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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. SATAN

    THOR SAYS HI.

    January 25, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
  2. Lenny Pincus

    Really? There is plenty of humor from antiquity. Plato was very funny and his humor translates to the present just fine.

    January 25, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • Believer

      Thats because with Plato we believe that he existed, and his works are not sacred. With the Bible we have half the camp calling it a complete fake, and the christians are to uptight to see any humour in it. Personally I am a christian and I find parts of the Bible to be hilarious

      January 25, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  3. chrism

    God made all people and all people need God. Of course this is highly visible in the "atheists" who hang out here. You don't see people who don't like iced cream hanging around Dairy Queen making fun of all the people buying blizzards. 😉

    January 25, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • Answer

      Wrong.

      You need your god. Don't lump everyone the same way as you yourself. Clinging and begging always. Sucking at living life.

      January 25, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • sybaris

      Got anymore ad homs?

      Your assertion is fallacious. Try again.

      January 25, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
    • O.S. Bird

      Speaking for myself, I'd laugh at someone praying to a Blizzard at DQ.

      January 25, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • George

      @Chrism

      Good one!

      January 25, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • The Phist

      This isn't dairy queen. Just like it isn't a blog that is designated for believers to hang out. Try again.

      January 25, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • Jim

      No one tries to list all 31 flavors over the courthouse doors either.

      January 25, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • Inconvenient George

      So your belief is as valuable as eating ice cream. We get it.

      January 25, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
  4. jesus liked it up da backdoor

    i was thinking of getting boned tonight
    but my boyfriend wont do me!
    so, i went out and picked up a young stud
    took him home and he gave it to me long long long and hard!
    i am so sore i hurt when i walk today!
    i reciprocated of course!
    i jerked off a load onto his goatee
    then placed my balls on his nose while gave me a rimmer

    January 25, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
  5. Prayer gives demons acid reflux and eczema

    it really does!

    January 25, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
    • Inconvenient George

      Prayer gave me the heartbreak of Psoriasis.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:07 am |
  6. Mina Anis

    Christian to the last breath. enough said.

    January 25, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • ...

      So am I 🙂

      January 25, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • Gene Bellm

      Matin, the typical Jesuit, tries to be cool and humorous. He fails miserably. Church humor and gospel humor just isn't humorous unless you have the mentality of an eighth grader. It's time theologians got real jobs.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • sybaris

      You might add "willfully ignorant" to your description too.

      January 25, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • Inconvenient George

      gallows humor

      January 25, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
    • Inconvenient George

      "Christian to the last breath. enough said."
      --------And may it be soon. Of course we all want you in heaven soon. ahem.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:09 am |
  7. janus

    jesus was a f a g g 0 t!
    he s u c ked c 0 x like nobody else could!

    January 25, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • Observer

      Have you met Colin?

      January 25, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • Answer

      That's really true.. who can out suck a god?

      January 25, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • Observer

      Sorry, that's not to say Colin shares all of your interests.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • Answer

      So you know that god doesn't know how to suck c-o-c-k? That's new.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
    • jesus liked it up da backdoor

      something to ponder?
      how big was gods c0k?
      did his mommy spit or swallow?

      January 25, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
    • Answer

      Tell me Observer .. how much of god's habit's and know how do you know?

      Can god give the best head or make a women c-u-m endlessly or not?

      January 25, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • Observer

      God knows how you try, Answer.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • Answer

      @Observer

      As opposed to one like you who needs to defend a silly 'god'? How really funny.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
    • Question

      God does not need anyone to defend him. Ironically, you are the one that has need to be defended, and Jesus is the one that does.

      January 25, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
  8. thor

    jesus was a f a g g 0 t!
    he s u c ked c 0 x like nobody else could!

    January 25, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
  9. Zarathustra

    Atheists make up 1.5% of the U.S. population but 90% of CNN Belief Blog responses. Ironic.

    January 25, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • Colin

      Now Zoroastra, we both know its closer to 15%. If you include disinterested agnostics (our functional equivalent) you pretty quickly approach 30%.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • Inconvenient George

      One teensie weensie problem. No source citation. You don't get to "thusly spake" here.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • Curious

      Colin – Aren't the disinterested fair game for everyone?

      January 25, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • The Phist

      And these percentages mean...... what exactly? And how are they relevant to anything at all?

      January 25, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
    • Jim

      There was once a time that only one man believed the Earth revolved around the Sun, but eventually the rest came around.

      January 25, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
    • Joe

      At one time only one man had HIV. Atheism: a dyscrasia of otherwise rational minds. Let's not have the rest come around to it.

      January 25, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
    • Inconvenient George

      Joe,
      And your god's plan was to infect the entire world, is that it ?

      January 25, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • Joe

      No, atheism just sort of slithered in on it's own. It's a lot like HIV. Not a very good infectious agent, but stubborn and ultimately lethal.

      January 26, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  10. HawaiiGuest

    @George
    You asked me no questions, you merely ignored the question i posed. Either way I have work soon so I'll repost it for your benefit.

    All those thoughts you posted are merely the opinions of those who feel they have some type of "right" to tell others how they should live. How is this any different than the "arrogance" you so readily attribute to only atheists?

    January 25, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • George

      They're not opinions; they're facts. And it's no more arrogant than insisting that the sky is blue to someone who says it's green.

      January 25, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
    • Inconvenient George

      George,
      The sky is neither blue nor green. It would be really good for you to retake 4th grade science.

      January 25, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
  11. Answer

    What I would like to put to question is on how "new christians" will perceive the coming of their savior.

    They've been taught that their generation is always the generation where their savior will be coming around. (So funny.)
    But let's move on.. in the very very distant future – around another 5 billion years – there will be the cosmic heat death of the entire universe. Will you still cling to religion to say that you will be around and be "saved" then also?

    January 25, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
    • Question

      Christians do not believe every generation is the one that Jesus will come. Your assumtions are incorrect because you do not have the right facts. If you want to know what we believe, read Matthew 24, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Revelations, Daniel, Isaiah, etc. It's chalk full of details.

      January 25, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
  12. Colin

    So, based on an English translation of an earlier English translation of the Latin Vulgate, which is itself an translation of the Greek Septuagent, which is itself a translation of the original Hebrew writings and Aramaic oral mythology, written by people we have no idea about, the Christians formulate a belief that they will live forever if they follow some rules laid down in the Iron Age Middle East.

    And then they get offended when we atheists call them f-king morons.

    January 25, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • Andy

      Ditto Colin. You, Sir, are my hero. Nicely done.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • ReligionIs4Dolts

      Don't forget the part where the "accounts" of Jesus in the NT were only written down DECADES after Jesus' death and the part about the early Catholic opportunists who filtered which "books" would and would not be included (so as to avoid conflicts....as if that worked!).....and if you talk to any Jew they'll tell you that the Hebrew contains markings that cannot be translated into other languages, let alone modern English, so that the modern English is a total farce.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • Colin

      One is my favorites is when they translated "The Holy Spirit" into Latin. Latin has no neutral gender, every noun is male or female, so the Holy Spirit became male, when it was originally a$exual. They also invarialy refer to their god as male. This is totally meaningless for a one off being that, in their mythology, does not breed.

      they're stupid. I'm sorry, but what else can you call it.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
    • DragonPat1

      Don't be mad at them since many are people who believe everything they see in print or TV and have no inclination to question anything. Not really their fault since that is what their school system taught them. Sad but true and they will defend their ignorance to the death just like Muslims. One thing Christians like these could never understand is that Jesus said that He was not their master but the church taught them differently...They're not stupid really just programed.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • Believer

      Ok first off there are plenty of Christians who read the Bible in its original language, I know for a fact that all Lutheran pastors are required to. And if we cannot believe the Bible because it is written decades after Jes.us lived then we could not believe anything written today about Columbus, or any of the Native Americans or anything about Hitler and Stalin since if they were written down right now it would be decades, or even centuries since those people lived.

      January 25, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • The Phist

      Christopher Columbus had a journal. Native Americans were able to draw. Videos of hitler and stalin exist.

      Now... jesus on the other hand...

      January 25, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • sybaris

      Believer, that pesky circular logic will do you in every time.

      January 25, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
    • Believer

      Ur right they all did, I find it interesting that we trust the written records of Egyptian Pharaohs more so than we trust the Bible. Did you know that he had a huge battle with a King in Mesopotamia and the result ended in a draw. However the records Ramses said he had won, and the records of the King in Mesoptamia said he had won. I do not see the Bible contradicting with Ancient sources as bad as that did

      January 25, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
    • Believer

      Syabris can you care to explain? can you say how its going to get me?

      January 25, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
    • A Little Help

      Latin does indeed have a neuter gender. Example: Fourth declension nouns ending in u such as genu.

      January 25, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
    • Inconvenient George

      Belieber,
      The Bible was re-written at least three times. Each time they re-wrote it to reflect what they wanted to say.

      January 25, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • Believer

      Can you give me the dates and a source saying when they were rewritten? You do mean rewritten in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic three times right?

      January 25, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • Ogre

      A Little Help,

      Re: Neuter gender in Latin

      It appears in Classical Latin, but not in Latin Vulgate (vernacular) into which the Bible was translated in the 4th century.

      January 25, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • Believer

      It doesnt eve matter if it was in Latin, because in Greek and Hebrew God is clearly male

      January 25, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
    • Inconvenient George

      Too bad belieber you never went to school.
      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlnnWbkMlbg&w=640&h=390]

      January 26, 2012 at 2:12 am |
  13. jke

    Wishful thinking, honestly. Religious people are not funny. They never have an never will be. It's like this one local writer (local to me) who have no problem dancing on graves - that is the graves of people he considers to be immoral or, worse, liberals. One particular broadcaster of a liberal bent passed away, and the writer went off and danced a jig on his grave, blaming him for everything from disease to sodomy. (Seems to me that disease and sodomy were around long before this broadcaster was born.) When someone wrote a letter to the publication criticizing the behavior of the writer, the reply from this writer was "I always go to church on Sunday and say I'm sorry; as for the rest of the week, I do what I like." And this is the reason why religion destroys everything.

    January 25, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
    • DragonPat1

      A guy like that never gets it, whether he believes that he will be saved ftom his hipocracy what he fails to take in is the concept of Karma and that is run by the universal God of which there is no appeal or forgiveness, too bad for the grave dancer...

      January 25, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  14. Enoch

    "What is the most ancient thing–what the most beautiful–what the largest–what the wisest–what the most common–what the most useful–what the most hurtful–what the strongest–and what the most easy?"

    To which the wise king of Ethiopia replied 3 thousand years ago,

    "The most ancient thing is time–the most beautiful is light–the largest is the world–the wisest is truth–the most common is death–the most useful is God–the most hurtful is the devil–the strongest is fortune–and the most easy, to follow one's own inclination."

    January 25, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
  15. ReligionIs4Dolts

    The bible also does not tell about Jesus evacuating his bowels or what he preferred to eat for breakfast. Why would we expect it to tell us whether he was a comedian?

    January 25, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • Question

      The Bible clearly states that we were made in the image of God. Human beings obviously have a sense of humor. Logic would then dictate that God has a sense of humor. In fact, and more accurately, we have a sense of humor BECAUSE God has a sense of humor. Details on Jesus's bowel movements, if it were in the Bible, would not be the right place to look to see if God has a sense of humor.

      January 25, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
  16. Unknown

    How can anyone know what a dead man who died 2,000 years ago would be thinking?

    January 25, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • The Phist

      The same thing goes for the people that wrote about him decades after he allegedly lived in what we know as the old testament.

      : D

      January 25, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  17. ReligionIs4Dolts

    Matthew 24:34, Jesus said:) "Verily, I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled."

    – Jesus said that he was "COMING RIGHT BACK!" Now that WAS funny! I'd say his generation is already dust.

    January 25, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • The Phist

      Yep. Here's a full write-up with multiple quotes from jesus.

      http://ebonmusings.org/atheism/2000years.html

      January 25, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • DragonPat1

      Actually he did 100 years later but long story short he wound up ending life the same way, sad. Don't see him coming back anytime soon frankly but in point of fact I would have followed the first Jesus because He was my kind of guy.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
    • GoodNoos

      As Albert Einstein said – Time is relative. In Eternity would 2000 years seem like much time?

      January 25, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • The Phist

      Dragon, you can't be serious.

      January 25, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
  18. dina

    Who can possibly know who or what a Jesus thought? There is no proof of his existence except blind faith so the point of humor is moot.

    January 25, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • Answer

      It's a game we atheists like to play with them 🙂

      Get them to spew their jesus and let them show the world how crazy they are. It's a fun game!

      January 25, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
  19. really funny?

    with over 100 Billion stars in our galaxy and even more planets, it's more than likely that other worlds more advanced than us exist. Maybe they did stop by earth 2,000 years ago and one alien said, "Do you want to play the jesus game here too?"

    January 25, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  20. Colin

    Christianity is the belief that a god impregnated a virgin with himself, to give birth to himself, so he could sadistically sacrifice himself to himself to negate a rule he himself made. Dark Ages nonsense.

    January 25, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • Answer

      @Colin

      Don't forget also that this same god has yet another appearance to make – according to his inane followers.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • fred

      Christianity is living your life as Christ modeled for us in unity with God. Christianity is to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. We are to give our lives as Christ gave His life not for ourselves but to the glory of God.
      You wish us to believe you are of intelligent design yet just as the Jesus said “it is what comes out of a mans mouth that defiles him”. Take a close look at the criminal on the cross with Jesus that mocked Christ. The Bible is not complicated and there is a reason that two hung next to Christ. The other simply said to the mocker “do you not fear God, this man is innocent…..then he looked as Jesus and said remember me”. Complicated enough for you?

      January 25, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • Answer

      People do it naturally without your hang ups and cling on with religion.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
    • really funny?

      i agree with you, answer. Ever notice religions like to steal the good works of others and claim it for themselves? They love to tell you how they donate money and time. You know, bragging. And not to forget they don't do it for free, salvation you know. Atheist have no promise, they just do good work without a need for reward.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @Answer

      cling.....on? LOL took a second to realize it.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • Answer

      I think their motto is "steal what you can and get away with it". They know they're living in their fantasy world of being forgiven so they can ignore proper moral behavior.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • sybaris

      Fred said, "The Bible is not complicated ........."

      now THAT is funny.

      Christianity........... millions of people, thousands of sects all interpreting the bible differently.

      January 25, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
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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.