Three Examples of the Evolution of Legal Systems and their Embodiment in Written Code

Legal systems and legal codes

Legal language has evolved in parallel to the discipline of law. The custom of writing and conserving legal texts makes them some of the oldest documents that can be found in history. The oldest civilizations used language to codify and regulate the administrative and legal orders.

In this post I would like to list three historical examples of law codes in order for you to take a look at the origins of written law throughout the ages:

1) The Code of Ur-Nammu

Although there seems to be some discrepancies among the sources as to what year exactly this code was written, it can be placed between 2100 and 2050 BC. It is the oldest known law code surviving today. It comes from Mesopotamia and it was written on tablets, in the Summerian language. 

According to Jeremy Norman's article, The Oldest Known Tablet Containing a Legal Code, the first copy of the code (found in two fragments at Nippur, southeast of Baghdad, modern Iraq) was translated by Samuel Kramer in 1952. Only the prologue and five of the laws were discernible at the time, yet more tablets were found in Ur (another Summerian city from ancient Mesopotamia) in 1965, allowing about forty of the fifty-seven laws to be reconstructed. 

2) The Code of Hammurabi

This is a well-preserved Babylonian code of law from ancient Mesopotamia, dating back to about 1754 BC. It is also the most complete and perfect collection still existing. Encyclopedia Britannica (Code of Hammurabi) tells us that it was developed during the reign of Hammurabi of the first dynasty of Babylon. It consists of his legal decisions including economic provisions (prices, tariffs, trade, and commerce), family law (marriage and divorce), criminal law (assault, theft), and civil law (slavery, theft). Punishment was imposed in accordance with the status of the transgressors and the circumstances in which the act was committed. 

3) The Torah (aka Pentateuch or Old Testament)

Also referred to as the Law of Moses, it encompasses the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. The Torah will have a direct effect in later codes (Priester Codex) during the Christian era and at the end of the Roman Empire, during which time written law becomes important. According to the following reference in Wikipedia, the main difference between the Law of Moses and the above-mentioned codes is that transgressions were seen as offenses against God rather than against society (which are now covered by civil law). 

The laws of the Torah were spread throughout most of the books, and they included instructions regarding the laws of morality, purity, feasts, society, and even food among others. Another difference between the Torah and Hammurabi's Code, for example, is that the latter protected the nobility and land-owners as privileged classes, yet in the former it was the widows, the orphans, the poor, and the strangers who were "protected and favored" (The Code of Hammurabi compared to the Torah).