Archive for the ‘Biblical’ Category

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.

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 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”.2 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 sadness3 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. 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. []

  3. 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

Sigmund_Freud_1926cropped

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. []

Digital commentary for the 21st C

At the conference I attended in Sydney recently one of the stimulating conversations I enjoyed was around ways to present Bible commentary in a digital medium for non-specialist readers in the 21st C. The Amos – Hypertext Bible Commentary was already beginning to show its age even when it was first published in a stable peer-reviewed edition.

[The pictures and other design elements were planned for a 800×600 screen, and mobile phones were not considered as a delivery system.]

Move forward a decade and responsive design (that will work on both hires screens and on portable devices) seems basic, and indeed one must envisage mobile devices as most likely the hardware of choice for accessing such a work.

This leads to the interesting possibility of packaging the commentaries as apps, and thus potentially breaks the funding barrier. Few people in the developed world or even middle class people elsewhere would balk at spending a couple of dollars for a Bible commentary.

The other interesting idea came from a presentation on visualising biblical studies ideas, and the thought that it would be nice to have a drill down menu that worked a bit like Prezi.

I like the idea, but am having trouble “seeing” how it might work. The Prezi below is my attempt to play with this concept… What advantages, disadvantages, alternatives, possibilities etc. do you see?

Gay Christians and Scripture

In the circles I move in it often seems to be assumed that Gay Christians (at least the ones who do not agree to “settle” for celebacy, nor “recognise” that God “must” be calling them to celebacy – and who consequently support gay marriage) “must” be soft on Scripture.

I have recently been following Allan Hooker’s blog while I never agree with everything anyone says (not even myself) I find much that he writes makes sense, and he seems to care deeply about reading Scripture in faith and not merely “against the grain”. In this he reminds me of some of the Feminist biblical scholars who influenced my Bible reading most a few decades ago.

Whatever your attitude to the questions around Scripture and sexuality I recommend his blog. (His most recent post, as I write this, is on Genesis 11 )

  1. Public Health Warning: Those who prefer to let their knees jerk instead of their minds better avoid it, because it includes phrases like “Queerly Divine”… []

Killing the Bible with kindness

Rhett has a typically sensible and thought provoking post “New” which begins with the strange obsession academia has with “new”, leading in disciplines that deal with a limited corpus of texts and ideas, like biblical studies or theology, to bizzare thesis topics and many silly claims. (Read Rhett’s post!)

From where I stand (often in front of a class of beginning theology students, sometimes Christians studying to be counselors or teachers, even more often in churches or Facebook chatting about this and that) the problem is not so much an obsession with “new”  as one with “simple”.

Fact/FictionChristians are taught from Sunday School upwards a simple approach to a simple Bible. The Bible says it, it is so. This is typified by the habit of citing “verses” to settle arguments.

Relevant Children’s Ministry has a post today also, “Are We Blurring the Lines Between Fact and Fiction When We Teach Children?” This begins with a terrifying statistic

 A recent study says that children who attend church have a harder time distinguishing between what is fact and fiction in life.

The study by Cognitive Science was based on research with 5 & 6 year olds who do and do not attend church.  An example – kids who attend church would be more likely to believe a talking animal they see on television is real.

They go on to ask what seems like a sensible series of questions about whether several of the things we do in children’s ministry risk confounding fact and fiction for these children. Their questions are good ones (and I hope my reply did not seem to suggest that we should not consider them) but I think they miss the more basic point.

The “line” between fact and fiction is already blurred. Thinking about historical biography and good fictional biography of historical personages shows this. Children, and adults too, need to be able to think critically, not merely “know” the line between fact and fiction.

Christians claim the Bible is their source of authority (different Christians give different roles to tradition and contemporary revelation by the Holy Spirit alongside Scripture). Yet few people I meet (who do not have Bible College training) can explain well and sensibly why Paul’s advice that women praying or speaking in church ought to cover their heads/hair (1 Cor 11) does not mean that Christian women today ought to wear hats in church. The answers range from the antinomian: “it’s out of date, that was his culture, it is not ours”, to the weird: “Gal 3:28 means we ought to treat men and women the same” – so men should wear hats also?! Almost none can go on from their explanation to also show how Paul’s teaching in this passage applies today! By one route (temporal snobbery) or another (bash your opponent with a “better” Bible verse) Scripture is denied and therefore devalued.

We need to teach our children, and our adults too, to think critically about Scripture (as well as about other things, don’t get me started) else the Bible will lose what little authority (as more than a tribal totem) it still retains.

[NB this is not my attempt to respond to Rhett’s post, that’s in the comments there. Nor is it my attempt to show you how to approach reading a passage like 1 Cor 11 today, I’m gradually doing that as simply and briefly as I can in monthly articles in the NZ Baptist and at Reading the Bible Faithfully.]

Jim West’s “For the Person in the Pew” commentary project

For several years now Jim West has been posting from time to time about progress with his huge project as he knocks off book after book of his For the Person in the Pew Bible commentary series. This began in 2006 with the ambitious Jeremiah: for the person in the pew, the Pastoral Epistles, Matthew and Micah were finished that same year and the flow continues. In recent months Jim has announced a deal with Logos that will see the series made available in that convenient format. This development needs more pre-orders before it can get off the ground (this is Logos’ clever way of ensuring a profit before they commit to the work of adapting such a large project to their format). Jim has therefore been (uncharacteristically?) indulging in self-promotion as authors without commercial publishers must, and also asking others to help him in this task by posting a notice of his work.

I am happy to do this, and agreed to prepare a notice (less than a formal review but more than a mere puff) of his “Ruth” from the volume Ruth and Lamentations: For the Person in the Pew (Quartz Hill Publishing House, 2007). This task was less easy than I expected. Here is what I wrote:

Preparing even a brief notice (let alone a full review, which this is not) of a commentary written by a friend is a dangerous business. One is more tempted to be either too harsh or too accommodating compared with reviewing the work of some stranger. One error is unfair to the author, the other to the reader.

Reading Jim West’s little commentary on Ruth (in the 2007 volume on Ruth and Lamentations) I found myself applying higher standards than I would use for a stranger’s work of this scale. (I know the quality of Jim’s scholarship and the breadth of his reading, how could he miss out this, or that!) Yet to express such reservations would be unfair to Jim. His work is a very short (some 7,000 words including the text from the ASV) set of notes aimed at “the person in the pew”. By and large it explains what such a reader needs.

As well as the brief explanatory comments this goal is achieved, to a considerable degree, by carefully selected extracts from ISBE articles covering key ideas: marriage in Israel, the Moabites, gleaning, grace in the Bible, and kinsman (go’el). These are likely to be really useful for readers. The selection within the articles of the material to quote has been made with a view to its usefulness for reading this Bible book, so they are more helpful than a copy of ISBE itself would be.

Yet I have two quibbles. The origin, and nature, of these excursuses as extracts from the ISBE is not made clear enough. I don’t think the intent to avoid burdening the reader with cumbersome apparatus is sufficient reason to omit marking quotations clearly and noting their origin. The selection of terms to cover also is open to questioning, why was hesed not included when grace (hen) was, surely hesed is a key motif in Ruth? The first of these quibbles is serious, and because Jim is a friend I find it difficult to draw attention to such a weakness.

The format, Bible text with very short explanations, is popular. The use made by beginning students of the short edition of Matthew Henry or Adam Clarke’s commentary demonstrates the perceived need. I have reservations about the format though. Such short comment risks merely repeating the text in other words without space to explain. More than most authors of this genre, Jim has avoided this danger, indeed he manages deftly to introduce and suggest conclusions about several complex interpretational issues. In the 30 or so pages on Ruth, the issue of the sexual innuendo of chapter 3 provides a good example.

So, based on this small sample, should “the person in the pew” purchase these commentaries? On the positive side they offer a quick, clear explanation that does not seek to avoid or disguise interesting or difficult features of the text. To get the same level of understanding without them would mean more work and/or more expense. On the negative side the comment is very brief, and so inevitably questions many people in the pew will want to ask will be omitted. Yet the Ruth section (and, from a glance not a thorough examination, also Lamentations) offers enough to resource most of the immediate needs of a home group or Bible study.

Camouflage Equivalence: another example

Back in April I somehow missed Bryan Bibb’s interesting post Camouflage Equivalence1 it focuses on places where translators:

…seek to obscure rather than reveal the meaning of the original. He [Robinson] defines the term as “rearranging the semantic elements of the original… in a plausible way that disguises their dynamic meaning” (p. 6).

The idea, like the term used to describe it is really helpful. It neatly describes those places where translators soften the offense inherent in Scripture. The NIV regularly does this when a more “literal” translation leads to theological difficulties. One example is the rendering of ha’almah in Is 7:14 as “virgin”. Whether ‘almah can carry this meaning is at least debatable. As far as I can see the logic of Isaiah’s speech however demands a present focus and a translation like “young woman”. NIV has exercised camouflage equivalence.

I am less convinced by Bryan’s example. He claims that the ambiguous language (full of sexual double entendres) in Ruth 3 contains at least one such camouflage equivalence translation in almost all English Bibles. “Uncover his feet” in Ruth 3:4 is (Bryan thinks evidently, I’d say possibly) a euphemism. While most translations diminish the sexual tension in Ruth 3, where there are a string of words and phrases like this one that might carry sexual connotations, sometimes a foot is just a foot! The whole point (I think) of using that concatenation of ambiguous, possibly sexual, terms in Ruth 3 is surely to remain ambiguous. To uncover what the text deliberately leaves veiled but suggested is as “bad” as to cover what the text reveals…. So, “uncover his feet” (NIV, NAS, NRSV) gets it right neither camouflage, nor sex for the sake of shocking the horses, but a good serviceable translation.

On the other hand in Psalm 90:2 common translations are split, some opt for camouflage equivalence:

NET Psalm 90:2 Even before the mountains came into existence, or you brought the world into being, you were the eternal God.
NRS Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

While others dare to reveal the clear implication of the Hebrew:

NAS Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were born, Or Thou didst give birth to the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God.
NIV Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

For both verbs yalad and hul speak of procreation and birthing, and though yalad might refer to the father’s role hul cannot, but clearly refers to birthing.

  1. I had also missed Douglas Robinson’s book, Translation and the Problem of Sway, from which he apparently got the fine phrase. []

Living Biblical Scholarship: Teaching Biblical Studies

Jacob L. Wright’s MOOC makes good use of short video interviews with both established scholars and (at least one so far) PhD candidates talking about their research. As a teaching tool such short videos are brilliant.

If we had a database of such video clips available to download and use in teaching it would be a superb resource. Here are three reasons:

  • Firstly since the person speaking is the one doing the research the presentation is not dispassionate but impassioned. Students are often mislead by the style imposed by our turgid academic conventions to believe that Bible scholars are dull and lifeless. Such video dispels that myth.
  • Secondly many of us put up photos and very cut down CVs when we are talking about a particularly influential scholar and their ideas. How much sharper a clip of them presenting a key idea from their work could be.
  • Third students need to be aware that the “results” of biblical scholarship come on a basis of contested evidence and argument. People talking about their own work are bound to present key evidence and arguments as they seek to convince the listener. Bringing scholarship in the most abstract sense alive.

Easy

Such a database would be easy to produce. Some scholars could record their own videos, others would be videoed by friends or by their departments. (The motivation for this “waste” of an hour or so would be the extra exposure of their ideas and the way such presentations could help shape perceptions of the field – once Her Prof Dr X had a video Dr Y (a passionate opponent of X’s reactionary ideas) would need a complementary (though perhaps not entirely complimentary) one ;)

The host would need a simple classification system to enable searching for topics as well as scholars names, but WordPress with a few plugins could handle all that was needed and even build in a few videos already to be found on YouTube as a bonus.

If SBL or the Wabash Centre would sponsor such a project it would be a cheap way to enliven Biblical Studies teaching and promote a research culture among students. I wonder if GERT would be an appropriate group to push the idea?

Please let me know what you think – and tell me what fish hooks I have overlooked!

Tamara Cohn Eskanazi and Aubrey Buster were two of the scholars Jacob Wright interviewed.