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January 25th, 2012
12:52 PM ET

My take: Reclaiming Jesus’ sense of humor

Editor’s note: James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine and author of "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life," from which this article is adapted.

By James Martin, Special to CNN

Here’s a serious question about levity: The Bible clearly paints a picture of Jesus of Nazareth as a clever guy, but he never seems to laugh, much less crack a smile. Did Jesus really have no sense of humor; didn't he ever laugh?

Well, one difficulty with finding humor in the New Testament is that what was seen as funny to those living in Jesus' time may not seem funny to us.

For someone in first-century Palestine, the premise (or “setup” as a comic would say) was probably more amusing than the punch line. "The parables were amusing in their exaggeration or hyperbole," Amy-Jill Levine, a New Testament scholar at Vanderbilt University, said in an interview. “The idea that a mustard seed would have sprouted into a big bush that birds would build their nests in would be humorous."

People in Jesus’ day would probably have laughed at many of his intentionally funny illustrations: for example, the idea that someone would have lit a lamp and put it under a basket, or that a person would have built a house on sand or that a father would give a child stones instead of bread.

But contemporary Christians may be missing the humor that Jesus intended and that his audience understood.

Father Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, professor of New Testament at Boston College, agrees. "Humor is very culture bound," he told me. "The Gospels have a lot of controversy stories and honor-shame situations. I suspect that the early readers found these stories hilarious, whereas we in a very different social setting miss the point entirely."

Let’s repeat that: hilarious.

Or maybe we just know the stories too well. Too many Gospel stories have become stale, like overly repeated jokes. "The words seem to us like old coins," wrote Elton Trueblood, a 20th-century Quaker scholar, "in which the edges have been worn smooth and the engravings have become almost indistinguishable."

In his book "The Humor of Christ," Trueblood recounts the tale of his 4-year-old son hearing the Gospel story of seeing the speck of dust in your neighbor's eye and ignoring the log in your own and laughing uproariously. His son recognized the humor that someone else, who might have heard the story dozens of times, might miss.

There are other indications in the Gospels that Jesus of Nazareth had a lively sense of humor. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is castigated for not being as serious as John the Baptist. "The Son of Man came eating and drinking," Jesus said, "and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard.’ ” In other words, the Gospels record criticism of Jesus for being too high-spirited.

"Jesus and his disciples," said the Rev. Richard J. Clifford, SJ, a biblical scholar at Boston College, "are criticized for living it up!"

After his time on Earth, some of this playfulness may have been downplayed by the Gospel writers, who, scholars say, may have felt pressured by the standards of their day to present a more serious Jesus.

"There were probably things that were compressed and shortened, and some of the humor may have been leached out," Clifford said. "But I see Jesus as a witty fellow, someone who is serious without being grim. When the disciples argue among themselves, Jesus brings wit into the discussion."

Jesus also embraces others with a sense of humor. In the beginning of the Gospel of John comes the remarkable story of Nathanael, who has been told by his friends that the Messiah is from Nazareth. Nathanael responds, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"

This is an obvious joke about how backwards the town was; Nazareth was seen as a backwater with only a few hundred people.

And what did Jesus say in response? Does he castigate Nathanael for mocking his hometown?

Jesus says nothing of the sort! Nathanael's humor seems to delight him.

"Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit," Jesus said. In other words, here’s someone I can trust.

Nathanael then became one of the apostles. Jesus’ welcoming of Nathanael into his inner circle may be the clearest indication that Jesus had a sense of humor.

Besides, what kind of a person has zero sense of humor? I asked Eileen Russell, a clinical psychologist based in New York who specializes in the role of resilience, how she would describe the psychological makeup of a person without a sense of humor.

“A person without a sense of humor would lead to that person having significant social problems,” she said. “He would most likely have difficulty making social connections, because he wouldn’t be able to read signals from other people, and would be missing cues.”

That’s the opposite of what we know about Jesus from the Gospels. Yet that's just the kind of one-sided image that many Christians have of Jesus. It shows up in Christian books, sermons and in artwork. It influences the way that Christians think about Jesus, and therefore influences their lives as Christians.

If part of being human includes having a sense of humor, and if Jesus was “fully human,” as Christians believe, he must have had a fully developed sense of humor. Indeed, his sense of humor may be one unexamined reason for his ability to draw so many disciples around him with ease.

It’s time to set aside the notion that Jesus was a humorless, grim-faced, dour, unsmiling prude. Let’s begin to recover his humor and, in the process, his humanity.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • TV

soundoff (1,367 Responses)
  1. dreamstreetrose

    I often have wondered the same thing. What a great blog; really enjoyed it!

    November 7, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
  2. Shakira

    Usually I don't learn article on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very forced me to try and do so! Your writing taste has been surprised me. Thank you, quite nice post.

    June 12, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  3. David Nelson

    I have seen Colbert pushing Jesuit theology by having them on his show before. Here are some more Jesuit ideas for you. Inquisitions and the Holocaust. Read Robert Michael's excellent A History of Catholic Antisemitism and see for yourself that the Jesuits were supporting, with rare exceptions, the Holocaust right up to and including WWII.

    April 25, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  4. WillieLove

    The following list give a summation of what we have been trying to emphasize. If the Bible is a Catholic book,
    1. Why does it condemn clerical dress? (Matt. 23:5-6).
    2. Why does it teach against the adoration of Mary? (Luke 11:27-28).
    3. Why does it show that all Christians are priests? (1 Pet. 2:5,9).
    4. Why does it condemn the observance of special days? (Gal. 4:9-11).
    5. Why does it teach that all Christians are saints? (1 Cor. 1:2).
    6. Why does it condemn the making and adoration of images? (Ex. 20:4-5).
    7. Why does it teach that baptism is immersion instead of pouring? (Col. 2:12).
    8. Why does it forbid us to address religious leaders as "father"? (Matt. 23:9).
    9. Why does it teach that Christ is the only foundation and not the apostle Peter? (1 Cor. 3:11).
    10. Why does it teach that there is one mediator instead of many? (1 Tim. 2:5).
    11. Why does it teach that a bishop must be a married man? (1 Tim. 3:2, 4-5).
    12. Why is it opposed to the primacy of Peter? (Luke 22:24-27).
    13. Why does it oppose the idea of purgatory? (Luke 16:26).
    14. Why is it completely silent about infant baptism, instrumental music in worship, indulgences, confession to priests, the rosary, the mass, and many other things in the Catholic Church?

    April 12, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  5. WillieLove

    w w w .bible.ca/ catholic-questions. htm

    April 12, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  6. medicinas del mar

    Its like you learn my mind! You seem to grasp a lot approximately this, such as you wrote the book in it or something. I believe that you can do with a few % to power the message house a bit, however other than that, this is great blog. A great read. I'll definitely be back.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:40 am |
  7. bljstreetteam

    The church doesn't always do a great job of communicating who Jesus really was. Check out the new Blue Like Jazz movie, in theaters April 13
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOglQgyxYkI&w=640&h=390]

    March 27, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  8. Alex Wright
    March 27, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  9. fordmayne

    nooo this is what was funny!!!

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_WLnASe3m0&w=640&h=390]

    March 19, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  10. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  11. reason

    The gods of all organized religions, if true, would all be horribly unjust and evil deities to send billions of people to eternal suffering for choosing the wrong one or being born in the wrong place. Looking at organized religion objectively, they are myths from stone age societies that were trying to explain the world, and there is virtually no chance any one is truth.

    Rationally speaking if there is a just god and an afterlife, you will be judged on how you lived your life. Rejecting reason and deluding yourself in blind faith does not help your case.

    March 9, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • Yeah

      And, for those who say they believe in a god "just in case", they have to realize that any omnipotent god would see this and reject them.

      March 27, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  12. totallycool

    I have always thought Jesus to be the coolest, most intelligent, most powerful, bravest,smartest and funniest Being that ever walked the earth. He addressed Himself as 'son of man', called women' woman!!.
    "The son of MAn has no place to lay his head..."give and it shall be given unto you good measure shaken down running over shall men pour into your bosom" He was bold and unpretencious... calling out the Sadducces and the Pharasites with with a few choice words...'brood of vipers'..He came to a dead and stinky Lazarus and commanded " come forth" 'turn him loose and let him go' and the dead man became alive.He spoke like a poet... a teacher using the simplest terms to carry His message..." it will take a camel passing through the eye of a needle than a rich man entering the kingdom of God'...This is the charm and very interesting aspect of His personality that keeps drawing me to Him. I love Jesus. He is a Man's Man.Very kind, powerful, courageous, authoritative,self-less and incorrigible.

    March 5, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Chris

      I admire your perspective. Jesus is awesome.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:09 am |
  13. scott

    like pulling a camel through a needle. There was no gate called eye of the needle. he is talking about an actual needle.

    March 4, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  14. tony

    I liek the funny bit in the old testament – Genesis 1-27, where God tells Man he can have dominion over all the living things, but forgets to mention that BIg Oil gets all the rocks.

    February 21, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
  15. Isabel

    To me, the incident of Zacheaus sitting on a sycamore tree was the most hilarious in the New Testament, and also the one Jesus so beautifully turned into a teaching, repenting moment. As we all know there were two reasons for this guy Zacheaus climbing on the nearest tree: 1. he was short statured and he could not have a good view of Jesus over the crowd, and 2. he being the tax collector, hated by common people, did not want to be seen by his taxpayers when he was trying to have a look at this person Jesus. I always smile when I read that passage, seeing Jesus reaching the tree, calling out for Zacheaus to come down! Can you imagine the thought process that must have raced thru that guy's mind. How much laughter must have been there all around him! But Jesus tyrned the whole situation, into a blessing for him and for all the amused spectators!

    February 21, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  16. Brian

    You really should read John Eldridge's Beautiful Outlaw. . . . the entire book is on this subject. Awesome. It has helped me understand a much more human/personal side of Christ, and draw closer to Him in the process. Must read. Potential life changing book!

    February 21, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  17. John

    You can also see Jesus' humor in his response to the devil tempting him in the wilderness. "If you are hungry, prove yourself by turning these stones into bread." Jesus replies, "Man does not live by bread alone..." So I guess he had a sarcastic side to his humor as well.

    February 21, 2012 at 11:28 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.