Here’s the deal, there are several laws which might be considered as the worlds oldest.
Some of the oldest laws existed before writing did. As such, the oldest written law in the world is a different law than the oldest law that ever existed.
Then of course, there are the first spoken laws.
Look, for the sake of being thorough, we are going to take a look at all three.
The First Existing Law, The First Written Law, and The First Spoken Law.
1. The First Existing Laws: Natural Law
Natural laws are those unchanging observable principles of life itself.
Natural laws have been in existence since the beginning of life itself, albeit, in an unwritten form. Surely these laws predate all forms of written law.
According to The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The term “natural law” is ambiguous. It refers to a type of moral theory, as well as to a type of legal theory, but the core claims of the two kinds of theory are logically independent. –Source
An even more thorough definition of “Natural Law” can be found at: All About Philosophy.
Natural Law is a moral theory of jurisprudence, which maintains that law should be based on morality and ethics. Natural Law holds that the law is based on what’s “correct.” Natural Law is “discovered” by humans through the use of reason and choosing between good and evil. Therefore, Natural Law finds its power in discovering certain universal standards in morality and ethics. – Source
Though natural laws exist, they have to be discovered or observed to be known. Though natural laws are discovered through theory and observation, they are different from the “Laws of Nature”. Laws of Nature, such as gravity, etc. are based on purely scientific theory and principles, rather than morals and ethics.
As funny as John’s description of the oldest law is, it provides an excellent example of natural law.
Here are a few more examples of natural laws:
- Killing Without Reason is Wrong
- The Right to Be Heard in Court
- The Right to Private Property
These laws may seem like common sense, and in many ways, natural laws are a sort of common sense. Depending on what you mean by the oldest law, natural laws are the oldest laws. Though these laws existed before writing and were not man-made.
2. The Oldest Written Law: The Ur-Nammu Codes
Now, what is the oldest written law? What is the first set of laws made and written by man?
It’s true, laws have developed and changed significantly over the years. Now we have laws that govern everything from insurance claims for damaged cars, to laws governing the height of grass in a lawn.
But the first laws were much more simple…
Now, when most people talk about the first set of laws, they often point to the Hammurabi Babylon Codes, as this is what most of us were taught in school.
This is crazy, but the lesser known Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100–2050 BCE) predates Hammurabi’s Code (1754 BCE). From Mesopotamia, Ur-Nammu’s codes were written in Sumerian and are the oldest known written laws.
This code of laws was very similar to Hammurabi’s, and be warned, they were brutal. Here are a few of them:
- If a man commits a murder, that man must be killed.
- If a man commits a robbery, he will be killed.
- If a man commits a kidnapping, he is to be imprisoned and pay 15 shekels of silver.
- If a slave marries a slave, and that slave is set free, he does not leave the household.
- If a slave marries a native (i.e. free) person, he/she is to hand the firstborn son over to his owner.
- If a man violates the right of another and deflowers the virgin wife of a young man, they shall kill that male.
- If the wife of a man followed after another man and he slept with her, they shall slay that woman, but that male shall be set free.
There are 32 codes in total of the Code of Ur-Nammu.
3. The First Spoken Word: God’s Law to Adam
Arguably, the first spoken law, was the law God spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. A simple law given in Genesis 2:16 16-17 that most of us are familiar with:
16 The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; 17 but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”
And, as we all know, that law was quickly broken. Of course, there are many more laws in the Bible as well which may be among the oldest. But the oldest of the old is certainly the law in Genesis.
So, what is the Oldest Law in the World?
As you can see from the above information, it really depends on what you mean by law. Natural laws have existed ever since life began. Yet, it took much longer to find their way to the minds of men, and then to paper.
The most obvious answer for the worlds oldest law is: the Ur-Nammu Codes. Which, although they were very similar to the Hammurabi Codes, predated them by hundreds of years
Finally, the first law in the world may also be: the law spoken to Adam and Eve to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge.
Depending on how you slice it, the oldest law in the world must be left somewhat up to the observer.
Did we miss one? Let us know below!