The Biblical “Fool” & its Relation to Proverbial Literary Genre

The Biblical “Fool” & its Relation to Proverbial Literary Genre September 28, 2015

Original title: Did Paul and Peter Disobey Jesus and Risk Hellfire (Calling Folks “Fools”)? Did Jesus Contradict Himself? Or Do Proverbs and Hyperbolic Utterances Allow Exceptions?


Image by “Church Iglesia” [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]

[From Facebook, February 2014]

* * * * *

Matthew 5:22 (RSV) But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, “You fool!” [Strong’s word #3474: moros] shall be liable to the hell of fire.

Matthew 23:17, 19 You blind fools! [moros] For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? . . . [19] You blind men! [moros] For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?

Matthew 25:2-3, 8 Five of them were foolish [moros], and five were wise. [3] For when the foolish [moros] took their lamps, they took no oil with them; . . . [8] And the foolish [moros] said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’

Different Greek words for “fool” / “foolish” below:

Romans 1:22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools,

1 Corinthians 15:36 You foolish man! [KJV: “Thou fool” / Rheims: “Senseless man”] What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.

Galatians 3:1, 3 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? . . . [3] Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?

1 Peter 2:15 For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.

Fools are also referred to 135 times in the Old Testament.

As another example: St. Paul also cited a proverb from the comedy, “Thais,” by the pagan Greek dramatist Menander (c. 342 – c. 290 B.C.):

1 Corinthians 15:33 Do not deceive yourselves: “Bad company is the ruin of good morals.”

Someone asked: “How would we contrast 1 Corinthians 15:33 with Christ’s company with prostitutes, tax collectors, etc?”

This would be an exception to the rule of proverbial observations. One can try to witness to serious sinners, and avoid being corrupted by them. But other people will be corrupted, by too much association and no intent to evangelize or reform (“we are what we eat / read,” etc.). Both things are true, depending on circumstance and situation. The proverb always allows of exceptions by nature.

Proverbs 26:4-5 is one of the classic instances of how proverbs work:

[4] Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.

[5] Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

Literally interpreted, this would be a direct contradiction. But since Proverbs are general statements and not absolute ones, one can see how both things can be true, according to various situations. One is true in one scenario, the other in another. Many things stated in the Bible are like that, if indeed they are hyperbolic (exaggerated) or proverbial in nature.
One has to be aware of the literature involved, in order to properly interpret.

I actually apply both of these verses in my apologetics, quite often. Sometimes (most times) I ignore a manifest fool, because that is the best recourse. Other times, I answer him according to his own folly, by using the logical technique of reductio ad absurdum (reducing an opponent’s argument to absurdity), by showing the logical conclusions of where it leads or “reduces” to: to something ridiculous or unthinkable. That is an application of Proverbs 26:5!

This is one thing that both theological liberals and [both Protestant and Catholic] fundamentalists do (ironically enough) because neither understands how biblical language and context work, and hence make many basic mistakes as a result.

The Greek word, moros [root of “moron”?] is defined as “dull, stupid, blockhead, absurd.” It’ not used in the above quotations from Paul and Peter, but is used in Paul’s occasional semi-sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek style at 1 Corinthians 1:25, 27; 3:18; and 4:10; and as pertaining to discussions or “questions” at 2 Timothy 2:23 and Titus 3:9.

But Jesus Himself uses it (thus there are still contradictions in play for the hyper-literalist). He uses the same word that He said would lead one possibly to hell.

Raca only appears in Matthew 5:22, so we can make no NT comparison. It is Strong’s word #4469 and is defined as “empty, worthless; term of utter vilification.” But it wasn’t the strongest term in Matthew 5:22; moros was, because that was connected to possible hellfire.

 “Fools” in Romans 1:22 is a cognate, moraino (Strong’s #3471), meaning “insipid, simpleton, become fool, make foolish, lose savour.” Paul is describing the entire class of those who know there is a God, yet reject Him. He uses it again in 1 Corinthians 1:20: “. . . Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Jesus uses it twice in relation to salt (“savour”) in Matthew 5:13 and Luke 14:34. 

“foolish” at 1 Corinthians 15:36 is either aphros (#876): “froth, foaming” or aphron (#878): “mindless, stupid, ignorant, egotistic, rash, unbelieving, foolish, unwise” — my sources disagree, but they are cognates. aphros is used in Luke 9:39 to refer to a demoniac.

Jesus uses aphron in Luke 11:40 and 12:20 (“fools, fool”). Paul uses it at Romans 2:20; 2 Corinthians 11:16 (twice); 11:19; 12:6, 11; and Ephesians 5:17. It’s also Peter’s word (above in 1 Peter 2:15.

“foolish” in Galatians 3:1, 3 is anoetos (#453): “unintelligent, sensual, foolish, unwise.” Jesus uses it in Luke 24:25, and Paul elsewhere in Romans 1:14; 1 Timothy 6:9, and Titus 3:3. 

Clearly these words all have similar derogatory or undesirable meanings as descriptions, and are used massively, including by Jesus Himself, so there is no way that the prohibition of calling someone a “fool” is an absolute one. It’s a proverbial saying that has less than universal application; lest Jesus would break His own rule and command and place Himself in danger of hellfire, which is completely ridiculous and utterly impossible.

Jesus made some sweeping character judgments of some of the Pharisees: they were hypocrites by nature; a major trait in them. Folks are often condemned for doing that, too. Of course we should be slow to such judgments, but if the evidence is overwhelming, we have every sanction in the NT to make them, including shunning people in extreme cases, for their own good (as Paul expressly recommends, or commands in some specific cases). We can’t shun or remove ourselves from someone if we’re not allowed to make a negative judgment on their acts and/or persons in the worst cases.

People often interpret the Bible in a shallow, uninformed way, making things absolute that are not at all, like the famous, “you shall not judge”: as if we cannot say a person is sinning or in sin ever, under pain of violating NT ethics. It’s poppycock, as this word study abundantly shows.

For OT (LXX) usage, Little Kittel says:

“The group [“moros” and cognates] is not common in the LXX (‘aphron’ is the usual term for the fool).” 

It does give some instances of use of these words in the Greek OT (LXX):

Deuteronomy 32:6 Do you thus requite the LORD, you foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?

2 Samuel 24:10 But David’s heart smote him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, I pray thee, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly.” 

Psalm 94:8 Understand, O dullest of the people! Fools, when will you be wise?

Sirach 4:27 Do not subject yourself to a foolish fellow, nor show partiality to a ruler.

Isaiah 19:11 The princes of Zo’an are utterly foolish; the wise counselors of Pharaoh give stupid counsel. . . . 

Isaiah 32:5-6 The fool will no more be called noble, nor the knave said to be honorable. [6] For the fool speaks folly, and his mind plots iniquity: to practice ungodliness, . . . 

Jeremiah 5:20-21 Declare this in the house of Jacob, proclaim it in Judah: [21] “Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but see not, who have ears, but hear not.”

Now Jesus, Paul, Peter, Moses, David, Solomon, Isaiah and Jeremiah are all in hell because they called people fools: according to wooden fundamentalist Bible interpretation . . . the same sort of stupidity that gives us geocentrism supposedly based on Bible passages, and a non-rotating earth (and among super-wackos, even a square, flat earth).

Someone criticized the above: “All this research just so you can feel better about calling someone a fool seems rather foolish itself.”

I accept the revelation of the Bible. This is not all meaningless and intended as special pleading for a propensity to put people down. I don’t have any such propensity. There are millions of people online (including many Catholic apologists) far more “insulting” than I am or ever will be. I call a fool a fool when it is warranted by strong evidence: just as Jesus and Paul did.

I called someone a fool the other day and a reactionary-type Catholic said I was in danger of hellfire. I made a response back that holds up, but I didn’t know all this that I discovered (which abundantly backs up what I said then). 

I think it’s important, too, in understanding how biblical language works, because so many people don’t get that and interpret everything literally or even hyper-literally. As so often in biblical thinking, there is a time for this and a time for that. Wisdom and prudence are required to know when the time has come; when it is justified to say someone is a fool or any number of other things that St. Paul often said about folks who were falling short in some way.

The Bible (like Catholicism) is often “both/and” in outlook, rather than “either/or”. Biblical genres of language and style tie into that.

Many people don’t like provocative or satirical-type, pointed rhetoric. But it does exist, is valid, and has biblical prototypes, so I will continue to use it (on occasion, when it fits), and some will continue to be offended by it. I can’t help that. But I don’t stop doing things just because a certain number of people say, “I don’t like that” — when it’s not a clear-cut matter of right and wrong. This stuff is greatly subjective and people differ.

There are always people who don’t care for satire or sarcasm or pointed observations, or mild insults such as “fool” etc. That’s just how it is. But as this post proves, we’re not forbidden to use those words on occasion. Just yesterday someone objected to my use of “nitwit”. Then they read the article from the folks that I called that and came back and said it was a mild and quite justified description. :-)

Browse Our Archives