Is There Humour in the Gospels?

The Bible
Questioning Church
Deepening Spirituality
Image of three people laughing
Nick Jowett

Nick Jowett is a former Chair of CAP (Church Action on Poverty) Sheffield and former Vicar and Methodist minister at St Andrew's Psalter Lane Church, Sheffield.

It might seem as though the answer would be a resounding ‘no’, for both the New Testament and the Christian tradition turn on stern issues of spiritual salvation and morality. And as St Chrysostom wrote: ‘Jesus wept, both over Lazarus and over the city, and he was deeply moved over the fate of Judas. And this indeed one may often see him do, but nowhere laugh nor smile even a little.’

But I think there is another side to this story, and, if we look at some theories about humour, we may be able to catch an echo of laughter from the pages of the Gospels and particularly from Jesus himself.

Francis Hutcheson suggested in his Thoughts on Laughter (1725) that humour was essentially laughter at the incongruous. It has the role of enabling us to see ourselves and our world afresh, somewhat like the mythical Martian’s eye view; we suddenly see how extraordinary this life is. When Jesus spoke about the birds of the air, he didn’t actually say that they sowed and reaped; and when he talked about the lilies of the field, he didn’t say that they worked at the loom; but the humorous juxtaposition must have raised a smile. Surely people laughed at the thought of Pharisees straining out gnats and swallowing camels. The picture of Zacchaeus, a feared tax collector, shinning up a tree to see Jesus is a perfect example of comic incongruity.

Humour is also employed as satire, that is, humour used by those who are relatively powerless as a weapon against the arrogant, the tyrannical and the hypocritically puritanical. ‘A true joke…has to do more than release tension, it has to liberate the will and the desire, it has to change the situation,’ wrote Trevor Griffiths (Comedians, 1976). ‘What’s this generation like?’ Jesus asked, and immediately answered: ‘They’re like two gangs of children sitting in the market place and shouting out to each other, “We played flutes for you, and you didn’t dance!” “Well, we sang a dirge, and you didn’t play the mourning game!”’ (Matthew 11.16-17) So Jesus pulls down his and John the Baptist’s powerful critics – to the level of children squabbling in the street about what game is supposed to be being played. Not many people find the attacks on the scribes and Pharisees ascribed to Jesus in Matthew 23 very funny, but, whether authentic or not, a certain kind of robust satirical humour is evident there. And it is certainly arguable that Jesus’s ‘triumphal’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey was a deliberate send-up of imperial processions.

If satire is ‘laughter-against’, another kind of humour is ‘laughter-with’, a gentle mockery of the absurdities of human behaviour, the teller including himself or herself in the witty barbs. Modern stand-up comics naturally indulge in satirical attacks, but they also enjoy including good-natured riffs on closely observed human behaviour; and like a religious preacher, they often present themselves as the chief example of what they are gently sending up. Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, in his book Laughter (1900), defined the source of humour as witnessing human beings behaving like machines or things, and failing to respond to a fresh situation with psychological flexibility. One of the most puzzling passages in the Gospels is the story of Jesus’s encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7.24-30). Christians find Jesus’s initial rejection of the woman’s approach and then his racist response to her (calling her and all non-Jews ‘dogs’) troublingly uncharacteristic. It is impossible to know what facial expression or tone of voice accompanied this conversation, but possible interpretations of the episode are either that Jesus caught himself out in an inflexible Jewish response to a foreigner or else that he was humorously playing that part for an ironic moment. In either case, Bergson’s theory of humour is illustrated clearly: he behaved like a stereotyped Jew rather than respond freshly to the woman, and at some point that was a bit comic. The woman certainly seems to have responded in that vein. It remains nevertheless true that Jesus is one of the least guilty of behaving in an automatic, inflexible way to those he met.

Humour is, to be sure, often an expression of superiority. The classic description of this was given by Thomas Hobbes (in Leviathan, 1651): he said that laughter expresses ‘a sudden glory arising from some conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.’ This kind of humour can be shared by groups to give themselves a sense of identity and even security, and ethnic jokes are very much at the centre of this kind of humour. Many of Jesus’ parables employ the humour of superiority to make their point. Think of the people making ridiculous excuses to avoid a dinner party or the foolish girls who didn’t bring enough oil for their lamps and missed the bridegroom. No doubt Jesus told these stories in such a way that those laughing went away reflecting on whether they also were being pictured.

Humour, finally is a way of dealing with things that are too difficult. Sigmund Freud’s view, expressed in The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious (1905), was that humour saves the expenditure of three forms of psychic energy, in relation to painful emotions, costly inhibitions and difficult thinking. We discharge superfluous energy in laughter, and the superego, which is normally the tough demanding parent within us, becomes the indulgent adult who allows us to deal with situations and emotions that are too difficult for us by turning them into humour. This is why there are a lot of jokes about sex and death and religion. Freud summarises the effect of such joking; it is as though one is saying, ‘Look here! That is all that this seemingly dangerous world amounts to: child’s play – the very thing to jest about!’ Sarah’s laughter on being told she is to have a baby at the age of ninety is a good example of such humour. The laughter of those mocking Jesus when he told them that Jairus’s daughter was not dead, or when he was suffering on the cross, could well come into this category. Jesus, by contrast, seems not to have needed such laughter, perhaps, one may surmise, because he was truly able to face the difficult things in life and death.

I conclude that there is a good deal of laughter in the Gospels, and much of it from Jesus himself. I would find it hard to believe that a man who could talk about planks stuck in people’s eyes, or camels getting through needles, or a widow punching a judge in the eye, or a poor fellow getting knocked up in the middle of the night just when he’d got everyone nicely settled, did not have a terrific sense of humour.

People often laugh for sheer joy, but that has perhaps little to do with humour as such. What is interesting is that there was a long tradition, beginning in the late Middle Ages especially in Germany, of what was called ‘risus paschalis’ or Easter laughter. Basically, the expectation was that the preacher would tell jokes in the Easter services. These could be ‘relevant’ jokes, such as about Peter falling over in his haste to get to the empty tomb or about the devil being cheated of his prey; but they could equally be totally irrelevant, with the preacher reaching for the most vulgar stories and mimes to get the congregation rolling in the aisle. The main thing was that everyone should laugh and be happy – because Christ was risen, death had been conquered and all things would be well. Of course, there were complaints, from serious-minded clerics in the Reformation, about all this rumbustious and unseemly humour in church, and Easter laughter did eventually peter out in the solemn 19th century. But are vulgarity and joy so alien to the Galilean rabbi, who loved to make his point to the crowd in a racy story or use robust satire against his opponents?

Of course, humour can degenerate into mere mockery, cynicism and triviality. In his novel The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco imagined the monk, Jorge de Burgos, taking extreme measures to prevent Aristotle’s long-lost book on comedy becoming known, because he believed that the art of laughter could triumph and pull down everything that was good and holy. Reinhold Niebuhr, in his sermon Humour and Faith (1946), is, however, positive about the role of humour, speaking of it as ‘a sane and healthful response to the innocent foibles of men; and even to some which are not innocent’ and enabling people to ‘see themselves in perspective and recognise the ludicrous and absurd aspect of their pretensions.’ It is surely right to see Jesus in this perspective.

But Niebuhr still warned that if laughter continues in the face of the worst human evils it becomes merely bitter and cynical, and he says that, where the cross of Christ comes as God’s answer of judgement and redemption for human sin, there can no longer be humour and laughter. Nevertheless, he believed that ‘the intimate relation between humour and faith is derived from the fact that both deal with the incongruities of our existence. Humour is concerned with the immediate incongruities of life and faith with the ultimate ones.’ Therefore ‘humour is … a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer. Laughter must be heard in the outer courts of religion; and the echoes of it should resound in the sanctuary; but there is no laughter in the holy of holies. There laughter is swallowed up in prayer and humour is fulfilled in faith.’

I must say, though, that I still think that, if Jesus is the host, there should be some humour and laughter at the heavenly banquet.

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