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’.