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
There are certain prejudices among the people, so strong, as to be irresistible. Reasoning is vain, and opposition idle. For example, there are certain popular maxims and precepts, call’d the ten commandments. Suppose a number of fine gentlemen, superior to the prejudices of education, should discover that these were made for the common people, and are too illiberal for gentlemen of refined taste to observe, and accordingly should engage in secret confidential correspondences to procure an act of parliament, to abolish the whole decalogue, or to exempt them from all obligation to observe it; if they should succeed, and their letters be detected, such is the force of prejudice, and deep habits among the lower sort of people, that it is much to be questioned, whether those refined genius’s would be allowed to enjoy themselves in the latitude of their sentiments. I once knew a man, who had studied Jacob Beckman and other mystic’s, until he conscienciously thought the millennium commenced, and all human authority at an end: that the saints only had a right to property; and to take from sinners any thing they wanted. In this persuasion, he very honestly stole a horse. Mankind pitied the poor man’s infirmity, but thought it however their duty to confine him that he might steal no more.
The freedom of thinking was never yet extended in any country so far as the utter subversion of all religion and morality; nor as the abolition of the laws and constitution of the country.
To Benjamin Stoddert – May 8, 1799
The combination of a very few ideas has been sufficient to excite apprehensions that the West India islands would soon become a scene of pyracy. The dissolution of all principles, of morals, government & religion the formed repeal of the ten commandments by which it is become as lawful to covet, steal, kill as it is to profane the sabbath or commit adultery—the proclamation of liberty to the negroes in the West India islands & the policy of one or more nations of Europe to erect predatory powers in the West Indies to be employed against the United States, as the Barbary powers in Europe have long been supported & encouraged, against the small maratime states, have long ago raised suspicions & forebodings, that the most desperate wretches in Europe would be allured to the islands and give direction to the mass of African bones & sinews which is now in liberty and idleness or trained to military discipline.
To Benjamin Rush – June 23, 1807
The Allusion might be to his reflections on the Slave Trade: and although there is not a Word that he Says upon that Subject which I did not read with delight, I must acknowledge that I cannot concur in his Conclusions. That the Calamities of Europe, are a punishment for her Vices I have not doubt. But She has Sinned against the whole Decalogue and the Crimes of Sodom might be assigned as the procuring Cause of the Anger of heaven as well as the Slave Trade.
To William Cunningham – Jan. 16, 1810
The Correspondence and Conversations which have passed between Us have been under the confidential Seal of Secrecy and Friendship. Any Violation of it will be a breach of Honor and plighted Faith. I Shall never release you from it; if it were in my Power: but it is not. After all the Permission that I could give, your Conscience ought to restrain you. I could as well release you from your Obligations of Obedience to the Decalogue.
To Francois Van der Kemp – Sept. 16, 1816
God bless my Country.! I Believe in the ten Commandments, and the Sermon on the Mount!
To Thomas Jefferson – Sept. 30, 1816
And if you will agree with me, We will issue our Bull, and enjoin upon all these Gentlemen to be Silent, till they can tell Us, What Matter is and What Spirit is! And in the mean time to observe the Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.
To Thomas Jefferson – Nov. 4, 1816
The Ten Commandments and The Sermon on the Mount contain my Religion.
To John Quincy Adams – Nov. 13, 1816
Philosophy and Theology must Submit to the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount
From these eight letters, we can see that Adams had a very high opinion of the Ten Commandments. In fact, Adams’ view was that:
- The Ten Commandments would always be enforced by both God and man.
- No man can ever be released from his obligation to the Ten Commandments.
- The Ten Commandments formed part of the core of his religious beliefs.
- The Ten Commandments are superior in authority than all philosophy and theology.
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?
There is such a book by J. W. Goethens Schristen. Berlin 1775–1779. I wish to See this Book.
you will See the Subject and perceive the question in Exodus 20. 1–17. 22–28. chapter 24. 3 &c ch. 24. 12. ch. 25. 31 ch. 31. 18. ch. 31. 19. ch. 34. 1. ch. 34. 10 &c.
I will make a Covenant with all this People. Observe that which I command this day.
Thou Shall not adore any other God. Therefore take heed, not to enter into covenant, with the Inhabitants of this country; neither take for your Sons, their daughters in marriage. They would allure thee to the Worship of false Gods. Much less Shall you in any place, erect Images.
The Feast of unleavened bread, Shall thou keep. Seven days, Shall thou eat unleavened bread, at the time of the month Abib; to remember that about that time, I delivered thee from Egypt
Every first born of the mother is mine; the male of thine herd, be it Stock or flock. But you Shall replace the first born of an Ass with a Sheep. The first born of your Sons Shall you redeem. No Man Shall appear before me with empty hands.
Six days Shall thou labour: the Seventh day, thou shall rest from ploughing and gathering.
The Feast of Weeks shalt thou keep, with the firstlings of the wheat Harvest: and the Feast of Harvesting, at the end of the year.
Thrice, in every year, all male persons shall appear before the Lord. Nobody shall invade your Country, as long as you obey this Command.
Thou shall not Sacrifice the blood of a Sacrifice of mine, upon leavened bread.
The Sacrifice of the Passover Shall not remain, till the next day.
The Firstlings of the produce of your land, thou Shalt bring to the House of the Lord.
Thou shalt not boil the kid, while it is yet Sucking.
And the Lord Spake to Moses: Write these Words; as, after these Words I made with you, and with Israel a Covenant.
I know not whether Goethens translated or abridged from the Hebrew, or whether he used any translation Greek, Latin, or German. But he differs in form and Words, Somewhat from our Version. Exod. 34. 10. to 28. The Sense Seems to be the Same.
The Tables were the evidence of the covenant, by which the Almighty attached the People of Israel to himself. By these laws they were Seperated from all other nations, and were reminded of the principal Epochas of their History.
When and where originated our Ten commandments? The Tables and The Ark were lost. Authentic copies, in few, if any hands; the ten Precepts could not be observed, and were little remembered.
If the Book of Deuteronomy was compiled, during or after the Babilonian Captivity, from Traditions, the Error or amendment might come in there.
But you must be weary, as I am at present, of Problems, conjectures, and paradoxes, concerning Hebrew, Grecian and Christian and all other Antiquities; but while We believe that the finis bonorum will be happy, We may leave learned men to this disquisition and Criticism.
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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