Reprinted with permission from the "Encyclopedia of Homosexuality" (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1990), copyright Wayne R. Dynes, 1990.
This word is found only in some manuscripts of the New Testament Gospel of Matthew at 5:22, where the King James Version reads:
"But I say unto you that ... whosoever shall say to his brother, Racha, shall be in danger of the counsel...."
The text of the gospel includes no explanatory gloss, as is usual with foreign words that would otherwise have been unintelligible to the Greek reader, and the majority of modern commentators understand the word as Semitic: raka = Hebrew reqa, "empty, emptyheaded, brainless."
Yet there is an alternative meaning proposed in 1922 by Friedrich Schulthess, an expert in Syriac and Palestinian Christian Aramaic: he equated the word with Hebrew rakh, "soft," which would thus be equivalent to Greek malakos/malthakos, which denote the passive-effeminate homosexual.
Further, in 1934 a papyrus was published from Hellenistic Egypt of the year 257 before the Christian era that contains the word rachas in an unspecified derogatory sense, but a parallel text suggests that it had the meaning kinaidos ("faggot"). It would thus have been a loanword from Hebrew in the vulgar speech of the Greek settlers in Egypt.
A modern counterpart is the word rach, "tender, soft, effeminate, timid, cowardly" in the Gaunersprache, the argot of German beggars and criminals, which has absorbed many terms from Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic because of social conditions that created a linguistic interface between the Jewish "fence" and the gentile thief.
The import of the Gospel passage is that whereas the old Law forbade only murder, the new morality of the church forbids aggression even in purely symbolic, verbal forms, and the ascending scale of offenses and penalties is tantamount to a prohibition of what is called in Classical Arabic mufaharah, the ritualized verbal duel that is often the prelude to combat and actual bloodshed.
So Jesus is represented as forbidding his followers to utter insults directed at the other party's masculinity - a practice that has scarcely gone out of fashion in the ensuing nineteen centuries, as the contemporary vogue of "faggot" well attests.
So it cannot be maintained that Jesus "never mentioned homosexuality," as some gay Christian apologists claim.
In the sphere of sexual morality Jesus demanded an even higher standard than did contemporary Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaism, which uncompromisingly reflected and condemned the homosexual expression that was commonplace and tolerated in the Gentile world. Thus Christianity inherited not merely the Jewish taboo on homosexual behavior, but an ascetic emphasis foreign to Judaism itself which has always had a procreation-oriented moral code.
What the text in Matthew demonstrates is that he forbade acts of violence, physical and verbal, against those to whom homosexuality was imputed, in line with the general emphasis on self-restraint and meekness in his teaching. The entire passage is not just a legalistic pastiche of Jewish casuistry, but also a polished gem of double entendre and irony.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Warren Johansson, "Whosoever Shall Say to His Brother, Racha (Matthew 5:22)," Cabirion, 10 (1984), 2-4.