Was Jesus 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 them 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. We were recently 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?

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 happen to have preached on last week. 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 rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than a camel to go through the eye of a needle’. 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?

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34 thoughts on “Was Jesus funny?”

  1. (1) Jesus had unusual innate power and authority. That would have been impossible if he had been a misery-guts or not at ease with himself. A positive happy countenance immediately engenders respect, because the person comes across as being (a) mature, (b) not self-obsessed but willing to be the person that others would prefer/appreciate them being (which is close to the golden rule). The joy of the Lord is our strength.

    (2) Yes, he was a party animal, rejoiced *with* others as they discovered the kingdom.

    (3) People who are loved by children, as Jesus was, are always happy.

    (4) He both (a) told the truth upfront without delay and (b) showed his emotions upfront without delay, so did not repress things – repression can be associated with misery.

    People call all this ’emotionally healthy’ but I would just call it ‘healthy’, and it is more to do with his communion with God and who he was inside than with the category ’emotion’.

    He was not an ‘I say, I say, I say’ uncle type of person.

    • “4) He both (a) told the truth upfront without delay and (b) showed his emotions upfront without ”

      Did he? There were times, from memory, when he ‘kept himself from them’. Delay isn’t always repression. It can be wisdom.

      • I was more thinking of the times he engaged in discourse – however, the secrecy is deliberate and Messianic (certainly in the Gospel of Mark, possibly in the historical Jesus too): Isa 42, as confirmed by our first known interpreter, Matthew.

        It is difficult building up a coherent profile of Jesus as there are times when OT fulfilment takes the foreground and we then have to disentangle (so far as is possible) what is Jesus himself and what is the evangelists.

        Mark’s template is the Suffering Servant Isa 42-53 which was also by far and away the main Scriptural blueprint for how the Messiah’s life would pan out. (People would naturally read it in order chronologically, whether the prophet always intended it thus or not, or delivered/received his oracles in that particular order.)

        Mark is (by a lot of measures) often likely to give us a good insight into the real Jesus – by far the best of the 4 gospels in this respect. If Jesus accepted the King/Messiah identity at all (as triumphal entry, anointing at Bethany, ‘King of Jews’ title, titulus, crown of thorns and mocking robe etc suggest he did – these being among the very best attested data; not to mention his assumption of supreme authority in settings like the overturned tables), then he could not very well have overlooked Isa 42-53 as a blueprint for his ministry. What Scriptural rival even comes close to it?

    • (5) He was a storyteller. Good and successful storytellers are bound to use humour of various kinds: preposterous details that the fictional genre allows; situation comedy; playfulness. They have their audience in mind and the humour keeps them both attentive and upbeat.

      • (6) Saintly people often have happy dancing eyes. I remember Br Roger of Taize. Because they see through a child’s eyes they see lots of things within ordinary life to be funny (Chesterton’s examples: having a nose and a mouth, walking on 2 legs….).

        The Headmistress who caught girls smoking and burst out laughing ‘I can’t tell you how silly you all look’ was not necessarily mocking but laughing at the sort of thing a child might laugh at (children often laugh at silly behaviour).

        My wife, a strong Christian, has always found lots of parts of the Bible hilariously funny, and that trait is definitely a sign of purity. Not just ‘Their heart is as fat as grease’ which we laughed about for half an hour by the riverside whilst courting, but all kinds of hidden humour that arises as the result of tiny details.

        1 Kings 18-19 Elijah runs from Carmel holding his coattails for around 20-25 miles, only to find that he can’t stay in his destination Jezreel (having been hunted down).

        So he runs another 100+ miles to Beersheba, adds to this a further day’s journey into the baking desert, and (not surprisingly) wishes he was dead.

        He then walks (say) 260 miles to the Mountain of God.

        Yet when he arrives the Lord says ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’. His entire journey has been in the wrong direction or an unappreciated direction.

        Not only that, but he is urgently needed 400 miles away in the Damascus desert – which as it happens is relatively close to where he started the whole rigmarole.

  2. 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 sweepint 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.).

  3. The image of Jesus at the top of this article is one which started me thinking on this subject some time ago. I felt there was something wrong with it, when, as you note there is no recorded instance of Jesus laughing.

    Two things have occurred to me.

    One is your point about how culturally-defined humour is. I suspect that the kind of incongruity you mention is the kind of thing which people in Jesus’ day found amusing.

    The other is about laughter. Generally, isn’t laughter in scripture usually associated either with relief or with derision? That is, while we consider laughter and humour to be linked, maybe their humour led more to wry smiles than out-loud laughter.

  4. As to the question posed on Twitter, Acts has to be far and away the funniest part of the NT, IMHO. I fully agree with John Goldingay (‘Are They Comic Acts?’).

    • Like him, I think the comedy is rather piecemeal. It was Evangelical Quarterly mid-1990s. The actual genre is history not comedy, of course. But Luke is a great storyteller and when stories are retold it is often the amusing details that please the audience, so are repeated and therefore survive. John Goldingay showed how large the list of amusing moments is.

      Think The Golden Ass travelogue more than the riotous comedy of the Apocolocyntosis or Trimalchio’s Feast.

  5. The parable of the Talents – in liberation theology it’s the man who buries his talent who is the hero. He will not engage in the illegal (in Levitical Law) methods of the master. If we look at Luke’s version of the parable – of the minas – we find the traditional interpretation of Matthew hard to transfer across. Does Jesus refer to himself or The Father as a “hard man” who would have his opponents slain in front of him?

    • Yes, but the liberation reading is reading *against* the text, not with it.

      As with other parallel accounts, the question is whether these are two versions of the same story, or two related stories that Jesus told.

  6. Has anyone consulted rabbis on the humour in the NT? Jewish humour is unique in its combination of wisdom and laughter and might offer fresh insights.

    • It’s been a while since I read any of the Mishnah but there were passages in it which made me smile. The humour at times even seemed like the kind of thing a Jewish comedian today might say. I certainly wondered whether the original readers found them as amusing as I did.

  7. I cannot imagine that Jesus didn’t enjoy a joke. One of the most realistic depictions of His nature comes through in Jonny Cash’s film about Jesus… They all get in a boat to cross the lake… HE shares a bite of an apple… laughing & smiling. That seems real to me.

    Jesus is involved in creating everything & that includes humour. You cannot create humour if you don’t have humour in all its facets & expressions as part of your make up. Why would you make a banana skin slippery if it wasn’t to at some point see somebody slip on one?

    Maybe if more people had a ‘happy God’ there wouldn’t be so many problems in the world.

  8. Interesting subject – I personally think Jesus laughed a lot because he was fully human and laughter seems such a universal innate part of human language and interaction, perhaps even neurology/physiology?

    I dont think Jesus ever laughed at someone’s expense as many do

    I personally dont find much humour in the Gospels or Acts. I know folk point to gross exaggerations by Jesus in parables and such like but these are hardly rib tickling moments.

    I dont think Pharisees laughed much

    • I do think this is an awfully interesting thread – I like Ian’s citations of the ideas that humour is one of the distinctives that raise humans above animals, and that playfulness is a hallmark of intelligence; there will be humour in Jesus because of his being a supreme storyteller and inhabiting the Jewish tradition – but (as seen in the table in Fowler, Modern English Usage) our one word ‘humour’ covers a vast variety of discourse with a vast variety of intent, most of which would not be relevant to Jesus’s case. His intent was never just to ‘go for laughs’.

      Modern preachers often use comedy/humour to a huge extent, and insofar as their humour/comedy is pricking bubbles, questioning paradigms and showing up incongruities, they are doing so in the service of truth, just as Jesus (an equally informal and conversational preacher) was.

  9. Thank you so much for this article. I have been on a long journey to have my humour redeemed from its use as a cover for my insecurities or to boost my ego.

    I used to have it almost separate to those “serious” times in Church or with God and was almost schizophrenic separating these parts of me.

    But these last two years I have discovered the joy of using my humour for the glory of God and am now writing satirical books and articles to this end.

    Firstly, to join our God who laughs at the plans of the enemy (Ps 2:4; 37:13) for he is a defeated enemy. And secondly, to laugh at ourselves which is a surefire way to destroy our pride which can stop God bringing transformation in our lives.

    “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” CS Lewis.

    “Humor is a rubber sword – it allows you to make a point without drawing blood” Mary Hirsch

    Many thanks again.

    • Thanks for the fascinating comment. It is really helpful to remember that humour can be used destructively (in all sorts of ways) as well as positively.

  10. A very good read is ‘Beautiful Outlaw’ by Eldridge. He unmasks all the humour, fun and playfulness of Jesus and the resurrection appearances whilst allowing the reader to rekindle the fun and humour of just walking with Jesus every day. The danger for us clergy is that we can take ourselves far to seriously as we’re so often walking and tip-toeing around the serious edges of eternity – life, death, suffering, reconciliation, and that’s tough at times..Eldridge I think gets it right and lifts the heavy load and reminds us of the ‘light and easy yoke’ that Jesus wants for us & as ol’ Eug puts it, to always seek to live and walk to ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ and that’s gotta be fun, playful and just free.

  11. There’s something outlandishly amusing in Jesus’ night-time stroll across a choppy lake when, intially, he’s about to simply walk on past the disciples who are straining at the oars. He makes sure he’s just close enough to be noticed, and I’m almost waiting for him to wave cheekily and call out “Morning, gentlemen!” as he overtakes in the fast lane. But they freak out, and he decides to hop on board instead.

    He could have stayed further away, hidden from their sight. Or he could have made a bee-line for the boat. But his timing and positioning seem to include a comedic element (though not of the “Boo! Gotcha!” kind).

  12. As a gay man, I can’t see much comedic potential in the Christian message as you say it applies to my life.

    “Sacrifice your sexuality on God’s smoking altar and live in celibate misery for the rest of your life, or burn in hell for all eternity.”

    Doesn’t inspire much in the way of laughter, does it?

    Of course it may well be that your God’s sense of humour is completely different from mine. Perhaps he thinks it’s a great joke to condemn gay people to life-long enforced celibacy with no possibility of parole. So perhaps you should include a few one-liners in your sermons about the predicament of Side B gays to get your congregations rolling in the aisles.

    Here’s a suggestion for your next sermon to the folks at Living Out!

    “God and I have settled between us that I should preach using the expression ‘a number of’ because it doesn’t mean anything, so it means I can promise you the world and he doesn’t have to stump up with the goods.

    “Just look at [Side B congregant] over there. When he converted I promised him a number of blessings.

    “What he doesn’t realise yet is that number is zero.”

    The straights will be rolling in the aisles. The gays possibly less so, but then lack of a sense of humour must be part of our brokenness, musn’t it?

  13. Ken Bailey draws out the Parable of the Good Samaritan as a joke, like the ones we may tell about the three men who went into a bar. ….. The Jews of his day expected the hero of the joke to be the third man, rather as we would. They were definitely expecting the hero to be a ‘good honest Jew’. And (though I have no attribution) the parable of the planted mustard seed must have stuck in their minds as no one deliberately plants a weed in a field.

  14. Holger, do you know what the word grace means? I as a Christian, am also a sinner and fall short of the glory of God. We all are. Just join the club lol. We are not going to judge you man. When you accept Jesus as your saviour the rest will follow. The hardest thing is admitting that we are all sinners and are all wrong. Love ya man.

  15. Thank God I found this. This comes as no surprise to me but to others who see JESUS only in His Godly attributes, but forget that Jesus was a complete God & a Complete Human! It could have been somewhere weird if someone teaches you to do something when He has no experience of it! And Hence He had to experience and fight off all good and bad emotions to teach us the better way. I am definitely in awe with the creators of “The Chosen” series the way they have portrayed Jesus’s character. A lot of people can actually connect to Jesus better when they see that He faced similar situations what we humans face in regular day to day life. For e.g., Having a career, a mother to look after & having friends. And the moment where you start thinking Him as your best friend and open up to Him with due respect, He can be as real as any friend you’ve got. That’s when Irish Songwriter/poet Joseph Scriven in his God moments wrote the famous song, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins & griefs to bear”! As real as He was & is now, so were all the feelings He had during His earthly journey! A mighty man full of Love, wit, wisdom, compassion & joy!

    • Does anyone see the humor in passing Peter on the Appian Way when he was running from martyrdom as they were killing the Christians. Peter asks our Lord, Where are you going? Jesus replied, I am going to Rome to be crucified anew. Of course this is serious business however Jesus tapping Peter on the shoulder to remind him, hey buddy you are avoiding something, in the manner that he did (and I assume he rushed by him), amuses me.

  16. yes, JESUS makes us smile – and *you* have made me smile as i read this, for you have tuned me in even more to yet another aspect of HIS perfections! I thank you _and_ pray for GOD to bless you!!!


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