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. KTKGB

    Great article, but I've never heard of Nathanael the apostle. Am I missing something? Help!

    February 20, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • Believer

      The story mentioned is in John 1:45-51.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • tre

      also known as Bartholomew

      February 20, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
  2. Valtorta reader

    Consider taking a look at the work of Maria Valtorta, an Italian mystic who experienced hundreds of visions about Jesus life...very detailed accounts of Jesus, humor, tears, preaching, counsel, etc...

    February 20, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Jimmy

      I considered it.....no.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  3. Hope

    jesus2020.com if you wanna get saved. take gospel serious. repent of sins, turn from sins, confess all known sins, be filled with Holy SPirit, preach repentance all the time.

    February 19, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • Mike

      You're a funny guy too! LOL

      February 21, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  4. bryan888

    If Jesus had a sense of humor, he surely would get a good laugh at these comments. Are we seriously going to debate Jesus, the Bible and the existence of God here in the comment section of a CNN news report? Really people get a clue, and life and a pet.

    February 19, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Enlightened

      Yes. We are.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:15 am |
  5. UglyTruth

    It is easy to laugh at insanity.
    Socially accepted insanity but insanity just the same.

    February 19, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Dingo

      Eh, a little insanity does everyone some good.

      February 20, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  6. phillip bunnell

    For God's sake don't let Santorum and the rest of he Republicans read this. They'll all have convulsions and haeart attacks.

    February 18, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  7. Truthship

    Oh, 'The Life of Brian' and 'The Holy Grail' my all time favorite. Know every line. Easy to tell a couple of the Monty Python cast had a Masters Degrees in Christian Theology and some were Jewish.. It is 14 year old boy mentality humor at its best

    February 17, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • True Story

      I heard voices at one time telling me that I was the real messiah and said I couldn't be I'm a naughty boy.

      February 19, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  8. vel

    Golly, JC was a riot " ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’” (Luke 19) Let me guess, Christians will say he was just "joking"

    February 17, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Ran

      HA! That is funny! Jesus was a badass!

      February 17, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • EAP

      Vel, did you realize that was a parable?

      February 19, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  9. atomD21

    I'm sure that there are more things we don;t know than do know about Jesus. All we have to go on is a collection of books put together and no doubt edited by those seeking to paint him in the light they thought was best. We need to stop using the Bible as a history book.

    February 15, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  10. Rick

    I like the theological argument in "The Name of the Rose"? If laughter is ok, does that mean it is ok to laugh at God?

    February 15, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • GLM

      If God's real, he made the platypus.

      Try not to laugh.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Really Jersey

      God did not get angry at Abraham's wife for laughing when God spoke of her bearing a child at her advanced age. When her son was born, he was given a name meaning laughter. I think that laughter is one of the best gifts we have been given. My mother always said; as long as you can laugh, you're alright.

      February 21, 2012 at 2:19 am |
  11. dudley0415

    The first time I went to Nazareth I knew ex-ACT-ly what Nathaniel was talking about. Ugliest town I ever saw, starting 1/3 of the way up the hill, and it doesn't get any better.

    February 13, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
    • Brian Holbrook

      When you pulled in were you feelin' 'bout half past dead? Just needed to find some place, dear Lord, where you could lay your head? Maybe askin' "Mister can ya tell me where a man might find a bed?" I'm just saying, your mental state can contribute to poor first impressions.

      February 14, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • Heh

      Is it any wonder that the ancient inhabitants of that area were half-to-fully insane and were prone to such a rich supernatural fantasy life?!

      February 15, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  12. angelosdaughter

    Now this is one book on religion that I will enjoy reading!

    February 10, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  13. James

    Premise is not the same as set-up. The premise of a joke is the comedic idea behind that joke, the set-up is the establishing of the norm at the start of the joke. GAWD!

    February 10, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • KeithTexas

      Since most of us are not Comics or pointy headed intellectuals we really don't care.

      Was it funny or not?

      February 11, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • James

      @KeithTexas Sure, Keith. But if someone is going to explain what a term means in an article is it unreasonable to expect them to give an accurate explanation/definition?

      February 11, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • derp

      Remember, Keith is from Texas. They don't need no smarty pants furriners learnin' em' some new words. Definitions are fer sissies.

      February 13, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • dudley0415

      'Now hold on there, Skeeter. He didn't mean nothin' by it...'

      February 13, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • Brian Holbrook

      @KeithTexas: No. No it wasn't funny at all. As the story helpfully pointed out one needs to be four years old to find humor in the parables of Jesus. Which is to say that they are precisely as funny as they are relevant or useful.

      February 14, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • Chris

      Hey I'm stuck in this hell hole known as Texas and I do care about definitions. Living here I think I know how Einstein felt when he was alive and I'm not even that smart.

      February 19, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  14. Gethetruth

    I didn't even bother to read this article because the story of Jesus was written over 60 years after his so called crucifixion by Greeks ! The man Jesus is an imaginary figure based on Krisha's birth stories and Buddhist teaching. Why will any one be preaching "Buddhist" teachings to Jews who were slaves of the Romans !! "Show the other other cheek", "love they neighbor" are all derived from Hindism and Buddhism which pre-dates Christ stories. No one was keeping a record of Jesus' life or teaching. Even if a raghead was preaching all this, he probably came from India along with the Greeks. Greeks scholars were learning in many centers in India. There is a strong historical tie between the myths and mythology of these two people. All the Greek Gods are Hindu Gods or the reverse is true. The Greeks invented Christianity and it was hijacked by whites people. The irony is that Jesus was a raghead from the middle east ! His so called teachings were common place in India, a thousand years before. The only source of Jesus is in the Bible, where the new testament is written by the same person pretending to be mark, luke, john and james. What a hoax!. All this has nothing to do with the belief in God, which is also so stupid.

    February 10, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Teresa

      I take it from your rant, that you have never read the Bible either. The unteachable spirit – I see it clearly.

      February 10, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • KeithTexas

      None of your facts have anthing to do with the article.

      Were some of the stories relayed in the Bible meant to be funny? If they were are we missing the point?

      February 11, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • SHAAS

      Ha hahahahahahah you obviously are a funny guy.....that is the funniest lines of junk I have ever heard!! hahhahahahahahaha

      February 13, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • dudley0415

      CARM dot org is a good place to start, Jethro-th.

      February 13, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • atomD21

      I have to say, Gethetruth, that while your argument has some valid points, your insistence on using the term "raghead" to describe a person from India or the MIddle East pretty much invalidates everything you say.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • Jason

      @Gethefacts: Besides the blatant bigotry, you've got some "facts" wrong.
      1. The greek empire expanded to India, not into India. The culture and languages remained separate, not intertwining as your post states. Alexander the Great stopped conquering when his army finally lost a battle (when he got to India) and his boyfriend was killed. The greek language and culture didn't spread into India or anywhere east of there, thus it would have been difficult for Jesus take teachings from a culture He had no contact with and pass them off as his own.
      2. Greek and Roman were the same with different names (because the romans took over the greeks' empire), not the gods of India. Tell me what the equivalent gods for Vishnu and Shiva are in the greek pantheon...there aren't any!
      3. It is clear you haven't even learned the names of the first 4 books in the new testament of the bible (Matthew, not James) so what credence should anyone lend to your flawed view of the origins of the bible or what is in the bible?

      Please get your facts straight before posting next time so that you don't look like a complete fool!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:11 am |
  15. Agent Rasputin

    Jesus was a funny guy ...
    It's just that no one else had a sense of humour.
    A lot like the world today.

    February 10, 2012 at 6:11 am |
    • KeithTexas

      Thank you for that oberservation

      February 11, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  16. xSojournerx

    One of the most humorous Jesus moments is in John 8, the part when the Pharisees bring an adulteress to try to get Jesus to say something that'll get him in trouble:...they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”]]
    (John 8:4-11 ESV)
    I love how he tries to ingore them by doodling in the sand, but when the uptight religious conservatives simply won't STFU about "judging" others, he turns it around on them, pretends to ignore them again, then pretends to be surprised that they all wimped out. Word to the wise, you whacko evangelical conservatives! Jesus doesn't like your being so judgemental!

    February 9, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
    • raimondi

      Your right..... Jesus did have a sense of humor! This is how he would gather everyone together today.
      "The painted lady X projects"


      much love!

      February 10, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • daniel

      i really liked this article!
      you guys got to check out the gospel of matthew visual bible series where Jesus is a jovial guy!
      it's really amazing and refreshing and cool

      And then the guy who played Jesus has an amazing testimony about it
      and wrote a book:

      February 19, 2012 at 3:01 am |
    • Tinisha

      I would agree Jess did have a sense of humor

      February 19, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • jake

      here is your quote....seeanything contradictory in there..or is it just me?

      "Word to the wise, you whacko evangelical conservatives! Jesus doesn't like your being so judgemental!"

      or i guess all people who consider themselves evangelical christians who adhere to conservative policies such as small government and limited spending are just "whackos" whom jesus disagrees with.....

      your judgmental quote seems a little...judgemental....

      February 19, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  17. bneasy

    this sums everything up, 1 Corinthians 2:14

    February 9, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
  18. bneasy

    (gets popcorn) these comments are entertaining 🙂 God bless! and that wasnt sacastic

    February 9, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
  19. Convert to Christianity

    Reasons why Atheism is TERRIBLE and unhealthy for our children and living things!

    † Atheism makes you stupid, ignorant & blind.
    † Atheism is a disease that needs to be treated.
    † Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith.
    † Atheism won't take you to kingdom of heaven and paradise.
    † Atheism making you agree with Stalin, Mao & other terrible mass murder leaders.
    † No traditional family lifestyle, boring and feeling 'outsider'
    † Atheist try to convert people over internet because they feel "safer" behind closet.
    † Atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God and argue with religious people.
    † Atheists have had terrible life experience, bad childhood and not being loved.
    † Most Atheists are uneducated... No Atheists could run for presidency.
    † Atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history.
    † Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists.
    † All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals.
    † The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right (see: Genesis 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:19-20)
    † Atheism have no holidays, no culture, no nothing. Waste of living in this planet...

    †† Our Prayers goes to Atheists to be healthy and seek their creator ††

    February 9, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • FrankJBones

      You have been given free will and intellect, yet you refuse to use it! So many logical fallacies and conjecture in one post.

      They are all pretty ludicrous, but i think the best ones are: "Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists." and "Most Atheists are uneducated... No Atheists could run for presidency"

      By virtue of the second of your reasons I quoted, I am going to guess that you are an Atheist in denial since, you know, uneducated people can't form coherent arguments. Thank goodness you won't be running for president in that case, though I think the Creationist Museum in Tennessee is looking for a Neanderthal.

      February 10, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Tyler

      I am an atheist, I don't flaunt it, and I sure as hell don't "convert" people. Most people that meet me assume that I am Christian because of my moral and value system that I laid down for myself. I don't correct them, there is no point.

      February 10, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • You are silly

      Your long list of claims is entirely silly.

      This one is perhaps the best – The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right

      February 10, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • KeithTexas

      You are as big an idiot as the Athiest

      February 11, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • MarkinArk

      I am a Christian. And you, my brother, speak as a fool! Grow up & loose your religiosity!

      February 12, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • jj

      Wow, a list of complete untruths.

      February 14, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • atomD21

      Wow. Just wow. This is exactly the sort of religious garbage that Jesus sought to end. We are not to use our beliefs to belittle or condemn. If you are truly a follower of Christ, then you should know he used love, grace, and compassion as his tools, not bigotry and hatred. Why do you insist on continuing the destructive and horrible path that religion has been on for so long?

      February 15, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • Chrome

      Is this the kind of humor that this article is talking about. This has to be the dumbest converting material I've ever read, never mind the bible was even sillier. I can't wait until humans give up fairy tales, I'll be long gone by then but hopefully our future generations give up this nonsense.

      February 19, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  20. Lubiana

    Excellent article! We need more humor in the world.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:44 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.