Systems of Law by Way of God: an Analysis of the Pentateuch, the Theodosian Code, and the Magna Carta

What relationship, if any, could the proclamation of basic duties of man, the Decalogue, have to the proclamation of basic rights of man, the Magna Carta? Though the Great Charter seldom mentions God or the prospect of divine right, which are prominent in the Ten Commandments and the Theodosian Code of Roman law, respectively, it too regards the order of God as necessary in the determination of human law; the Pentateuch — which includes the Decalogue, — the Theodosian Code, and the Magna Carta all derive their authority in law from God. Despite differences in the method in which laws are conveyed, manner of punitive measures, God’s stance regarding the dignity of man, and man’s reasoning for following the set codes of law, they all inherently derive authority from God.

The manner in which laws are conveyed to subjects differs greatly in the three associated texts. In the Torah, God’s order of law is a simple message passed onto his people through a prophet; Moses has nothing to gain by subjecting his people to the law, at least not in the sense that the Roman emperors do. The Theodosian Code, by contrast, is a series of decrees by various emperors that derive authority from God; they reasoned that rulers are appointed by God and thus, all people should submit to rulers by order of God. Similarly, the Magna Carta came about during a time when the ideas of divine right and mandate of heaven were still prominent in English society. However, the writers of the Magna Carta derive the same power from God that the king does:1)

“By the suggestion of God and for the good of our soul and
those of all our predecessors and of our heirs, to the honor of
God and the exaltation of holy church, and the improvement of
our kingdom...”

Here, the English subjects concede that the king’s authority is derived from God, but throughout the text they proclaim that a king’s authority as it pertains to individual liberties must be limited.

The manner in which subjects of God and the state are punished for violating respective codes of law differ greatly. In the Pentateuch, many of the decreed punishments for infraction of God’s law were not punishments in the sense of the word as we use it today. For breaking the Commandments, subjects may not only be stoned or killed for their crimes; they will have to answer to God:2)

“I shall bring upon you sudden terror, wasting disease,
recurrent fever, and plagues that dim the sight and cause the
appetite to fail...I shall set my face against you, and you will
be routed by your enemies”

In contrast, the Theodosian Code makes no mention of wrath of god as punishment for crimes; their penalties range from simple fines to slavery to death — but all punitive measure comes from the state. In contrast to both texts, the Magna Carta pertains more to laws limiting government rather than those limiting individuals. It makes almost no decrees of punishment save fines and repossession of private property.

Whether expressed subtly or overtly, the dignity of humans is an underlying assumption in all three of the aforementioned texts. In the Decalogue, there is no mention of any subjective “right” or “liberty” regarding man’s relationship to other men — only duty to one another. God proclaimed to his people:3)

“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may enjoy
long life in the land, which the Lord your God is giving you.” 

This implies that people must be treated with a certain level of dignity and respect as humans. Similarly, in the Theodosian Code of Rome, Gratian Augustus and Theodosius Augustus decree:4)

“Those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of
Catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom We adjudge
demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical
dogmas.” 

This selection shows that the code of law that is to project God’s order on his subjects reflects inherent dignity in humans, if only in Catholics. In the Magna Carta as well, it is clear that human dignity is implied; the very basis of its passing implies that the king’s subjects, as well as the king himself, are entitled to certain dignifying liberties by God.

Man’s reasoning for following the set code of law is relatively simple in ancient Jewish society. The first commandment mandates that Yahweh is the Lord of Jewish people and that there are no other gods; it decrees that subjects follow his laws out of trust in him as their lord, then that they serve him out of duty and fear of his wrath. In contrast, the Roman government, rather than the god it claims to have been appointed by, imposes rule on its subjects. Roman citizens in turn follow the respective codes of law out of fear of reprisal from the inquisitorial Roman government — known for a lack of consideration for individual rights, prejudicial examiners in court, and very cruel punishments.

Very different still, the reasoning behind the Magna Carta was not a direct influence from God or fear of reprisal from authority. Rather, it was built from a reaction to the oppressive authority of King John. Taxing his subjects harshly in order to wage a costly war with France, unrest grew among the aristocracy and the contract was forced upon the king. There is no direct reference to God, the Decalogue, or any specific commandment; the king and his heirs limit their power out of fear of their subject’s reprisal. From ancient Israel to medieval English society, there is a gradual and logical progression from accepting the basic duties of man (the Torah), to accepting the basic duties of subjects (the Theodosian Code), to accepting the basic rights of subjects (the Magna Carta) — all justified by God’s perceived order.

It is clear that despite the differences in circumstances surrounding the origin of the Pentateuch — the first five books of the Torah — and the Decalogue, the Theodosian Code, and the Magna Carta, they all derive authority for their respective codes of law from their individual gods. This is most clear in the case of the ancient Jews, who were commanded directly by God’s prophet, Moses, to adhere to the Ten Commandments and the further elaborations made upon them in the Pentateuch. The driving force behind the writing of the Decalogue was God’s decree itself.

Similarly, in the case of Roman law tradition, the teachings of the prophets Jesus, Peter, and Paul established a code of moral law within Christianity. When the Romans converted to Christianity, the emperors and government took the teachings of Christian prophets and set out to convert their vast empire of subjects to Catholicism, claiming it to be the will of God. Like the Pentateuch, the Theodosian Code was driven by — or at least justified by — the order of God. The writers of the Magna Carta, though more discreet about their references to a god, still implicitly derive their authority from their divine right to certain individual liberties — liberties that are uninfringeable upon by the crown. The writers remark, “by the suggestion of God”; “by the grace of God”; “to the honor of God and the exaltation of holy church.” Although they are rising up against a king who claims to have divine right to rule, they still act out of service to God in demanding the Magna Carta of the king. It is clear that in the societies of ancient Israel and Judah, the Roman Empire under Catholicism, and medieval England, that the authority to make and enforce laws is derived from God and his moral system.

References

  1. “From The Torah: Laws.” Ed. James M. Brophy et al. Perspectives from the Past: Primary Sources in Western Civilizations, 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005: 90-95.
  2. “The Theodosian Code: Roman Law.” Ed. James M. Brophy et al. Perspectives from the Past: Primary Sources in Western Civilizations, 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005: 262-269.
  3. “The Magna Carta: English Constitutional Law.” Ed. James M. Brophy et al. Perspectives from the Past: Primary Sources in Western Civilizations, 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005: 365-371.
1)
Magna Carta, 365
2)
The Book of Leviticus, 94
3)
Exodus 90
4)
Theodosian Code, 264

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