The Ten Commandments don't prohibit killing, and the often-cited “thou shalt not kill” is a translation error. So when the Pope said on Sunday that “the commandment ‘thou shalt not kill,’ has absolute value,” he was citing a mistranslation.
In fact, the original wording in the Ten Commandments refers only to illegal killing, and takes no stand on the merits of legally sanctioned killing such as the death penalty. This is why most modern translations prefer “do not murder” instead of the misleading “do not kill.”
But that more modern wording is also not quite right. The commandment includes every variety of illegal killing: manslaughter, for instance, along with murder. “Do not murder” is too narrow, just as “do not kill” is too broad.
Equally, the Ten Commandments — contrary to the popular conception — are not even a legal code. They are a morality code that takes the form of a list of laws. The laws themselves are codified elsewhere. The point of the Ten Commandments is that these laws have moral implications beyond their legal implications.
For example, Numbers 35 explores different kinds of killing in great detail, even delving into such surprisingly modern nuances as hate crimes and assault with a deadly weapon. The same passage delineates three categories of killing, and one of those categories is “legal killing.” One kind of legal killing in the Bible is the death penalty — which is required in certain circumstances. Another is some killing during wartime. More generally, to understand the legality of killing according the Bible, the right place to look is Numbers 35 and other similar texts.
The purpose of the Ten Commandments is to stress that these laws about killing are matters of morality. Even if you don't think you'll get caught, for instance, or even if you are willing to pay the penalty, you should not engage in illegal killing, or in the other actions like stealing that are listed in the Ten Commandments. (But the death penalty is okay.)
The Ten Commandments are unlike anything in modern legal codes, which are simply a set of consequences for various actions. For example, according to Section 2113 of Title 18 of the US Codes (“18 USC 2113”), if you take something that belongs to a bank and is worth up to $1,000, you can be fined or imprisoned for not more than one year; take something that's worth more than $1,000 and the jail term can be as long as ten years.
This is what is popularly called the law against bank robbing. But the law doesn't take a position on whether it's moral or immoral to rob a bank. It just tells you what might happen if you do.
This is where the Ten Commandments come in. They insist that human actions can be categorized not just as “legal” versus “illegal” but, more importantly, also as “moral” versus “immoral.”
So the Pope is right that the Bible sees killing as a matter of morality. But it is his interpretation that ascribes immorality to the death penalty. Though the Pope's position is consistent with established Catholic doctrine, and in keeping with many other mainstream Christian and Jewish traditions, it actually reverses the Bible's position. The original text of the Ten Commandments does not address capital punishment, and Numbers 35 even demands it.
Dr. Hoffman is author most recently of The Bible Doesn't Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings, which explores what the Bible meant before the last 2,000 years of interpretation. He can be reached through his website at www.lashon.net.