“It is a sad day in our country when the moral foundation of our law and the acknowledgment of God has to be hidden from public view to appease a federal judge.” ~ Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, Nov. 14, 20031
Hypothesis: The Ten Commandments are the basis for our modern western legal system.
2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;
3 Do not have any other gods before me.
4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,
6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
8 Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
9 For six days you shall labour and do all your work.
10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.
11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.
12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
13 You shall not murder.
14 You shall not commit adultery.
15 You shall not steal.
16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
17 You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
~ Exodus 20:2-17
Many Christians believe that our western legal system is an extension of the Ten Commandments. This sounds to me like rather like ‘Guilt by Association’, a form of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Just because modern laws have some overlap, or even completely overlap each other, does not at all establish cause (God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses) and effect (civil law).
So how do we go about testing this hypothesis? For the Ten Commandments to actually be the basis upon which our legal system is based (and by extension based on the word of God) a number of requirements must be met:
- a chain of legal history demonstrating a continuous link from Moses to modern law;
- all commandments must be represented in our legal system;
- no other legal system should exist independent of the ten commandments containing laws related to the modern legal system or the Ten Commandments;
- no legal system older than the ten commandments existed containing laws related to the modern legal system or the Ten Commandments.
The first requirement shows that there is a continuous link between our modern legal systems and the laws of Moses. Even if this requirement is met, however, it does not in and of itself demonstrate that they are the source of our laws. This would be strongly supported if the third condition were met. This would show that the Ten Commandments were special and a unique law maker would be required. Note that this uniquely gifted law maker is not necessarily God, since new ideas have been proposed by a number of gifted people throughout history, but it would be consistent with God as the source. The fourth condition, related to the third, would demonstrate that the Ten Commandments could not have been borrowed from a pre-existing legal code. Meeting the second condition, if the other three requirements themselves are met, would strongly suggest that modern law sprouted from the seed that is the Ten Commandments. If not all of the commandments exist in law, it is difficult to maintain that what is supposedly the word of God is immutable in law and that it is the source of law. Let’s look at each in turn.
Link Between Moses and Modern Law
Legal historians agree that the greatest influence on modern legal systems was Greek and Roman, not biblical. The reforms of Solon of Athens (638-558 BCE) is usually attributed as laying down the foundations of our modern legal system and democracy.
Roman law was based heavily on Greek philosophy. Like our system, it was heavily procedural but at this time advocates were lay people and no legal profession existed. Justinian (483-565 CE) reformed the legal system in an attempt to restore what was considered to be the golden age of Roman law three centuries before.
During the Middle Ages, Roman law was lost, but then rediscovered in the 11th cent. CE when ancient legal texts were found at the University of Bologna. Scholars began re-interpreting their own laws in light of these texts. During the Mediæval period, not only Roman influence continued, but even Islamic concepts were borrowed. In England, Norman influence on the law was also apparent in this period. Concepts utterly alien to biblical law, such as the freedom of contract and alienability of property, were introduced in the lex mercatoria, a precursor to merchant law.
Later (ca. 18th and 19th cent. CE), the lex mercatoria was incorporated into civil legal codes such as the French Napoleonic Code and German Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch. Case law, with which we are greatly familiar with in North America, evolved in England as part of Common Law.
There is very little evidence from legal history scholarship that the bible, let alone the Ten Commandments, had any influence on modern law worth mentioning. In light of these facts, Judge Moore’s statement can only be viewed as being bizarrely delusional. Thus, the hypothesis does not meet the first requirement.
Representation of the Ten Commandments in Modern Legal Systems
The first four imply that the god of Abraham is not the only kid on the block. Yet western society tolerates the worship of other gods, indicating a secular foundation. If America were a Christian nation, special status would be given to Christians and Christianity within the Constitution and it is clear that this is not the case. Thus the notion that America is a Christian nation is fantasy. Rather, it is simply a nation full of Christians. These two are not at all the same thing.
Interestingly, it does not prohibit other activities which are quite illegal in modern society. Nowhere is the crime of rape, a crime considered extremely serious today, given even a passing mention. The places in the bible where it does get mentioned show that the victim was at fault. In Deuteronomy 22 a woman deemed not to have cried out loudly enough while being raped (in the city) was to be stoned. In Genesis 19 (a distasteful story) Lot cowardly offers up his virgin daughters to be raped in lieu of his guest. What a guy. And he was the best Sodom had to offer for morality. And God supposedly approved.
As for coveting your neighbor’s posessions, thought crime about his wife is hardly illegal (though rather gauche), nor is trying to outdo the Jones’s with the latest gadgets. I’m not going to say jealousy is a good thing (though the second of the two does give impetus to the economy), but nor is it illegal.
The relevance of the Ten Commandments is further removed from our legal systems when one considers the context of the three or four prohibitions (why do religions only deal in prohibitions anyway? what’s with all the controlling god(s) seems to need?). Ex-Christian minister John Luftus at Debunking Christianity has a good discussion along these lines. The prohibition against murder, which on the surface seems to be a good thing to us and match our own correct prohibition on murder, is tainted when we consider that back then it wasn’t murder to kill an outsider, a non-Jew. The same goes for coveting you neighbor’s possessions (which non-progressively, as is typical of religions, includes his wife as being amongst his chattel). The neighbor must be another Jew for this commandment to be broken. Gentiles were fair game, as the Canaanites found out to their extinction. The stealing prohibition? You betcha. It was okay to steal from those that don’t share the same beliefs, as is made quite clear by the particular Hebrew wording of the commandments (a lot get lost in translation). Does this bear any relation to how we look at the morality of these acts today? Not one iota.
Of the ‘Big Ten’ only three commandments are represented in any western legal system (four if you consider American and Canadian military law) – murder, theft, perjury (and adultery). Even then, these commandments only barbarically applied to within-group activities – not universally. Thus, the hypothesis does not meet the second requirement.
Existence of Legal Systems Independent of the Ten Commandments
Of these there are many. I will list some of the more important ones:
- Laws of Urukagina (ruler of Lagash, a Mesopotamian city-state, ca. 2370 BCE)
- Code of Ur-Nammu (ruler of Ur, located in modern-day Iraq, ca. 2075 BCE)
- Lipit-Ishtar Code (ruler of Isin, located lower Mesopotamia, ca. 2075 BCE)
- Laws of Eshnuuna (a city-state north of where Ur was located, in modern day Iraq – ca. 1930 BCE)
- Code of Hammurabi (ruler of Babylon, ca. 1760 BCE)
In these criminal codes, crimes such as murder, theft, adultery and rape were punishable by death. In fact, these codes of laws cover many legal areas which the bible, let alone the ‘Big Ten’, don’t give even a passing mention. The Lipit-Ishtar Code and the Laws of Eshnuuna even contains some of what we would call tort law. If the laws we live by come from God, and these codes better represent modern law, then which God? Of course, all laws can be attributable to human codification without any need of any deity.
One might claim that the above civilizations all had contact with the Jewish peoples, but all of these codes predate (see below) the laws of Moses and civilizations which could not have had exposure to the Ten Commandments (such as the Mayan and Aztec civilizations) developed very sophisticated criminal and tort legal systems.
Thus, the hypothesis fails the third requirement.
Existence of Legal Systems Predating the Ten Commandments
The Ten Commandments appear in both the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Exodus is the most difficult to date, most likely having a number of authors over quite a span of time. Its final form is thought to be at around 450 BCE. Deuteronomy was first written down probably around the 7th cent. BCE, with additions over the next few centuries.
Are there examples of laws, such as prohibitions against murder and theft, predating the Ten Commandments? Certainly. All of the codes of laws listed above predate when Moses supposedly lived. Some of these legal codes, such as the Code of Ur-Nammu and the Code of Hammurabi, we have extant sources. Earlier legal systems, such as the laws of Urukagina (which contains the first known use of the word ‘freedom’), are known from other sources. Each deals not only with the laws intersecting the Ten Commandments and modern law, but deal with aspects of law untouched by the Ten Commandments.
Thus, the hypothesis fails the fourth requirement.
Since failing to meet even one of the four requirements is sufficient to reject the hypothesis that modern law is based on the Ten Commandments, and thus on the word of God, we must discard it.
From the failure of the first requirement, we conclude that the Ten Commandments are insufficient to account for even a small fraction of criminal law and does not contain any tort law whatsoever. The Ten Commandments deal mainly with issues irrelevant to modern law, such as dictating to which god a person worships. It even tacitly approves acts which are currently illegal, such as slavery.
From the failure of the second requirement, we conclude that the Ten Commandments (and by extension God) is not required for the existence of laws and legal systems. Nowhere in the Codes of Hammurabi or Ur-Nammu are what is written on the tablets attributable to god(s), yet they show a far greater sophistication in their laws. Even civilizations which could not have had any contact with the land of Israel independently created sophisticated criminal and civil courts.
From the failure of the third requirement, we conclude that God (and hence the Ten Commandments) is not the source of why murder, rape, theft, etc. are considered crimes since they were considered crimes by civilizations existing prior to the drafting of the Ten Commandments.
Judge Moore’s claim that the Ten Commandments are the foundation for the US legal system have no merit. That there is minimal overlap between western legal codes and the Ten Commandments demonstrate that certain prohibitions are necessary for a society to function. But our legal systems overlap many other codes of law predating the Ten Commandments, telling us that codes of conduct are required for any society to function and arise spontaneously through their necessity. The laws of Moses are not special in any regard and most are simply irrelevant in a secular system. Judge Moore’s claim is nothing more than post hoc ergo propter hoc, with no demonstration of cause and effect. It is thus a baseless claim without merit and confirms my gut instinct about such notions.
Western governments centuries ago began to divest themselves of religious influence in affairs of state and have gradually become secular. The US was the first western nation to adopt secular values from its beginnings. This is clear from the First Ammendment of the Constitution. Display of the Ten Commandments, having been shown to NOT be the source of any modern legal system, is a clear violation of the principles of the separation of Church and State which the Founding Fathers held dear. Judge Moore callously offended many people of other faiths, those of no faith and even some Christians with his religious bigotry. And that’s all it was – religious bigotry.
Judge Moore may have said the opening quote in 2003, but he is not alone in his belief to this day. Even his eight colleagues on the state supreme court disagreed with him and was sanctioned for refusing to remove the monument of the Ten Commandments. Moore was supported by a number of right-wing Christian groups. But placement of the monument in a secular institution, and one that must remain so to maintain equity under the law, is a blatant promotion of Christianity. His assertion that its removal violates the acknowledgment of the Judeo-Christian God as the source of US law is ludicrous in light of what we have seen here. Certainly, his clear lack of impartiality suggests that he has no business sitting on a park bench, let alone a judicial one.
The bible actually does get a few things right. Amongst them,
And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. ~ John 8:32
Now you know the truth. Amen.
- Roy Moore, http://www.cnn.com/2003/LAW/08/27/ten.commandments/, Retrieved 11-1-2008