Ancient Legal Traditions

There was a time the skeptics of the Bible did not believe that Moses could have written the the books attributed to him because, they said, that there was no writing in Moses’ day.  The discovery of cuneiform tablets, cylinders and such of the ancient Sumerians (6th millennium BC) proved that there was indeed writing well before the time of Moses.  Then they said that societies of Moses' day were not organized enough to have that complicated a legal code.  After Hammurabi’s code was discovered in 1901 that argument was silenced and instead it was argued the Moses based his law on Hammurabi’s which would also have been extant in Moses day.  This table of ancient laws is a work-in-progress but it shows that Hammurabi was not the originator of the notion of a table of the law that Moses could have copied but Hammurabi stands in a larger and longer legal tradition in which, from a secular position, the laws of the Jews also stand.

It is interesting to note that these ancient legal codes generally cite the divine as the ultimate authority.  The Jews after all say that G-d created Torah first and then the world according to it.  If all cultures have a common root as the Bible claims we should not be surprised to see some notion of the divine related to the laws of these cultures.  This project is intended to show that even the ancients understood that the notion of the law or some sort of right behavior came from some place other than the musings of the ruling classes or even the consent of the governed.  

There are some who associate Nimrod, of the tower of Babel fame, with the beginning of world government.  Legends abound, of course, some having him as a mighty warier-king and some as a demigod.  I have even heard of him associated with Hammurabi but I could not find that reference at this writing and that does not seem to fit time wise.  

The initial list for this table came from Wikipedia but others have been added.  We see that it is true that many of these codes claim the gods are the ultimate authority but that claim is made in the preamble rather than in the table of the laws themselves.  Where the preamble is missing, as is the case of many of the more ancient collections, is not that big of a stretch to assume that the reference to the divine should be there. 

It is interesting to note that in the Dharmic tradition the earliest law collection is given in the form of a conversation with the divine.  This indicates that there is a claim of divine authority underlying Indian law as well.

Original Monotheism states that there was a time that all men knew the one true God and in that knowing came a common standard of behavior.  Part of being created in the image and likeness of God is this moral compass whether we want to acknowledge God or not.  Paul tells us:

13For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) (Romans 2.13-15)

With Paul, I am not proposing that these collections of laws come from God in the same sense that the Mosaic Law was given by God, only that the notion of divine involvement in the laws of men was not a foreign concept to the ancients everywhere. 

We see in the progression of these legal codes that man, on his own, is not progressing toward a more open equal and just society. Rather:

Though all the texts are fragmentary they show evidence of a continuous amendment of the law, it has been possible to trace the development of the law from Archaic proscriptions onwards, notably the diminishing rights of women and the increasing rights of slaves, and also allows us to infer some aspects of public law.  ( 11/05/09)

This is not the direction that our modern secularists would predict.  It is not in the total discounting of God that man will find freedom it is in obedience to Him. It is in loving your neighbor as yourself.

Year Law Comment Geographic Area
c. 2380 BC–2360 BC Code of Urukagina

Urukagina (reigned ca. 2380 BC–2360 BC).

The Code of Urukagina sometimes cited as the first example of a legal code in recorded history.

Urukagina is best known for his reforms to combat corruption. The actual text of his code has not been discovered yet, but much of its content may be surmised from references to it that have been found.

The code, exempted widows and orphans from taxes; compelled the city to pay funeral expenses (including the ritual food and drink libations for the journey of the dead into the lower world); and decreed that the rich must use silver when purchasing from the poor, and if the poor does not wish to sell, the powerful man (the rich man or the priest) cannot force him to do so. 6/10/10

Lagash in Mesopotamia
c. 2050 BC Code of Ur-Nammu

Although the preface directly credits the laws to king Ur-Nammu of Ur (2112-2095 BC), some historians think they should rather be ascribed to his son Shulgi.

The laws are arranged in casuistic form of if-(crime), then-(punishment) — a pattern to be followed in nearly all subsequent codes. For the oldest extant law-code known to history, it is considered remarkably advanced, because it institutes fines of monetary compensation for bodily damage, as opposed to the later lex talionis (‘eye for an eye’) principle of Babylonian law; however, murder, robbery, adultery and rape were capital offenses.

The preface actually traces the royal line back to the gods as the ultimate source of the law.

"…After An and Enlil had turned over the Kingship of Ur to Nanna, at that time did Ur-Nammu, son born of Ninsun, for his beloved mother who bore him, in accordance with his principles of equity and truth... Then did Ur-Nammu the mighty warrior, king of Ur, king of Sumer and Akkad, by the might of Nanna, lord of the city, and in accordance with the true word of Utu, establish equity in the land; he banished malediction, violence and strife, and set the monthly Temple expenses at 90 gur of barley, 30 sheep, and 30 sila of butter. He fashioned the bronze sila-measure, standardized the one-mina weight, and standardized the stone weight of a shekel of silver in relation to one mina... The orphan was not delivered up to the rich man; the widow was not delivered up to the mighty man; the man of one shekel was not delivered up to the man of one mina."

Note that An, Enlil, Nanna, Ninsun, and Utu are Sumerian gods. 6/10/10

c. 1930 BC Laws of Eshnunna

The Laws of Eshnunna are inscribed on two broken tablets found in Tall Abū Harmal, near Baghdad, Iraq. The two tablets are separate copies of an older source and date back to ca. 1930 BC.  The differences between the Code of Hammurabi and the Laws of Eshnunna significantly contributed to illuminating the development of ancient and cuneiform law. Eshnunna was north of Ur on the Tigris River and became politically important after the fall of the third dynasty of Ur, founded by Ur-Nammu.

In distinction from the other Mesopotamian collections of law, this one got its name after the city where it had originated – Eshnunna, located on the bank of the Diyala River, tributary to the Tigris. This collection of laws is not a real systemized codex; nearly sixty of its sections are preserved. In some sources the Laws of Eshnunna are mentioned as the Laws of Bilalama due to the belief that the Eshnunnian ruler probably was their originator, but Goetze maintained that tablet B was originated under the reign of Dadusha.

The conditional sentence (“If A then B” – as it also is the case with the other Mesopotamian laws) is an attribute of this codification. In 23 paragraphs, it appears in the form šumma awilum – “If a man…” After the disposition, a precise sanction follows, e.g. LU42(A): “If a man bit and severed the nose of a man, one mina silver he shall weigh out.”

The majority of these offences were penalized with pecuniary fines (an amount of silver), but some serious offences such as burglary, murder, and sexual offences were penalized with death. It seems that the capital punishment was avoidable (in contrast to the Code of Hammurabi), because of the standard formulation: “It is a case of life … he shall die”. 6/10/10

Eshnunna a city north of Ur on the Tigris River
c. 1870 BC Codex of Lipit-Ishtar

Lipit-Ishtar (Lipit-Eshtar), was the fifth ruler of the first dynasty of Isin, and ruled from around 1934 BCE to 1924 BCE. Some documents and royal inscriptions from his time have survived, but he is mostly known because Sumerian language hymns written in his honor, as well as a legal code written in his name (preceding the famed Code of Hammurabi by about 200 years), were used for school instruction for hundreds of years after his death.

The code exists in fragments that have been pieced together.  These fragments do not include a preface. 6/10/10

Isin was a city of lower Mesopotamia, which flourished during the 20th century BC.
1790 BC Code of Hammurabi Hammurabi (ruled ca. 1796 BC – 1750 BC) believed that he was chosen by the gods to deliver the law to his people. In the preface to the law code, he states:

"…Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land."

c. 1650-1500 BC Code of the Nesilim also known as The Hittite Laws The Hittite laws have been preserved on a number of Hittite cuneiform tablets found at Hattusa (CTH 291-292, listing 200 laws). Copies have been found written in Old Hittite as well as in Middle and Late Hittite, indicating that they had validity throughout the duration of the Hittite Empire (ca. 1650–1100 BCE).

There is no preamble attributing it to the gods.  The law is divided into chapters as follows:

  1. Aggression and assault
  2. Marital relationships
  3. Obligations and service - TUKU
  4. Assaults on property and theft
  5. Contracts and prices
  6. Sacral matters
  7. Contracts and tariffs
  8. Sexual relationships - HURKEL 6/10/10

Nesilim is the name the Hittites used for themselves

1075 BC Code of the Assura

Assyrian law was very similar to Sumerian and Babylonian law, however, notably more brutal than its predecessors. The first copy of the code to come to light, dated to the reign of Tiglath-Pileser I (1114 – 1076 BC), was discovered in the course of excavations by the German Oriental Society (1903-1914). Three Assyrian law collections have been found to date. Punishments such as cutting of ears and noses was common, as it was in the Code of Hammurabi, which was composed several centuries earlier. Murder was punished by the family being allowed to decide the death penalty for the murderer. 6/10/10

c. 1490 BC Mosaic Law

This date corresponds roughly to the time at Sinai and so the revealing of the law to Moses.  The law seems present in the Biblical narrative long before that however see How Did the Torah Exist Before it Happened?

622 or 621 BC The Draconian constitution Draco established the legal code with which he is identified. Little is known about his life. He probably belonged to the Greek nobility.  He lends his name to our English word draconian, meaning harsh or extreme as that is how his laws seem to us.  It is said that Drakon himself, when asked why he had fixed the punishment of death for most offences, answered that he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it, and he had no greater punishment for more important ones.

The laws he laid down were the first written constitution of Athens, Greece. The laws, however, were particularly harsh. For example, any debtor whose status was lower than that of his creditor was forced into slavery. The punishment was more lenient for those owing debt to a member of a lower class. The death penalty was the punishment for even minor offenses.

Greek / Athens
c. 525 and 400 BC Gortyn code

The Gortyn code (also called the Great Code) was a legal code that was the codification of the civil law of the ancient Greek city-state of Gortyn in southern Crete. 6/8/10

Greek / Crete
c. 450 BC The Twelve Tables 

The Law of the Twelve Tables was the ancient legislation that stood at the foundation of Roman law.  More than a new legal tradition, the Twelve Tables formed the centerpiece of the constitution of the Roman Republic and the core of the mos maiorum (custom of the ancestors).  That is, they were really nothing new but a codification of tradition.

In the history of governments, the Twelve Tables occupy a special place. At once, they are the basis of the Roman Republic, the basis of Roman Law for centurian>

The issue had been that the rich and powerful had been dragging the poor (plebes) into court for no particular reason.  Publishing the actual law gave everyone an idea on what to expect. 

The privileged class (patricians) and the common people (plebeians) called a commission of ten men (Decemviri) to draw up a code of law which would be binding on both parties and which the magistrates would have to enforce impartially.

While The Twelce Tables are the earliest attempt by the Romans to create a CODE OF LAW; it is also the earliest (surviving) piece of literature coming from the Romans. 6/10/10 4/5/17 


200 bc - 200 ad (Wikipedia)

recieved text c. 100


Code of Monu.

Manusm (Sanskrit:मनुस्मृति), also known as Mānava-Dharmaśāstra(Sanskrit: मानवधर्मशास्त्र), is the most important and earliest metrical work of the Dharmaśāstra textual tradition of Hinduism. Generally known in English as the Laws of Manu. The text presents itself as a discourse given by the sage called Manu to a group of seers, or rishis, the group of seers through whome the Vedas were revealed.   Manu who beseech him to tell them the "law of all the social classes".  Manu became the standard point of reference for all future Dharmaśāstras that followed it. 6/10/10


  The Gentoo Code

The Gentoo Code is a legal code translated from Sanskrit to Persian by Brahmin scholars and then from Persian to English by Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, a British grammarian working for the East India Company.

11th century BC Traditional Chinese law

Traditional Chinese law refers to the laws, regulations and rules used in China up to 1911, when the last imperial dynasty fell. It has undergone continuous development since at least the 11th century BC. This legal tradition is distinct from the common law and civil law traditions of the West – as well as Islamic law and classical Hindu law – and to a great extent, is contrary to the concepts of contemporary Chinese law. It incorporates elements of both Legalist and Confucian traditions of social order and governance.

To Westerners, perhaps the most striking feature of the traditional Chinese criminal procedure is that it was an inquisitorial system where the judge, usually the district magistrate, conducts a public investigation of a crime, rather than an adversarial system where the judge decides between attorneys representing the prosecution and defense. "The Chinese traditionally despised the role of advocate and saw such people as parasites who attempted to profit from the difficulties of others. The magistrate saw himself as someone seeking the truth, not a partisan for either side."[1]

Two traditional Chinese terms approximate "law" in the modern Western sense. The first, lü (律), means primarily "norm" or "model". The second, fa (法), is usually rendered as "statute".