Tuesday, April 8, 2008
The Wit and Humor of Jesus
“Do not look dismal."--Matthew 6:16
After reading Elton Trueblood's “The Humor of Christ” many years ago I realized many of Jesus' sayings are humorous, even witty, and don't make any sense if taken literally. Worse, the traditional, false, literal interpretation is the opposite of the humorous true one (for example, the ironical "He's really smart" means the exact opposite).
If the wit of Jesus had been noticed at the beginning of Christianity terrible evil might have been avoided -- most of it done by close-minded, humorless people convinced their way is the only way, and those who disagree are evil and must be destroyed.
Few know that the word Jesus used to describe God-as-Father -- "Abba" -- translates as a humorous "Daddy" or "Papa." Or that "the meek shall inherit the earth" is better translated as "the gentle but strong..." Or that the "Ten Commandments" is correctly translated "Ten Words" or "Ten Utterances." ("Commandments" is completely wrong.) Or that the Third Utterance -- "You shall not take God's name in vain" is a misleading translation -- the real one is "You shall not carry God's name in vain," which means not to use God as your justification for selfish causes. Which, in many ways, has been the history of religion.
Jesus never wrote anything down, so his existing sayings cannot wholly be trusted. Since he lived in a predominantly non-literate society, great importance was placed on the accurate oral transmission of information, so I believe almost all of the sayings are accurate.
All translations are very risky business. The old saying (and there are many like it), "All translators are liars" is true. A poem that rhymes in its original language will not rhyme when translated. Neither will puns work. Jesus spoke in Aramaic; the Gospels were written in Greek and then translated into English. It's astonishing they make as much sense as they do.
Another problem is that you have to know the speaker's tone of voice and the look on his face. This is why the wit, irony, ridicule, exaggeration and satire that Jesus consistently engaged in comes through so rarely in the Bible. Too bad YouTube didn’t exist in those days.
The political and social context in which he lived and spoke are all very important -- and little of this is in the Gospels. Some study is necessary to gain an understanding of the society in which he lived.
I am using the “The New Testament in Modern English,” by J.B. Phillips. It's not a direct translation, but a paraphrase (it is impossible to directly translate something).
Not all translations are from it; others are from places I can't remember. Only a few of the "humorous" sayings are from Trueblood; most are my opinions.
Of all the translations I have read the Phillips' portrays the humor of Jesus most clearly. The others scarcely portray it -- especially the inaccurate King James version. No one ever spoke as the KJV is written: it's too formal, archaic, emotionally distant, and unrealistically severe (the word “amartia,” for example, actually means "to miss the mark," as in archery, but has historically been mistranslated as "sin").
I'll use the sayings in the Synoptic Gospels in roughly chronological order. Since John is so different I will discuss it separately. I also believe the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas contains some genuine sayings of Jesus.
Of great importance is that Jesus lived under Roman occupation, where the Romans put as intermediaries between them and the people (peasants, really) a wealthy, patriarchal elite -- a combination of fundamentalist, lawyer, judge, politician -- the Pharisees and scribes. (The conquering Romans rarely interfered as long as they got their money.)
Although there were many good people among the Pharisees, others were self-righteous, materialistic, intellectually arrogant, self-deluded, and consumed with ritual piety. A self-appointed and self-perpetuating priesthood (as all of them are) they ostracized many people as impure, unclean outcasts -- the ill, the poor, the female (whether Hebrew or not), and the gentile. Innocence didn't matter -- they were still outcasts, their lives being an indication they had somehow offended God. (When Jesus ate dinner at a leper's house, his behavior was unacceptably outrageous -- lepers had to live in a small village of their own away from the main village.)
One theory, for which there is a great deal of evidence, is that Jesus was a Pharisee, who attacked not all, but only the hypocritical ones. People generally attack those who are closest to them but with whom they have important differences.
The Gospel's view that all the Pharisees were small-minded hypocrites cannot be true. If Jesus was a Pharisee, then it was the duty of the others to "test" him and see if he really was what he said he was, or else a false prophet, which in the fragile political climate of the time would be a terrible danger. The Romans had more once than once killed many Judeans. This is what the Pharisee's public debate with Jesus was about -- to see if he could pass their testing. The last thing needed was a bunch of hot-headed militant nationalists seeing Jesus as their long-awaited king, rising up against the Romans and bringing destruction to their nation.
The public debates then are the same as they are today. The audience is usually on the side of the one who can defeat his opponents with wit. I once heard a debate in which one panelist told another that evolutionists "believe in fairy tales because they think a frog can turn into a prince." The pros and cons of evolution aside, it was a very witty remark, appreciated by almost everyone.
Jesus used a similar kind of wit to attack the prejudice, the chauvinism, and the narcissism of his opponents -- to shame them for their false sense of superiority and entitlement and for their ostracism of the innocent as their inferiors. His wit would have also made him popular with the crowds.
There are several theories of humor, but nearly all agree humor comprises three elements: suddenness: incongruity (when two highly different ideas are juxtaposed, the result is laughter), and superiority, (where there are winners and losers).
An example: A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender looks at them and says, "What is this, a joke?" The last line, the punchline, is sudden; it is incongruous, and there is superiority (the bartender is ridiculing all three of the men.)
Jesus used all three elements in his sayings (it is sudden, incongruous, and ridiculous to imagine a camel trying to go through the eye of a needle). That he called his opponents "phonies," "hypocrites," and "white-washed tombs full of bones" shows how severely he disagreed with them, and how he tried to show the superiority of his ideas over theirs.
The first instance of wit in the Synoptics is when Jesus sees Peter and Andrew fishing, and says, "Follow me and I will teach you to catch men."
It's not great wit; kind of corny, really. But it's a little bit funny. "You guys are catching little fish. Come with me and I'll teach you to catch the big ones."
A humorous saying that has caused a lot of trouble: "You have heard it said to the people in the old days, 'You should not commit adultery.' But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her -- in his heart."
Literally, this saying makes no sense. Human nature is such that idle sexual thoughts are common, so common that most people don't pay much attention to them. So what could Jesus mean by this preposterous saying?
Everyone is familiar with people like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker -- judgmental people, harshly criticizing and condemning other peoples' sex lives. . .then they get caught with hookers (in Swaggert's case, twice), and in adultery. Or with their boytoys.
So Jesus mocked them, essentially saying, "Are you claiming you have no sexual desire?" If they were to say “Yes,” they would be no better than anyone else. If they were to say, "No," people would laugh at them as liars. They were stuck being unable to answer him.
As Voltaire once said, "Lord, please make my enemies ridiculous." Henri Bergson, in his famous essay on humor, made the comment, "a rigid virtue is easier to criticize than a flexible vice."
Jesus was mocking the self-righteous as being pompous and ridiculous. They had no answers for him, which the Gospels make very clear. He left them speechless and therefore objects of laughter by the people. The scribes and the Pharisees were supposed to have all the answers. How then could this man leave them speechless? Did Jesus have a twinkle in his eye during this bantering?
After the 'adultery' saying there is another troublesome saying: "Yes, if your right eye leads you astray pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members that your whole body should be thrown onto the rubbish heap.
"Yes, if your right hand leads you astray cut if off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than that your whole body should be thrown on to the rubbish-heap."
The saying is ridiculous is taken literally. Since it comes right after the adultery saying, it is obviously aimed at the self-righteous. Why? It’s irony. Imagine someone with a peg-leg, an eye-path, and a hook. It’s a funny image.
Jesus is telling the self-righteous. “You don’t watch to touch, look at, or even put a toe on those whom you have turned into outcasts? Well, to make sure you can never do it again and will go to Heaven, cut off all those body parts.”
Imagine the laughter of the crowd. Imagine if Jesus suggested Jimmy Swaggart cut off all his offending members so he couldn’t sin with hookers again? His eyes, his hands, his feet…and I can think of at least one other thing, too.
Right after this saying is another one: "Whatever you have to say let your 'yes' be a plain 'yes' and your 'no' be a plain 'no' -- anything more than this has a taint of evil."
How often have politicians refused to answer a question with a 'yes' or 'no'? They perpetually evade. The same kind of people existed in Jesus' time. So he said something that left them speechless: "Answer the question yes or no or you're tainted by evil." How could they possibly answer? They couldn't. Again, they were stuck.
An example of hyperbole: "You are heard that it used to be said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,' but I tell you, don't resist evil. If a man hits your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well."
Literally, this doesn't make any sense. But if it's seen as 'don't return hate for hate' or 'don't fight fire with fire,' then the meaning is clear. It's also a comment on the fact that hate damages the hater much more than it damages the hated.
This is the meaning of Jesus' saying, "He who calls his brother a 'fool' in is danger of Gehenna." Gehenna was a place of human sacrifice and death...so those who mocked, humiliated and insulted others -- called them 'fools' -- should be prepared for revenge.
"For if you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even the tax collectors do that!" Funny…being loved by tax collectors because you pay your taxes, even though his listeners knew that tax collectors don’t love anyone. How could the crows not smile?
The next sayings: "Beware of doing your good deeds conspicuously to catch men's eyes or you will miss the rewards of your Heavenly Father.
"So, when you do good to other people, don't hire a trumpeter to go in front of you -- like those play-actors in the synagogues and streets who make sure that men admire them. Believe me, they have had all the reward they are going to get...
"And then, when you pray, don't be like the play-actors. They love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners so the people may see them at it."
These are obvious: he is calling opponents a bunch of phonies, consumed with superficial ritual while missing the deeper meaning of their own teachings. He portrays them as being pompous and blind.
Here is a very famous saying: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and fail to notice the log in your own?" This one is obvious -- someone with a log in his eye (and doesn't know it's there), who's judging the speck of sawdust in someone else's.
"If any of you were asked by his son for bread would you give him a stone, or if he asks for a fish would you give him a snake?" These are again examples of incongruous humor.
"Be one guard against false prophets, who come to you as wolves in sheep's clothing." One of his best-known sayings, and one of his funniest and saddest. Wolves hidden under sheep's skins trying to infiltrate a flock...how many cartoons have used this image?
"...a foolish man who built his house on sand. Down came the rains and up came the floods, while the winds blew and battered that house till it collapsed, and fell with a great crash." Who would build their house on sand, and who would not laugh at them for doing so? This sounds much like the fable of “The Three Little Pigs.”
"Foxes have earth, birds in the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere he can call his own." There are at least three ways this one can be interpreted. One, it almost sounds as if Jesus is feeling sorry for himself, which I find hard to believe. Second, he is scolding everyone, which sounds petty. Third, he is making fun of himself, which I think is the case here. Only the utterly self-righteous can't bend enough to poke at least a little fun at themselves.
There is also a saying of his about Heaven and earth not passing away until “every dot and comma of the Law is complete.” This is a curious saying. The Pharisees were ridiculous in their application of the Law: they meticulously washed the insides and outsides of their cups and they strained their drinks to remove gnats. They were obsessive-compulsives.
Since Jesus overthrew all of this silliness, he obviously was making fun of fulfilling “every dot and comma,” especially since those “dots and commas” were the curly ends of the Hebrew letters.
Another saying: "Nobody sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on to an old coat, for the patch will pull away from the coat and the hole will be worse than ever. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins -- otherwise the skins burst, the wine is spilt and the skins are ruined. But they put new wine into new skins and both are preserved." He’s comparing his opponents to old coats and old wineskins, so full of their opinions that anything new will rip holes in them or burst them open.
One of the -- at first -- most disturbing stories about Jesus is when a woman implores him to heal her daughter. He appears to insult her by saying, "It's not right to take the children's food and give it to the dogs."
She responds: "Yes, but even the children can eat the scraps that fall from the table."
"If you can answer like that," Jesus says, "your daughter is healed."
On the surface, this is an appalling story. She begs to have to daughter healed. First Jesus ignores her -- then he insults her.
This is not what happened.
Jesus was not even supposed to acknowledge this woman's presence, because she was a woman and of a different ethnic group (tribe, actually.) But he wants to heal her. How? He uses humor. No one can fault him.
What he really said to her was, "It's not right to take the little children's food and give it to the little house puppies (that beg at the table.)" I'm sure he had a twinkle in his eye. He was also giving her the answer: "Yes, but even the little house puppies can eat the little scraps that fall from the little children's table."
He pretends to insult her -- teasing her, really -- and gives her the answer. Any crowd around him would appreciate the whole exchange. Even if they were of different tribes. Humor, as always, is the great ice-breaker. It almost always breaks the tension.
Jesus is also engaging in one of his 'two-birds-with-one-stone' sayings. His disciples want to send the woman away because of their own prejudice -- their own belief in their superiority and her inferiority. So here Jesus is shaming them and showing them what is really in their hearts -- and doing it through humor. The Gospels record no response from his disciples. What could they say?
Because of this, Jesus can be portrayed as the mythological Trickster, who, not surprisingly, has a malicious streak -- hence his cursing of the fig tree. At the same time, he appears to have had a self-depreciating sense of humor. When the woman gets the best of him, he can smile, laugh at himself, and admire her.
"...so be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves." I’ve seen this translated as “understand the intellect of serpents,” which makes more sense. Either way, it’s an oxymoron -- putting together two things that are opposite, e.g. "pretty ugly” or “a little big.” It’s also incongruous to pair snakes and doves.
"What did you go out into the desert to look at? A reed waving in the breeze? No? Then what was it you went out to see? -- a man dressed in fine clothes? But the men who wear fine clothes live in the courts of kings! But what did you really go to see -- a prophet?" More of his bantering and teasing, and deflating the crowd's expectation of him as being something other than an ordinary-looking man, in ordinary clothes. Unlike many preachers today with expensive clothes, big cars, big mansions…big hair.
When some Pharisees claim he is curing because he is in league with Beelzebub, he one-ups them:..."whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven either in this world or the world to come." Taken literally, this makes no sense. The only way it makes sense is if the translation is wrong -- which it is. The correct translation means "chastising, pruning." Jesus essentially said, "You say I'm in league with the Devil? For that you will be chastised and your badness pruned away." He turned the tables on them. I doubt they had much of an answer.
"Hell" as I wrote, was actually "Gehenna," a trash dump always on fire. (The word "Hell" exists nowhere in the Bible.) He was saying the wrong teachings of his opponents would be burned up like trash. "Hel" is the pagan Norse goddess who ruled the Underworld. She wasn't scary except half of her face was featureless.
One of his most famous sayings about the close-minded and arrogant: "The blind leading the blind, and both shall fall into the ditch." I’ve seen cartoons about this one, too (Actually, I have a theory about any of Jesus’ saying – if a funny cartoon can be made out of one, then it’s a funny saying, not a literal one.)
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you are a city that kills the prophets..." There is hidden irony here. "Jerusalem" means "city of peace." More incongruous pairing – a city of peace that murders its most peaceful people.
"Look at the lilies that grow wild in the field. They don't weave clothes for themselves..." This is a poetic device; Jesus used two rhyming Aramaic words, amal and azal to describe the weaving of clothes.
Another curious construction: referring to Herod, he says, "Go and tell that fox..." He uses the feminine for "fox" – a vixen. A fox, then as now, is crafty and cunning. But why the feminine? Obviously, it's an insult. It sounds as if he's calling Herod a sissy.
Jesus not only made puns, but bad ones: "Your name is Peter (Rock) and you are the rock on which I am going to build my church." (Later he calls Peter "Satan" -- obviously teasing him. He certainly could not have literally meant that the man on whom he founded his church had Satan hop in and then hop out seconds later).
Later some of the Pharisees try to trap him again by showing him a Roman coin and asking him if they should pay taxes to Caesar or not. He takes the coin and answers, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."
These Pharisees are being dishonest. If they were as devout and pious as they claimed, they would not have a Roman coin on them. It bore the likeness of Caesar -- a graven image they would have been forbidden to possess. And there is no indication that Jesus ever gave the coin back to them. How could they protest, since they weren't supposed to have it in their possession in the first place?
Another well-known, and misunderstood saying: "Believe me, a rich man will find it very difficult to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Yes, I repeat, a camel could more easily squeeze through the eye of a needle than a rich man get into the kingdom of God!"
A camel trying to squeeze through a needle's eye is ludicrous. One explanation of this saying is that some people are obsessed with money and material possessions to the exclusion of truly important things.
Another explanation is the guy was a pompous jerk -- in public -- Jesus saw through him and tailored his saying to deflate him. He did this often -- see the stories below of his arrest and his encounter with Nathanael.
A last possible explanation is that in that age the rich, who comprised ten percent of the population but owned two-thirds of the wealth, used the coercive government of the government to steal from the other ninety percent, who owned just one-third of the wealth. So this guy was probably a thief, and Jesus suggesting to him that he give back what was stolen.
"...I tell you that tax-collectors and prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of Heaven in front of you." Here we have the self-righteous, convinced they are entering Heaven while excluding outcasts, and Jesus is saying the most outcast of all are better than the self-righteous. This is why he said "The last shall be first and the first, last." The outcasts will enter heaven before those who are convinced they will enter before everyone else.
"Is a lamp brought into the room to be put under a bucket or underneath a bad?" A lamp under a bucket would be smothered and go out; one under a bed would catch it on fire. Not only are many of his saying not literal; they have to be understand imaginatively.
"...their whole lives are planned with an eye to effect. They increase the size of their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their robes; they love the seats of honor at dinner parties and front places in synagogues! They love to be greeted with respect in public places and to have men call them 'rabbi.'" I'd be embarrassed if I was described like this. A phylactery was often worn on the forehead: imagine it growing...and growing...and a tassel too long would trip the wearer.
Then there is the one about how everyone rushes to get the best seats in front, then when all are seated, the host has everyone in back take the front seats, embarrassing everyone who was fighting.
"You are blind leaders, for you filter out a mosquito yet swallow a camel." Here he mocks their blindness: they'd swallow camels but not notice it. Swallowing a camel? This is more of his humorous exaggeration.
When he was arrested, he said, "So you've come out with your swords and staves to capture me like a bandit, have you?" This is not a correct translation. "Bandit" should be translated "militant nationalist." He’s mocking them, telling them “You come to arrest me as a militant nationalist when you know perfectly well I am not one.”
There isn't much humor in the Gospel of John, except at the very beginning, when Nathanael says, insultingly, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"
Nazareth at that time was an insignificant little village in the middle of nowhere. Galilee was just as insignificant of a province. Hence, Nathanael's question could be considered appropriate.
Jesus, seeing Nathanael coming toward him, banters with him, "Now here is a true man of Israel; there is no deceit in him!" He’s telling him "I know how little you think of me," but turns away the barb with a joke.
Nathanael, surprised at being seen through so easily, asks, "How can you know me?"
Again Jesus uses humor: "I saw you underneath that fig tree." Pious Jews in that time studied the Torah under a fig-tree. Jesus was using humor to say to Nathanael: "I see through you."
There is one humorous saying in the Gospel of Thomas that I believe is true. When Jesus is asked is circumcision is useful, he replies, "If it were, circumcised fathers would produce circumcised sons though through mothers."
This is witty, and just a little bit risqué'. I suspect it's true because it is similar to a saying in the accepted Gospels where Jesus claims circumcision came not from Moses, but from those who came after him.
A Jesus that is witty and humorous -- and definitely not literal -- is a Jesus little-known today. It is not the Jesus of accepted history. His teachings have in many ways through the centuries been hijacked by the very people to whom he was opposed, to the misfortune of a great many people.