What Does Raca Mean in the Bible? (Anger and Hell)

Certain teachings of Jesus Christ can result in questions, and even some confusion, for readers who are 2,000 years removed from their original context. Matthew 5:22 is an example of this, as Christ uses the term raca, which is unfamiliar to most modern readers. Since committing raca can result in going to hell according to the verse, many readers want to understand its meaning.

The Greek word raca literally means “empty-headed” or “fool.” Scholars believe that it may have an Aramaic origin, meaning stupid or idiot. In Matthew 5:22, raca is an expression of contempt toward another person. Raca is to call someone mentally inferior and worthless as a person.

How do major English Bible translations render the word raca? What is Jesus’ point in Matthew 5:22? Why does he teach that hell is the punishment for raca? What other Bible verses shed light on Matthew 5:22? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

Also see What Does Strange Flesh Mean In the Bible? to learn more.

Gospel of Matthew
Is raca a swear word? See below

Raca: Origin, Meaning, and Translation

Raca is an unusual word because its rare, appears to have Aramaic roots, and in the context of Matthew 5:22, carries an extreme punishment. Given these facts, it’s easy to tell why Bible readers are so curious about the word. Below, the details, history, and translation of raca will be discussed, as a foundation for exploring the theological implications regarding hell that Jesus includes in his teaching.

  • How is raca pronounced? rhak-ah’
  • How intense is raca? One reputable scholar of the Gospels refers to it as a “quasi-swear word” in Aramaic. (Craig Blomberg, Matthew, NAC, p. 107)
  • Where else does the word appear in Scripture? Matthew 5:22 is the only place the word appears in the Old or New Testament. It doesn’t appear as a verb (it’s a noun in Matt. 5:22) or any other form of speech. Parts of the word aren’t combined with any other words elsewhere in Scripture either.
  • What is the exact Greek phrase in which it’s used? ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ Ῥακά ἔνοχος ἔσται
  • How is raca used outside the Bible? The word is rare. Before Christ, the word is found in an Egyptian papyrus and refers to a foolish leader. After the time of Christ, raca doesn’t appear until the 4th century, when Christians cited Matthew 5:22 in sermons and theological writings.

How do popular English translations render the word? Translations either leave the word untranslated, so the word “raca” appears in the text (e.g. KJV, NKJV, NIV). Others translate the word according to its meaning (e.g. ESV, NASB). The NLT rendering of the word is even blunter (see below).

TranslationMatthew 5:22
KJVBut 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.
NKJVBut 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.
NIVBut I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
TranslationMatthew 5:22
ESVBut I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
NASBBut I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.
NLTBut I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.

Why don’t the KJV, NKJV, and NIV translate the word? Sometimes translators will leave a word untranslated because they aren’t sure what it refers to like leviathan (e.g. Isa. 27:1 in the NASB), which is Hebrew. Other times, translators are convicted that a word in the original language carries a greater impact on readers, such as the word Abba, which is Aramaic (e.g. Rom. 8:15).

Also see What Is A Soul Tie In the Bible? to learn more.

Bible study
What is the point of Matthew 5:22? See below

Anger, Murder, and Hell: The Principle Behind Raca

In Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus teaches about anger. Verse 21 reads, “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'” (NKJV).

In this verse, Jesus alludes to the 6th commandment, which states “thou shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13). The punishment for murder under the Law was death (Exod. 21:12-14).

What is the overarching point of verse 22? The point of verse 22 is that storing up wrath in one’s heart toward another Christian (“whoever is angry with his brother”) is wrong, and it’s a sin that deserves punishment (“shall be in danger of hell fire”). Jesus makes three statements in the verse:

  • If you are angry with someone, you are subject to judgment
  • If you say to someone raca, you may be brought to trial
  • If you call someone a fool, you may go to hell

Jesus’ teaching highlights the inward realities that led to the outward act. The Law’s concern is behavior. Christ’s teaching is about the attitude, thoughts, and motives that lead to behavior.

The Law doesn’t punish inward realities. but outward behaviors. No one receives the death penalty for thinking that another person is a fool.

But God can, and does, judge the heart. 1 Samuel 16:7 expresses this reality clearly: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Also see Does the Bible Talk About Aliens? to learn more.

Holy Bible
Why is hell the punishment for raca? See below

Why is hell the consequence of raca?

Jesus’ punishment extends far beyond the Law, which is a response to the outward act of murder with an outward act of punishment, i.e. the death penalty. Jesus’ threat of punishment doesn’t stop with ending a person’s physical life but extends their punishment to eternal life.

Is Jesus’ using hyperbole in saying such offenders go to hell? Many scholars believe he is. For example, well-respected Matthew scholar, R.T. France, writes, “To invoke this awesome concept in relation to the use of an everyday abusive epithet is the sort of paradoxical exaggeration by which Jesus’ sayings often compel the reader’s attention.” (France, NICOT, Matthew, p. 202)

Elsewhere, the Bible teaches that whether a person goes to heaven or hell is solely dependent on if they accept the gospel, repent of sin, and put their faith in Christ (Rom. 3:23, 6:23). By mentioning hell, Christ gets the attention of believers and safeguards the Church from being permeated with angry people.

What is the application of Matthew 5:22 for Christians? Christians should love one another (John 13:34). Storing up wrath against another believer in one’s heart and expressing it in a hostile and unhealthy way with angry name-calling is the opposite of loving one another.

Also see What Does the Bible Say About Drugs? to learn more.

Cross-references to Matthew 5:22

  • 1 John 3:15, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
  • Leviticus 19:17, “You must not harbor hatred against your brother in your heart. Directly rebuke your neighbor, so that you will not incur guilt on account of him.”
  • Galatians 5:20, “idolatry and sorcery; hatred, discord, jealousy, and rage; rivalries, divisions, factions”
  • James 4:2, “You crave what you do not have; you kill and covet, but are unable to obtain it. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask.”
  • 1 John 2:9, “If anyone claims to be in the light but hates his brother, he is still in the darkness.”

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see his About page for details.

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