Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Whoever would call their brother ‘raca’?



Today, the Fourth Sunday before Lent, we continued reading the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel in church. The chunk of gospel appointed for today was Matthew 5.21-37, a fairly hefty chunk of moral instruction covering murder, anger, name calling, adultery, divorce, oaths and promises. I didn’t preach a very good sermon, getting far too bogged down in a process-like interpretation of collective responsibility for ethics and the liberation of understanding that sin is a normal part of ‘fallen’ human existence, albeit non-essential (for Christ was without sin).

Apart from my missing the mark, I noticed that the original Greek text of Matthew 5.22 includes the non-Greek word raca (ρακα, raka, or ραχα, racha). This is one of the handful of Aramaic words and phrases that litter the New Testament, and the gospels in particular, where the Greek text merely transliterates the Aramaic in to Greek letters as best it can (fitting Aramaic into Greek letters is an awkward fit at the best of times). When we translate the Bible into English we then have a choice of leaving the translated Aramaic in, as we do for Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, or translating it into English too. Where there is a Greek gloss with the phrase, as there is for Eloi, Eloi, it doesn’t matter that we’ve left this foreign language there: it comes with a translation. However, for the word raca in Matthew 5.22, we are given no translation help. Some translators leave it in, some ‘translate’ it to English.

We read the text from the New Revised Standard Version, which renders the whole in English. For comparison, here is the Greek, the King James and the NRSV

ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ὀργιζόμενος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει· ὃς δ’ ἂν εἴπῃ τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ· ῥακά, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῷ συνεδρίῳ· ὃς δ’ ἂν εἴπῃ· μωρέ, ἔνοχος ἔσται εἰς τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός.

But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

I understand that the sudden, unexplained occurrence of raca in the King James text is a little off-putting to anyone who doesn’t know what a raca is, so the NRSV replacement with the verb ‘insult’ actually makes for a better text for public reading.

But what does raca actually mean? Perhaps this could be chapter one of my hypothetically forthcoming How to Swear in Aramaic: and 101 Other Ways to Scare the Camels! The consensus seems to be that the Aramaic word is actually rēqā (ריקא or ܪܝܩܐ). The meaning is often given as ’empty headed’, ‘worthless’ or ‘vain’, but that doesn’t sound colourful enough to be a proper swearword that you wouldn’t want to translate into Greek (or English). The root of the word rēqā is rāq, which means ‘to spit’, and it’s fairly clear that calling someone raca or rēqā is to call them ‘a little piece of spit’. Now, that’s fighting talk!

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is taking serious offences under the Hebrew Law and their punishments, and then holding up things considered mild, normal, acceptable behaviour and saying that that punishment would be greater. Diagrammatically

  1. murder → judgment (human, implied)
  2. anger → judgment (divine, implied)
  3. calling someone a piece of spit → get them before the elders
  4. calling someone a moron, a fool → Gehenna, hell, fire

In the same way that those who make great show of fasting, praying and charity have their reward on earth (and not in heaven), those who make great show of their sinfulness, through murder or using a taboo four-letter word, get their comeuppance here and now, but those of us who get away with lives full of anger and putting down others — in ways that seem oh-so mild — will have to account for our sins eventually. In a nutshell, we obsess about big sins, but we should look to root out those little evils that lurk in our hearts: the frustrations that cripple our lives and the badmouthing that destroys our relationships with others. And one other thing: perhaps, given this perspective, we are more forgiving then of the struggle to be good in the lives of others.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

6 thoughts on “Whoever would call their brother ‘raca’?

  1. Very efficiently written post. It will be helpful to anybody who usess it, as well as yours truly. Keep doing what you are doing – i will definitely read more posts.

  2. Pingback: Commandment of Christ #9 - Insults and Hell

  3. Pingback: Spit, more spit and streaking | Ad Fontes

  4. Perfectly indited content material, thanks for selective information. “You can do very little with faith, but you can do nothing without it.” by Samuel Butler.

  5. I just came across this verse in the NIV version of the Bible and was so confused over the sudden inclusion of the word ‘Raca’ Thanks for clarifying!

  6. Came to this link via searching for varying translations for Matt 5;22 while dealing with a Facebook site that was using Christianity as justificatiion for Islamophobia based on various otyere passages such as “The fool says in his heart there is no God”

    I always think it significant when folk neglect to quote Matt 5:22 when the word ‘fool’ comes up in the mouths of Christians, though and so I dug deeper. It’s speculative because I’m no Hebrew scholar but knowing how meanings intersect with language and how much our attitudes are bound up with translations of religious texts I wondered: As a Disabiility Studies scholar based in English Literature I was looking for the origins of disability prejudices and its traces in popular texts and culture 1400-1700. I quicky realised that to research any period I would need to check religious texts as the period relied heavily on its interpretation of biblical attitudes to disability. Although tied to using translations I found the Bible showed me many of the attitudes from the Old Testament as translated seem to have affected interpretations of disability, infirmity and impairment for us for the next 2000 years. Right down to the still common ‘crippled’ as a designation for emotional or moral limitation!

    Maybe it takes a disabled linguist tired of modern culture to spot this one and maybe I’m dead wrong and it’s just “I spit on you” as suggests though I find it ironic that my tracing of “Dumb” from St Augustine’s belief taht deaf people could not nbe saved through to its modern usage from an Americanism to an adjective used by and for insulting political opponents serves the same purpose. However much a culture is anti spitting could I be onto something? Regardless the words “Fool” “worthless” ” empty-headed” are frequently interchangable insults to intelligence particularly aimed at and based on disability. Does Jesus’ ability to silence critics using a taboo bodily fluid indicate that such insult towards deaf, blind or crippled people was perhaps common? Does his use of spittle as healing fluid in a disability concept carry the same “look at yourselves” carried by teh silent writing on the ground of John 8:7?

    In New Historicism the tradition of scholarship I come from, theatrical, physical and material markers are cultural signifiers that bear watching. If someone hands you a sword a box of gold or a sop -pay attention- so when Jesus does rather than _says_ I start taking notes 😉 In ‘Spit and Streaking’ your pulling together of a habit-pattern accross several well-known miracles suggests Jesus had so much to say on the matter that he was saying things without words. Did the Son of Man who had a decided attitude to morality and suffering do more than modern (Protestant) commentators realise when they interpret Jesus’ healing miracles as _symbolic_ of the healing of internal sin (a whole other aspect of how disability is understood in religious cultures btw) Many of us who are tired of the words ‘dumb’, ‘moron’ ‘spastic’ or worse have plenty to say on the subject and I tend to feel that He who _did_ so much probably said much that is lost in translation too. If you need to remind folk to be kind iut is indicative of existing failings. “Did Hebrew Have A Word for Disablism?” If Jesus had a particular aversion to seeing not only poverty and “foolishness” put down but had plenty to say that has been lost in translation by generations of non-disabled scholars did he perhaps have more to say about disability treated as an expletive, an insult an a group to be expectorated on?

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