A long time ago I had a boyfriend who had grown up Seventh-Day Adventist. One time I responded to something he said in a playful jest: “oh you silly fool.” He got very angry with me and told me I must never call anyone a “fool”, lest I be subject to the fires of hell. I don’t remember exactly how I responded to that, but 21-year old me, with no self-regulation, probably told him he was being silly, that if Jesus said something like that I’d know about it, but he assured me it was in the bible and I should watch myself. He was right: the end of Matthew 5:22 reads, “[If] you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Why hadn’t I know about that little rule? While I had grown up in the church, my denomination, the Lutheran Church in America, had been one of the more formal protestant ones, more inclined toward conservativism in worship but liberality and inclusivity in social life. Women had been pastors in our church for over fifteen years and marriage, far from being a sacrament, could end in divorce should it be what was best for the two parties. We had events with dancing in the Community Hall and wine for communion and beer was a staple at any nighttime potluck. The bible I was had been raised with and taught in Sunday school was one in which God wanted people to be happy, rather than trapped in miserable lives. Everyone sinned and everyone who asked for forgiveness received it, regardless of what the sin entailed. The unpleasant bits of the Gospels (except, of course, the crucifixion) were generally glossed over. We were not biblical literalists.
But my boyfriend had grown up in a literalist denomination. In fact, one which was so literal that they took Saturday as the 7th day of the week to mean that was the Sabbath and not Sunday (never minding that in Europe, Monday is the first day of the week and Sunday is the 7th…but I digress.) And there it was, staring me in the face, in Matthew 5:22. Jesus himself said it. Don’t say to anyone ‘you fool’ because hell was waiting. And as oddly specific as that seemed to me, I couldn’t deny the evidence laid before me. The word of God… and not that God from the Old Testament who sent rains to flood the earth and fire to rain down on Sodom and Gomorrah… but Jesus Christ himself. I asked God for forgiveness and apologized to him and never called him or anyone else a fool again.
But eventually we broke up, and I, becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Christian faith, with its weird little specific rules like “don’t call someone a fool,” stopped trying to reconcile my sexual attraction to men with what I read in scripture. Why bother with church at all, even gay-affirming churches like MCC? The bible said what it said. I’m sure I could find faith somewhere else that didn’t rely on such a faulty narrative.
Some twenty years later, after my time in the wilderness, I gave the church another chance, and with that, I gained a more mature understanding of scripture. And doing a little research, I’ve found that this very verse itself is an example of the pitfalls of conventional modern biblical literalism.
A fool? Or a fool?
Words evolve. The word “fool” has several different meanings:
- a person who acts unwisely or imprudently; a silly person
- a jester or clown, especially one retained in a noble household.
- a harmlessly deranged person or one lacking in common powers of understanding
- a person devoted to a particular activity: “a fool for love”
Most dictionaries will list meanings in order of use as they have researched it. While several dictionaries online have different orders and include other archaic meanings, they all have the same 1st definition here: “a person who acts unwisely or imprudently; a silly person” or “a person lacking in judgment or prudence.” This was the definition that 21 year old me would have been using, while playfully mocking my boyfriend. My personal definition probably would have been (and still be) “carelessly unaware.”
However, as recently as the start of the 20th century, the primary definition of “fool” was similar to definition 3 above. As Webster’s 1913 dictionary reads for the first definition: “One destitute of reason, or of the common powers of understanding; an idiot; a natural.” The second definition, while approaching our modern understanding, is still somewhat bad: “A person deficient in intellect; one who acts absurdly, or pursues a course contrary to the dictates of wisdom; one without judgment; a simpleton; a dolt.”
Very few people would describe a “fool” under definition 3 above today. The word has mostly lost that abrasive and ableist connotation. Yet, as recently as 2021, the NRSVUE (New Revised Standard Version-Updated Edition) translates the passage from Matthew 5:21 as “’You fool,’” using the same English word as in the King James Version over 400 years ago.
Of course, the Gospels weren’t even written in English, but instead, Greek. In fact, the word translated as “fool” in that passage is the Greek word, μωρέ (mōre), an adjective meaning dull, stupid, or sluggish. It is specifically understood as a characteristic deficiency of intelligence that is related to birth defect or injury. It is the root word for “moron”, which a few lesser known modern translations use instead. It is a definition which does not quite jibe with the common understanding of the word “fool” today, but does make sense in the context of what Jesus’s words were. Μωρέ can be found additionally in Mt. 7:26; 23:17; 25:2,3,8; 1 Cor 1:25,27; 3:18; 4:10; 2 Tim 2:23; and Titus 3:9.
The deficiency of English becomes apparent because another, more frequently used Greek word, ἄφρων (áphrōn), also gets translated as “foolish” or “fool”. While both μωρέ and ἄφρων both get translated the same into English, the words are not at all the same. ἄφρων is a word meaning lacking perspective to act prudently, or short-sighted. It is derived from the prefix α- (without) and -φρεν (inner perspective to regulate behavior). This definition is much closer to the more common understanding of “fool,” and can be found at the end of the parable of the rich farmer, in Luke 12:20, where God tells him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Ἄφρων can also be found in Lk 11:40; Rom 2:20; 1 Cor 15:36; 2 Cor 11:16 (2); 2 Cor 11:19; 2 Cor 12:6; 12:11; Eph 5:17; and 1 Peter 2:15.
But because of the choices by English translators, we have Luke’s Jesus having God saying the very same thing that Matthew’s Jesus tells us will make someone “liable to the hell of fire.” The two words are not the same at all.
Both words are also found considerable times in the Septuagint, the Hebrew Scriptures in Greek from the time of Jesus, with ἄφρων a bit more than twice as common as μωρέ. They don’t seem to be distributed evenly, with the vast majority of μωρέ are in the deuterocanonical book of Sirach, while other books opt for the use of ἄφρων. However, Psalm 94:8 (93:8) of the Septuagint uses both: “Understand, O dullest of the people; fools, when will you be wise?” There are a far greater variety of Hebrew words that are found as either μωρέ or ἄφρων, but it appears in nearly all the cases (excepting Sirach) there was an intentional choice to use ἄφρων over μωρέ. And generally there were different Hebrew words that became translated as either Greek word.
What did Jesus actually mean?
Besides, Jesus isn’t just talking about calling someone a fool. Matthew 5:21-22 in the Common English Bible (CEB) reads as follows:
21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell.
This isn’t simply a passage about calling someone a bad name. It’s about casting insults about their intelligence in anger. And what’s interesting is that while the original text is in Greek, the word translated as “You idiot” is Ῥακά (Rhaka), which is not Greek at all but Aramaic (Syriac: ܪܝܩܐ ;Hebrew: רֵיקָא). What does the word mean? As a noun it designates “a vain or worthless person” but in its usage in rabbinic writing it differs very little from “fool”. Therefore the Greek here has Jesus repeating the same word in both Aramaic and Greek.
But Jesus didn’t speak Greek, but instead, Aramaic. So if this is an authentic saying of Jesus, it’s very likely that he said “Ῥακά” and, having been familiar with the Greek word, “μωρέ”, said that afterwards for emphasis. He was making a very specific point about calling people names in anger. That either name spat in anger would subject the person saying them to eschatological judgment.
Who’s fooling who here?
But why delve so deeply into this? I discovered the difference while doing a text study for the Luke text above, and couldn’t stop thinking about it. And this is just one of many examples where translators decided to make a choice that created an ambiguity in translation.
Scripture should always be more deeply assessed before people decide certain meanings of things, and one should never assume the English is perfectly representative of the underlying Greek. Words like “fool”, which has multiple meanings can make such a difference in context, that unless you study the Greek, you lose the actual meaning of something Jesus said.
It underscores the flimsy platform that biblical literalists stand on when making statements about “what’s in the bible.” Is it willful ignorance?
I’d call it foolish! ?