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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Christians and Other Fools

"We are fools for Christ's sake ... " 1 Corinthians 4:10

The Background

About a year ago, I asked a gentleman who self-identifies as Christian to stop holding forth in a group discussion.  He was declaring, tirelessly, how UFOs, lizard overlords, the Illuminati, and werewolves all tie in with Christian Scriptures about the “End Times.”  Generally I don’t shut down other people's talk, but our group included both new believers and nonbelievers, and I didn’t want his incoherent ranting to have a negative effect on the perceptions of those new to Christ.  I wasn't keen on the impact his behavior was having on our reputation with nonbelievers, either.

When he persisted, I became more adamant and insisted he stop being a fool.

He stammered, and then went, “Oooooooooo!” (a bit like the cat in those Puss in Boots vignettes), but he finally shut up.  I’m fairly certain he’d decided I was in violation of Matthew 5:22 (“whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire”), and that he’d managed to get me unsaved, thereby winning some point or other.

But hey.  At least I got him to go away from the new Christians.

Rapid-fire Snippets

Are Christians barred from telling fools that they're fools?  For a banned word, it shows up in a lot of Scriptural places, uttered by a wide cast of notables:

“Thou fool!”  ~ Luke 12:20, God the Father to the rich man
“Ye fools!”  ~ Luke 11:40, Jesus to the Pharisees
“You foolish Galatians!”  ~ Galatians 3:1, Paul to the Christians
“Put to silence the ignorance of foolish men,” ~ 1 Peter 2:15, Peter to those who would not submit to non-Christian government authority

So What’s the Story?

Obviously, Scripture isn’t giving us the message that the Father, Jesus, Peter, and Paul are all in danger of hell fire.  So what gives with this fascinating word “fool”  and its frequent use in the New Testament?

When you run into the words “fool” or “foolish” in English translations of Scripture, you’re not really sure what word you’re seeing.  The Greek of Jesus’  day had a number of terms that modern translations render as “fool,” and it’s instructive to take a closer look at them to see whether they have shades of meaning that help us broaden our appreciation of the New Testament.  Today I'll tackle the four that occur most often.


This word for “fool” should remind you of the English word we derived from it, “moron.”  The term was a favorite of the gospel writer Matthew, and Paul also used it rather liberally whenever he wrote to the Corinthians.  The Greek physician Hippocrates used this term to indicate someone who was dull to physical sensation or without mental or emotional drive.  At its root, moros appears to mean something similar to “absolutely dull-witted,” a person who is mentally unable to recognize facts and realities even when they’re held up in front of him.

Moros and its meaning shine through in Matthew 25’s parable of the 10 virgins, five of whom are foolish (morai) and don’t understand that they’ll need to wait a long time for the coming of the bridegroom.  When it dawns on them that they’re about to run out of lamp oil for their extended wait, they continue in their dimwitted ways by asking the wise virgins to hand over their own oil.  They don’t realize that that would result in everyone running out early and no one being prepared for the groom’s coming.  The wise brides have to explain it in the simplest terms possible to the morons, and they manage to do so without saying, “Um ... duh, ladies.”

Life Example: If you’ve ever witnessed your faith to a less-than-accommodating crowd, you’ve probably seen the moros effect in action.  You toss out the seed of the Gospel, and you get back completely disjointed comments like, “Well I heard the Bible was written by men” and “Jesus probably slept with Mary Magdalene”  and “the Crusades killed a lot of people!”  The randomness of the response shows that you’ve just hurled seed on to hard, unaccepting soil.  Moros soil, in fact.

This is kind of a cool word for “fool.”  In Greek, when you tack an initial alpha (the letter A) on an existing word, it operates like an un-  or a dis- in English.  It invokes the opposite and deprives the word of its essence, earning that prefix the grammatical name “the alpha privative” (drop that at your next cocktail party, kids).

The A- tacked on to the phron means, for this word, that something isn’t from your heart or aligned with your guts.  That’s the root meaning of the phron, from phren – your innards, guts, and mind, what the Greek writer Homer referred to as the “seat of the soul,” your very living essence.  In English we do that with the word “heart”; in Greek, your large and small intestines pretty much cover that metaphor.

The aphron kind of fool can take information into their guts, but they can’t really digest it.  Truth, to one who is aphron, is like grass and dietary fiber to a human stomach – it passes right through, without leaving much of an impression.  That’s why the story of Jesus’ chiding of the Pharisee in Luke 11 is a wonderful example of aphron in action:

    And as he spake, a certain Pharisee besought him to dine with him: and he went in, and sat down to meat.
    And when the Pharisee saw it, he marvelled that he had not first washed before dinner.
    And the Lord said unto him, Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness.
    Ye fools, did not he that made that which is without make that which is within also?

Here, Jesus points out that the Pharisees have a form of ritual righteousness, but fail to grasp the real implications of the facts they merely play with.  For the Pharisees, spirituality is all form and no function, all external details with no internalizing of the deeper meaning.  So, in terms of our breakdown of the words for fool:  Moros can’t even see the facts; Aphron plays with them, but fails to internalize them.

Life Example: We’ve all met modern Pharisees, those to whom the forms of faith are far more important than the substance.  These are the kinds of people who can proof-text on any topic (usually to helpfully correct you and put you in your place).  They know the Scripture and work with it, but for them it is undigestible dietary filler in a life focused on debate and argument.  For these types of fools, Scripture serves only one purpose: as a tool to glorify themselves and their opinions.  Observe this kind of aphron over time, and you’ll discover that they haven’t digested many of the basic fruit of the Spirit, the love and peace and gentleness and goodness that is taken in and incorporated into the behaviors of Spirit-filled believers.  The aphron fools don’t have that diet within them.  It may be something they just can’t stomach.  They take in the truth and then pass ├Čt on like so much excrement.


Anoetos has that alpha privative I like so much, and students of philosophy will see the root of the term Noetics (the metaphysics of thinking) being negated by the alpha.  The fool who is anoetos can see the facts (unlike the moros) and he retains the facts within him (unlike the aphron), but he does absolutely nothing with the facts he has.  The truth sits there inside him, inert and ineffective, as useless as if it weren’t even there.  The anoetoi are the non-thinkers, those who have all the information they need but who don’t bother to put it into action.

This is the term Paul hurls at the Galatians in his letter to them, and he spends much of chapter 3 chiding them for acting as if they didn’t even know that their salvation came through their faith and not through the works of the Law.  “What are you thinking?!” Paul is demanding.  “Are you even thinking?”  It’s important to note that these are Christians whom Paul is calling fools ... rebuking them for being too daft to act on the information they have about their salvation.

However, I find Titus 3’s use of anoetos to be even more emblematic of how believers can fall into this kind of foolishness, this “not using my thinker” kind.  There, Paul talks about the benefits of abandoning that kind of anoetos.  It results in our speaking evil of no men, of not being brawlers, of being gentle and abandoning malice toward each other.  When believers fall into foolishness, it is usually this sort.  A read through Titus 3 is always a good re-set of attitudes that have turned fruitless, ineffective, and overly harsh.

Life Examples: Believers who fall into anoetos neglect the Noetics of faith and start filling their days with argument, their text messages with snide attacks, their Facebook pages with riling and fury, their love lives with jealousy and suspicion, and more.  Every single one of us is vulnerable to this kind of foolishness.  We forget we have the facts of faith within us.  We forget to use them.  We wind up with faith without works, and it comes off as quite dead.


This final form of foolishness is the highest form (if one can give value and station to foolishness).  There’s that alpha privative again, and this time it is negating the word sunetos, or “synthesis” (U becomes Y when we Latinize Greek because ... well, it’s a long story, don’t worry about it).  When we’re asunetoi fools, we can see the facts, we can take in the facts, we keep the facts in ... but we use them incorrectly.  We mess up what they mean and how they work.  We do bad synthesizing.  

Jesus used this term on the disciples in Mark 7 and Matthew 15, a story similar to the one in which he referred to the Pharisee as aphron, one who couldn’t keep truth within him.  As if unwilling to call the disciples the same word, Jesus asks if they are asunetoi, “foolish” only in the sense of failing to correctly process the information he knows is alive within them.

Life Example: I have a recent example of an asunetos moment from a Bible study I attended.  A very nice man, a passionate believer, made a big deal about the Hebrew letters Aleph and Tav appearing in the first verse of Genesis 1.  Aleph-Tav are not translated into English, and must therefore (said the man) symbolize something else, something not explicitly in the words of Genesis 1:1.  Since Aleph and Tav are the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and since Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet), this must be a hidden reference to Jesus Christ, buried there in Genesis since the beginning of the Bible!

This all sounds very intriguing, but it is a standard case of asunetos foolishness – facts seen, facts kept, facts synthesized incorrectly, “without understanding.”  The reality is much simpler: Aleph-Tav is not a word in Hebrew, or even a mystical symbol.  It’s a non-semantic grammatical marker with no word meaning.  We have them in English – e.g., the DO auxiliary we use to mark a question, as in “Do you like pickles?”  In that sentence, the use of DO is meaningless, except as a grammatical marker to show that a question is being asked.  In Hebrew, Aleph-Tav is the most frequently occurring combination of letters in the entire testament, and it has no more mystical meaning than, say, the period at the end of an English sentence.  Specifically, Aleph-Tav is a grammatical marker for a direct object in a Hebrew sentence, the notation showing what noun is receiving the action of the verb.  If I were to write “Tommie kisses Yolanda”  in Hebrew, it would come out as “Tommie kisses aleph-tav Yolanda.”  The marker shows grammatically who gets the kiss, and has no meaning in Hebrew beyond that.

Am I saying that the nice man in my story is a fool?  No, but I am saying that his exegesis is traveling a foolish path.  He would only become a fool if he began dedicating his Scriptural study time to uncovering hidden things and private interpretations through secret messages he sees in Scripture.

GRAMMAR GEEK NOTE (skip the next paragraph if you don’t care about geeky grammar stuff):

The deeper utility of Aleph-Tav and linguistic devices like it is the flexibility they offer in languages with less restrictive word order.  Aleph-Tav operates much like the personal a in Spanish, providing extra word-order flexibility when there are more than two humans in a single sentence.  Thus, for “Tommie kisses Yolanda,” Spanish is perfectly comfortable casting the phrase as A Yolanda besa Tommie and also as Tommie besa a Yolanda, and even the poetic Tommie a Yolanda besa.  With the grammatical marker in place, it’s never in doubt who is getting all the kisses.  I am.  Thank you, personal a.


Here are the Greek words we’ve covered which current Bible versions tend to translate as “fool”  or “foolish”: 
  • MOROS – unable to recognize facts; dull-minded (the 5 foolish virgins and random-challenge atheists)
  • APHRON – unable to hold the facts within themselves (the Pharisees in Luke 11 and proof-texting Puritans of today)
  • ANOETOS – able to take the facts in, but doing nothing with them (the foolish Galatians and the Facebook flamers)
  • ASUNETOS – synthesizing the facts incorrectly (the apostles in Matthew 15, and me when I’m not careful & prayerful in Scripture study)

Calling someone a “fool” is not something I do lightly.  Nor is it something that means the same thing in every situation.  So which did I mean when I confronted the Werewolf & Lizard Lords Apocalypse dude, the first story in this blog post?

Answer: That is something I’ve shared in the quiet of my heart with the Lord, clearing it with Him first and foremost.

Because I’d be a moron not to.

Marana Tha,

Cosmic Parx / Yolanda