The “Royal Law” in James 2:8 Also Means “Straight Law”

Last update 2022-10-25
I had an argument with someone who kept referring to James 2:8 as redefining the law as love. He wasn’t meaning this the same way Rabbi Hillel did: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary. Now go and study.” However, he meant that we could decide what is loving from our own reason and from nature like he thinks Romans 1 implies. He also thought that some of the Torah was no longer necessary because it did not relate to love. Thinking about this and possible responses led me to discover a different way of taking this verse. I would like to share that here as well as some other observations I have used to argue against this person’s position.
Some of this will be pretty trivial for those who are not coming at this from a rigid Bible-only perspective since you will know to interpret things based on their historical context and that Christianity was originally just a sect of Judaism.  It would also seem unlikely that Jesus’s brother James would have changed this especially given that James is respected by many Jews as “James the Just” who kept the Torah well. Coincidentally, another translation would be “James the righteous” since it uses the Hebrew word commonly translated as righteous, “tzadik,” which in a physical sense means “straight.” Finally, Royal law” is probably better rendered “Royal Instruction” since Torah is more like instructions than laws. So first a couple preliminary observations:
1. I first want to emphasize this point: to take “royal law” as having to refer to “all the law” is a mistake. Yet I think this is what you have to do to say that this redefines the law as just this since it could just be saying that one of the laws the “royal” one is especially important and that you would do well to observe it. Yet even if it does there are traditions that precede the book of James and use the golden rule to refer to the whole Torah without implying a redefinition or an abrogation: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”
2. If you do well to observe the “royal Torah (instruction)” it doesn’t mean that you can just break the other torahs (instructions). That is like saying that in 2 Peter 1:19 that they only had to listen to Peter’s prophetic word not their father’s or any other prophets: “and we have more firm the prophetic word; which well you do heeding, as a lamp shining forth in a dismal place”
This is also also like saying that “besides you did well partaking together with my affliction” means that Paul meant that you didn’t need to do anything else besides partake with him:

So now lets look at the full context of James 2:8 which is prefaced by James 1:27:

religion pure and undefiled with the God and Father is this, to look after orphans and widows in their tribulation — unspotted to keep himself from the world. (James 1:27)

1 My brethren, hold not, in respect of persons, the faith of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 for if there may come into your synagogue a man with gold ring, in gay raiment, and there may come in also a poor man in vile raiment, 3 and ye may look upon him bearing the gay raiment, and may say to him, `Thou — sit thou here well,’ and to the poor man may say, `Thou — stand thou there, or, Sit thou here under my footstool,’ — 4 ye did not judge fully in yourselves, and did become ill-reasoning judges. 5 Hearken, my brethren beloved, did not God choose the poor of this world, rich in faith, and heirs of the reign that He promised to those loving Him? 6 and ye did dishonour the poor one; do not the rich oppress you and themselves draw you to judgment-seats; 7 do they not themselves speak evil of the good name that was called upon you? 8 If, indeed, royal law ye complete, according to the Writing, `Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,’ — ye do well; (James 2:1-8)

 15 `Ye do not do perversity in judgment; thou dost not lift up the face of the poor, nor honour the face of the great; in righteousness h6664 thou dost judge thy fellow. 16 `Thou dost not go slandering among thy people; thou dost not stand against the blood of thy neighbour; I [am] Jehovah. 17 `Thou dost not hate thy brother in thy heart; thou dost certainly reprove thy fellow, and not suffer sin on him. 18 `Thou dost not take vengeance, nor watch the sons of thy people; and thou hast had love to thy neighbour as thyself; I [am] Jehovah. (Leviticus 19:15)

The context is about not showing favoritism, especially not respecting rich above poor or vice versa.

The Royal Law in James 2:8 probably is most confidently interpreted as “chief instruction” since Thayer’s lexicon says the word βασιλικός is:

metaphorically, principal, chief: νόμος James 2:8

βασιλικός, -ή, -όν (< βασιλεύς),
[in LXX for מֶלֶךְ and its cognates ;]
royal, belonging to a king: χώρα, Act 12:20; ἐσθής, Act.12:21; νόμος β., a supreme law, “a law which governs other laws and so has a specially regal character” (Hort), or because made by a king (LAE, p. 3673), Jas.2:8; τις, one in the service of a king, a courtier, Refs (WH, mg., βασιλίσκος).†

Also, the word νόμος or “law” in the sense of that time was closer to “instruction” today since ancient law was more malleable and adaptable to new situations than ours–many instructions in the Torah do not even apply in a legal sense. This is to say that James is reaffirming what Jesus said about love of neighbor being the most important commandment and Jesus in turn is reaffirming what Hillel said:

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary. Now go and study.

Jesus just formulated it in a positive affirmation. However, in addition to this interpretation I want to give an alternative here that I also think is interesting–that of fair or straight/even instruction.

On Isaiah 40:4 the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary says:

Eastern monarchs send heralds before them in a journey to clear away obstacles, make causeways over valleys, and level hills. So John’s duty was to bring back the people to obedience to the law and to remove all self-confidence, pride in national privileges, hypocrisy, and irreligion, so that they should be ready for His coming (Mal 4:6; Lu 1:17).

In addition, walking straightly or fairly is used as a metaphor for following the instruction of God (see Psalm 23:3 mentioned later).

If you look at the context of James 2:8 you see that it is about treating people fairly despite wealth, this is paralleled in Lev 19:18 where it quotes “love your neighbor” from just a couple verses before in Lev 19:15. There it says this is done by righteous i.e. צֶדֶק transliterated “ṣeḏeq” (h6664) sometimes translated as “justice” has a more positive rescuing context than in our legal system.

15 You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour: I am the Lord.

17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:15-18)

Also, if you look at the context of most of the usages of “tzadik” h6664 or righteousness it is about judging fairly or not crookedly especially in regard to the poor. Also, the first definition Gesenius has for tzadik h6664 is “in a physical sense straightness” and in Psalm 23:3 Gesenius says it is used to mean “straight paths” in

My soul He refresheth, He leadeth me in paths of righteousness, h6664 For His name’s sake, (Psalm 23:3)

So in addition to the royal law (instruction) being chief (another definition for “Melek”) of the instructions I see another possible meaning. That of a straight or even instruction (i.e righteous or fair instruction) which fits with the straight path or royal highway (since the crooked roads were considered to be too lowly for the king to go in on) they would make for a king. I also think that it is easy to make a mistake and see the “instruction” here as referring to whole of the instructions, which it doesn’t, “law” or “torah” can refer to a single instruction. (and it is indeed singular in James 2:8 so it allows for that meaning) So the royal instruction is a singular instruction for administering/following the rest of the instructions. In addition “righteousness,” by how it is used elsewhere, is more about administering the rest of the instructions fairly than the whole rest of the Torah itself–so you could also argue from the idea of righteousness it is about administering God’s law in a fair way. See, if you look at the context of James 2:8 you see that it is about treating people fairly despite wealth, this is paralleled in Lev 19:15 where it says this is done by righteous h6664 judgement. Also, if you look at the context of righteousness it is about judging fairly or not crookedly especially in regard to the poor:

Also the first definition Gesenius has for h6664 is “in a physical sense straightness” and in Psalm 23:3 Gesenius says it is used to mean “straight paths”  “My soul He refresheth, He leadeth me in paths of righteousness, h6664 For His name’s sake,” (Psalm 23:3)

The same word h6664 righteousness is paralleled by uprightness or equity h4339 in Psalms 98:9 which also means straightness

Before Jehovah, For He hath come to judge the earth, He judgeth the world in righteousness, And the people in uprightness! h4339 (Psalm 98:9)

The same word “ṣeḏeq” or “righteousness” is paralleled by מֵישָׁר mêšār (h4339) “uprightness” or “equity” in Psalms 98:9 which also means “straightness.”

Before Jehovah, For He hath come to judge the earth, He judgeth the world in righteousness, (h6664) And the people in uprightness! (h4339) (Psalm 98:9)

Another occurrence of “ṣeḏeq” is where it mentions the word for “king.” In fact, “Melchizedek” means “king of righteousness” according to Gesenius

And the strength of the king Hath loved judgment, Thou — Thou hast established uprightness; h4339 Judgment and righteousness h6666 in Jacob, Thou — Thou hast done. (Psalm 99:4)

Melchizedek is an old Canaanite name meaning “My King Is [the god] Sedek” or “My King Is Righteousness” (the meaning of the similar Hebrew cognate). Salem, of which he is said to be king, is very probably Jerusalem. Psalm 76:2 refers to Salem in a way that implies that it is synonymous with Jerusalem, and the reference in Genesis 14:17 to “the King’s Valley” further confirms this identification.

And the strength of the king Hath loved judgment, Thou — Thou hast established uprightness; (h4339) Judgment and righteousness (h6666) in Jacob, Thou — Thou hast done. (Psalm 99:4)

If you argue that the “righteous instruction” has to refer to the whole of the instructions then you are saying that one cannot gain righteousness from following the Torah and that instead the Torah itself is righteousness. That is one of the many things you would have to argue for the “righteous Torah” or “royal Torah” to redefine the Torah. However, righteousness can clearly be thought of as separate from the Torah and is in fact the way the Torah is administered or followed and the general character by which the other instructions can be described:
8 and which [is] the great nation which hath righteous statutes and judgments according to all this law which I am setting before you to-day? (Deuteronomy 4:8)
25 and righteousness it is for us, when we observe to do all this command before Jehovah our God, as He hath commanded us. (Deuteronomy 6:25)
13 for not the hearers of the law [are] righteous before God, but the doers of the law shall be declared righteous: — (Romans 2:13)
In summary, the context of “royal instruction” is about judging fairly between rich and poor which is the same context of Lev 19:15 from which James quotes “love your neighbor.” This is partially because the word for righteousness and a parallel of that word have the idea of “straightness” which is metaphorically “fairness.” In addition, righteousness hence straightness is already associated with kingly conduct in the bible through the meaning of Melchizedek and the royal highway that they built for the king to come into the city. However, since righteousness is about administering the instructions fairly rather than the rest of the instructions itself I think it can be seen as a affirming the instructions being administered fairly rather than replacing the instructions with anything. This is because the “royal law” in James means “royal instruction” (which is a better translation for Torah) or “straight instruction” and hence is to administer Torah in a righteous or fair way without respecting rich above poor or vice versa.

One might also take this as not showing favoritism by a fairness/evenness because we are all equally made in the image of God and the royal instruction is to walk with straightness past the superficial and get to the essence of God in man. This is because love of God is the other greatest commandment that Jesus mentions yet it can also be summed up with loving your neighbor. Similarly, Yehuda Shurpin says about Hillel’s teaching. Despite trying to make the case that it is different than the golden rule I think it is great how close it comes to what this article is talking about:

Hillel’s teaching can be read thusly:

“What is hateful to you”—having one of your shortcomings revealed—“do not do to your fellow”—do not expose his faults and imperfections, whether in worldly matters, in his relations with others, or in his spiritual behavior. Do not make them noticeable and concrete. Instead, let your love for them cover over their faults to the point that they evoke no repulsion, just like your own.

When you love a person because of his or her very soul, no (external) shortcomings will interfere with this love, and any perceived evil will be swallowed up by the love.

When we understand that our souls are all one and do not see each other’s flaws, G‑d also overlooks our flaws and blesses us with an abundance of good—including the future Redemption, “the day that is all good.”

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