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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. Reality

    Bypassing the humor with a prayer:

    The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (References used are available upon request.)

    January 26, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  2. Guest

    Jesus Christ walks into a hotel,puts three nails on the counter,and asks
    "Can you put me up for the night?"

    January 26, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  3. Grumpster

    You have to have a sense of humor if you look at the bible. It's one big joke book.

    January 26, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • Dodney Rangerfield

      Did you hear the one where the smart ass atheist dies and is before God on judgement day?

      January 26, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Grumpster

      Yes...and it's as funny as the one where the masses bought into the biggest lie in history and got into wars over it, sent people on crusades for it, and otherwise could have done much more productive things with their time and money.

      January 26, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Dodney Rangerfield

      Did you hear the one where the atheist took over the USSR and went on to kill over24 million people?

      January 26, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • Brenda

      "smart ass atheist dies and is before God on judgement day"

      The donkey will be fine since there's no proof your God exists.

      January 26, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @Dodney
      I heard that one!
      The atheist gets sent down to hell.
      Next up is the Baptist – God chuckles to himself and shunts him down to the furnace.
      A Catholic approaches, sure that he'll get into heaven as he is a devout follower of the First True Church.
      God takes one look at the catholic and opens the trap door to hell.
      The Catholic says: Wait! I've been a good man all my life! I was baptised, went to confession, helped the needy, healed the sick and raised my children to do the same. Why am I not worthy of your kingdom?
      God sighed softly and explained that nobody ever reads the fine print – Heaven is for the first people to whom He revealed Himself – the Zoroastrians.

      January 26, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • Ummmm

      "Did you hear the one where the atheist took over the USSR and went on to kill over24 million people?"

      Did you hear that religion in all it's glory has killed over 480 million?

      January 26, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • just wondering

      Did God reveal Himself to Canadians?

      January 26, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • Oh Yeah

      Brenda
      Would that be the talking donkey of the Bible? And people thought that Eddie Murphy invented that character.

      January 26, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • JT

      Have you hear the good news that it turns out the desert religions were created by sheep herders over 2000 years ago to enslave the gullible for abuse by other men and that you can, through thinking for yourself, cast off the fear and simply live a good life treating others as you wish to be treated?

      January 26, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • Brother Maynard

      Dodney sez:
      "Did you hear the one where the smart ass atheist dies and is before God on judgement day?"
      I acutally think this is a good question. I had a believer ask me something like this. His question was more "What would you do if you died and found yourself in front of almighty god?". To be honest I had never really thought about that before. After thinking about it for half day or so my answer was.
      I kick him in the cro.tch, HARD, and when he was bent over reeling in pain, I'd WWF my elbow on the back of his head. Then I'd say "That's for all the pain you caused humanity you SO.B"

      January 26, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  4. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things
    Know and speak with God today

    January 26, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • Nope

      We've been praying you would stop posting this crap, yet it continutes, proving prayer doesn't work.

      Oh, and how about all those prayers for world peace that go unanswered.

      Oh and then there's the prayers of starving people around the world whose prayers go unanswered, dying by the millions.

      January 26, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • just wondering

      Is Nope an obstructionist Republican?

      January 26, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • just sayin

      Nopes a Dope

      January 26, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • Grumpster

      Religion is not healthy if you are at war with the other religion because you can't stand what they believe or don't believe in. Stop living the lie.

      January 26, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • Ummmm

      If "just sayin" only had a brain.

      January 26, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • Alfred E Neuman

      for a two bit Ummmer read previous post

      January 26, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • Ummmmm

      Alfred had taken the idiot job on this blog, so stay tuned for more stupidity...next....

      January 26, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  5. JS

    Well...Colbert certainly isn't funny, unless a buffoon makes you laugh.

    January 26, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • joe dokes

      Guess millions of us like laughing at things "baboons" say, huh? The criticism is so pathetic here. Colbert, like him or hate him, is a nuanced, very smart, very subversive comedian. Ah, that's it, isn't it? The subversive part. He plucks at your sacred cows and you hate that. OK, I get it now.

      January 26, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • Oh Yeah

      Televangelists are buffoons, but they sure aren't very funny. Scary, but not funny.

      January 26, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  6. Kebos

    Truth of the matter is Jesus would have likely joked very little, if at all. Rather, he would have been intense, brooding, little patience for the lighter side of life and living. His mission, like Mohammed's after him, and Joseph Smith after Mo, was to build a following to amass power, control and wealth.

    January 26, 2012 at 6:30 am |
  7. Kaelinda

    "To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible." – Thomas Aquinas

    January 26, 2012 at 5:01 am |
    • The Bobinator

      When it comes to bullship, big-time, major league bullship, you have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims, religion. No contest. No contest. Religion.

      Religion easily has the greatest bullship story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time!

      But He loves you.

      ~George Carlin

      To follow your quote, people with faith require no explanation for this. For people without faith, no explanation is sufficient.

      Personally, I see the no faith being the reasonable side, becuase it's really hard to find an explanation for the inherant contradictions and sillyness that exists in religion.

      Reason wins over Faith. No contest. No contest.

      January 26, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • bneasy

      🙂

      February 9, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
  8. Wonderer

    Perhaps the biggest joke in Jesus' routine was the one about communion. "Eat, drink, this is my flesh, my blood... NOT! It's just bread and wine! A-HAAAA-HAAAAH!" Face it, Jesus was the KING of stand up comedy.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:19 am |
    • rick

      I loved his "two rabbis walk into a bar..." gag

      January 26, 2012 at 5:47 am |
  9. Bill P

    I suppose "Father" Martin (as well as the Pope, erroneously known as, the "Holy Father") thought that Jesus was "just kidding" when He said, "Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven." (Matthew 23:9,10) On the simple face of it, this article is ridiculous, the notion that Jesus was basically telling folks one joke after another, while decrying their damnation if unrepentant, and while He was on His way to being crucified. In the midst of such seriousness, how likely would it be for the One to judge the sins of the world to be allaying the angst of the target audience with levity? What Mr. Martin sees as "humor" is more likely using irony, not necessarily to illicit laughter, but to illustrate the absurdity of immoral behavior in the context of eternal consequences.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:53 am |
    • Andrew

      Oh lighten up. As an atheist, even I can appreciate this article for what it is, a differnet perspective on humor in ancient times. Next you'll tell me I need to take Herodotus seriously.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:03 am |
    • Quoc

      I suppose that means you don't call your own father "father" then. You might want to read the rest of that passage and actually see there might be some humor Jesus was using when saying call no man "Rabbi" or "teacher". It's about humility.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:05 am |
  10. mmi16

    The Bible was written by MAN, translated by MAN, edited by MAN, and printed by MAN. To say it is God's book is a travesty.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:47 am |
    • Noobs Galor

      Another noob, there are verses in the Bible that says scriptures is written to Holy Men of God through the Holy Spirit, you a idiot, stay out of that topic till you actually study this book. They have every right to call it God's book.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:07 am |
    • Get Over It

      Noob,

      Ah, so the Bible is true because the Bible itself says that it is true? Are you nuts?

      The Koran itself says it is true.
      L Ron Hubbard's Scientology book itself says it is true.
      The Bridges of Madison County book says, "This is a true story".
      Get real.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:32 am |
    • Circular logic is fun

      The book says it was inspired by god, so it must be true. Why do we know the book is true, because the book says so!

      January 26, 2012 at 2:32 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      "Noobs Galor
      Another noob, there are verses in the Bible that says scriptures is written to Holy Men of God through the Holy Spirit, you a idiot, stay out of that topic till you actually study this book. They have every right to call it God's book."

      Wow, a little circular to say the least. We could add in uneducated, brainwashed. Telling us to stay out of a topic we know nothing about is rather hypocritical when Noob doesn't have a clue themselves about this book of fiction. Holy men?? HAHAHA...that is quite the humor considering there isn't anything holy about men who speak of torment and extreme violence; control of women; control of a person's se.xual orientation; control by beating of innocent children; talking snakes; a worldwide flood that was impossible to have happened.
      I'd say Noob needs to get back of its meds...delusions such as this are very dangerous to society-just look at what Jared Loughner's (spelling??) delusions did.

      January 26, 2012 at 6:40 am |
  11. Daktari

    I think it is truly a blessing that so many non-believers stop by the belief blogs to read the articles.

    reading and mocking may one day lead to hearing and believing. Maybe not for all, but if for some, it will be well worth it.

    Thanks for stopping by folks!

    January 26, 2012 at 1:47 am |
    • HellBent

      Most of us have already done the believing part, but thanks for the offer.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:52 am |
    • Reality check.

      How naive art thou? They stop by to mock and troll. And you thought you caught a big one. How does an old combat boot sound for dinner?

      January 26, 2012 at 1:52 am |
    • Ichi Ni

      Where's my god-damned t-shirt?

      January 26, 2012 at 1:53 am |
    • Kebos

      Happy to stop by. It's where I get my daily dose of humor. And to check on humanities current level of gullibility.

      January 26, 2012 at 6:35 am |
  12. WOT

    These comments all seem like they come from the LOST GENERATION ! All of you are Russian Easter Eggs!

    January 26, 2012 at 1:44 am |
  13. The First Stand-up Routine

    ... and then to everyone's great surprise, he DUNKED her in the river right there in front of everybody [crowd chuckles]... and folks, that water was COLD! [crowd laughs out loud] So I said "John, what are you doing? You're gonna drown her... " [crowd rolls on the floor] Says John: "Hey, if you think that's funny, wait'll you here this; she can't SWIM." [crowd goes into convulsions]

    January 26, 2012 at 1:44 am |
  14. Wonderer

    What does it mean to be fully human? I mean, beyond just being funny at the right times. Don't people who are fully human sin? If Jesus was without sin, how could he be fully human?

    January 26, 2012 at 1:39 am |
    • Ichi Ni

      Questioning it is the biggest sin – can't examine the thing – oh no – can't get any proof just a lot of gabbling "mysticalized" people who gibber about this and gabble about that. Maybe there's some jokes in there! Whee!
      Let's play Santa Claus next and have some milk and cookies!

      January 26, 2012 at 1:52 am |
    • Arty D

      Humans have the capacity not to sin. He was the only one not able to fulfill that role. But to each his own.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:54 am |
    • Wonderer

      Arty D, if humans have the capacity not to sin, why do Christians claim that the only human never to have sinned is Jesus? What I mean is, what made Jesus different from the rest of humanity? I mean, out of billions of lives... he's the only one to never sin. How does that happen?

      January 26, 2012 at 2:15 am |
  15. clearfog

    Who, who was not a lunatic, would tell people that he was the son of god without having a great sense of humor?

    January 26, 2012 at 1:17 am |
  16. gupsphoo

    This reminds me of the 'Buddy Christ' statue in the movie 'Dogma'.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:01 am |
    • rick

      "Buddy Christ" is great

      January 26, 2012 at 5:53 am |
  17. pappakapp

    Cal Naughton Jr was right!
    "I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-Shirt because it says I want to be formal, but I'm here to party."

    January 26, 2012 at 12:57 am |
  18. bluemax77

    Tell me about it, I’ve been laughing ever since I heard the fairy tail...

    January 26, 2012 at 12:53 am |
    • I didn't know that...

      Fairies have tails? How amusing... how droll.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:55 am |
  19. Johnny

    By all means, debate the insignificant aspects of a fictional character! Whee!

    January 26, 2012 at 12:49 am |
    • HellBent

      Here's a topic: Harry Potter was a total d-bag. Discuss.

      January 26, 2012 at 12:52 am |
  20. NECHOII

    SO THAT'S IT. EH? i had ofthen wondered why there was no hmour in the BIBLE. Jewish people are reown for having a tremendous sense of humour which has sustained them throughout the ages. NOW WE SEE ! We must all familiarize ourselves with 1st century Jewish humour ! Thank you to James Martin the Jesuit priest, who brought this to our attention.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:45 am |
    • Schlamazel

      Oye, my back!

      January 26, 2012 at 1:39 am |
    • Andrew

      Jewish humor is also rather bitter and sarcastic, which would fall well in line with the type of material in the bible. 'Yeah, my god's an a-shole, but meh, whatcha gonna do about it?'

      Seriously, god sounds kinda like an internet troll. "So then I says to the guy, I says, 'dude, you've gotta climb a mountain and kill your own son for me, and if you don't, feel my wrath', then, right before he stabs his kid I burst in there going 'PSYCH!' It was hilarious!"

      January 26, 2012 at 3:09 am |
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