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Humor in the New Testament

By Leonard J. Greenspoon

For many people, religion is serious business which rules out any positive connection between belief and humor. For them, humor connected to religion is humor directed, in a negative and derisive manner, against religion. If this is true for religion in general, then the disconnect between the Bible and humor in particular would be especially well defined. However, scholarship in this field has grown in recent years and has attempted to dispel the notion that humor is inappropriate in, and absent from, Scripture.

For a quick overview of the topic, it is useful to divide exemplars into different categories. First, there are many passages that, in their original language, produced plays on words that the intended audience would have understood as humorous, or at least ironic. At the end of the tale of Susanna, which forms part of the expanded text of the apocryphal book of Daniel, a woman refuses the advances of two men, who seek revenge by bringing false charges of adultery against her. After Susanna is sentenced to death, the hero Daniel cross-examines the two men, thus proving that they have fabricated the charges. Daniel pronounces judgment on the two disgraced elders by declaring that one would be “cut” and the other “sawed.” In the original Greek, these verbs are closely related to the trees—“mastic” and “evergreen oak,” respectively—which each man falsely declared was the spot where Susanna supposedly met her lover.

La Justification de Suzanne. François-Guillaume Méneageot c. 1779. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Plays on words also recur with proper names. On some occasions, the names fit perfectly, as with Nabal (1 Samuel 25)—literally translated as “fool” or “brute” —who is exactly the “desiccated fool” that his name implies; or Eglon (of Judges 3), the Moabite king whom Ehud slaughters  in precisely the way that his name—related to the Hebrew word for “fatted calf”—suggests.

At other times, the proper name is at odds with the circumstances. Thus, in the New Testament book of Luke (chapter 9), Jesus bestows the nickname “Boanerges”—meaning “the sons of thunder”—on two of his disciples just after he had thwarted their efforts to bring down lightning, presumably along with thunder, on a group of Samaritans. Another example would be the punishment inflicted upon the murderer Cain, who is doomed ironically to “settle” in the land of Nod, a word that literally means “to wander” (Genesis 4:12).

A second category of biblical humor is what I call “situational,” in that the humor derives from the context in which a given element is depicted. Without knowing the context, how, for example, would we know that it is probably funny when Peter thrice denies any knowledge of Jesus (Matthew 26)? In that case, his actions perfectly fulfill the prediction Jesus made about him, and completely contradict Peter’s promise to remain faithful (Matthew 26:31–32). When this same disciple—having just escaped from prison—is described as continually knocking at Mary’s door (Acts 12), we again see an example of situational humor: Peter begs for someone to let him in, while those inside the house waste time debating whether they have been visited by his “angel” (Acts 12:16).  When Eutychus, having fallen asleep during Paul’s preaching, literally falls out of window (Acts 20), the biblical authors seem to be commenting on Paul’s tendency to be long-winded. Finally, when Zacchaeus, “short in stature,” climbs a sycamore tree to view Jesus (Luke 19), we find an example of awkward, almost slapstick humor at the expense of a laughable character.

A third category consists of what we’d probably call “vindictive” humor, in which the biblical writers, presumably on behalf of their community, takes what would appear—from at least some perspectives, although not the biblical one—unseemly pleasure in the defeat of Israel’s enemies. This is true in several narratives contained in the book of Judges, such as the above-mentioned evisceration of Eglon (Judges 3) and the defeat of the Canaanite general Sisera at the hand of Yael, a woman—especially when this is coupled with the expectations for Sisera’s bright future on the part of his unknowing mother (both found in Judges 5). The thwarting of male opponents by far wilier females is on full display throughout the book of Esther and in several chapters of the book of Judith. It is, we might opine, not for nothing that female characters bestow their names on these two books.

In general, any defeat of a male by a female would be contrary to expectations in antiquity, and this overcoming of expectations forms a fourth category of biblical humor. In addition to Yael, Esther, and Judith, we can think of Abigail as another woman who summarily bests a man, in this case the aforementioned and unfortunately named Nabal.

The overcoming of expectations is found not only in narrative, but also in sayings. An excellent example of this is found near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus foretells the inheritance of the land by the meek (Matthew 5). Who would have thought it?

These examples will, I hope, entice readers to go directly to the biblical passages themselves. If beauty is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder, perhaps the same holds true for humor. Let me know what you think.

Leonard J. Greenspoon is author of the Biblical Archaeology Review’s popular “The Bible in the News” column, and holds the Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University in Omaha. He is editor-in-chief of the Studies in Jewish Civilization series, which is publishing its 24th volume this fall. He has just published The Bible in the News: How the Popular Press Relates, Conflates and Updates Sacred Writ, an eBook that contains a compilation of his column, “The Bible in the News,” that has appeared for over a decade in Bible Review and Biblical Archaeology Review. Recently, Professor Greenspoon completed a trio of featured essays for Oxford Biblical Studies Online: Humor in the Old Testament, Humor in the Apocrypha, Humor in the New Testament.

Oxford Biblical Studies Online is a comprehensive resource for the study of the Bible and biblical history. With Biblical texts, authoritative reference works, and tools that provide ease of research into the background, context, and issues related to the Bible, Oxford Biblical Studies Online is a valuable resource for students, scholars, clergy, and any reader seeking an up-to-date ecumenical resource. Oxford Biblical Studies Online is vetted by a team of leading scholars headed by Michael D. Coogan.

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  2. Ben Sheppard

    Love it. So interesting!

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