Searching Out Legal Roots
LEGAL roots? If you are French or German, you may be thinking of the Corpus Juris Civilis, compiled by Roman emperor Justinian in the sixth century. It is true that this work is the ancestor of modern European Civil Law systems.
But a still more ancient book containing legal material survives widely today. That book is the Bible. Numerous laws first given to Moses over 2,000 years before Justinian’s day have stood the test of time so well that you can now find them in the Constitutions of modern nations. Consider a few examples from the United States Constitution:
Bible Laws in U.S. Constitution
Article III, Section 3, of the U.S. Constitution states: “No person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.”
This is similar to the Bible law, which stated: “No single witness should rise up against a man respecting any error or any sin. . . . At the mouth of two witnesses or at the mouth of three witnesses the matter should stand good.”—Deut. 19:15.
The same section of the Constitution goes on to state that “no attainder [denial of civil rights because] of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the Person attainted.” What does that mean? It means that the family of a person convicted of treason cannot be punished for what the person did.
This also is a Bible law. “Fathers should not be put to death on account of children, and children should not be put to death on account of fathers. Each one should be put to death for his own sin.”—Deut. 24:16.
Equal Before Law
The Constitution provides that no one, not even the president of the United States, can be above the law. If convicted of misconduct and removed from office, the president is then “liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.”—Article I, Section 3.
In this case the Constitution goes beyond British common law, which did not usually apply to the king. However, the Constitution does not go beyond Bible law, which said this of the king: “It must occur that when he takes his seat on the throne of his kingdom, he must write in a book for himself a copy of this law from that which is in the charge of the priests . . . and he must read in it all the days of his life, in order that he may learn to fear Jehovah his God so as to keep all the words of this law and these regulations by doing them.” (Deut. 17:18, 19) The king was certainly not above the law!
The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution further developed the idea of equality under law, saying that no state could “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”—Section 1.
The law of Moses said the same thing! “You must not treat the lowly with partiality, and you must not prefer the person of a great one. With justice you should judge your associate.”—Lev. 19:15.
Significantly, the equal protection of Israelite laws extended to alien residents ‘within the jurisdiction’ of Israel. “One law is to exist for the native and for the alien resident.”—Ex. 12:49.
This insistence on equality is surprising when we consider that the kings of other nations in Israel’s day were often absolute rulers, utterly above the law. Moreover, Babylonian and Assyrian laws dating from about the period of the law of Moses routinely discriminated against poor classes.
This class discrimination in law did not vanish with the Babylonians. In England as recently as a few hundred years ago a poor man could be hanged for mere theft, but someone who could read—hence, a member of a special class, such as a clergyman—could commit murder and receive only a light punishment!—Biblical Law, H. B. Clark, pp. 269, 270.
“Speedy and Public Trial”
Guidelines for judicial procedure in the United States are found in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial . . . to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” Did justice in Bible times employ these guidelines?
Indeed it did. Criminal trials were doubtless much speedier in Israel than they are at present in countries such as the United States, where clogged courts and elaborate procedure give rise to many delays. Since the local court was situated at the city gates, there was no question about the trial being public! (Deut. 16:18-20) No doubt the public trials helped influence the judges toward carefulness and justice, qualities that sometimes vanish in secret star-chamber hearings. What about witnesses?
Witnesses in Bible times were required to testify publicly. For this reason they were warned not to be influenced in their testimony by the pressure of public opinion “so as to turn aside with the crowd in order to pervert justice.” Perjury was not punished with a jail term, but with whatever punishment the false witness had sought to bring upon the defendant—even death!—Ex. 23:2; Deut. 19:15-21.
“Cruel and Unusual Punishment”
Amendment VIII to the Constitution states that “cruel and unusual punishment” shall not be inflicted. This too reflects a feature of the Mosaic Law, which stated: “If the wicked one deserves to be beaten, . . . with forty strokes [the judge] may beat him. He should add none, for fear he should continue to beat him with many strokes in addition to these and your brother is actually disgraced in your eyes.”—Deut. 25:2, 3.
What a contrast this makes with the extremely “cruel and unusual” punishments by some of Israel’s neighbors, such as the Assyrians, who often cut off ears, noses, and lips for minor offenses! Even when the death penalty was executed in Israel it was usually done by stoning, which was humane by ancient standards. Additionally, the witnesses against a person were required to participate in his execution by stoning, which no doubt was a deterrent to witnesses’ giving false testimony.—Deut. 13:9, 10.
Of course, the U.S. Constitution is just one example of modern laws that are indebted to Bible laws. When the Bible is compared with other modern statutes it shows itself to be remarkably advanced.
Consider the Bible’s laws against murder. As one legal writer noted: “First degree murder under modern statutes is often defined, at least in part, in terms of ‘malice’ or ‘malice aforethought.”’ In other words, modern law distinguishes between killing a person accidentally, and doing so deliberately, with malicious intentions.
Bible law makes the same distinction. It wisely provided for someone who had killed another person to put himself into ‘protective custody’ by fleeing to cities set aside for that purpose. This would allow time for the relatives of the victim to recover from their initial outrage while the facts of the matter were determined. Later a trial was held to determine if the killing was accidental or deliberate. The death penalty was not required for accidental killing, or manslaughter, but was always invoked for deliberate murder.—Num. 35:6-34.
Modern Legal Problems
One often acknowledged problem of modern laws is that they are so numerous and complex that most people do not understand them. As one expert put it, “Modern laws, like those of the Romans, have grown ‘contradictory, some obsolete, some unpractical, some obscure, and the whole bulk of them too voluminous.”’
The laws of Moses, by contrast, are written clearly and lucidly. Difficult problems were not solved by adding new laws, but by interpreting existing laws. For this purpose a carefully crafted judicial system was arranged for, with harder cases going to higher courts, much as is done today in many countries. Qualifications for judges were high.—Ex. 18:21, 22.
Additionally, the Mosaic law provided for legal education, since people cannot obey laws they do not understand. So every seven years special assemblies were held where the entire Law was read and explained to the people. On a family level, parents were expected constantly to teach the Law to their children.—Deut. 31:10-13; 6:1-9.
Experts recognize the growing problems of modern legal systems. “By the 1970’s,” notes one source, “criminal law was faced with grave problems . . . American criminal courts . . . have been unable to keep up with their crowded dockets . . . Juvenile delinquency has become a serious mass problem, not only in the West, but also in the Soviet Union . . . The opinion is growing that a stated number of years in prison is not the most promising way to deal with a convicted criminal.”—Encyclopedia Americana, 1977, Vol. 17, p. 73.
The legal system given to Moses prevented these problems. Justice was swift and decentralized. Juvenile delinquency was rare in Israel, because it was viewed very seriously and could be punished by death. (Deut. 21:18-21) The Mosaic law did not provide for any terms of imprisonment. Thieves were punished by making restitution to their victims, not by jail sentences. Deliberate murderers could not be paroled to murder again, because they were executed without fail.
Although the law of Moses contains over 600 statutes, it was a slim legal code compared to what we see today. Yet those 600 laws could be reduced to a few basic principles, as pointed out by Jesus Christ: “‘You must love Jehovah your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and with your whole mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. The second, like it, is this, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments the whole Law hangs, and the Prophets.”—Matt. 22:37-40.
Jesus also said: “Always treat others as you would like them to treat you: that is the Law [of Moses] and the prophets.”—Matt. 7:12, The New English Bible.
That is good advice, is it not? If people would govern their affairs by love, then mankind would have no need of extensive legal codes, lawyers and court systems. The vast maze of legal machinery in today’s world is sad proof of our modern lack of love. Although we cannot change the world, God is going to do so by completely removing the present system of things. (Dan. 2:44) In the meantime, should we not all strive to apply Jesus’ good advice in our dealings with other people, both in judicial and other matters?
[Box on page 18]
MOSAIC LAW PRECEDENTS IN AMERICAN LAW—
Two or more witnesses for conviction of serious crime—Deut. 19:15
Punishment should not extend beyond guilty party—Deut. 24:16
Even ruler is subject to law—Deut. 17:18-20
All citizens equal before law—Lev. 19:15
Right to an impartial and public trial—Deut. 16:18-20
Protection from perjury—Deut. 19:15-21
No cruel and unusual punishment—Deut. 25:2, 3
Murder distinguished from manslaughter—Num. 35:16-25
Protective custody for accused murderer, hence, presumption of innocence—Num. 35:12
Judges with high qualifications required—Ex. 18:21, 22
[Box on page 19]
CONTRASTS BETWEEN MOSAIC LAW AND AMERICAN LAW—
Emphasis on compensation for victim in Bible law—Ex. 22:1-9
No prison system provided by Mosaic law
Consistent death penalty for deliberate murder, hence, no repeat offenders—Num. 35:21
Bible courts did not require costly formalities, were easily accessible to common citizen
Basic legal code not added to, kept simple enough for all to understand—Deut. 4:2
Juvenile delinquency kept minimal—Deut. 21:18-21
No lengthy waiting for trial