Religion Today

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Ten Commandments: A Christian Tale

From the end of World War II to the mid-1960s, religious films reflecting a Christian outlook and emphasizing biblical or early Christian themes constituted a popular American film genre. There were biblical romances, such as “David and Bathsheba” and “The Story of Ruth,” as well as Christians in Rome films, such as “The Robe” and “Demetrius and the Gladiators.” By 1961, a string of Jesus films had begun. But the most popular of all was “The Ten Commandments,” which appeared in 1956.

It is surprising that this story of God bringing the Israelites out of Egypt to give them the “law” was such a hit with American Christians, for the law is an anathema to Christian theology. Although Jesus was careful to indicate he did not aim to “tear down” the law, but to “fulfill it,” the early missionary Paul thought the opposite. In his Letter to the Romans, he spent the first eight chapters arguing that the “law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2) prevented salvation and that Jesus freed Christians from bondage to the law.

To overcome this problem, film director Cecil B. DeMille had to Christianize the tale. Borrowing from the Puritans and from earlier Christian ideas about Moses, he made the entire story into a foreshadowing of Christianity. Robert Torry and I discuss this in our new book, “Film and Religion: An Introduction,” and show that DeMille used two main approaches to accomplish this.

First, “The Ten Commandments” turned Moses into a forerunner of Christ by assigning him events from Jesus’ life. Moses’ birth shows this clearly. While the biblical story of the baby Moses being found by Pharaoh’s daughter in a basket floating in the Nile gives him a special upbringing in the palace, the film provides Moses with the signs of a special birth like Jesus.

A star appears to signal his birth and when the pharaoh consults his wise men, they tell him that it indicates the fulfillment of a prophecy of a deliverer for the Hebrews. Like King Herod, Pharaoh then orders the killing by sword of all the newborn male babies. Years of rumors followed concerning a deliverer for the Hebrews, just as Jesus’ lifetime was filled with rumors of a messiah who would deliver his people from the Romans.

When he grows up, Moses discovers his Hebrew origins and goes out among them. After Moses killed an overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave, the Bible story has Moses running away for fear of discovery. The film, by contrast, adds a Jesus-like trial in which he is accused of being the deliverer who will destroy Egyptian society by freeing the slaves. When Pharaoh seeks to pardon him, Moses answers the king in a way that forces his punishment, as Jesus did in his trial before Pilate.

Second, the law itself undergoes the most important transformation in “The Ten Commandments.” The film does not present Paul’s idea of the law that enslaves humankind, but a law that sets people free from tyranny.

Most important, it is a law written on people’s minds and hearts, as the film repeatedly indicates. At the film’s start, Moses is described as “a man upon whose mind and heart would be written God’s law.” Later, Moses tells Joshua that the Israelites will go to Mt. Sinai where God will “write his commandments in our minds and upon our hearts forever.”

God’s interview with Moses at the burning bush makes clear this characterization of the law refers to Christianity. This scene is quite faithful to the biblical text, with nearly all dialogue coming from the Old Testament Exodus story. But God tells Moses his ultimate intentions with a sentence taken from the New Testament, “I will put my laws into (the Israelites’) mind and write them in their hearts.”

This line from Hebrews 8:10 cites the prophet Jeremiah (31:33) predicting a “new covenant” which will come, and Hebrews interprets this covenant as the one established by Christ. So, “The Ten Commandments” uses this key phrase to present the giving of the law to Moses and the Israelites as a spiritual encounter akin to the inner, spiritual change of each individual in Christianity, and not a mere legal contract.

“The Ten Commandments” film thus presents the story about the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and their receiving of the law as a story that more than foreshadows Christianity; they become a type of Christian, guided to a relationship with God by a Christ-like savior, Moses, and linked to God through spirit of the law written on their hearts and minds.

Flesher’s and Torry’s book, “Film and Religion: An Introduction,” is published by Abingdon Press (2007) and is available from the UW Bookstore, and local and online bookstores.


  • Mr. Flesher

    In your column, The Ten Commandments: A Christian Tale printed last Sunday in the Casper Tribune. You wrote, Jesus said he came to fulfill “the law” and not to tear down “the law.” Then you wrote, Paul thought and taught differently, which sounds like a Biblical contradiction.
    In those days, Hebrew leaders had changed God’s biblical law to mean something other then intended. Jesus came to fulfill “The Law”, God’s Law, which clashed with Hebrew laws.
    A couple of examples: Hebrew leaders took a woman to Jesus for him to accuse of breaking “the law”. Jesus refused and gave his famous answer, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. Jesus healed people, sometimes on the Sabbath, and broke Hebrew traditional “Law” against working on the Sabbath. I could go on and on how Jesus clashed with Hebrew “Laws”.
    Paul was trying to get the same message across to Jewish Christians raised on traditional Hebrew “Law”. He taught they were free from Hebrew ‘custom made’ transition of God’s original laws. He taught Christian Gentiles not to worry about the Hebrew “Law” of circumcision.
    My point is; Paul is teaching in Romans and other books the same message Jesus taught. The Bible was compiled over hundreds of years by sixty some authors from various walks of life without contradiction. It is a true miracle, a difficult study, and so easy to mis-interpret.
    Gene Peterson

    By Anonymous Gene Peterson, at 8/20/2007  

  • Dear Mr. Peterson,
    You are certainly correct that Jesus challenged numerous laws and interpretations of laws. There were several Jewish groups in Judea and Galilee in the first century who were doing that. Just because each used the rhetoric of "the Law" does not mean they held the same concept of what that meant. But check out Matthew 5:17-20, where Jesus claims to fulfill the Law rather than relax or abolish it.

    Was Jesus a Torah-true Jew? Not in any later sense of that notion. See Jacob Neusner's _A Rabbi Talks with Jesus_ (2000). It is also worth checking Pope Benedict's debate with Neusner on this subject. He wants to see Jesus as much more closely aligned with the Torah (i.e., Law). _Jesus of Nazareth_ (2007).

    By contrast, Paul is not teaching the same message that Jesus taught. He is not even writing to the Jewish Christians. His letters are to Greek Christians and are part of the debate about whether Christianity is simply a strand of Judaism or whether it is an independent religion--a hot topic in the first few decades of the religion. Paul argued it was not (and hence gentiles did not have to be circumcized) against the members of the original Jewish church, such as its leader James Jesus' brother. Paul won that debate.

    Jesus, by comparison, focused almost exclusively on Jews, as recorded in the gospels. When he talked to the Samaritan woman--an almost Jew--it was seen as highly daring. Similarly, Peter had to be taught by God, according to the book of Acts, that the Christian message could be given to non-Jews; it was not immediately obvious from Jesus' own teachings.

    The literature on biblical contradictions goes back for centuries, both pointing them out and arguing that they are not actually contradictions. I certainly don't think I could add anything new to it.

    Dr. Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 8/21/2007  

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