Question: "Are the Ten Commandments taken from the forty-two precepts of Ma'at?"
Answer: The forty-two precepts of Ma'at are a list of principles named after an ancient Egyptian goddess of truth, justice, and order. The precepts of Ma'at are found in inscriptions in tombs and on some papyrus records. Some critics of the Bible claim that the Ten Commandments were not original with Moses (or with Moses’ God) but were plagiarized from the forty-two precepts of Ma'at. Neither logic nor history supports this claim.
According to Egyptian religion, a dead person’s soul is weighed against a feather on the scale of Ma'at. Only those whose hearts are free from evil are spared from judgment. As a way of proclaiming his purity, the dead person declares the forty-two principles of Ma'at, each to a different sub-deity. These principles are not laws in any sense; they are simply declarations that the person has avoided certain behaviors. Each is phrased as a negative: for example, “I have not swindled,” “I have not taken food from a child,” or “I have not made anyone cry.”
Of course, there are similarities between some of the principles of Ma'at and the Ten Commandments. Any culture’s moral code will overlap other moral codes to some extent. For instance, the Egyptian statements “I have not told lies” and “I have not committed adultery” correspond with two of the Ten Commandments. However, this similarity, by itself, is not evidence that one inspired the other. With a list as long as the forty-two precepts of Ma'at, there are bound to be parallels with other moral systems.
The forty-two precepts of Ma'at do not seem to have enjoyed widespread distribution in ancient Egypt. Other than their presence on the walls of several tombs, they appear in one or two written Egyptian works, but there is almost no historical documentation about how the ideas were used. Different lists in different places have different declarations, so there’s no “official” list of Ma'at’s principles.
Further, in contrast to the precepts of Ma'at, the Ten Commandments are phrased as explicit rules, not suggestions. There is nothing optional about the Ten Commandments. Instead, they are very specific: “You will not . . .” and “You will . . . .” There are no archaeological or cultural reasons to think that the principles of Ma'at were adapted into the Law of Moses; any suggestion that they were is pure speculation.
The most common argument connecting the Mosaic Law and the precepts of Ma'at relies on the fact that Ma'at worship predates Hebrew culture. Added to this is the fact that Moses was raised in Egypt. Therefore, the theory goes, Moses simply took what he had learned in Egypt and made up his own set of rules for the people he was leading. This reasoning suffers from a basic logical error known as post hoc ergo propter hoc, meaning “after this, therefore because of this.” That is, it’s illogical to claim that, given two pieces of literature, the latter must have been created from the former. What’s more likely—and more supported by the evidence—is that much of Moses’ writing was meant to counter Egyptian spiritual ideas, not to emulate them.
It’s not surprising that a long list of moral precepts such as found in the precepts of Ma'at would agree with some of God’s essential moral rules for mankind. In fact, an oft-repeated theme of Scripture is that people have a conscience, a witness to the presence of the law of God written on their hearts (see Romans 2:14–15). Romans 1:18–22 says that all people have enough evidence in nature and in their own hearts to respond to God, even though they choose not to. As the world drifts away from God and attempts to make its own moral standards, it’s not surprising to see echoes of God’s original, natural morality.
The supposed link between the forty-two precepts of Ma'at and the Ten Commandments is not often claimed by actual historians. Connections between the two lists are tenuous, forced, and ultimately irrelevant to the question of whether Moses brought down from Sinai an actual message from God.