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I have just signed up for Ootle15. This is an open (as in anyone and as in free) learning event/course organised by Brooke Lester (a creative and interesting blogger and OT teacher with special interests and responsibilities for online learning.

If you fancy learning more about the OT you can too. It IS free and open to all.

I’ve participated in a couple of MOOCs related to the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible both run with the support and resources of major universities and using the Coursera platform. Ootle15 has the air of being run thinner resources, if not quite the smell of an oily rag, and so should make an interesting comparison.

I have already begun to notice a learning curve as the course will use Twitter as well as blogging. I’ve used blogs since 2004 (11 years recently) so that is no learning yet, but I have resisted Twitter. Rudely suggesting it is only for twits! So I have generated a Twitter account just for the course. And successfully (as far as I can tell, one of the disconcerting “features” of Twitter seems to be that tweets just vanish into the ether, rather like legacy publications.1 )

The header picture, a section of which I have used above, hardly makes me feel at home, this part of NZ almost never gets snow and certainly not in high summer!

  1. Print media. []

The simplest useful definition of humour has to be: “Humour is present when people laugh”.

However, this simplicity masks real problems. For a start as we saw people laugh for other reasons than just that something is funny, embarrassment and being tickled are obvious (and pretty cross cultural) examples. But also sometimes people ‘laugh at’ rather than ‘with’, laughter then is not a sign of humour. There is also unintended humour.

Worse still for us this definition is useless as a help for readers of ancient texts, since the audience is not available to test.

Perhaps though we might still say: “Something is humorous when its author intended its audience to laugh (or at least smile?) as they receive the text.” This avoids the ‘laughing at’ problem, but still the biblical authors are no more accessible than their audiences.

It also does not allow for unintended humour, or at least unconscious humour (that is humour that the author was not aware of generating, but which they would recognise after the event if it was pointed out to them).

Cutting a potentially long and complex discussion short perhaps we can agree that somehow, like ‘meaning’, humour exists in the interface of authors, texts and audiences. In the next post I’ll suggest a series of criteria that might be used to get an idea if a text is likely to be intended (author) to be funny, or at least recognised by an audience (at the time of writing) as funny. These criteria will come from both theories of humour (see Humour in the Bible 1.2 Introduction: Theories of Humour), recent scholarly writings on humour in the Bible, and in one case a suggestion from a reader that struck me as eminently sensible.

New website

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The NZ Baptist Magazine has a new website. It looks good, and looks interesting. This is a good start. I have not played with it enough to see how easy it is to find something interesting (except that several of my articles are currently on display ;)

It lacks a search function, but readers here surely know they can google “[searchterm] site:baptistmag.org.nz” don’t you?

What do you think of the design? I’m hoping and praying people start toi use the comments feature – this alone to my mind makes it better than the paper edition, let alone being browsable on a phone :)

Theories of humour are generally classified under three approaches1

  • Superiority
  • Incongruity
  • Relief

Superiority

Perhaps the majority of classical philosophers who considered humour at any depth had the cutting humour of satire and the like significantly in mind, so it was perhaps natural to suspect (intellectuals are good at suspecting) that a sense of superiority was at the heart of the phenomenon.

Hobbes is frequently cited as the typical example of this approach:

The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.2

That humour can have at its heart such a sense is evident. However, often humour seems to work in reverse as we laugh at ourselves or with a character, for example when a downtrodden or bungling character surprisingly succeeds.

(When, in part 3, I present my “criteria for discerning the presence of humour” this approach will be reflected in the suggestion that a marked sense of inferiority and superiority can signal humour as well as sometimes in surprise, incongruity or a focus on human pretentions.)

Incongruity

Currently the commonest approach sees humour as located in a sense of something or someone out of place, or unfitting. This incongruity associated with surprise produces laughter.

An early example of this approach is found in Aristotle3 and the theory was given classic expression by Kant:

In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. This transformation, which is certainly not enjoyable to the understanding, yet indirectly gives it very active enjoyment for a moment. Therefore its cause must consist in the influence of the representation upon the body, and the reflex effect of this upon the mind.4

Although this linkage of humour with incongruity seems to fit a wider selection of what today we would classify as humorous, again the theory is less than entirely satisfying. It does not well describe precisely those examples that the superiority theory best accounts for.

It will be reflected in the criteria of ingenuity, surprise, incongruity and perhaps disguise.

Relief

Although theories that link humour with the relief of tensions or energy that have previously been accumulated may help to understand the physiological phenomenon of laughter, and despite beoing promulgated by such luminaries as The 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Herbert Spenser, John Dewey and Sigmund Freud relief theories are generally depreciated today as descriptions of humour (as opposed more narrowly the mechanisms of laughter), and this attitude is reflected in the absense of influence from these theories on the criteria I will be proposing.

  1. For summary statements of most oif the ideas in this section see the encyclopedia entries:
    John Morreall, “Philosophy of Humor,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2013, 2013, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/humor/.
    Aaron Smuts, “Humor,” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, eds. James Fieser and Bradley Dowden, accessed January 23, 2015, http://www.iep.utm.edu/humor/. []
  2. Thomas Hobbes, The Moral and Political Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury: Never Before Collected Together : To Which Is Prefixed, the Author’s Life, Extracted from That Said to Be Written by Himself, n.p.: London, 1750, 20.
    Cited by e.g. by:
    Arthur Asa Berger, An Anatomy of Humor, Transaction: New Brunswick, NJ, 1993, 2.
    Aaron Smuts, “Humor,” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, eds. James Fieser and Bradley Dowden, accessed January 23, 2015, http://www.iep.utm.edu/humor/. []
  3. Aristotle, Rhetoric, III, 11, in e.g. Dover: New York, NY, 2012, 139. []
  4. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, Cosimo: New York, NY, 2007, 133. []


Humour’s bad rap

Humour has not been popular with intellectuals in the Western world. From Plato and the Bible until quite recently their focus seems to have rested more on sharp cutting humour than on gentler wit. The overpowering loss of control that extreme laughter can produce also made it suspect. The critical probing nature of much humour seemed to make it inappropriate for nobler, gentler souls.

Plato’s Laws were particularly scathing:

Yet one can’t create in both ways if one is to partake of even a small portion of virtue, and indeed one should learn about the ridiculous things just for this reason – so that he may never do or say, through ignorance, anything that is ridiculous, if he doesn’t have to. The imitation of such things should be assigned to slaves and to strangers who work for hire. There should never be any seriousness whatsoever about these things, nor should any free person, woman or man, be observed learning these things; in fact, these imitations should always manifest something new. Let the play that provokes laughter, the play we all call “comedy,” be thus ordained in law and in argument.1

The Bible seemed to confirm this negative evaluation as (almost) every mention of laughter involves mockery.

The history of attitudes to humour in Christianity seems to continue negative up to and beyond the Puritans (whose popular reputation as killjoys might lead us to expect this attitude. Indeed as recently as the middle of the twentieth century this attitude seems to have obscured the possibility that Scripture could contain (or at least contain more than a little) humour.

An unusual measure of critical agreement has been realized in descriptions of the Bible’s lack of humor. Yet the opinion represented by such statements as [Alfred North] Whitehead’s that “the total absence of humor from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature” relies on evidence which is the best equivocal.2

By contrast with this surprisingly univocal history this series will argue that humour is widespread in Scripture and will attempt to begin classifying and organising it to enable clearer discussion of its presence and function.

What is humour?

It is useful to begin consideration of a topic with definitions of the key terms. Humour is surprisingly difficult to define helpfully. Perhaps the commonest sort of attempt delineates humour by its effects: Humour is what makes us laugh. Yet laughter can have other causes, for example tickling, and humour may produce smiles or even little outward sign in its audiences.3

The difficulty of producing a satisfactory definition that is not circular (something is humorous if we find it funny) or false (humour is what makes us laugh) is perhaps made evident by the failure of authors to offer such definitions. For example neither the article “humor” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy4 nor that in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy5 offer a definition.

Dictionaries by and large favour the circular approach, humour is “the quality of being amusing or comic”.6 Perhaps given this unhelpful start I can be forgiven for hoping that we can work from the, admittedly unsatisfactory, starting point of understanding that a text is humorous if it was intended to be funny or amusing.

  1. Plato, The Laws of Plato, trans. Pangle, Thomas L. (University of Chicago Press, 1980, 208). []
  2. Dov B. Lang (Judaism, 1962, 249) cited in Alex Preminger and Edward L. Greenstein, The Hebrew Bible in Literary Criticism, New York: Ungar, 1986, 81. []
  3. See e.g. Provine, R. R. (2000). “The Science of Laughter.” Psychology Today, 33 (6), 58-62. []
  4. Aaron Smuts, “Humor” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed January 23, 2015, http://www.iep.utm.edu/humor/. []
  5. John Morreall, “Philosophy of Humor,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2013, 2013, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/humor/. []
  6. e.g. Oxford Dictionary of British and World English http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/humour []

Writing the post yesterday on Jesus’ humour drew my attention to the way (with the exception of a couple of posts early in the project) I have not here really provided my long-running1 series of podcasts on humour in each book of the Hebrew Bible with a solid foundation.

Such solid foundations are better laid in text than in audio or video (which is better suited to persuasive or motivational tasks), so I will do it here rather than on 5 minute Bible. I currently plan a series of posts under four (or five) main headings:

  • Introduction: Setting the scene
  • What is humour?
    Probably just one post covering the location of humour – in the speaker/author or hearer/reader or text – and theories of humour
  • Identifying humour in ancient texts
    A post (or a few posts) that will fill out, explain and justify the criteria listed in my “Distinguishing humour: signs that a text is intended to be funny
  • Some examples of humour from the Bible
    • Narrative humour
    • Prophetic humour
    • The humour of poets
    • Jesus’ humour
  • Categorising biblical humour
    A post (or posts) seeking to pull together and order what has been said.

That’s the plan…

  1. Begun in April 2011 and currently at Jonah so nearly finished though I still have not done Lamentations. []

Dr Jane Heath (Durham University) wrote a piece “Did Jesus Christ have a sense of humour?” In it she suggests that the question might be broken into two parts: “[o]ne about the way Jesus taught during his incarnate life, and another about the way it is proper for followers of Jesus, who seek to share in his risen life, to behave today.” I intend to respond here to what she wrote about the first of these.

Heath begins by noting that the synoptic gospels “[d]o not depict him making people laugh and they do not describe him as ‘witty’, let alone ‘funny’.” This is true, but then descriptions in biblical narrative is commonly sparse, perhaps less so in the New Testament than in the Hebrew Bible but nevertheless the gospels do not describe Jesus as ‘serious’, ‘sober’ or ‘solemn’ either.

In a similar way she erects another straw man to conveniently demolish. When those around him do something silly, she says: “Jesus does not make a joke of their silliness.” Well, no, but then to present Jesus as a sarcastic snob who makes fun of the mistakes of others would hardly fit with the Synoptic Gospels intentions in presenting Jesus. Even if the historical Jesus did make fun of such slips, the gospel writers might well not have reported this.

Moving beyond this trail of successfully demolished straw men, Heath has to admit that: “Some of the things he says in parables might seem to invite us to read them as if told with a twinkle in his eye.” She follows this with a couple of weak examples of such possibly humorous parables, but recognising the difficulty of accurately spotting humour accross cultures concludes: “In general, humour is not a useful tool for interpreting the gospels’ account of Jesus’ life. The evangelists were not writing satire.” The second sentence is true, but entirely irrelevant. Jesus might have been a stand up comedian and the gospel writers would still not have been satirists if they reported his jokes accurately! The question Heath posed is not, are the gospels satire (or even comedies) but rather, did Jesus have a sense of humour?

The other claim: “humour is not a useful tool for interpreting the gospels’ account of Jesus’ life” is more difficult to argue (either for or against). But I would suggest that the fact that it is difficult to picture Jesus’ parable of the man with the log in his eye (Mat 7:3-5, Luke 6:41-42) without smiling may provoke us to look to see if the signs of humour are present in these texts.

The criteria I have used in the past, are drawn from a number of previous studies by others, and most are present in these texts:

  • incongruity – surely evident!
  • lighthearted mood – this is a subjective criterion, but what do you think?
  • surprise – if you had not heard the parable before would you expect Jesus’ punchline?
  • ingenuity (cleverness is often a mark of humour think of puns) – this one may be missing here…
  • inferiority – the main point of the parable?
  • disguise or something or someone pretending to be something else – the “friend” is pretending to be superior and helpful
  • “inelasticity” (following Bergson) – perhaps not…
  • human pretension revealed in all its lack of glory – oh, yes!

My conclusion: This saying seems evidently intended to be humorous. What do you think? On the basis of this saying alone1 The correct response to Dr Heath’s question is a clear “Yes, Jesus did have a sense of humour!” (At least the Jesus who is presented in the Synoptic Gospels did.)

PS: I omitted “hyperbole” which I earlier added to the original list at David Kerr’s suggestion – the hyperbole in this passage is obvious!

  1. Though I can’t help also remember Jesus’ fondness for camel stories! []

In Otagosh’s next post however normal service is resumed. I wish all my friends and neighbours who trawl biblical prophetic books in search of “Biblical Prophecy” would read Ancient Prophets – Politics not Prediction.

It is pleasant to have some reliable comfortable regular experiences in this troubling world. One of mine in recent years has been the stream of tart yet gentle posts on Otagosh that pillory sloppy thinking on “Biblical” matters.

But today Gavin’s gone soft. He links to a Yahoo! News report titled ‘Finds in Israel add weight to theory God “had wife”.’

Now, it’s true, the find does add to the, already significant, weight of archaeological evidence suggesting that Ancient Judeans commonly worshiped a goddess alongside Yahweh (presumably therefore thought of as a god).

Shock, horror! The Bible tells me so, just read II Kings (or to save time do a search for ‘Asherah’). What please about this discovery is new? Where is the academic novelty that excites? Only for “Biblical” Fundamentalists (of the sort Otagosh usually reliably skewers) and trendy “critics”, neither of which class of idiot seem to actually bother to read the Bible, find this sort of “Biblical” discovery strange or really new.

Happy Christmas to all of you.

2014 has been a busy year, leaving little time to prepare posts here. I hope 2015 may leave more time. I’m farewelling 2014 now as tomorrow I head for Auckland and then on to the UK (for mum’s funeral) and so will almost certainly not post here again this year.

If anyone have topics, passages or other ideas of things you’d like me to write about do say. Ideas are the hardest part of writing for me!