Did Jesus have a sense of humour?

Dr Jane Heath (Durham University) wrote a piece “Did Jesus Christ have a sense of humour?” In it she suggests that the question might be broken into two parts: “[o]ne about the way Jesus taught during his incarnate life, and another about the way it is proper for followers of Jesus, who seek to share in his risen life, to behave today.” I intend to respond here to what she wrote about the first of these.

Heath begins by noting that the synoptic gospels “[d]o not depict him making people laugh and they do not describe him as ‘witty’, let alone ‘funny’.” This is true, but then descriptions in biblical narrative is commonly sparse, perhaps less so in the New Testament than in the Hebrew Bible but nevertheless the gospels do not describe Jesus as ‘serious’, ‘sober’ or ‘solemn’ either.

In a similar way she erects another straw man to conveniently demolish. When those around him do something silly, she says: “Jesus does not make a joke of their silliness.” Well, no, but then to present Jesus as a sarcastic snob who makes fun of the mistakes of others would hardly fit with the Synoptic Gospels intentions in presenting Jesus. Even if the historical Jesus did make fun of such slips, the gospel writers might well not have reported this.

Moving beyond this trail of successfully demolished straw men, Heath has to admit that: “Some of the things he says in parables might seem to invite us to read them as if told with a twinkle in his eye.” She follows this with a couple of weak examples of such possibly humorous parables, but recognising the difficulty of accurately spotting humour accross cultures concludes: “In general, humour is not a useful tool for interpreting the gospels’ account of Jesus’ life. The evangelists were not writing satire.” The second sentence is true, but entirely irrelevant. Jesus might have been a stand up comedian and the gospel writers would still not have been satirists if they reported his jokes accurately! The question Heath posed is not, are the gospels satire (or even comedies) but rather, did Jesus have a sense of humour?

The other claim: “humour is not a useful tool for interpreting the gospels’ account of Jesus’ life” is more difficult to argue (either for or against). But I would suggest that the fact that it is difficult to picture Jesus’ parable of the man with the log in his eye (Mat 7:3-5, Luke 6:41-42) without smiling may provoke us to look to see if the signs of humour are present in these texts.

The criteria I have used in the past, are drawn from a number of previous studies by others, and most are present in these texts:

  • incongruity – surely evident!
  • lighthearted mood – this is a subjective criterion, but what do you think?
  • surprise – if you had not heard the parable before would you expect Jesus’ punchline?
  • ingenuity (cleverness is often a mark of humour think of puns) – this one may be missing here…
  • inferiority – the main point of the parable?
  • disguise or something or someone pretending to be something else – the “friend” is pretending to be superior and helpful
  • “inelasticity” (following Bergson) – perhaps not…
  • human pretension revealed in all its lack of glory – oh, yes!

My conclusion: This saying seems evidently intended to be humorous. What do you think? On the basis of this saying alone1 The correct response to Dr Heath’s question is a clear “Yes, Jesus did have a sense of humour!” (At least the Jesus who is presented in the Synoptic Gospels did.)

PS: I omitted “hyperbole” which I earlier added to the original list at David Kerr’s suggestion – the hyperbole in this passage is obvious!

  1. Though I can’t help also remember Jesus’ fondness for camel stories! []

2 comments on “Did Jesus have a sense of humour?

  1. Jane

    Tim, thanks for taking the trouble to read and respond to this piece, with lots of helpful points to strengthen the case. The piece I wrote was solicited by a Russian media outlet: the question had been put by a member of their general public, so I was trying to respond very much in that context, trying to guess where the person who asked might be coming from, and where the people who read it (in a possibly abbreviated Russian translation) may be coming from. The challenge was ‘guess who you are talking to’ more than anything else! And correspondingly, guess what question they are really asking….

    1. tim

      Indeed, writing is always like that, and more so the less known the audience is to the writer :)

      If my treatment of your article seems harsh, as the talk of straw men makes it sound a bit to me rereading after a couple of months, I am sorry.

      I guess it saddens me to still come across the argument that because Jesus is not presented as a humorist he had no sense of humour. Given the disparagement of humour by ancient intellectuals it does seem to me highly unlikely (even if Jesus had regularly had his audiences in fits of laughter) that the gospels would describe him in that way. But today to present him as humourless makes him into a religious prig. Which seems to me even less true.