The Sermon on the Mount contains this advice to stay out of the legal system:

Agree with your adversary quickly while you are with him on the way; lest perhaps the prosecutor deliver you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison. Most certainly I tell you, you shall by no means get out of there until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:25-26, World English Bible)

Presumably this is advice being given to Jews in Galilee, somewhere around the "evangelical triangle" area near Capernaum, and the listeners are mostly illiterate Aramaic-speaking peasants. The tetrarch Herod Antipater rules Galilee and Perea as Roman client states. The seat of local government is the newly built capital Tiberias, about 10 miles away. There is a Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, in Jerusalem, about a week's journey on foot. Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9.1) describes an example of a capital trial by the Sanhedrin for a religious case that arose in Jerusalem. (Are the "prosecutor" ἀντίδικος, "judge" κριτής, and "officer" ὑπηρέτης terms for specific Roman offices?)

This passage from the Sermon on the Mount seems to be describing a scenario in which someone brings a civil suit, but the end result is that they end up convicted in criminal court. (I was not under the impression that it was common in the ancient world for criminal convicts to be punished by being put in anything like a prison. Wouldn't most offenses be punished by something like execution, enslavement, or a fine?)

The dire outcome is obviously hyperbole, but I'm trying to understand the real-world social circumstances that would even make the advice of interest to Jesus's audience. If this passage does refer to something like our modern notion of bringing a civil suit, is it realistic to imagine Galilean peasants even pondering doing such a thing? Would they have any access to law courts or a legal process? Access in theory but not in practice? I'm guessing that these people would all be slaves or peregrini, the latter theoretically subject to what WP describes as "customary laws and courts of their civitas" (as opposed to the Roman law courts, which were for Roman citizens). I don't imagine that Jesus can be describing an informal village council of elders, since he uses terms for officers of the court.

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    The ancient world did not have our distinction between civil and criminal courts or cases. It was different, complicated, and depended in large part on local custom. The Romans did impose their law where they chose, but they did that as little as possible since their whole approach to governing was to let each city govern itself and its hinterland to the largest extent possible -- as long as they didn't annoy Rome. (E.g., rebelled, fought their neighbors, or (worst) didn't pay their taxes.)
    – Mark Olson
    Aug 12, 2022 at 0:50
  • @MarkOlson: Thanks for your comment. This WP article seems to make the distinction...? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peregrinus_%28Roman%29#Social_status
    – dfgsdghsdf
    Aug 12, 2022 at 1:03
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    What is your question? Please edit the title to clarify what you want to know
    – MCW
    Aug 12, 2022 at 11:34
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    Was prison a punishment in this case? We assume it to be so today, but in the past it was often simply a holding stage. Debtor's prisons were common in many jurisdictions until the 19thC. Inmates were held until the debt (and living expenses) were paid off. Both John Dickens (father of Charles) and Sir Marc Brunel (father of Isambard) spent time in debtor's prisons in the early 19C. I understand the Sermon to advise coming to an arrangement before legal proceedings start, otherwise you will have to stay in prison "until you have paid the last penny", of the debt that is.
    – user55099
    Aug 15, 2022 at 8:43
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    This is not advice. Jesus is clarifying what it means to be a member of the kingdom of heaven. The point of the example in John 5:25-26 is found in verse 20: "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." Jesus gives six examples to make his point and settling issues outside of court is one of them.
    – David D
    Jan 12, 2023 at 23:11

1 Answer 1


The plain reading of the Talmud indicates that, in addition to the Great Sanhedrin of 70 judges in Jerusalem, there were minor Sanhedrins of 23 judges in cities (dealing with "criminal" cases) and ad hoc courts of 3 "everywhere" (dealing with "civil" cases), and they seem to have been "busy" with adjudications and trials.

As for the specific injustices that you refer to, the corrupt practices of both "Jewish" royalty and Roman authorities (and, sometimes, of Jewish courts) are also well documented in the Talmud.

Moreover, the preference for compromise over litigation is also in the Talmud.

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