Did Jesus laugh? Was he funny?

For some time, I have been intrigued by the question of whether Jesus was funny. In his teaching, did he tell what we might call jokes, and did his listeners find themselves laughing when they listened to him?

There are many prima facie reasons why we might suppose Jesus was funny. If Jesus was fully human—indeed, the perfect embodiment of humanity—then we might expect him to be funny since this is a hallmark of humanity. In his 1971 book A Rumour of Angels, sociologist Peter Berger argued that humour was one of the seven signs of transcendence in human life. And this accords with our own experience—that we often find people who are funny are the most alive, and that there are times when a good laugh can restore our sense of humanity.

And if Jesus is the embodiment of the divine, that might also lead us to expect him to be funny. It has been said that playfulness is the hallmark of intelligence, so we might expect the ultimate intelligence behind the universe to be ultimately playful. We get a glimpse of this in Job 38–41, where God’s account of creation does focus on God’s power as creator—but also on God’s playfulness in the strangeness and variety in the creation.

And there are some direct clues about Jesus’ joyfulness, and so we might infer his laughter. The most obvious is in Luke 10.21:

At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.”

If someone is full of joy, looks to heaven, and talks of praise, it is quite hard not to imagine this person laughing. Another strong clue comes in the accusation by his opponents (recorded in Luke 7.34 and Matt 11.19) that Jesus was ‘a glutton and a wine drinker’. He was clearly thought to be a party animal, and it is hard to imagine this without some laughter being involved.

Despite all this, I think it is fair to say that Jesus is not often described as laughing—there is no equivalent ‘Jesus laughed’ to the Johannine ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11.35). And Christian preaching and theology has generally resisted C S Lewis’ dictum that ‘joy is the serious business of heaven’.

So can we find humour in Jesus’ teaching? Can we identify it with confidence, and how might it affect our preaching and teaching? Understanding humour across cultural boundaries is notoriously difficult. A couple of years ago, we went on a short trip to Morocco, and we discovered that Moroccans have quite a distinctive, teasing sense of humour. Having had lunch at a local cafe one day, I went up to the owner to ask if I could pay, to which he replied ‘Yes, if you want to!’ The teasing humour of our driver on a trip to the desert did not go down well with a Dutch family we were travelling with, who interpreted his joking comments as rude insults! If it is hard for humour to travel from one modern culture to another, how much harder must it be to interpret humour from the ancient world?

In an earlier discussion on this subject, Colin Edwards makes this observation:

Humour is one of the hardest concepts to understand in crossing cultures. The gap from 0AD Palestinian Culture to today is a lot bigger than the gap between German and English. I lived for 17 years in Bangladesh and saw 3 main types of humour: slapstick; people acting out of social position (e.g. a doctor dressing as a sweeper and sweeping the floor); and the Jester figure (e.g. funny clothes, funny voice etc.). Verbal humour and word play was much less a part of the culture. The use of humour in public speaking is also a lot less.

I heard many captivating Muslim preachers, and they rarely used what we would call humour. They happily denounce others and make the opposition look silly, and therefore objects of humour. Jesus did that regularly (e.g. “Let he who is without sin, through the first stone” and “show me a coin”. This last one was in the temple, where a coin with a head on it was considered an idol.).

One of the most extensive explorations of humour in the Bible (actually mostly focussing on the New Testament and the teaching of Jesus) is The Prostitute in the Family Tree by Douglas Adams (not the same as the author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—as he himself comments in the Amazon reviews!). Adams begins by looking at the humour in Bible stories, and describes them as ‘grandparent stories’ rather than ‘parent stories’. Parents want their children to behave, and so often tell serious stories with a moral point. But grandparents can afford to be much more honest, and as a result humour and irony emerge more commonly—and that is the usual approach of Bible stories. Christian readers often try and impose a serious morality on stories which resist such readings. As an example, Adams considers the genealogy in Matthew’s gospel, with the ironic presence of Rahab the prostitute, who gives the book its title. Hie notes the comedy in the contrast between the (expected) good characters listed and the (probably unexpected) bad ones—and offers an interactive, dramatic retelling in order to enable congregations to engage with the contrast, which is sure to lead to lots of laughter.

Adams explores different aspects of the humour of Jesus’ parables in three chapters, before looking at the absurdity and humour in some of Jesus’ miracles, and humour in Paul’s letters. His examples illustrate some of the challenges in looking for humour, but also the potential in both the gospels and Paul’s letters.

The most obvious demand is knowing something of the historical and social context. Early on, Adams explores the so-called parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Most of us will have realised the cultural significance of the younger son being reduced to looking after unclean pigs, and we might be aware of the expectation that, on his return, he would prostrate himself before his father, who would customarily have remained at a distance. But did we realise that the expectation would have been for the elder son to act as reconciler—a task that he signally fails in? Adams also demonstrates the need for a careful reading of the text itself: did we notice that the younger son quickly drops his plan to be a servant when he sees the welcome that he receives?

Adams also notes the surprise of many of Jesus’ economic parables, which draw on seemingly unethical practices to illustrate the kingdom of God. Should a good Jew be happy with speculating and investing the money entrusted to him in the parable of the talents? What is virtuous about the cunning steward who writes off the debts owed to his master in order to curry favour with those from whom he will later seek employment?

But these demands also illustrate how precarious it is looking for humour in another culture. Adams sees both insight and incongruity in Jesus’ parable of the kingdom as a mustard seed (Luke 13.19, Matt 13.31). The mustard plant grows quickly—but it also dies quickly, being an annual, and is something of a contrast to the image of a cedar of Lebanon, a much more common illustration in the Old Testament of what God is doing. Is Jesus really wanting to talk of the kingdom as something transient that doesn’t last? Or do we need to focus on the main point of the parable as Jesus tells it—that the kingdom starts with small things, and grows surprisingly quickly and organically when we might not expect it?

The use of cultural insights can also be precarious. Adams discusses the parable of the neighbour who has a night-time visitor in Luke 11—which I recently preached on. Here Adams disagrees with the cultural insights of Kenneth Bailey, and he sees both the timing of the demand at midnight, and the quantity of the demand (three loaves rather than the one that is needed for one guest) as being absurd. I think it is more persuasive to see this as something entirely expected in a culture where people traveled in the evening, rather than in the day, and where hospitality was a prized value. What is more amusing is the comparison of God with a grumpy neighbour, reluctant to help, whom we are disturbing from sleep with our constant, untimely requests!

Adams omits reference to what I think is perhaps the greatest failure of humour by biblical commentators—in relation to Jesus’ comment in Matthew 19:23-26, Mark 10:24-27, and Luke 18:24-27 that ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’. Cyril of Alexandria suggested that the word translated ‘camel’ should be read as ‘rope’ (kamilos instead of kamelos), and mediaeval commentators speculated that there was a small gate in the wall of the city called ‘The eye of the needle’ through which camels could pass, if only they knelt. Both attempts avoid the absurd humour of Jesus image, which was captured rather well by J John: ‘You couldn’t get a camel through the eye of a needle if you passed it through a liquidiser!’

Adams does include one fascinating observation about humour in Paul’s letters, where he sees 1 Cor 11.34–35 as a Jewish objection to Paul’s teaching, which he then ridicules in the verses that follow—some 20 years before Lucy Peppiatt Crawley argued that same on other grounds.

I wonder if what Adams is doing is less highlighting the humour in Jesus teaching and rather highlighting the underlying paradox, absurdity and surprise in his teaching about the kingdom of God. Most humour depends on leading us down a particular line of thought—only to surprise us with something quite different at the end of it. And this is essentially the truth of the good news of God’s love. When we look at God’s good intention in creation, when we consider all the ways God has provided for and blessed us, and we then see what we have done with the world and the way we have mistreated and dehumanised our fellow creatures, we can see where this story should probably end. But the good news of God’s costly redemption comes as a surprise ending—even an absurd one which we could not reasonably expect. What Adams does is alert us to this absurdity throughout the New Testament, and encourage us to make the most of it.

If Jesus did indeed laugh, use humour, and make his listeners laugh even as he challenged them, shouldn’t we do the same?

The picture above is by Deb Minnard, and you can order a print of it online. A previous discussion of this subject was posted in 2018.

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31 thoughts on “Did Jesus laugh? Was he funny?”

  1. “If Jesus did indeed laugh, use humour, and make his listeners laugh even as he challenged them, shouldn’t we do the same?”

    Ahhh but the definiton of what’s funny will create more strife than mirth.

  2. This has caught my eye as I feel quite strongly that Jesus did want to make people laugh (which is not necessarily precisely the same thing). You can imagine a modern comic saying something like “If you’re trying to find a spec of dirt in your brothers eye, first take that ****** great plank out of your own !”, so I imagine Jesus wanting to hammer home his point. He could have just said “If you find a little fault in others, be sure you are not at greater fault yourself.” But instead he makes this joke about tiny specs of dirt and colossal baulks of timber ! Similarly, he doesn’t really want us to chop our limbs off or pluck our eyes out when they lead us to sin, but by making this sort of exaggerated jokey concept around it he makes us sit up and think about how we sin. It is like our talking of ‘painting the Forth Bridge’ or ‘jumping off a cliff’.

    • If I remember correctly, the Miracle Maker played out the plank saying, which was really quite funny. Sometimes it takes others to show us the humour!

  3. Incidentally, I thought the problem of camels and needles had been explained by the fact of the Greek word for camel being more or less the same as the Greek word for ‘hawser’ or ‘very large rope for a ship’. The curious thing is that a laden camel is a more telling equivalent of a rich man than the idea of a big thick rope.

  4. “But did we realise that the expectation would have been for the elder son to act as reconciler—a task that he signally fails in”

    I mean father and younger son seem pretty reconciled to me. Would be that we all fail so successfully. (Perhaps we should ignore church history, the context and implementation of the tale, and conclude that the story is about what goes wrong when dads divert from traditional behavior.)

    Certainly you can retell parts of the New Testament to make them funny – internet atheists do it all the time, and have you seen the Life of Brian? – but I don’t think they’re funny in itself.

    A fact I like is that when filming the film Heathers, Shannon Docherty – one of the Heathers – didn’t realise it was a comedy until the showing of the film. Comedy is in the details; it is in the juxtaposition, or in the beat that goes on too long, or in the funny voice. The texts give no indication that Jesus put on a funny voice, the early church gives no indication that Jesus put on a funny voice. If a preacher reads Luke 11:7 in a funny voice, then that’s his choice it isn’t demanded by the text.

    I think it’s unjustified speculation. So often what is today’s fresh popular insight is tomorrow’s myth. To take Matthew 1 for example, Rahab is not the first lady mentioned, but Tamar is. Rahab does not follow a great hero, but Boaz and Salmon. (And what are we to make of the mention of Ruth?) If I were to tell a joke for which Rahab the prostitute was the punchline, I would not write it like that. We don’t have any reason to think that Matthew or any of his time would write a joke like that. And is it an edifying reading? I don’t think so.

    Certainly Jesus spoke in vivid terms, in rhetorical and emotional terms. It doesn’t follow from this that we’re supposed to laugh. When Jesus refers to casting out your eyes, this is no humorous cliché but a statement of the fearsome facts.

    “If Jesus did indeed laugh, use humour, and make his listeners laugh even as he challenged them, shouldn’t we do the same?”

    If he did and we were to imitate it, then the Bible would be clear about it.

    (Some notes, you refer to 1 Corinthians 11 34-35 (and the Logos tries to find that. Also, we don’t dehumanise our fellow creatures, God did that when he made the vast majority of creatures to not be human.)

  5. I have thought a great deal about Jesus and laughter. There are so many ways to laugh and countless reasons for laughing. Laughing for sheer joy is my favourite though I love a clever joke and am a big fan of satire and the surreal. The empty tomb seems to me to be the best joke of all – it is the perfect comedy, the source of the deepest laughter, the greatest joy. He’s not here! He’s alive! Subverting expectation is how comedy works … and then we laugh.

    • Great post – thankyou – laughing for Joy and the resurrection as the last laugh – the most joyful laugh – love that

  6. There’s an old book by Elton Trueblood, “The Humor of Christ” that I read as a teenager (therefore in the early Cretaceous). He found humor in several of Jesus’s sayings. Thinking about his book today, obviously through the haze of memory, my impression is that the examples he gave were all of the sort that could be funny if spoken in the right tone of voice in the mid twentieth century… whether one could argue they were funny in context was not something he thought about. Judging from reading about Greek and Roman jokes, one tends to doubt it.

    Of course, I remember a pastor arguing that “Jesus wept” was recorded because it was so unexpected, while “Jesus laughed” would have been like writing “In the morning the sun rose.”

  7. Nor so much Jesus but the phrase’ they began to be Merry’ suggests festivity where laughter would be present. The various eschatological banquets suggest joyous exuberance.

  8. Thanks, Ian.
    I love this quote of John Piper on The Happy God

    Sound doctrine [is] in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed [that is, happy] God. (1 Timothy 1:10–11)

    A great part of God’s glory is his happiness.

    It was inconceivable to the apostle Paul that God could be denied infinite joy and still be all-glorious. To be infinitely glorious was to be infinitely happy. He used the phrase, “the glory of the happy God,” because it is a glorious thing for God to be as happy as he is — infinitely happy.

    God’s glory consists much in the fact that he is happy beyond our wildest imagination.
    This is the gospel: “the gospel of the glory of the happy God.” That’s a quote from the Bible! It is good news that God is gloriously happy.
    No one would want to spend eternity with an unhappy God. If God is unhappy, then the goal of the gospel is not a happy goal, and that means it would be no gospel at all.
    But, in fact, Jesus invites us to spend eternity with a happy God when he says, “Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:23). Jesus lived and died that his joy — God’s joy — might be in us and our joy might be full (John 15:11; 17:13). Therefore, the gospel is “the gospel of the glory of the happy God.”
    The happiness of God is first and foremost a happiness in his Son. Thus when we share in the happiness of God, we share in the very pleasure that the Father has in the Son.
    This is why Jesus made the Father known to us. At the end of his great prayer in John 17, he said to his Father, “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26). He made God known so that God’s pleasure in his Son might be in us and become our pleasure in him.

    Devotional excerpted from The Pleasures of God

    • That’s great. But I do find it odd that a scholar like Piper can suggest that ‘blessed’ and ‘happy’ are the same. Matt 5 shows us that they really are not!

      • A lot of people are happy but not blessed (one hopes that the reverse is not true…). At Westminster Abbey in the 1970s the late David Edwards isolated the following 2 groups in a sermon:

        -individuals in the initial throes of sexual free-for-all.

    • I find his use of the word ‘happy’ to describe God or those He has blessed rather odd.

      I dont see how God could be ‘happy’ when He looks at this world.

  9. Paul was funny:
    Gal 5:12 NIV
    As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

    Of course Jesus was funny. His parables and illustrations were so deeply human that it is impossible to imagine that he was not someone who laughed – and made people laugh.

  10. The analysis of different kinds of humour is enlightening (table in Fowler, Dictionary of Modern English Usage).

    Jesus was certainly a bringer of joy (triumphal entry; the Son of Man came eating and drinking; the large crowd heard him gladly; magnet for children).

    He was also a speaker of truth (and a pricker of bubbles) and truth frees and relaxes.

  11. There does seem something dryly humorous when Jesus tells an ace fisherman like the Apostle Peter to pay the temple tax with a coin from a fish’s mouth.

  12. Abraham Isaac and The chief steward remind me of the trinity in many ways. Isaac means laughter. The father of millions willed everything to joy and merriment. And we are too.

  13. Can’t we just sense the delight and joy of God in creation (Gen 1+2 & John 1). And doesn’t the creation of humanity show some sort of self-deprecating humour?
    And for a Jewish sense of humour from an American humourist:
    What make God laugh?…
    Tell him your plans for the future.
    (Woody Allen, if I remember correctly).

    • “Im not afraid of death, I just dont want to be there when it happens”

      Now that’s funny!

      It seems Jewish New Yorkers are some of the funniest people around, Woody Allen, Fran Lebowitz…

  14. And what about the outbreak of laughter in some church (revival?) meetings in the ’90s?- the freeing release of the liturgy of laughter.

    • Oh the Toronto Blessing? That was rather odd, having witnessed some of it. No doubt some of it was genuine, but not all. Wimber was right to move away from it.

  15. In Ps 2:4 God laughs in derision at his enemies. There are many kinds of laughter, not always joyful. Laughter can be bitter, scornful, incredulous (remember Sarah), sarcastic, even sad.
    Conversely joy can be expressed in other forms, not just laughter. Most of us smile more often than we laugh. I have some trouble imagining what made Jesus laugh out loud (though he surely did) but no difficulty imagining him smiling a lot. When he blessed the children, he might have laughed but he undoubtedly smiled. The parable of the Friend at Midnight does not make me laugh out loud but it does make me smile. (But come think of it, do the biblical languages have words for smiling? I can’t actually think of a text in which anyone smiles. That seems odd.)
    Jokes are a specific form of humour, and often don’t work across cultures. Actors often have to work hard to make Shakespeare’s jokes funny. People used to laugh at scatological jokes, but don’t now, I think. If Jesus told jokes we might not even recognise them as jokes.
    But there is scathingly sarcastic humour (e.g. Matt 23:24) as there is also in the prophets and in Paul. Not joyful at all.
    Another sort of humour is wit, which is at home in the Jewish wisdom tradition, and appears in some of Jesus’s aphorisms. Again not really joyful.

  16. Ken Bailey (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels) says that the Good Samaritan is an inversion of the 3 people went down the road – the hearers expected the 3rd person to be a an ordinary Jewish ‘bloke’. We should read it like – an Irishman, Scotsman and Welshman went into a bar…

    • Except the ‘punchline’ isnt funny, so not a joke. I doubt there was even a smile let alone laughs amongst his hearers, just feelings of shame because they knew that’s not how they would have treated the ‘enemy’ in need.

      There seems to be a desperation to make Jesus’ words ‘funny’, perhaps to appeal to ‘youf’, when it is obvious few of them are.


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