Murder, Anger, and Reconciliation

To insult someone is to insult the God who created them

Cain and Abel
  1. The Lamp of the Body
  2. The Salt of the Earth
  3. Murder, Anger, and Reconciliation

The section of the Sermon on the Mount subtitled “Anger” (ESV), “Concerning Anger” (NRSV), or “Murder” (NIV) in Matthew 5:21-27 is both familiar and strange. We understand what it means to insult someone and to be angry with someone, but we may not be sure what “raca” means, nor possibly would we understand why the punishment for doing so is to be “in danger of hell fire”. What is the difference between the “judgement” and the “council”? How does one pay a debt to the last penny when one is stuck in a debtors’ prison? Like much in the Sermon on the Mount, there’s some digging to do before the passage is as clear to us as it would have been to the Galilean fishermen who first hear it.

The section under consideration is the first of six “antitheses” – sayings of Christ so named because they begin with variations on “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times…”. In each of them Christ cites an Old Testament or current law and follows it with “but I say to you”. In some cases he gives a new command that goes directly against the command in the law he’s cited (e.g. Mt 5:38-39), and in others he sharpens the original law, making it more difficult to keep by getting to the root of the problem whose symptoms the original law was intended to prevent or punish.

Reading the words on paper 2000 years after the event it is hard to feel the same impact that these antithetical sayings would have had on Christ’s Jewish audience, but at least it’s spelled out for us at the end of the sermon: “…the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.1 (Mt 7:28-29). What caused Christ’s audience to react in such a way?

Christ the new Moses

One of the overriding goals of the Gospel of Matthew is to portray Jesus as a Moses-like figure, possibly in fulfilment of the well-known passage in Deuteronomy:

Dt 18:15 The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

Like Moses who as an infant was spared from Pharaoh’s murderous plan (Ex 1:22), so Christ’s life was spared when Herod murdered the male babies in Bethlehem (Mt 2:13-15). Like Moses who went up Mt Sinai to receive the law (Ex 19:3-6), so Christ ascended ‘the mountain’ to deliver the sermon which encapsulated his teaching (Mt 5:1).2 More examples of these echoes of Moses that are unique to the Gospel of Matthew could be given; a story for another time.

By using antithetical statements (“but I say to you”) in commenting on the Law, Christ acted as the Law’s authoritative interpreter. He placed himself in a position where he could strengthen the force of the law, or in some instances, replace it, e.g. Matthew 5:38–39. To be seen to replace the God-given laws mediated through Moses would have been thought of as blasphemous.

Unlike the scribes, Jesus spoke in his own name; “…but I say to you…”.3 The high respect that the Jews held for Moses would have set them up to find Jesus’ antitheses shocking in a way that we may struggle to feel – their rabbis appealed to each other and to Moses for authority, but Christ didn’t. He had his own authority and it was higher than the rabbis’ or Moses’.

The original law and its complementary casuistic law

The first antithesis begins “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder”. Immediately we are reminded of the oral nature of the culture Christ’s audience lived in. They’d heard, not read the law. The first century audience were not unique in this; we’re told that the law “was said to those of ancient time”, i.e. the purported original audience at Sinai4, and those who heard the law recited, e.g. the post-exilic community in Jerusalem (Ne 7:73–8:8). Sitting in rows reading bibles on our laps or on our phones is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, totally alien to the way the biblical text was engaged with in previous millennia.

Christ chose to comment on the command, “Do not murder,” found in Exodus 20:13 and Deut 5:17. The command in the Decalogue is absolute. No qualifications are made; murder is forbidden. Though laws that follow in the text of Exodus explain the how the law was to be implemented (Ex 21:12–27), Christ’s purpose was best served by dealing with the headline command.

After quoting the command to his disciples Christ follows up with “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment” – a statement that doesn’t feature anywhere in the Law. Instead, it’s an interpretation of the previous command to not murder in the form of a casuistic law, i.e. “if you do some action, this is the consequence”.5 “Do not murder” remains toothless until a consequence is given and enforced. By stating that any murderer will have to face judgement, a consequence was provided. And it’s the relationship of murder to judgement that Christ bases his teaching on.

Introducing the Antithesis

Next comes the antithesis: “but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…”. Dealing first of all with translational and textual issues, it is worth noting that though ἀδελφῷ literally means “brother”, in this instance its meaning is “neighbour” (without reference to their faith or nationality).6 As such the KJV, ESV, and NET’s rendering, “brother”, is overly literal and mistakenly limits the scope of Christ’s teaching. More preferable is the NRSV (“brother and sister”), NLT (“someone”), and CEB (“everyone”) renderings. After all, anger is not a problem Christ thought was only ever directed against men.

From a textual point of view, readers of the Authorized Version (and NKJV) will notice the phase “without cause” appended to the antithesis, making the passage read “But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment…”. It is almost certain7 that “without cause” was a later addition as Metzger explains:

Although the reading with εἰκῇ is widespread from the second century onwards, it is much more likely that the word was added by copyists in order to soften the rigor of the precept, than omitted as unnecessary.8

We will therefore continue with the NRSV’s rendering, i.e. “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…”. If Christ intended his saying to apply to all anger – justified or not – we shouldn’t try to limit it.9


It should be noted that in this first antithesis, Christ is replacing the casuistic law, not the command against murder found in the decalogue. He doesn’t replace “Do not murder” with “Do not be angry”; he extends “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment…” to “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…”. Putting aside for the moment the consequence, the substituting of anger for murder would most likely have startled Jesus’ audience. The contrast is not lost on us either; reading the text even at a surface layer leaves us shocked – severe judgement for murder seems reasonable, but for anger?

Christ’s substituting anger for murder seems extreme; we can well understand the copyists of the second century attempting to defuse Christ’s command by adding “without cause” to their manuscripts. Others attempt to limit the antithesis by asserting that the anger Christ mentions refers to an extreme form of anger. However, the anger spoken of isn’t blind rage or uncontrollable fury, it just means anger.10 It is the linking of the serious crime of murder to the seemingly minor offense of anger that startles us into paying attention to what is being said – likely what Christ wanted to effect.

Christ’s view of the seriousness of anger and his relating of it to murder seems to have been picked up by the author of the first epistle of John:

1 Jn 3:15 All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.

Other New Testament writers picked up the theme and frequently suggest renouncing anger. E.g. James writes:

Jas 1:19–20 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

Three parallel statements

The antithesis continues to give three parallel statements:

Action Result
Angry with a brother or sister Liable to judgement
Insult (‘raca’) a brother or sister Liable to the council
Say ‘you fool’ Liable to the Gehenna of fire

It isn’t clear exactly what ‘judgement’ the angry person would be liable to. Given the way Christ substitutes ‘anger’ for ‘murder’ in the casuistic law, he probably had in mind the same judgement that murder would have had. However, the practicalities of a court passing judgement on anger seems difficult – if courts had to deal with cases of anger then they’d be swamped. The phrase is then instead very likely a demonstration of how seriously Christ viewed anger, rather than a practical suggestion for how earthly judgement should be meted out.

The next phrase, “if you insult [say raca to] a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council” poses a few challenges to understanding. Firstly, ‘raca’11 (derived from the Aramaic רֵיקָא or רֵיקָה meaning ‘empty one’) is “term of abuse relating to a lack of intelligence12 meaning “one who is totally lacking in understanding13; it expresses “vexed disparagement which may be accompanied by displeasure, anger, or contempt, and which is usually addressed to a foolish, thoughtless, or presumptuous person.14 It is translated elsewhere, ‘numbskull’, ‘empty head’, or ‘feather brain’.

Though insulting people was not against any law, name calling was considered more serious in Biblical times than it is today – much more importance was placed on names in the ancient Near East.15 The classic example in the Hebrew Bible is that of Elisha being called a “bald-head” by youths on his way to Bethel – the narrative tells us that the consequence for them was being mauled by two Syrian she-bears (2 Ki 2:23-24). To call someone names in anger was essentially to take away their identity from them, thus, the root of murder.

The ‘council’ Christ says the insulter would be liable to is the Sanhedrin, described as “the high priests’ political council, the highest legislative body in Jewish Palestine, the supreme judicial court, the grand jury for important cases”.16 It was only with serious business that the Sanhedrin concerned themselves with, and it’s a measure of how much of a threat the Sanhedrin considered them that Jesus (Lk 22:66), Stephen (Ac 6:12-15), and Peter with the Apostles (Ac 5:27) stood before them.

So, even though insults were taken more seriously back then, it would still have been jarring for Christ’s audience to hear that insulting someone should land them in the highest court of the land.

The third of the parallel phrases is, “if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” If the previous phrase was seemingly absurd, this final one appears completely baffling.

The word translated “fool”17 has less to do with being intellectually incompetent than it has to do with being immoral.18 It is therefore less an insult than it is statement by the condemner that he thinks the fool is living as if he won’t give account to God, likely because he suspects the fool doesn’t believe in God. This idea is clear in the Psalms, e.g.

Ps 14:1 Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.

Some suggest that the word translated “fool” would be more accurately translated “rebel” or “apostate”; a meaning that certainly fits the aspect of immorality mentioned above.19

Calling someone’s essential character into question was deemed a serious enough action by Christ to warrant a terrible result: being liable to the Gehenna of fire. What does that mean?

In the 1st century BCE and the early part of the 1st century CE, Gehenna was thought to be the otherworldly place of destruction by everlasting fire that the unjust would be punished with at the last day.20 The name comes from the Hinnom Valley (‘Gai-Hinnom’), originally called the Valley of the Son of Hinnom (‘Gai-ben-Hinnom’). Because it had been the place of child sacrifice to Molech (Ahaz in 2 Ch 28:3, Manasseh in 2 Ch 33:6) God said it would become a place of destruction, calling it the “Valley of Slaughter”:

Je 7:32–33 …the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away.

This idea took on a life of its own and by the time we get to the apocalyptic literature of the intertestamental period we find Gehenna described like this:

2 Esd 7:33–36 The Most High shall be revealed on the seat of judgment, and compassion shall pass away, and patience shall be withdrawn. Only judgment shall remain, truth shall stand, and faithfulness shall grow strong. Recompense shall follow, and the reward shall be manifested; righteous deeds shall awake, and unrighteous deeds shall not sleep. The pit of torment shall appear, and opposite it shall be the place of rest; and the furnace of hell [Gehenna] shall be disclosed, and opposite it the paradise of delight.

Christ’s audience would not have thought of Gehenna as a simple reference to the grave or the Hinnom Valley; they would have thought more along the lines of what we read in intertestamental literature. They would have understood him as teaching that the appropriate punishment for accusing of being immoral or apostate was destruction by eternal fire.

Once again, this seems over the top. Are accusations of immorality or apostasy that serious? Evidently, in Christ’s mind, they are. Why? Because to state that someone is immoral or apostate is to place them beyond redemption. It is to state that God would not deem the person worthy of life. It is the root of murder.

Again, non-canonical literature from the period can give us a flavour of how people thought. In 2nd Enoch we come across this teaching:

2 Enoch 44.1–2 “The LORD with his own two hands created mankind; in a facsimile of his own face, both small and great, the LORD created them. And whoever insults a person’s face, insults the face of a king, and treats the face of the LORD with repugnance. He who treats with contempt the face of any person treats the face of the LORD with contempt.

So to insult a person was to insult the God who had created them.

From the angry to the angered

Everything up to this point has been about not being angry with someone. The teaching has been clear: don’t be angry. The seriousness of becoming angry with someone has been made explicit by assigning punishments so severe that they seem overboard. The audience would have heard the message loud and clear: Don’t be angry with your neighbour. For any reason.

From v23, the focus changes. Instead of forbidding anger, Christ instructs the disciple on how to deal with the situation where anger is directed at them.

At the altar

Christ paints a picture of one of his disciples standing at the altar, i.e. at the temple in Jerusalem, about to offer a gift. Suddenly, they remember an incident that may have resulted in them making someone angry with them. Christ states that before they can make the sacrifice, they first need to be reconciled to their brother (i.e. neighbour, see above).

The first point to mention is that Christ placed the onus on his disciples to remember who they might have angered – it isn’t up to the person who has been angered to point out that they’ve been angered. Practically speaking, this would result in disciples being always mindful of the impact of their words, lack of words, actions, or lack of actions on people. They would be very careful in their interactions, always keeping others high in their minds in all they said and did.

Christ stated that the offender was required to reconcile with the offended person. Appearing only here in the New Testament, διαλλάσσομαι means to restore normal relations or harmony;21 to put things back as they were before the offended party was angered.

Much responsibility was placed on the disciple – as well as remembering that they’d angered someone, they were obliged to make peace; humility was required on two accounts.

Finally, after making peace, they could return to the altar and complete their sacrifice. From this it can be seen that Christ placed more importance on reconciliation than on keeping the law. He could have said, “Immediately after making your sacrifice, go and be reconciled to your neighbour.” Instead, Christ instructed them to put a halt to their temple worship, and to only continue with it when reconciliation had taken place and normal relations had been restored between themselves and the person they’d angered – there’s no point in sacrificing, i.e. becoming reconciled to God, if you weren’t reconciled with your neighbours. Clearly, Christ thought reconciliation a higher priority than following Temple ritual.

An out of court settlement

Christ gives another scenario to explain how important reconciliation is. Obscured by the KJV and NASB’s literal translation, which only have someone “in the way with your adversary”, the ESV, NRSV, NET, and CEB add the necessary information: they were on their way to court.

The legal process was in motion; they would soon be in the court room. Christ instructs his disciple to come to terms with their accuser quickly, with the aim of making an out-of-court settlement. If normal relations weren’t restored by the time they’d reached the court room Christ tells his disciple that they’d end up at the mercy of the judge who’d have them thrown in jail – a debtor’s jail, telling us of the likely reason that the accuser was angry with the disciple – they owed money.

Given that they owed money, why wouldn’t they want an out-of-court settlement? The disciple evidently needed prodding by Christ to remember their fault. It’s common to believe our own innocence a little too much; we can forget that the other party is aggrieved and we imagine that they are in the wrong. We ought to have the humility to remember that we’re not perfect; better to settle out-of-court than appear before a judge guilty.

Debtors’ jails were a gentile institution and were apparently offensive to Jewish sensibilities.22 Understandably so; to be stuck in jail until you’d paid a debt, without having to means to earn money with which to pay off the debt would leave you in an impossible situation. Christ explained the severity of the situation: they’d languish in jail until they’d paid back the very last κοδράντην (‘kodranten’) – the very smallest Roman coin.23

Again, the link between murder and anger is obvious: if anger gets someone stuck in jail for life, to the outside world they are to all intents and purposes dead.

Once again, just like the person at the altar, reconciliation was vital, and it was important that it took place quickly. Reconciliation in Christ’s mind was not something to be placed on a to-do list and gotten around to when it was convenient – it was important enough that even the worship of God at the Temple was to be put on hold until peaceable relations were restored. This is the idea behind this snippet from Ephesians:

Eph 4:26 …do not let the sun go down on your anger…

A final point not to miss: in each of the situations Christ painted, reconciliation took place face to face. There was no room for a mediator – no judge, no priest. The person whose action caused someone to be angry was responsible for attempting reconciliation with the angered party. Christ warned against letting it get to the stage where a judge was required – attempt reconciliation on the way to the court house; don’t wait for it to be too late. Christ taught his disciples to take personal responsibility for the results of their interactions both with each other, and with everyone else.

Early Christianity and the First Antithesis

It appears that the 1st century Christians well understood Christ’s teaching. In the Didache, a short manual on Christian morals and Church practice24 that dates to the late 1st century CE25 (one of the very first Christian documents, possibly predating some of the New Testament writings), we find the following instruction:

Didache 3:2 Do not become angry, for anger leads to murder. Do not become jealous, or quarrelsome, or irritable, for from all these murders come.26

Evidently, the teaching of Jesus had been properly understood at least by the community behind the Didache; anger as the root cause of murder had been identified, and warned against.


What Christ taught in this 1st antithesis was this: Everyone was responsible for peaceable relations – Christ instructed his disciples both to avoid anger, and also to attempt reconciliation with those they’d angered. If all Christians took this antithesis as seriously as Christ appears to the result would be a careful, thoughtful, humble, and loving community that God looking down on would see himself reflected in.


  1. All scripture quotations from New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989) unless otherwise noted.
  2. Unlike Luke’s gospel which records the sermon as being given on a “level place” that Christ had “come down” to (Lk 6:17), Matthew portrays him giving the Sermon on a mount (Mt 5:1) – Matthew goes to great lengths to make allusions back to Moses in the events of Christ’s life.
  3. “The clearest examples of the way in which the revelation of the OT was reinterpreted by the revelation of Jesus are those cases where the OT is actually set aside and abandoned—cases where the new revelation was so at odds with the old that no amount of interpretation could reconcile the two and the old had to give way and stand abrogated. We see this happening with Jesus, where Jesus clearly sets his own revelation and insight into God’s will over against the Torah—not just the oral Torah but even the written Torah itself. Thus in Matt. 5:21f., 27f. he sets himself up as the determinative interpreter of the law, proposing a very radical interpretation of the sixth and seventh commandments.” James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (Third Edition.; London: SCM Press, 2006), 106.
  4. Whether the we are to understand from Ex 20 that the Israelites heard God give the commands or not is discussed in Benjamin D. Sommer, Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (Yale University Press, 2015), 40-41.
  5. Hans Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount: A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Including the Sermon on the Plain (Matthew 5:3-7:27 and Luke 6:20-49) (ed. Adela Yarbro Collins; Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995), 218.
  6. “Though in Mt 5:22 and Lk 6:41 one may translate ἀδελφός as ‘brother,’ the evident meaning is not a reference to a sibling, but to a close associate or neighbor, so that the denotation of ἀδελφός is very similar to that of γείτων, περίοικος, and πλησίονb.” Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 134. See also William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 19.
  7. hat the phrase is not part of the original is categorized as {B}, meaning “almost certain” in Bruce Manning Metzger, United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), xxviii.
  8. Ibid., 11.
  9. This instructive example demonstrates why using antiquated translations or those based on corrupt texts (e.g. KJV and NKJV) can negatively affect our discipleship.
  10. “Be angry” William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 721. “To be relatively angry” Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 760.
  11. The occurance of ‘raca’ in the text is helpful for identifying the location of the gospel’s original audience: “The fact that ῥακά is not accompanied by a translation in Mt. 5:22 has an important bearing on the provenance of the Gospel. Matthew is writing for readers who, though they speak Greek, can understand an oriental term of abuse without further ado. This points to Syria, for after 70 A.D. it was only in Syrian cities that one would find Greek-speaking Christians in an oriental setting.” – Joachim Jeremias, “Ῥακά,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 974.
  12. William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 903.
  13. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 387.
  14. Joachim Jeremias, “Ῥακά,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 974.
  15. Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13 (vol. 33A; Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 116.
  16. Anthony J. Saldarini, “Sanhedrin,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 975.
  17. Μωρέ from μωρός, from which we get “moron”. William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 663.
  18. Robert H. Mounce, Matthew (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 45.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Joachim Jeremias, “Γέεννα,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 657–658.
  21. William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 232.
  22. “The gentile practice of imprisoning a debtor was particularly offensive to the Jews. In jail there was no way to earn money to pay the debt.” Robert H. Mounce, Matthew (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 45–46.
  23. “The ‘penny’ (kodrantes) is the Roman bronze/copper coin quadrans, the smallest Roman coin.” Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew (The NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2004), 243–244.
  24. F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 482.
  25. Kurt Niederwimmer and Harold W. Attridge, The Didache: A Commentary (Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), 52.
  26. Francis X. Glimm, “The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” in The Apostolic Fathers (trans. Francis X. Glimm, Joseph M.-F. Marique, and Gerald G. Walsh; vol. 1; The Fathers of the Church; Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1947), 1173.

Author: Nat Ritmeyer

Nat lives in London with his wife and son. His main interests are the Ancient Near Eastern background to the bible, the Iron Age I period, and travelling through the Modern Near East. He is also scared of geese.