Editor’s note: James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine and author of “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life,” from which this article is adapted.
By James Martin, Special to CNN
Here’s a serious question about levity: The Bible clearly paints a picture of Jesus of Nazareth as a clever guy, but he never seems to laugh, much less crack a smile. Did Jesus really have no sense of humor; didn’t he ever laugh?
Well, one difficulty with finding humor in the New Testament is that what was seen as funny to those living in Jesus’ time may not seem funny to us.
For someone in first-century Palestine, the premise (or “setup” as a comic would say) was probably more amusing than the punch line. “The parables were amusing in their exaggeration or hyperbole,” Amy-Jill Levine, a New Testament scholar at Vanderbilt University, said in an interview. “The idea that a mustard seed would have sprouted into a big bush that birds would build their nests in would be humorous.”
People in Jesus’ day would probably have laughed at many of his intentionally funny illustrations: for example, the idea that someone would have lit a lamp and put it under a basket, or that a person would have built a house on sand or that a father would give a child stones instead of bread.
But contemporary Christians may be missing the humor that Jesus intended and that his audience understood.
Father Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, professor of New Testament at Boston College, agrees. “Humor is very culture bound,” he told me. “The Gospels have a lot of controversy stories and honor-shame situations. I suspect that the early readers found these stories hilarious, whereas we in a very different social setting miss the point entirely.”
Let’s repeat that: hilarious.
Or maybe we just know the stories too well. Too many Gospel stories have become stale, like overly repeated jokes. “The words seem to us like old coins,” wrote Elton Trueblood, a 20th-century Quaker scholar, “in which the edges have been worn smooth and the engravings have become almost indistinguishable.”
In his book “The Humor of Christ,” Trueblood recounts the tale of his 4-year-old son hearing the Gospel story of seeing the speck of dust in your neighbor’s eye and ignoring the log in your own and laughing uproariously. His son recognized the humor that someone else, who might have heard the story dozens of times, might miss.
There are other indications in the Gospels that Jesus of Nazareth had a lively sense of humor. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is castigated for not being as serious as John the Baptist. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking,” Jesus said, “and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard.’ ” In other words, the Gospels record criticism of Jesus for being too high-spirited.
“Jesus and his disciples,” said the Rev. Richard J. Clifford, SJ, a biblical scholar at Boston College, “are criticized for living it up!”
After his time on Earth, some of this playfulness may have been downplayed by the Gospel writers, who, scholars say, may have felt pressured by the standards of their day to present a more serious Jesus.
“There were probably things that were compressed and shortened, and some of the humor may have been leached out,” Clifford said. “But I see Jesus as a witty fellow, someone who is serious without being grim. When the disciples argue among themselves, Jesus brings wit into the discussion.”
Jesus also embraces others with a sense of humor. In the beginning of the Gospel of John comes the remarkable story of Nathanael, who has been told by his friends that the Messiah is from Nazareth. Nathanael responds, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
This is an obvious joke about how backwards the town was; Nazareth was seen as a backwater with only a few hundred people.
And what did Jesus say in response? Does he castigate Nathanael for mocking his hometown?
Jesus says nothing of the sort! Nathanael’s humor seems to delight him.
“Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” Jesus said. In other words, here’s someone I can trust.
Nathanael then became one of the apostles. Jesus’ welcoming of Nathanael into his inner circle may be the clearest indication that Jesus had a sense of humor.
Besides, what kind of a person has zero sense of humor? I asked Eileen Russell, a clinical psychologist based in New York who specializes in the role of resilience, how she would describe the psychological makeup of a person without a sense of humor.
“A person without a sense of humor would lead to that person having significant social problems,” she said. “He would most likely have difficulty making social connections, because he wouldn’t be able to read signals from other people, and would be missing cues.”
That’s the opposite of what we know about Jesus from the Gospels. Yet that’s just the kind of one-sided image that many Christians have of Jesus. It shows up in Christian books, sermons and in artwork. It influences the way that Christians think about Jesus, and therefore influences their lives as Christians.
If part of being human includes having a sense of humor, and if Jesus was “fully human,” as Christians believe, he must have had a fully developed sense of humor. Indeed, his sense of humor may be one unexamined reason for his ability to draw so many disciples around him with ease.
It’s time to set aside the notion that Jesus was a humorless, grim-faced, dour, unsmiling prude. Let’s begin to recover his humor and, in the process, his humanity.