Was Jesus a Hypocrite?
A man who instructs a person to refrain from doing something he deems inappropriate, but then proceeds to do the very thing he forbade the other person to do, is considered a hypocrite. A preacher who teaches about the sinfulness of drunkenness (cf. Galatians 5:21), but then is seen a short while later stumbling down the street, intoxicated with alcohol, could be accused of being guilty of hypocrisy. Some have accused Jesus of such insincere teaching. Allegedly, in the very sermon in which He condemned the Pharisees for their unrighteousness (Matthew 5:20), Jesus revealed His own sinfulness by way of condemning those who used a word He sometimes uttered. Based upon His forbiddance of the use of the word “fool” in Matthew 5:22, and His use of this word elsewhere, skeptics have asserted that Jesus (Whom the Bible claims “committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth”—1 Peter 2:22; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21), was guilty of hypocrisy (see Morgan, 2003; Wells, 2001). In Matthew 5:21-22 Jesus stated:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.” But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, “Raca!” shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, “You fool!” shall be in danger of hell fire (Matthew 5:21-22, emp. added).
Whereas in this passage Jesus warned against the use of the word “fool,” in other passages Jesus openly used this term to describe various people. Near the end of the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus likened the person who heard His teachings, but did not follow them, to “a foolish man who built his house on the sand” (Matthew 7:26). When teaching about the need to be prepared for His second coming, Jesus compared those who were not ready for His return to five foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-12). Then, while Jesus was condemning the Pharisees for their inconsistency in matters of religion, He stated: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.’ Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold?” (Matthew 23:16-17; cf. 23:18-19). The question that some ask in response to these alleged hypocritical statements is, “How could Jesus condemn the use of the word ‘fool’ in Matthew 5:22, but then proceed to use this word on other occasions?”
First, for Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:22 to contradict His actions recorded in other passages, the skeptic must prove that the term “fool,” as used in 5:22, is the same word used elsewhere. The word raca (Greek ΄ρακά), used earlier in Matthew 5:22, is a transliteration of the Aramaic term whose precise meaning is disputed. [Most likely, it means “an empty one who acts as a numskull” (Lenski, 1961, p. 219; cf. also Robertson, 1930, p. 44).] The exact meaning of the term “fool” (mōre, Greek Μωρέ) in this context also is debated. “Most scholars take it, as the ancient Syrian versions did, to men you fool” (Bauer, et. al., 1957, p. 533, emp. in orig.). Although some assume that mōre is the vocative of the Greek moros, in all likelihood,
just as “Raca” is a non-Greek word, so is the word mōre that Jesus used here. If so, then it is a word which to a Jewish ear meant “rebel (against God)” or “apostate”; it was the word which Moses in exasperation used to the disaffected Israelites in the wilderness of Zin…(Numbers 20:10). For these rash words, uttered under intense provocation, Moses was excluded from the Promised Land (Kaiser, et. al., 1996, p. 359).
Thus, it is quite possible that mōre (translated “[Y]ou fool” in Matthew 5:22) is not the normal Greek moros (fool) that Jesus applied to the Pharisees on other occasions (Matthew 23:17,19), but represents the Hebrew moreh (cf. Numbers 20:10). [For this reason, translators of the American Standard Version added a marginal note to this word in Matthew 5:22: “Or, Moreh, a Hebrew expression of condemnation.”] Obviously, if two different words are under consideration, Jesus logically could not be considered a hypocrite.
Second, it must be remembered that Jesus’ comments in Matthew 5:22 were made within a context where He was condemning unrighteous anger (5:21-26). Whereas the Pharisees condemned murder, but overlooked the evil emotions and attitudes that sometimes led to the shedding of innocent blood, Jesus condemned both the actions and the thoughts. Instead of dealing with only “peripheral” problems, Jesus went to the heart of the matter. As someone Who “knew what was in man” (John 2:25), Jesus was more than qualified to pronounce judgment upon the hypocritical Pharisees (cf. John 12:48). Like the unrighteousness that characterized the Pharisees’ charitable deeds (Matthew 6:1-4), prayers (6:5-15), fasting (16-18), and judgments (7:1-5), Jesus also condemned their unrighteous anger. [NOTE: Jesus did not condemn all anger (cf. Ephesians 4:26; John 2:13-17), only unrighteous anger.] It was in this context that Jesus warned against the use of the word “fool.” Jesus was not prohibiting a person from calling people “fools” if it was done in an appropriate manner (cf. Psalm 14:1), but He was forbidding it when done in the spirit of malicious contempt. He “warned against using the word fool as a form of abuse” that indicated “hatred in one’s heart toward others” (“Fool,” 1986; cf. Matthew 5:43-48). As in many other situations, it seems that the attitude, rather than actual words, is the focus of the prohibition.
While this verse, when taken in its context, is seen to be consistent with Jesus’ words and actions recorded elsewhere in the gospel accounts, His prohibition regarding the manner of a word’s usage should not be overlooked in the apologist’s effort to defend biblical inerrancy. We may call an atheist a “fool” for not acknowledging God’s existence (Psalm 14:1), but to do so in a hateful, malicious manner is sinful. Remember, the Christian is called to “give a defense to everyone” in a spirit of “meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).
Bauer, Walter, William Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich (1957), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
“Fool,” (1986), Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft), orig. published by Thomas Nelson Publishers of Nashville, Tennessee.
Kaiser, Walter C. Jr., Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Brauch (1996), Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).
Lenski, R.C.H. (1961), The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).
Morgan, Donald (2003), “Was Jesus a Hypocrite?” [On-line], URL: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/donald_morgan/hypocrite.shtml.
Robertson, A.T. (1930), Word Pictures in the New Testament—Volume 1 (Nashville, TN: Broadman).
Wells, Steve (2001), Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, [On-line], URL: http://www.Skepticsannotatedbible.com.