A few preliminary thoughts:
My goal here is basically to test Nicholas Wolterstorffs thesis that the concept of natural human rights originated not with the Enlightenment, and not in the middle ages, but in the Old Testament. I’ll probably refrain from developing any theories of rights (I’ve done that, albeit not very well, elsewhere) here – this is primarily going to be a historical exercise.
Brian Tierney’s book (http://www.amazon.com/The-Idea-Natural-Rights-University/dp/0802848540/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1339860404&sr=8-1&keywords=brian+tierney) does what I think is an outstanding job showing that the idea of rights goes back at least to the middle ages – I won’t be defending that thesis because honestly, I think it’s pretty hard to argue with.
There is no room for doubting the idea that justice is a major theme of the Old Testament – particularly in the writings of the Prophets. The question is, however, does this concept of justice contain a primitive idea of rights that developed into what we recognize as rights today?
For inherent, natural rights to be valid, it seems that humans must have worth – humans with value have a right to not be treated in a certain way. This is a thesis of Wolterstorffs that I agree with – that rights are grounded in worth.
‘…I conclude that if God loves a human being with the love of attachment, that love bestows worth on that human being; other creatures, if they knew about that love, would be envious. And I conclude that if God loves, in the mode of attachment, each and every human being equally and permanently, then natural human rights inhere in the worth bestowed upon human beings by that love.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs,’ pp. 360)
If this is in fact the case, that rights are grounded in worth, then the Old Testament is a treasure-trove of primitive rights ideas – not full-blown theories, obviously. The Old Testament writers were not jurists or lawyers developing legal theory. But a central idea of the Old Testament is that human beings have worth. If the thesis above is true, thenby default the Old Testament is implicitly saying that human beings also have rights.
This leads to an interesting question: can rights be grounded without worth bestowed by God? In other words, can a solid, well-grounded secular theory of rights be developed?