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Humour in the Bible 1.4 Introduction: Signs a text contains humour

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The attempt to investigate humour in the Bible is even more impacted by the differences of time, place and above all culture that make most biblical interpretation less than straightforward.

For recognising, let alone understanding, humour across cultural difference is always difficult. Anyone who has lived in a culture other than their own (or perhaps one that is very similar to theirs), or even has watched “foreign” TV, will be aware that the sense of what is funny differs from culture to culture. A common sense of humour is not shared by all humans. The contexts in which humour appears and what is considered funny differ between cultures. Even between two cultures with a shared language, much shared experience, and who share many cultural artifacts, like Britain and the USA, or France and Francophone Belgium, the sense of humour can differ markedly.

When watching “foreign” TV one can attune one’s sense of what is funny and learn (at least to some extent) to appreciate the foreign humour. But TV is not writing – there are cues in speech that are not available in a plain text medium. As well as the now nearly ubiquitous “canned” laughter (that tells us when we are “supposed” to find something funny) the behaviour of the participants offers other cues (which may be as simple as a raised eyebrow, or as subtle as a change of tone or pace). None of these paraverbal cues are present in text.

Nor have ancient writers1 left us descriptions of humour, or treatises on the theory of wit, which might assist our evaluation of the presence of intentional humour in Scripture.

In terms of humour in modern writing there is a new but growing academic discipline studying humour. These studies are weighted towards the senses of humour in Anglophone Western contexts, though the cultural backgrounds of the writers are not entirely homgeneous. We will be making use of these resources, and of the comments of ancient writers. Some Biblical scholars have begun to use these studies and I will make significant use of this growing literature in particular.

F. Scott Spencer in his chapter “Those Riotous – Yet Righteous – Foremothers of Jesus: Exploring Matthew’s Comic Genealogy.”2  Provides perhaps the most comprehensive discussion of how we may distinguish humour intended by the authors, or that might have been perceived by their audiences, from things which merely seem funny to us in particular Bible passages.

Spencer began by discussing some earlier attempts to identify the signs of humorous genres, starting with Ovid and ending in the 20th century, before moving to produce his conclusions about the clues that humour is present. His list of criteria started from Greenstein’s article in the ABD which claimed that incongruity, lighthearted mood and surprise were hallmarks of biblical humour.3

He added to that short list and split Greenstein’s “surprise” into “spontaneity” and “imperceptibility or hiddenness” (I prefer “surprise” and will retain that term).4

  • incongruity – this characteristic is very commonly mentioned in modern discussions of the theory of humour, and indeed can be traced back to classical authors particularly Aristotle5 and Cicero6
  • lighthearted mood – Spencer links the prevalence of feasting and other signs of such mood with the ancient definition of comedy as a U-shaped plot with a happy ending.7
  • surprise – Aristotle linked incongruity with humour by way of surprise8 Spencer separates “surprise” into “spontaneity” and “hiddenness”, however I prefer to list “disguise” as a separate item (see below) and not claim that spontaneity indicative of humorous situations apart from the element of surprise.
  • ingenuity – as noted just above surprise, ingenuity and incongruity have been recognised as closely related and as each related to humour since Aristotle at least.
  • inferiority – again, since Plato and Aristotle,9 what is now called the superiority theory of humour has been much discussed and the presence of inferiority is its flipside10
  • inelasticity – which Spencer borrows from Henri Bergson11 who recognised how often a human acting in a mechanical way (and so reduced to something less than human) is found to be funny. While Bergson’s theory may not be a complete description of all humour, his recognition that human inelasticity is funny deserves recognition. I have been unable to connect this idea with ancient sources and would welcome anyone who can point me to possible material.
  • puncturing pretension – a great deal of modern humour serves to puncture pretension and arrogance. This notion also relates closely to the “superiority theory of humour” that is traced at least back to Plato and Aristotle.12
  • hyperbole – in discussion around my early posts on this topic David Ker suggested adding hyperbole. Exaggeration, things being bigger, brighter and more cartoon-like is also often a sign of humour in the modern world. While clearly much exaggeration in the ancient world, as in ours, serves to highlight the importance of what is said, it seems likely that in the ancient world as in ours it may also mark humorous intent.  In the case of Jonah, the exaggerations do not all seem intended to mark importance, though the size of the city does. Hyperbole is also evident in several ancient Greek and Latin comedic works.

If we can agree this list of characteristics likely to be found in humorous texts we have the means of assessing the possibility of humorous intent that is not dependent on our own appreciation of the “joke”. They will rarely all be present, but that the presence of several of them together might provide a strong suggestion of humorous intent.

While the list is drawn from modern discussions of the theory of humour they have been linked back to the earliest recorded thinking on this subject in ancient Greece and Rome (though sadly not to the Ancient Near East) which may give us some confidence that in sum they will serve us as we move back into the worlds of the Bible.

[I am especially interested in anyone with cross-cultural experience who can comment on how these work in different contexts. FWIW they do not seem to contradict my experiences…]

PS: In a comment on Facebook, Mark Simpson suggested that the temperament of the author impacts the likelihood of humour in their texts. This is true but we have no access to the authors of Bible texts except through their texts so, this means that if there are several places in a text where we identify humour already, then the next one becomes more likely…

  1. At least, from the primary cultures of most of the Bible authors, for as we have noted and will see again below there are Greek and Roman texts that tell us something about their understanding of humour. []
  2. F. Scott Spencer, “Those Riotous – Yet Righteous – Foremothers of Jesus: Exploring Matthew’s Comic Genealogy,” in Are We Amused?: Humour about Women in the Biblical Worlds, ed. Athalya Brenner (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003), 7–30. []
  3. Greenstein. “Humour and Wit: Old Testament.” In The Anchor Bible dictionary, edited by David Freedman, III:330-333. New York: Doubleday, 1992. []
  4. See below for my explanation. []
  5. Rhetoric III, 2. []
  6. On the Orator, 63, “The most common kind of joke is that in which we expect one thing and another is said; here our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh.” (( See both John Morreall, “Philosophy of Humor,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2013, 2013, and Aaron Smuts, “Humor | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” accessed January 23, 2015, []
  7. Spencer, 11. []
  8. He also mentions punning in this connection (see below) “[t]he effect is produced even by jokes depending upon changes of the letters of a word; this too is a surprise. You find this in verse as well as in prose.” See Smuts for more on this. []
  9. Smuts. []
  10. As Spencer,11-12, notes. []
  11. Spencer,12. []
  12. See Smuts. []

Ex-megachurch star’s new job

Dieter Zander was on top of the “Christian world”, pastor and music minister at Willow Creek. A stroke ended all that, unable to speak clearly, Dieter now works as a janitor at Trader Joe’s.

Here’s his new story:

Sensible Sentencing

Writing is dangerous. Readers often misunderstand. #SensibleSentencing can help. Short simple sentences are easier.

I have been marking. Some student essays are a joy to read. Some are full of long complicated sentences and I am left guessing what the writer intended to say. I cannot fairly give marks based on guesswork. Not just beginners, but experienced writers too, can write sentences that are misunderstood. Complex sentences are more likely to be misunderstood than simple ones.

The trick to writing that can easily be understood is easy. The trick to writing that is unlikely to be misunderstood is easy. Write simple sentences. Each sentence should say ONE thing.

[Like most “rules”, experienced writers can break this one effectively. PG Wodehouse wrote many long elegant sentences. Often they had a “twist” that added spice to his humour. However, when beginners try to copy such sentences often something goes wrong. The result is puzzled or angry readers. If you are an experienced writer you should still be wary of long sentences. They are dangerous. Check them twice.]1

If each sentence is short and says one thing, then it is almost guaranteed to be clear and comprehensible. Sometimes we need to coordinate two ideas together – in which case use a conjunction. If the ideas are simply placed side by side use “and”. If they are contrasted use “but”.2

However, beginners should be wary of sentences that use more complicated tricks than this.

  1. This is good advice. I have been writing for public consumption for over forty years, usually more often than weekly, still most of my bad writing is due to long sentences – like this one? []
  2. You can do this as two sentences, using however, but this can lead to other problems. Not least lots of “howevers”. If you start a sentence with however put a comma after it.

    Actually it is more complicated than this, if “however” means “no matter how” it is not followed by a comma. For example: “However Squiggly tried, he couldn’t get his mind off chocolate.” More here. If “however” means “but” then a comma is needed: in Star Trek (2009) Spock says, “I intend to assist in the effort to reestablish communication with Starfleet. However, if crew morale is better served by my roaming the halls weeping, I will gladly defer to your medical expertise.” – More here. []

How do you begin to introduce the Old Testament?

In any writing or other communication, project where you start is really important. Most losses of audience occur near the start.

For this reason I’ve always been puzzled by how common it is to begin Introduction to the Old Testament books and courses start at the beginning. To a scholar the beginning is obvious, canon, what makes the object of study a “thing”. It is because first Jewish and then Christian communities used these writings as Scripture they became a “thing” – and because they did we study them. Logical as all get out :)

But does it work? Does this beginning grab a potential audience and drag them into the rest of the book/course?

Perhaps instead of beginning at the beginning we should start with “Why it matters”. If we start there we might grab our audience in ways that a description of the three-part nature of the Hebrew Bible canon, and a discussion of the difference between this and the organisation of the Christian canon of the Old Testament may not!

For followers of the Open Old Testament Learning Event1 it might be better to wait for the Biblical Scholar OOTLE Hangout announced for Thursday, February 5th, 3:00-4:00 pm Central Time.

Brooke describes the hangout like this

I will be joined by a few other biblical scholars for an “On Air” live Google Hangout. We will talk about why we love the Hebrew Bible and its academic study, and what kinds of things we hope for students to get out of an “Introduction to Old Testament/Hebrew Bible” course.

After that they may begin to understand why details of canon and canonical shape matter!

  1. BTW since the name has the “The” (see the masthead of the website) should the hashtag not be “#tootle15″ instead of #ootle15 ? []

Open Old Testament Learning Event 2015

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. []

Humour in the Bible 1.3 Introduction: Locating humour

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

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]” 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 :)

Humour in the Bible 1.2 Introduction: Theories of Humour


Theories of humour are generally classified under three approaches1

  • Superiority
  • Incongruity
  • Relief


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.)


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.


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,
    Aaron Smuts, “Humor,” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, eds. James Fieser and Bradley Dowden, accessed January 23, 2015, []
  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, []
  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 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, []
  5. John Morreall, “Philosophy of Humor,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2013, 2013, []
  6. e.g. Oxford Dictionary of British and World English []

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. []