Delving Into the Decalogue

Scholar Is Studying Ten Commandments

Posted June 29, 2007 at 5:15pm

In 1923, when silent films were still commonplace and color was rare and revolutionary, his image was captured by Theodore Roberts, the late “Grand Duke of Hollywood.”

Later, during the Eisenhower era, he was portrayed, perhaps most famously, by the infamous Charlton Heston.

Last year, his story was told on the silver screen by Val Kilmer. [IMGCAP(1)]

America and, in corollary, Hollywood have long been fascinated with the biblical story of Moses and the Ten Commandments. It’s a preoccupation that not only spurs theatrical releases but also catalyses momentous social and political debates.

“Every medium you can think of has wrestled with the Ten Commandments; politics is just one,” said Jenna Weissman Joselit.

Joselit, a history professor at Princeton University, currently is analyzing the history and impact of the Ten Commandments in U.S culture as a visiting scholar at the Library of Congress’ John W. Kluge Center.

Comparing her work to a treasure hunt, Joselit is plying through artifacts at the Library’s vast and various departments in an effort to trace the many forms in which the Ten Commandments have appeared in U.S. culture as well as document the controversy they often create.

“I am in full Sherlock Holmes mode,” she said. “Every day I follow a trail of clues, and I never know where it is going to take me.”

It is a quest that she has followed to collections as different as architecture, rare books and the hebraic section of the Library of Congress.

And she visibly cherishes her discoveries, excitedly unfurling an 1890 pamphlet for a play about Moses hosted by the Order of Cincinnati while speaking with reverence for the decalogue’s manifestations in the stained glass windows and needlepoints she has found.

“In my research I’ve found the Ten Commandments of how to grow your vegetables, Ten Commandments of husband and wife,” she said, while also noting the Vatican recently issued a decalogue on driving. “Every single form of human behavior seems to be summed up by the Ten Commandments.”

And while they are mainly seen as a religious symbols today, the Ten Commandments (which are recognized in both Jewish and Christian religions) actually have their roots in more secular tradition, noted the Rev. Gasper Lo Biondo, director of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

“The meaning of the Ten Commandments was that it was a covenant between Yaweh [God] and the people of Israel,” he said, noting that during the late Bronze Age — when the Ten Commandments were believed to be brought down from Mount Sinai — such contracts were common. “At that time there were covenant relationships between rulers and kings and the people that were under them.”

The Ten Commandments are simply a religious reflection of those.

He noted the first commandment (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me”) is comparable to an allegiance requirement common among rulers and governments.

Yet despite this origin, controversy over the commandments, and religion in general, has flared up. And not just as of late.

Joselit said she had found references to controversies over the symbol punctuating U.S. history, dating back at least to the mid-1800s.

“It’s episodic,” she said. “It’s not like every year this thing comes up.”

And when conflict does occur, it isn’t always over the same issues.

In 1859, for example, there was a debate over which version of the commandments would be displayed, while in 1926, a “clamor” (to quote the original New York Times story) from people of all faiths arose over a proposal to read the commandments at least once a week in New York’s public schools.

She postulated that perhaps today the Ten Commandments act for some as more of a symbol of patriotism, embodying such oft-cited values as freedom.

When asked how she felt the controversy would continue to play out she responded jovially, “As a historian I am terrible at predicting the future, but I am a whiz at predicting the past.”

Eventually, she said she hopes to incorporate the history she gathered at the Library and from other sources (she encouraged the public to e-mail her with Ten Commandments stories at jjos@loc.gov) into a book on the subject. Like other scholars with the center, Joselit will give a speech on her topic before she leaves in September.

Joselit was invited to the Kluge Center as one of many different scholars researching topics ranging from post-war absurdist fiction to Republicanism in Latin America, said Mary Lou Reker, special assistant to the director in the Office of Scholarly Programs.

“Not only is the Kluge Center and the Office of Scholarly Programs a place for scholarly work,” Reker said, “it is also a place where the Library can match that scholarly work to political leaders.”