Municipal or national law is the set of rules that, within a state, orders its affairs and those of persons under its jurisdiction, and which, when necessary, is enforced by special organs of the state. There may be more than one municipal law in a state, as in the United Kingdom, which contains the Scottish, English, and Northern Irish legal systems, or in the United States, where each state has its own legal system in addition to the federal system. Other states, such as India, have special rules for special communities (e.g., for Christians). International law is the law between states and between states and other international entities.
Municipal law can be divided into the law that regulates the affairs of the state itself and that which deals with the rights and duties, privileges, and immunities of persons within it. This division is often described as one between public and private law, though these categories overlap.
The Bible has influenced all those systems of law that can be traced, sometimes tortuously, to western European sources. By and large, the legal systems of other societies have been less subject to its influence, though sometimes that influence was historically present, as with the Russian system, in which a traditional Christianity molded society in former centuries and is still to be discerned in such rules as those regarding contract.
There are two main groups within the broad European legal tradition. Civilian legal systems form one group. These owe much to the legacy of Roman Civil Law, particularly as that Law was rediscovered and developed by scholars from the twelfth to the sixteenth century. The Civil Law lays emphasis on rationality and principle, and for that reason the civilian tradition has been adopted by many states that have consciously chosen their law. The other group, roughly encompassing the Anglo‐American tradition, stems in large part from the English Common Law, and like it has tended to concentrate more on remedies. This group has spread more by conquest and imposition than by conscious adoption. There is also a third group, that of the “mixed” legal systems, which draws from both main traditions. Scots Law and that of Louisiana are examples of these.
The remote history of any legal system is obscure, for much of our understanding of particular influences at specific times is conditional upon the accidental survival of documentation, and deductions therefrom. It is, however, undeniable that the influence of the Bible on the legal systems that trace themselves to a western European root is extensive, though nowadays often diffuse. Biblical principles form a part of the foundations, which, like all good foundations, are well buried. Indeed, many in the twentieth century would deny biblical influence on many legal principles, which in former years were held to be sufficiently justified by the Bible. Much depends upon a willingness to accept parallels as indicative of influence and not a simple coincidence of result. Jews or Christians interpret the evidence differently from those who proceed from rationalist, agnostic, or atheist presuppositions.
When the modern legal systems of the European family were being formed, three main bodies of law influenced their development, namely the indigenous law of the community, Roman law, and canon law. The Bible's influence was mediated through each of these.
Indigenous law was that obtaining within a community, refined in accordance with the expectation of the community as to what was right in a given situation. Naturally, such expectations had much to do with religious belief and presuppositions. In each legal system, therefore, there came to be a body of “common law” manifested and developed through the decisions of judges and the reasoning that supported those decisions. Since the early judges in most countries were in holy orders (though they were not usually canonists), the opportunity for biblical influence was great. Specific recourse to the Bible as authority was unusual, but the principles it contained exercised their influence. Within the English tradition, the common law came to be highly significant, and it is only in comparatively recent times that the legislature has come to be considered of greater authority than the common law in the sense that what Parliament legislates takes precedence over the common law. By contrast, in the American tradition, the Constitution operates as the brake upon the lawmaking power of the Congress or of state legislatures.
Throughout Europe, indigenous law was directly influenced by Roman law, particularly as enunciated in the Corpus Juris Civilis (529–545 CE), the product of scholars working under instructions from the Emperor Justinian. Naturally, the empire having become Christian, there was a desire on the part of these scholars to make the civil law congruent with church teachings. Biblical influences therefore were strong. From the twelfth century onward, scholars (known collectively as the Glossators) worked on the Corpus, expanding its precepts through commentary, with considerable effect on their contemporary municipal law.
The indigenous law was also influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the canon law, a major contribution of the church to civilization. The Roman Catholic church had extended its authority even as the Roman empire waned and disintegrated, and it was considered by many to be the only body that could continue a tradition of universal law. The sources of church law, however, were many and various, and it was only as the church organized itself on a monarchic principle under the papacy that the need for systematization was dealt with. The eleventh‐century rediscovery of Roman Law in the form of the Justinianic legislation, and notably the Digest of 533 CE, provided a model that eventually resulted in the Corpus Iuris Canonici, though that was constantly augmented by interpretation and further legislation. Much of the canon law had to do with church organization, but large portions affected the daily life of the laity and influenced the development of national laws in various areas. The aim of the canonists was to make their system of law correspond as closely as possible to right Christian conduct, and to minimize the separation of law and morals. The Bible influenced their deliberations, though its principles were often mediated through the teachings of the Roman Catholic church.
One area of law affected by the canonists was the law of marriage, an area important in every society and subject to church procedures. Another was the law of wills, where the church rules were much more simple than those of the civil law. Naturally the canonists, keen to keep law and morals together, were concerned with matters of intention and of good and bad faith. In contract, therefore, good faith was made a major requirement, and bargains were enforced through the church courts without the insistence upon the formalities for their constitution that had grown up previously (Matt. 5.34–37). (It has to be said, however, that this development took greater hold in the civilian tradition than in the Anglo‐American, which has retained certain elements of formal requirements such as the notion of “consideration,” and which does not recognize a unilateral contract unless entered into under appropriate ceremonial.) Again, the canonists' stress on responsibility for the consequences of one's actions helped root the concepts of tort.
In the area of crime, intention also came to be insisted upon as a prerequisite for criminality of conduct (see Matt. 5.28), thereby bringing crime into closer association with notions of sin and allowing actions to be differently weighed in any consideration of “blame,” and therefore also of punishment. (A modern extrapolation from such concepts is the Scottish defense to a criminal charge of “diminished responsibility,” which stems from that root, and was only lately taken over into English law.) The emphasis on sin also produced a change in attitude to punishment. In more and more instances, prison as a place of repentance was accorded a higher priority than vengeance exacted through physical unpleasantness. In criminal procedure, the notion of God as judge, weighing the evidence, came to be accepted as a model, and human judges were given a greater freedom in their conduct of trials than former formalities permitted.
Finally, like the theologians and philosophers, the canonists gave consideration to such social questions as the doctrine of the “just price” and the “just wage.” Price fluctuations in response to market forces alone were considered contrary to notions of intrinsic value. Such matters and their attempted solutions are, of course, still with us, and still echo Exodus 20.9; 34.21; 1 Thessalonians 4.11; 2 Thessalonians 3.7, 10–12.
The Reformation produced an interest in principles taken directly from the Bible in contrast to those mediated through church tradition and canon law. In some instances, this interest produced formal legislation. To take examples from one “reformed” jurisdiction, in 1567 in the Scots law the “degrees of relationship” within which marriage could lawfully be contracted were set out in terms of Leviticus 20 and “the Law of God,” and the “prohibited degrees of relationship” for the purpose of defining incest were set out specifically in terms of Leviticus 18—though inaccurately, since the Geneva version (1560) of the Bible was the source used. Again, marriage between divorced persons and their paramours was made unlawful (Matt. 5.32; 19.9; Mark 10.11–12), though this was soon administratively avoided, and adultery was made a crime (Exod. 20.14; Lev. 20:10). Divorce on the grounds of adultery (Matt. 1.18–19; 5.32; 19.9) or desertion (1 Cor. 7.15) was introduced. In 1563, witchcraft was made a capital crime in terms of Exodus 22.18, and various Sunday observance statutes were passed (Exod. 20.10–11). In 1649, 1661, and 1695 blasphemy was made a capital offence, though the full penalty was exacted only once.
The other major element that the Reformation took from the Bible was the concept of the priesthood of all believers (Exod. 19.6; Isa. 61.6; 1 Pet. 2.9; Rev. 1.6; 5.10; 20.6), which eventually filters down to the modern institutions of democratic government.
The law books of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, in which the roots of much modern law are laid, contain a considerable mixture of sources for the principles that they assert. The Bible is often quoted, as is the Roman law. However, appeal is also frequently made to a “natural law,” containing principles that are treated as axiomatic. At first, such “law” was said by writers to be given by God, but in 1625, in the Prolegomena to his De Iure belli ac pacis (The Law of War and Peace), Hugo Grotius pointed out that the legal principles so identified would have a degree of validity even if there were no God. Reason would deduce such principles from a consideration of the nature of human beings and from their needs in society. Others acted on that observation, and drove a wedge between “natural law” and any religious source. This was not, however, a sudden or a complete change of emphasis. Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765), for example, discusses law as stemming from God (Intro. s.2), but makes little appeal to biblical texts. Stair's Institutions of the Law of Scotland (2d ed., 1693), written from a Presbyterian background, also links law to God, making a number of biblical citations in so doing (e.g. Book I, tit. 1, 2–9), but again the bulk of the work treats such matters as a base to be acknowledged and not as an active source of law. In that train, Puritanism influenced English and American law in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but since then the deduction of legal principle from biblical or theological sources has been largely abandoned by lawyers. The principles remain, but their source is usually not acknowledged or is otherwise explained on bases of social, economic, or political necessity. In Europe, anticlericalism gave that trend further impetus.
In the twentieth century, major advances in securing biblical principles have been made in international law, particularly through the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other international Human Rights Covenants and Conventions following in its wake. In some measure, these have provided a statement of fundamental principles for human conduct that draw on biblical ideas among their unacknowledged sources. They provide a base from which municipal law can be criticized, and even, under certain human rights treaties, a remedy and change be obtained.
Within the municipal law of most states of the European tradition, the law generally now proceeds upon unexamined assumptions. The biblical roots acknowledged in the early texts are taken for granted, and go unmentioned in modern discussions of matters such as tort, contract, marriage, divorce, wills, and the like, where the canonists did their job well in former centuries. In some areas, however, there has been a revival of appeal to biblical notions, often with explicit citation of biblical texts. Thus medical ethics, euthanasia, abortion, and surrogacy are controverted legal matters. Curiously, it is in the United States, where the Constitution requires a separation of church and state, that most modern legislation and court action has had a clear biblical base. The debate on such matters as school prayer, abortion, and the teaching of science in schools (creationism verses evolution; see Science and the Bible) has had a considerable emphasis on biblical precept. In other states, the influence of the Bible and of Christianity is left as something inarticulate but nonetheless real. The principles are there, but only those who are willing to do so acknowledge their source. Legislators and judges act on them, but without reference to their origin. As noted, effective foundations are well buried.