Compared to biblical Greek, the English language can be confusing and imprecise. One of the prime examples of this is in the usage of the English term "fool" or "foolish" in the New Testament. In Matthew 5:22, Jesus states that calling someone a fool is grounds for judgment. Yet both He and Paul occasionally called people fools. Does that mean Jesus and Paul are liable for judgment?
Why did Paul and Jesus call people foolish when Jesus taught us not to call our brother a fool?
It would seem that way to those who don't know the original words. In the New Testament, the words "fool" and "foolish" are used in the following ways:
aphron: senseless, without thought or reason, rash
Luke 11:40: "You fools!" (Jesus to the Pharisees)
Romans 2:20: "…an instructor of the foolish…" (Paul referring to the students of Jewish scholars)
1 Corinthians 15:36: "You foolish person!" (Paul in a hypothetical argument)
2 Corinthians 12:11: "I have been a fool!…" (Paul ironically speaking of himself)
1 Peter 2:15: "…put to silence the ignorance of foolish people." (Peter referring to hypothetical unbelievers)
anoetos: not understanding, uninformed, unwise
Luke 24:25: "O foolish ones…" (an angel speaking to the disciples at the empty tomb)
Romans 1:14: "I am under obligation…to the wise and to the foolish" (Paul speaking of those he tries to reach with the Gospel)
Galatians 3:1: "O foolish Galatians!..." (Paul to the people in the church at Galatia)
Galatians 3:3: "Are you so foolish?..." (Paul to the people in the church at Galatia)
Titus 3:3: "For we ourselves were once foolish…" (Paul describing himself and his co-workers before they were saved)
raca: empty, senseless, empty-headed, a term of reproach
Matthew 5:22: "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire."
When Jesus or Paul called a person foolish, they meant to say that the person was acting rashly, without thinking, unwisely, or without all the information. That is not the usage Jesus meant in Matthew 5. The Greek raca meant something a little different. It expressed a judgment call on someone's character. The honor of one's name was very important in Bible times, and is still important in the Middle East today. To say the nature of a man was empty-headed was a grave insult.
In addition, raca at the time was a term of great reproach. Both the definition and the cultural meaning of the word as a slang was designed for vulgar insult.
We must also consider the way Matthew 5:22 is formatted. In Hebrew poetry, it is ideas that are repeated, not sounds. The verse is a triplet, expressing the same thought in three different ways. It implies that anger and insults are both part of the situation.
To angrily, insultingly swear at a brother is, indeed, grounds for judgment. Although Jesus and Paul both got frustrated with, and even angry with, their audience, they never insultingly condemned the nature of a person. We are all made in God's image (Genesis 1:26). To warn someone that he is acting unwisely and thoughtlessly is a gracious act (Galatians 6:1). To call someone raca is to refute God's nature in them.
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