The Oldest Written Code

By: V. Scheil

Originally Published in 1920

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In a volume of SELECTED SUMERIAN AND BABYLONIAN TEXTS published by the University Museum, Henry Frederick Lutz has carefully copied, among many others, a few texts rightly catalogued by Dr. Stephen Langdon as SUMERIAN CODE OF LAWS (Nos. 100, 101, 102 and p. 128).

They are copies from tablets (probably school work) originating from Nippur and turn out to be extracts from a Code of Laws which may be considered as the prototype and source of Hammurabi’s Code. Some sentences of the latter (in Babylonian) are a servile translation of the former (in Sumerian).
The following are what I believe the most essential points in the three tablets (Nos. 100 and 101 are duplicates).

  1. Three paragraphs concerning land culture.
    1. Should the owner have granted a fallow land to a gardener to be planted as an orchard, if the latter has not entirely completed his work when they share, the fallow part shall fall to the gardener’s tot.This corresponds to the 61st article of the Code of Hammurabi. In a prior paragraph of the same is stated that after a lapse of five years they shall share equally, the first option being secured to the owner.
    2. Should a man enter another man’s orchard and abide in the plantation, he shall pay 10 silver shekels.A paragraph perhaps found in the great gap of the Code of Hammurabi, which begins precisely in this section.
    3. Should a man cut down a tree in another man’s orchard, he shall pay a half silver mine.This paragraph corresponds to the 59th article of the Code of Hammurabi, with only one addition, “without the owner’s consent.” The order of the paragraphs differ too, and this article is placed before the preceding.
  2. Two paragraphs concerning buildings.
    1. A house owner has a right to extend over a neighbouring waste ground provided he has given notice to the owner of the waste ground and they agree as to the terms of the rent, and he insures him against any damages done.
    2. Should the owner of a house not knowing how to manage it, let another man undertake it, the latter shall during three years profit by his industry, the owner not being empowered to turn him out.

    These two articles may have existed in the great gap of the Code of Hammurabi which we know contained this very section of laws relating to buildings.

  3. Two paragraphs concerning slaves.
    1. Should a man shelter a fugitive slave during a month, he shall give slave for slave, and in case he should not be able to do it, he shall pay 25 silver shekels.The Code of Hammurabi, Article 15, deals only with the desertion of the palace slaves and resolves on death penalty as a sanction for the receiver.
    2. Should a slave contest the rights of his master concerning his bondage he shall be convicted anew and sold.Article 282 of the Code of Hammurabi provides for the penalty in this case in the cutting of one ear.
  4. Two paragraphs concerning the responsibility of mercenaries.
    1. Should a mercenary driven by fear have neglected to face a danger threatening his master’s property, he is not guilty and shall stand before the court that suits him.
    2. If he was notoriously powerless, he is not guilty, nor is there any ground for a law suit.

    The Code of Hammurabi, Article 266, deals only with cases of open constraint against sheep herding. The shepherd is sworn in and discharged.

  5. Five articles relating to family affairs.
    1. Should a man marry a second wife who bears him children, this woman’s dowry belongs to her children, but the children of the first and of the second wife share equally the goods of their father.This corresponds to the 107th article of the Code of Hammurabi, expressed however in a more dilated form in the Code.
    2. Should there be living children of the wife, the children of the’ servant shall not share with them the house of the father, but the servant and her children shall be released from slavery.Compare Articles 170 and 171 of the Code of Hammurabi.
    3. Should the wife die and the husband marry the servant who bore him children, their condition is changed and they do increase the family.This text is truncated and the interpretation doubtful. Nothing of this kind is in the Code of Hammurabi.
    4. If the wife has borne no children and the husband has some children from his relations with another woman, he shall provide for her food and clothing, and the children of the other woman shall be heir to their father, but their mother shall not abide by the husband, so long as the wife is alive.Nothing of this kind is in the Code of Hammurabi.
    5. Should the wife be unfaithful, she shall live in a state of seclusion at home, and a second wife may eventually take her place and rank as first.Article 129 of the Code of Hammurabi condemns the partners in adultery to death by water. Provision being made for the grant of mercy. In fact the new text does not speak of effective adultery but only—maybe it is an euphemism—of turning the eyes aside.The text is truncated and our interpretation doubtful.


Cite This Article

Scheil, V.. "The Oldest Written Code." The Museum Journal XI, no. 3 (September, 1920): 130-132. Accessed April 18, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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