Humour in the Bible 1.1 Introduction: History and definition

Humour’s bad rap

Humour has not been popular with intellectuals in the Western world. From Plato and the Bible until quite recently their focus seems to have rested more on sharp cutting humour than on gentler wit. The overpowering loss of control that extreme laughter can produce also made it suspect. The critical probing nature of much humour seemed to make it inappropriate for nobler, gentler souls.

Plato’s Laws were particularly scathing:

Yet one can’t create in both ways if one is to partake of even a small portion of virtue, and indeed one should learn about the ridiculous things just for this reason – so that he may never do or say, through ignorance, anything that is ridiculous, if he doesn’t have to. The imitation of such things should be assigned to slaves and to strangers who work for hire. There should never be any seriousness whatsoever about these things, nor should any free person, woman or man, be observed learning these things; in fact, these imitations should always manifest something new. Let the play that provokes laughter, the play we all call “comedy,” be thus ordained in law and in argument.1

The Bible seemed to confirm this negative evaluation as (almost) every mention of laughter involves mockery.

The history of attitudes to humour in Christianity seems to continue negative up to and beyond the Puritans (whose popular reputation as killjoys might lead us to expect this attitude. Indeed as recently as the middle of the twentieth century this attitude seems to have obscured the possibility that Scripture could contain (or at least contain more than a little) humour.

An unusual measure of critical agreement has been realized in descriptions of the Bible’s lack of humor. Yet the opinion represented by such statements as [Alfred North] Whitehead’s that “the total absence of humor from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature” relies on evidence which is the best equivocal.2

By contrast with this surprisingly univocal history this series will argue that humour is widespread in Scripture and will attempt to begin classifying and organising it to enable clearer discussion of its presence and function.

What is humour?

It is useful to begin consideration of a topic with definitions of the key terms. Humour is surprisingly difficult to define helpfully. Perhaps the commonest sort of attempt delineates humour by its effects: Humour is what makes us laugh. Yet laughter can have other causes, for example tickling, and humour may produce smiles or even little outward sign in its audiences.3

The difficulty of producing a satisfactory definition that is not circular (something is humorous if we find it funny) or false (humour is what makes us laugh) is perhaps made evident by the failure of authors to offer such definitions. For example neither the article “humor” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy4 nor that in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy5 offer a definition.

Dictionaries by and large favour the circular approach, humour is “the quality of being amusing or comic”.6 Perhaps given this unhelpful start I can be forgiven for hoping that we can work from the, admittedly unsatisfactory, starting point of understanding that a text is humorous if it was intended to be funny or amusing.

  1. Plato, The Laws of Plato, trans. Pangle, Thomas L. (University of Chicago Press, 1980, 208). []
  2. Dov B. Lang (Judaism, 1962, 249) cited in Alex Preminger and Edward L. Greenstein, The Hebrew Bible in Literary Criticism, New York: Ungar, 1986, 81. []
  3. See e.g. Provine, R. R. (2000). “The Science of Laughter.” Psychology Today, 33 (6), 58-62. []
  4. Aaron Smuts, “Humor” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed January 23, 2015, http://www.iep.utm.edu/humor/. []
  5. 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/. []
  6. e.g. Oxford Dictionary of British and World English http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/humour []