Did Moses Copy Hammurabi’s 10 Commandments?

A friend of mine let me know about this news item at Signature Books.  Apparently, one of their authors (David Wright) has a new book published by Oxford University Press.  For those of you who don’t know, Oxford is known as a pretty tough place to publish.  They have pretty high scholarly standards, so getting published there lends one some great credibility.  So, the original press release at Signature stated that the Ten Commandments were plagiarized from Hammurabi.  The old quote from the site is below.  However, David Wright brought to my attention a correction in the press release.  I will show both of them.

Here’s the original Press Release.

In his book, Wright demonstrates that the Ten Commandments and related covenants in Exodus 20-23 were plagiarized from the Laws of Hammurabi, an ancient Babylonian text, and were copied much later than the time of Moses–rather from the time of the Babylonian exile in 740-640 BCE. “The study offers significant new evidence demonstrating that a model of literary dependence is the only viable explanation for the work. … This analysis shows that the Covenant Code is primarily a creative academic work rather than a repository of laws practiced by Israelites or Judeans over the course of their history … and explores how this may relate to the development of the Pentateuch as a whole.”

Now, here is the corrected release,

In his book, Wright demonstrates that the Covenant Code of Exodus 20-23, which is part of the revelation of Mt. Sinai , was in effect borrowed from the Laws of Hammurabi, an ancient Babylonian text. From literary clues, Wright has been able to determine that the code was copied into Israelite records during the Babylonian exile of 740-640 BCE, long after the time of Moses. “The study offers significant new evidence demonstrating that a model of literary dependence is the only viable explanation for the work. … This analysis shows that the Covenant Code is primarily a creative academic work rather than a repository of laws practiced by Israelites or Judeans over the course of their history … and explores how this may relate to the development of the Pentateuch as a whole.”

So some of you may dismiss Wright–certainly he doesn’t represent Mormon thought, right?  Well, let’s check his credentials.

  1. Wright formerly taught at Brigham Young University.  He was an Assistant Professor of Asian and Near Eastern Languages.
  2. Wright is a Professor of Bible and Ancient Near East Studies at Brandeis University.
  3. Wright is also a contributor to American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon and New Approaches to the Book of Mormon .

I haven’t read the book, but what are your initials reactions?


34 comments on “Did Moses Copy Hammurabi’s 10 Commandments?

  1. Signature has modified its description sent out in an email at my request and now appears correct at http://www.signaturebooks.com/news.htm. It is not the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) but the Covenant Code (Exodus 20:23-23:19) that borrows from the Laws of Hammurabi. To describe this as “plagiarism” is anachronistic in my view. See the description at http://www.us.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/ReligionTheology/Judaism/?view=usa&view=usa&ci=9780195304756

  2. David, WELCOME!!!

    I certainly didn’t expect you to drop by. Thanks for the corrections. I updated the post above.

    Even with the toned-down press release, I think there are bound to be some people who take issue with this. Some people will be bothered to see man’s hand in Exodus 20-23. How would you respond to such people?

    Also, I just did a post on the Documentary Hypothesis. How does your book fit with this theory?

  3. A documentary hypothesis (and I use the indefinite article “a” and small “d” and “h” intentionally), which involves four main sources (E = Elohist, J = Yahwist, D = Deuteronomic/Deuteronomy, and P = Priestly) is the best way of explaining the development of the Pentateuch. It is true that academic scholarship in the last several decades has increasingly moved in the direction of a supplementary model, where a core text has been supplemented and expanded. But these newer approaches still acknowledge the integrity of D as a composition, separate from the first four books of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers), and these approaches also acknowledge the ideological coherence of the P material in these first four books over against non-P. The real debate is about the non-P/D material, whether this should be broken down into sources or documents labeled E and J, or whether we have here a core of tradition/text that has been supplemented. In any case most operate with the general perspective that there are three main Pentateuchal blocks or entities: D, P, and non-D/P (which some still call JE for convenience). The identification of these blocks of textual material is accompanied by the problem of their dating. D is generally dated to the seventh century BCE, and P generally to after 540 BCE (though the P material is actually complex and belongs to the sixth and fifth centuries, some would say even later). The date of JE swims about, depending on the analysis, from before Deuteronomy to later than it or even straddling Deuteronomy, partly due to perceived influences from the school of Deuteronomy in the JE material.

    Now to your question, my book (chapters 12 and 13) puts my conclusions tentatively into the context of a documentary theory, though I try to leave the door open for a variety of models. I specifically argue, however, that the Covenant Code was created before the book of Deuteronomy and, further, that the Covenant Code could not have been created as an independent composition, but had to be written in connection with a version of the narrative found in the book of Exodus (including the call of Moses, description of Israelite servitude in Egypt, the exodus from there, and a revelation at the mountain with accompanying covenant ceremony). Therefore, before Deuteronomy (latter half of the 7th century in my dating), there existed a narrative about national enslavement, exodus, and the revelation of law. (I date the Covenant Code and its narrative to around 700 BCE.) This narrative with the Covenant Code may have something to do with E (we might even call it “proto-E”). In my view, there is reason for identifying J as separate from this and viewing J as later, and even a response to the Covenant Code narrative or the fuller E source.

  4. So, so where did the Code of Hammurabi come from? If that was written a long time (hundreds of years?) after Moses lived and died (or whatever he did), who was plagiarizing whom?

    A friend of mine wrote a book entitled “The Authors of Genesis” and I have a copy somewhere. I’ll see if he has anything to say about any of that.

    This reminds me of the Darwinians, from whom we have heard quite a bit lately, who say that from observations of living things in our world today and the residue of apparently living beings from the past, we can see patterns that are inconsistent with all life having been created by our Father in Heaven. Doesn’t it seem strange that such people presume to know what God would have done if He had created the earth and everything therein, and that He would not have created what we see today? I wonder if they have asked Him about that:-)

    And, similarly, around 1600 or 1700 or so the scientists knew that the orbits of the planets were circular, because the circle is the most perfect geometric form, and if God is perfect, He would have made all the orbits circular. Well, of course as they improved their ability to measure the position of each planet as it moved in its orbit, they found that they needed an extremely complicated combination of many circles to describe the orbit, and finally they gave up and decided there had to be a better way. I’ve never heard that God explained why the orbits are not circular, or why certain birds or animals or insects or trees are whatever way they are, but I’m fine with whatever way He wants them to be. And me, too:-)

  5. David, you said, “my conclusions tentatively into the context of a documentary theory, though I try to leave the door open for a variety of models.”

    I’m not very familiar with other models. Can you enlighten me here?

    Cauthon, as I understand the story of the Exodus, it seems to have taken place anywhere between the 13th and 15th century BC. Hammurabi predates this at 1750 BC, so it seems unlikely that Hammurabi could have borrowed from Moses.

    Additionally, as I understand it, there is little archaeological evidence to suggest Israelites lived prior to 700 or 800 BC, so some people seem to suggest that Moses is a myth. I don’t know where David stands on this, and would love to hear his position. I will say I saw a documentary “Exodus Revealed” which stated that they have discovered a Jewish settlement in the land of Goshen, Egypt which seems to date to the 13th century BC, though I don’t believe there is scientific consensus on this. Perhaps I can watch it again to confirm the date and location.

    I’m not familiar with “Authors of Genesis.” I’d be curious to hear what they say on the subject.

  6. David,

    I must say I’m a little confused here. Exodus 20 is the 10 Commandments. Exodus 20-23 seems to expound on the 10 Commandments, and is the familiar “how to deal with stealing”, idol worship, honoring father and mother, etc. So, I’m not sure why you’re making a distinction between the 10 commandments vs the Covenant Code being borrowed from Hammurabi. After all, the 10 commandments are part of the Covenant Code, aren’t they? Didn’t Hammurabi have similar prohibitions against lying, stealing, adultery, etc? Did Hammurabi have a sabbath day? I suspect Hammurabi was not a monotheist, so perhaps the “no other gods before me” is an “original” idea for Israel, but what about the rest?

    Also, if much of the Covenant Code was essentially borrowed from Hammurabi, does that have any implications as to whether Exodus 20-23 might be man-made, rather than God-made? Do orthodox members seem to have difficulty with such a concept?

  7. I think we are so much better off in understanding the Bible (and the Jaredite portions of the BofM as well) if we accept the idea that things that societies felt connected them to the divine got passed down by oral tradition for centuries, reinterpreted and expanded or dropped in light of subsequent experiences, and only THEN written down in ways that they could be preserved.

    Look at how much our own denominations’ D$C’s have diverged from each other and from the Book of Commandments in considerably less than 200 years.

  8. Yes, there certainly were oral histories, but it seems to me that David is implicating that these oral histories got mixed in with the written code of Hammurabi.

  9. Yes, I think that is exactly what he’s saying, and if he can make his case, I don’t see that it poses a problem. Of course, my lack of seeing a problem may reflect my not understanding the structure of LDS views about the literal roles of the ancient patriarchs.

  10. FireTag, it’s not LDS views per se, but rather Biblical Literalists vs non-Literalists. The LDS church doesn’t have an official position on whether the Bible is inerrent, and must be taken literally. As such, I think some LDS get swayed by the Evangelical movement’s insistence on the Bible being 100% literally true and inerrant. I think if you polled intellectuals vs non-intellectuals, the non-intellectuals (of any denomination) would claim literalism and inerrancy, while the intellectuals wouldn’t. As such, I think David’s claims would upset Evangelicals just as much as Mormon Literalists.

    I guess I think more like you do, though I think the implications in David’s book are a little more surprising to me. I feel like I’ve come to peace with the Documentary Hypothesis, and I’m aware of how paganism crept into the early Christian Church, but it is news to me that Exodus may have been heavily influenced by Hammurabi. I’m definitely gonna have to read this book. David can I get an autographed copy? 😉

  11. OK. I get that. I thought it might have something to do with the Book of Abraham. Hammurabi isn’t the oldest code. There’s one 300 years older that seems to have some connection to Ur, according to the Wiki article on Hammurabi.

  12. So did Hammurabi copy that code? 😉

  13. Thanks for bringing Wright’s new work to our attention. I’ve added it to my wish list.

    For a short primer on ancient legal codes of the Old Testament world and their intersection with Mosaic Law, I recommend James R. Baker’s excellent out-of-print book, Women’s Rights in Old Testament Times, especially pages 11-14. The book is available to read on-line, courtesy of Signature Books, at this link: http://www.signaturebookslibrary.org/old/chapter1.htm#law

  14. Thanks for the link Steven. It looks very interesting.

  15. Is anyone concerned about the dates Mr. Wright is stating for the Pentateuch?

  16. BR: Can you expand what you mean?

  17. Yes, Bishop Rick, I’m not sure what you are talking about. We did say that Hammurabi lived 1750 BC, Moses probably around 1400 BC, and Wright seems right in line with the Pentateuch and Documentary Hypothesis around 700 BC, which is just prior to the BoM time period. Is that what you’re getting at?

  18. Wright dates the Covenant code to 700 BC and D to the 7th century or 699 to 600, but dates P and JE anywhere from 599 to 400. This is problematic.

  19. I’m out of my OT depth here. Teach me some more, if you would.

  20. FT, if Wrights dates are accurate, they would seem to place the completion of the Pentateuch to after Lehi left for the promised land. Do you see why this would be problematic if accurate?

  21. Bishop Rick–that’s very interesting. I hadn’t caught that. I will say that even if we are to accept Wright’s supposition that Deuteronomy dates to the 7th century, and the rest of the Pentateuch to 540 BC (after Lehi left), it is still important to remember that there were several versions of the scriptures (including oral traditions) available back then. I suspect that many things like the 10 Commandments were still well known to Nephi, even if current scholars date them later. I know Wright says in comment #3 above that some scholars date the Pentateuch even later than 540, but I don’t think there is a consensus opinion on dating the Pentateuch. I’m sure other scholars date it earlier.

  22. BR: I see what you’re saying now, but the BofM doesn;t actually QUOTE the Pentateuch. We are making assumptions about what the Brass Plates contained. The BofM QUOTES Isaiah, including some parts which some scholars also say are post-captivity, so it’s a well-recognized problem in a separate, less dramatic form.

    In other words, if Nephi didn’t have what we call the Pentatauch because it didn’t exist yet, why would he notice or care?

  23. FT, We are not making any assumptions. 1 Nephi 5: 11-14 is quite clear what was contained in the brass plates…pentateuch included as well as writings thru the commencement of the reign of King Zedekiah (which started in 597)

  24. Bishop Rick, I agree that this is an important topic to consider. But once again, Deuteronomy 5 has a list of the 10 commandments. Dating from 700 BC, this could have easily been what Abinadi was quoting in Mosiah 12. I tried to compare Exodus 20:1, Deut 5:6, and Mosiah 12:34. None of them are word for word identical, though they’re all very close. Deuteronomy (source D) seems to be a good candidate for the Brass Plates, IMO. I wonder if it is also possible that Deuteronomy could have contained more than we have now (such as the creation, Abraham, etc.) The Brass Plates would be much older than the Dead Sea Scrolls which date to around 100 BC and are the oldest Biblical texts in existence that we have now.

    I can’t recall the Pentateuch being quoted directly in the BoM. I know Isaiah and Matthew seem to be quoted, but not the Pentateuch as far as I can remember. 1 Nephi 5 is interesting, because it seems to imply that Nephi’s Bible was like a modern Bible. I wonder if this might be Joseph attempting to explain a concept that the plates contained the creation and Law of Moses as our modern Bibles do, and perhaps he “inserted” this idea of a Pentateuch when it may or may not have been only Deuteronomy. As I recall, the Dead Sea Scrolls contain all the 5 books of Moses as well. I don’t think it is out of the realm of possibility that the Brass Plates could have contained the entire Pentateuch, especially since it does not appear that scholars even agree whether the Documentary Hypothesis (or hypotheses’–plural–as Wright suggests above) is a perfect theory, or fully explain other problems with the Bible. Daniel Christopher-Smith seems to imply in my other post that there are other issues the Hypothesis doesn’t adequately address, and Lawrence Shiffman seems to dismiss the Hypothesis altogether.

    I guess I subscribe to the notion that the BoM is the most correct book, but I still think that Joseph could have introduced transcription errors, just as any other translator.

  25. BR: You are correct that reference is made to five books of Moses, but we do not know that those 5 books were in the form Wright is suggesting. In fact, you folks have 6 books of Moses, so there is a lot of room for reformatting what gets to us after the captivity, even if Wright’s dating is correct.

  26. The thing that concerns me the most is that a relative nobody (Laban is not mentioned outside the BoM) has the only known copy of OT documents in the world, some of them that probably didn’t even exist yet. (up to the reign of King Zedekiah). And they were even inscribed on Brass plates. This is an incredible piece of property for such an unimportant person. If he had the only compilation in existence (most historians believe Ezra compiled the documents first) then why didn’t its disappearance, along with its owner’s death, cause a stir?

    It is this type of thing that causes me the most trouble.

  27. Those are good points, BR. Before I can decide how good, I’ll have to think about exactly how many people from Judah ARE mentioned in the Bible from that era. It implies that Laban must have been among an elite (Lehi didn’t have a copy). So it ought to be possible to estimate how common they could have been to have only one or two copies to survive long enough for incorporation into the OT, and none to survive to the present.

  28. Bishop Rick,

    There are few artifacts of any kind dating back to 600 BC from Israel, so I don’t think it should be very surprising that Laban’s plates have not been found. We still haven’t found the Ark of the Covenant (two possible locations: a US warehouse–Indiana Jones style, or a temple on Ethiopia, which I need to do a post on someday–ancient claim holds that Solomon’s wife–Queen of Sheba–and their son took it to Ethiopia for safe keeping following the destruction of Israel and Judah.)

    Pompei was once thought to be a myth, until it was discovered. Many civilizations in Eqpyt have come and gone without a trace. Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.

    I will say that many metal plates have been found in the Old World, so there is a precedent for ancient civilizations to preserve important records on metal plates. The important person David has disputed authenticity, and there is no archaeological evidence that the famous Solomon ever existed. We have no real evidence of anyone existing in Israel from 600 BC, famous or not, so I’m not very surprised that famous/infamous/anonymous Laban hasn’t been discovered. There is scant evidence of Biblical characters Samson and Jezebel, but such evidence is more conjecture than real evidence.

    I mentioned the Dead Sea Scrolls earlier. Prior to their discovery, the oldest Biblical texts we had dated to about 1000 AD, so the Dead Sea Scrolls moved Biblical literature back 1100 years. I also posted recently on the Gospel of Judas. Scholars have known of its existence because a 3rd century priest named St Ireneaus mentioned it as an especially dubious heresy, yet it was not discovered until the 1970’s (on the black market), and not translated until 2 years ago–a span of over 1600 years.

  29. I want to post a weblink to a free Old Testament class offered via podcast/streaming video/text found at http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/introduction-to-the-old-testament-hebrew-bible/

    It is a very academic approach to the Bible. I’ve listed to the first class and a half and found their approach wildly different from Sunday School approaches to the Bible. Some of the things that caught my attention: the Bible never claimed to be a moral book (unlike what you hear in Sunday School.)

  30. MH – I do not mean to infer that lack of evidence is evidence of lack. I also understand the lack of non-biblical mention of persons (circa 600 BC) is more the standard than exception. I don’t have a problem with that. In my world view, the existence of the brass plates would have been quite significant. I agree that the documents described in 1 Nephi 5 merit being inscribed onto metal plates. Precedence is not needed here. That said, it is certainly not common to put bible text onto metal. I am not aware of any other instance. Being written in Hebrew, they would have been relatively massive to contain writings thru King Zedekiah. Too massive and impractical to be used in regularly scheduled readings/study sessions IMO. Non-metalic scrolls would have been far more practical.

  31. Maybe the Assyrians found copies from the North (MH has some posts on the difference between possible scriptural stories from Israel and from Judah) more valuable as brass and their usual destruction was done as part of their policy of breaking apart subject nations. You are certainly right that they would be more ceremonial than practical.

  32. Bishop Rick,

    I know there is a Dead Sea Scroll written in copper. It’s written in Hebrew, and is a different in a few ways. First of all, it was a metal scroll, rather than a flat plate (like the BoM). Scientists couldn’t unroll the copper because it was so fragile, so they cut them into flat pieces to view them. Secondly, even though it was found with biblical scrolls, it is not religious writing either–it is some sort of treasure map to other treasures, though the landmarks have disappeared. These landmarks are obscure, written as if the reader would have an intimate knowledge of obscure references — e.g., “In the irrigation cistern(?) of the Shaveh, in the outlet that is in it, is buried at eleven cubits: 70 talents of silver”. You can see more at this Wikipedia reference, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copper_Scroll

    I think it is important to remember, as FireTag says, if there were gold of any kind, conquering armies such as the Assyrians would have surely melted them down as war spoils, not caring one bit about Hebrew religious treasures.

  33. It isn’t just gold — it’s bulk metal of any kind that’s valuable in that era.

  34. Bishop Ric if I might hop in here I don’t think we have to assume that the “5 books of Moses” found in 1Ne 5 are the same as our current version of the 5 books of Moses. The concept of a collected set of scriptures in a single book hadn’t yet become current and we needn’t assume that the collection of scriptures in the Brass Plates were the same as the collection of scriptures we now see in the OT.

    And on the topic of Laban, the logic needs to be considered that Lehi and therefore Laban were from the tribe of Joseph, from the kingdom of Israel which had been erased by the Assyrians and their grandparents or so would have been refugees down to Judah and may well have brought with them what amounted to a very valuable set of documents BUT since they were not of the tribe of Judah they may well not have had that much status and importance. All conjecture I admit.

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