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My Take: What all those Jesus jokes tell us
The authors note that Jesus jokes have become popular just since the 1970s.
November 10th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Take: What all those Jesus jokes tell us

Editor’s note: Edward J. Blum is a historian of race and religion at San Diego State University. Paul Harvey is a history professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and runs the blog Religion in AmericanHistory. They co-authored “The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.”

By Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, Special to CNN

Did you ever hear the one about Jesus being Mexican? Well, he was bilingual; he was constantly harassed by the government; and his first name was Jesus.

Or, perhaps Jesus was Irish? He loved a good story; he never kept a steady job; and his last request was for a drink.

Or maybe it’s possible that Jesus was Californian? He never cut his hair; he was always walking around barefoot; and he started a new religion.

You may not have heard these Jesus jokes, but you’ve heard others. They represent a comedic trend that has animated the United States since the 1970s. More and more comedy gimmicks hit on Jesus, his ethnicity and his relationship to politics. Laughing with (and at) the Lord is now fodder for major motion pictures, barroom comedy tours, graphic novels, t-shirts and bumper stickers.

How is it that a figure sacred to so many Americans has become the punch line of so many jokes? And why is it acceptable to poke fun at Jesus when other sacred figures are deemed off limits or there is hell to pay for mocking them?

The explanations are as numerous as the laughs.

Immigration shifts from the 1960s changed the ethnic and religious faces of the country so no tradition dominates today. The Christian right made such a moral spectacle of itself that it practically begged to be mocked. The emergence of “spiritual, but not religious” sensibilities left many Americans willing to denounce or laugh about traditional faith. The public rise of agnosticism, atheism, and secularism led to aggressive mockery as a form of persuasion.

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If we pause to consider why we’re laughing, we find that the comic bits delve into some of our thorniest and unresolved problems. The jokes reveal much more about us than they do Jesus. They speak to how our society has changed, how it hasn’t, and what we’re obsessed with.

The first public jokes about Jesus were heard in the 1970s. There had been religious jokes before this, but none about Jesus had become widely popular because organized Christianity held such authority. As the economic recession and problems of urban decay collided with civil rights exhaustion and new immigration, however, some Jesus jokes emerged.

Archie Bunker on “All in the Family” was the white racist and misogynist you loved to hate and hated to love. On one occasion, his son-in-law challenged Bunker’s rampant anti-Semitism with the claim, "Jesus was Jewish." Archie shot back immediately: "Only on his mother's side."

The “All in the Family” spin off “Good Times” featured a black family that lives in an inner-city housing project, probably Chicago's infamous Cabrini Green. On the show's second episode, the oldest son J. J. astounded everyone by painting Jesus as black. The younger son loves it, and says he learned all about Christ’s blackness from the local Nation of Islam.

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As the family debates whether this black Jesus should be hung on the wall in place of their white Jesus, they “miraculously” receive $140 from the Internal Revenue Service. Feeling blessed, the family placed the painting on its living room wall, and the elated J. J. shouted his tagline, "Dyno-mite!”

From the 1980s to the present, the number of prominent Jesus jokes has multiplied like loaves and fishes:

• In “Talladega Nights,” Ricky Bobby and his family debated which Jesus to pray to (“baby Jesus in golden fleece diapers,” “grown-up Jesus,” “ninja Jesus”). Their overall hope is that Jesus will help them continue their extravagant lifestyle.

• “South Park” featured Jesus as a weak-kneed host of a local talk show who boxes the devil.

• “Family Guy” had Jesus perform magic tricks that wowed his ancient audience.

• “The Colbert Report” placed a gun in Christ’s hand and had him defend conservatives against the liberal “War on Easter.”

• “Saturday Night Live” let Jesus chastise Tim Tebow for using the Lord’s name in vain and ended the bit by declaring that the Mormons have it right.

One unforgettable scene in the rather forgettable recent film “21 Jump Street” may explain why Jesus has become such a joke.

Before Jonah Hill’s character returns to high school as an undercover cop, he prays to a small, crucified “Korean Jesus.” Down on his knees, he says: “Hey Korean Jesus, I don’t know if you only cater to Korean Christians or if you even exist, no offense. I’m just really freaked out about going back to high school. It was just so f***ing hard the first time. … I just really don’t want to f*** this up. Sorry for swearing so much. The end? I don’t really know how to end the prayer.”

The hilarity of the moment only makes sense in our time. Hill's character is unchurched and agnostic, but wants spiritual power to guide him. We can laugh at how agnosticism and being “spiritual, but not religious,” leave him uncertain of what to say, how to say it, and even how to end.

We can also laugh at how ethnic factors color his approach. By wondering if Korean Jesus cares only about Korean problems, Hill pokes fun at the issue which was made a media spectacle in 2008, when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright could be heard preaching that “Jesus was a poor black man” as part of his support for Barack Obama. What good is a God who only cares for those who look like him?

The Jesus jokes not only reveal how tangled our religious, racial, economic and political positions have become, but also how many outlets there are for the jokes. In these tense times, when presidential hopefuls point fingers at one another and families unfriend one another over political and cultural differences, laughing may be one way to talk about the problems without killing one another.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Entertainment • Jesus • My Take • Opinion

soundoff (5,750 Responses)
  1. Ken Colwell

    Matthew 12:34
    You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

    November 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • JWT

      The opposite of religion or righteousness is not and never has been evil.

      November 11, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Answer

      Can't wait til you nutters start posting the hate material when you run out of your inane bible junk. Do continue.

      November 11, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  2. Ken Colwell

    Ecclesiastes 10:13
    The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness, and the end of his talk is evil madness.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  3. alez1963

    This is not the Christians or not Christians issue much less their lack of respect or sensitivity on either side! it is people like the author of this article and those who laugh or agree with them, the ones to blame for all the frictions there is between the Christians and not Christians alike!

    November 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      I tell jokes, the other side try to force everybody to adhere to their beliefs. How am I at fault?

      November 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  4. Ken Colwell

    Ecclesiastes 10:12
    The words of a wise man's mouth win him favor, but the lips of a fool consume him.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      1Corinthians 3:9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, [ye are] God's BUILDING.

      November 11, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Reality

      Putting the kibosh on all religions in less than 10 seconds:

      • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

      • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

      • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

      • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

      • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

      • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

      • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

      Added details available upon written request.

      A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

      e.g. Taoism

      "The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

      Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. "

      November 11, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  5. Ken Colwell

    Ecclesiastes 5:6
    Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?

    November 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  6. Ken Colwell

    Proverbs 26:28
    A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Parrot breath Ken C,

      John 18:36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world"

      November 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Reality

      To the editors who worked on the New Torah for Modern Minds, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

      November 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  7. martin

    the Jesus zombie story is a lie and jokes expose it ...the myth is dying, the emperor has no clothes...science is proof, religion is spoof

    November 11, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Science does prove a sentient being outside the universe makes the universe real, but did that Creator do all of Creation so he could live as a Jew for less than 45 years?

      November 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  8. Dan

    "He who fart in church sit in his own pew." – Confucious say

    November 11, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Bartfartsalot

      It's a bit of heaven having the whole pew to yourself.

      Works for me!

      November 11, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Bet

      Ha ha! An oldie but a goodie!

      November 11, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  9. Ken Colwell

    Proverbs 21:23
    Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      John 18:36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world"

      November 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  10. Ken Colwell

    Proverbs 19:28
    A worthless witness mocks at justice, and the mouth of the wicked devours iniquity.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  11. Ken Colwell

    Proverbs 18:7
    A fool's mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      K.C.,

      John 18:36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world"

      November 11, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  12. Ken Colwell

    Proverbs 18:6
    A fool's lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  13. Bootyfunk

    jesus never existed. get over it. like hercules, he's a figure of myth.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      John the Baptist is a real historical figure, due to his starting a riot that killed 120,000 Magis. I think the whole story must be real to get that kind of riot.

      November 11, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Reality

      From Professors Crossan and Watts' book, Who is Jesus.

      "That Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, as the Creed states, is as certain as anything historical can ever be.

      “ The Jewish historian, Josephus and the pagan historian Tacitus both agree that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea. And is very hard to imagine that Jesus' followers would have invented such a story unless it indeed happened.

      “While the brute fact that of Jesus' death by crucifixion is historically certain, however, those detailed narratives in our present gospels are much more problematic. "

      “My best historical reconstruction would be something like this. Jesus was arrested during the Passover festival, most likely in response to his action in the Temple. Those who were closest to him ran away for their own safety.

      I do not presume that there were any high-level confrontations between Caiaphas and Pilate and Herod Antipas either about Jesus or with Jesus. No doubt they would have agreed before the festival that fast action was to be taken against any disturbance and that a few examples by crucifixion might be especially useful at the outset. And I doubt very much if Jewish police or Roman soldiers needed to go too far up the chain of command in handling a Galilean peasant like Jesus. It is hard for us to imagine the casual brutality with which Jesus was probably taken and executed. All those "last week" details in our gospels, as distinct from the brute facts just mentioned, are prophecy turned into history, rather than history remembered."

      See also Professor Crossan's reviews of the existence of Jesus in his other books especially, The Historical Jesus and also Excavating Jesus (with Professor Jonathan Reed doing the archeology discussion) .

      Other NT exegetes to include members of the Jesus Seminar have published similar books with appropriate supporting references.

      Part of Crossan's The Historical Jesus has been published online at books.google.com/books.

      There is also a search engine for this book on the right hand side of the opening page. e.g. Search Josephus

      See also Wikipedia's review on the historical Jesus to include the Tacitus' reference to the crucifixion of Jesus.

      From ask.com,

      "One of the greatest historians of ancient Rome, Cornelius Tacitus is a primary source for much of what is known about life the first and second centuries after the life of Jesus. His most famous works, Histories and Annals, exist in fragmentary form, though many of his earlier writings were lost to time. Tacitus is known for being generally reliable (if somewhat biased toward what he saw as Roman immorality) and for having a uniquely direct (if not blunt) writing style.

      Then there are these scriptural references:

      Crucifixion of Jesus:(1) 1 Cor 15:3b; (2a) Gos. Pet. 4:10-5:16,18-20; 6:22; (2b) Mark 15:22-38 = Matt 27:33-51a = Luke 23:32-46; (2c) John 19:17b-25a,28-36; (3) Barn. 7:3-5; (4a) 1 Clem. 16:3-4 (=Isaiah 53:1-12); (4b) 1 Clem. 16.15-16 (=Psalm 22:6-8); (5a) Ign. Mag. 11; (5b) Ign. Trall. 9:1b; (5c) Ign. Smyrn. 1.2.- (read them all at wiki.faithfutures. Crucifixion org/index.php/005_Crucifixion_Of_Jesus )

      Added suggested readings:

      o 1. Historical Jesus Theories, earlychristianwritings.com/theories.htm – the names of many of the contemporary historical Jesus scholars and the ti-tles of their over 100 books on the subject.
      o
      2. Early Christian Writings, earlychristianwritings.com/
      – a list of early Christian doc-uments to include the year of publication–

      30-60 CE Passion Narrative
      40-80 Lost Sayings Gospel Q
      50-60 1 Thessalonians
      50-60 Philippians
      50-60 Galatians
      50-60 1 Corinthians
      50-60 2 Corinthians
      50-60 Romans
      50-60 Philemon
      50-80 Colossians
      50-90 Signs Gospel
      50-95 Book of Hebrews
      50-120 Didache
      50-140 Gospel of Thomas
      50-140 Oxyrhynchus 1224 Gospel
      50-200 Sophia of Jesus Christ
      65-80 Gospel of Mark
      70-100 Epistle of James
      70-120 Egerton Gospel
      70-160 Gospel of Peter
      70-160 Secret Mark
      70-200 Fayyum Fragment
      70-200 Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
      73-200 Mara Bar Serapion
      80-100 2 Thessalonians
      80-100 Ephesians
      80-100 Gospel of Matthew
      80-110 1 Peter
      80-120 Epistle of Barnabas
      80-130 Gospel of Luke
      80-130 Acts of the Apostles
      80-140 1 Clement
      80-150 Gospel of the Egyptians
      80-150 Gospel of the Hebrews
      80-250 Christian Sibyllines
      90-95 Apocalypse of John
      90-120 Gospel of John
      90-120 1 John
      90-120 2 John
      90-120 3 John
      90-120 Epistle of Jude
      93 Flavius Josephus
      100-150 1 Timothy
      100-150 2 Timothy
      100-150 T-itus
      100-150 Apocalypse of Peter
      100-150 Secret Book of James
      100-150 Preaching of Peter
      100-160 Gospel of the Ebionites
      100-160 Gospel of the Nazoreans
      100-160 Shepherd of Hermas
      100-160 2 Peter

      3. Historical Jesus Studies, faithfutures.org/HJstudies.html,
      – "an extensive and constantly expanding literature on historical research into the person and cultural context of Jesus of Nazareth"
      4. Jesus Database, faithfutures.org/JDB/intro.html–"The JESUS DATABASE is an online annotated inventory of the traditions concerning the life and teachings of Jesus that have survived from the first three centuries of the Common Era. It includes both canonical and extra-canonical materials, and is not limited to the traditions found within the Christian New Testament."
      5. Josephus on Jesus mtio.com/articles/bissar24.htm
      6. The Jesus Seminar, mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/seminar.html#Criteria
      7. Writing the New Testament- mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/testament.html
      8. Health and Healing in the Land of Israel By Joe Zias
      joezias.com/HealthHealingLandIsrael.htm
      9. Economics in First Century Palestine, K.C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Fortress Press, 1998.

      November 11, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • martin

      ditto

      November 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  14. Ken Colwell

    Proverbs 13:3
    Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  15. Anadah

    Why is it in the free world that Jesus who is our Lord and Savior and the Son of the Almighty God is the butt of jokes. You in America take free speech too far. Jesus is no joke people, you are all so very disrespectful. If you made so many jokes about 'Allah' or 'Muhammed', the muslims would shut you all down. I find all these jokes about Jesus so offensive, but then again He knows the hearts of men and is the author of forgiveness. Shame on all of you who desecrate the holy name of Jesus.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Answer

      Oh yeah.. "holy".. what a joke.

      Your dead jeebus is the joke. So big that you tools give the whole world a great laugh.

      November 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Jesus is a joke....

      November 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • JWT

      There is nothing to fear from an imaginary figure. If there were more americans trying to pull stuff then that would be brint of jokes as well.

      November 11, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Karakaye

      Find comfort in scripture through these times. Psalms 1 helps us deal with the mockers.

      November 11, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  16. Ken Colwell

    Proverbs 14:3
    By the mouth of a fool comes a rod for his back, but the lips of the wise will preserve them.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Cult logic

      November 11, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  17. Ken Colwell

    Proverbs 12:6
    The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood, but the mouth of the upright delivers them.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  18. Ken Colwell

    Proverbs 11:9
    With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  19. Ken Colwell

    Proverbs 10:14
    The wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Answer

      Keep going.. you've got the whole bible to post.

      November 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  20. Ken Colwell

    Proverbs 10:11
    The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:51 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.