Author Archive

Humour in the Bible 1.1 Introduction: History and definition


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 []

New series: Humour in the Bible

humourWriting 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. []

Did Jesus have a sense of humour?

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! []

Otagosh goes soft?

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 (and byebye 2014)

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!

Sexist language hobbles scholarship

For decades I have battled with students who insist on using “he” to mean “she or he” and “Man” to mean “men and women”, even “a man” to mean “a human person”. I’ve explained to them, as patiently as I can, that research shows that such language slows comprehension, even among people like them who believe they are comfortable with such “generic” use of gendered language.

I’ve also more generally tried to show students, not just the unrepentant sexist ones, that different perspectives offer richer readings of a text than one monotonous one.

Michelle Fletcher of King’s College, London, in a guest post “Reading with fresh eyes: #heforshe, NT scholarship and sexism” on James Crossley’s blog offers a neat powerful example of how such “generic” language, by its unexamined sexism blinds scholars and hobbles their search for truth.

If you haven’t already, go and read her post. Even if her reading of Mark 7:14-23 were wrong, the very fact that this possibility has not been considered demonstrates how sexist language hobbles schlarship.

Ban Christmas

Mike Crudge asks some interesting questions about “cringe communication” from Christians, he also poses a challenge to “create a simple and engaging billboard for your church this Christmas?”

Here’s my entry:

My reasoning? It seems to me that the clever style of billboard works most easily when satirising something, that is by its nature it is “protestant”. At Christmastime few Christians are thinking in terms of protest, sadly. There are surely enough opportunities, things we should protest against. The whole consumerist festival, for a start…
What about a poster calling for Christmas to be banned: “Cut the stress… Ban Christmas!” With a picture of a “picture perfect” family doing christmas with lots of presents and food etc…

Recording audio

Over the last year I have been forced (by equipment failure and an unwillingness to spend “too much”of the family budget on Internet publishing) to experiment with various options for recording audio.

I’ve done some of the 5 minute Bible podcasts using our camera (then combining a presentation with the video in the visual version of the podcast) this approach gets OK audio, except when the camera is too far from the speaker.

But most of the time I have used the internal mics on my Tascam DR-40 (digital audio recorder) at first I thought the quality was quite good. However, I have begun to wonder if it is better to attach a mic (I’m using the one I used to use with the external sound card).

I wonder if any of you would be willing to listen to a bit of the 7th chapter of Winnie-the-Pooh, and compare it with one of the earlier chapters and let me know what you think of the differences in recording quality?

It would be a big help – one of the problems with doing such stuff without colleagues or technical support is that I don’t have an unbiased pair of ears to criticise!

Call for Papers: Radical Interpretations of the Bible

Announcement from: Robert Myles (follow link for more details)
Call for Papers: Radical Interpretations of the Bible
The Deserter (1916) by Boardman Robinson
A low cost (i.e. free) full day academic seminar in Sheffield, UK on radical interpretations of the Bible utilising the latest methods in biblical interpretation, like critical theory, Marxist exegesis, anarchist exegesis, radical reception theory and other ideological and political readings.

Date: 8th January 2015
Venue: TBC, Sheffield