Someone on Facebook posted recently that the Ten Commandments are nothing but a rip-off from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Of course, these kinds of claims always make me suspicious since so many of them are very problematic. But I like to check these things out and I just happened to have a copy of the Book of the Dead at home (don’t ask).

And I did, in fact, find the relevant passage in The Book of the Dead: The Hieroglyphic Transcript and Translation into English of the Papyrus of Ani (Gramercy Books: New York, 1960).

The Biblical Ten Commandments: a refresher

In total, the Ten Commandments are listed three times in the Old Testament. Two of the versions, Exodus 20:3-17 and Deuteronomy 5:4-21, go as follows:

  1. No other gods before God
  2. No graven images
  3. No taking God’s name in vain
  4. Keep the Sabbath
  5. Honour your parents
  6. No murder
  7. No adultery
  8. No stealing
  9. No false witness against a neighbour
  10. No coveting your neighbour’s possessions

There’s a third version over in Exodus 34:15-26 that’s quite different:

  1. Worship no other gods
  2. Make no idols
  3. Keep the Passover
  4. All first born belong to God
  5. Keep the Sabbath
  6. Keep the feasts of weeks, of the fruits and wheat harvests, and of ingathering
  7. No blood sacrifice should be made along with leavened bread
  8. Don’t keep leftovers from Passover
  9. The first fruits from the ground should be given to God
  10. Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk

Clearly, the Exodus 34 commandments are much more cultic than moral in focus, so they aren’t really applicable in this discussion.

The Book of the Dead

The Book of the Dead tradition originates with the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts, writing that would have been carved and painted onto the walls and coffins in a burial chamber, dating as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE. Around 1800 BCE, these had morphed into the Book of Coming Forth by Day, what we call the Book of the Dead, and was painted on papyrus instead. The text contains a number of spells intended to assist the deceased on their way to the afterlife.

Though there is no canonical Book of the Dead and each one seems to have been unique to the particular deceased, the copies we have do seem to follow a common pattern described by Paul Barguet. You can read more about that over at Wikipedia.

In the Papyrus of Ani, Spell/Chapter 125 describes the deceased’s judgement before Ma’at, goddess of justice, in which the deceased must be able to make the following “negative confessions,” each addressed to a particular god (you can follow along on Wikipedia):

  1. I have not committed sin.
  2. I have not committed robbery with violence.
  3. I have not stolen.
  4. I have not slain men and women.
  5. I have not stolen grain.
  6. I have not purloined offerings.
  7. I have not stolen the property of the god.
  8. I have not uttered lies.
  9. I have not carried away food.
  10. I have not uttered curses.
  11. I have not committed adultery, I have not lain with men.
  12. I have made none to weep.
  13. I have not eaten the heart [i.e I have not grieved uselessly, or felt remorse].
  14. I have not attacked any man.
  15. I am not a man of deceit.
  16. I have not stolen cultivated land.
  17. I have not been an eavesdropper.
  18. I have slandered [no man].
  19. I have not been angry without just cause.
  20. I have not debauched the wife of any man.
  21. I have not debauched the wife of [any] man. (repeats the previous affirmation but addressed to a different god).
  22. I have not polluted myself.
  23. I have terrorised none.
  24. I have not transgressed [the Law].
  25. I have not been wroth.
  26. I have not shut my ears to the words of truth.
  27. I have not blasphemed.
  28. I am not a man of violence.
  29. I am not a stirrer up of strife (or a disturber of the peace).
  30. I have not acted (or judged) with undue haste.
  31. I have not pried into matters.
  32. I have not multiplied my words in speaking.
  33. I have wronged none, I have done no evil.
  34. I have not worked witchcraft against the King (or blasphemed against the King).
  35. I have never stopped [the flow of] water.
  36. I have never raised my voice (spoken arrogantly, or in anger).
  37. I have not cursed (or blasphemed) God.
  38. I have not acted with evil rage.
  39. I have not stolen the bread of the gods.
  40. I have not carried away the khenfu cakes from the Spirits of the dead.
  41. I have not snatched away the bread of the child, nor treated with contempt the god of my city.
  42. I have not slain the cattle belonging to the god.

Similarities and differences

I’ve organized the negative confessions into the Exod. 20 / Deut. 5 version of the Ten Commandments as follows:

  1. No other gods before God: Given that the Ancient Egyptians were (mostly) polytheistic, it makes sense that this commandment would have no parallel.
  2. No graven images: Again, cultural differences mean that this commandment would make absolutely no sense in an Ancient Egyptian context.
  3. No taking God’s name in vain: I’ve treated this as a general “no blaspheming” commandment and included negative confessions #27, #37, and the second half of #41.
  4. Keep the Sabbath: I’m not seeing parallels for the Sabbath in the negative confessions. I think this one can be chalked up to cultural differences as well.
  5. Honour your parents: There’s really nothing specifically about honouring one’s parents in the negative confessions.
  6. No murder: This one is covered by #4.
  7. No adultery: Covered by #11 (which also covers homosexuality specifically, something not addressed in the Ten Commandments).
  8. No stealing: Quite a few of the negative confessions address stealing, and they can be roughly divided as follows:
    1. Stealing from others: #2, #3, #5, #9, #16, and the first half of #41.
    2. Stealing from the gods or the spirits of the dead: #6, #7, #39, #40, and #42.
  9. No false witness against a neighbour: I’ve subdivided these as follows:
    1. Lying: #8, #15, #18, and possibly #32.
    2. Uttered curses: #10.
    3. Other improper speech (such as speaking arrogantly or with a raised voice): #36.
  10. No coveting your neighbour’s possessions: Coveting is not specifically covered in the negative confessions, but I would still include #20 and #21 in this category.

Of the remaining negative confessions, I think that they can best be organized as follows:

  • Don’t sin or make yourself impure: #1, #22, and #24.
  • Don’t cause harm to others (not covered by the specific categories of commandments 5-10): #12, #14, #23, #28, #29, and #33. #34 also belongs, though it refers to not causing harm to a specific individual (the king).
  • Regarding improper emotion: #13, #19, #25, #30, and #38.
  • Mind your own beeswax: #17 and #31.
  • Miscellaneous:
    • Fail to listen to the truth: #26.
    • Stop the flow of water: #35.

Conclusion

It does indeed seem that most of the Ten Commandments have parallels in the negative confessions of the Book of the Dead. As for whether the Ancient Hebrews actually stole their moral code from the Ancient Egyptians, that’s a much more difficult case to make.

The Mediterranean and Near East regions saw the writing of several such codes of law (which, like the Ten Commandments, mingled moral, cultic, and political concerns). Here’s a few for your perusal:

Trying to argue that the Ancient Hebrews stole their code specifically from another culture is far more difficult to argue, I think, than simply that the Ancient Hebrews were part of a broader cultural movement in the region.