HUMOR AND JESUS

In the closing line of his classic book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton speaks of Jesus’ lack of humor: “There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”11 According to Chesterton, Jesus was probably not funny.

But Jesus was funny. This fact is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Jesus’ entire earthly ministry. Our inability to see Jesus as funny is not rooted in the pages of Scripture, but rather in the way Jesus has been portrayed in many popular films. In 1927 the legendary director and devout Christian Cecil B. DeMille produced the life of Jesus in the movie King of Kings. He was very careful to portray Jesus as very pious with little humanity; he even had a glowing aura around him, which made him appear like something of an icon on the screen. He was without humor and appeared as a very serious holy man.

The Library of Congress holds more books about Jesus (seventeen thousand) than about any other historical figure, roughly twice as many as about Shakespeare, the runner-up.12 One University of Chicago scholar has estimated that more has been written about Jesus in the last twenty years than in the previous nineteen centuries combined. 13 Yet I have found only one book that examines Jesus’ humor, Elton Trueblood’s The Humor of Christ, published in 1964. Trueblood says:

There are numerous passages . . . which are practically incomprehensible when regarded as sober prose, but which are luminous once we become liberated from the gratuitous assumption that Christ never joked  . . . Once we realize that Christ was not always engaged in pious  talk, we have made an enormous step on the road to understanding.”14

Trueblood goes on to say, “Christ laughed, and . . . He expected others to laugh . . . A misguided piety has made us fear that acceptance of His obvious wit and humor would somehow be mildly blasphemous or sacrilegious. Religion, we think, is serious business, and serious business is incompatible with banter.”15 Other scholars say, “If there is a single person within the pages of the Bible that we can consider to be a humorist, it is without a doubt Jesus . . . Jesus was a master of wordplay, irony, and satire, often with an element of humor intermixed.”16 In the appendix of The Humor of Christ, Trueblood lists thirty humorous passages of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels alone (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).17

There are at least three reasons why modern Bible readers and hearers are remiss in capturing Jesus’ sense of humor. First, many people are so familiar with some Bible texts that they wrongly assume they know what the texts mean and are not able to hear them in a fresh manner. Second, because the death of Jesus is the centerpiece of our theology, it has in some ways so dominated our thinking about Jesus that his life prior to his death is seen as little more than one of avoiding sin and being an acceptable sacrifice, which means that his humor and fun are overlooked. But the fact that Jesus was often invited to parties because people liked him, crowds thronged around him, and his fiercest critics falsely accused him of being nothing but a party animal suggests he was fun to hang with.12 After all, how many people who are as lost as Dick Cheney in the woods keep asking your pastor over to their Texas hold ’em tournaments?

Third, being removed from Jesus by two thousand years means that some of those ancient cultural clues and euphemisms are lost on us. The cultural framework required for humor was made obvious to me while in India, because every time I turned on the television and watched an Indian show I could not figure out for the life of me what the jokes meant. Nonetheless, it is important to note some of Jesus’ ancient funnies.