A criminal is someone who acts contrary to a society’s social, moral or legal code, in essence breaks the rules. When considering what may be held as a criminal act and call those that act in this way a criminal, society in which this particular person resides must be taken into account. Since it is society or those that hold authority within a society that dictate criminalizing specific acts, a criminal cannot be well defined without considering the environment from which they live.
As civilizations evolved, rules of conduct followed. The oldest recorded set of laws is the Code of Hammurabi, which dates back to around 1770 BC. There is even evidence of the possible existence of law from even earlier times. With the creation of law there was now a standard of behavior that members of a society were expected to adhere. Those that broke these rules were punished, their actions considered harmful to the society and made forbidden or criminal. Throughout the world and history some acts, such as theft and murder have always been considered criminal. However the criminality of some acts may change based on the society for which the rules exist.
Several examples of the fluidity of criminalized behavior can be seen with religious thought. During the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire outlawed Christianity. In later centuries Roman’s had changed from primarily a society of citizens who held pagan beliefs to Christianity. Christians were no longer considered criminals. During the crusades, Christians seeking to eliminate Muslims from much of their earlier occupied lands criminalized this religion. In more recent times there continues to be instances that religious thought triggers criminalizing minority beliefs. This became a reality for European Jews during Hitler’s Third Reich in the 1900s. Further, in Afghanistan the Taliban government made criminal many things that were seen to be contrary to their strict interpretation of the Koran, much of these criminalized acts are accepted in most other parts of the world.
Even in the Unites States laws that criminalize certain types of behavior that society deems harmful were acceptable in other times or within other cultures. The American criminal justice system seems to be flooded with cases of child molestation. Although seen as extremely offensive in most societies, these same acts where common place during ancient Roman times.
As society changes over time, moral, social and religious values also change. The laws that restrict citizens’ behavior are also fluid and ever evolving. To simply define a criminal as one who breaks a set of official state rules is limited and there must be an examination of time and place as well.