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Answering The Atheist
February 18, 2007 / Volume 7, Issue 7

THE ATHEIST'S COMPLAINT:
Is it OK to call someone a fool? Some Bible texts indicate that it is OK to do so (Psalm 14:1; 53:1; Matthew 23:17, 19; Luke 11:40; Luke 24:25; Romans 1:21-22; 1 Corinthians 15:36; Galatians 3:1), but Jesus forbids such in Matthew 5:22. Is there a contradiction?

RESPONSE:
There are a few distinctions which ought to be made as we begin to consider this supposed contradiction. Note:

  • the prohibition (Matthew 5:22) is limited to brethren (v 22-24). Some verses listed above address unbelievers (Psalm 14:1; 53:1; Romans 1:21-22).
  • a different Greek word is translated "fool" in Matthew 5:22 than in the other texts, with the exception of Matthew 23:17, 19. But more important than the word used, Jesus through Matthew 5 is focusing upon the attitude of one's heart.
  • none of the texts listed as evidence that it is "OK" to call some one a fool compels us to do so. Though the Bible may identify this one or that one as a fool, no Bible text tells us to call anyone a fool.
As indicated above, Psalm 14:1; 53:1 and Romans 1:21-22 all speak of those who care not to know God as fools (Heb. nabal; Gr. asunetos). Why are they called fools? "...The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom..." (Psalm 111:10; cf. Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; 15:33). To reject the Lord is to reject wisdom and knowledge. By definition, that is foolishness. But again, this is spoken of the unbeliever, not the believer. Gr. moros
dull or stupid (as if shut up), i.e. heedless, (morally) blockhead, (apparently) absurd: -- fool(-ish, X -ishness).
Strong's Exhaustive Concordance

...a fair equivalent of "raca". "Raca" expresses contempt for a man's head = you stupid! More expresses contempt for his heart and character = you scounrel"
Robertson's NT Word Pictures

In the English, the word fool is used to translate more than one Greek word. Though the words convey similar thoughts, do not make the mistake of equating them with one another. In Luke 11:40, Jesus refers to the Pharisees as aphron (gr.), for they focused on outward washings, but not inward cleansing. The word means "...ignorant... rash... unbelieving... unwise..." (Strong's). This is the same word used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:36 of those who cast doubt upon the resurrection. In Luke 24:25, two disciples whom Jesus walked with upon the Emmaus road were called anetos (gr.) by the Lord, for their minds were closed to the reality of His resurrection. This is the same word used by Paul in Galatians 3:1, for the Galatians had turned from following the truth of the gospel.

But what about Matthew 23:17, 19? There, Jesus used the word moros in reference to the scribes and Pharisees. First, realize, that by their actions, they demonstrated that they were not servants of God. Through constant denial of His word, they made themselves enemies of the Lord and the way of truth. As such, they might be listed in the first group we considered, who are unbelievers, not caring to know the God of heaven, and as such, make themselves fools.

But, even if one does count the Pharisees and scribes as Jesus' brethren, His use of the word here is not contradictory to the use forbidden in Matthew 5:22. The setting in that text is of one who "...is angry with his brother without a cause...", who then resorts to name calling. Jesus' use of moros in Matthew 23:17, 19 is not name calling, but is identifying them for what they were, morally corrupt fools.

Consider that there are proper and improper uses of words like "retarded" and "dumb" in the English language. One may use these words to speak contemptibly about another, which usage is wrong and should not be engaged in. On the other hand, the words respectively refer to an individual who is slow in some capacity, or who is unable to speak. This latter usage is not from an improper heart, but a correct employ of the words. Similarly, Jesus condemned the spiteful name calling which some might engage in with the word moros, but in another place, used the word himself, for it literally described those whom he was speaking about.

There is no contradiction.

This article is a response to Skeptic's Annotated Bible