This entry consists of two articles, the first on Israelite Law in its ancient Near Eastern context, and the second on New Testament Views of what came to be known as “the Law.” For discussion of the influence of the Bible on later legal systems, see Law and the Bible.

Israelite Law

Although laws and the concept of law played an overwhelmingly important role in the Hebrew Bible and in the life of ancient Israel, the Hebrew Bible has no term exactly equivalent to the English word “law.” The Hebrew word most often translated as “law,” tôrâ (Torah), actually means teaching or instruction. As such it expresses the morally and socially didactic nature of God's demands on the Israelite people. The misleading translation of tôrâ as law entered Western thought through the Greek translation (Septuagint) of the term as nomos, as in the name of the book of Deuteronomy (“the second law”). That the word tôrâ is a loose concept is indicated by its use for the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures, which contain the bulk of ancient Israel's purely legal material, as well as for the Hebrew Bible as a whole. The vibrant nature of the legal tradition is indicated by the later Jewish distinction between the written Torah, namely the Hebrew Bible, and the oral Torah, the legal and religious traditions which were eventually codified in the Mishnah (ca. 200 CE) and developed in the Gemara (ca. 500 CE; together they form the Talmud) and later commentaries. The human intermediary between the people and their God in both cases is viewed as Moses, through the revelation at Sinai (Exod. 19–Num. 10) and later in a valedictory address in Transjordan before his death (Deuteronomy).

Among other terms employed in the Hebrew Bible that belong to the legal sphere and refer to specific practices and enactments are ḥoq “statute,” mišpāṭ “ordinance,” mi⊡wâ “commandment,” and dābār “word.”

Law in the Ancient Near East.

Although it was once felt that biblical Israel's legal and moral traditions were unique in the ancient world, archaeological activity over the course of the last century has brought to light a large number of texts, mainly written in cuneiform script on clay tablets, which help to place biblical law in its ancient Near Eastern context. These include texts that have erroneously been termed “law codes,” in addition to international treaties, royal edicts, and documents from the daily legal sphere.

The Babylonian Laws of Hammurapi (eighteenth century BCE, copies of which have been found dating up to a millennium later) remain the most famous and comprehensive of the ancient legal collections, and include close to three hundred laws, in addition to a lengthy prologue and epilogue in which the divine mission of providing laws for the land is given to Hammurapi. Other important “codes” include: the Laws of Urnammu, a Sumerian collection dating to ca. 2100 BCE; the Laws of Lipit‐Ishtar, also in Sumerian, ca. 1900 BCE, the Laws of the city of Eshnunna, written in Akkadian and to be dated in the nineteenth century; the Hittite Laws, which date in their original form to ca. 1600 BCE; and the Middle Assyrian Laws from the reign of Tiglath‐pileser I, ca. 1200 BCE.

These so‐called law codes are not comprehensive codices in the Roman sense. They are rather miscellaneous collections of laws, compiled in order to enhance the stature of the ruler as the originator of order in his land. Although they preserve important evidence of individual stipulations and of the legal structure of a given society, these legal compilations are best viewed as literary texts. In spite of the ancient fame of a text such as the Babylonian Laws of Hammurapi, it is significant that among the thousands of legal documents known from ancient Mesopotamia not one refers to that collection for a precedent, nor to any other.

Ancient Near Eastern treaties, while important as historical, political, and legal sources, have also played a role in understanding the nature of Israel's covenant with God as one of vassal with suzerain. Elements in treaties that have been found in the Hebrew Bible include the identification of the parties to the treaty, a historical prologue in which God's actions on behalf of Israel are listed, the treaty stipulations (i.e., the laws), and the blessings and curses to be expected as a consequence of obedience or of non‐compliance to the terms of the covenant. Among the most important treaties are those of the Hittite empire of the second millennium BCE, to which many scholars look for the origin of the genre as a whole, and the neo‐Assyrian vassal treaties, especially those of Esarhaddon (early seventh century BCE).

By far the largest number of ancient documents come from the daily practice of law. Tens of thousands of documents have been found recording economic and social transactions of all kinds, many of which can be compared to biblical practices. The closest biblical parallel to the actual practice of documenting transactions may be found in the account of Jeremiah's purchase of a plot of land in his home town of Anathoth, a transaction recorded in duplicate as were countless cuneiform documents (Jer. 32.9–15). Although most of the documents found were written on cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamia, documents written on papyrus and other perishable materials have been found in Egypt, for example at the site of the Jewish military colony at Elephantine, and in caves in the Judean desert, near the Dead Sea (see Writing in Antiquity).

Israel's Laws in Modern Research.

In addition to the comparative study of Israel's legal traditions, which seeks to shed light upon Israel's laws in their ancient context through a comparision of similarities and differences with nonbiblical legal materials, two major trends can be identified in modern research on ancient Israel's legal traditions. The first is form‐critical and concerns itself with the classification of Israel's laws according to form and syntax. The second attempts to identify the basic principles of Israel's legal tradition, that set it apart from its surrounding cultures.

Basic for the study of the forms of Israelite law is the work of Albrecht Alt. In his essay on The Origins of Israelite Law (1934), Alt identified two basic patterns of legal formulations in the Bible. The first he termed “casuistic” law, since it arose from the sphere of case law. These are the laws formulated in the “if …then…” pattern. Alt sought the origin of these laws in Canaanite and general ancient Near Eastern traditions, which the Israelities took over after their “conquest” of the land. The second he termed “apodictic” law. These are laws formulated as absolute pronouncements, such as the Ten Commandments. They are mostly formed in the imperative: “You shall (not) …” Alt sought the origin of these formulations in Israel's ancient Yahwistic law, originating in Israel's preconquest traditions. While Alt's analysis of the origins of these two types of law has not withstood the test of time, since both casuistic and apodictic laws are to be found in most ancient Semitic legal collections in varying relative percentages, his basic form‐critical distinction continues to serve as the starting point of contemporary discussion.

Once it could be shown that ancient Israel belonged to the cultural milieu of the world in which it lived, the question arose whether there was any aspect of Israelite law which could be identified as distinguishing it from its neighbors. Two considerations are basic to the discussion.

First is the issue of authority. Although in ancient Mesopotamia the king was guided by divine will in the establishment of (secular) justice, the source of law was the king himself. In the Bible, on the other hand, the source of law was conceived of as God. In distinction to other ancient Near Eastern practice, in Israel the king was not conceived of as the promulgator of law. Moses and others were simply intermediaries who transmitted God's rules to the people. Thus both secular and religious law were given divine origin. Obeying laws was hence both a legal and a religious requirement. Breaking a law was not simply a secular delict, but an infraction of the will of God, hence a sin. (See Kingship and Monarchy.)

The second is the valuation of human life, for which the case of the goring ox (Exod. 21.28–32) may serve as example. The case of an ox that injured or killed a human being appears in a number of ancient legal collections. There are differences between the various laws regarding the liability of the owner of the goring ox according to its prior behavior and to the status of the person gored. However, only in the biblical law, upon which similar medieval European legislation was based, is the ox itself subject to the death penalty for killing a human being, its flesh not to be eaten. Since the ox murdered a human being, it became taboo and hence not fit for human consumption, in spite of the fact that that inflicted a great financial loss on its owner. To give another example, in the code of Hammurapi the death penalty is adduced for theft. The killing of another human being did not necessarily warrant such severe punishment (depending on the relative societal status of the individuals involved). In the Bible, capital punishment is reserved for cultic offenses, which included murder (see Exod. 21.12–14; Num. 35.29–34). Theft of property, as long it was not cultic or under the ban (see the story of Achan in Josh. 7), was not punishable by death. Theft of another human being, however, was (Exod. 21.16). Thus it is postulated by Moshe Greenberg that, whereas the protection of property belonging to the upper echelons of society was of paramount concern in Babylonian law, in Israelite law the sanctity of the individual formed in the image of God was primary.

Major Collections of Biblical Laws.

Among the many legal passages in the Bible are a number that have been identified as independent units by modern scholars. These include the Ten Commandments (Decalogue; Exod. 20.2–17; Deut. 5.6–21), the Book of the Covenant (Exod. 20.22 [or 21:1]–23.19), the Holiness Code (Lev. 17–26), and the Deuteronomic laws (Deut. 12–26). The Ten Commandments can be understood as the heart of Israel's convenantal relationship with God, since they include an identification of the suzerain, God's acts on behalf of Israel, and Israel's obligations to God formulated in apodictic style. Most of the obligations incumbent upon Israel in the Decalogue deal not with cultic issues, but with the relations between people in an orderly society. The Book of the Covenant, containing casuistic laws with many parallels in other ancient Near Eastern traditions, is assumed by many to be the oldest collection of laws in the Bible. The Holiness Code forms the oldest core of Priestly (P) legislation and is so named on account of its concern with Israelite ritual purity and holiness. The Deuteronomic laws, although presented as a speech delivered by Moses in Transjordan before his death, are associated in modern scholarship with the cultic reforms of King Josiah of Judah (640–609 BCE; see 2 Kings 22.1–23.30; 2 Chron. 34–35). The major concern of this corpus of religious legislation is with the centralization and purification of the cult and its sacrificial system in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Carl S. Ehrlich

New Testament Views

The modern New Testament is a fourth‐century anthology of mid‐ to late first‐century documents, composed in Greek and reflecting the social and religious stresses of a new religious movement seeking to define and eventually to distinguish itself from Greek‐speaking synagogue communities. In such a charged and changing context, “the Law” (Grk. nomos) received widely divergent treatments, although its definition remains constant: the Law is God's revelation through Moses to Israel.


The earliest and most problematic source is Paul. Written to predominantly gentile communities, his letters often address questions of ethics and authority. On these occasions, Paul's statements concerning the Law can only be seen as unself‐consciously positive. The Law is the key to decent community life and the standard for group behavior (Gal. 5.15; 1 Cor. 14.34). Gentiles “in Christ” should strive to fulfill it and keep its commandments (1 Cor. 7.19; Rom. 8.4, 13.8–10; Gal. 5.14, authorizing his instruction by appeal to Lev. 19.18; cf. his defense of his apostolic rights by quoting from “the law of Moses,” Deut. 25.4, in 1 Cor. 9.8–9). One can—and Paul did—obtain righteousness under the Law (Phil. 3.6). Faith in Christ, Paul says, upholds the Law (Rom. 3.31). In the largest sense, the redemption in Christ comes to gentiles in order to confirm God's promises to Israel's ancestors as preserved in Genesis, the first of the five books of Torah (Rom. 15.8–9; cf. 9.4–5).

Yet elsewhere Paul virtually equates the Law with sin, death, and the flesh—the worst aspects of the “old aeon” that, through Christ's death, resurrection, and imminent parousia, is about to be overcome (Rom. 6.14; 7.5–6). God gave the Law on account of transgression and in order to condemn: it is the “old dispensation,” inglorious and incomplete, compared to the gospel of Christ (Gal. 3.16–21, 24–26; 4.10, 19–22; 5.21–31, a particularly tortured passage; 2 Cor. 3.12–15; Rom. 3.20; 4.15; 5.20; 10.4). How then can this same author possibly maintain that “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom. 7.12)?

Scholars have attempted to resolve this tension. Some, at one extreme, take Paul's negative statements as definitive of his (hence, the) gospel and his positive statements as the measure of an unthought‐out sentimental attachment to his community of origin. Some at the other end maintain that Paul preached a two‐covenant theology: Torah for Jews, Christ for gentiles. On this view, his only objection to the Law would be if Christian gentiles chose it, that is, opted as Christians for conversion to Judaism. But Paul's own statements—forceful, passionate, at times intemperate—defy a consistent interpretation. He himself seems aware of the tensions in his position. As Paul saw it, however, history would soon relieve him of the necessity to make sense of God's plan in electing Israel, giving the Torah, and then sending Christ. For Christ, Paul urged, was about to return, end history, and bring all under the dominion of God. This conviction, and not his statements on the Law, is the one consistent theme in all of Paul's letters, from first to last (1 Thess. 1.10; 4.13–17; Phil. 1.10; 2.16; 4.5; 1 Cor. 7.26, 29, 31; 15; Rom. 8; 9–11; 13.11–12; 16.20). It spared him having to work out a “theology” of the Law.

The Gospels.

The evangelists, writing some 40–70 years after Jesus' death, turned a negative attitude toward the Law (or the Jewish understanding of it) into the touchstone of Christian identity. This tendency makes for considerable confusion when one tries to reconstruct the views of the historical Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth, living and working in a predominantly Jewish environment, very likely had his own views on the correct interpretation of Torah, and these views may well have differed from those of his contemporaries. Argument about the Law between Jews was and is a timeless Jewish occupation: controversy implies inclusion. Transposed to a gentile context, however, argument can seem like repudiation.

Thus Mark's Jesus turns an unexceptional observation (people are morally defiled by what they do or say, not by what they eat, 7.15–23) into a repudiation of the Law regarding kosher food (“Thus he declared all foods clean”; v. 19). John's Jesus condemns his Jewish audience as sons of the lower cosmos and children of the devil (chap. 8): the Law, characterized throughout as that “of Moses” is, implicitly, not “of God,” from whom comes grace, peace, and the Son (1.16; 7.19–24). In his Sermon on the Mount, Matthew's Jesus presents his intensification of Torah ethics as if in contradistinction to Torah and Jewish tradition (“You have heard it said …but I say”; chap. 5). Luke, although retaining the theme of Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus both in his Gospel and in Acts, nonetheless wishes to present the new movement as continuous with a Jewish view of biblical revelation. Consequently he edits out or softens many of Mark's anti‐Law statements. And all the Gospels, no matter how strong their individual polemic against Jews and Judaism (see Anti‐Semitism), and hence the Law, still present a Jesus who worships at synagogue on the Sabbath, observes Temple sacrifice, pilgrimage holidays, and Passover rituals, and whose followers, honoring the Sabbath, come to his tomb only on the Sunday after his death.

Later Traditions.

Both within the New Testament and without, later traditions are similarly ambivalent. Negative statements tend to occur in those passages where these new communities seek to establish their identity vis‐à‐vis Jews and Judaism; positive statements emerge where Christians wish to distance themselves from their Greco‐Roman environment. Christian ethics are in the latter case a judaizing of gentile populations according to the principles of Torah: shunning idols, sorcery, astrology, hetero‐ and homosexual fornication; keeping litigation within the community; supporting the poor, especially widows; and so on—all themes found especially in Paul's Corinthian correspondence.

In the early decades of the second century, Christian dualists such as Marcion and Valentinus took the position that the God of the Jews, the God of the Law, was a second, lower, cosmic deity; God the father of Jesus, they held, thus had nothing directly to do with material creation and, thus, with the events and legislation given in scripture. Other Christians, committed to the unity of creation and redemption, argued that the Law was of divine origin: only their particular group, however, knew how to interpret it correctly (that is, for the most part, allegorically: see esp. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, and see Interpretation, History of, article on Early Christian Interpretation). The church's ambivalence toward the Law eventually determined the structure of the Christian canon itself. Retaining the Septuagint even as it repudiated Judaism, the church incorporated the Law into its “Old” Testament, while maintaining that it was superseded or perfected by the “New.”

Paula Fredriksen