As part of his discussion of John Adams’ beliefs regarding the Bible, Frazer referenced a letter in which Adams mentioned an alternate version of the Ten Commandments. According to Frazer:
In a discussion of an alternative set of the Ten Commandments, Adams suggested that [the] biblical record was unreliable—that “authentic copies” of the original were lost.
Frazer was referring to a letter written from Adams to Jefferson on November 14, 1816, and it is very interesting that Frazer referenced this letter and only this letter to prove his point. Adams made at least six references to the Ten Commandments in his letters plus an additional three references to the Decalogue. Out of these nine letters, Frazer chose the one, single letter that comes anywhere close to supporting his thesis and presented in complete isolation of all the others.
Before we discuss the letter that Frazer cited, let’s take a moment to consider the other eight times that Adams referenced the Ten Commandments. Here is a list of those eight letters in chronological order:
To the Inhabitants of Massachusetts-Bay – Feb. 27, 1775
From these eight letters, we can see that Adams had a very high opinion of the Ten Commandments. In fact, Adams’ view was that:
Is it any wonder that Frazer failed to mention these other letters? Had he allowed his readers to see all of the evidence, it would have been laughable for him to ask them to accept that Adams believed the biblical record of the Ten Commandments to be unreliable and that “authentic copies” of the Ten Commandments had been lost. Adams held the Ten Commandments along with the Sermon on the Mount in greater esteem than any other collection of writings in the world. To claim that he doubted their validity is just plain ridiculous.
So what exactly did Adams say in this letter that Frazer mentioned but never quoted? Here is the statement about the Ten Commandments that Adams made in a letter to Thomas Jefferson on Nov. 14, 1813:
Among all your researches in Hebrew History and Controversy have you ever met a book, the design of which is to prove, that the ten Commandments, as We have them in our Catechisms and hung up in our Churches, were not the Ten Commandments written by the Finger of God upon tables, delivered to Moses on mount Sinai and broken by him in a passion with Aaron for his golden calf, nor those afterwards engraved by him on Tables of Stone; but a very different Sett of Commandments?
In this letter, Adams was asking Jefferson if he had ever read a book written by J. W. Goethe and entitled: Zwo wichtige bisher unerörterte biblische Fragen which basically translates as: Two important biblical questions, unprecedented up to now. Goethe’s book has never been translated into English in its entirety, but Bernard Levinson has provided a partial translation along with his analysis of Goethe’s theory. Levinson summarized Goethe’s claims as follows:
Despite the text’s own claims, the covenant renewal of Ex 34,11–26 – whose focus is the Stamm, with its so very partikular ritual law – must actually have constituted the original of the covenant and not merely its inconsistent repetition. On that basis, Goethe reconstructs the "Decalogue" of ten laws in Ex 34,11–26 which, he asserts, were originally inscribed on the tablets of the covenant. Only in the later chaos of the Babylonian exile, as the literary materials of the Pentateuch were being assembled and traditions forgotten, did the fateful error occur that led to the ethical Decalogue’s (Ex 20) being confused with the ritual text (Ex 34) that was properly the Jewish covenant.
From Levinson’s summary and translation, it is evident that Adams’ entire statement on the Ten Commandments was a recounting of Goethe’s Ritual Decalogue theory. The alternate list of ten commandments was from Goethe. The idea that the tables were written to remind the Jews of their history is from Goethe. The idea that authentic copies were rare and that the Jews were incapable of preserving the memory of them is from Goethe. And the idea that the “error” in identifying the Ten Commandments occurred during the Babylonian captivity is also from Goethe. Everything that Adams said about the Ten Commandments in this letter can be found in Goethe’s book. It is highly likely, therefore, that Adams was merely informing Jefferson of Goethe’s arguments rather than voicing his own opinion.
Frazer would have us to believe that the same John Adams who held the Ten Commandments in higher esteem than all human philosophy and theology also thought that the Ten Commandments were fraudulent substitutes for the real Decalogue. As much as Frazer despises rationalism, surely he cannot expect us to be so irrational as to accept his claim unless Adams’ actual view of the Ten Commandments is safely hidden from our consideration. But let’s give Frazer the greatest benefit of the doubt and assume that Adams did go through a brief period of time in which he doubted the validity of the Ten Commandments. If such a period actually occurred, it would have to have been sometime between 1810 and 1816. If we take this view, then we would have to assume that, for a period of six years, Adams investigated the validity of the Ten Commandments and concluded that they were so demonstrably valid that they should be the standard by which all human reasoning was measured.
This is the most that can be reasonably drawn from Adams’ 1813 letter, but what of it? Are we to conclude as Frazer does that no man can be a Christian if he uses logic and reasoning to test the claims of the Bible? Of course not! Such a conclusion would itself be a violation of Scripture. The Bible tells us to test all things (I Thess 5:21). God praises those who are skeptical both of true as well as of false prophets (Acts 17:11, Rev 2:2). And He commands us to put even supernatural revelation to the test (I John 4:1). If Frazer is correct in his view of Adams’ 1813 letter, then Adams’ subsequent letters of 1816 prove that Adams followed the proper biblical method in order to obtain a firm conviction that the Ten Commandments were direct revelation from God.
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"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)