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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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JUSTICE (I.). Justice, as an attribute of God, is referred to in AV [Note: Authorized Version.] in Job 37:23 , Psalms 89:14 (RV [Note: Revised Version.] ‘righteousness’), and Jeremiah 50:7 . In all cases the Heb. is tsedeq or tsedâqâh , the word generally represented by ‘righteousness’ (see art.). The Divine justice is that side of the Divine righteousness which exhibits it as absolute fairness. In one passage this justice, in operation, is represented by mishpât ( Job 36:17 ). The thought of the Divine justice is sometimes expressed by the latter word, tr. [Note: translate or translation.] in EV [Note: English Version.] ‘ judgment ’: Deuteronomy 32:4 , Psalms 89:14; Psalms 97:2 , Isaiah 30:18 . It is implied in Abraham’s question ( Genesis 18:25 ): ‘Shall not the judge of all the earth do right,’ rather ‘do justice?’ (Heb. mishpât ). In Daniel 4:37 ‘His ways are judgment,’ the original is dîn . In Acts 28:4 RV [Note: Revised Version.] has ‘Justice’ instead of ‘vengeance.’ As the capital J [Note: Jahwist.] is intended to indicate, the writer must have had in his mind the goddeas of justice of Greek poetry, Dikç , the virgin daughter of Zeus, who sat by his side. But the people of Malta were largely Semites, not Hellenes. What was their equivalent? A positive answer cannot be given, but it may be noted that Babylonian mythology represented ‘justice and rectitude’ as the children of Shamash the sun-god, ‘the judge of heaven and earth,’ and that the PhÅ“nicians had in their pantheon a Divine being named tsedeq .

W. Taylor Smith.


1. The administration of justice in early Israel . ( a ) The earliest form of the administration of justice was that exercised by the head of the family. He was not only the final authority to whom the members of a family appealed when questions of right and wrong had to be decided, and to whose sentence they had to submit, but he also had the power of pronouncing even the death penalty (see Genesis 38:24 ). On the other hand, the rights of each member of the family were jealously safeguarded by all the rest; if harm or injury of any kind were sustained by any member, all the members were bound to avenge him; in the case of death the law of blood-revenge laid upon all the duty of taking vengeance by slaying a member of the murderer’s family, preferably, but not necessarily, the murderer himself.

( b ) The next stage was that in which justice was administered by the ‘elders’ of a clan or tribe (see Numbers 11:16 ). A number of families, united by ties of kinship, became, by the formation of a clan, a unity as closely connected as the family itself. In this stage of the organization of society the procedure in deciding questions of right and wrong was doubtless much the same as that which obtains even up to the present day among the Bedouin Arabs. When a quarrel arises between two members of the tribe, the matter is brought before the acknowledged head, the sheik. He seeks to make peace between them; having beard both sides, he declares who is right and who is wrong, and settles the form of satisfaction which the latter should make; but his judgment has no binding force, no power other than that of moral suasion; influence is brought to bear by the members of the famity of the one declared to be in the wrong, urging him to submit, the earlier régime thus coming into play, in a modified way; but if he is not to be prevailed upon, the issue is decided by the sword. In Exodus 18:13-27 we have what purports to be the original institution of the administration of justice by the elders of clans, Moses himself acting in the capacity of a kind of court of appeal ( Exodus 18:26 ); it is, of course, quite possible that, so far as Israel was concerned, this account is historically true, but the institution must have been much older than the time of Moses, and in following Jethro’s guidance, Moses was probably only re-instituting a régime which had long existed among his nomad forefathers. It is a more developed form of tribal justice that we read of in Deuteronomy 21:18-21; here the father of a rebellious son, finding his authority set at nought, appeals to the ‘elders of the city’; in the case of being found guilty the death-sentence is pronounced against the son, and the sentence is carried out by representatives of the community. The passage is an important one, for it evidently contains echoes of very early usage, the mention of the mother may imply a distant reminiscence of the matriarchate; and the fact that the head of the family exercises his power recalls the earlier régime already referred to, while the present institution of the administration of justice by elders is also borne witness to. See, further, Judges.

Another point of importance which must be briefly alluded to is the ‘ judgment of God. ’ In the case of questions arising in which the difficulty of finding a solution appeared insuperable, recourse was had to the judgment of God (see Exodus 22:8-9 ); the ‘judges’ referred to here (RV [Note: Revised Version.] has ‘God’ in the text, but ‘judges’ in the mg.) were those who were qualified to seek a decision from God. See, in this connexion, Deuteronomy 21:1-9 .

( c ) In the monarchical period a further development takes place; the older system, whereby justice was administered by the elders of the cities, is indeed still seen to be in vogue (cf. 1 Kings 21:8-13 ); but two other powers had now arisen, and both tended to diminish the power and moral influence of the elders of the cities, so far as their judicial functions were concerned.

(i) The king . It is probable that at first he decided appeals only, but in course of time all important matters so far as this was possible were apparently brought before him (see 1 Samuel 8:20 , 2Sa 14:4 ff; 2 Samuel 15:2-6 , 1 Kings 3:9 , 2 Kings 15:5 ); according to 1 Kings 7:7 , Solomon had a covered place constructed, which was called the ‘ porch of judgment ,’ and which was in close proximity to his own palace. But though the king was supreme judge in the land, it would obviously soon have become impossible for him to attend to all the more important causes even; the number of these, as well as other calls upon his time, necessitated the appointment of representatives who should administer justice in the king’s name. The appointment of these must have further curtailed the powers of the earlier representatives of justice, already referred to. One of the worst results, however, of this was that the motives of administering justice became different; in the old days, when the sheik, or the city elder, was called upon to decide an issue, he did it rather in the capacity of a friend who desired peace between two other friends than as a strictly legal official; his interest in the disputants, as being both of his own kin, or at all events both members of the same community to which he belonged, impelled him to do his utmost to make peace. It was otherwise when a stranger had to decide between two men of whom he knew nothing; he had no personal interest in them, nor would it have been his main endeavour to try to secure a lasting peace between the two, as had been the case in earlier days among the sheiks and city elders; the tie of kinship was absent. The result was that personal interest of another kind asserted itself, and, as there is abundant evidence to show, the administration of justice was guided rather by the prospect of gain than in the interests of equity. It is an ever-recurring burden in the Prophetical writings that justice is thwarted through bribery: ‘Every one loveth gifts and followeth after rewards’ ( Isaiah 1:23; see, further, Isaiah 5:7; Isaiah 5:20; Isaiah 5:23 , Micah 3:11; Micah 7:3 , Ezekiel 18:8; Ezekiel 22:12 etc., and cf. the picture of the ideal judge in Isaiah 11:3-4 ). A very aggravated instance of the miscarriage of justice is recorded in 1 Kings 21:1-29; but such cases were undoubtedly rare exceptions; so far as Israel and Judah were concerned, it was not from the central authority that the perversion of justice proceeded, but rather from the king’s representatives, the ‘princes’ ( sârim ), who misused their authority for nefarious ends.

(ii) The priesthood . Even before the Exile the administration of justice was to a large extent centred in the hands of the Levitical priesthood; nothing could illustrate this more pointedly than Deuteronomy 19:15-21 , where the outlines of a regular, formulated, judicial system seem to be referred to, in which the final authority is vested in the priesthood. What must have contributed to this more than anything else was the fact that from early times such matters as seemed to the elders of the city to defy a satisfactory solution were, as we have already seen, submitted to the judgment of God; the intermediaries between God and men were the priests, who carried the matter into the Divine presence, received the Divine answer, and announced that answer to those who came for judgment (see Exodus 22:8-9 , and esp. Deuteronomy 33:8 ff. ‘And of Levi he said, Thy Thummim and thy Urim are with tby godly one.…’). It is easy to see how, under these circumstances, the authority of the priesthood, in all matters, tended constantly to increase (see, further, Deuteronomy 17:8-13; Deuteronomy 19:15-21 ).

But in spite of the rise of these two new factors the king and the priesthood it must be borne in mind that the elders of the cities still continued to carry out their judicial functions.

Regarding what would correspond to the modern idea of a law court, we have no data to go upon so far as the earliest period is concerned; but it may be taken for granted that, among the nomads, those who had a quarrel would repair to the tent of the sheik, in which an informal court would be held. From the time of the settlement in Canaan, however, and onwards, when city life had developed, there is plenty of information on the subject. The open space in the immediate vicinity of the city gate was the usual place for assemblies of the people, and it was here that the more formal ‘courts of law’ were held (see Amos 5:12; Amos 5:15 , Deuteronomy 21:19; Deuteronomy 22:15; Deuteronomy 25:7 , Zechariah 8:16; the ‘porch of judgment’ of king Solomon [ 1 Kings 7:7 ], already referred to, was of course exceptional).

2. Post-exilic period . At the time of Ezra we find that the administration of justice by the elders of the city, which had continued throughout the period of the monarchy, is still in vogue (see Ezra 7:25; Ezra 10:14 ); they presided over the local courts in the smaller provincial towns. These smaller courts consisted of seven members; in the larger towns the corresponding courts consisted of twenty-three members. In the event of these lower courts not being able to come to a decision regarding any matter brought before them, the case was carried to the superior court at Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin (wh. see). The procedure in these courts was of the simplest character: the injured person brought his complaint before the judges, previous notice having been given, and publicly gave his version of the matter; the accused then in his turn defended himself; judging from Job 31:35 a written statement was sometimes read out; the testimony of two witnesses at least was required to substantiate an accusation; according to the Talmud, these witnesses had to be males and of age, but the testimony of a slave was not regarded as valid. Before witnesses gave their testimony they were adjured to speak the truth, and the whole truth. False witnesses and these were evidently not unknown had to suffer the same punishment as the victim of their false testimony would have had to undergo, or had undergone. If no witnesses were forthcoming, the truth of a matter had, so far as possible, to be obtained by the cross-questioning and acumen of the judges.

3. In the NT . The administration of justice under the Roman régime comes before us in connexion with St. Paul ( Acts 24:1-27 ff.). According to Roman law, when a Roman citizen was accused of anything, the magistrate could fix any time that suited him for the trial; however long the trial might be postponed, the accused was nevertheless imprisoned for the whole time. But there were different kinds of imprisonment recognized by Roman law, and it lay within the magistrate’s power to decide which kind the prisoner should suffer. These different grades of custody were: the public gaol, where the prisoner was bound in chains (cf. Acts 12:6; Acts 21:33 ); in the custody of a soldier, who was responsible for the prisoner, and to whom the prisoner was chained; and an altogether milder form, according to which the accused was in custody only so far that he was under the supervision of a magistrate, who stood surety for him; it was only those of high rank to whom this indulgence was accorded. In the case of St. Paul it was the second of these which was put in force.

As regards appeals to the Emperor (Acts 25:11-12 ), the following conditions applied when one claimed this right. In the Roman provinces the supreme criminal jurisdiction was exercised by the governor of the province, whether proconsul, proprætor, or procurator; no appeal was permitted to provincials from a governor’s judgment; but Roman citizens had the right of appealing to the tribunes, who had the power of ordering the case to be transferred to the ordinary tribunals at Rome. But from the time of Augustus the power of the tribunes was centred in the person of the Emperor; and with him alone, therefore, lay the power of hearing appeals. The form of such an appeal was the simple pronunciation of the word ‘Appello’; there was no need to make a written appeal, the mere utterance of the word in court suspended all further proceedings there.

W. O. E. Oesterley.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Justice'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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