Focus On Humor New Testament

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Humor in the New Testament

Leonard Greenspoon

Over the years, many images of Jesus have emerged: Jesus the political revolutionary, Jesus the itinerant wonder-worker, and Jesus the purveyor of wisdom, among others. You have probably never considered Jesus as a stand-up comic. And for good reason—he wasn't.

Nonetheless, it is clear enough that Jesus had a good sense of humor and surrounded himself with others who were similarly endowed. Thus, for example, he is criticized in this manner (Matthew 11:19; all biblical citations, including this one, are taken from the New American Bible): "The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, 'Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard.'" Within the context, Jesus and his followers are being compared to the far more serious group with whom John the Baptist associated. Thus, it is appropriate to begin any discussion of New Testament humor with the main character of the narrative, Jesus himself.

A glimpse of Jesus' sense of humor can be enjoyed in the stories surrounding his disciples James and John. Rebuffed by the Samaritans, they addressed Jesus: "Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?" (Luke 9:53–54). Although Jesus turned down this request and rebuked the requesters, nonetheless he nicknamed this duo "the sons of thunder" (Boanerges; see Mark 3:17). Given their futile desire to bring down lightning, and thunder, from heaven, this nickname, no matter how gently bequeathed, was bound to be the subject of much humor in numerous retellings of the story. Moreover, for the "biblically"-literate of Jesus' day, and our own, there is an implicit comparison between James and John's inability to call down "fire from heaven" and the prophet Elijah's repeated demonstrations of the ability to accomplish just such a feat (as recorded in 2 Kings 1). Alas, James and John, no matter how talented individually, were no match, even when combined, for Elijah the Tishbite!

Much of the Sermon on the Mount, it seems to me, would have struck its earliest hearers as funny. Among the Beatitudes, with which the Sermon begins, we can well imagine smiles, if not out-and-out laughter, greeting this remark: "Blessed are the meek//for they will inherit the land" (Matthew 5:5). What could be more foolish than this—the meek&inheriting&the land? That's what the strong do, don't they? Of course, this is humor with a purpose—to overturn our usual perceptions—but it's humor nonetheless. This statement of Jesus' is an allusion to, if not quotation of, Psalm 37:11: "But the lowly shall inherit the land&" (Tanakh). But its context there seems to lack the rhetorical bite, and thus the attendant humor, of the expression as it appears in the Sermon on the Mount.

And so it follows in the Sermon. Was there actually someone, whom we could imagine, who would "light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket" (Matthew 5:15)? When Jesus urges his followers not to "be like the hypocrites" (6:5) he speaks of this group of undesirables as "standing and praying in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them." Although their placement in the synagogue is apt, the addition of "street corners" is certainly an exaggeration that would have brought knowing smiles to Jesus' listeners.

When taken literally, other sayings in the Sermon are—and there should be no doubt about this—very funny. Three examples are found in Matthew 7: "Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove that splinter from your eye,' while the wooden beam is in your eye?" (vv 3–4), "Do not&throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces" (v 6), and finally "a fool&built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined" (vv 26–27). Of course, readers and hearers of the Sermon come to understand that these sayings are not intended to be taken literally, but, to a considerable degree, it is the literal text that makes the teaching so memorable. And this Jesus fully understood.

For the most part, Jesus' more direct denunciations of the scribes and Pharisees, as in Matthew 23, are far sharper and, at least in my view, do not seem, in the proper sense of the word, humorous. One exception might well be this description in v 24: "Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!" Is this the same camel, or only a (distant?) relative of the one who shows up in Mark 10:25: "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." Come to think of it, that's also a pretty funny image, isn't it?

We are told that Jesus characteristically taught in parables. As a tool of pedagogy, parables owe much of their effectiveness to their being interactive or active rather than passive forms of teaching. With Jesus, parables often provided a touch of humor through exaggeration or hyperbole. One example can be detected in the relatively brief Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31–32): "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the 'birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.'" That a tiny seed could have produced a bush large enough for birds to build their nests, this very idea must have struck many as humorous.

Based on personal experience, I found myself laughing at several points when reading the earlier Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat. When, because of the actions of an enemy, a man found weeds growing among his wheat, his slaves asked, "Do you want us to go and pull them [that is, the weeds] up?" He replied, "No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them" (Matthew 13:28–29). How many times, in my own inability to distinguish weeds from the "good" plants, have I wished for someone to come along and give me similar advice!

Some Gospel stories reveal a sense of humor on the part of those who wrote, recorded, or transmitted them. Let us look, for example, at the story of Zacchaeus found in Luke 19: "He [that is, Jesus] came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town. Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature." In order to offset his being—what is the term today?—vertically challenged, Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus. When Jesus reached that spot, he looked up at Zacchaeus and said, "'Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.' And he came down quickly and received him with joy. When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, 'He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.'"

As in the sayings and parables we looked at earlier, this story has a serious purpose, which is directly expressed in the verses that follow. However, to note that without also noting the verses quoted above is to miss entirely the effect this story would have had, and continues to have, on hearers or readers who do not know its conclusion. The image of this short man shimmying up a tree and then hurrying down, only to be met by murmuring from his neighbors—this is the stuff, well almost the stuff, of slapstick or, more broadly, physical humor.

In Matthew 26, just after the Lord's Supper, Jesus reveals to his disciples that "all of you will have your faith in me shaken" (Matthew 26:31). Peter immediately responds: "Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be" (v 32). To which Jesus replies: "Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times" (v 34). Peter's faith in his own fortitude remains strong: "Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you" (v 35). All well and good except for the fact, narrated at the end of the chapter, that Peter does indeed deny Jesus three times: "I do not know what you are talking about!" (v 70), "I do not know the man!" (v 72), and again "I do not know the man" (v 74). After which, perhaps predictably, a cock crows. Peter's reaction is certainly understandable: immediately "he went out and began to weep bitterly" (v 75). Our reaction, as reader or hearer, is likely to be quite different: how ironic that Peter, Jesus' closest disciple, displayed such cowardice—even when (or though) Jesus had warned him of this very thing.


The Denial of Saint Peter, by Daniele Crespi (1597–1630), oil on panel, 59x78 cm. / De Agostini Picture Library / A. Dagli Orti / The Bridgeman Art Library.

The first chapter of the Book of John narrates a story that shows us Jesus' ability to recognize and appreciate the humor of others. As Jesus was gathering together his disciples, he came upon Philip, who was from Bethsaida. Philip in turn found Nathanael and told him, "'We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law and also the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.' But Nathanael said to him, 'Can anything good come from Nazareth?' Philip said to him, 'Come and see.'" When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he characterized him in this manner, "Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him." Thus, rather than castigating Nathanael for his demeaning remarks about Nazareth, Jesus affirms him as "a true Israelite," one who can be believed and trusted. In so doing, Jesus is also affirming that he understood the humor latent in Nathanael's remarks and that Nathanael, along with his sense of humor, was a welcome addition to Jesus' inner circle.

In at least one instance, a Gospel story demonstrates a sense of humor unrelated to Jesus as speaker or participant. This story, found in Luke 3, centers on the otherwise somber John the Baptist. Repelled by the growing crowds of those who showed up to be baptized by him, John declares: "Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance; and do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones" (Luke 3:7–8). How supremely ironic! Those who claim specific privileges on the basis of their descent from Abraham can be replaced (easily, through God's actions) by the mute, seemingly useless stones that populate the wilderness around the Jordan River. What, we may wonder, could "the crowds" have retorted to a line like that?

Outside of the Gospels, we look first at the Book of Acts. Chapter 12 of this book starts off with Herod's persecution of some of Jesus' followers. This is serious business, make no mistake about it. As part of this persecution, Peter is rounded up and imprisoned.

Admittedly, this is an unlikely venue for humor, but nonetheless it is humor that follows. On the night before Herod was scheduled to bring him to trial, Peter slept in his cell, secured by strong chains. A soldier was stationed on each side of him, and outside the door to his cell other guards kept watch. All of a sudden an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light illuminated Peter's cell. The angel "tapped Peter on the side and awakened him, saying, 'Get up quickly.' The chains fell from his wrists. The angel said to him, 'Put on your belt and your sandals.' He did so. Then he said to him, 'Put on your cloak and follow me.'" Peter obediently followed the angel out, "not realizing that was happening through the angel was real; he thought he was seeing a vision" (Acts 12:4–9). Only later did Peter "recover his senses" (12:11). It took that long for Peter to realize that he wasn't dreaming all of this? Now that's a sound sleeper!

But the adventures of Peter were far from over. After his angel-aided escape from prison, Peter went to the house of Mary, where many people had gathered. When he knocked on the outside door, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. Upon hearing Peter's voice, Rhoda was so overjoyed that she ran inside to tell everyone about Peter's arrival. Meanwhile, because she had not as of yet opened the gate, Peter was left standing outside. "They told her, 'You are out of your mind,' but she insisted that it was so. But they kept saying, 'It is his angel.' But Peter continued to knock, and when they opened it, they saw him and were astounded" (Acts 12:12–16). It is Peter who in fact may have been the most astounded: after effortlessly passing through the locked gate of the prison, he was able only with the greatest of effort to enter the gate of a home filled with friends. And we as readers are filled with astonishment as Mary and her companions fail simply to open the day right away to ascertain whether it was really Peter or instead his angel. Of such delays, and the accompanying flurry of activity, is humor often made.

Later on we find Paul in Athens, where "he debated in the synagogue with the Jews and with the worshipers, and daily in the public square with whoever happened to be there." He also managed to attract a few Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, who engaged him in discussion: "Some asked, 'What is this scavenger trying to say?' Others said, 'He sounds like a promoter of foreign deities,' because he was preaching about 'Jesus' and 'Resurrection'" (Acts 17:16–18). What a sight! The most sophisticated minds of the Hellenistic world don't seem to be able to grasp the (simple) truth that Paul is offering. The exalted followers of Epicurus and Zeno are reduced to ad hominem attacks and witless displays that nonetheless evoke laughter (or at least a smile) on the part of knowing readers and observers.

Elsewhere in Acts, Paul appears to be the object of humor. Thus, in chapter 20, Paul began what was obviously an extended series of remarks, "and a young man named Eutychus who was sitting on the window sill was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. Once overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and when he was picked up, he was dead" (Acts 20:9). The lesson up to this point seems to be that loquacious individuals should schedule their lectures on the ground floor or at least insure that screens (if there are any) be attached before any longwinded oratorical forays. Almost all of us can imagine being in Eutychus' position more than once—at least until he fell.

This narrative continues: "Paul went down, threw himself upon him, and said as he embraced him, 'Don't be alarmed; there is life in him.' Then he returned upstairs, broke the bread, and ate; after a long conversation that lasted until daybreak, he departed. And they took the boy away alive and were immeasurably comforted" (20:10-12). Did that happen before or after Paul completed his long discourse? Are we to envision poor Eutychus, alive but lying on his back (or stomach), still having to endure the words, the many words, of Paul?

While there is no doubt humor in this account, and this is humor at Paul's expense, Paul does not come out too badly in this depiction of his abilities. After all, if Eutychus were actually dead, and didn't simply have the wind (spirit) knocked out of him, then Paul's actions in revivifying him are comparable to Elijah's and Elisha's in the Hebrew Bible (1 Kings 17 and 2 Kings 4, respectively), to say nothing of Jesus' in Luke 7:11–16 and 8:49–56, for example.

Within the letters (whether authentic or merely attributed) of Paul, I detect few examples of humor, although I know that others, more persistent and perspicacious than I, can multiply my meager findings ten or a hundredfold. Let me cite a couple of examples.

At Galatians 5, Paul begins a serious of exhortations aimed at showing his correspondents how they should order their lives. He addresses first the obviously thorny issue of circumcision: "It is I, Paul, who am telling you that if you have yourselves circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I declare to every man who has himself circumcised that he is bound to observe the entire law. You are separated from Christ&.For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love" (Galatians 5:2–6).

But Paul faced opposition on this point. Serious opposition: "You were running well; who hindered you from following the truth? That enticement does not come from the one who called you&.As for me, brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case, the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. Would that those who are upsetting you might also castrate themselves!" (5:7–12). Thus, if other words are actually needed, the knife that produced the circumcision of Paul's opponents might profitably cut more deeply, producing, so it would seem, eunuchs. To use another expression from another sport (Paul here speaks of running a good race), touché!

I'll close with a far gentler example, this one making use of word play. In the Letter to Philemon, Paul writes: "I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment, who was once useless to you but is now useful to both you and me" (Philemon 1:10). As it happens, the name Onesimus in Greek means beneficial or useful. While earlier the slave Onesimus, in running away from his master, was useless to him, now Onesimus, as a follower of Jesus Christ, could at last fully live up to the promise and premise of his name.

The humor of the New Testament shares some basic characteristics with similar phenomena in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha. Here also much of the humor is highly contextualized, depending on a series of assumptions and perspectives shared by the authors and their initial audiences. Outside of these contexts, it would be difficult to imagine their eliciting even a smile, to say nothing of laughs.

As befits a work of literature devoted to the presentation of Jesus as the Christ, there is one character whose presence is felt in every book, every chapter, every verse of the New Testament. Since the lessons that Jesus imparts through his words and actions are serious, there is a tendency among many to assume that humor in any form would be inappropriate in this text.

As I hope to have demonstrated, such an assumption is erroneous. Jesus was not without a sense of humor, and he appears to have consciously chosen some of his followers who exhibited this trait. For whatever reason, Peter is the subject of several humorous tales, from which, I suppose, he emerges as a supremely human human being.

And that, in short, is the message that humor conveys within the New Testament; namely, that humans, no matter how stressful or eventful their lives are, need lighter moments and experiences as much as, or even more than, the drama or angst life throws at us. And Jesus, as part of this cast of characters, indulges in a variety of humorous interactions, as do his closest and most dedicated followers.


Bibliography


  • Hyers Conrad. And God Created Laughter: The Bible as Divine Comedy. Atlanta: Westminster John Knox, 1987.
  • Whedbee, J. William. The Bible and the Comic Vision. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Subject Entries and Commentary


Irony and Humor
Jesus
The Letters of Paul
Book of Acts

Author's Note: I would like to thank the following for providing me with examples and insight on humor in the New Testament. To them I gratefully give credit. Alas, I must take the blame for any of this material that falls flat or fails to convince:

Dan Harrington
Anthony Le Donne
Amy-Jill Levine
Joel Lohr

Oxford University Press

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