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As the Ten Commandments were written in stone and writing had hardly developed anywhere else to that time, are those the first laws of civilization?

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    For those of us without a PhD in Theology, what year ("that time") were the Ten Commandments written?
    – jimsug
    Oct 3, 2015 at 3:41
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    Jewish tradition has the ten commandments handed down about 1450 BC, and first transcribed no earlier than 922 BC.
    – feetwet
    Oct 3, 2015 at 4:11
  • I think the people on History.SE might be more likely to have the relevant expertise for this question. Oct 3, 2015 at 14:24
  • @NateEldredge: what's the scope of this site, just law or also jurisprudence (which then would include legal history)? I get an error message from law.stackexchange.com/help/on-topic Oct 3, 2015 at 20:23
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    @SteveJessop: Link works fine for me, and mentions "historical legal applications" as on topic. I'm not saying this question is out of scope for this site, just that History.SE might give better answers. Oct 3, 2015 at 20:37

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Nope. Even if we were to accept this definition of law as some written decree, and I'm unsure that's the case1, there are civilisations with written law that predate the Ten Commandments.

Babylonian Law (c.1800 BC) predates the Ten Commandments. Also, the Code of Ur-Nammu predates even that (c.2050 BC).


1. Most definitions of law don't require that it be written, but rather that it is some system of rules that govern the behaviour of some group of people.

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    And while the code of Ur-Nammu happens to be the oldest of which there's an extant copy, the existence of older codes is suggested both by specific references and by the expectation that earlier kings similarly laid down formal rules. So the answer to the logical next question, "is the code of Ur-Nammu the first?" is, "almost certainly not but the evidence is less direct". Oct 3, 2015 at 20:13
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    I would also say that existance of civilization itself implies that there is a law. That is precisely what distinguishes civilization from the other side. As we evidently know, civilization existed long before the Ten Commandments were written and in a great variety. Man had always been a highly social animation so it is likely that the Law of Civilization exists as long as the term "man" can be defined for a living being. It does not change because it is the law of how a greater living thing can be composed of individual humans. That's almost physics. Physics exists since the beginning.
    – noncom
    Oct 3, 2015 at 21:58
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Not with your age estimate of the Ten Commandments (3000-3750 years ago). The Code of Hammurabi dates to around 1750 BC, which would make it over 3750 years old, which is older.

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First, is the issue that, to the best of my knowledge, there's no actual evidence the ten commandments are real (in the form of stone tablets anyways -- obviously some form of them exists in literature). So it's hard to call "fair" about something that's quite possibly a fairy tale.

Second, even in the Bible story, it's not like God invented the concept of law then and there. The pharaoh obviously had his own laws, and the gods of those guys the Hebrews were partying with during the first writing of the commandments obviously had their versions of law.

Third, and most importantly, "law" isn't about written words, and never has been. Law is an abstract concept that represents the relationships between actions and consequences. The laws of physics existed long before we did, and law of the jungle existed between then and now.

The laws of society were an evolution from the right of might to what we have today, not some specific event. While it might be interesting to determine the first written law, the law itself existed long before then. Many societies have legal systems but no writing system at all.

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    That depends on whether you're talking about the fairy tale stories, or the actual history. The question asked about being fair, and it's only fair to point out there's no verifiable evidence that Moses or anything immediately surrounding him, including the ten commandments carved in stone, is anything but folklore. If you can show me otherwise, great, we can remove that part. It's not like it's terribly relevant. It just helps to get our heads on straight before launching into a factual discussion.
    – MichaelS
    Oct 3, 2015 at 7:36
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    My point being that you're injecting your opinion on something that wasn't even asked just for the sake of doing so. It reads like a rant against the Bible, rather than answering whether or not the given date for the Ten Commandments predates other established written legal systems.
    – user900
    Oct 3, 2015 at 8:02
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    Your deliberate conflation of folklore and history, insinuating that some modicum of truth to a story means every facet of it is truth absolute, that's the baiting. Show me some actual evidence that the ten commands, carved in stone, roughly 3-4 millennia ago were a real thing, and I'll gladly remove that assertion. Until then, please stop trolling my answer.
    – MichaelS
    Oct 3, 2015 at 8:03
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    "The pharaoh obviously had his own laws, and the gods of those guys the Hebrews were partying with during the first writing of the commandments obviously had their versions of law." Citations needed. Oct 3, 2015 at 9:15
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    @MichaelS The tablets that the Ten Commandments were written on were placed inside of the Ark, an object that is firmly established to have existed and was kept in the Temple. For your assertions to be true, you'd have to suggest that a thousand year long conspiracy was undertaken by the Jewish people to trick the Jewish people into believing the Ark was in there when in fact there was nothing. Dozens of High Priests over the ages would have perfectly kept the secret of this conspiracy, and the Romans who saw it when the veil was torn at Christs death were also liars. Who is trolling?
    – user900
    Oct 3, 2015 at 23:16
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Very much no

Accepting the "Ten Commandments" or "Laws of Moses" as being written between the 6th and 10th century BC, we have hard evidence of at least the following laws preddating them:

  • The oldest copy of Assyrian law we still have is dated to 1075 BC, thus predating the Laws of Moses by a mere fraction, but they have been first written most likely between 1450 and 1250 BC.
  • The Hittite Code of the Nesilim was written between 1650 BC and 1500 BC and in effect till about 1100 BC, thus predating the Ten Commandments by about 500-1000 years.
  • The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi predates Nesilim, and was written around 1750 BC.
  • The Summerian Codex of Lipit-Ishtar are cones and dated to ca 1780 BC.
  • The Mesopotamian/Summerian Laws of Eshnunna are copies of an older text. The copies are dated to 1930 BC. They have similarities to the Code of Hammurabi in writing style, and stem from the area north of Ur.
  • The Mesopotamian/Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu was dated to between 2050 and 2100 BC, was found in at least three places (Ur, Nippur and Sippar).
  • The clay tablets with legislative reforms of Urukagina were dated to the 24th century BC, and contain insight in the laws of the city-state Lagash from south-east Mesopotamia.

Even older?

There is little to no legal text surviving from either the Early Dynastic or the Old or Middle Kingdoms of Egypt. However, inscriptions in Old Kingdom graves (2613-2181 BC) graves do indicate a complex legal setup that uses precedent and religious principles to adjudicate cases and stems from the time before. In the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BC) we have evidence for full-time judges from grave inscriptions.

Conclusion

With the available evidence, it appears that writing down laws started well before 2500 BC, possibly on material that did not survive the test of time like papyrus. The oldest fragments of law we have from original sources are from the 24th century BC. As such, written laws had been around for at least a millennium and a half to two when the Ten Commandments came along.

Even accepting the Jewish tradition that names 1450 BC as the year in which they were given, there is hard evidence of laws that are about a millennium older.

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  • Since you mention papyrus, I wouldn't be surprised if US laws that are "written" today would all be gone in say thousand years. Of course all the laws still valid would have been reprinted a hundred times. Would be an interesting question: Where is law actually written down? Say the US congress creates a new law or modifies an existing law, they can't just all go home; someone has to write it down. Where does that happen?
    – gnasher729
    Jul 8 at 10:40
  • @gnasher729 at least in Germany, groups of politicans propose a wording, and then the assembly votes on the proposal(s)
    – Trish
    Jul 8 at 11:18
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It should be pointed out that many scholars would define criminal laws as laws that show grant a prescribed consequence to illegal action. The reason why the "Code of Hammurabi" is so remembered is that each law has a prescribed punishment for the offender (I.E. An eye for an eye.) albeit, a rather harsh one by modern standards but at least the criminals knew what would happen if they violated this.

The 10 Commandments lack this in how they were transcribed and are instead moral codes. The first three commandments are actually rules for proper worship of God, who is purportedly the guy who wrote the law. While the Bible does contain Laws (in fact, a good part of Old Testament and the Torah are nothing but Law for the Hebrew Peoples, the actual societal laws that were enforced (based off the 10 commandments) were detailed in the Books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Law of Moses was actually written as a partial response to legal codes at the time and were unique in that they held that violating the law was a transgression against God, not just society (Sumerian Code and Hammurabi claimed only the later, despite both being divinely inspired) though Biblical Law did borrow from these legal traditions (famously, Biblical Law has "Eye for an Eye" as a consequence of illegal actions... something that was famously repudiated by Jesus Christ, who pointed out instead of following this "law of vengeance" (lex talionis) one should "turn the other cheek" or otherwise arguing that Justice should be tempered with Mercy, which at the time of the writing of the Gospels, was probably the single most controversial line attributed to Jesus.

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Of course the first law are given to Adam, the same is true with Noah with a little modification and those are the same with the laws given to Moses. Shortly after The Great Flood, God directed Noah and his descendants to observe the following seven commandments, which are parallel or the same as that of the commandments given to Adam;

  1. Do Not Worship a False Deity
    Genesis 2:16 states: “And the Lord God commanded the (man) Adam, saying…” This Divine command to Adam implies that only the One True God, the Creator, should be obeyed and honored as the Deity, and the greatest honor is to serve and worship Him. Thus, one should serve and worship only the One True God, and not any idol.

  2. Do Not Commit Blasphemy (Against your God).
    Leviticus 24:10-17 relates the incident of a Jew who violated the injunction of Exodus 22:27 and blasphemed in anger. Moreover, it states in Leviticus 24:15, “ishish” (any man) who curses his God shall bear his sin.” Why the double expression of “ishish” (literally: “a man, a man”)? This includes all mankind, Jews and Gentiles. This demonstrates that blasphemy is thus prohibited to Gentiles even as it is for the Jews.

  3. Do Not Commit Murder or Injury
    The edict against murder, and the punishment for this transgression, is stated in Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, among man, his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God, He made man.”

  4. Do Not Have Forbidden Sexual Relations
    Five of the six types of relations that are forbidden by God to Gentiles are covered in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” This verse explicitly forbids relations with one’s mother, with a woman who has ever been his father’s domestic partner or certified wife, with a woman who is currently a domestic partner or certified wife of another man, with another male, or with an animal. A Gentile is also forbidden to have relations with his maternal sister, who is learned from Gen. 20:13: “Moreover, she is indeed my sister, my father’s daughter, though not my mother’s daughter; and she became my wife.” (Note that Abraham said this to appease Abimelech. It was actually only figuratively true in his case, since Sarah was the daughter of Abraham’s brother. So they had the same paternal grandfather, who people often referred to as “father.”)

  5. Do Not Commit Theft
    The prohibition of theft is contained within the permission which God granted to Adam and Hava (Eve) in Genesis 2:16 to eat from the trees of the garden. This implies that if the permission had not been granted, they were forbidden to do, because the property did not belong to them. This applied specifically to the fruit of the Tree of “Knowledge of Good and Evil” which was forbidden for them to take, under penalty of death (Genesis 2:17). This Noahide commandment was cited explicitly by Abraham in Genesis 21:25.

  6. Don’t Eat Meat that was Taken from a Live Animal
    Adam and Hava (Eve) were not given permission to kill animals for food, and this remained in effect until after the Flood. God permitted the eating of meat for the first time to Noah and his family after they left the Ark, the reason why God at that time added the seventh commandment, which prohibited the eating of meat that was severed from a living animal (even if it was stunned and insensitive). This commandment given to Noah is recorded in Genesis 9:4: “But meat, with its soul [which is in] its blood you shall not eat.”

  7. Establish Laws and Courts of Justice
    God commanded Noah regarding the trial and punishment of a murderer, as it says in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, among man; his blood shall be shed…” This refers to a Noahide commandment to judge and penalize a murderer. This is explained as follows by the Talmudic Sages: “Whoever sheds the blood of man” (referring to the murderer), “among man” (i.e., he is to be prosecuted in a court by a man who is qualified to testify as a witness), “his blood shall be shed” (if convicted, he is liable to capital punishment by the court).

    The Noahide Code specifies that Gentile societies are obligated to abide by justice through establishing a system of righteous courts of law.

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    This question is focused more on the historic aspect, and thus, relying on the chronology given by religious texts seems a bit inappropriate.
    – Maroon
    Oct 3, 2015 at 13:46
  • This answer is difficult to read. This is a yes or no question. There should be a yes or no answer, or something that explains clearly why you can't give a yes or no answer.
    – jimsug
    Oct 3, 2015 at 14:37
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    I guess the preamble to this answer should read, "No, even Judaic theology/history recognizes laws that far predate the ten commandments."
    – feetwet
    Oct 3, 2015 at 15:46
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    @Maroon Since when did it become true that if a document has theological implications, it must therefore be unreliable? To show that I'm not just playing a side I favor, I'll admit that this answer seems to veer off-topic. The original question was simply whether or not Mosaic Law is the origin of established, written, governing law. I think the answer is attempting to show that these Laws are the origin as they date back to Creation, but there is no known empirical evidence we can show to establish this concretely to external observers.
    – user900
    Oct 4, 2015 at 3:07
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    @TechnikEmpire: What I'm trying to get at (perhaps not very well) is that from a "scientific" perspective I cannot be reasonably certain that the relevant ideas were not retroactively written in, particularly when I might read the relevant portions of Genesis figuratively (which is something that is fine!). (And no, documents with "theological implications" aren't inherently bad -- e.g. one can discuss the political aspects of the content of a monk's diary without issue. The key thing is that the context would feel significantly more grounded in history than the beginning of Genesis does.)
    – Maroon
    Oct 4, 2015 at 4:03

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