You know, if you took the attitudes and the facial expressions of a lot of conservative Christians to heart, you could easily believe that Christianity was this horribly sober-sided, humorless religion. And if you took some of the English translations of Jesus's words at face value, especially in the translations that the sober-sides favor, like the King James Version, then you'd get the impression that Jesus wasn't a particularly happy guy.
But you'd be wrong. There is a great deal of humor in the Gospels. The problem is that the translations into English (and other languages) just don't bring out that humor. And that problem is caused by the attitudes of the translators themselves, who translate according to their own agendas, and unfortunately many of these translators take themselves and their agendas far too seriously. A lot of the cultural context of first century Palestine and the nuances of the original Greek are left on the cutting-room floor because these guys are focused on getting across the concept that this is Very Serious Business. But if you study the context and the Greek language, there really is a lot of humor in Jesus, especially in the way he expressed himself.
I'm not going to do a full exposition here on humor in the Gospels. You can do that on your own; just Google "humor of jesus" and you'll find a goldmine of information. I'm just going to look at an incident that brings out Jesus's bantering style of repartee.
In the 21st chapter of John, after the Resurrection and after Jesus has appeared to the disciples twice in Jerusalem, Peter decides to go back up to Galilee and start trying to earn a living again. He grabs John and James the sons of Zebedee, Thomas, Nathanael, and two others and says, "Look, I'm going fishing." And they said, "We'll come, too." So off they go. They're out in the boat all night, and by morning they haven't caught a thing. So when the sun comes up in the morning, there's a man on the shore, and he shouts out to them, "Children, do you have any fish?"
That's how the English Standard Version (ESV) translates the question in John 21:5. The King James version has it: "Children, have ye any meat?" And the more modern and often more informal New International version has it: "Friends, haven't you any fish?" Reynolds Price, in his book Three Gospels, translates it: "Boys, nothing to eat?" I like this, because it jibes with my own translation; it has an air of affectionate ribbing as a result of love and a long friendship with these men.
In Greek, the question reads: παιδια μη τι προσφαγιον εχετε (Paidia, me ti prosphagion echete) Now paidia is the diminutive plural of pais - boy. Also, prosphagion indicates something that can be eaten with bread - meat, fish, etc. The whole sentence is very slangy Koiné Greek. A close translation would be: "Kids, have you caught anything to eat?" In the context of the situation and the slang, the man on shore is asking them "Hey guys! You catch any breakfast yet?"
In the light of this little excursion into Greek slang, look at the scene again. These guys are out on the boat all night without catching a thing. Then this fella on the shore shouts out to them "Hey guys! You catch any breakfast yet?" The voice and manner seem familiar, and somebody says "Who's that joker?", while somebody else grumps back to the joker-on-the-shore "No we haven't, thank you very much!" So the guy shouts back "Try the other side of the boat. I bet you'll have better luck there." So they do, and sure enough they get a full net. Meanwhile, John bar Zebedee's been thinking about the voice and the joke, and the lightbulb goes on, and he says "Hey, that's the Lord!" And Peter jumps up startled, and says, "You know, I wonder..." And he peers toward the shore and says "You're right, that IS Jesus!", and he jumps overboard and starts swimmimg to shore.
You see, the disciples figured out who it was on the shore of the lake because Jesus had affectionately poked them in the ribs like this all the time during his ministry. The humor was always there, and that's what gave him away.
There's lots more of this in the Gospels! Jesus was a consummate punster and player with words. He also used satire and irony in his parables, and especially in his dealings with those who took themselves so very seriously; he loved poking fun at the pomposity of the priests and the scribes. But you have to look for it, because the translators have buried that humor under an avalanche of stifling seriousness. Do the Google search I mentioned above and you'll see what I mean. And especially check out Elton Trueblood's The Humor of Christ, a classic in the field.
Jesus may have wept, but he also laughed. Maybe Christianity would be more attractive if his followers laughed more, too.
© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger