Justice in the Ancient World

The word “justice” seems to pop up everywhere. We increasingly hear about things like environmental justice, health justice, economic justice, racial justice, among many others. Modern theorists, such as John Rawls and Michael Sandel, have spent their entire academic careers trying to understand historical definitions of justice while simultaneously offering their own arguments for definition. Within American Christian circles, fault lines have formed over how to define this term and what that should look like in the lives of believers. Scripture clearly presents justice as something that should be important to Christians, but what exactly does this mean?

This isn’t a new question. Ancient civilizations were keenly aware of the problems caused by injustice within human societies. However, like their modern counterparts, they often struggled with how it should be understood. While the Old Testament contains hundreds of Bible verses that speak about justice, this conversation was also occurring in the surrounding Near Eastern world. The material below is intended to provide a broad overview of how justice was perceived and applied within the geopolitical framework of the ancient world. This is by no means exhaustive, as I’ve only included a sampling of the available texts.

Early Mesopotamian kingdoms

The promotion of justice is a prominent theme throughout Mesopotamian documents.[1] Ancient money lenders could be brutal, often charging oppressive interest rates and using unjust debt collection practices. One of the most ancient justice-related texts dates back to 2430 B.C. In this document, Entemena, governor of Lagash, praised himself for having “freed [the population] of [oppressive] interest rates.”[2] This immediately follows the declaration that he “brought freedom to Lagash,” as evidenced by returning a child to its mother [presumably a child that had been forcibly taken as payment for debt].[3] A similar practice was mentioned in the Edict of Ammisaduqa, from the late Old Babylonian period, which begins by declaring “the arrears of the farmer, shepherd, provincial officials, and crown tributaries … are remitted. The collector may not sue for payment.”[4] It further notes that any funds “collected by constraint he must refund,” even adding that those who refuse to provide a refund shall be put to death.[5]

The inscription known today as the Reforms of Uruinimgina, records the king making an agreement with the god Ningirsu that he would never subjugate the orphan or widow to the powerful.[6] The text lists numerous examples of establishing justice, such as removing the “safe passage toll” charged to workers, putting a stop to rich landowners who were plundering the orchards of the poor, and setting free those inhabitants of Lagash who had been wrongly imprisoned by the powerful.[7] Ur-nammu, the king of Ur, Sumer, and Akkad (c. 2112-2094 B.C.), proclaimed that during his reign, “The orphan was not delivered up to the mighty man; the man of one shekel was not delivered up to the man of one mina.”[8] Gudea, who reigned Lagash in Southern Mesopotamia circa 2080-2060, claimed, “I paid attention to the justice ordained by Nanše and Ningirsu [Mesopotamian deities]; I did not expose the orphan to the wealthy person, nor did I expose the widow to the influential one.”[9]

Lipit-Eštar (c. 1870-1860 B.C.) of the pre-Babylonian Isin-Larsa Dynasty is described as a “king who established justice in the land of Sumer and Akkad,”[10] and would boast about building a “house of justice.”[11] His successor, Enlik-bāni, would proclaim, “I established justice in Nippur. I made righteousness appear.”[12] A long succession of Isin kings would refer to their rule as a “reign of justice” (including Nūr-Adad, Sîn-iddinam, and Sîn-iqīšam). Warad-Sîn took the title “shepherd of justice,”[13] and Samsu-iluna spoke of his “scepter of justice.”[14]Ammī-ditāna brags that “the gods Samas and Marduk love my reign [because] I provided justice for the land of Sumer and Akkad.”[15] In 1974, Wolfram von Soden translated a Mesopotamian prayer tablet to the goddess Ishtar, which praised the deity as one who “loves justice.”[16] She is described elsewhere as one who judges “the people with righteousness and justice” and “regards the oppressed and beaten and leads them daily with equity.”[17]

Early Ugaritic texts depict a prince confronting his sickly father, the Hurrian king Keret, whom he believed was failing in his royal duties of ensuring justice. He said, “You do not judge the cause of the widow, you do not try the case of the importunate, because you have become a brother to a bed of sickness.”[18]

Babylonian & Assyrian Empires

One of the most famous kings of the First Babylonian Dynasty, Hammurabi, declared in the prologue to his Code of Hammurabi, “Then did God (Anu) and Bêl call me by name, Hammurabi, the high prince, god-fearing, to exemplify justice in the land, to banish the proud and the oppressor, that the great should not despoil the weak.”[19] The prologue concludes, “When Marduk brought me to direct all people and commissioned me to give judgment, I laid down justice and right in the provinces.”[20] As would be expected, justice features prominently throughout the document. 

Turning to the Neo-Assyrians empire, the royal inscriptions of Sargon II declares, “I, Sargon, who protects justice.”[21] In a fuller description, he states, “In accordance with the saying of my name … that the greats gods had given to me—to protect truth and justice, to guide the powerless, (and) to prevent the wrongful harm of the weak.”[22] He later mentions defeating a nameless Hittite king “who did not protect justice.”[23] Later, when Esarhaddon assumed the throne, he would be presented with a report lamenting that “justice has been in abeyance since Sargon.”[24] He recognizes “the gods named me for shepherding the land and people in order to give the land and the people verdicts of truth and justice.”[25] He longs that “the future prince” would respect his inscription by ruling with “truth and justice.”[26] His successor Ashurbanipal would boast, “I shepherded them in prosperity and justice,”[27] and referred to himself as one “whom they [the “great gods”] had created in truth and justice.”[28] Nebuchadnezzar, a king of Babylon, would be described as “a lover of truth and righteousness.”[29] The cuneiform texts translated by W. G. Lambert, which possibly refer to Nebuchadnezzar, describe the king as one who “was not negligent in the matter of true and righteous judgment.”[30]

Egypt & the Hatti

Egyptian texts depict the deity Maat as “the personification of values like order, justice, and truth,”[31] and justice-oriented proverbs frequently appear in the Wisdom of Amenemope.[32] The term maat was also the Egyptian word for justice. In the Horemheb Edict, the king seeks to bring Egypt back to the laws of Maat, both by establishing justice (ma’at) and punishing oppression and injustices.[33]To promote justice, he zealously watched for “greedy men” and “took counsel in his heart … to crush evil and destroy iniquity” and to stand against “instances of greed in the land.”[34] 

Hittite inscriptions lack the bold declarations of justice seen in the Code of Hammurabi. However, they frequently use the term hanantatar, which seems to be the counterpart to the Egyptian term maat. It referred both “to divine justice and the power to impose that justice.”[35] The frequency of the term in these texts indicates the kings of the Hatti people were concerned with ensuring justice. 

Ancient Greece & Anatolia

The chief deity in ancient Anatolia (modern day Turkey) was the mother-goddess Cybele, who was possibly an appropriation of the goddess Anahita (the most significant deity in the Iranian pantheon). Cybele was the “Great Mother” who punished or rewarded human conduct. Justice was conceived as her avenging force meant to punish those who engage in oppression and violence.[36]

In the Greek world,[37] their version of the Mother-Goddess was Gaia, who bore the Titans. One of these Titans was the powerful feminine deity called Themis. She was the Titan from whom the Greeks believed law, order, and justice originated. Themis gave birth to three daughters (among other children): Eunomia (goddess of good order and lawful conduct), Eirene (goddess of peace), and Dike (goddess of justice).[38] According to Hesiod, Dike would bring news of human injustice to Zeus, then enact vengeance per her father’s instructions.[39] In his work Attic Nights, the ancient author Aulus Gellius describes these divine representations of justice as being women “of maidenly form and bearing, with a stern and fearsome countenance, a keen glance of the eye, and a dignity and solemnity which was neither mean nor cruel, but awe-inspiring.” He further notes that justice must always be depicted as stern “that she may inspire fear in the wicked and courage in the good.”[40] “Themis” and “dike” became Greek terms for concepts such as justice, moral order, and law. These terms, and the deities themselves, feature prominently in the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer.

Because of its connection to these divine beings, the Greeks believed justice was a primordial divine force in the universe. As such, their mathematicians thought it could be expressed mathematically. Anaximander (c.610-c.546) believed that everything in the universe contained opposite forces constantly in a state of war. When one caused strife and overwhelmed its opposite, it caused injustice. Justice was the “self-regulative equilibrium” of nature necessary to undo this imbalance.[41] Pythagoras (c.570-c.495), who studied at the temple of Themis as a young man, also believed that justice was a matter of harmony. As such, acts of injustice necessitated equivalent reparation, much in the way that an apple thrown into the air must necessarily involve the oppositional force necessary to pull it back to earth. For the Greeks, justice demanded harmony, balance, and equivalent reparation.[42] Just as a pebble thrown into a lake must cause ripples, acts of injustice necessarily bring about corresponding acts of restorative justice. An example of this can be seen in Herodotus’ monumental Histories (circa 430 BC) which looked at injustices committed between nation-states. Throughout the work, justice is conceived as responding to injustice with equivalent measure.

Later philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, built on this idea by applying it to societal harmony. Since justice demanded harmony, a “just” society was one where each class of people performed the behavioral patterns necessarily for a well-order and harmonized society. These roles were predetermined by nature. In their conception, while it was unjust for a master to be overly cruel to his slave, it was equally unjust for a slave to flee from his master.[43] As Plato put it, “man should practice one thing only, which is the thing to which his nature was best adopted.”

Rome

The Greek’s religious and philosophical conceptions of justice would find ultimate expression in the Roman imperial cult, with Augustus declaring that all of Rome recognized his “virtue, clemency, justice, and piety.”[44] Augustus would go so far as to identify himself with Iustitia, the Roman equivalent of Dike. Elsemieke Daadler correctly noted, “It has been generally accepted that the administration of justice was one of the most important tasks of Roman emperors.”[45] For Imperial Rome, justice was increasingly defined as that which brought order and stability to the State. and thus was increasingly perceived as “the value that most legitimized their right to rule other peoples.”[46] This kind of justice was referred to as the Pax Romana, or “the peace of Rome.”[47] While individual concerns were not ignored—there are many examples of justice for those wronged—personal justice gave way to maintaining the social order. Hence, the crucifixion of over six thousand revolting slaves by the legions of Crassus (literally lining the Appian Way from Rome to Capua with their bodies, a distance of 132 miles) was considered justice.[48] In 4 B.C., Varus crucified over two thousand Jews after conquering Jerusalem.[49] When Lucius Pedanius Secundus was stabbed by one of his slaves in A.D. 61, the Senate approved executing all four hundred of his household slaves. When the common people demanded the release of innocent slaves, Nero responded by using the army to ensure the executions were carried out.[50] While most Roman elites would have most likely recognized there was something unfair about the innocent dying for the actions of the guilty, they also believed true justice could only be achieved when the various social classes stayed in their assigned place. While not ideal, they considered the mass executions just when considered on a social scale.

Conclusion

We dare not flatten these diverse cultures into a single ideology or minimize their vast differences. Still, some commonalities do emerge:

  1. Justice was the responsibility of state leaders. All these various cultures believed that leaders were expected to look after the welfare of their disenfranchised subjects. This is sometimes referred to as noblesse oblige, a French saying meaning that those in positions of power had a social responsibility to those without power. Even Rome believed this, though they prioritized State stability above correcting individual disenfranchisement within the lower classes.
  2. Justice was partly retributive, as it required the prohibition of injustice and the punishment of oppression. Wicked deeds must be met with judicial retribution and governmental measures must be taken to discourage future oppressive acts.
  3. Justice was partly restorative, as it involved overt acts of kindness and mercy in order to relieve the suffering of the disenfranchised. For those in power to refuse either element was seen as deeply wicked and unjust.
  4. Justice was divinely ordered. As such, it was an ethical necessity to which all mankind must adhere. Even the king himself was bound by this requirement, at least in theory.

However, justice in the ancient world was also deeply flawed. It often only occurred at the beginning of a leader’s reign as part of a political ploy to win favor. There is little evidence that it was applied consistently as an intentional, structured approach to governing (with the Reforms of Uruinimgina being a possible exception). Ancient justice was situational, sporadic, and seemingly random. It could also be mixed with cruelty of self-serving despotism. In the case of Imperial Rome, justice was largely seen as that which was good for the stability of the Empire, not what was needed for the individual sufferer.


[1] Raymond Westbrook, “Social Reform in the Ancient Near East,” in Social Justice in the Ancient World, ed. K. D. Irani and Morris Silver, Global Perspectives in History and Politics: Contributions in Political Science 354 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995), 170.

[2] Words in brackets appear to be Nardoni’s attempt to clarify meaning. See Enrique Nardoni, Rise Up, O Judge: A Study of Justice in the Biblical World, trans. Charles Martin (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 2. W.G. Lambert’s original French translation reads, “Il fit instituer la liberte des interest.” See W. G. Lambert, “Nebuchadnezzar King of Justice,” British Institute for the Study of Iraq 27, 1 (1965): 16.

[3] Maurice Lambert’s original translation into French reads, “II fit instituer la liberté de Lagash.” Translation is my own. See Maurice Lambert, “L’Expansion de Lagash Au Temps D’Entemena,” Rivista Degli Studi Orientali 47, 1 (1972): 2, cf. 1-22. The text further says he “instituted freedom for the inhabitants of Uruk, for the inhabitants of Larsa, for the inhabitants of Badtibira [etc.].” 

[4] J. J. Finkelstein, “The Edict of Ammisaduqa: A New Text,” Revue d’Assyriologie et d’archéologie Orientale 63, 1 (1969): 49. The document further forbids debt collected from “any Akkadian or Amorite.”

[5] Finkelstein, “The Edict of Ammisaduqa,” 50.

[6] Frayne, Presargonic Period (2700-2350 BC), 265.

[7] Ibid., 264. Niels Peter Lemche calls our attention to the fact that Entemena also extended this debt relief to the surrounding regions. See Niels Peter Lemche, “Andurārum and Mīšarum: Comments on the Problem of Social Edicts and Their Application in the Ancient Near East,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 38, 1 (1979): 16.

[8] J. J. Finkelstein, “The Laws of Ur-Nammu,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 22 (1969): 68. Note that Ezekiel 45:12 places the value of a mina as being sixty shekels. There is some uncertainty how the Ugaritic system subdivided their units of measure, leading some to conclude the mina was worth fifty shekels. See Robert R. Stieglitz, “Commodity Prices at Ugarit,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 99, 1 (1979): 15–23.

[9] Dietz Otto Edzard, Gudea and His DynastyThe Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia Early Periods (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 36.

[10] Douglas R. Frayne, Old Babylonian Period (2003-1595 BC)The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia Early Periods (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 47.

[11] Frayne, Old Babylonian Period (2003-1595 BC), 54.

[12] Ibid., 89.

[13] Ibid., 248.

[14] Ibid., 378.

[15] Ibid., 413.

[16] Wolfram von Soden, “Zwei Königsgebete an Ištar Aus Assyrien,” Archiv Für Orientforschung 25 (1974): 38. Soden’s translation appears on page 48, “die Gerechtigkeit liebt.”

[17] Moshe Weinfeld, “‘Justice and Righteousness’ – משפט וצדקה: The Expression and Its Meaning,” in Justice and Righteousness: Biblical Themes and Their Influence, ed. Henning Graf Reventlow and Yair Hoffman (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), 235.

[18] J. C. L. Gibson, Canaanite Myths and Legends, 2nd ed. (New York: T&T Clark International, 1978), 101.

[19] C. H. W. Johns, Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts, and LettersLibrary of Ancient Inscriptions (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904), 390.

[20] Johns, 392.

[21] Grant Frame, The Royal Inscriptions of Sargon II, King of Assyria (721-705 BC) (University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2021), 287.

[22] Ibid., 20, cf. 229.

[23] Ibid., 69, cf. 331.

[24] Johns, 377.

[25] Leichty, 121.

[26] Ibid., 99.

[27] Jamie Novotny and Joshua Jeffers, The Royal Inscriptions of Ashurbanipal (668-631 BC), Aššur-Etel-Ilāni (630-627 BC), and Sîn-Šarra-Iškun (626-612 BC), Kings of Assyrial, Part 1 (University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2018), 58.

[28] Ibid., 241.

[29] Stephen Langdon, Die Neubabylonischen Königsinschriften, vol. 4 (Leipzig: J.C. Hinrich, 1912), 100. See page 101 for Langdon’s German translation.

[30] The king’s name is never mentioned in the surviving text, though it undoubtedly comes from the later Babylonian period. See Lambert, “Nebuchadnezzar King of Justice,” 8.

[31] Epsztein, 18. For an overview of the concept of justice in Egypt, see Nardoni, 21-41; and Scott N. Morschauser, “The Ideological Basis for Social Justice/Responsibility in Ancient Egypt,” in Social Justice in the Ancient World, ed. K. D. Irani and Morris Silver, Global Perspectives in History and Politics: Contributions in Political Science 354 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995), 101–14.

[32] For a thorough discussion of the Wisdom of Amenemope, including its similarity to Proverbs, see Ronald J. Williams, “The Alleged Semitic Original of the Wisdom of Amenemope,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 47 (1961): 100–106.

[33] W. Helck, “Das Dekret Des Königs Haremheb,” Zeitschrift Für Ägyptische Sprache Und Altertumskunde 80 (1955): 114, 118. For more information of the Horemheb Edict, see Barry J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2018), 297.

[34] William J. Murnane, Texts from the Amarna Period in Egypt (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1995), 235–36. For an English translation of the entire edict, see pages 235–40.

[35] Trevor Bryce, Life and Society in the Hittite World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 33.

[36] Bodil Hjerrild, “Near Eastern Equivalents to Artemis,” in From Artemis to Diana: The Goddess of Man and Beast, ed. Tobias Fischer-Hansen and Birte Poulson (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2009), 45.

[37] This backdrop has less significance for Isaiah but becomes important as we consider Matthew’s social world.

[38] Hesiod, Theogony 901ff. cf Pindar, Olympian Ode 13.6ff.

[39] Hesiod, Works and Days 248ff; 274ff. For an overview of the Greek view of justice, see Eric A. Havelock, The Greek Concept of Justice: From Its Shadow in Homer to Its Substance in Plato (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978).

[40] Aulus Gellius, With An English Translation, ed. John C.Editor Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd., 1927), 36.

[41] Gregory Vlastos, “Equality and Justice in Early Greek Cosmologies,” Classical Philology 42, 3 (1947): 173.

[42] Gregory Vlastos, “Equality and Justice in Early Greek Cosmologies,” Classical Philology 42, 3 (1947): 173.

[43] Anton-Hermann Chroust, “The Function of Law and Justice in the Ancient World and the Middle Ages,” Journal for the History of Ideas 7, (1946): 298–320.

[44] Res Gestai Divi Augusti 6.34.141.

[45] Elsemieke Daalder, “The Decreta and Imperiales Sententiae of Julius Paulus: Law and Justice in the Judicial Decisions of Septimius Severus,” in The Impact of Justice on the Roman Empire: Proceedings of the Thirteenth Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire: June 21-24, 2017, ed. Oliver Hekster and Koenraad Verboven (Leiden Netherlands: Brill, 2019), 49.

[46] For early Christian reactions to and general distrust in Roman “state justice,” see Klaus Wengst, Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1987).

[47] Koenraad Verboven and Oliver Hekster, “Introduction,” in The Impact of Justice on the Roman Empire: Proceedings of the Thirteenth Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire (June 21-24, 2017), ed. Koenraad Verboven and Oliver Hekster, Impact of Empire 34 (Leiden Netherlands: Brill, 2019), 1.

[48] Appian, Civil Wars 1.116.

[49] Josephus, Antiquities 17.10.

[50] Tacitus, Annales xiv. 42-25.

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