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Question is based on this comment on Christiantity SE.

In the OT, the word fool is apparently used to describe atheists:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1.

However, in the NT, Jesus clearly warns against using that term:

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Matthew 5:22

Since these words are in different languages, I wonder if anyone can offer a comparison between the original words or possible explanation.

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3 Answers 3

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This is an attempt to give a brief theological answer, an answer that examines the words in their contexts and in their broader theological context, rather than a lexical investigation.

The fool in Psalm 14/53 and in Proverbs is someone who is in moral antithesis to God. This is not an insult or a slur; it is an accurate description of the state of his mind, since the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 1:7). The psalmist/proverb-writer is not making ad hominem attacks, but is locating the individual theologically.

When Jesus says not to call someone fool on the Sermon on the Mount, he is teaching on anger and control of the tongue, not barring the use of a particular word in the language. (Notice also that he says your brother. Though "brother" is now an appellation that can be applied to anyone, in that context it referred to another Jew—and who therefore, at least we would hope, know Gods, and is not a fool.) Remember that Jesus himself calls some people a "brood of vipers"—which is a metaphorical way of saying, "offspring as Satan". If anything, this is stronger language than "fool" (though theologically equivalent). However, he does not do this in a fit of rage against them, but graciously in order to reveal to them the nature of their state and bring them to repentance.

So the difference is not so much a linguistic difference as a difference of the usage in context. It is theologically correct to describe someone who is surpressing the knowledge of God as a fool, but morally wrong to do so out of anything but a desire for the person's salvation.

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I thought all the answers were excellent, but this was the easiest for me to understand. :) –  Wikis May 4 '12 at 7:56

Raca means "empty headed," very similar to how we use "fool" today. Jesus also uses moros in that verse, which is the root of moron. While we normally need to take care not to commit the root fallacy, this one does mean the same thing.

The word used in Hebrew is nabal which has more to do with consistently making bad moral choices. Brown, Driver, Briggs starts its entry with "foolish, senseless, esp. of the man who has no perception of ethical and religious claims, and with collat. idea of ignoble, disgraceful;" The Psalm is not referring to atheists as we think of them (the modern atheist would be unheard of in the ancient world), but of moral reprobates.

Some other interesting uses of nabal in the Old Testament.

In Is 32:5 it is opposite to nadib which means noble minded. There's a nice Hebrew word-play here, too. "No longer will the nabal be called nadib.

Pr 17:17 says that the nabal's arrogant speech only makes his faults more conspicuous.

Job 30:8 teaches that these "ignoble men" come to a bad end.

Jer 17:11 says that those who earn their fortune unjustly will lose it and prove they are nabal.

Dt 22:21 says that women who play the harlot have committed an act of nabal. That is definetely a moral issue not merely an empty headed act.

The Septuagint uses both moros (foolish) and aphron (ignorant) to translate nabal.

It should be noted that Jesus is warning us not to call particular people nabal (I think it more likely he was using that word in the second phrase and not the first) while the Psalm is pointing out that certain people have the characteristics of the nabal.

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Zing! My answer does overly rely on the etymology of the words. Reading your answer prompted a related question about the name Nabal in I Samuel 25. –  Jon Ericson Apr 27 '12 at 16:29
    
I've wondered about Nabal's name many times. –  Frank Luke Apr 27 '12 at 20:02
    
@JonEricson, it's always good to start with the etymology. And for "raca," I think it is exactly right. When compound words are first used, they will have meanings like their components. As time passes, the meaning sometimes shifts. monosgeneis is a good example. –  Frank Luke Apr 28 '12 at 2:45
    
as an aside, Exegetical Fallacies is a must-read –  swasheck Jun 20 '12 at 15:09

Both Psalm 14 and 53 use the word nabal <05036> which can be translated:

foolish, senseless, fool

It comes from nabel <05034>, which has a literal meaning of:

to wilt; generally, to fall away, fail, faint

The foolish meaning is figurative. Perhaps the idea is that such a person is corrupt or morally weak.

As a side note, there's very little chance that the Psalm is referring to what we might call philosophical atheism (see NET Bible note #3). Historically speaking, it's more likely that "There is no God" is a statement that evil actions have no real consequences.


The word used in Matthew 5:22 is the hapax legomenon rhaka <4469>, which comes from the Aramaic word reyq <07386>. That word, in turn, comes from the Hebrew ruwq <07324> which has a primary meaning of:

to make empty, empty out

Again, the foolish meaning is figurative. But in this case, the image seems to be of a person with an empty head.

It seems that Jesus was not making a reference to Psalm 14 and 53, but using a word that would have been an insult that he and his listeners would have been familiar with. A modern equivalent might be estúpido, which is a particularly mean thing to say to someone in Spanish. Rather than labeling a person as morally deficient, it's an insult to their intelligence and worth as a person.

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+1 for giving a helpful linguistic perspective. Our answers are largely compatible, though I consider your statement of the meaning of fool in the Psalms theologically weak given the whole testimony of Scripture (and linguistically, I suspect it of being overly etymological in its derivation of the meaning). –  Kazark Apr 26 '12 at 19:53
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@Kazark: I agree. Since I don't have an training in Hebrew (or Greek) I pretty much depend on the definitions provided in lexicons such as Strongs. –  Jon Ericson Apr 26 '12 at 20:09

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