Friday, July 31, 2009

Jesus the Merry Prankster (For All the Sourpusses Out There)

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


  1. I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.
    -Mahatma Gandhi

    It frustrates me that the Christians most often plastering their faces on the TV screen and blathering about morality are the antithesis of everything I've read and believe Jesus to have been. He was tolerant; they are intolerant. He was kind and forgiving; they are all about hatred and fear. He made no distinction between follower and "infidel" - all were heard and blessed - whereas these Christians treat non-Christians like the evil incarnate.

    And the one thing that really enraged Jesus, people profiting from the belief of others, these Christians are all about fleecing and controlling their flocks.

    No wonder many thinkers find churches turn their stomachs. I know these folks don't represent all Christians, but you'd never know it watching TV, reading the newspapers, looking for news on-line.

  2. Steph, my next Biblical studies post will probably be an argument against the frequent Christian insistence that non-believers have no sense of morality, that belief in their way of belief renders non-believers incapable of moral or ethical sensibility. One of the Christian blogs I follow - The Internet Monk - is written by Southern Baptist pastor and educator Michael Spence, who I've mentioned before; he wrote the "The Coming Evangelical Collapse" article (for the Christian Science Monitor and a more complete explication on a three-part series on his blog). Today Michael published an interview with a woman who had been an evangelical but who eventually left that to become a non-theist, and who has written a book to evangelicals showing them what drove her away. In the comment thread that followed the interview, Michael made a statement that intrigued me: "...[I] would put the blame for shifting the discussion to morality firmly at the feet of Christians, who have spent centuries saying that no one but themselves could be truly moral. Of course, the Gospel refutes that completely." I've asked him to point me in the general direction of passages that support his assertion, and that'll be the next Biblical studies/theology from me.

  3. Oh, you are SO right! What a refreshing and realistic view of Jesus Christ. I loved this post, Roy!!! Excellent.

  4. The Greek and Hebrew literature is loaded with great humor and puns. It all got lost with over the centuries, as you point out.

    Religion requires a sense of humor. How else can we explain the vagaries of the world?

    As a (Jewish-slanted) non-theist, the Christian notion that only they have a lock on morality is atrocious, and offensive. The current media frenzy over the atheist bus ads that read "You don't need God to be good," is just another example.

    How can this possibly be offensive? Far more offensive is the Christian Right's attitude that only they can possibly be moral creatures. Screw the rest of the world.

  5. ...Roy....I was taught this story as a kid....that Jesus was funny and would play jokes on his Apostles (like a friend would). I always thought everyone knew Jesus was funny!! (I guess that's what a very loose Irish Catholic/German Jewish upbringing will do for ya!) :-)

  6. hi roy,
    i remember some time back you posted a comment at my place. it was about neil douglas-klotz' version of the beatitudes and i struggled to get what you were saying.
    anyway, i'll come back to that....

    interesting that megans post prompted me to drop over here, today of all days.

    i have heard it said before that jesus was a joker but that we miss the humour and that makes sense to me. if humour is Gods creation and Jesus is Gods son then he had to be damned funny

    as a Christian i get annoyed by the loud conservative bunch who are so self righteous, so unfunny, so judgemental....such bad representatives
    but then because they are so loud i wonder if i have misunderstood completely. i wonder if my understanding of Christianity is a figment of my imagination

    anyhow, i suppose what i'm trying to say is that with a limited knowledge of the bible and a non-existent background in the issues surrounding translation i rely on people like you to increase my knowledge. i especially like it when people like you support views that i rarely hear in the church


  7. Hey! Colette stole my thunder-LOL! But you do bring up some good points here, Roy.

  8. Yay Roy! loved your post, you'd like our Theology on Tap discussions very much-we get together around a pint and talk about all sorts of issues like this. Once a month Wednesdays at a local bar/grill. Maybe start a group in your area. We set some great ground rules and have all walks of life and beliefs in the group. I'll send ya more info if you're interested?

  9. Good post! I liked it. Although I think (perhaps) some folks here may be confusing Baptists, Methodists, Pat Robertsonites, Catholics, Jimmy Swaggrtites, et al, with some sort of automatic Christianity. Christians are people who follow the teachings of Jesus, not the teachings of churches. The two things are very different in my experience. I admit I can't abide churches for much longer than the occasional wedding or funeral, but I DO admire the teachings of Jesus. I really like your concept of Jesus having a sense of humor. I have always thought that too. Thank you for the insightful post.

  10. Hi there! Do you know if they make any plugins to protect against
    hackеrs? I'm kinda paranoid about losing everything I've worked harԁ on.
    Any suggestions?

    Feel free to visit my site forestry bucket trucks

  11. Usuаlly I ԁon't learn post on blogs, but I wish to say that this write-up very forced me to take a look at and do so! Your writing taste has been amazed me. Thank you, quite great post.

    Review my page -
    my website - tens therapy