Archive for the ‘Biblical’ Category

Demolishing Scripture (while claiming to be “biblical”)

Photo by Bob Hall via Wikipedia

Several recent conversations (online and face to face) in my circles involve applying the Bible to contemporary social issues. The latest is a very long-standing one in Western churches if there are particular roles for men and for women in family and church to which we should conform.

This discussion is usually framed as between Egalitarian and Complementarian approaches. As I have said elsewhere I think this framing is false – almost everyone I talk to is egalitarian (affirming they believe women and men are “equal”) and complementarian (they believe women and men complement each other and that for example in a marriage each partner brings qualities and so the whole is more than the parts). The key difference (I think) revolves round whether this complementarity is through defined gender roles to which we ought all conform regardless of our personal skills or gifts.

Sadly much of the discussion in Christian circles has for decades disolved into either each side bashing the other with “verses” that are believed to support/teach their view, or sometimes into a “literalist” – “liberal” ding dong. My beef with the “literalist” approaches, and with the “liberal” ones is that they each end up discarding a lot of the Bible. They differ in which parts of Scripture can be ignored or removed, and in the excuses they provide to justify their anti-biblical stances.

Some “liberals” discard Scripture honestly. Some openly say that this or that passage1 “is old fashioned”. Others dismiss some Bible teaching as “cultural” and so no longer binding in this enlightened age.

“Literalists” (and often ex-literalists, like many Baptists today) often do it covertly – with their lips they pay tribute to the whole Bible, but a slippery slope starts with the laws in the Pentateuch. No one I know avoids clothes made of mixed fibres. The excuse they offer if challenged is either “it was not confirmed in the NT” or “it’s only a ritual law”. Both of these excuses leave the Old Testament without authority! Only following Old Testament teaching that is confirmed in the New makes the Old Testament superfluous and effectively Apocrypha, valuable as spiritual reading but without authority. This ignores Jesus’ clear teaching that:

Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 5:19)
Even if we could allow such tentative first steps down the slope, dismantling Scripture as Marcion did we have not solved the problem. Jesus also said

Take nothing for the journey except a staff–no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. (Mark 6:8-9)

But when such “literal” Christians pack, even for a mission trip, there are plenty of spare clothes! The response if they are challenged is “Ah, Jesus was talking to his disciples there, not us.”

Quite right, if you set aside Jesus’ words you are not his disciples!

Rather than either the “liberal” or the “literal” dismantling of Scripture we must (because every part of the Bible is socially and culturally contextual (that is incarnate in ancient places and times) look for the understanding of God and the world (theology) that the passage is teaching or applying. That is what we apply. It’s hard work, it risks us getting it wrong… in short we cease to “master” Scripture, but we (have tried to) allow it to master us.

_________________________________________

For more explanation of that last important section see the last three sessions in my Reading the Bible Faithfully:

9: God remains faithful: the principle of the thing

10: Application: Where the rubber hits the road

11. Reading in the light of Christ

  1. Or indeed the whole of the Bible. []

Submission: repost from almost twenty years ago

Joseph Crawhall, 1884 "Pigs at the Trough"

Almost twenty years ago I wrote a series of short pieces for the NZ Baptist on gender roles and relationships. The issue remains a hot one. So I thought I’d repeat the article on “submission” here. I may give it context by repeating others but I’ll need to look and see how the decades have treated them…

Looking Sideways

Women and Children in Colossians

Old rules, new relationships

Piglets aren’t “in Christ”!

Submission is a problem. Well, it is for me. I do not submit easily. I’m a child of my time. I like to be in control – independent, that’s me. In the face of a culture that abhors submission, or worse enjoys and demands it, while despising those who submit, to discuss the biblical understanding of the roles of men and women in terms of submission is difficult.

Yet it’s there in the Word. Husbands seeking control of their wives have several favourite passages available. 1 Cor 14:33ff. and 1 Tim 2:11 are champion, as they ordain silence on the wife’s part – any discussion of the master’s will is therefore rebellion against God! (Dictators love laws silencing those they rule!)

For those with an open mind, when addressing difficult and contentious issues, it often helps to approach them sideways. That’s what the Master often did when the lawyers came to him with their conundrums and awkward questions.

Looking Sideways

“Where” and “when” the Bible discusses the submission of women to men is interesting. Although the cultures of Bible times were thoroughly patriarchal, the Two-Thirds Bible (Old Testament) seems silent on the need for women to submit. So, too are the Gospels. For the Gospel writers, focusing on Jesus life and teaching leaves no time for details of family organisation. (Can you imagine Jesus telling women to be quite and keep their place!) While in the centuries BC most women and men “knew their place” and so there was little to discuss. Discussion of submission in the Epistles is due to the growth of city life in the Roman empire, which challenged the old patterns of living and made the issue a live one, much as currents of liberation have reopened it in our world.

I spoke of the cultures of the Bible as “patriarchal”. This word deserves a second glance. In our culture patriarchy is a swear-word to the PC. In the ancient world, patriarchy meant that each household had one person whose job was to guide, protect and defend. The cultures of the Bible are family (= whanau, not the European style 2+2.4) and clan based.

One’s place in the world came from membership of a family. Even legal protection depended on having a family member to speak in council on your behalf. The Old Testament lists four groups who need special care and protection: widows, orphans, foreigners and the “poor”. Notice that two of these (or three if you count the foreigners) are those who are deprived of a “paterfamilias” – a household head to defend their interests.

In patriarchy each person has their role, women run the home, youths run the business or keep the flocks, each obeys the paterfamilias (including adult male family members) who must defend the interests of all. Men are no different from women in this obedience they owe. This is the context of talk, in the epistles, of “submission” as the role of children and women – it is no longer how we live.

Women and Children in Colossians

New Testament advice about family relationships, and the duties and responsibilities of members of a household is closely related to the advice found in Jewish and Greek authors of the same period. In all three contexts wives, children and slaves are encouraged to obey or “submit” to the head of the household (paterfamilias). But it is not these similarities that are interesting – it’s the differences.

On the surface the most striking difference in Christian advice (at least to husbands, wives and children) is the phrase “in Christ” or “in the Lord”.

So in Col 3 Paul writes: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” And “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord”. (Col 3:18,20).

So, family relationships are governed by the same rules for Christians as for Jewish or Pagan households but with an added element. Wife and husband, parent and child are all “in Christ”. As fellow members of the “body of Christ” there is a new and different aspect given to the old rules. (No such phrase qualifies the advice to slaves, for their masters may not share this new relationship “in Christ”.)

Old rules, new relationships

In their families as elsewhere Christians are to abide by the rules and norms of respectable society. Here as elsewhere too, something new is introduced by the Gospel. In Colossians 3 Paul expresses the newness like this:

 

 Conventional Behaviour:
 Gospel Innovation:
8 Wives, be in subjection to your husbands,19 Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.
20 Children, obey your parents in all things,21 Fathers, provoke not your children, that they be not discouraged.

The paterfamilias was “head” of the household. In many families of the ancient world this meant their word was law and their whims were obeyed. Christian “headship” is modeled by Jesus. I wonder what kind of paterfamilias copied the Lord who: “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant… humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross” (Phil 2:7-8).

Piglets aren’t “in Christ”!

How sad sometimes to hear Christian women seeking “liberation” in ways that fail to reflect the creator’s dreams for humankind. Too often the cry for women’s liberation (even in the Church) reflects the low value of home and family inherent in our cash-is-king Western society. It echoes our society of piglets scrambling for a place at the trough, rather than the newness of life “in Christ”.

Even sadder watching men seek biblical mandate for overbearing bossiness that the pagans of our world have learned to reject! Do such men fear the wisdom and the strength of their wives so much that they forget the example of their Lord?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in Church and family, instead of scrambling for our place at the trough, we all discovered the innovations that the liberty of the gospel brings to our life together. If offers of mutual service in Christ (and in imitation of Christ) replaced, standing on our rights.

NB: This post first appeared online at Electric Angels as part of a longer series on gender and gender roles “Men & Women – Sex & God“.

Theological snobbery

Oliver_Cromwell_by_Samuel_Cooper

I caught myself in some theological snobbery yesterday.

We had a promo for Blello.tv (which looks to be a fine resource for children) and in the course of it they took the account of Jeremiah’s call and applied it to everyone.

Before I formed you in your mother’s body I chose you.
    Before you were born I set you apart to serve me. (Jer 1:5a-b)

“This is God’s word for you.” They said. And, of course it is not. The remainder of the verse makes that quite clear.

Before I formed you in your mother’s body I chose you.
    Before you were born I set you apart to serve me.
    I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations. (Jer 1 :5)

It was God’s word for Jeremiah, not for you. Just as that lovely promise in Jer 29:11, or the horrible one in Jer 18:11, do not necessarily both apply to us, nor can we pick and choose!

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. (Jer 29:11)

Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. (Jer 18:11a)

In each case we have to look at the circumstances of Judah and at our own situation and actions to see if either might apply.

So <INSERT horrid and raucuous grinding noise> fail!

 

Except… setting aside Jeremiah’s particular and peculiar calling (as “prophet to the nations”) the passage affirms that God’s call on Jeremiah’s life predates his birth and conception. If that call is timed like this what about your calling and mine?

“Ah,” say the clever and theologically trained wise ones, “but Jeremiah is special, and his calling is special. What applies to Jeremiah does not apply to you. God isn’t calling you to be a prophet to the nations. QED!”

But are the theologically trained wise ones right?

After all it is a key feature of Old Testament narrative that all the great heroes are portrayed “warts and all”, not one is presented as a super-human like the heroes of almost very national story as taught to children in schools. Thus it seems that after all this claim by Jeremiah might be your claim and mine…

Review of the Logos edition of Douglas Mangum et al., Genesis 1–11 (Lexham Bible Guide, Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).

LogosWarning

LexhamCoverThe series of which this “volume” is a part has an ambitious but mixed goal:

The series is designed to be a research tool. Each guide presents a wide range of interpretive issues raised by Bible scholars. These resources meet the needs of those studying the Bible in academic settings, but the broad scope of coverage also makes them useful for preaching preparation. 1

In fact, limitations of referencing (almost?) only works available in the Logos system limits it’s usefulness for scholarship, and so the work is in some ways better suited to the practical needs of a pastor or other seriously minded Bible reader.

Integration of the text with the Logos library system is of course a great strength of such this type of electronic publication, but there are times when the implementation of this integration serves Logos’ commercial ends better than it serves the user. For example when I read: “Mathews uses the analogy of a stained glass window to describe the literary complexity of Gen 1–11…” The name “Matthews” is, as one would expect in an electronic text, a hyperlink. If the user already owns the cited work by Mathews in Logos format, then I assume2 they are taken to the reference. If one does not own the work in Logos format one is offered the chance to buy it. However, if one does not already own the Logos edition, the link to the Logos sales site does inform the user what work is being referred to, enabling a search on a local library catalogue, Worldcat or Google Books.

There is however a welcome but odd inconsistency, when the references are to further reading suggestions offered as bullet points rather than inline citations, they do give at least the title of the work, without need to access the Logos.com website.3

Hypertext links also provide convenient popup explanations of technical terms, enhancing further the educative possibilities of the text, and making it accessible to a wider range of “lay” readers. They also enable jump navigation within the text, and this is enhanced by a preview popup showing the beginning of the text of the section to which the link leads.

The work offers a neat clear and concise overview of (almost always, but not exclusively, Evangelical) scholarship on the issues and passages treated. This is a superb resource to begin studying a passage or topic, Mangum et al. Offer clear concise summaries of important issues that will be really useful to any pastor or amateur biblical scholar. They are also potentially really useful to students and their teachers, though this usefulness would be enhanced by referencing that included some mention of work not published in Logos format..

Within the limits of works published in Logos format (I have yet to find any reference to other work) these summaries and the suggested readings are very useful. The restriction of the references to the Logosworld generates the restriction noted above to predominantly only Evangelical scholarship, and very predominantly American scholars4 This parochialism is sad!

A byproduct of this limitation is scholarship that is also very predominantly male and white. Since women and non-Caucasian scholars are more likely to have significant work in journals and less likely to have breached the portals of book length works with publishers who make their list available in Logos format.

On the other hand, the fact that such a useful compendium can be offered despite this restriction of horizon to Logosworld is a tribute to the extent (if not always variety) of that world today. Logos is not yet a universal biblical studies library, but it is far closer than one might have expected only a few years ago.

A student today will need to seriously consider whether to accept the limitations of horizon imposed by the choice of Logos as their exclusive supplier, wholeheartedly making Logos their library system, or on the other hand if financial constraints or a desire to be open to a wider world of scholarship will severely limit the usefulness of a work such as this. I wonder how long it is before Logos offers a subscription service modeled on Amazon’s “Prime”?5

Without such a service, or without the financial resources to pay to own an extensive private Logos library, users are given a glimpse of the world of American Evangelical scholarship, but taking a closer look is made difficult by the exclusively in house referencing.

In short this work highlights the huge usefulness and potential of the Logos system (for those rich enough, and selfish enough, to be willing to spend enough on a library devoted to their private use). It also highlights the exclusive nature of this system by making the use of external resources (in an institutional or public library, or on Google books, for example) more difficult even than it would be in an obsolescent print codex.

  1. Douglas Mangum et al., Genesis 1–11 (, Lexham Bible GuideBellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012). []
  2. I have yet to find a reference to a work that I spotted as being included in my Gold collection, or among the other works and texts I have bought. So I could not check this assumption. []
  3. A one step rather than a two step process. []
  4. The JPS series, and the out of copyright ICC commentaries, along with some classic works like Gunkel and Westermann provide welcome exceptions. []
  5. If such a service were cheap enough it could provide mean someone could use the Lexham guide to the full without being restricted to only purchasing biblical studies works in Logos format. []

Ahab, Megiddo and Jezreel

DCP_0830

For my latest video in the Land of the Bible series we visit the Jezreel Valley. The focus of the video is on Megiddo (as the site that has more Iron Age remains for the visitor to see).

Tel Megiddo with its massive gate complex, large palace and associated military complex as well as the extensive storage buildings is a fine picture of a major military and administrative centre. The size of king Jeroboam’s grain silo also suggests the hard taxation required to pay for and operate such a centre. Megiddo is located to control the exit southward from the Jezreel Valley.

Jezreel has less to impress visitors today, but was also a significant base defending the entrance to the rich Jezreel Valley from the east. Jezreel has beautiful views, fertile surrounds and plentiful water, no wonder Ahab chose it as his alternate capital.

The biblical accounts of his reign do not focus so much on the magnificent “public works”, or the power of his army, but rather on the injustice and oppression that were associated with the rise of such magnificent kingship, and even more on the religious underpinnings of such kingship in the myths of the gods, in particular Ba’al the “lord” (ba’al) by right of conquest of the pantheon.

As you read 1 Kings 18 and 21 keep in mind these impressive and beautiful cities.

Mourning Ba’al and 1 Kings 18

Syrian Goddess figure (possibly Anat from Walters Art Museum , via Wikimedia Commons
Syrian Goddess figure (possibly Anat from Walters Art Museum , via Wikimedia Commons

Syrian Goddess figure (possibly Anat from Walters Art Museum , via Wikimedia Commons

A post at Carpe Scriptura 1 Kings 18: Battle of the Bulls”  highlights a problem for online biblical studies, there are no easily available translations of the Ugaritic narrative texts. The texts themselves can be downloaded in PDF Ugaritic Data Bank. The Text1 is available on Academia.edu, but as far as I can see no English translations are.(If you know of a source please let me know!)

So as background to my podcast comments on Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Ba’al in Humour in the Bible 11: 1 Kings: In an idol moment I offer this extract from Smith’s translation of the section KTU 1.5 l.8 to KTU 1.6 l.10a 2

Messengers announce the death of Ba’al

“We [c]ame upon Baal fallen to earth;
Dead is Mightiest Baal,
Perished the Prince. Lord of the Earth.”
Then Beneficent El the Benign
Descends from his seat. sits on the footstool,
[And] from the footstool. sits on the earth.
He pours dirt on his head for mourning,
Dust on his crown for lamenting;
For clothing he puts on sack-cloth.
With a stone he scrapes his skin,
Double-slits with a blade.
He cuts cheeks and chin,
Furrows the length of his am
He plows his chest like a garden,
Like a valley he furrows the back.
He raises his voice and cries;
“Baal is dead! What of the peoples?
The Son of Dagan! What of the multitudes?
After Baal I will descend to Hell.”
Then Anat goes about hunting,
In every mountain in the heart of the earth,
In every hill [in the he]art of the fields.
She comes to the pleas[ant land of] the outback.
To the beautiful field of [the Realm] of Death;
She com[es] upon Baal
[For clothing] she puts on sack[cloth,]

The text continues on Sixth Tablet after the superscription in Column 1

With a stone she scrapes her skin.
Double-[sl]its [with a blade]
She cuts cheeks and chin,
[Furrows] the length of her arm.
She plows her chest like a garden.
Like a valley she furrows her back:
“Baal is dead! What of the peoples?
The Son of Daganl What of the multitudes?
After Baal we will descend to Hell.”
To her descends the Divine Lamp, Shapsh,
As she weeps her fill,
Drinks her tears like wine.

  1.  Cunchillos, Jesús-Luis, José-Angel Zamora, and Juan-Pablo Vita. Ugaritic Data Bank The Texts. Madrid: Instituto de Filologia, CSIC, 2003. []
  2. Smith, Mark S., and Simon B. Parker. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry. [Atlanta, Ga.]: Scholars Press, 1997, 149-151. []

March is machine translation month

DCP_0833

Well, five years ago I returned to the issue of machine translation, having addressed it five years earlier, when a firm offered on the fly translation for my website. So it is almost time for a reprise.1

In 2005 I tested the service I was offered and found it almost, but not quite, usable. The paragraph I set was chosen (almost at random) from the Hypertext Bible: Amos commentary, it concerned city gates.

In 2010 I tested Google Translate and found that it’s results for rendering my paragraph into French were not as good as the effort from five years previously, though mysteriously after rendering it again into from French German this time a back translation into English was actually better than the 2005 effort.

So how has Google improved its translation service over the last half decade?

Here are the results of translating into French side by side:

2005
localtranslation.com
2010
Google
 2015
Google
Dans la ville antique du proche Orient les portes n’étaient ni simplement des entrées, ni seulement utilisé pour la protection militaire. Comme point potentiellement faible dans les défenses, les portes d’Israelite ont muré des villes ont typiquement eu trois chambres donner quatre ensembles d'”portes” et d’espaces défendus entre. Les portes de Hazor (laissé – projetez ci-dessus) et de Gezer dès l’exposition de Solomon cette construction triple.Dans l’ancienne ville près des portes-Orient ne sont ni seulement les entrées, ni seulement utilisés pour la protection militaire. Comme un point de faiblesse potentielle dans la défense, aux portes des villes d’Israël paroi généralement avait trois chambres donnant quatre séries de “portes” et défendu les espaces entre les deux. Les portes de Hatsor (à gauche – plan ci-dessus) et Gezer du temps de Salomon montrer cette construction triple.Dans les portes de la ville antique du Proche-Orient ne étaient ni Entrées de simple, ni seulement utilisé pour la protection militaire. Comme un point potentiellement faible dans les défenses, les portes de villes fortifiées israélites avaient généralement trois chambres donnant quatre séries de «portes» et défendus espaces entre. Les portes de Hazor (à gauche ci-dessus ) – Plan et Gezer du temps de Salomon montrent cette triple construction.

Perversely, or more likely because of the complex interactions between translation decisions, that must (I assume) be made by machines as they are by human translators, Google has got both better and worse in the last five years. The opening phrase is now almost (though confusingly not in terms of syntax) as good as the ten year old localtranslation.com effort. Some of the changes are bizzare, in 2010 Google cleverly gave Hazor its French spelling Hatsor, but in 2015 it has returned to its more usual English rendering. On the whole in 2015 Google is still less good than the other (2005) effort at syntax.

In 2010 I remarked that oddly though Google’s French was much less good than the 2005 localtranslation.com the back translation from German was better. Here then are the 2015 results

:

2005
localtranslation.com
2010
Google
 2015
Google
In for the military protection antiken of the Near East the doors were neither simple from the entrances nor only use city. When potentially weak point in the defenses the doors have typically three chambers immured of Israelite of cities had to give four whole of “doors” and from areas to which were defended, between. The doors of Hazor (calmly – above you plan) and of Gezer of the exhibition of Solomon to this three-way construction.In the old city near the East doors are not only inputs or only military for protection. As a point of potential weakness in the defense at the gates of the walled cities of Israel usually had three rooms are four categories of “doors” and defended the gaps. The gates of Hazor (left – show on plan) and Gezer time of Solomon, that tripled the building.In the doors of the old city of the Middle East neither simple one- or just for the military protection were used . As a potential weakness in the defense of the doors of Jewish fortress towns usually had three rooms with four series of “gates” and defended spaces between . The gates of Hazor (top left) – Plan and Gezer Solomon’s show time for the triple structure .

So, five more years on Google’s back translation is much improved, but the translation is arguably not improved at all! How can we explain this? I think by noticing the strengths and weaknesses of Google’s approach. It is weak on syntax, often offering a pedestrian word for word translation, however it is good at spotting contextual cues. (As the French rendering of Hatsor in 2010 – mysteriously dropped in 2015, have more Francophone websites taken to using the more literal and less phonetic rendering in this period?) This combination is perfect for providing renderings in successive langauges that will not produce hilarious “mistakes” when back translated into the original language. That is the good news for the Google programmers, malicious reviewers (like me) will get little fodder from Google. BUT it is bad news for users, because what we actually need is not brilliant results from an artificial translate/back translate excercise (no matter how many or few intermediate languages we use), but rather a decent understandable translation. That goal is at least as far away in 2015 as it was in 2010 or 2005 :(

  1. Being impatient, and forgetful, I will not wait till the 30th or 31st, but will jump in today :) []

Humour in the Bible 2.1: Humour in narrative texts – Introduction

cybergedeon-warning-banana-skin

Beginning by considering humour in narrative texts is an attempt to deal with what is probably the most straightforward case first. In everyday life we perceive certain events as funny. When recounting such events we tell them in ways that highlight their humour.1 There is little or no difference between the manner of such recounting if the event is real or fictional.2

However, different cultures regard different sorts of event as differently humorous. Translation can also introduce unintended humour, for example “false friends” often cause problems. When, pen manufacturer, Parker entered the Mexican market, its regular advertisements claimed their pens “won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” Rendering this as”No te embarazará chorreándose en tu bolsillo“, meant they were actually saying something like “It won’t leak in your pocket and get you pregnant”.3 So, it is not enough that a modern reader finds an event in a biblical narrative funny, we need also some reassurance that this humour was intended, or might have been recognised by the ancient audience. Thus even in spotting possible narrative humour we need to establish that several of the criteria discussed in the previous section are present.

Humour in narrative texts is potentially of two kinds:

  • Telling events which are considered humorous (I will claim below that several of the events described in the book of Jonah are examples)
  • While the events themselves may not be funny they can be told in ways that are humorous (the killing of Eglon by Ehud is an example discussed below)

Rather like the difference between irony by a speaker and “dramatic irony“, humour in narratives may also be either recognised, or not recognised, by characters in that narrative:

  • Both centenarian Abraham (Gen 17:17) and Sarah (Gen 18:12) spot humour in God’s announcement that they will have a child. That this laughter is not the sign of some other emotion like sadness4 is clear from the presence of several of our criteria in this text (see future post).
  • However Jonah never seems aware of the humour in his situations (though perhaps God does, which is at least a possible understanding of his last word in 4:11).
  1. Almost always – except when for some other rhetorical or social purpose we wish to deny the humorous nature of the event. For example, slipping on a banana skin is widely thought to be funny, however if a distinguished person so slipped, or if the person injured themself, we might wish to recount the event in a “straight” and non-humorous way. []
  2. Except, probably, that the author of a fictional narrative will probably feel free to use “larger than life” descriptions and the author of a factual narrative of a humorous event is likely to feel constrained to report the facts accurately as they know them. []
  3. Sandy Serva, Language Translations for Global Research, 26, 1, 2003, 51.

    There are many such stories, not all of them true, like the tale that GM had trouble selling the Nova in Spanish speaking countries, because the name sounds like “won’t go”, which is debunked nicely at Snopes. []

  4. See Culturalsavvy for laughter as a sign of sadness in Japan. []

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

From  zebedee.zebedee on Flickr

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, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/humor/ and Aaron Smuts, “Humor | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” accessed January 23, 2015, http://www.iep.utm.edu/humor/. []
  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. []

Humour in the Bible 1.2 Introduction: Theories of Humour

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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. []