Biblical Law; The Apology of Plato
Prof. Bill Long 8/28/06
The purpose of this essay is to provide some introductory comments, thought questions and suggested perspectives on the two texts assigned for today: Exodus 19-23 and excerpts from the Apology of Plato. The texts are quite different from each other. The former is more like the Hammurabi Laws than the Apology. Indeed, the Apology is styled as Socrates' "defense speech" when charges of impiety and other offenses have been brought against him before the Athenian assembly in 399 B.C.E. Thus we need to study each text a little differently.
Exodus 19-23 and Biblical Law
Though the first five books of the Bible are known as the "Torah" of Moses or the "Law" of Moses (also known as the Pentateuch), these books are not all law nor do most scholars think that those passages that are law in the Pentateuch form one collection. For example, scholars have isolated Lev. 17-26 as a separate collection of priestly laws/rules which give advice on how to conduct sacrifice and be pure before God; hence this section of the Bible is often known as the "Holiness Code." Most scholars would argue that the section of Exodus assigned contains some of Israel's earliest laws. Even if they are "early," however (10th or 11th century BCE), they are "young" compared to those of Hammurabi. Here are some things to notice or questions to consider.
First, however, I want to make a point about method. It is rather rare for us to study the Bible in a law school context. Usually people who study the Bible do so for one of three reasons: (1) for spiritual guidance; (2) for ethical or behavioral norms; (3) for literary purposes--to understand how the Biblical literature influenced Western literature. We are studying it today for none of these reasons. Rather, we are looking at it as lawyers, and asking about the nature of some of the laws it provided for Ancient Israel.
1. Exodus 19 gives the context in which the laws are promulgated. Does this section function similarly or differently from the Prologue of the ANE laws (LH, LL, LU)? Where is the emphasis in Exodus 19?
2. How is the Decalogue (10 Commandments) in Exodus 20 framed differently from the individual laws in Ex. 21-23?
3. Are any laws in the Decalogue similar to those in the so-called Covenant Code of 21-23?
4. There must be more than 40 or 50 separate laws in Ex. 21-23. Which ones stood out to you or interested you? Why?
5. What would you say that the Code's approach is to human slavery (you might be interested to know that when some Southern (US) slaveholders tried to justify their practices on theological/biblical grounds, Ex. 21:1-6 played a major role for them).
6. It seems to me there are a number of tantalizingly unclear references in these chapters as to actual legal practice. For example, what does it mean that the parties shall "come before God" and that God shall decide (22:8) when people dispute with each other regarding ownership of goods?
7. Do any of the laws seem too harsh? Too lenient? Does the law about miscarriage in 21:22-26 suggest that Israel thought that a fetus was not given the same rights as an "outside the womb" individual?
8. What is the importance of Israel's historical experience in Egypt for shaping these early laws of the people?
The Apology of Plato
Plato was a 4th century BCE Athenian philosopher who gives us almost everything we know about his teacher, Socrates. Like Jesus, Socrates seemed to be an itinerant teacher who wrote nothing but left to his disciples the spreading of stories about his life and teaching. We can't really understand the life and teaching about Socrates without an awareness of the political upheaval in Athens during the last 30 years of the 5th century BCE. A long and debilitating war with Sparta had ended in 404, with Athens devastated. In this weakened condition some people cast about to try to find someone responsible for Athens' loss. Perhaps it was somone who had eroded the spiritual or moral fiber of the people.... This kind of reasoning, in my mind, made the environment fertile for allegations against Socrates that he had corrupted the youth and therefore had weakened the people when they needed the disciple to ward off the Lacedemonian foe.
But we really don't know enough details about late 5th century Athens to know exactly why Socrates was indicted. We all know that in times of national emergency commitment to values of freedom and free thought come under attack (it happened in this country in the Civil War and in 1919, for example). This, I think, provided the context for Socrates' indictment. Here are some questions.
1. What can we infer about the workings of the Athenian legal system from the answer that Socrates gives to his accusers?
2. What actually were the charges against Socrates, at least according to Plato? Differentiate between the "ancient" or "older" charges and those which had arisen more recently--through the instrumentality of Anytus and Meletus.
3. What does the accusation mean (p. 35) that Socrates was "making the worse the stronger argument?" To give you a clue--this refers to a popular group of people at the time known as the Sophists, who claimed that they could argue either side of a case and teach a person the science of argumentation apart from the rightness or wrongness of an action.
4. Does Socrates do a good job in rebutting the charges?
5. How does Plato portray Socrates' life (i.e., how does he portray Socrates spending his time)? What does it mean that Socrates is the wisest of all men, even though he claims he knows nothing?
6. What picture of Socrates emerges from the Apology? Is he an admirable person for you? A sort of pain in the neck? Are you indifferent to him? Would you be attracted to his methods?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long