Sources of Law, 1: The Bible

The Bible does not focus primarily on matters of secular (i.e., non-religious) law, but what it does say about law had a great influence on later legal systems in many parts of the world. The excerpts below also show that ancient Hebrews took the existence of a sophisticated legal system for granted. They also suggest that the Bible’s lessons for social norms are complex. On the one hand, many passages emphasize respect for authority and acceptance of traditional social hierarchies that kept slaves, servants, the poor, and women in subordinate roles. On the other hand, other passages recognize the need for treating all people fairly and for avoiding the corruption that wealth and power make possible. A few passages also point to an underlying equality among all people.

  1. The Ten Commandments are the most well-known legal rules found in the Bible (see Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21). Four of these mandates became enduring features of most secular law, namely those that prohibit murder, adultery, theft, and the giving of false testimony against one’s neighbor. Four others are purely religious mandates (worship no other gods; do not make or bow down to any idols; do not misuse God’s name; keep the Sabbath holy); and two state social ideals more than precise legal rules (honor your father and mother; do not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, servant, ox, or donkey).

  2. The First Judges: “Moses’ father-in-law said to him: …You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers… Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves… So Moses…chose able men from all Israel” (Exodus 18:17-24).

  3. Truthful & Just Testimony: “Do not spread false reports. Do not help a guilty person by being a malicious witness… When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit… Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge… Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the innocent. Do not oppress a foreigner” (Exodus 23:1-9).

  4. Judging Fairly: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Leviticus 19:15). “Appoint judges and officials…[who] shall judge the people fairly. Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent. Follow justice and justice alone” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20). “The wicked accept bribes in secret to pervert the course of justice” (Proverbs 17:23).

  5. Number of Witnesses: “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deuteronomy 19:15). “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’” (Matthew 18:16).

  6. Avoiding Lawsuits & False Testimony (Old Testament): “Do not go hastily to court, for what will you do in the end, if your neighbor puts you to shame? If you take your neighbor to court, do not betray another’s confidence, or the one who hears it may shame you and the charge against you will stand. Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a ruling rightly given. Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is the rebuke of a wise judge to a listening ear… Like a club or a sword or a sharp arrow is one who gives false testimony against a neighbor” (Proverbs 25:8-12, 18).

  7. Avoiding Lawsuits (New Testament): “If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? …But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers! The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters. Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Corinthians 6:1-9).

  8. God Appoints Rulers: “Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:3). “When all the elders of Israel had come to King David at Hebron, the king made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel” (2 Samuel 5:3). “I have found David my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him” (Psalm 89.20). “By me kings reign and rulers issue decrees that are just; by me princes govern, and nobles—all who rule on earth” (Proverbs 8:15-16).

  9. Subjection to Authority: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted… For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong… For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants” (Romans 13:1-6).

  10. Law is for Lawbreakers: “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:8-10).

  11. No Need to Change One’s Social Status: “Pilate then…summoned Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ …Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world…’ (John 18:33, 36). “Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called. Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave… Brethren, each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called” (1 Corinthians 7:20-22, 24). “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).

  12. Men and Women: The Curse: “To the woman [the Lord] said, ‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth; in pain you will bring forth children; yet your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’ Then to Adam He said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree…, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life’” (Genesis 3:16-17).

  13. Women Subordinate to Men (New Testament): “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman…” (1 Corinthians 11:3). “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves… If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35). “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church… But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:22-24). “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” (1 Timothy 2:11-15). “You husbands…, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7).

  14. Equality: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith… There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). “[In this new life] there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).