Archive for the ‘interpretation’ 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. []

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”… []

Subverting heroism and gender: Part four of Jacob Wright’s course

This week’s episodes of Jacob Wright’s “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future” were particularly fun for me, for a start his topic (the way the Hebrew Bible subverts gender roles and notions of heroism) appeals, and then as he began, introducing Esther and the subversive topic, he made links to Jane Austen. For someone who wrote a piece entitled “Becoming Esther: Bending Gender Reading Esther” (even if it did become the rather less interesting “A Masculine Reading of the Book of Esther”)1 there are a host of interesting overlaps, ideas and possibilities.

The interview with Tamara Cohn Eskenazi was again a highlight. I am more and more convinced SBL should sponsor and host an archive of short videos of people talking about their research, either interviewed by a friend/colleague or simply chatting to a camera. It would be a great resource for teaching!

  1. When published in Global Perspectives on the Old Testament, edited by Mark Roncace and Joseph Weaver. Pearson Education, 2013. []

New Criticism

Jonathan Robinson has some as yet unbaked1 thoughts on the hidden presence of children in gospel narratives.

As someone who still remembers being a child (it always surprises me how many people seem to turn off those memories, or at least fail to use them to generate empathy) I like the way he’s thinking. It seems to me he opens up a whole new discipline of biblical criticism. We’ve had Feminist, Womanist, Black, African, Asian… Criticism, how about some serious Child Criticism?

Now, it may be that someone has already published on this, if they have please give me details!

  1. He calls them half-baked, but I think that’s unduly rude []

Excellent resource for Bible readers, and those who want to understand Chinese Christians

A friend of mine in a comment on Facebook pointed to Jackson Wu’s blog.

It is excellent, Jackson is a theologian (like me his PhD is in practical theology)1 who teaches at a seminary. He is also passionate about helping people read the Bible better, and about the health of Chinese churches.

His blog contains, among other things including explanations of Chinese culture and Christianity ideal for beginners in either, many posts giving simple helpful advice on how to read Scripture better. A bit like the goal of many of my 5 minute Bible podcasts, and particularly my new project Reading the Bible Faithfully. I thoroughly recommend Wu’s work to anyone to whom my description sounds at all interesting. It is excellent :)

PS, I wonder if one of the reasons we are both so concerned about helping people read Scripture “better” is because both of us did PhD work in Practical Theology ;)

PPS I am sure we disagree about many things, I also suspect that by following either his, or my, versions of the 5 step process we would quickly know where and why we disagree and so have a basis for talking further :)

  1. See below ;) []

Reading the Bible Faithfuly

I have not been posting (here or podcasting at 5minuteBible) much for a while. Several academic publications with due dates late in 2013 and then the Christmas/summer holidays are to blame… plus a new project and a lecture series…

The new project: Reading the Bible Faithfully 

Reading the Bible Faithfully will begin as a series of articles in the NZ Baptist for the next eleven months, alongside these there is a website (also called Reading the Bible Faithfully) that will reproduce the articles and offer more resources, videos, links, discussion… 

The idea is to build up the core of a simple course for people who want more than the simplistic and narrow-minded Bible reading that many Fundamentalists offer, but who also do not want to give up on Scripture, but rather discover how to read “faithfully”. The first session will explain what I mean by that claim.

So if you know someone who might be interested please point them to the site.

 The 22nd Annual William Menzies Lectureship: God as Mother?

I have been invited to give the 22nd Annual William Menzies Lectures, and my title is: God as Mother? The lectures start in ten days or so in Baguio in the Philippines, and I am busy preparing.

Hopefully, normal service will be resumed shortly ;)

Christian thinking on gay issues

The series is not finished yet, so I can recommend it without grinding any axes, but for any Christian wanting to work out more clearly where they stand on any or all of the moral and theological issues surrounding LGBT people and activities this series of posts1 by Preston Sprinkle offers an excellent resource. The writing is sympathetic, gentle and leavened with a touch of humour. His conclusions may not be mine2 but I am enjoying3 the journey and appreciate the tone of the series so far.

  1. Thinking towards a book :) []
  2. Who knows? Neither of us seem to have completely made up our minds yet! []
  3. If that, as they say, is the right word. []