Translation of the Hebrew torah, though this word has a meaning much wider than the legal: ‘interpretation’ might be preferable. It is used in the Hebrew Bible for the Pentateuch, in which law as a system of commands occupies only a part of the five books.

Law in the narrowest sense was the basis for the administration of justice which was done by local elders at the city gate, though difficult cases were referred to the Temple authorities at Jerusalem. The king exercised judicial functions and his judgement created precedents which, with his entourage of prophets, led to the consolidation of the several codes in the Pentateuch. The historical narratives record events which contributed to this process: there was Samuel placing a book of royal privileges in the sanctuary (1 Sam. 8), followed by Jeremiah (Jer. 36), and the discovery of the book of the covenant in the reign of Josiah (2 Kgs. 23), and Ezra's proclamation (Ezra 7: 10).

The oldest of the codes is known as the Covenant Code (Exod. 21–3) with rules governing slavery, murder, and theft, together with various humanitarian provisions. The Priestly Code, so called because of its kinship with the source P of the Pentateuch, contains some early material but is mainly concerned with religion and ritual, and embodied in it is the Holiness Code of Lev. 17–26.

The Deuteronomic Code (Deut. 12–26) is widely identified with the book found in the Temple in the time of Jeremiah. It takes the form of a speech by Moses to the people of Israel before their entry into the Promised Land. The observance of the Law is made a condition of the covenant, for Moses is regarded merely as the mouthpiece of God, whose commandments Moses transmits. To break the law was to infringe the will of God.

After the Exile the law was increasingly restated, elaborated, and brought up to date by various groups in Judaism, as Deut. itself had anticipated (Deut. 18: 15–22). The oral law of the Pharisees which eventually was collected into the Mishnah, about 200 CE, was only one form of supplement. The community at Qumran elaborated a code of purity in separation from Jerusalem and the Temple; Philo interpreted the Law by means of allegory; Jesus did not ‘come to destroy the law’ but in the Sermon on the Mount gave it a radical reinterpretation; Paul did not so much oppose the Jewish Law as such but did reject the view that the Law was Israel's special privilege of God's saving righteousness, guaranteed by works i.e. circumcision, food taboos, and Sabbath. Observance of the Law was not to gain favour with God but to remain faithful within his covenanted people. And Paul's aim was to detach his Churches from Judaism. He saw that there was no future for the Gentile Churches if converts from paganism were required to be circumcised and committed to observing the precepts of Judaism before being accepted for baptism.