My take: Reclaiming Jesus’ sense of humor

English: This is a map of first century Iudaea...

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.

The Age of Barbaria

Bronze_coin_of_Pontius_Pilate_Jerusalem_mint_2...

Bronze coin of Pontius Pilate

La Era de Barbaria (Spanish)

The Age of Barbaria

Annual trips back to the year 33 began in the Age of Barbaria. That year was selected because, according to surveys, Christ’s crucifixion drew the attention of most Westerners, and this social sector was important for economic reasons since trips to the past weren’t organized, much less financed, by the government of any country (as had once happened with the first trips into space) but by a private company. The financial group that made the marvel of traveling through time possible was called Axa. Acting at the request of the High Chief of Technology, who suggested infinite profits through “tourism services,” Axa transported groups of thirty people each to the year 33 in order to witness the death of the Nazarene, much as the tourist commoners did long ago when at each equinox they would gather at the foot of the pyramid of Chitchen-Itzá to witness the formation of the serpent from the shadows cast down by the pyramid upon itself.

The greatest inconvenience encountered by Axa was the limited number of tourists who were able to attend the event at one time, thus hampering the millions in profit expected by the investors. For this reason the group maximum was gradually raised to forty-five, at the risk of attracting the attention of the ancient residents of Jerusalem. That figure has been maintained at the request of one of the company’s principal stockholders, who argued, reasonably, that the conservation of that historic deed in its original state was the basis for the trips, and that if each group produced alterations to the facts, it could result in an abandonment of general interest in carrying out this kind of travel.

Over time it has been proven that each historical alteration of the facts, no matter how small, is nearly impossible to repair. Such damage occurs whenever one of the travelers fails to respect the rules and attempts to take away some memento of the place. The most well-known was the case of Adam Parker who, with incredible dexterity, was able to cut out a triangular piece of the Nazarene’s red tunic, probably at the moment the latter collapsed from fatigue. The theft did not signify any change in the holy scriptures, but it served to make Parker rich and famous, since the tiny piece of canvas came to be worth a fortune, and more than a few of the travelers who have since taken on the trouble and expense of going back thousands of years have done so to see where the Nazarene is missing “Parker’s Triangle.”

A few have posed objections to this kind of travel, which, they insist, will end up destroying history in ways beyond our notice. In effect, it has: for each change introduced on any given day, infinite changes are derived from it, century after century, gradually diluting or multiplying its effects. In order to notice a minimal change in the year 33 it would be useless to turn to the holy scriptures, because all of the editions, equally, would reflect the blow and completely forget the original facts. There might be a possibility of tracing each change by projecting other trips to years just prior to the Age of Barbaria, but nobody would be interested in such a project and there would be no way of financing it.

The discussion about whether history should remain as it is or can be legitimately modified also no longer matters. But the latter is, in any case, dangerous, since it is impossible to foresee the resulting changes that would be produced by any particular alteration. We know that any change might not be catastrophic for the human species, but could potentially be catastrophic for individuals: we might not be the ones who are alive now, but someone else instead.

The most radical religious groups find themselves on opposing sides. Barbaria’s information services have recently discovered that a group of Evangelicals belonging to the True Church of God in Sao Pablo, will make a trip to the year 33. Thanks to the charity of its faithful, the group has managed to gather together the sum of several million charged by Axa per ticket. What no one has yet been able to confirm are the group’s intentions. It’s been said they will blow up Golgotha and set fire to Jerusalem at the moment of the Crucifixion, so that we thus arrive at the greatly anticipated End Times. All of history would disappear; the whole world, including the Jews, would recognize their error and would turn to Christianity in the year 33. The entire world would live in the Kingdom of God, just as described in the Gospels.

Others dispute this as conspiracy theory, or they question how the travelers could witness the Crucifixion without trying to prevent it. The theological answer is obvious, which is why those least interested in preventing the martyrdom of the Messiah are his own followers. But for the rest, who are the majority, Axa has decreed its own ethical rules: “In the same manner in which we do not prevent the death of the slave between the claws of a lion when we travel to Africa, neither must we prevent the apparent injustices that are committed with the Nazarene. Our moral duty is to conserve nature and history as they are.” The crucifixion is the common heritage of humanity, but, above all, its rights have been acquired totally by Axa.

In fact, the changes will be increasingly inevitable. After six years of trips to the year 33, one can see, at the foot of the cross, bottle caps and magic marker graffiti on the main beam, some of which pray: “I have faith in my lord,” and others just limit themselves to the name of who was there, along with the date of departure, so that future generations of travelers will remember them. Of course, the company also began to yield in the face of pressure from dissatisfied clients, leading to a radical improvement in services. For example, Barbaria just sent a technical representative to the year 26 to request the production of five thousand cubic meters of asphalt and to negotiate with Pontius Pilate the construction of a more comfortable corridor for the Via Dolorosa, which will make less tiresome the travelers’ route and, besides, would be a gesture of compassion for the Nazarene, who more than once broke his feet on stones that he failed to see in his path. It has been calculated that the improvement won’t mean changes in the holy scriptures, since there is no special concern demonstrated there for the urbanism of the city.

With these measures, Axa hopes to shelter itself from the storm of complaints it has received due to alleged inadequacies in service, having to confront recently very costly lawsuits brought by clients who have spent a fortune and have returned unsatisfied. The cause of these complaints is not always the intense heat of Jerusalem, or the congestion in which the city is entrapped on the day of the Crucifixion. Above all the cause is the unsatisfied expectations of the travelers. The company defends itself by saying that the holy scriptures weren’t written under its quality control, but instead are only historical documents and, therefore, are exaggerated. There where the Nazarene really dies, instead of a deep and horrifying night, the sky is barely darkened by an excessive concentration of clouds, and nothing more. The Catholics have declared that this fact, like all those referenced in the Gospels, should be understood in its symbolic meaning and not merely descriptively. But most people were satisfied neither by Axa’s response nor by that of Pope John XXV, who came out in defense of the multinational corporation, thanks to which people can now be closer to God.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

The Humanist (USA)

The Age of Barbaria

Bronze_coin_of_Pontius_Pilate_Jerusalem_mint_2...

Image via Wikipedia

La Era de Barbaria (Spanish)

The Humanist (USA)

The Age of Barbaria

Jorge Majfud

In the year of Barbaria began the annual trips to the year 33.  That year was selected because, according to surveys, Christ’s crucifixion drew the attention of most Westerners, and this social sector was important for economic reasons, since trips to the past were not organized, much less financed, by the government of any country, as had once happened with the first trips into space, but by a private company.  The financial group that made possible the marvel of traveling through time was Axa, at the request of the High Chief of Technology, who suggested infinite profits through the offering of “tourism services,” as it was called in its moment.  From then on, various groups of 30 people traveled to the year 33 in order to witness the death of the Nazarene, much as the tourist commoners used to do long ago when at each equinox they would gather at the foot of the pyramid of Chitchen-Itzá, in order to witness the formation of the serpent from the shadows cast down by the pyramid upon itself.

The greatest inconvenience encountered by Axa was the limited number of tourists who were able to attent the event at a time, which did not generate profits in accordance with the millions expected by the investors, for which reason that original number was gradually raised to 45, at the risk of attracting the attention of the ancient residents of Jerusalem.  Then the figure was maintained, at the request of one of the company’s principal stock-holders who argued, reasonably, that the conservation of that historic deed in its original state was the basis for the trips, and that if each group produced alterations in the facts, that could result in an abandonment of general interest in carrying out this kind of travel.

With time it was proven that each historical alteration of the facts, no matter how small, was nearly impossible to repair.  Which occurred whenever one of the travelers did not respect the rules of the game and attempted to take away some memento of the place.  As was the most well-known case of Adam Parcker who, with incredible dexterity, was able to cut out a triangular piece of the Nazarene’s red tunic, probably at the moment the latter collapses from fatigue.  The theft did not signify any change in the Holy Scriptures, but it served to make Parcker rich and famous, since the tiny piece of canvas came to be worth a fortune and not a few of the travelers who took on the trouble and expense of going back thousands of years did so to see where the Nazarene was missing “Parcker’s Triangle.”

A few had posed objections to this kind of travel which, they insist, will end up destroying history without us being able to notice.  In effect, so it is: for each change that is introduced on a given day, infinite changes are derived from it, century after century, gradually diluting or multiplying its effects.  In order to notice a minimal change in the year 33 it would be useless to turn to the Holy Scriptures, because all of the editions, equally, would reflect the blow and completely forget the original fact.  There might be a possibility of tracing each change by projecting other trips to years prior to the year of Barbaria, but nobody would be interested in such a project and there would be no way of financing it.

The discussion about whether history should remain as it is or can be legitimately modified also no longer matters.  But the latter is, in any case, dangerous, since it is impossible to foresee the resulting changes that would be produced by any particular alteration.  We know that any change could potentially not be catastrophic for the human species, but would be catastrophic for individuals: we might not be the ones who are alive now, but someone else instead.

The most radical religious groups find themselves on opposing sides.  Barbaria’s information services have recently discovered that a group of evangelists, belonging to the True Church of God, of Sao Pablo, will make a trip to the year 33.  Thanks to the charity of its faithful, the group has managed to gather together the sum of several million that Axa charges per ticket.  What no one has yet been able to confirm are the group’s intentions.  It has been said that they intend to blow up Golgotha and set fire to Jerusalem at the moment of the Crucifixion, so that we thus arrive at  the greatly anticipated End Times.  All of history would disappear; the whole world, including the Jews, would recognize their error, they would turn to Christianity in the year 33 and the entire world would live in the Kingdom of God, just as descrived in the Gospels.  Which is disputed by other people.

Others do not understand how the travelers can witness the crucifixion without trying to prevent it.  The theological answer is obvious, which is why those least interested in preventing the martyrdom of the Messiah are his own followers.  But or the rest, who are the majority, Axa has decreed its own ethical rules: “In the same manner in which we do not prevent the death of the slave between the claws of a lion, when we travel to Africa, neither must we prevent the apparent injustices that are committed with the Nazarene.  Our moral duty is to conserve nature and history as they are.”  The crucifixion is the common heritage of Humanity, but, above all, its rights have been acquired totally by Axa.

In fact,the changes will be increasingly inevitable.  After six years of trips to the year 33, one can see, at the foot of the cross, bottle caps and magic marker graffiti on the main beam, some of which pray: “I have faith in my lord,” and others just limit themselves to the name of who was there, along with the date of departure, so that future generations of travelers will remember them.  Of course, the company also began to yield in the face of pressure from dissatisfied clients, leading to a radical improvement in services.  For example, Barbaria just sent a technical representative to the year 26 to request the production of five thousand cubic meters of asphalt and to negotiate with Pontius Pilate the construction of a more comfortable corridor for the Via Dolorosa, which will make less tiresome the travelers’ route and, besides, would be a gesture of compassion for the Nazarene, who more than once broke his feet on stones that he did not see in his path.  It has been calculated that the improvement will not mean changes in the Holy Scriptures, since there is no special concern demonstrated there for the urbanism of the city.

With these measures, Axa hopes to shelter itself from the storm of complaints it has received due to alleged inadequacies in service, having to confront recently very costly law suits brought by client who have spent a fortune and have not returned satisfied.  The cause of these complaints is not always the intense heat of Jerusalem, or the congestion in which the city is entrapped on the day of the crucifixion.  Above all the cause is the unsatisfied expectations of the travelers.  The company defends itself by saying that the Holy Scriptures were not written under its quality control, but instead are only historical documents and, therefore, are exaggerated.  There where the Nazarene really dies, instead of there being a deep and horrifying night the sky is barely darkened by an excessive concentration of clouds, and nothing more.  The Catholics have declared that this fact, like all those referenced in the Gospels, should be understood in its symbolic meaning and not merely descriptively.  But most people were satisfied neither by Axa’s response nor by that of Pope John XXV, who came out in defense of the multinational corporation, thanks to which people can now be closer to God.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

Bruce Campbell is an Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies at St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN, where he is chair of the Latino/Latin American Studies program.  He is the author of Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis (University of Arizona, 2003); his scholarship centers on art, culture and politics in Latin America, and his work has appeared in publications such as the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies and XCP: Cross-cultural Poetics.  He serves as translator/editor for the “Southern Voices” project at www.americas.org, through which Spanish- and Portuguese-language opinion essays by Latin American authors are made available in English for the first time.

 

The Age of Barbaria

Bronze_coin_of_Pontius_Pilate_Jerusalem_mint_2...
Image via Wikipedia

Originally published in The Humanist

The Age of Barbaria

In the year of Barbaria began the annual trips to the year 33.  That year was selected because, according to surveys, Christ’s crucifixion drew the attention of most Westerners, and this social sector was important for economic reasons, since trips to the past were not organized, much less financed, by the government of any country, as had once happened with the first trips into space, but by a private company.  The financial group that made possible the marvel of traveling through time was Axa, at the request of the High Chief of Technology, who suggested infinite profits through the offering of “tourism services,” as it was called in its moment.  From then on, various groups of 30 people traveled to the year 33 in order to witness the death of the Nazarene, much as the tourist commoners used to do long ago when at each equinox they would gather at the foot of the pyramid of Chitchen-Itzá, in order to witness the formation of the serpent from the shadows cast down by the pyramid upon itself.

The greatest inconvenience encountered by Axa was the limited number of tourists who were able to attent the event at a time, which did not generate profits in accordance with the millions expected by the investors, for which reason that original number was gradually raised to 45, at the risk of attracting the attention of the ancient residents of Jerusalem.  Then the figure was maintained, at the request of one of the company’s principal stock-holders who argued, reasonably, that the conservation of that historic deed in its original state was the basis for the trips, and that if each group produced alterations in the facts, that could result in an abandonment of general interest in carrying out this kind of travel.

With time it was proven that each historical alteration of the facts, no matter how small, was nearly impossible to repair.  Which occurred whenever one of the travelers did not respect the rules of the game and attempted to take away some memento of the place.  As was the most well-known case of Adam Parcker who, with incredible dexterity, was able to cut out a triangular piece of the Nazarene’s red tunic, probably at the moment the latter collapses from fatigue.  The theft did not signify any change in the Holy Scriptures, but it served to make Parcker rich and famous, since the tiny piece of canvas came to be worth a fortune and not a few of the travelers who took on the trouble and expense of going back thousands of years did so to see where the Nazarene was missing “Parcker’s Triangle.”

A few had posed objections to this kind of travel which, they insist, will end up destroying history without us being able to notice.  In effect, so it is: for each change that is introduced on a given day, infinite changes are derived from it, century after century, gradually diluting or multiplying its effects.  In order to notice a minimal change in the year 33 it would be useless to turn to the Holy Scriptures, because all of the editions, equally, would reflect the blow and completely forget the original fact.  There might be a possibility of tracing each change by projecting other trips to years prior to the year of Barbaria, but nobody would be interested in such a project and there would be no way of financing it.

The discussion about whether history should remain as it is or can be legitimately modified also no longer matters.  But the latter is, in any case, dangerous, since it is impossible to foresee the resulting changes that would be produced by any particular alteration.  We know that any change could potentially not be catastrophic for the human species, but would be catastrophic for individuals: we might not be the ones who are alive now, but someone else instead.

The most radical religious groups find themselves on opposing sides.  Barbaria’s information services have recently discovered that a group of evangelists, belonging to the True Church of God, of Sao Pablo, will make a trip to the year 33.  Thanks to the charity of its faithful, the group has managed to gather together the sum of several million that Axa charges per ticket.  What no one has yet been able to confirm are the group’s intentions.  It has been said that they intend to blow up Golgotha and set fire to Jerusalem at the moment of the Crucifixion, so that we thus arrive at  the greatly anticipated End Times.  All of history would disappear; the whole world, including the Jews, would recognize their error, they would turn to Christianity in the year 33 and the entire world would live in the Kingdom of God, just as descrived in the Gospels.  Which is disputed by other people.

Others do not understand how the travelers can witness the crucifixion without trying to prevent it.  The theological answer is obvious, which is why those least interested in preventing the martyrdom of the Messiah are his own followers.  But or the rest, who are the majority, Axa has decreed its own ethical rules: “In the same manner in which we do not prevent the death of the slave between the claws of a lion, when we travel to Africa, neither must we prevent the apparent injustices that are committed with the Nazarene.  Our moral duty is to conserve nature and history as they are.”  The crucifixion is the common heritage of Humanity, but, above all, its rights have been acquired totally by Axa.

In fact,the changes will be increasingly inevitable.  After six years of trips to the year 33, one can see, at the foot of the cross, bottle caps and magic marker graffiti on the main beam, some of which pray: “I have faith in my lord,” and others just limit themselves to the name of who was there, along with the date of departure, so that future generations of travelers will remember them.  Of course, the company also began to yield in the face of pressure from dissatisfied clients, leading to a radical improvement in services.  For example, Barbaria just sent a technical representative to the year 26 to request the production of five thousand cubic meters of asphalt and to negotiate with Pontius Pilate the construction of a more comfortable corridor for the Via Dolorosa, which will make less tiresome the travelers’ route and, besides, would be a gesture of compassion for the Nazarene, who more than once broke his feet on stones that he did not see in his path.  It has been calculated that the improvement will not mean changes in the Holy Scriptures, since there is no special concern demonstrated there for the urbanism of the city.

With these measures, Axa hopes to shelter itself from the storm of complaints it has received due to alleged inadequacies in service, having to confront recently very costly law suits brought by client who have spent a fortune and have not returned satisfied.  The cause of these complaints is not always the intense heat of Jerusalem, or the congestion in which the city is entrapped on the day of the crucifixion.  Above all the cause is the unsatisfied expectations of the travelers.  The company defends itself by saying that the Holy Scriptures were not written under its quality control, but instead are only historical documents and, therefore, are exaggerated.  There where the Nazarene really dies, instead of there being a deep and horrifying night the sky is barely darkened by an excessive concentration of clouds, and nothing more.  The Catholics have declared that this fact, like all those referenced in the Gospels, should be understood in its symbolic meaning and not merely descriptively.  But most people were satisfied neither by Axa’s response nor by that of Pope John XXV, who came out in defense of the multinational corporation, thanks to which people can now be closer to God.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

Bruce Campbell is an Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies at St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN, where he is chair of the Latino/Latin American Studies program.  He is the author of Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis (University of Arizona, 2003); his scholarship centers on art, culture and politics in Latin America, and his work has appeared in publications such as the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies and XCP: Cross-cultural Poetics.  He serves as translator/editor for the “Southern Voices” project at http://www.americas.org, through which Spanish- and Portuguese-language opinion essays by Latin American authors are made available in English for the first time.

The Humanist (USA)

The Humanist 2 (USA)