because they are in Christ. This is the principle underlying St. Paul's exhortation for all Christians to pray for one another "and for all men" in I Tim. 2:1-2. We can only do so because it is "not [us], but Christ who is in [us]" (Gal. 2:20), who is the first principle or efficient cause of all that we do that has eternal value.
With this as a foundation, we understand that we can pray to our brothers and sister who have gone before us and ask them to pray for us just as we seem them doing in Rev. 5:8 in Scripture. Mary is no different than any other Christian in this respect. So, of course we can pray to her as well. In fact, if "the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much" in James 5:16, Mary's prayers would be most powerful among human persons because Mary is the greatest of all.

October 18, 2013 at 3:28 pm PST
#3  meaghan lichon - west seneca, New York

The bible plainly states not to change a word not to add or remove any part of the texts. Not only did the catholic church change the second amendment by omitting it from the ten commandments, it has also changed the forth by changing the Sabbath from Saturday to sunday, and also the tenth by splitting it into two, making up for taking out the second. No one man has the power to wipe away the sins of man but that of the blood of Jesus. We must repent and ask GOD himself for forgiveness for our sins.

I recommend reading the following book:


It tells the true story of what is to come of Gods people for not keeping HIS Sabbath holy!!!!

October 27, 2013 at 8:54 am PST
#4  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Staff

The Catholic Church did not, and could not, "change the Sabbath." The Sabbath remains Saturday. The Church simply acknowledges that the Sabbath is no longer binding upon the people of God as St. Paul clearly teaches in Colossians 2:16, referring to it as a mere "shadow." The inspired author of Hebrews uses the same term, "shadows," to describe the law of animal sacrifices that no longer binds Christians as well in Heb. 10:1-4.
If you re-read my post here, I made clear that the Church did not change the commandments, she simply and accurately reflects the true nature of the commandments by not repeating the first commandment twice and by accurately separating the ninth and tenth commandments so that wives are not placed at the same level as property.

October 28, 2013 at 8:11 am PST
#5  Brian Driesenga - Lowell, Michigan

This verse in Colossians refers to the yearly Sabbaths talked about in Leviticus 23. The seventh-day Sabbath was never demoted and should still be followed as a day or rest and remembrance as described in Exodus 20. After all, the verse does say "...Remember the Sabbath day...". This is the only commandment that starts with the word remember. It also says "Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it." The Lord blessed and hallowed (honor as holy) this day. If it was that important, would not Jesus make it a point to specifically say it should no longer be honored? However, Jesus made no mention of the demotion of the Sabbath day. On the contrary, Jesus says in John 14:15 "If you love me, keep my commandments". I think we can all agree that Exodus 20 is laying out the commandments that Jesus is referencing. By not keeping the seventh-day Sabbath, you are not keeping all of the Lord's commandments, wouldn't you agree?

More on this topic can be found at http://www.sabbathtruth.com/

December 13, 2013 at 1:48 pm PST
#6  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Staff

Actually, Col. 2:16-17 is very clear:
"Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food or drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are only a shadow [Greek: skia] of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ" (Col. 2:16–17).
St. Paul calls the Sabbath and dietary laws “only a shadow.” It is interesting to note that the inspired author of Hebrews uses the same Greek word (skia, or “shadow”) for the Old Covenant sacrifices that are no longer binding on Christians either:
"For since the law has but a shadow [skian] of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near" (Heb. 10:1).
All Christians agree that the sacrifices of the Old Covenant were “shadows” of the one and true sacrifice of Christ. But many, like you, Brian, do not make a similar connection and see that the Old Covenant Sabbath is also a shadow of its true fulfillment in the New Covenant.
Does this mean that the third commandment itself is a mere shadow? By no means! The Church teaches, in agreement with our Lord and Scripture: we must keep the Ten Commandments (see Matt. 19:17; I Cor. 7:19).
"Since they express man’s fundamental duties toward God and toward his neighbor, the Ten Commandments reveal, in their primordial content, grave obligations. They are fundamentally immutable, and they oblige always and everywhere. No one can dispense from them. The Ten Commandments are engraved by God in the human heart" (CCC 2072).
The third commandment is “fundamentally immutable” because it is one of the Ten Commandments, which Jesus said we must follow to attain everlasting life. Thus, it follows, we must keep all ten of them in order to make it to heaven. But since Scripture also tells us that the Sabbath is not binding, we need to ask the question: What is it about the third commandment that is immutable, and what is it that is accidental and therefore changeable?
When we examine again Colossians 2:16–17, we discover St. Paul using the same division of “festivals” (yearly holy days), “new moons” (monthly holy days) and “Sabbaths” (the Saturday obligation) the Old Testament uses when referencing the Jewish holy days and Saturday Sabbath. For example:
"And they shall stand every morning, thanking and praising the Lord, and likewise at evening, and whenever burnt offerings are offered to the Lord on sabbaths, new moons, and feast days, according to the number required of them, continually before the Lord" (1 Chr. 23:30–31; Cf. II Chr. 2:4; 8:12-13; 31:3, etc.).
Clearly, along with the yearly and monthly holydays, the Sabbath is included in what St. Paul calls a mere “shadow.” However, St. Paul is not saying—and does not say—that Christians do not have to keep the third commandment. If we look at the context, we see that Paul was dealing with Judaizers, in Col. 2, who were telling Gentile Christians they had to be circumcised and keep the Old Covenant law (which has passed away)—including the Jewish Sabbaths and holydays—in order to be saved. That's the context, and that is why we see Christians meeting "on the first day of week," or, "the Lord's Day," in the New Testament (Acts 20:7; I Cor. 16:1-2; Rev. 1:10). St. Paul was speaking specifically of the Jewish Sabbath that has passed away in Christ.

December 28, 2013 at 4:06 pm PST
#7  Karen Elliott - Waxahachie, TEXAS, Texas

Verses 3 and 5 make clear that this commandment is not simply condemning making statues; It is condemning making gods that you bow down to or serve. In a word, this first commandment forbids idolatry, i.e., the worship of anything or anyone other than God. The Catholic Church condemns this as well.
wor·ship (wûrshp)
a. The reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object.

b. The ceremonies, prayers, or other religious forms by which this love is expressed.

2. Ardent devotion; adoration.

3. often Worship Chiefly British Used as a form of address for magistrates, mayors, and certain other dignitaries: Your Worship.

v.wor·shiped or wor·shipped, wor·ship·ing or wor·ship·ping, wor·ships

1. To honor and love as a deity.

2. To regard with ardent or adoring esteem or devotion. See Synonyms at revere1.

1. To participate in religious rites of worship.

2. To perform an act of worship.
So tell me Catholics do not worship Saints or Mary and you just lied.

January 12, 2014 at 1:36 pm PST
#8  Karen Elliott - Waxahachie, TEXAS, Texas


January 12, 2014 at 5:03 pm PST
#9  Karen Elliott - Waxahachie, TEXAS, Texas

2 Maccabees 12:39 On the next day, as by that time it had become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kinsmen in the sepulchres of their fathers. 40 Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. 41 So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; 42 and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. 43 He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. 44 For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 45 But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.
Seems to me these men died in the mortal sin of idolitry...
How then does this support PURGATORY? Doesn't mortal sin send people to hell?

January 13, 2014 at 7:17 am PST
#10  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Staff

Most likely, keeping these little amulets under their cloaks was more akin to the superstition of a baseball player keeping a rabbit's foot in his pocket than it would be to the mortal sin of idolatry. But even if these men did commit some that was grave matter, "[God] alone know the hearts of the children of men" (II Chr. 6:30). God alone knows the level of each man's culpability, so God alone knows whether that level of culpability was actually mortal. Moreover, some of these could have repented before they died. However you slice it, we Catholics (and evidently the Jews as well) believe that we always pray for folks who have died no matter what the outward appearance may be because God's grace can penetrate the darkness, no matter how dark it may be, and bring repentance where there needs to be repentance, and healing where healing is possible.

January 18, 2014 at 8:28 am PST
#11  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

I am a bit confused as to what a Protestant believes is a "graven image." Does this mean we as Catholics can not portray Christ in any pictures or statues? Is it false worship if we do? I would especially like to hear a brief answer from a Protestant minister or any Protestant who is familar with and may be able to answer this question.

March 2, 2014 at 6:49 am PST
#12  Rev Jason Frazier - Katy, Texas

Christopher, I am a Protestant minister, but I can't say I speak for all of them. Here is my response: By "graven image," I interpret that to mean a statue, sculpture, relief, or any physical representation of something that we pray towards.

God did not allow the golden calf because it was something created that was being worshipped. Yet He did allow the Ark of the Covenant, however, because the Ark was not being worshipped; it only served as a representation of His presence.

Protestants generally prohibit statues of animals, saints or Christ in their churches (especially ones that become objects where people would kneel & pray) because we believe the Scripture prohibits this practice. This is along the same vein as not knowing how to accurately pronounce God's covenant name YHWH because the Jewish Rabbis believed if people wrote the name of God, they would worship that name & thus be worshipping a "graven image."

April 17, 2014 at 11:59 am PST
#13  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Staff

Hello Rev. Jason,
Your own words betray the contradiction in Protestant theology. "God did not allow the golden calf because it was something created that was being worshipped. Yet He did allow the Ark of the Covenant, however, because the Ark was not being worshipped; it only served as a representation of His presence."

That is good. The key difference being the "worship" part. But then you contradict yourself and say:

"Protestants generally prohibit statues of animals, saints or Christ in their churches (especially ones that become objects where people would kneel & pray) because we believe the Scripture prohibits this practice."

You just said the Scripture does not prohibit this practice because we have the example of the Ark of the Covenant.

Moreover, no Catholic prays to a statue. We pray only to God or to the saint represented. And we adore (or worship) God and God alone. We honor the saints? Why? Because these "only serve as a representation" of God, or of the saint, to use your words.

Scripture condemns idolatry; not having "a statue, sculpture, relief, or any physical representation of something (someone) we pray towards."

April 17, 2014 at 6:20 pm PST

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