Can anything funny come out of Nazareth? 

Maybe you had to be there.


The entry on “humor” in “The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible” cites the story of Samson as an example. “By combining two translations … of Samson’s exulting cry after the jawbone incident (Judges 15:16), we can sense something of the flavor of the more humorous parts of the entire narrative:

“With the jawbone of an ass,

I have piled them in a mass!

With the jawbone of an ass,

I have slain a thousand men!”

Sounds a little like Oscar Wilde, doesn’t it?

Another example of humor from “The Interpreter’s Dictionary” is “Haman’s hanging on his own gallows (Esther 5:14 – 7:10).” If these are representative, biblical humor is on the dark side.

Identifying what is or is not funny is hard in any context. Finding funny stuff in the Bible is even more difficult. Faith may be required.

But the effort was made, on the whim of an editor — whims are their business — who got interested after the controversy over “The Book of Daniel” awhile back. “The Book of Daniel” was a network television show, partly humorous and partly serious, about an Episcopal priest and his family, which included a gay son and a wife who drank too much. Whenever the priest was having problems, a traditional-looking Jesus would stop by and advise.

Religious fundamentalists found the show disrespectful, if not blasphemous. They protested loudly, and threatened boycotts of advertisers. Some NBC stations refused to carry the program, including those at Fayetteville and Little Rock. (In both cases, another local station picked it up.) “The Book of Daniel” was canceled after a few episodes. Low ratings, the network said. The protestors took credit.

“South Park,” a cartoon series with its own version of Jesus, is still on the air, still offending a segment of the public. A recent letter to the editor said, “This portrayal of Jesus is so common and degrading that we should be outraged rather than accepting and complacent.”

Neither “Book of Daniel” nor “South Park” provoked riots of the sort that have occurred in Muslim countries over what were considered disrespectful depictions of Muhammad. The First Amendment is helpful in this regard.

Rev. Howard “Flash” Gordon, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, is a man of the cloth who laughs a lot. Anyone in his 60s still answering to “Flash Gordon” would have to laugh a lot, one suspects. He was also a fan of “The Book of Daniel.”

“One of the best TV shows I ever saw,” he said. “I was greatly disappointed they took it off the air.” He said the local station manager “was fearful of the Religious Right — the people who think they know what Jesus looks like. When we serve the people who are suffering, that’s when we see Jesus.”

Conceding that “The Book of Daniel” may have had its moments, did the real Jesus have a sense of humor?

“Society accused him of having too good a time,” Gordon said, “of hanging out with people who do laugh a lot,” including sinners of all sorts. “And when he was humorless, His mother corrected him. At Cana, she said ‘There’s not enough wine.’ He said ‘What’s that to me?’ She said ‘Fix it.’ ”

“What kills humor is fear,” Gordon said, and Jesus was notoriously fearless. “If He were around today, He’d be funny. He’d hang out with the funny people.”

Larry Benfield, rector of Christ Episcopal Church, said there was considerable irony in the Bible, if that counts as humor. (It does. According to Elton Trueblood’s “The Humor of Christ,” irony is “the type of humor found most often in the Gospels.” He defines irony as “a holding up to public view of either vice or folly, but without a note of bitterness or the attempt to harm.”)

“Jesus made these ironical comments that would have been good for a laugh when they were heard,” Benfield said. He mentioned Jesus’ saying that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. “I think His listeners would have been laughing at that. It’s so ironical.”

“We often take religion so seriously that we can’t see the humor in it,” Benfield said. “But that which is godly in us needs to laugh.”

Considering the number of stand-up comics who are Jews, maybe the Old Testament would be the place to look for humor. Rabbi Gene Levy said the Torah was filled with plays on words. For example: In the book of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah are both quite old when messengers of God come through and tell them they’ll have a son. The Hebrew word for “laugh” is tzachak. Sarah, 90 and barren for years, says she’ll call her son Yitzhak (Isaac), meaning “He will make me laugh.”

J. Daniel Hays is chairman of biblical studies at Ouachita Baptist University, a Christian school, but as a professor, he’s studied the Old Testament more than the New. He agrees with Levy that the Old Testament bristles with puns. The Old Testament is written in Hebrew; the New in Greek. “Maybe it’s easier to do word plays in Hebrew,” Hays said. For example, “Adam is created from the ground. ‘Ground’ is adamah in Hebrew. Adam’s name is a play on where he comes from. It’s a constant reminder of where we come from.” While conceding that professionally he’s not as familiar with the New Testament as the Old, Hays said that personally, “I don’t see Jesus making jokes.”

Jesus may not have made jokes, but many have been made about Him. Still are. The Jesus of “South Park” is host of a public-access TV talk show. He’s not in every episode of the show, but he appears frequently, most famously in a boxing match with Satan. The “South Park” web site at one time sold talking dolls commemorating that fight: “It’s the eternal battle between good and evil! Build your own ring and let Jesus and Satan battle it out for control of the universe. … Press their chests to hear phrases such as:

Satan: Come on, sissy — hit me, hit me!

Jesus: It doesn’t matter, he’s way too strong for me anyway. I give up!”

While “South Park” has been denounced by groups like the Mississippi-based American Family Association, which claims to have driven advertisers from the show, it’s a little surprising there hasn’t been more opposition. Maybe that’s because it’s a cartoon show on a cable network, aimed at a young audience.

Some viewers claim to find real theological lessons in the show, but it’s clearly more aimed at entertaining than informing or inspiring.

In its fun-loving attitude toward what is generally considered serious business, “South Park” has been compared to “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” a 1979 movie about a young man named Brian Cohen, supposedly born about the same time as, and just down the street from, Jesus. Brian’s story is a take-off on the life of Jesus. One source has it that the title “Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory” was considered, but the Python comedy group backed down because of pre-production objections.

There were protests and attempted boycotts of “Life of Brian,” but as a movie it was less susceptible to pressure than a network TV show like “Book of Daniel” — no advertisers or local station managers to be intimidated. “Life of Brian” has come to be considered a classic by some. Not by others.

You can find almost anything on the Internet these days, including a 19-page list of “Jesus Jokes.” The first one, not nearly as rough as some of the others, is: “Jesus was at a disco and having trouble dancing, so he says, ‘Help! I’ve risen and I can’t get down!’ ”

Would Jesus laugh at that? The American Family Association certainly wouldn’t, but the connection between Him and it is tenuous at best.

Another site, the Christian Humor Hotline, whose motto is, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine (Proverbs 17: 22),” specializes in what it calls “Christian and Clean Jokes,” of a sort even the AFA probably wouldn’t object to:

“A woman went to the Post Office to buy stamps for her Christmas cards. ‘What denomination?’ asked the clerk. ‘Oh, good heavens! Have we come to this?’ said the woman. ‘Well, give me 50 Catholic and 50 Baptist ones.’ ”

More from the Web:

Question: “Are there any jokes in the Bible? I look for humor in nearly everything, but I’ve never been able to find any in the Bible.”

Response: “Regarding humor in the Bible, here are some jokes from the New Testament (John 1:45-51):

“Philip found Nathanael and said unto him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ [Joke!] Philip said to him, ‘Come and see!’ [Boom!] Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him and said of him, ‘Behold an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile.’ [‘Hey, here’s an honest Jew’ – Joke] (The Anti-Defamation League might not see the humor. — DS) Nathanael [not getting it] said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, I saw you yesterday, standing under a fig tree.’ Nathanael said [losing his cool], ‘Rabbi, you are the son of God! You are the king of Israel!’ Jesus answered him, ‘Because I said I saw you standing under a fig tree, believest thou?’ [Big joke! Gets laughs!] ‘You shall see greater things than these.’ [Release.] And he said to him, ‘Truly, truly I say unto you, you shall see the heavens opened and the Angels of the Lord ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’ [Boom!]

“Preserving humor through translations from Aramaic to Greek to Latin to English is problematic, but with a little sympathy for the intent of the speaker, you can find a lot.”

A couple of the clergy we called referred us to the book “The Humor of Christ” by Elton Trueblood, published in 1964. Trueblood says in his preface:

“The germ of the idea which has finally led to the writing of this book was planted many years ago when our eldest son was 4 years old. We were reading to him from the seventh chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, feeling very serious, when suddenly the little boy began to laugh. He laughed because he saw how preposterous it would be for a man to be so deeply concerned about a speck in another person’s eye, that he was unconscious of the fact that his own eye had a beam in it. Because the child understood perfectly that the human eye is not large enough to have a beam in it, the very idea struck him as ludicrous. His gay laughter was a rebuke to his parents for their failure to respond to humor in an unexpected place. The rebuke served its purpose by causing me to begin to watch for humor in all aspects of the life and teachings of Christ. Sometimes this did not appear until the text had been read and reread many times.”

It’s a precocious 4-year-old who knows what a beam is, but maybe he asked before he started laughing. We’ll take Brother Trueblood’s word.

Trueblood agrees that puns are employed profusely in the Old Testament, “but it is obvious that most of Christ’s humor was of a deeper variety than this … Christ’s characteristic humor depends, for the most part, upon a combination of ideas rather than upon a combination of words. This is why the particular language, be it Aramaic [the language Christ spoke] or some other, makes no crucial difference. The swallowing of the camel is funny in any language.”

It’s significant that Trueblood concedes that some biblical humor does not become apparent until a passage has been read many times. People skeptical of biblical humor might say that anything read over and over will begin to say what the reader wants it to say. A Trueblood example gives some reason for skepticism. He cites the parable of the Unjust Steward, in the book of Luke. In the parable, Jesus seems to praise a dishonest employee for being dishonest, and to advise total unscrupulousness for all, teachings very much at odds with the rest of His message. Trueblood cites many tortured interpretations of the parable, seeking to reconcile it with Christ’s other instructions. He concludes:

“There is one, and only one, hypothesis which cuts through all this nonsense of interpretation, with its labored efforts — the hypothesis that Jesus was joking.” In other words, if what He said is not what we think He should have said, we explain that He was joking. That’s an easy way out, like the writers of TV shows who plot their characters into a corner, and can extricate them only by declaring “It was all a dream!” Alternatively, maybe His statement was more than usually cryptic, and we just haven’t figured it out yet. Or maybe His teachings aren’t exactly what we think they are.

So, is there humor in the Bible? There is if you want there to be. I’d never noticed it before, but the fig tree story drew a snicker.



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