Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

Hallowing habits

Paul Hsu via Wikipedia

Richard Beck’s meditation “Unpublished: Faith as Hallowing” in which he suggests that faith can/should we considered as the practice of hallowing (making holy: marking out certain actions, things or people as special and revered), put me in mind of Conrad Gempf’s phrase (describing the significance of the law for Jewish people) “habits of holiness”.

Reflecting on these two ideas leads me to wonder if the “free churches”, whether Evangelicals or their “mainstream” (and apparently vanishing) counterparts, offer too few opportunities to practice such hallowing habits. In our Sunday services and weekday lives (sadly torn apart as they often are) we really only hallow the Scriptures and the ideas in our worship songs (somewhat trite though they often are). Some of us seek to hallow our eating, by making a habit of giving thanks. But little else.

This puts a great weight on Scripture. Which perhaps is why the claim of inerrancy and the claims of “Creation Science” become so significant for many people?

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“.

Numbers 20: a reading and some critical readers needed

CaptureThe venerable (I think it is the longest-running religious periodical in NZ) Baptist has had a makeover for 2015.No longer newsprint, and with a web edition that looks pretty good.

The trouble is most of the writers are (to put it politely) experienced, and most of the readers inherited from the old format newsprint are (frankly) old folk.

It needs new writers I’d love to see Carey graduates from 5, 10, 15 years ago take up the keyboard. If any of you read this how about either offering yourselves an occasional piece, or bullying your colleagues into writing?

It also needs new readers, online readers, who will argue back, question or add new ideas… all or any of you who read this might be such…
What Kiwis think about sin could be a place to start… (and let’s hope Dale Campbell becomes a more frequent contributor along with others like Mike Crudge, Thalia Rowden, Nigel Irwin, Johnathan Robinson and many many more… mention those I have forgotten or not thought of in the comments here or an email and I’ll add them…)

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. []

Humour in the Bible 2.2: Humour in narrative texts – Telling funny events

012815_Nineveh

The book of Jonah is interesting in a number of ways, not least how it continually subverts our expectations. It is found among the prophetic books (in both Hebrew and Greek canons) yet contains only five words that we could classify as prophetic speech. Jonah son of Amittai appears to be a known and true prophet (from 2 Kings 14:25) yet his first action on receiving an instruction to preach from Yahweh is to run in the opposite direction. The prophet regularly speaks sound theology, usually using a pastiche of quotations from other biblical texts, yet thus he puts himself in conflict with Yahweh at every turn of the story.

Not only does the narrative subvert expectations, but it displays many of our criteria, suggesting that we should expect to find humour here:

  • incongruity – see above
  • lighthearted mood – not found
  • surprise – as well as the surprise generated by the shocking incongruities of the prophet’s behaviour, we are also surprised by the size of everything (“big” gadol is used more often per 100 words in Jonah than in any other Bible book) 1 and by unlikely events e.g. an eloquent prayer of thanksgiving “from the belly of the fish” (Jonah 2:1) a plant that grows in a night to provide shade (Jonah 4:10)
  • ingenuity- Yahweh, the God of heaven who made sea and dry land (Jonah 1:9) shows considerable ingenuity in his efforts at the end of chapter 4 to get his prophet to understand that his mercy is as justifiable as it is generous
  • inelasticity – despite the divine persuasive efforts Jonah remains stubbornly determined that death is preferable to mercy
  • puncturing pretension- Jonah’s human pretension to “know better” than the creator?
  • hyperbole – fish swallows man (Jonah 1:17), animals fasting in sackcloth (Jonah 3:7)…

Despite this powerful concentration of cues that the text is intended to be humorous, there is little in fact in the telling that is funny. The remarks above that are “funny” are mine, not from the text of Jonah. The text does not picture Jonah with fish guts draped around him, though Jonah comes close to this in his prayer (Jonah 2:5), we find animals in sackcloth humorous, the text merely implies this picture rather than drawing it. If Jonah’s repeated death-wish is funny (as students invariably found it when I have read those passages) it has more to do with the tone of voice of the reader than the tone of the words.

The telling of Jonah is not humorous, the narration is “straight”. Yet the events described move from melodrama to bathos. In chapter 1, a gallant Jonah is willing to place his life in jeopardy to save the lives of some pagan sailors he has only just met, and is thrown into the stormy sea. A few verses later he is sufficiently comfortably lodged in the belly of the fish that he can pray a prayer that is full of deep irony (which “Jonah”2 cannot have intended, but which the narrator can hardly have missed). For example:

v.3 ” You [Yahweh] cast me into the deep…” Jonah was thus cast because he disobeyed instructions from Yahweh that did not necessitate a sea voyage

v.4 “I am driven away from your sight…” Jonah was not driven, but ran

v.8 “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty…” Jonah, who (Jonah 1:9) worships Yahweh has forsaken loyalty, while the idol worshipers are now busy offering sacrifices to the one true God (Jonah 1:16)

Although not told in a humorous way, the events are humorous, for example the repentance that implicates animals in sackcloth (even if forcing them to fast is cruelty).

In Jonah (as in some other biblical narratives)3 the telling is deadpan, but the events told are humorous.

  1. At 1.4 per 100 this is twice the next book, Haggai, which has 0.68 per 100. []
  2. The character. []
  3. For example the death of Eglon. []

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. []

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:

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.