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The lost humor of Jesus
I recently asked some distinguished New Testament scholars about Jesus and humor. The Gospels show Jesus as clever and articulate, but there are few moments in the New Testament that strike readers today as funny. Wouldn’t it make sense that, if the men who wrote the Gospels wanted to portray Jesus as an appealing figure, they would highlight his sense of humor?
So why is there so little humor from Jesus in the Gospels? I put that question to Amy-Jill Levine, a New Testament scholar at Vanderbilt University and the author of The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (2006). Her book holds that Christian preachers often misrepresent Jesus’s words and deeds because they fail to understand the Jewish context in which he lived.
Levine pointed out that what was seen as funny to people living during Jesus’s time may not seem funny to us at all. Most likely, she said, for someone in first-century Palestine, “the parables were amusing in their exaggeration or hyperbole. For example, the idea that a mustard seed would have sprouted into a big bush that birds would build their nests in would have been humorous.” Indeed, the very incongruity of the parables—the topsy-turvy, seemingly absurd nature of their message (the poor are rich; the rich are poor; the blind see; the sighted are blind)—is the stuff of comedy. The absurdity is even richer when listeners realize that Jesus’s insights are, in fact, true.
In his book Laughing with God: Humor, Culture, and Transformation (2008), Gerald Arbuckle, a Marist priest, agrees. In first-century Palestine, he suggests, people most likely would have laughed at many of Jesus’s intentionally ridiculous illustrations—at, for example, the idea that someone would light a lamp and put it under a basket, or that a person would build a house on sand, or that a father would give a child stones instead of bread.
“Humor is very culture-bound,” Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, professor of New Testament at Boston College, tells me. Fr. Harrington illustrates with the story in Mark of the “Gerasene demoniac,” in which Jesus cures a man possessed by a “legion” of demons—”an obvious shot at the Roman occupiers,” notes Harrington—then dispatches the demons “into a herd of pigs, [which are unclean for Jews], and they jump off a cliff and drown in the sea.”
“The Gospels have a lot of controversy stories and honor-shame situations,” Harrington continues. He points to the debate, narrated in Mark, over “paying taxes to Caesar” for example. As Harrington relates, the issue “is identified as a ‘trap’ from the beginning,” laid by temple priests, Pharisees, and Herodians. With his response (“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”), Jesus emerges with his “reputation for great wisdom intact (honored) and his opponents frustrated (shamed).”
“I suspect,” says Fr. Harrington, “that the early readers found these stories hilarious, whereas we in a very different social setting miss the point entirely.” Let me repeat that: hilarious.
It’s hard to imagine a good storyteller—or an itinerant preacher, as Jesus was—who doesn’t appreciate the value of humor. Jesus undoubtedly knew he had to “grab” his listeners, attract them quickly through a funny story, a clever parable, or a humorous aside. If one knows where to look, the Gospels reveal a man with a great sense of joy and playfulness.
Take the parable of the talents, found in both Matthew and Luke, in which a wealthy man entrusts his servants with money for safekeeping before he sets off on a journey. To one servant he gives five talents, to another two talents, and, to a third, one talent. After a time the rich man returns. The first servant, he discovers, has invested the money wisely and has made five more talents, which pleases his master. The second has made two talents over the two he had been given. The third, however, has not invested the money at all and merely returns the one talent. He is punished for his lack of industry. This parable is often invoked by preachers today to illustrate the need to use our “talents” in life to the full; Jesus himself drew that serious lesson from the story.
But for the listeners of the day, there would have been an element of the absurd in the story, as well, for a talent was the equivalent of a worker’s daily wages for 15 years. The idea of a wealthy man handing over to a servant 75 years worth of wages would have touched the sense of the ridiculous in his hearers.
Besides the parables, there are other indications that Jesus of Nazareth was a joyful person. At one point in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus observes that he is being castigated by some critics for not being as serious as John the Baptist. “John came neither eating nor drinking and they say, ‘He is a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking,” says Jesus, “and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard’.” In this way, the Gospel records criticism of Jesus for being high-spirited.
Moreover, Jesus embraced individuals who demonstrated a sense of humor. In the beginning of the Gospel of John comes the remarkable story of Nathanael, who has been told by his friends that the Messiah is from Nazareth. Nathanael responds, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
This is a joke about how insignificant the town was. Nazareth was a backwater where only a few families lived.
And what does Jesus do? Does he castigate Nathanael for mocking his hometown? One might expect the dour Jesus of modern imagination to say, “You who condemn the small town will yourself be condemned!”
Jesus says nothing like that. Nathanael’s humor doesn’t bother him at all. In fact, it seems to delight him. “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” he says. In other words, here is someone he can trust. Nathanael becomes one of the apostles. Jesus’s welcoming of Nathanael into his circle is perhaps the clearest indication that he had a sense of humor. It also indicates that John, the writer of the Gospel, appreciated a humorous story enough to preserve it in his narrative.
St. Peter is another Gospel figure often portrayed in ways that can be seen as comic. To begin with, like many of the disciples, he repeatedly misunderstands Jesus’s message, which leads to some arguably comic moments, even in the most serious of situations. At the Last Supper, when Jesus washes the feet of the disciples as a symbol of the way in which his followers must treat one another (in humble service), Peter balks. “You will never wash my feet,” he exclaims. Jesus replies that if he cannot bear to have his feet washed, then he will have no place in his ministry.
A somewhat uncomprehending Peter shouts, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” One can imagine Jesus smiling inwardly at Peter’s bluster and thinking, “Well, that’s not exactly what I meant.”
Peter bursts with enthusiasm. His rashness—by turns charming, touching, and sometimes funny—leads him early in the Gospels to ask Jesus to command him to walk on water after he sees Jesus doing the same on the Sea of Galilee: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus does just that. So Peter enthusiastically jumps out of the boat (perhaps to the astonishment of the rest of the disciples on board), finds that he can in fact walk on water, and then promptly sinks. “Lord, save me!” he cries. Jesus then reaches out his hand to save his impetuous friend.
Professor Levine notes that there is no way of knowing for certain whether instances of Jesus’s humor were expunged from the Gospels by the early Church. But she points out that in many of the noncanonical Gospels—those not officially accepted by the early Church—there are several occasions on which Jesus laughs.
Levine says the early Church Fathers (the major Christian theologians of the early centuries) were, in general, focused on combating heresy, which was no laughing matter. They would probably have seen the genre of humor as inappropriate for their times, and thus downplayed it.
Hugo Rahner, a German Jesuit theologian (like his more famous brother, Karl), wrote a wonderful little book in 1967 called Man at Play, which traces the notion of playfulness in Greek, Roman, and early Christian thought. His work underlines how early Church leaders consciously moved away from humor. St. Paul, for example, wrote in his Letter to the Ephesians that they must avoid any talk that is “silly.” In the early third century, St. Clement of Alexandria warned against “humorous and unbecoming words.” In the late fourth century, St. Ambrose said “joking should be avoided even in small talk,” and St. Basil maintained that Christians “ought not to laugh nor even to suffer laugh makers.”
However, St. Augustine, a student of Ambrose, recommended some joking from time to time. Later on, in the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas commends play in his writings, saying that there is a virtue in playfulness, since it leads to the mind’s relaxation and the soul’s refreshment.
More than a few present-day Christians strike me as being closet “Docetists,” adherents of an early Christian heresy. That is, they seem inclined to think of Jesus as God simply pretending at being human. But if we accept the idea of Jesus as fully divine and fully human, we must accept all human attributes for him—a sense of humor included.
On July 14 in Robsham Theater, James Martin, SJ, M.Div.’98, Th.M.’99, delivered the annual Evelyn Underhill Lecture in Christian Spirituality sponsored by the School of Theology and Ministry. Martin is the author of Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life (© 2011 by James Martin, SJ), from which this essay is adapted with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.