Biblical studies carnival: Warning notice

Please take note, of this warning, and pass it on to those who may be concerned!

I am “responsible”1 for the next BS Carnival. Unless you want your favourite blogs, or indeed (horror of horrors) your own blog “represented” by only those posts I found most entertaining (which let’s face it given my sense of humour might be none) you would need to get worthy (or of course as usual, unworthy) nominations to me well before the end of the month.

Please pass on this serious warning!

NB the Carnival will be going live at just after midnight as the months change here at GST/GMT +12.

  1. This term may not be entirely appropriate ;) but you will be able to judge for yourselves in a couple of weeks! []

Different sorts of “humour” in the Hebrew Bible: Appeal for help

In my previous post I quoted a table from Fowler’s classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage1.

Device Motive Province Method Audience
Humour Discovery Human nature Observation The sympathetic
Wit Throwing light Words and ideas Surprise The intelligent
Satire Amendment Morals and manners Accentuation The self-satisfied
Sarcasm Inflicting pain Faults and foibles Inversion Victim and bystander
Invective Discredit Misconduct Direct statement The public
Irony Exclusiveness Statement of facts Mystification An inner circle
Cynicism Self-justification Morals Exposure of nakedness The respectable
Sardonic Self-relief Adversity Pessimism The self

In this post I’d like to add to Fowler’s table with some suggested (Hebrew) Bible passages that (I suggest) reflect that sort of humour:


Device Motive or aim Province Method or means Audience Bible example
Humour Discovery Human nature Observation The sympathetic Ruth 2
Wit Throwing light Words and ideas Surprise The intelligent Is 5:7
Satire Amendment Morals and manners Accentuation The self-satisfied Is 5:22
Sarcasm Inflicting pain Faults and foibles Inversion Victim and bystander Jer 22:14
Invective Discredit Misconduct Direct statement The public Judges 5?
Irony Exclusiveness Statement of facts Mystification An inner circle Jon 2 esp. v.8
Cynicism Self-justification Morals Exposure of nakedness The respectable XXX
Sardonic Self-relief Adversity Pessimism The self XXX

Some are fairly straightforward like Ruth 2 as I suggest in Humour in the Bible: 8 Ruth: Ruth is from Moab, Boaz is from Bethlehem. Here gentle pointing out of the social and cultural differences between semi-nomadic Ruth and peasant farmer Boaz leads to some smiles and a richer sense of the characters involved in the story. I think this example fits Fowler’s “humour” category neatly, through the observation of human nature our sympathy with the characters is enhanced.

But is Isaiah’s punning  “he expected justice (mishpat), but saw bloodshed (mispach); righteousness (sedaqah), but heard a cry (sea’qah)!” (Is 5:7 NRSV) wit, for there is certainly surprise and light thrown by words and ideas, but the aim is surely amendment (the goal of “satire”).

Though Is 5:22  “Ah, you who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant at mixing drink…” (Is 5:22 NRSV) is fairly straightforwardly satire.Yet goals are tricky, if the goal here is arguably change in Jer 22:15  “Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him.” One doubts the intent is a change of behaviour, and so suspects sarcasm…

In Jonah’s psalm (Jonah 2)  there is plenty of irony, note especially “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.” (Jon 2:8 NRSV) on the lips of a prophet fleeing God while pagan sailors offer sacrifices to Yahweh above him in the ship. But is there any exclusiveness or mystification here?

This post has taken too long, and anyway its goal is to encourage you to comment and enter a conversation on the topic so I will leave it to you to either propose answers to my questions, or candidates for cynicism and the sardonic (I suspect Job and Ecclesiastes might be fertile hunting grounds…).

My conclusion so far is that these characteristics of different varieties of humour will be helpful in discussing biblical humour, but that they are far from the neat and clear classification that they seemed at first glance!

Into what category though does something like the ironic presentation of Sisera’s mother and her ladies gloating over Sisera and his men enjoying the Israelite women they capture as booty in Judges 5 fall?2 There IS irony, since at the time elsewhere Sisera is lying dead struck through the head by a tent peg driven by Jael. Yet there is no mystification or exclusiveness to the telling… Nor does it fit “satire” since the goal is hardly amendment, or sarcasm since the Canaanites wil hardly hear the song… Perhaps “invective fits best?

  1. H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. Oxford University Press, 2009. []
  2. I address the passage here  Humour in the Bible Book 7 Judges: Gender Bending. []

Humour and its relatives

A post on True Paradigm titled Humour, wit, satire,… drew my attention to this fine quote from Fowler’s classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. (My citation is from the 2009 edition by David Crystal that reproduces the 1926 first edition.)1

humour, n., makes humorous, but hunmourist; see -OUR- & -OR-. Humour is still often or usually pronounced without the h sound ; the derivatives now being rarely without it, hum0ur- itself will probably follow suit. The spelling -our is better than -or; but see -OUR & -OH.
humour. wit. satire, sarcasm, invective, irony, cynicism, the sardonic. So much has been written upon the nature of some of these words, & upon the distinctions between pairs or trios among them (wit & humour, sarcasm & irony & satire), that it would be both presumptuous & unnecessary to attempt a further disquisition. But a sort of tabular statement may be of service against some popular misconceptions. No definition of the words is offered, but for each its motive or aim, its province, its method or means, & its proper audience, are specified. The constant confusion between sarcasm, satire, & irony, as well as that now less common between wit & humour, seems to justify this mechanical device of parallel classification; but it will be of use only to those who wish for help in determining which is the word that they really want.

Device Motive or aim Province Method or means Audience
Humour Discovery Human nature Observation The sympathetic
Wit Throwing light Words and ideas Surprise The intelligent
Satire Amendment Morals and manners Accentuation The self-satisfied
Sarcasm Inflicting pain Faults and foibles Inversion Victim and bystander
Invective Discredit Misconduct Direct statement The public
Irony Exclusiveness Statement of facts Mystification An inner circle
Cynicism Self-justification Morals Exposure of nakedness The respectable
Sardonic Self-relief Adversity Pessimism The self

If I were to adopt Fowler’s classification for my humour in every book of the Hebrew Bible project (and the idea is tempting) I should need to add a prior meaning of “humour” before Fowler’s to include all (or at least most?) of his categories insofar as their goal is laughter or smiles.

I wonder too by what criteria one might (when studying ancient written texts) distinguish some of these pairs, e.g. “cynicism” from the “sardonic” in the prophets…

  1. H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. Oxford University Press, 2009. []

Jesus and humour

Over on David Lamb’s blog Is the God of the Old Testament….? he asks about his readers’ response to his use of gentle humour in a couple of recent posts. Some of his commenters are quite convinced Jesus is the answer, and that the answer is negative:

  1. One wrote: I don’t find any record of Jesus ever joking around as though humour is marketable as intrinsically virtuous. It’s part of the human condition, so when he says something plausibly funny to his original hearers it’s merely a pedagogical device like calling us to imagine a guy with a log protruding from his eye pointing at a guy with a speck in his eye.
  2. And another replied: If I understand your point correctly [name] I agree. I couldn’t imagine Jesus writing a blog entry on humour being good for the soul. Jesus never once addressed humour in the biblical record. In God’s word Jesus did address a vast array of topics that were good for the soul and others that were bad for the soul. Paul did admonish about foolish jesting though.

Let me get this straight… According to you guys: Jesus did not talk about humour because he basically disapproved of it. You admit he did say some hilarious things, but this use of humour was grudging and only because it was a useful teaching tool to get the attention of the unwashed masses.

Oh, boy! I’d better finish my series on humour in every book of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) quickly so I can start on the gospels, if views like this are at all common.

Before I do though, please guys tell me, if Jesus disapproved of humour, what do you make of the one about trying to force a camel through the eye of a needle? It would be good to get an answer to that one, because otherwise how can we justify our riches!?

Is black humour also among the prophets?

Defining humour is very difficult or impossible. 1  So, a fortiori, defining “black humour” must be doubly impossible. Even delineating the boundaries of “black humour” is difficult. The coiner of the phrase, the surrealist André Breton,2  evidently saw it as anarchist and in a sense negative, pointing out the absurd and pretentious, but not offering any more constructive move.3 Yet Breton could write with approval:
[t]he subject has been handled with rare precision by Léon Pierre-Quint, who in Le Comte de Lautréamont et Dieu presents humor as a way of affirming, above and beyond “the absolute revolt of adolescence and the internal revolt of adulthood,” a superior revolt of the mind.

Revolt, though it must begin with rejection of something can move towards its replacement with something different. Thus black humour might point up and reject the weakness and failings of religion. Think of the ending of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Singing “always look on the bright side of life” during a crucifixion is surely black humour by anyone’s standard. But it is possible, for the viewer (whether or not the pythons encouraged this step) to use the recognition of absurdity and the emptiness of some religious ideas to generate a purer faith. If this is so then even a committed religionist can expect to find black humour in Scripture. Especially among the prophets.

Dry reeds (© Copyright Steve Daniels and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

I’ve been doing a series of podcasts seeking humour in every book of the Hebrew Bible. Twice I have disagreed with Robert Carroll, a friend and teacher. Who wrote an article on humour in the prophets.4

Bob Carroll had a lively and mischievous sense of humour, which delighted in pricking the balloons which we inflate around many ideas that we hold important. Often Bob’s speaking fitted the descriptive “black humour”. Yet, in his article he consistently denies its presence “among the prophets”.
I do wonder what is going on. I watched The Life of Brian with Bob and others in Glasgow when it first came out. We both recognised and enjoyed the black humour. Why could he not see it in Hosea? (I explore one example, drawn from Bob’s own article in my podcast Humour in the Bible: book 28: Hosea.)
Was Bob right to write:

Brilliant, almost Shakespearian wordcraft; gives the book of Hosea a linguistic quality which is not well served by seeking humour in it. No doubt there are a few smiles to be had from the book but its real power and appeal lie elsewhere.5

Concerning Hosea 13, he wrote:
This is the irony of the gap between pretensions and reality, and the incongruity may be seen by some readers as not lacking in humour. The biting sarcasm of ‘Ephraim herds the wind’ (12.1) or ‘they kiss calves’ (13.2) can be construed as humorous observations on the folly of social and political practices. Religious sacrifices and ceremonies conducted in the presence of skilfully made idols may easily be satirized by the simple description ‘they kiss calves’, and this simple but devastating critique is not without its humorous aspect. But trawling the minor prophets with nets designed to trap humour is a wearisome activity, especially when the poetry of the collections sparkles with other far more obvious features.
But is that all? As well as the beauty and power of the language, the ambiguity of “according to their understanding” in v.2 – does it mean they make the idols as well as they can, or that they understand this melting of metal as a “libation”? massekem can clearly refer to molten metal or to a libation… the biting irony that follows too seems to me blackly humorous. But not to Carroll.
What do you think? Is black humour also among the prophets?
  1. Depending on your credulity or stringency []
  2. Breton, André, and Mark Polizzotti. Anthology of black humor. City Lights Books, 1997. []
  3. André Breton, “The Lightning Rod” especially p.xiv. []
  4. Carroll, Robert P. ‘Is Humour among the Prophets’. Pages 169–189 in On humour and the comic in the Hebrew Bible. Edited by Yehuda T. Radday and Athalya Brenner. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1990. []
  5. Carroll, “Humour”, 180. []

E/egalitarian and/or C/complementarian?

Herd of goats (photo by AlMare)

On Facebook yesterday I was prompted to reflect on the oddities that our herd mentality imposes on humans. We often signal words that name these “herds” linguistically (rightly or wrongly)1 by giving nouns that name human herds capital letters. Thus I am catholic but not Catholic in my tastes.2

Capitalisation to indicate herd membership is a handy tool. But it can make life complex.

Am I egalitarian or am I complementarian? Surely the answer has to be yes. As a Congolese student replied when my American colleague (who liked things to be precise) asked if he spelled his name with or without a hyphen – he did, he spelled it either way! I am egalitarian, I believe that God created men and women equally and of equal worth and with equal “inalienable rights”. I am also a complementarian, I am delighted that God made men and women different, to return to teaching classes comprised (as they were 20 years ago) almost entirely of men would be horrible!

But rewrite the question: Am I a Complementarian? and I have to answer “no”. For to answer “yes” to that question would imply agreeing with the lunatic posturings of those insecure human males who seem to think that if women are allowed to be really equal they will outperform them. On the other hand, I am not too keen to label myself as Egalitarian. For then I’d be tarred with the brush of those stupid enough to pretend that there are no consistent gender differences, and while Barbara can and did bear and birth babies I cannot, and I like to respect such brute facts.

So, on this issue am I a E/egalitarian and/or C/complementarian? Yes I am if you wish to label me and my views on issues of gender please refer to me as an E/egalitarian and/or C/complementarian !

  1. All you orthographic pedants can have a field-day discussing which ;) []
  2. Though actually this statement, made by way of example, may not be true, I suspect in many things I’d be both, though I am not at all a member of the Catholic “herd”. []

West and Southern Baptists

Dr Southern Baptist Convention the famous blogger, biblical minimalist, pastor and insomniac

The Southern Baptist Convention is apparently considering a name change. Jim West is upset (about this, as he is about so many other things). He’s thinking himself  that he’d “like to follow suit and consider a name-change for myself “.

I have a great suggestion:

How about changing your name to “Southern Baptist Convention” the first name echoes your existing surname, the second reflects your adherence, and Convention reminds us that names are merely convenient conventions :)

And besides, that way we’ll still have a Southern Baptist Convention to moan about even after the existing one is gone West ;)

Are Hebrew Bible scholars cooler?

OT scholars are way cooler than NT scholars. Maybe funnier, too.
(David Ker in a comment on my podcast Humour in the Bible: 21B: Ecclesiastes (again))

Photo by Otto Phokus

All I should say is: you might possibly think that, I couldn’t possibly comment!

But I will offer a challenge to those Old Testament scholars (and would-be scholars) applying for my job to see if they can help instantiate his claim. And to those New Testament people applying for George’s job, you have a hard act to follow!

Incidentally I think we OT people have a head start, after all the NT was written in Greek, and it is a well-known fact that the Greek language causes people to claim to think logically and rationally, whereas Hebrew is the language of relationship, and relationships are always funny.1

PS: I also challenge all you NT scholars out there to start producing podcasts or blog posts that show examples of humour from every book of the NT to match my series covering humour in the Hebrew Bible :)

  1. PPS yesterday was our 36th wedding anniversary, and we still make each other smile, so it must be so ;) []

Humour and hurt: Proverbs 26:1-9

Billy Connolly. Taken by Jemma Lambert on April 13, 2005. The image links to a video clip that illustrates some of the points made here, but which uses excessive bad language.

Humour and hurtfulness often go hand in hand. Comedians can hardly be squeamish about offending. Indeed one of the liberating possibilities humour opens for us is to make fun of the powerful. But often in everyday life the people humorists make fun of are not powerful, still less powerful and oppressive. Rather they are often weaker with less access to resources than the comedian. (If you doubt this just search on YouTube for really funny clips, and note how often the “fun” is hurtful.)

Thinking about humour in biblical books, for my series seeking signs of humour in each book of the (Hebrew) Bible, I looked at Proverbs 26:1-9.1 Humour is used widely in proverbs, and so in Proverbs, because it is memorable, and proverbs aim to teach.

Here is the beginning of Proverbs 26 with some comments on how each couplet is either funny or hurtful, or not:

1 Like snow in summer or rain in harvest,
so honor is not fitting for a fool.

Hershey saw this one as funny, but I can’t see the joke myself.

2 Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying,
an undeserved curse goes nowhere.

Having a variety of birds around to watch, here in the bush clad hills between Tauranga and Rotorua, I found this picture of an undeserved curse flitting here and there, never settling, like a sparrow, or like a swallow swooping, swerving and always returning, most amusing.

3 A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey,
and a rod for the back of fools.

Expresses clearly the biblical idea of discipline, beat someone soundly and you may knock some sense into them, but it is not funny. Unless perhaps you see yourself as wise, and have a cruel streak.

But the next pair are brilliant. The more quoted is quite good:

4 Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.

Just picture the last conversation you had with someone intent on “proving” that the world would end sometime back in May, or perhaps next October, or of “demonstrating” their particular form of church rules is found in this and that “verse” of Scripture. Remember how, if you opened your mouth, you were dragged into a morass of stupidity from which you were lucky to return ;)

But then read on…

5 Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes.

Every time someone descends into the slough of verse bashing the fools whose forté it is are confirmed and built up in their folly. Now that is funny and hurtful at the same time. And a delightfully amusing complement to the previous couplet.

6 It is like cutting off one’s foot and drinking down violence,
to send a message by a fool.

The image is sufficiently incongruous, if not really funny, to be memorable, and since you are to cut off your own foot it hardly mocks the disadvantaged. Except those who make a bad choice or “messenger”.

7 The legs of a disabled person hang limp;
so does a proverb in the mouth of a fool.

However, this one is both very funny, and very hurtful, as well as memorable and effective. What do we do with it? To remove the offense would remove the point. Yet to make fun of the affliction which makes someone else less able to enjoy life than one is oneself seems deeply wrong.

8 It is like binding a stone in a sling to give honor to a fool.

Seems safe enough, though if we look at the translations and commentaries it seems the image may be a bit obscure…

9 Like a thorn in the hand of a drunkard
is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.

I have translated this one more literally than the NRSV and have preferred “thorn” to the NIV’s “thornbush” (agreeing pretty much with the NET). For the image seems to me clear, just as someone really drunk will hardly notice the prick of a thorn, so someone who is incurably stupid can learn proverbs, but their point will not prick, and no change will result.

So, what change should result from this reading of Proverbs 26:1-9?

Well for me, I resolve:

  • to try to cease answering fools according to their folly – students and others who quote “verses” at me had better expect an unsympathetic response
  • to try to answer fools according to their folly, and avoid honouring them, by pointing out that such verse bashing is daft


  1. The passage was suggested by an article: Hershey H. Friedman, “Humor in the Bible” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 13:3, 2000, 258-285. Although Friedman was Bernard H. Stern Professor of Humor and the journal sounds respectable the material is of varied quality and some of his examples did not tickle my funny bone, but it did suggest Pr 26 was worth consideration. []

Intellectual humour in Scripture :)

Epimenides the ancient Greek Rip Van Winkel

In my series on humour in the Bible I have not considered moving into the “foreign” territory of the New Testament. But I could not resist this one…

Randall Rauser in his always provocative way has been considering how “Paul”1 makes use of a racial stereotype in Titus 1:12-13. In On slurring Cretans and Indians Randall presented this as a gross racial slur, however, returning to his topic in Can N.T. Wright save Paul the Apostle? He presents NT Wright’s claim that Paul was joking.

Whatever you make of Randall’s attempt at a slam dunk demolition of inerrancy, it seems to me that Wright is correct in the claim that “Paul” is joking. The delicious irony of a Cretan poet claiming that all Cretans are liars is almost enough on its own, but “Paul” adding “That testimony is true” is surely the icing on the cake… Now I’m not sure whether eliciting, and demolishing, a racial slur in order to raise it in your reader’s consciousness, and therefore use it (even as you demolish it) morally pure enough, or not, but I am sure this is great fun!

Now I am left with two parts of Scripture I have managed to largely avoid,  Ezra (see the comments here) and the Pastorals, that I simply must look at more closely. The quest for humour in the Bible is a thoroughly good thing. For it will make me read Scripture more widely as well as more wisely ;)

  1. Or whoever wrote Titus if it is pseudonymous, I have no opinion on either question. []