The place of law was contested in Christianity from the beginning, and only gradually did the movement generate its own version of religious law. To be a follower of Jesus meant at first to live in tension with the two great legal systems of the Mediterranean world, the Roman and the Jewish. It took time for Christianity to establish its position with respect to either system and to develop its own understanding of law. This article examines the period before Constantine, and identifies some of the tensions the first Christians experienced with respect to law, and the ways they sought to resolve such tensions. The sources of our knowledge are primarily the canonical writings of the New Testament (written between 50 and 100 C.E.)—and some Christian compositions from the second and third centuries.

Roman Law.

Roman law developed across a thousand years, from the Law of the Twelve Tablets (Lex Duodecim Tabularum) in 449 B.C.E., to the great compilation of jurisprudence sponsored by the Emperor Justinian between 529–534 C.E., the Corpus Juris Civilis. Christianity appeared during a period considered to be the most creative in the development of Roman jurisprudence, as the demands of world-empire forced expansion and creativity with respect to earlier, simpler, and more formal procedures. Roman administration included a variety of ordinary magistrates, whose decisions set precedents for further decisions.

After the fall of the Republic, imperial decrees served as the principal source of empire wide legislation. While jurisprudence continued to be concerned with the settlement of disputes over property and of the punishment of criminals, the most compelling issue for those involved in imperial administration was the security and prosperity of the empire. In threatened or unsettled territories (such as the province of Syria-Palestine), considerable latitude was accorded prefects such as Pontius Pilate, the military administrator of Palestine under whom Jesus of Nazareth was executed, to act extra ordinem—that is, outside the code of written law—when the peace and security were threatened. The distinctive Roman mode of execution by crucifixion, imposed particularly on slaves and rebels, was a favorite way to emphasize Roman sovereignty.

Jewish Law.

The Jewish system of law was traditionally ascribed to Moses but had developed over a long period of ancient Israel’s history. In the time of nascent Christianity, Jewish Law also was in a period of creative expansion. Legislation first directed to the regulation of commerce and cult in a (mainly agrarian) nation became otiose in dramatically altered circumstances, such as the occupation of the land by a foreign power (Rome) and the loss of the Temple (in the year 70 C.E.). The twin pressures placed upon the Mediterranean world’s only monotheistic and separatist population by a hegemonic Greek culture and an imperial Roman order stimulated a variety of responses from Jews, all of which, in some fashion or other, involved the reaffirmation of the covenant between God and Israel by a renegotiation of the miṣwōt (“commandments”) that spelled out in concrete terms the demands of the covenant.

All Jews recognized the obligation of keeping God’s laws, but their specific circumstances generated distinct ways of interpreting those commandments. Thus Philo of Alexandria regarded the politeia of Mosaic legislation as superior to that found in Greek culture, but felt free to employ the same allegorical modes of interpretation as those used by Stoic contemporaries in the search for the deeper philosophical meaning of the literal commands. The sectarians at Qumran, in contrast, carried out a rigorous interpretation of Torah according to the dualistic ideology and purity practices of the community that considered that it alone represented the authentic Israel. The Pharisees, in turn, employed the textual expertise of the scribes to adapt ancient legislation to changing circumstances through the practice of midrash. Thus they developed an understanding of a “second Torah,” consisting in oral interpretation of the written text.

After the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in the Jewish war against Rome in 70 C.E., the Pharisees emerged as the dominant form of Judaism. Their convictions and practices of interpretation formed the basis of classical or Talmudic Judaism. The first codification of oral interpretation was the Mishnah, carried out by Judah ha Nasi around 200 C.E. Continuing legal conversation among rabbis led to the massive collections of law and lore known as the Babylonian Talmud and the Talmud of the Land of Israel (compiled between the fifth and seventh centuries C.E., respectively).

Christian Beginnings.

In contrast both to Judaism and Islam, whose embrace of law was immediate and thorough, and whose understanding of obedience of God was completely consonant with the ordering of society, the nature of the early Christian experience made its stance toward law problematic. Throughout the history of Christianity, some continued to regard a positive perception of law as a corruption of the primitive Christian spirit.

Jesus.

Because our primary sources for the ministry of Jesus—the canonical Gospels—are documents of faith composed in light of convictions concerning Jesus as Christ and Lord, and this faith perspective pervades their narratives, statements concerning Jesus and the Law must be tentative. In addition to their bias, the Gospels use traditions that were passed on orally for some 40 years in communities, so that the experiences of the early believers are in some instances read back into the story of Jesus. Certainly the gospels do not support any notion that Jesus deliberately sought to legislate for a later community. The few passages that might be adduced reflect later concerns and fall far short of a code for life (see Matt 5–7, 10, 16, 18).

Still, historical judgments concerning Jesus and the law systems dominating first-century Palestine are possible. We can confidently assert that Jesus did not directly engage or challenge the Roman order. The strong thesis that Jesus was a Zealot who led resistance against Rome is far-fetched, and the weaker thesis that much of his teaching was motivated by an anti-imperial agenda has little support beyond the ambiguous saying on “Giving to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:13–17 and parallels).

On the other side, some element in Jesus’s actions or teachings led to his crucifixion at the command of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate under the titulus, “King of the Jews” (Mark 15:15–25 and parallels). The tension between the gospels’ representation of Jesus’s ministry as one of religious reform and their unflinching portrayal of his death as public and political remains a historical puzzle. Perhaps the most reasonable explanation is that the threat of political instability caused by an insurrection in the city (see Luke 23:19) led Pilate to exercise the ius gladii (the authority to execute) decisively extra ordinem in order to preserve order.

The canonical gospels also portray Jesus as a teacher of Torah—albeit without formal training (Mark 6:1–6)—whose interpretation of a righteousness that “exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees” (Matt 5:20) came into direct conflict with those experts in Jewish legal interpretation. Precisely how much Jesus interpreted Torah in a way that generated controversy and how much this role was ascribed to him by early believers seeking to define their own understanding of Torah over against the synagogue is another historical puzzle. What seems historically clearer is that aspects of Jesus’s behavior with respect to Torah observance caused offense: his breaking of the sabbath, his neglect of purity regulations, nonpayment of temple tax, association with notorious flouters of Jewish piety—the “sinners and tax-collectors,” claim to a special relationship with God, and prophetic gesture in the precincts of the Jerusalem Temple. These mark Jesus as out-of-step with reform movements and even ordinary piety with regard to Jewish Law.

Such behavior would seriously compromise any claim made for or by him of being a messiah, and could even be construed as the signs of a false messiah, who “led the people astray” (Luke 23:1–5). Faced with the growing popularity of such a charlatan, it is not inconceivable that members of the Jewish Sanhedrin could have met in rump session to condemn Jesus and stage manage his appearance before the Roman prefect. A sober historical assessment allows for the combination of religious and political, Jewish and Roman legal systems in the execution of Jesus. What is certain is that for strict adherents of Torah, Jesus’s death was one cursed by God (see Deut 21:23; Gal 3:13), the decisive sign that he was not God’s anointed.

Early Christian communities.

The first Christians’ claims concerning the resurrection of Jesus, and their distinctive manner of life in associations (ekklesiai) analogous to but separate from recognized forms of association in the empire and in Judaism, ensured that Jesus’s followers would initially experience the same tensions vis-à-vis Roman and Jewish legal systems.

The conviction that a man executed as a lestes (“criminal”) should not only “rise from dead” but also be exalted to a share in God’s power and be designated as “Lord” (kyrios) and “King” (basileus) could not but have been perceived by imperial authorities—when the movement broke the surface of obscurity—as inherently subversive of an oikoumene in which only Caesar could legitimately be designated Lord and King. The confession that “Jesus is Lord” also brought believers into conflict with the strict monotheism of formative Judaism. The claim that Jesus inherited the very name of Israel’s God (kyrios is a translation of the Hebrew word Yhwh in the Greek translation of the Torah) meant, in the eyes of loyal Jews that they had made “two powers in heaven”; they were not Jews at all but polytheists.

The tension between the Jews who confessed Jesus as Messiah and those who regarded such confession as a form of blasphemy forced a separation from the synagogue sometime between the destruction of the Temple (70 C.E.) and the end of the first century. The Jewish “Benediction against Heretics” (birkāt ha-minîm) formalized a rift that had begun decades earlier. As a result, Christianity was more clearly exposed as a novel cult with possibly subversive tendencies, no longer to be confused with the ancient religio licita of Judaism, whose distinctive customs and independent laws were recognized (as were other ancient national traditions) by the empire. A Gentile Christianity could no longer claim or enjoy the privilege of passing as a form of Judaism.

The New Testament provides glimpses of these tensions especially in connection with the Apostle Paul. Before his encounter with the risen Jesus (1 Cor 9:1; Gal 1:11), Paul was a Pharisee who, by his own admission, “persecuted the church” because of his great zeal for Torah, in all likelihood because of his conviction that a crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms (Deut 21:23; Gal 3:13). The Acts of the Apostles shows Paul seeking to persuade his fellow Jews in the context of Synagogue worship, but, being rebuffed by them, turning to the Gentiles. Acts simplifies a historical process that is supported also by Paul’s letters and the gospels.

In the first generation, the harassment of Christians came mainly from Jews rather than Gentiles (see Acts, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Corinthians, and Galatians). The Acts of the Apostles suggests the vulnerability of a new cult within the empire, when it narrates Paul’s jailing by a magistrate of the Roman colony of Philippi on the charge of subversion: “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that as Romans it is not lawful for us to adopt or observe” (Acts 16:20–21). Nevertheless, Acts shows Paul using his citizenship in the city of Rome—a possible though unusual privilege for a provincial Jew of the first century—to avoid local Jewish opposition and local Roman magistrates likely to be swayed by Jewish pressure; he appeals to Caesar, confident that the system of Roman law will protect him (Acts 21–26). Acts shows that it does: Paul arrives safely in Rome and, under house arrest, continues his ministry unimpeded (Acts 28).

The relatively positive experience of the imperial order by many early Christians—not all, for the Book of Revelation 17:1—18:24 shows intense hostility to the “Whore of Babylon” that sits on the seven hills and enslaves humans—is indicated by the appreciation for imperial governance expressed by Paul (Rom 13:1–7) and by Peter’s first letter, addressed to Christians scattered throughout the imperial provinces of Pontus, Bithynia, Cappadocia, and Asia (1 Pet 2:13–17). The imperial authority is depicted as benign, punishing the wicked and rewarding the virtuous, even serving as minister of God. Such human authority, declares Paul, was instituted by God (Rom 13:1–2). Such pronouncements had considerable influence within imperial and medieval Christianity. Paul also exhorts Christians in Ephesus to pray “for everyone, for kings and all who are in high places” (1 Tim 2:1), adopting the strategy of disapora Jews, who also offered such prayer for rulers, thus neatly avoiding the (for them, idolatrous) recognition of the emperor as kyrios (“Lord”), while extending goodwill to the government.

Persecution of Christians under Roman rule was at first local and sporadic. Nero blamed Christians for the fire in Rome and may have executed Peter and Paul, but this was an isolated incident. A letter from the Governor of Bythinia, Pliny the Younger, to the Emperor Trajan (ca. 112 C.E.) suggests that Christians were in danger if they persisted in their “stubborn superstition,” but were not treated as criminals simply for being Christian. From the middle of the second century to the time of Constantine, however, the profession of Christianity became more dangerous, and persecution was more direct and general, reaching a climax in the great persecution of Diocletian immediately before Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313 C.E.). The greater intensity of persecution had something to do with the impressive Christian growth in numbers, not only among society’s marginal but also increasingly among the powerful. In this light, Constantine’s conversion (of himself and the empire) to Christianity was as much a matter of shrewd politics as religious conviction.

Engagement with Jewish Law.

The nature of the Christian movement, its social location, and its preoccupation with working out its distinct identity, made contacts with Roman law few and largely accidental (as in Paul’s trial). Roman law as such played no important or positive role in shaping Christian ethos. The exact opposite is the case with Jewish Law. When Christians in the first century used the term nomos or lex (“law”), they would be speaking of Jewish Law. It was in the immediate context of Judaism that Christians had to work out their identity, and Judaism placed a high priority on law and interpretation of it.

Developing a cohesive understanding of the law was necessary and difficult. For Jewish believers, the Hebrew term Torah, usually translated into Greek as nomos, meant far more than the commandments; it included teaching, prophecy, wisdom, and the stories of the Israelite people. In this broad sense, law formed the symbolic world that shaped Jewish perceptions of the world. Torah was widely thought to be inspired by God, and authoritative for life. Unlike the laws of the Greeks and Romans that owed their existence to mere human wisdom, Torah revealed God’s own mind concerning how the world should run.

In order to speak of Jesus as Messiah, believers had to engage Torah, simply because the very term “Christ” (Gk Christos) or “Anointed One” had no meaning in Greco-Roman culture. But Jesus was not the sort of Messiah that other Jewish readers of these texts would recognize. Indeed, a strict reading of Deuteronomy 21:23—“Cursed be everyone who hangs upon a tree”—could be, and apparently was, used as a text disproving messianic claims made for Jesus. Engagement with Jewish Law is driven by the need to resolve the cognitive dissonance between the conviction, on one side, that Torah declares a crucified messiah to be cursed by God and, on the other side, the conviction that the crucified Jesus has been raised as Lord and is the source of God’s Holy Spirit. Paul’s letters display the struggle most vividly, for Paul represents in himself the extreme form of the dissonance: he was a Pharisee totally dedicated to the law who persecuted Christians, and he directly experienced the power of the resurrected Christ (1 Cor 9:1).

In his letter to the Gentile believers in Galatia, Paul argued in defense of the freedom of Gentile believers that instead of trying to fit Jesus into the frame of Torah, Jesus must be taken as the starting point for a complete rereading of Torah. Paul insists that in Christ there is a “new creation” (Gal 6:15), and the basis for a “new humanity” (Col 3:11) in the experience of Jesus as “life-giving spirit” (1 Cor 15:45) and “Lord” (1 Cor 12:3), thus initiating an enduring bias within Christianity against the adequacy of any law to express authentic Christian reality.

Other New Testament compositions, such as the Letter to the Hebrews, also engaged the symbolic world of Torah, and from such efforts emerged the first and most significant resolution of the tension between faith and law. Insofar as Torah was considered as narrative, wisdom, or prophecy, it was universally affirmed as the necessary background for understanding the identity of Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Torah points to and finds its fulfillment in the story of Jesus: “Christ is the goal (telos) of the law” (Rom 10:4). Thus the New Testament compositions are replete with texts from Torah that show Jesus to be the goal of the story, the embodiment of wisdom, and the fulfillment of prophecy.

But the normative character of law in the narrower sense—the commandments—required careful negotiation. Early Christians generally agreed that the ritual commandments making Jews a distinctive people (sabbath, purity, circumcision, diet, and worship) were no longer binding, but that the moral commandments (e.g., the Ten Commandments) remained obligatory. Among the moral commands, the law to love the neighbor (Lev 19:18) becomes the most pervasive summation of the Jewish Law’s intent. In the Gospels, Jesus responds to the Jewish legal experts by identifying the love of God and the love of neighbor as the commandments on which all others depend (Mark 12:30–31 and parallels).

Paul and James single out Leviticus 19:18 as binding for believers (Jas 2:7–13; Rom 12:9; Gal 5:14). Love of neighbor finds expression in the example of Jesus’s self-giving service to others. Paul speaks of living by “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16; Phil 2:5) and even of “fulfilling the law of Christ” by “bearing one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2). The ritual commandments of Torah find continuing significance only as prefiguring Christian mysteries, meanings unlocked by the employment of allegorical interpretation.

Toward Christian Law.

Love of neighbor did not provide practical guidance for many of the issues faced by the earliest Christians. They inevitably sought other resources for community guidance. These early attempts to secure specific principles and rules for conduct within the assembly provide the first intimations of specifically Christian law. Such efforts were nonsystematic, arising spontaneously to address a practical problem or to apply the memory of Jesus to their common life. They all concerned the internal life of the community. Christians were not in a position to legislate for the larger world.

Perhaps the earliest expression of norms derived from the eschatological convictions of the first Christians (that with the resurrection of Jesus they were living in the “end times”) are declarations that scholars call “sentences of holy law”: they promise divine retribution for certain acts. See the examples “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person” (1 Cor 3:17) and “Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized” (1 Cor 14:38). Such statements may have originated with prophets within the assembly who “spoke in the name of the Lord” (1 Cor 14:1–33). They are also, however, placed in the mouth of Jesus: “Those who are ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).

Authoritative statements of Jesus are found in Paul’s letters as well as in the Gospels. Paul declares that “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor 9:14) and “the laborer deserves to be paid” (1 Tim 5:17); these statements reflect Jesus’s declaration “the laborer deserves to be paid” (Luke 10:7).

In his discussion of marriage and virginity, Paul refers to a “command of the Lord” in support of the prohibition of divorce (1 Cor 7:10). The gospels, in turn, show Jesus expressing that precise prohibition during his ministry. In the earliest gospel, Jesus’s declaration occurs in a debate with the Pharisees (Mark 10:2–11). They cite the legal precedent provided by Deuteronomy 24:1–4, in which Moses allows divorce. Jesus responds by quoting another part of Torah, the account of creation in Genesis, pronouncing the “way it was in the beginning” when “the two become one flesh” as normative rather than the decree of Moses, attributed to “your hardness of heart.” The passage concludes with a statement that in form resembles a legal sententia: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11). Although placed in the context of a Jewish dispute over halakha, Jesus’s statement actually reflects Greco-Roman rather than Jewish practice, since either party can initiate the divorce. For more on this complex issue, see the article “Divorce,” which shows how Jesus’s absolute prohibition of divorce was taken with utter seriousness by early Christians, but was variously interpreted to respond to real-life circumstances, so that both Matthew and Paul introduce qualifications to Jesus’s absolute prohibition. Such is the proper start of legal thinking within the messianic community, with Jesus’s teachings serving as the precedents to be construed.

Through the centuries, Christians continued to parse Jesus’s statements concerning adultery and lust, murder and anger, non-retribution, the taking of oaths (Matt 5–7), the sharing of possessions, the demands of discipleship (Luke 12–14), mutual correction, and excommunication (Matt 18), not simply because Jesus said them, but because they addressed essential elements of their life within the community. Other statements of Jesus within the Gospels, such as the logion concerning taxes, “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:13–17), took on additional significance—and extended application—when Christians began to engage the imperial order more directly and eventually be required to run a Christian empire.

Still other statements of Jesus were made to support political agendas that would certainly have surprised and puzzled him. Such is the case with the use of “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matt 16:18–19), which served to support the primacy of the Bishop of Rome even in early centuries, and eventually papal authority over a worldwide church. Similarly, Jesus’s cryptic comment at the Last Supper in response to his disciples’ statement, “Lord, look, there are two swords here,” namely, “It is enough” (Luke 22:38), was used as support for the political arrangements between the medieval church and state. Such developments, however, belong to a time considerably later than the period that is the concern of the present article.

In addition to the eschatological “sentences of holy law” and the sayings of Jesus, Paul’s letters reveal other small steps in the direction of a distinctively Christian law. I have noted already how Paul draws from Greco-Roman and Jewish precedents to state an attitude toward the empire and its rulers. We find in Paul’s letters other elements drawn from moral philosophers (Gentile and Jewish) that provide guidance to early Christian communities, such as lists of vices (Rom 1:29–31; 1 Cor 6:9–10; Gal 5:19–21; 1 Tim 1:9–10) and virtues (Gal 5:22–23; Col 3:12–14); the use of language associated with moral discernment (phronesis; see Rom 12:1–6; Phil 2:1–5); and tables of household ethics that address appropriate domestic arrangements and attitudes (Col 3:18–4:1; Eph 5:22–6:9). A fascinating display of such elements, as well as prescriptions concerning behavior at public worship, the moral qualifications of leaders, the settling of disputes concerning leaders, and the administration of the community support of widows is found in two of Paul’s letters to his delegates (1Timothy and Titus). They take the literary form of letters written by kings and governors to their delegates (called mandata principis letters), and combine elements of personal advice to the delegate with specific prescriptions for the community the delegate is sent to administer.

The Second Century and Beyond.

At the beginning of the second century, such community-shaping elements continue to be deployed through letters written by leaders to communities, among them 1 Clement (ca. 95 C.E.), the Letter of Polycarp (ca. 130 C.E.), The Letters of Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 117 C.E.), and The Letter of Barnabas (before 135 C.E.). But the compositions that most contributed to the development of Christian law in the proper sense are those categorized as “Church Orders,” for the most part anonymous compilations of traditions governing and increasingly broad spectrum of Christian life.

The earliest and simplest of the Church Orders is the Didache (the Teaching of the Lord through the Twelve Apostles), probably from Syria around the year 90 C.E. In addition to a catechetical section devoted to the “Two Ways” of virtue and vice, the Didache contains instructions for the celebration of the Eucharist and regulations concerning certain church leaders. Other examples include the Apostolic Church Order (Egypt, ca. 300 C.E.), the Didascalia Apostolorum (Syria, third century C.E.), and The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (Rome, third century C.E.). These take up elements of the preceding Church Orders and elaborate them further. The fullest version is the fourth-century C.E. compilation of ecclesiastical law from Syria called the Apostolic Constitutions, whose eight books provide detailed legislation for worship; the diverse and increasingly complex ranks of clergy; and Christian practice generally. At this point, it is possible to speak of a genuine “Christian Law,” whose next stage, under Christian emperors, will consist in the “canons” issued by regional and ecumenical councils. The vast and discordant collection of these canons was given definitive shape in the mid-twelfth century by the jurist Gratian. His Concordantia Discordantium Canonum formed the first portion of what would become the Corpus Juris Canonici, which was in force within the Roman Catholic Church until 1918, when it underwent revision.

Legal Contributions of Christianity.

The most important contributions of early Christianity to later law—religious and secular—did not derive from its own struggles to establish procedure within the community or to find a place within the context of Jewish and Greco-Roman societies. They come rather from certain basic elements of the early Christian experience that, given expression by the New Testament, continued to exercise influence wherever and whenever the New Testament was taken seriously as a norm for Christian life.

Perhaps the most powerful was the simple notion of “the church” as a society that was defined by religious choice, rather than by kinship or national identity. Not only did Christianity draw its adherents from Jew and Gentile and Scythian and Barbarian, but also it made those former allegiances less important than the commitment to a “commonwealth in heaven” (Phil 3:20), a politeuma defined not in terms of worldly standards but by the paradoxical experience of a crucified and raised Messiah whose Holy Spirit was considered to be the life force by which the community lived. The eschatological character of Christianity—its insistence on obedience to God rather than to any human institution—has never completely been lost, even when the church seemed most compromised by worldly standards, and this religious tradition has shown itself repeatedly capable of astonishing internal renewal. Such movements of renewal within Christianity have usually led to a less comfortable relationship for Christians within the larger society. At its best, Christianity has offered an alternative to totalitarian systems that demand complete allegiance to human rule, since Christians could claim to belong to a “City of God” that was incommensurate with any human politics.

The Pauline image of the church as “the Body of Christ” (1 Cor 12) has also offered a vision of a society whose members are mutually bound together through reciprocity of gifts and whose joint care is for the health of the body as a whole rather than the success or power of individuals; whose obedience is owed to God, rather than to secular or ecclesiastical leaders; and within which, the forms of status that in every secular society are used to separate humans through degrees of status (e.g., race, gender, social position, and wealth) are relativized, serving now as opportunities to gift others rather than to establish precedence over them (Gal 3:28).

A further contribution comes from Paul, who—consistent with Jesus’s attention to inner disposition (Matt 5:21–30; 6:1–6)—insisted on the integrity of the individual conscience as the ultimate determinant of moral action, to the point that even doing the “right thing” against one’s inner sense of right and wrong is equivalent to doing “the wrong thing” (1 Cor 8:1–13; Rom 14:1–23). This insistence on the primacy of the individual human conscience had a significant impact on the development of later legal systems, and formed the basis for the development of the notion of religious liberty as a fundamental human right.

In seeking to define its distinctive new identity, Christians were necessarily engaged with various aspects of Roman and (especially) Jewish Law, but in its development of its own law, it depended less on precedents provided by those systems than on the experiences and convictions associated with Jesus. At the core of this religion, and its most fundamental contribution to later law, is a vision of humanity that values the conscience of each individual yet uses human diversity to build a body of Christ that is organically interconnected and whose every activity responds to an authority that is divine rather than human.

[See also BIBLICAL LAW; CRUCIFIXION; EARLY MODERN PERIOD, subentries on CATHOLIC CANON LAW and ORTHODOX CANON LAW; ETHICS; GREEK LAW; HALAKHA/RABBINIC LAW; ISLAM; LAW IN THE PROPHETS; LAW IN THE WRITINGS; MEDIEVAL PERIOD; METHODS IN STUDYING ANCIENT LAW, subentry GRECO-ROMAN PERIOD AND NEW TESTAMENT; NARRATIVE; RIGHTEOUSNESS; ROMAN LAW; SABBATH; SANHEDRIN; and THEOLOGY OF LAW, subentry NEW TESTAMENT.]

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Luke Timothy Johnson