A variety of institutions have administered law through Israel’s history. Judicial methods were adapted as Israel evolved from a tribal society into a centralized monarchy, then later fell under foreign rule. Notwithstanding the resulting complexities, there is one consistent ideal behind these institutions that helps explain them: the conviction that Yahweh was Israel’s true lawgiver and judge. Attention to this underlying concept of Israel’s God will precede a survey of Israel’s legal institutions.

God as Lawgiver and Judge.

The Sinai narrative is the preeminent expression of Israel’s view of Yahweh as lawgiver. In biblical Israel, there were no legislative institutions strictly speaking. Israel had institutions for interpreting law, but they did not self-consciously create law. Only two biblical examples come close to human lawmaking. In 1 Samuel 10:25, “Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship; and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the LORD” (cf. 1 Sam 8:11–18). In 1 Samuel 30:22–25, David “made it a statute and an ordinance for Israel” that war spoil was to be shared with everyone who “stays by the baggage.” Neither of these were creating new laws, however. Samuel was teaching Israel the ways of kings already observed in other nations. David was a fugitive and not yet king at the time of his ruling; he was not in a position to legislate for Israel. The author of 1 Samuel is reporting the fairness of David whose leadership won the ongoing respect of Israel’s warriors. Biblical Israel did not self-consciously legislate according to the Old Testament narratives. Yahweh alone was Israel’s lawgiver.

God was also Israel’s ultimate judge. However, it was dangerous to expose the land to divine justice. Human courts existed to resolve crimes quickly and thereby to avoid God’s judgment. This belief is illustrated by the case of the Gibeonites (2 Sam 21:1–14). A famine in the land was discerned to be God’s wrath for an unresolved crime. David identified the cause as an injustice against the Gibeonites, so he imposed a penalty that satisfied them. Once the Gibeonite cry of injustice was satisfied, God restored rain. God hears the cries of injustice, therefore judicial institutions must resolve offenses quickly before those cries reach heaven and incur divine wrath (Gen 4:10; 18:20–21; Exod 3:9; 22:21–27; 2 Chr 19:10).

These concepts of law’s divine nature were not unique to Israel. The Old Babylonian Laws of Hammurapi (ca. 1750 B.C.E.) depict that king as enforcing laws received from Shamash, the Babylonian god of justice. Likewise, Egyptian pharaohs did not create laws but upheld divine order (maʿat). This perception of law as originating in heaven, not with human legislators, was operative throughout the ancient Near East.

Family Law.

Prior to the monarchy, legal matters were family matters in ancient Israel. The household (bêt ʾāb), clan (mišpāḥâ), and tribe (šēbeṭ) provided familial connections and legal order.

A typical household (bêt ʾāb) comprised three generations living together. It was the patriarch of the household who upheld justice within the family. The case of Tamar (Gen 38:1–26) illustrates the adjudication of a household patriarch, in this case Judah. Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law, but she was returned to her own father’s home when her husband, Judah’s son, died. Tamar then became pregnant by her father-in-law Judah when she disguised herself as a prostitute. Notwithstanding her return to her parents, Tamar was brought to Judah for trial once her pregnancy was discovered. Judah sentenced her to death. The sentence was not carried out once Judah realized he was the father of the child, but its presence indicates the broad powers of patriarchal justice. The Judah-Tamar case also illustrates the limits of patriarchal authority. Judah also was subject to law. Tamar produced evidence exposing Judah as the one who had impregnated her, thereby compelling him to pronounce the final verdict of guilt upon himself.

Though no (human) court of appeal existed, social shame provided an external check on a judge. Not all heads of households would admit guilt as Judah did; abuses were certainly common. Laban, for instance, abused his authority to exact unjust penalties from Jacob, repeatedly (Gen 31:39). Jacob had no recourse except to cry out to God. Reportedly, Jacob’s ultimate prosperity at Laban’s expense was because God had heard his cries (Gen 31:7–16).

Closely related was the role of the kinsman redeemer (gōʾēl). In situations where the bêt ʾāb was too weakened to act or the bêt ʾāb lacked a patriarch, the closest adult male relative outside the household was expected to intervene. In his capacity as an advocate for another household of the clan, the kinsman redeemer served as a “surrogate patriarch” with respect to the singular issue that called this appointment into being. The line of responsibility for this role was precisely defined by blood relationship (Lev 25:47–49; Num 27:8–11). The most common situations requiring a gōʾēl were matters of economic distress, such as the recovery of property lost (Lev 25:25–34) or relations enslaved due to unpaid debts (Lev 25:47–49). A special office of kinsman redeemer, called the blood avenger (gōʾēl ha-dām), emerged in cases of manslaughter (see further below).

Yet another related family institution was levirate marriage, where the nearest kin provided an heir for a deceased kinsman so that the dead man’s household would survive him (Deut 25:5–10). These customs reflect the ways in which the mišpāḥâ intervened when the wider clan was threatened by an unresolved distress within a bêt ʾāb. For the most part, however, legal dilemmas were resolved at the household level.

Within a family-law society, the disenfranchised were particularly vulnerable to abuse. Widows, orphans, and foreigners had neither patriarch nor gōʾēl to pursue justice on their behalf. Nevertheless, their cries could also reach heaven, so there was need for special exhortation to ensure their offenses were resolved (Exod 22:21–24; Deut 10:18; 24:17; 27:19; Ps 82:3–4). The frequent repetition of such mandates suggests that, in reality, patriarchal justice did not adequately care for the unattached. This lack of consistent justice would eventually become one of the stated justifications for kingship (see further below).

City Gates.

As Israel developed into a more sophisticated, urban society, many facets of law previously belonging to the patriarch or the gōʾēl were transferred to city elders (Deut 21:18–21; 22:7–10, 13–21). The transition was a natural one since cities were settled by clan. Initially, the kinship unit and the local unit were regarded as the same thing. The area just inside a walled city’s gate became a metaphor for justice (Amos 5:15; Zech 8:16), and unwalled, smaller villages likely had similar arrangements. It was in the gate area that people gathered for trade and community affairs, including matters of justice.

Ruth 4:1–12 describes an instance of justice in the gates, also illustrating the integration of family law into the institutions of urban society. Boaz desired to act as gōʾēl for the bêt ʾāb of Elimelech. Elimelech had died with no heir, leaving a widow (Naomi), a widowed daughter-in-law (Ruth), and Elimelech’s property all without a caretaker. Boaz stood in the gate area early in the morning as residents were heading to their fields. He stopped a passing kinsman who had a nearer claim to Elimelech’s property than he. Boaz also stopped “10 men of the elders of the city”(v. 2). Notably, there was no standing court in the city; the court was formed when a plaintiff called for it. It is not clear whether 10 was the actual number required for a quorum, or if the number was a literary convention meaning a full representation (functionally, a quorum) of elders (cf. Eccl 7:19). Once the court was seated, the petitioner stood to announce his case. Ideally (as in the example of Boaz), the parties would come to a settlement themselves, aided and witnessed by the court. If no agreement was attainable, the elders imposed a verdict reached by consensus. Once the matter was concluded, the court dissolved.

Blood Avengers and Cities of Refuge.

Cases of manslaughter were of principal urgency in Israel, likely due to a belief that shedding innocent blood brought especially swift judgment from God if left unresolved (Gen 4:10; 9:5–6). Surprisingly to modern sentiments, cases of murder did not require a trial in many instances. In prima facie cases of murder, the victim’s next of kin had automatic authority to execute the murderer (Num 35:16–21) and assumed the role of blood avenger (gōʾēl ha-dām) to do so. In those cases in which the killer could not be identified, the local elders made atonement for innocent blood by animal sacrifice (Deut 21:1–9).

Hebrew law recognized the possibility of accidental manslaughter. To guard against avenging accidental death, the cities of refuge (ʿārê miqlāṭ) were appointed (Exod 21:13; Num 35:9–15; Deut 4:41–43; 19:1–13; Josh 20:1–9). These cities gave the killer an opportunity for a trial and permanent asylum if he was found innocent of murder. To receive a trial, the accidental killer had to flee to a city of refuge before the blood avenger caught him. For this reason, cities of refuge were to be evenly distributed on both sides of the Jordan, and there are hints more were to be appointed if Israel’s territory enlarged (Deut 19:2–3, 7–9). Once the accused made it to the city of refuge, he presented his case to the city elders (Josh 20:4). If satisfied with his story, the elders provided safe haven. The blood avenger, if he desired to press his case, would have to apply for a trial with the elders of the city where the death had occurred. Those elders would then subpoena the accused for a trial (Deut 19:12). Crimes of this magnitude were conducted before a full assembly of the people (Num 35:12, 25; 1 Kgs 21:9, 13), not just the “10 elders” required for other cases. Furthermore, the blood avenger’s testimony alone was insufficient; it would be necessary to produce a second witness to establish his case (Num 35:30).

If the defendant was found guilty of murder, he was turned over to the blood avenger. If he was found innocent, the congregation returned him to the city of refuge for asylum. He was required to take up residence within the city of refuge to remain safe. Although the death was ruled accidental, innocent blood had nonetheless been shed and the killer could still be held liable for it. If he left the city of refuge, the blood avenger could execute him without incurring guilt to himself. This changed only when the high priest died. Only at that time could the accused leave the city of refuge without fear of reprisal (Num 35:25–28; Josh 20:6). If the blood avenger were to kill the man now, he would be guilty of murder. Evidently, the high priest stood as a surrogate for accidental bloodshed, and his death satisfied God for accidental bloodshed. The complexities of this system illustrate how crucial it was that all bloodshed be resolved, even accidental manslaughter.

Six cities of refuge are named (Josh 20:7–9). Most scholars believe the named cities date to the time of the monarchy, when all six were within Israel’s boundaries. Nevertheless, the custom behind this institution is older. The oldest reference to the practice (Exod 21:12–14) reflects a period when cities of asylum were sanctuary sites, each with an altar to which a person fled. The practice of seeking asylum at cultic centers was common in other parts of the ancient world. The cities of refuge may reflect a monarchic adaptation of traditional cultic asylum, retaining asylum cities where cultic sites were removed during the centralization of worship. That the six cities of refuge also happen to be Levitical cities (Josh 20:7–9; 21:13, 21, 27, 32, 36, 38) further suggests the influence of cultic asylum behind this institution’s development.

Royal Judges and Temple Courts.

One of the preserved justifications for instituting monarchy in Israel was the need for stable justice. In the generations after Joshua, the settled tribes became increasingly isolated and uniform justice was lacking. “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). Occasionally, charismatic leaders called “judges” (šōpĕṭîm) brought temporary reversals to Israel’s decline, but individual judges could only enforce righteousness for a generation (Judg 2:11–23). Most of what is recorded about these judges focuses on their military successes and their restoration of Yahwistic worship. These judges were not mere magistrates; they were military leaders and cultic reformers. Nevertheless, the need for social justice was never far behind cultic infidelity (Judg 2:17; 4:5; 19:1–21:25; cf., 1 Sam 7:15–17). These developments in the book of Judges inform the people’s demand to Samuel, “Give us a king to judge us” (1 Sam 8:1–22; v. 6, a.t.).

With the introduction of kings, Israel developed legal institutions similar to those of surrounding nations. The role of bêt ʾāb patriarchs and city elders never disappeared completely, but they were adapted into a new, royal system of justice. The clearest description of royal judicial reforms is included in the Chronicler’s account of Jehoshaphat (2 Chr 19:4–11). To what extent Jehoshaphat’s reforms restored older institutions or reflect new innovations is debated. In either case, his system represents the pinnacle of monarchic justice in Israel. (Note that Jehoshaphat’s means “Yahweh judges.”) Jehoshaphat’s reforms established divine justice through a system of local and central courts.

Royal judges were appointed to courts in every walled city in the land with the specific charge to ensure that God’s justice was upheld. “Jehoshaphat … said to the judges, ‘Consider what you are doing, for you judge not on behalf of human beings but on the LORD’s behalf; he is with you in giving judgment’ ” (2 Chr 19:4–6). As Bernard S. Jackson notes, “The claim here is not merely that adjudication is on behalf of God, but that—failing perversity or corruption—even such ‘first instance’ adjudication mediates divine decisions”(2006, p. 413). It was typical that kings and royal judges were ascribed with divine authority in ancient Near Eastern courts; Israel held a similar expectation (2 Sam 14:11, 17, 20; 1 Kgs 3:28; Ps 2; 72:1; 82; 122:5; Prov 16:10). Jehoshaphat’s judges would provide impartial, God-fearing judgments instead of the biased judgments too common in family-based law.

Jehoshaphat also established a central court in Jerusalem. “Moreover in Jerusalem Jehoshaphat appointed certain Levites and priests and heads of families of Israel (rāʾšê hā-ʾābôt lĕyiśrāʾēl ), to give judgment for the LORD and to decide disputed cases. They had their seat at Jerusalem. He charged them: … ‘Amariah the chief priest is over you in all matters of the LORD; and Zebadiah son of Ishmael, the governor of the house of Judah, in all the king’s matters’ ” (2 Chr 19:8–11). Notably, the old familial structures (“heads of families”) are here integrated into the new judicial order. The precise distinction between “matters of Yahweh” and “matters of the king” is not clear. It certainly does not indicate the modern distinction between secular and religious. Perhaps royal judges handled cases impacting royal interests (such as taxes) while temple judges specialized in cases of cultic import. More likely, royal and cultic officers brought their varying expertise to the resolution of cases: cultic personnel administered oracular rites of justice (Exod 21:6; 22:8–9; Num 5:11–31; Deut 21:5–8; Josh 7:14; Neh 5:12) and royal judges led in the examination of witnesses and evidence. An example of a hearing by the central court “in the entry of the New Gate of the house of the LORD,” with royal officials presiding and cultic officials presenting expert witness, is described in the trial of Jeremiah (Jer 26:7–19). This example may not be a typical, however, since the temple officials were also the prosecutors in this case.

Jehoshaphat’s reforms find several remarkable parallels in the Pentateuch (Exod 18:13–27; Num 11:16–30; Deut 17:8–13; cf., 1:13–17). Most scholars believe these judicial innovations in the Pentateuch, credited to Moses in the narrative, are actually etiological narratives justifying later reforms—perhaps those of Jehoshaphat.

In Exodus 18:13–27, Moses reformed family-based justice into a national system of divine justice. This reform occurred because litigants were bypassing their family officers, preferring justice from God through Moses (vv. 14–16). As a result, Moses was overwhelmed with cases. Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, advised him to appoint unbiased judges who would handle “every small matter,” and “every great matter they shall bring to [Moses]” who could obtain an oracular verdict (v. 22). Deuteronomy 17:8–13 repeats the same structure, but with the central Jerusalem court filling the position represented by Moses in Exodus 18. The parallel account in Numbers 11:16–30 emphasizes the oracular anointing of the elders who would assist Moses. The reforms represented by these texts evince the need of the people for divine justice as an improvement over traditional, family-based law. The Mosaic reforms envision local courts led by God-fearing judges not prone to bribes or family bias and a central court where oracular verdicts could be obtained.

The central court in these descriptions was not a court of appeal, however. Litigants did not have a right to appeal a lower court decision to the central court. Rather, the system was designed to give people confidence in their local court because those judges were vetted and appointed by their divinely anointed ruler. It was at the discretion of the local judge whether a particular case was too difficult and required divine inquiry at the central court (Deut 17:8, 12). The case of the daughters of Zelophehad illustrates the kind of case that required divine inquiry (Num 27:1–11; 36:1–9; cf., Lev 24:10–23; Num 9:6–14; 15:32–36).

Postexilic Elders and Judges.

The Bible’s postexilic materials focus primarily on the restoration of the Temple and its services. In Ezra–Nehemiah, there is frequent reference to reforms “according to the book of the law” (Ezra 3:2–4; 6:16–18; Neh 8:1–18; 9:3–34; 10:29–36; 12:44; 13:1–5), but what is described are reforms in worship not social justice. Little attention is given to judicial institutions in this period. However, two passages offer helpful insight into judicial developments in Persian-era Yehud.

The first, Ezra 7:11–26, cites an Aramaic letter from the Persian king that many scholars believe to be authentic. In it, Ezra was authorized to “appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River who know the laws of your God; and you shall teach those who do not know them. All who will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on them” (vv. 25–26). The Persian king authorized Ezra to select royal judges for the province where most of the Jews were living. It is unclear whether Ezra was to appoint judges for all inhabitants of the province or only for Jewish communities. It is also unclear whether “the law of the king” refers to Persian law that Ezra’s judges would also enforce, or if it is in apposition to “the law of your God,” granting Persian royal authority to Israel’s law. In some manner, the concern for upholding divine (Yahwistic) justice through royally authorized judges was continued, albeit under a Persian king.

The second text, Nehemiah 5:1–13, describes a court case in Jerusalem. As the royally appointed governor, Nehemiah exercised supreme judicial authority. In this passage, he calls a public trial in response to a cry of distress from certain debtors. Having defaulted on their debts during a famine, their mortgaged farms were being foreclosed (reading ûmaššaʾt for ûmeʾat in v. 11) and their children enslaved. With no workers and no land, the farmers were unable to produce income to redeem their lost properties and children. Notably, there was nothing strictly illegal taking place, but the result of the creditors’ foreclosures was that local farmers had no way to resolve their debts. Such a hopeless situation, though arrived at legally, was deemed unjust. With the God-like wrath that marked a traditional judge, Nehemiah rebuked the creditors and brokered a compromise everyone accepted. The creditors would restore all foreclosed properties, and presumably farmers would be able to produce income again to pay their debts. The agreement was sealed with oaths administered by the priests of Yahweh.

It was standard Persian imperial practice to restore subject nations to their own gods and customs, subservient to Persian rule and taxation. It is thus consistent with what is known about Persia to find Yahwistic royal judges established in Jerusalem and in other Jewish communities.

Sanhedrin, Bêt Dîn, Synagogues.

It has proven difficult for scholars to assess legal institutions in the Greco-Roman era. One reason for this difficulty is the constant flux of the period. Political and military upheavals brought frequent change to structures of government. Even when structures remained intact, their operation was impacted by shifts in the influence of vying sects within an increasingly divided Judaism. Another complicating factor is the apologetic nature of descriptions of this period. Rarely do the records admit of innovation, often presenting sectarian ideals as long-standing custom. Scholarly conclusions about institutional evolution in this period vary depending on how much weight is given to Josephus, to the Mishnaic tractates, and to other evidence. During the Greco-Roman period—through a process that is, for the above reasons, difficult to define—the Sanhedrin, the bêt dîn, and the judicial role of local synagogues took shape. A general outline of major developments offers some perspective on these transformations.

Persian dominion ended around 332 B.C.E. when Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.E.) seized control of Palestine. At the time, Alexander’s focus was on Egypt so he left Judea’s institutions largely untouched. His one significant change was to set up a Greek military commander over the region (stratēgos), removing the Jewish governor previously appointed by the Persian king. In the resulting vacuum for indigenous leadership, primary authority among the Jews (including judicial authority) shifted to the high priest. The Greek historian Hecataeus of Abdera (fourth century, B.C.E.) described the high priest as Jerusalem’s divinely endowed judge: “They call this man the high priest, and believe that he acts as a messenger to them of God’s commandments” (Diodoros, Hist. 40.3.5; cf., Sir 50:1–21).

It was not until 275 B.C.E., under King Ptolemy II (309–246 B.C.E.), that the Greeks took steps to integrate native law into an imperial legal system. Native courts (laokritai) were authorized to continue, but a Greek officer (eisagōgeus) would preside over each court. These native courts were also permitted to use their own laws, but with a defined set of royal regulations (to diagramma) that took precedence where there was overlap. These reforms are known from extant evidence in Egypt (Wolff, 1978; 2002). Confirming material from Judea is sparse; nevertheless, available evidence suggests Ptolemy’s reforms extended there also. Justice likely continued in Judea under traditional elder courts now overseen by Greek officers. This introduction of Greek procedures into Jewish courts may have contributed to a new use of Israel’s Torah as legislation (LeFebvre, 2006, pp. 160–182).

When the Ptolemies lost Palestine to the Seleucids (200 B.C.E.), the new rulers promised the Jews “government in accordance with the laws of their country” (Josephus, Ant. 12.142). Before long, however, Seleucid kings attempted to reform Jewish Law. These efforts ran into resistance, leading to the Maccabean revolt and the eventual independence of Judea under the Hasmonean dynasty (ca. 140–63 B.C.E.). The Hasmoneans restored monarchy to Judea by combining the offices of high priest and king. At that time, Jerusalem also had a senate (gerousia) that handled government, including judicial matters (1 Macc 12:6; 2 Macc 1:10; 4:44; 11:27; cf., Jdt 4:8; 11:14; 15:8).

The expanding Roman Empire subjugated Judea in 63 B.C.E. In the year 57, the Roman governor Gabinius reorganized Palestine into five provinces, placing a “Sanhedrin” (synedrion) over each province, the first being in Jerusalem (Josephus, Ant. 14.91). This is the first time the term Sanhedrin appears as a title for Jewish governing assemblies. However, Gabinius’s arrangement was repealed by Julius Caesar (100–44 B.C.E.) 10 years later; it is not likely the Jewish institution by that title is directly related to Gabinius’s Sanhedrins. The term synedrion was a generic term for political assemblies and only later became a technical title for the Jewish central court. Nevertheless, sometime during this period a central court in Jerusalem became known as the Great Sanhedrin. There was at least one Sanhedrin (perhaps three; m. Sanh. 11.2) in Jerusalem, probably under the authority of the high priest. Josephus even describes the Sanhedrin trying a case against Herod (Josephus, Ant. 14.163–184), and the New Testament authors identify the Sanhedrin with the trials of Jesus and several apostles (Matt 26:57–66; Mark 14:53–64; Acts 4:1–22; 5:17–41; 6:12–15; 22:30—23:11).

Without a self-consciously legislative body (like the Greeks) and without a king to provide divine justice (as in the monarchic era), the Sanhedrin also provided authoritative interpretations of biblical law. A striking example is reported by Josephus. The Levites were granted permission to wear priestly linen by Sanhedrin authority “contrary to the ancestral laws.” Josephus regarded this action by the Sanhedrin as likely to incur divine wrath: “Such transgression was bound to make us liable to punishment” (Ant., 20.216–18). Josephus represents a continuing reticence toward creating new law (cf., Philo, Moses 2.3.12–16), but the Sanhedrin’s actions may represent a greater sense of freedom among some in this period for adapting or adding to Mosaic law (cf., 1 Macc 2:40–41).

The term bêt dîn was the preferred title for Jerusalem’s central court in the Mishnaic tractate Sanhedrin. This term may be another title for the Sanhedrin. Alternately, some scholars believe a Sanhedrin was an ad hoc body called by the Roman-appointed, Jewish high priest in times of political necessity (such as dealing with the threat of Jesus’s popularity), and that the bêt dîn was a permanent pharisaic court of halakha distinct from the ad hoc Sanhedrin (Rivkin, 1975). It is possible that different Jewish sects, such as the Sadducees and the Pharisees, each had their own bodies claiming to be the “true” source of justice for Israel. Scholarly consensus has been elusive on these points.

While the Sanhedrin/bêt dîn served as a central court of justice, local synagogues served as local courts of justice in Palestine and the Diaspora (Matt 10:17; Mark 13:9; cf. synedrion in Matt 5:22). Some scholars believe that local adjudication by elders in synagogues was a response to the loss of traditional justice in the city gates. Use of the city gates for judicial sessions would have become impossible due, in part, to the pagan displays and Gentile activity there; so elder courts moved to synagogues during the Second Temple era (Levine, 2005, pp. 28–44).

Documents from the era demonstrate a competition between sectarian visions for Judaism and for Jewish institutions of justice. By the second century C.E., the rabbinic vision gained dominance and was compiled in the Mishnah. The tractate Sanhedrin preserves the rabbinic vision for justice, claiming to preserve the actual practice of Second Temple judicial institutions. Local courts were comprised of 3, 23, or 71 members, and in Jerusalem there were two lesser Sanhedrins outside the Temple and the Great Sanhedrin, which met in the Chamber of Hewn Stone on the Temple Mount. Another tractate (m. Hag. 2.2) reports that the Great Sanhedrin was led, since its restoration under the Hasmoneans (ca. 140 B.C.E.), by a succession of paired (the zugôt) high priests and “princes” (nāsîʾim). Most scholars regard the Mishnah’s “memory” as primarily a retrojection of second-century ideals although mixed with some genuine Second Temple–era traditions.


Through the course of biblical history, Israel’s legal institutions were variously adapted to uphold, in changing circumstances, the abiding conviction that Yahweh was Israel’s lawgiver and judge. Arguably, the most substantial shift was the Second Temple–era transition of justice from an oracular to a textual center. Early Israel had participated in the ancient Near Eastern conception of justice as a quality of the gods upheld by divinely anointed rulers. This vision of justice reached its peak in Israel with the installation of divinized kings. Written laws (like those of Hammurapi and Moses) provided authoritative models of justice, but the source of courtroom justice was the divine spirit upon kings and judges. At some point during the Second Temple period, that ideal changed. Some scholars identify this shift early in the Second Temple era, at the time of Ezra’s reforms (Fitzpatrick-McKinley, 1999). Others date this shift later in Second Temple history, under the influence of Hellenistic legalism (LeFebvre, 2006). Eventually, the ideal courtroom came to be envisioned as an assembly of textual experts interpreting law books (m. Sanh.)

Both Jewish and Christian traditions have drawn upon the laws and legal institutions of biblical Israel for later guidance, with significant influences also evident on secular law, particularly in Western societies. Careful attention to the structural and operational changes in the legal institutions of biblical Israel is important, not only for biblical studies, then, but also for assessing later Jewish and Christian traditions and their influences upon secular law.




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Michael LeFebvre