Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Royal Law (James 2:8)

What is the royal law according to James? You shall love your neighbor as yourself (James 2:8)

Partiality is one of the primary topics addressed in The Epistle of James (James 2:1-13). This subject links the two units of the book’s second chapter (James 2:1-7, 8-13). James’ instruction not only argues against all forms of discrimination but cuts far deeper to the core issue: love (James 2:8-13). James asserts that class prejudice is not just indicative of bad manners, it is a violation of “royal law” (James 2:8).

If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. (James 2:8 NASB)
Conversely, those who favor the rich sin royally.

James provides his readers with a litmus test to illuminate whether or not they are behaving properly. The reader will be “doing well” if she is loving her neighbor as herself. C. Freeman Sleeper (b. 1933) comments:

The verse ends with a commendation of his audience, in contrast to the condemnation in James 2:6a. If you keep the royal law, he tells them, you do well. (Sleeper, James (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 74)
The approbation is sincere. Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) reads:
The adverb kalōs (“well/nobly”) asserts the author’s genuine opinion, in contrast to the ironic use of the expression in James 2:3 and James 2:19 (compare Dio Chrystostom [40-120], Orations 47:25). (Johnson, The Letter of James (The Anchor Bible), 221)
Craig L. Blomberg (b. 1955) and Mariam J. Kamell (b. 1978) compare:
James concludes, if you do keep this law, “you do well.” This provides an interesting parallel with the climax of his letter disseminating the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:29), the only other writing by James that we have, even secondhand. While the Greek words are different (εὐ πράξετε), the meaning and structure are identical. For James, faith reveals itself in how it is lived. (Blomberg and Kamell, James (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 117)
Each Christian is to love her neighbor as herself. Vernon Doerksen (b. 1936) dismantles:
The singular “you” personalizes the command and makes it an individual responsibility. The term neighbor in the Levitical context was limited to the community of Israel, but in the parable of the good Samaritan Jesus enlarged it to include anyone in need of help (Luke 10:30-37). He also elevated the standard of love from “love your neighbor as yourself” to “love one another, just as I have loved you” (John 15:12; cf. Matthew 7:12). (Doerksen, James (Everyman’s Bible Commentary), 58)
David P. Nystrom (b. 1959) recognizes:
The use of “love” in the future tense (agapeseis) colors the phrase as indicative of James’s hope, a command for future action. Showing favoritism that discriminates against the poor places a person alongside those who slander the name of God. This is teaching fully in step with the prophetic tradition in the Old Testament. (Nystrom, James (The NIV Application Commentary), 121)
Craig L. Blomberg (b. 1955) and Mariam J. Kamell (b. 1978) advise:
“Neighbor” (πλησίον)...embraces everyone, even enemies, just as Jesus taught (Luke 10:25-37), not merely those close to us relationally, financially, or religiously. James’s use of “yourself” (σεαυτόν) does not promote modern psychologies (before they were invented!) that intentionally enjoin “self-love” before we can love others. Rather, the love commands throughout Scripture assume that people have a healthy, balanced view of self, rather than taking pathologies into account. Otherwise, we can become so wrapped up in trying to love ourselves and always feeling inadequate in doing so that we never turn to loving others. (Blomberg and Kamell, James (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 117)
This saying originates in Leviticus 19:18. Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) specifies:
This is a verbatim citation from Septuagint Leviticus 19:18c. There will follow in James 2:9 an allusion also to Leviticus 19:15. Other allusions to Leviticus 19 in James are found in James 4:11 (Leviticus 19:16); James 5:4 (Leviticus 19:13); James 5:9 (Leviticus 19:18b); James 5:12 (Leviticus 19:12) and James 5:20 (Leviticus 19:17b) (Luke Timothy Johnson [b. 1943], “Use of Leviticus 19”). (Johnson, The Letter of James (The Anchor Bible), 221)
George H. Guthrie (b. 1959) positions:
It is clear from the broader context of Leviticus 19:18 that partiality is tacitly a violation of the commandment to love one’s neighbor. Among other points, this broader context (Leviticus 19:9-18) addresses a number of themes that parallel concerns in James, including concern shown to the poor and alien by leaving parts of a harvest, not profaning the Lord’s name, not defrauding a neighbor, and not holding back the wages of a hired person. Leviticus 19:15 commands not to show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great (or rich). (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], Hebrews–Revelation (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 235-36)
Many have seen a further, albeit more implicit, connection to Leviticus 19:15. Peter H. Davids (b. 1947) chronicles:
Friedrich Spitta [1852-1924], 67, argues that this particular law is not the point. Rather, “you do well if you keep this law, but [James 2:9] its neighbor passage in Leviticus 19:15, You shall not be partial to the poor, not show favoritism to the mighty, condemns partially and one cannot obey one without the other.” This explanation seems oversubtle, for while James 2:9 refers to favoritism, it does not appear to cite or even use the exact terminology of Leviticus 19:15. It is possible, as Martin Dibelius [1883-1947], 142, suggests that the presence of Leviticus 19:15 was in the back of James’s mind because it may have been connected to Leviticus 19:18 in Jewish parenetic tradition. But since there are no examples of this tradition, although the poem of Pseudo-Phocylides comes close in drawing upon Leviticus 19, such reasoning must remain no more than an attractive hypothesis. (Davids, The Epistle of James (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 115)
Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) infers:
James certainly knew and made use of the Septuagint of Leviticus 19...He quotes Leviticus 19:18b accurately from the Septuagint in James 2:8. What is more striking is the way that he places this in the framework of partiality in judging, showing a clear allusion to Leviticus 19:15. Furthermore, as in the case of Pseudo-Phocylides, James combines the reference to Leviticus 19 with a citation of part of the Decalogue: “For he who said, ‘do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘do not kill’ (James 2:11), following the order of commandments found in one manuscript tradition of the Septuagint for Deuteronomy 5:17-18 and Exodus 20:13ff. There can be little doubt, therefore, that James was aware of the levitical context of the “Royal Law.” (Johnson, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God: Studies in the Letter of James, 126)
James proclaims that in complying with the love command, one is “fulfilling” royal law (James 2:8). Scot McKnight (b. 1953) defines:
To “fulfill” means (1) to bring to completion (Matthew 7:28, 11:1; Luke 2:39, 12:50; John 19:28, 30; II Corinthians 12:9), (2) to “pay” (Matthew 17:24), or (3) to “observe” or “do” or “keep” (Romans 2:27; James 2:8). Here, “fulfill” is synonymous with “keeps” in James 2:10. Even more it has the sense of doing the Torah completely, which helps set up the emphasis in James 2:10-11 on doing all of the Torah. In fact, one might detect a tone of arrogance, not uncommon in this letter (cf. James 1:19-21, 2:14-17, 3:1-12, 13-18, 4:1-14, 11-12, 13-17), in the descriptions of the community’s actions or claims to do the Torah. (McKnight, The Letter of James (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 206)
Dan G. McCartney (b. 1950) scrutinizes:
James refers to “fulfilling” or “completing” (τελέω, teleō) the royal law rather than using a more customary expression such as “keeping” or “obeying” it. This verb occasionally is used to refer to fulfilling an obligation, including carrying out the commandments of the law. But given James’s frequent use of the τελε- stem (James 1:4 [2x], James 1:17, 25, 2:8, 22, 3:2), its use here may be a deliberate emphasis of the comprehensive nature of biblical ethics (James 2:10-11). For James “fulfilling” or carrying out the royal law is of a piece with fulfilling or carrying through on faith by works in James 2:22, where law is not set over against faith, but rather law and faith together are fulfilled or made complete by obedient action. Further, James 2:8 connects with the fact that the law is a complete and perfect (τέλειος, teleios) law (James 1:25), and it therefore does not admit to partial obedience (James 2:10), because all parts of the law come from one source (James 2:11). (McCartney, James (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 147)
This usage is rare as a tele- stem occurs with this sense only in Luke 2:39 and Romans 2:27. Even so, the verb fits its context perfectly. Craig L. Blomberg (b. 1955) and Mariam J. Kamell (b. 1978) establish:
The verb “fulfill” (τελέω) continues James’s pattern of using this root that refers not just to completing requirement, but also to attaining maturity or even perfection. Thus the nuance is not that this law is obeyed in some minimal sense, but rather that it is substantially or even perfectly followed. We might suspect that James is setting us up for a Pauline contrast — of course, no one does actually obey the law this well — but we dare not yet presuppose this approach. (Blomberg and Kamell, James (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 116)
There are also implied eschatological ramifications. Robert W. Wall (b. 1947) interjects:
The importance of the law’s demand for the future is underscored by the formulaic “fulfill” (teleō), which is an eschatological catchword elsewhere in James. That is, hidden within the “royal law” is the promise of future salvation, which will be realized in the coming age for those who obey its law of love. This point will be more fully developed in James 2:12-13, where God’s verdict is based upon the believer’s obedience to Torah – specifically in those situations where the poor and powerless are discriminated against. (Wall, Community of the Wise: The Letter of James, 124)
James emphasizes the love command by attaching the otherwise unnecessary epithet “royal law” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NJKV, NLT, NRSV, RSV), “royal rule” (MSG) or “most important law” (CEV). This phrase appears only here in Scripture.

There has been much discussion as to the meaning of this designation. James describes the directive as a nómos, “law”, not a commandment. This word carries weight in James.

William F. Brosend II (b. 1954) traces:

It appears that as James’s argument unfolds, logos is replaced by nomos (law), which is first found at James 1:25, and that for James the two terms are in many ways synonymous and summarized this in the citation of Leviticus 19:18, found in James 2:8, as “the royal law according to the Scripture” – nomon....basilikon kata tēn graphēn (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”) – and thereby extending from word to law to Scripture. The words are of course not entirely synonymous, or there would be no reason to change terms. But it is in keeping with James’s overall style to use them loosely, if not interchangeably. (Brosend, James & Jude (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 53)
Use of this word accentuates the connection to the Old Testament in the passage and the book as a whole. Christopher W. Morgan (b. 1971) observes:
James’s teachings and thought-world are deeply rooted in the Old Testament, including the Law. In fact, three of James’s six Old Testament quotations (all in James 2) are taken from the Law. (Morgan, A Theology of James: Wisdom for God’s People, 25)
Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) agrees:
James’s entire symbolic world is that of Scripture in all its parts. James’s positive appreciation of the law (nomos) is obvious in his descriptions: it is the “perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25) and the “royal law” (or perhaps better, “law of the kingdom,” James 2:8). James explicitly cites from the decalogue and insists that “all the law” must be kept. (Johnson, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God: Studies in the Letter of James, 27)
James opts to not add an article to “royal law”. James B. Adamson (1924-2000) discusses:
In his thought and idiom James is nearer to Classical Greek than most of the New Testament writers are. Just as anarthrous sovereign law would suggest to an earlier Greek a law of the king of Persia, “who to him was not “the king,” but “king” without the article, as if it were a proper noun. “The Great King,” so James, as John Wesley [1703-1791] said, might well think of “sovereign law’ as the Law of the Great (Heavenly) King. Law as originating from, and worthy of, a wise king is found in the Old Testament (Dominus regnavit, Psalm 97:1), and also in Greek literature...The curious omission of the article with sovereign law is an effect flowing from the adjective sovereign, which latter word in its Christian connotation is here influenced by the thought and anarthrous idiom of the pagan Greek noun “king.” (Adamson, The Epistle of James (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 114)
James Hardy Ropes (1866-1933) speculates:
The article is probably omitted because νόμος is treated as a quasi-proper λόγος, James 1. (Ropes, St. James (International Critical Commentary), 198)
The intent of the designation“royal” (Greek: basilikós) is unclear. Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) admits:
James 2:8 presents a problem: should we translate “royal/sovereign law” or “supreme law” and thus see James labeling the love command as the essence of the law? (Witherington, Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Hebrews, James and Jude, 459)
Robert W. Wall (b. 1947) acknowledges:
The meaning of “royal” as a predicate of the anarthrous “law” remains unclear. Virtually all commentators understand that both the “royal law” and the levitical “love command” are coextensive with the poor, and that their combined use here intends to condemn the community’s preference for the rich (James 2:9; cf. Leviticus 19:15). That is, while its scope includes all persons, in this particular application to “love the neighbor” is not to discriminate against the poor. In this light, perhaps “royal” is a metaphor that implies the singular significance of this single law for any situation where discrimination exists and where it imperils the eschatological salvation of a community. (Wall, Community of the Wise: The Letter of James, 122)
John Painter (b. 1935) inspects:
The word basilikos is used only five times in the New Testament and in three contexts: twice in John 4:46, 49 to refer to a royal official (from the household of Herod?); twice in Acts 12:20-21 to refer to King Herod’s country and robes; and in James 2:8 concerning fulfilling the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” the royal law according to Scripture. (Painter and David A. DeSilva [b. 1967], James and Jude (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 89)
Sophie Laws (b. 1944) surveys:
The adjective basilikos means regal, or belonging to a king, as in its use of the king of Edom’s highway in Numbers 20:17 and of Herod’s territory in Acts 12:20 (where the noun is understood). Philo [20 BCE-50 CE] comments on Numbers 20:17 that the king’s highway is ‘royal’ because it is his and because it leads to him, and he finds here an allegory of the Law, which the true ‘royal road’ (De Posteritate Caini 101-102; cf. Clement of Alexandria [105-215] The Stromata vii. 73. 5: the deliberate choice of righteousness is the ‘royal road’ which the ‘royal nation’ travels.) In relation to a law, the adjective would most naturally indicate a law promulgated by a king, and is so used of the decree of Artaxeres in I Esdras 8:24, to a law applicable in his kingdom, as probably in the Pergamum inscription quoted by Adolf Deissman [1866-1937] (Light from the Ancient East, p. 362, n. 5). C.H. Dodd [1884-1973] gives examples of the use of the phrase basilikos nomos by Greek political writers to describe a law as given by, or worthy of, a king, and sometimes in relation to the maxim that ‘the law itself is king’ (The Bible and the Greeks, London 1935, p. 39). Fenton John Anthony Hort [1828-1892] suggests that a royal law could be ‘a law which governs other laws, and so has a specially regal character.’ We would then understand Leviticus 19:18 as the governing principle for all precepts (cf. Matthew 22:37-40). However, this strains the meaning of the adjective, which never seems to have been used in the sense of ‘governing’; and Leviticus 19:18 is anyway not appealed to here as key to other precepts but in virtue of its own content and authority. (Laws, The Epistle of James (Black’s New Testament Commentary), 109)
Douglas J. Moo (b. 1950) deciphers:
The word could also be translated “supreme” or “governing”; and some take it to introduce the following love command. James would then be claiming that his commandment was the specific “law” that governs, or takes precedence, over all others. This interpretation is enshrined in the New Jerusalem Bible translation: “Well, the right thing to do is to keep the supreme Law of Scripture: ‘you will love your neighbor as yourself.’” However, while the interpretation squares well with Jesus’ teaching about the love command, the Greek word used here can probably not bear the meaning “governing or supreme.” This term means “belonging to the king.”...New Testament usage, while sparse, similarly suggests the simple meaning “royal” (John 4:46, 49; Acts 12:20, 21). Even with this meaning, James could intend to identify the “royal law” with the love commandment that follows. But this view has against it the fact that “law” in the New Testament usually refers to an entire body of commandments rather than a single commandment. And the argument of James 2:10-11 would seem to assume this broader application of the term. (Moo, The Letter of James (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 111)
Scot McKnight (b. 1953) determines:
“Royal law” refers (1) to Jesus’ highlighting of Leviticus 19:18 as the preeminent command of all commands, alongside loving God, (2) to this interpretation of the Torah bringing the Torah to its destined completion (James 1:25), (3) to this law of love actually creating freedom for the messianic community, and (4) to the empowering implanted presence of word and Spirit in the messianic community. (McKnight, The Letter of James (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 206-07)
Some interpreters have closely connected the royal law to an edict given by a king. Craig A. Evans (b. 1952) and Darian R. Lockett (b. 1972) study:
The royal law (basilikos nomos) can refer to being “kingly” in character (Plato [427-347 BCE], Minos 317C; Epictetus [55-135], Discourses 4.6.20; Philo [20 BCE-50CE], Posterity 101-2; 4 Maccabees 14:2), or because a “king” does it, as in “royal custom’ (Xenophon [431-355 BCE], Cyropaedia 1.3.18). (Evans, John, Hebrews-Revelation (The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary), 273)
That Jesus is the king in question is supported by his own use of the Scripture. Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) contends:
This commandment is, above all, “royal” because it is identified with Jesus as his distinctive summation of Torah (see Matthew 19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14). (Johnson, The Letter of James (The Anchor Bible), 221)
Scot McKnight (b. 1953) concurs:
Walter Bauer [1877-1960] contended long ago that βασιλικός here denoted “royal” because “it is given by the king (of the kingdom of God)” and, since James...just mentioned the kingdom (James 2:5) and proceeds to appeal next to a distinguishable logion Jesu, even if he is quoting Leviticus 19:18 (cf. Mark 12:31 parr.), his position is most likely correct. (Bruce Chilton [b. 1949] and Craig A. Evans [b. 1952], “A Parting within the Way: Jesus and James on Israel and Purity”, James the Just and Christian Origins, 122)
Though this view has prominent adherents, it is not universally accepted. C. Freeman Sleeper (b. 1933) rejects:
Possibly there is an implicit reference to Christ, the Lord, as an interpreter of the Torah. This is a view that permeates Matthew’s Gospel, but it represents a later development. James does not explicitly claim such authority for Jesus. (Sleeper, James (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 73)
The law could also be deemed royal because all are on the same footing before the king; one is royalty and everyone else is not. The royal law thus creates an even playing field.

Richard Bauckham (b. 1946) relays:

Søren Kierkegaard [1813-1855] insightfully brings together the royal law of neighbourly love (James 2:8), which James employs against showing partiality (James 2:1-4, 9), and the theme of reversal of status (James 1:9-11, 2:5), a theme which Kierkegaard recognizes to be ‘frequently stressed’ in the Bible. Because the commandment to love one’s neighbour requires one to love everyone, whatever their social status, ‘as oneself’, its effect is to make all equal. Neighbourly love is the ‘bond of perfection that knits [the congregation’s] members together in equality before God’. In treating all alike as equal in status before God, love reflects God’s own attitude of impartiality (not respecting persons [Acts 10:34]). Its effect is to elevate the lowly and to humble the exalted...Two further points are notable about the way Kierkegaard develops this theme. One is his sense of this equalizing effect of neighbourly love as strongly counter-cultural. It is directly opposed to ‘the law that rules the world’, which is the law of partiality, treating the wealthy as more important than the poor...Secondly, Kierkegaard sees equality preserved and nurtured within congregational worship, but to be practised also in life outside of the church building. (Bauckham, James (New Testament Readings), 170-71)
Regardless of James’ specific intent in bestowing the label, the general effect of emphasis is undeniable. Peter H. Davids (b. 1947) accents:
This command is no whim and not just simply a law, but part of the law, carrying the king’s authority. This point is made here in the way the command is introduced; later it will be made by showing that to break one command (i.e. this one) is to destroy the whole law. The choice of the commandment is first because it fits the case and second because for James the poor person is the neighbor (cf. Proverbs 14:21; Franz Mussner [b. 1916], 123), for the context makes this point abundantly clear: the poor is elect, a neighbor, in a way the rich is not. (Davids, The Epistle of James (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 114-15)
There has also been significant debate as to what law is being referenced, the specific Scripture in Leviticus 19:18 or the Torah as a whole. Some have argued that the term “law” is too comprehensive to reference a single command.

Patrick J. Hartin (b. 1944) exemplifies:

The Law (nomos) to which James refers is the Mosaic Law in its totality as an expression of God’s will for God’s people. This is supported by the fact that the word nomos is used in preference to entolé: the Law in its entirety (nomos) is meant rather than a single command (entolé). (Hartin, James (Sacra Pagina), 121)
Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828-1892) opposes, “There is no difficulty in...applying so wide a term as νόμος to a single precept, since the precept itself was so comprehensive.” (Hort, The Epistle of St. James, 54)

Many have seen the reference as an example of a kelal uperat uperat ukelal (“general for particular”) law: Leviticus 19:18 encompasses the law as a whole, it is a representative sample, the summa of the entire law.

Dan G. McCartney (b. 1950) contends:

The “royal law” refers to the law of God generally, as summed up in the command of love. Some commentators (e.g., Sophie Laws [b. 1944] 1980: 108-9) take “royal law” to refer specifically to the Leviticus 19:18 command, which Jesus made the centerpiece of ethical behavior between humans (Matthew 22:39). And indeed there are several points of contact between Leviticus 19 and James (Luke Timothy Johnson [b. 1943] 1982; Timo Laato [b. 1963] 1997: 57-59). But James is hardly setting one part of the law over against the rest (James 2:10-11), and “law” (νόμος, nomos) generally refers to God’s instruction as a whole rather than a specific commandment, for which ἐντολή (entolē) is normally used (James Hardy Ropes [1866-1933] 1916: 198). It is better to say that Leviticus 19:18 gives expression to a controlling and central principle of God’s ethical imperative for human conduct (cf. Galatians 5:14) and serves as a framework for understanding its parts. This law summarized in love is “royal” (βασιλικός, basilikos) because it is the “law” of the kingdom (βασιλεία, basileia) of God (Luke Timothy Johnson [b. 1943] 1982: 401), the kingdom promised to the poor who love him (James 2:5). (McCartney, James (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 147)
Peter H. Davids (b. 1947) adds:
If they fulfil the νόμον βασιλικόν they do well, James states flatly. But what is that law? It is a “sovereign law,” i.e. it has royal authority (Martin Dibelius [1883-1947], 143), but more than that the anarthrous νόμον indicates a particular law with, as Joseph B. Mayor [1828-1916], 90, argues, a stress on its character...Is it not most natural to see a reference to the whole law as interpreted and handed over to the church in the teaching of Jesus, i.e. the sovereign rule of God’s kingdom (cf. Matthew 5)? That would seem more likely than both the parallel Martin Dibelius [1883-1947] cites in IV Maccabees 14:2 and Franz Mussner [b. 1916]’s tempting suggestion, 124, that this refers to the royal rank of this command among the others in the law, although not in the sense of main command as in Matthew 12:31. The use of νόμος instead of ἐντολή makes it appear decisive that the whole law rather than a single command is intended (Victor Paul Furnish [b. 1931], 179-80). (Davids, The Epistle of James (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 114)
Wesley Hiram Wachob (b. 1951) evaluates:
When Martin Dibelius [1883-1947] (1975, p. 142) asserts that the love-commandment is merely presented as “only a part” of the royal law...he understates its significance for our author. In other words, he fails to recognize that James’ performance of the love-commandment is a “new configuration”; for in our unit it is not “only a part” of the law, but also our author’s basic expression for or summary of the whole law (Roy Bowen Ward [1934-2012], 1966b. pp. 138-42; W.D. Davies [1911-2001], 1964, p. 401, note 2; Samuel Tobias Lachs [1926-2000] 1987, p. 107; and Reginald H. Fuller [1915-2007] and Ilse Fuller [b. 1921], 1978). (Wachob, The Voice of Jesus in the Social Rhetoric of James, 121)
There is historical support for Leviticus 19:18 encapsulating the whole law. Wesley Hiram Wachob (b. 1951) researches:
There is more than enough evidence from both Jewish and Christian sources to corroborate the use of Leviticus 19:18 as a summary of the whole law (Rabbi Hillel [110 BCE-10 CE] in Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a; Rabbi Aquiba [50-135] in Genesis Rabbah 24.7; see Hermann Leberecht Strack [1848-1922] and Paul Billerbeck [1853-1932] 1356-58; and Matthew 5:43, 19:19; Mark 12:31; Matthew 22:39; Luke 10:27; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; Didache 1.2; Barnabas 19.5; cited in Hans Dieter Betz [b. 1931], 1979, p. 276 note 34). Moreover, “the evidence” as Hans Dieter Betz [b. 1931] (1985a, p. 37) correctly observes, “indicates that early Christianity was historically united on the fact that Jesus taught the fulfillment of the Torah in the love-commandment” (also W.D. Davies [1911-2001], 1964, pp. 405-13). Further, as scholars like Luke Timothy Johnson [b. 1943] (1986, p. 457; cf. Peter H. Davids [b. 1947] 1982, p. 114) have argued, it is probable that the author of James (a “servant of the Lord Jesus Christ,” James 1:1), appropriates “all of Torah” in relation to the teachings of Jesus. Indeed, in the context of an argument that is addressed to Christian Jews and that conspicuously concerns “the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” it is hard to imagine that judgments concerning the poor, the promised kingdom, the royal law, and the love commandment could have been heard without thinking of Jesus’ words and deeds. (Wachob, The Voice of Jesus in the Social Rhetoric of James, 121-22)
Marie E. Isaacs buttresses:
James claims the command to love one’s neighbour, far from being one among many, embodies the whole of God’s Law and hence contains within it the prohibition against partiality. We find in negative form a similar sentiment attributed to rabbi Hillel [110 BCE-10 CE]: “What you hate do not do to your neighbour. That is the essence of the Torah; the rest is commentary” (Shabbat 31a). In the Gospels we find it on the lips of Jesus in its positive, Levitical form (Mark 12:31; Matthew 22:39; Luke 10:27). (Isaacs, Reading Hebrews & James: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 199)
Whether or not James sees Leviticus 19:18 as a summation of the law, the passage is clearly important to the author. Karen H. Jobes (b. 1952) determines:
The search for a unifying theme in James has been elusive. On a surface reading, the letter seems to jump from topic to topic with little continuity of thought or structure of argument. It covers a variety of ethical issues that address concerns of justice and harmony in the community. Most interpreters see the content of James as motivated by pressing issues that either existed in the congregation(s) or that were plausible in that social context. It might be presumptuous even to attempt to state a unifying theme, but it appears that James is very concerned with applying the “royal law.” (Jobes, Letters to the Church: A Survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles)
Leviticus 19:18 is a Jewish text and there have been Jewish sources who emphasized it. Even so, Christianity has added its own unique intensification of the passage.

Scot McKnight (b. 1953) footnotes:

One can find numerous parallels in Jewish literature to the importance of loving God or loving others (Testament of Simeon 4:7; Testament of Issachar 5:2; Testament of Dan 5:4; Philo [20 BCE-50 CE], Specialibus legibus 1.299-300, 324), or to the importance of love (Odes of Solomon 41:1-6), but something about Jesus and his followers remains distinct: the connection of Leviticus 19:18 to Deuteronomy 6:4-5. The daily recitation of Shema as followed by Leviticus 19:18 forms that distinction. See Hugh Montefiore [1920-2005], “Thou Shalt Love”; E.P. Sanders [b. 1937], “Jesus and the First Table of the Jewish Law,” 55-73; Luke Timothy Johnson [b. 1943] (with Wesley Wachob [b. 1951]) speaks of the “abundance of Jewish and Christian sources that corroborate the use of Leviticus 19:18 as a summary of the whole law,” but cites much later rabbinic texts and New Testament and early Christian texts (Johnson, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God, 151). The appeal to later rabbinic texts does not count for an abundance of texts for determining whether Jesus’ use of Leviticus 19:18 was simply part of his Jewish context. Methodologically, concluding that Jesus was evidently the one who raised Leviticus 19:18 to a cental location does not make him non-Jewish, nor does it make the other groups of Judaism less Jewish or less loving...It is connecting Leviticus 19:18 to the Shema that makes Jesus’ distinctive use of Leviticus 19:18. (McKnight, The Letter of James (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 207-08)
Jesus elevates Leviticus 19:18 much like an Oprah Winfrey endorsement (b. 1954) does for a contemporary book. Scot McKnight (b. 1953) traces:
Leviticus 19:18, a text not quoted in Jewish literature from the time of Leviticus until the time of Jesus, was raised a notch in importance when Jesus attached it to the daily recital of the Shema. Thus, Mark 12:28-34...Several New Testament writings, surprisingly quote Leviticus 19:18 in such a manner that demonstrates their awareness of the elevation of Leviticus 19:18 by Jesus. Thus, Paul explicitly makes it the fundamental rule of life (Romans 12:19, 13:9; Galatians 5:14), while Peter edges in that direction (I Peter 4:8) and John explodes into full focus on love (John 13:34-35; I John 3:11, 23, 4:17). It is not without significance that James is the only person in the New Testament after Jesus who quotes both sides of the Jesus Creed: loving God in James 1:12 and James 2:5 and loving others as oneself here in James 2:8. (McKnight, The Letter of James (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 207-08)
Some have seen a correlation between the “Royal Law” and the “Golden Rule” (Matthew 7:12). A.T. Robertson (1863-1934) attaches:
One may compare...the Golden Rule as given by Jesus in Matthew 7:12, which is just another way of stating the “royal law” of loving one’s neighbor (τὸν πλησίον σου, one near in need whether in space or not) as oneself, a very high standard for most people. (Robertson, Studies in James, 122)
Don S. Browning (1934-2010) concurs:
It is, of course, a slightly different formulation of the Golden Rule. A variation of the principle of neighbor love is found eight times in the New Testament (Matthew 19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31, 33; Luke 10:27; Romans 13:8; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8). Both Jesus and Paul use it as the hermeneutic key to the interpretation of the Jewish law. Louis Janssens [1908-2001] interprets neighbor love as equal-regard in order to make it consistent with the Catholic tradition’s view of love as caritas – a love that balances self-regard and other-regard. He combines formal features of Gene Outka [b. 1937]’s neo-Kantian view of love as equal-regard with certain material theories about basic human premoral goods (the ordo bonorum) that equal-regard organizes and promotes. (Browning, Christian Ethics and the Moral Psychologies, 143)
T.A. Prickett (b. 1934) preaches:
It may be argued that treating the rich man with such respect was simply living out the Golden Rule, which is to love your neighbor as yourself. James says that is fine, but if you do not treat the poor man with the same respect, then you are not responding to the rich man out of love but out of preference. (Prickett, Faith in Ever’day Clothes: Sermons from the Book of James, 28)
Love of neighbor is one of the few topics early Christian writers agree upon and emphasize. Even Paul and James, who have often been pitted against one another, utilize this Scripture.

Sophie Laws (b. 1944) documents:

Paul too quotes Leviticus 19:18 as the supreme command, with no explicit appeal to the authority of Jesus (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14). John, by contrast, attributes a command to love specifically to Jesus, and never uses the Old Testament form of love of the neighbour (though I John 2:7 shows a consciousness that the new commandment is also an old one). It is reasonable to suppose that the prominence of a command to love in many of the New Testament documents is due to its prominence in the teaching of Jesus, even when this is not explicitly acknowledged. If so, it is probable that when James quotes Leviticus 19:18 as scripture he does so in the knowledge that the scripture has received the added authority of Jesus’ use. (Laws, The Epistle of James (Black’s New Testament Commentary), 110)
Though unacknowledged, this marks the only reference to a specific saying of Jesus in the book of James. William R. Baker (b. 1951) band Thomas D. Ellsworth (b. 1955) report:
James did not seem to think it necessary to tell readers that his teaching was grounded in the teaching of Jesus. Mention of “royal law” (James 2:8), suggesting Jesus’ kingdom of God teaching, is the only hint of any kind. Were people so well versed in Jesus’ teaching that it was as obvious to them, as it is to us, who have Matthew and can easily compare the two writings? (Baker and Ellsworth, Preaching James, 5)
Christian life mandates love of neighbor. The verse is foundational to Christianity; it is an essential. Loving our neighbors is what we do.

Earl F. Palmer (b. 1931) summarizes:

James...calls his readers to the way of love, but he describes the love toward the neighbor as “the royal law” (James 2:8). Whatever else he means by this kingly title for the mandate about love, he has succeeded in showing us that love has the royal imprimatur, an imprint that has its source in God’s character. (Palmer, The Book that James Wrote, 51)
Favoritism is a failure of love. To discriminate is to decide who is worthy of love and who is not. Instead we are to love as God loves living a life free from prejudice, discrimination, favoritism.

Do you think that the royal law refers to Leviticus 19:18 or a broader corpus? Could any Old Testament Law represent its whole better? Is it possible to separate loving God from loving neighbor? Were we only to comply with one mandate, which would God prefer, loving God or loving one another? Does obeying the royal law make one royalty? What is your own personal royal law? What does love of neighbor require of us?

Whether James is addressing an actual or hypothetical situation is unknown. The verse begins with a problematic particle (Greek: méntoi) that some prominent translations ignore (CEV, KJV, MSG). When translated, the word is rendered either in the affirmative (“really” [ESV, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV]; “indeed” [HCSB, NLT]) or adversative (“however” [NASB] or “howbeit” [ASV]).

Interpreters are as divided as translations. James B. Adamson (1924-2000) introduces:

The first crux here is the meaning of the Greek particle, which KJV ignores; is it adversative, “however” (James Hardy Ropes [1866-1933], C.E.B. Cranfield [b. 1915]), or affirmative, “verily,” “really” (Fenton John Anthony Hort [1828-1892])? (Adamson, The Epistle of James (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 113)
Douglas J. Moo (b. 1950) explains:
A decision is difficult because usage favors the latter rendering while context favors the former. The word in question has an adversative meaning in all seven of its other New Testament occurrences (John 4:27, 7:13, 12:42, 20:5, 21:4; II Timothy 2:19; Jude 1:8). But it is not easy to give James 2:8 an adversative relationship to its context. The best we can do is think that James 2:8 contrasts with James 2:6a: “you have insulted the poor...however, if you fulfill the royal law, you do well.” This connection is pretty distant, however. So, since the sense of “really” or “indeed” is attested for the word, we should probably prefer this alternative. (Moo, The Letter of James (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 110-11)
Peter H. Davids (b. 1947) counters:
The particle μέντοι (the most common -τοι compound in the New Testament, used 8 times) points out that James does not begin a new topic when he uses the argument from the royal law: he continues the discussion of discrimination against the poor by showing that it violates the law of love. The particle appears to bear the force of the English concessive “however” (German aber; Franz Mussner [b. 1916], 123) in a semi-ironic contrast of their actual behavior with that presupposed in this clause, underlying the standard of judgment. (Davids, The Epistle of James (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 114)
One’s perception of this particle is significant as it relates to the tone of the text: were some fulfilling the royal law? “Really” exonerates a portion of the audience. The text considers the possibility that the royal law is being followed, thought the presumption is that it is not.

James B. Adamson (1924-2000) contextualizes:

No sane man could have pretended even to himself that the conduct of James 2:1-4 was a way of fulfilling the law of love. It is not quite so ludicrous to consider the unlikely possibility that “however” could be used in a tenor like this: “If, however, I am doing some of you an injustice, if in fact you do not all behave as in James 2:1-4, if in fact some of you are fulfilling the law of love, well and good: but if not, you are sinning and will suffer for it!” This possibility will be acceptable only if we believe that James is expressly recognizing that among the hearers of his Epistle an appreciable number are not in fact guilty of the sin he has been indicating...James would concede that here, and in the host of other faults he censures in this Epistle (which confirms the picture Jesus gives of the too common insincerity of the contemporary established religion) not all his flock are in the same sad case; but even so we think the other translation is right. It is more apt for an Epistle hopefully...intended for more than an immediate occasion; and the break this made before the transition from delinquents he has been rebuking to Christians in general, and to his statement of the vital choice to be made by us all, is by no means ineffective. (Adamson, The Epistle of James (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 113-14)
Scot McKnight (b. 1953) defends:
A good translation of James 2:8 can open with “If you really do fulfill the royal law...” James both assumes that the messianic community really is following the royal law and also knows that it does not follow it consistently and that he is about to speak one again to their failures (James 2:9). Once we recognize that “really” in James 2:8 belongs with the messianic community’s salutary practices in James 1:25-27, where a very similar expression occurs (“the perfect law, the law of liberty”), we can see more clearly what James is saying. He wants to remind them of James 1:25-27 in order to get them to move beyond what he has just described in James 2:2-4. Thus, if they really do live as described in James 1:25-27, they will be fine. But James knows better. This verse then sets up the messianic community for one more strong critique about their favoritism. James 2:9 will begin that critique. (McKnight, The Letter of James (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 205)

Thomas D. Lea (1938-1999) surmises:

Some of James’s readers felt they had been obedient to God in the matter of showing love for the poor and needy. Wherever that was true, James gave credit. If they were really putting God’s law into practice, this was noble and commendable. The command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is an impossible standard without the power of the living Christ (John 13:34-35). Whenever Christians have applied this standard, it has remade communities, societies, and homes. Whoever follows this life of service will receive the Lord’s commendation at the final judgment (Matthew 25:21). (Lea, Hebrews & James (Holman New Testament Commentary), 283)
The text is certainly corrective and there may even be a tinge of sarcasm: A large portion of James’ audience is clearly not fulfilling the royal law. This is not surprising as the law flies in the face of their cultural norms.

Ingeborg Mongstad-Kvammen situates:

In James 2:8-9 James...shows them that by acting within Roman cultural etiquette, they actually become transgressors of the royal law. They break with Jesus’ commands and understanding of the Law. By acting as Romans they do not live according to the love command which is the fulfillment of the Law and the alternative James gives them. This could mean that the addressees have two major entities to relate to: a) the Christian teaching of the royal law, love your neighbour as yourself, and b) the Roman Empire and Roman etiquette, they transgress against the love command and through this the whole Law, and can be condemned by the Law. (Mongstad-Kvammen, Toward a Postcolonial Reading of the Epistle of James: James 2:1-13 in its’ Roman Imperial Context, 204)
The more things have changed, the more they have remained the same. Class discrimination is as prevalent today as it was in James’ era. Unfortunately, it is as common for the poor to be discriminated in churches as in the outside world. In the Kingdom of God, this should not be the case.

Frances Taylor Gench (b. 1956) informs:

This referred to as the “royal law,” because it is the law of the kingdom into which God has called them (see Mark 12:29-31)...Those whom James addresses may very well have argued, as do we, that in attending to the rich they are showing love to their neighbors. And if this is really the case, then they “do well.” But this is no excuse for partiality. If in attending to the rich, readers discriminate against the poor, then they “commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:9). They have not understood that the poor person whom they dishonor is also a neighbor and that “acts of favoritism” place them in violation of the biblical commandment to love. (Gench, Hebrews and James (Westminster Bible Companion), 101)
Kurt A. Richardson (b. 1957) pronounces:
This royal law belongs to the heirs of the kingdom (James 2:5). Under this law there should be no acts of favoritism to anyone. All alike should be equal recipients of the love that is due them. Neighbor love in Scripture is directed to everyone in close proximity to each believer, without distinction. Whether or not the “neighbor” is a believer in Jesus, that one is to receive the same love. If favoritism is going to be avoided and the righteousness of God promoted, James recalled the love that serves everyone in need regardless of their religious commitments...This point in the teaching of Jesus was meant as the supreme antidote to favoritism and hypocrisy. No one is outside the boundary of neighbor love, not even the poor and unlovely, indeed especially not them. When this royal law of neighbor is obeyed, no more excellent deed can be done. In this actively loving way, and in this way alone, the rich believer and the believers who enjoy life above the poverty line can overcome the stumbling blocks to their faith. When this command controls what is meant by being a “doer of the law,” every other command is effectively fulfilled. The old adage that a Christian cannot “do well” without “well doing” rests on the pointedly defined royal law: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Surely Paul’s meaning in Galatians 5:6 correlates well here: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Richardson, James (New American Commentary), 119-20)
Love of neighbor should be exhibited in action. George M. Stulac (b. 1944) applies:
Loving your neighbor as yourself means treating others’ concerns as important as your own. Therefore followers of this law will seek the common good rather than personal good. Imagine a church committee meeting in which one person presents an idea of what should be done about a particular issue. A second person disagrees. The first person, because she is a follower of the royal law, responds not by arguing her own idea but by helping the group fully hear and understand the other person’s proposal. Love brings a desire to protect each other’s interests. (Stulac, James (IVP New Testament Commentary), 102)
Richard J. Foster (b. 1942) connects:
There is the service of bearing the burdens of each other. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). The “law of Christ” is the law of love, the “royal law” as James calls it (James 2:8). Love is most perfectly fulfilled when we bear the hurts and sufferings of each other, weeping with those who weep. And especially when we are with those who are going through the valley of the shadow, weeping is far better than words. (Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 139)
In the movie 42 (2013), Branch Rickey (1881-1965) appropriatlely cites the royal law as part of his rationale for bringing Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) into Major League Baseball. On the basis of Scripture, Rickey refuses to discriminate regardless of race.

Of course, the exemplar of obeying the royal law is the King. Robert W. Wall (b. 1947) resolves:

The problem of partiality is that the bigot disobeys the “royal law,” “you will love your neighbor as yourself,” when it is this very law that the wise congregation must observe in hope of receiving God’s promised blessing. To actually fulfill this law is to perform its demand by following the example of Jesus in resisting discrimination against the poor. (Wall, Community of the Wise: The Letter of James, 122)
Paul A. Cedar (b. 1938) praises:
Jesus came not to only teach this law but to live it. Indeed, He is the personification of the royal law of love. (Cedar, James/1 & 2 Peter/Jude (The Preacher’s Commentary), 58)

Who do you know who best lives out the royal law? In your experience, do Christians typically follow this royal law? Do you? At your church, do you get as excited to see panhandlers and vagrants as young well-to-do families?

“The moment a little boy is concerned with which is a jay and which is a sparrow, he can no longer see the birds or hear them sing.” - Eric Berne (1910-1970), Games People Play: The Basic Handbook of Transactional Analysis, p. 178


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  2. Wow! Thanks for sharing your research. I was looking for an explanation of the meaning of "royal law".