Jesus and other punsters

The BBC has a wonderful article by Sally Davies on puns, basically a review of John Pollack’s book  The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics.  The article offers different theories of puns, most of them ludicrous.  (Why are “power” and “coping with despair” considered valid categories of explanation, while “because they are funny” is apparently not?) Puns have often been condemned, though they are used by by such luminaries as Shakespeare and JESUS (so there can’t be anything wrong with them).  The article includes some world-class puns.  Read it, linked below.  Here is a sample:

“[Puns] fell out of favour during the Enlightenment, when the form’s reliance on imprecision and silliness was out of kilter with the prevailing spirit of sophistication and rational inquiry.

“Arrant puns” were the subject of attacks by the likes of Joseph Addison, 18th Century London’s pre-eminent literary tastemaker. He decried them as debased witticisms and exulted that they had been “banished out of the learned world”.

Yet Addison’s campaign was not enough to expunge the pun from the capital’s coffee-houses, where the poet Nicholas Rowe once fell victim to a pun-fuelled prank, described in The Percy Anecdotes. After nagging one of his fellow patrons to borrow a diamond-encrusted snuff box, the owner succumbed, but not before scribbling in its lid the Greek letters phi and rho, or “Fie, Rowe!” An onlooker spoke for many when he remarked that “a man who could make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket”.

But puncraft did not always suffer from such bad PR.

The Roman orators Cicero and Quintilian believed that “paronomasia”, the Greek term for punning, was a sign of intellectual suppleness and rhetorical skill.

Jesus himself was a prodigious punster. His declaration that “upon this rock I will build my church” famously played on the way Peter’s name echoed the Ancient Greek word for rock, “petra”.

Jesus may have also salted his speech with puns on Aramaic words, the language of everyday communication. When he condemns the Pharisees for letting punctilious piety blind them to mercy, Jesus calls them “blind guides, which strain at a gnat [galma], and swallow a camel [gamla]“. . . .

The characters in [Shakespeare's]  plays that begin the bawdy jests and elaborate badinage are almost always pages and buffoons, commoners at the mercy of their aristocratic overlords. Puns give them a cloak of deniability – the joke permits ordinary folk to make light of their social betters without violating the norms of respect.

 

Jack the Clipper (photo courtesy of Tony Avon/Flickr)

 

Sex and death were these characters’ favoured subjects – Shakespeare seemed to intuit what Freud would argue some 300 years later, that humour helps us cope with the terrifying and taboo.

 

So in this scene from Hamlet, the tortured prince banters with a gravedigger in the midst of his macabre work, playing on the semantics of the word “lie”:

 

Hamlet: Whose grave is this, sirrah?

 

Gravedigger: Mine, sir.

 

Hamlet: I think it be thine, indeed; for thou liest in’t.

 

Gravedigger: You lie out on’t, sir, and therefore it is not yours: for my part, I do not lie in’t, and yet it is mine.

 

Hamlet: Thou dost lie in’t, to be in’t and say it is thine: ’tis for the dead, not for the quick; therefore thou liest.

 

via BBC News – The pun conundrum.

Now o-pun your mind and pun-leash your punning ability, putting  your favorite puns in the comments.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Matthew C

    This article was a lot of pun.

    Atheists don’t solve exponential equations because they do not believe in higher powers.

  • Pete

    I like the origami artist who had a t-shirt that read, “I fold under pressure”.

  • Kempin04

    I often comment, but on this one I think I’ll punt.

  • Orianna Laun

    It is too bad the puns have been relegated to bumper stickers and T-shirts. My two favorite shirts are very punny. One shows a bucket on a tree and says, “Sappening?” the other shows a scone on a plate and says, “Scone on.” There is another in the series which shows bread and wine and says, “Sup?” I got that one for my brother.

  • Sam

    Atheism is a non-prophet institution.

  • http://www.whenisayrunrun.blogspot.com Andrew

    Seven days without a pun makes one weak.

  • EGK

    I always appreciated Scrooge’s rejection of the reality of Marley’s ghost. After saying he’s just an “undigested bit of beef,” he notes, “There is more of gravy than the grave about you.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Q. How do you get fresh air into an Orthodox church?
    A. Double-click an icon to open a window!

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    The comic-book series that excelled in pun making has been the Asterix series. Interestingly, it was written in French, but the English translators excelled at translating and even introducing new puns. I’ve also read Dutch and Afrikaans translations, which introduced their own puns as well. Many of the Asterix puns though require a little bit of Classical knowledge. They even indulged in visual puns, which is a whole art onto itself.

    Interestingly, they never reached high popularity in the US.

  • http://jdueck.net Joel D

    I’ve been reading through Les Misérables, and Victor Hugo seems to have been intrigued puns as well.

    The character Tholomyes declares:

    Come to yourselves. This pun which has fallen from the skies must not be received with too much stupor. Everything which falls in that way is not necessarily worthy of enthusiasm and respect. The pun is the dung of the mind which soars. The jest falls, no matter where; and the mind after producing a piece of stupidity plunges into the azure depths. A whitish speck flattened against the rock does not prevent the condor from soaring aloft. Far be it from me to insult the pun! I honor it in proportion to its merits; nothing more. All the most august, the most sublime, the most charming of humanity, and perhaps outside of humanity, have made puns. Jesus Christ made a pun on St. Peter, Moses on Isaac, AEschylus on Polynices, Cleopatra on Octavius. And observe that Cleopatra’s pun preceded the battle of Actium, and that had it not been for it, no one would have remembered the city of Toryne, a Greek name which signifies a ladle.

    Later, as narrator, Hugo says:

    They declared themselves the Friends of the A B C,—the Abaisse,—the debased,—that is to say, the people. They wished to elevate the people. It was a pun which we should do wrong to smile at. Puns are sometimes serious factors in politics; witness the Castratus ad castra, which made a general of the army of Narses; witness: Barbari et Barberini; witness: Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram, etc., etc.

  • fjsteve

    Man, I thought my jokes were bad. This thread has pun out of control.

  • fjsteve

    This all has made me think of Jesus’ wordplay with Petros and Petra. Hmm…. a pun this rock?

  • Grace

    Cited above by Sally Davies

    Jesus himself was a prodigious punster. His declaration that “upon this rock I will build my church famously played on the way Peter’s name echoed the Ancient Greek word for rock, “petra”.”

    To trivilize the words of Christ, regardiing “this rock” is unlearned. The “Rock” is made clear in Deuteronomy 32, before Christ came to earth. Jesus Christ the “rock” is no pun.

    Jesus was the Rock, unless you aren’t able to understand the other Scriptures which define who HE was. Jesus is the ROCK, it is upon HIM that all is built – Peter was never the ROCK as in the foundation, you misunderstand the Scripture. Jesus was and is the FOUNDATION, the ROCK upon all that is built. He built HIS church upon HIS FOUNDATION HIS teaching/preaching, death on the Cross, Resurrection from the grave – HE and HE alone is the ROCK the foundation, which rests our Salvation, NONE OTHER.

    And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;
    Ephesians 2:20

    Jesus is the FOUNDATION the CHIEF CORNER STONE, the ROCK upon which the church is built not Peter, or any other man.

    3 Because I will publish the name of the LORD: ascribe ye greatness unto our God.
    4 He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he.
    OLD TESTAMENT Deuteronomy 32

    No mention of Peter being the ROCK here.

    And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. 1 Corinthian 10:4

    No mention of Peter being the ROCK here.

  • tODD

    Grace (@3:32 pm), maybe if you wrote more of your comment in ALL CAPS, bold, or links that don’t work, it would make more sense?

  • Grace

    tODD you POOR guy.

    You follow me around like a kid on a scooter, trying to see if you can find fault with just about anything I do. If you took care of tODD, stop whining like a kid, you might find some relief from your pent-up bur in your saddle – and it would give you the time YOU NEED to correct your failings, rather than go on a hunt for others. :razz:

  • Grace

    fjsteve @ 12:07 PM

        “a pun this rock?”

    Hi Steve, I don’t believe for a moment that the Word of God should be distorted, in such a trivial way, such as calling the “Rock” which is Jesus Christ a “pun” –

    Writers, and others like to re-arrange, and belittle the words of God, it’s to their shame.

  • fjsteve

    Fair point, Grace. I apologize to anyone here who saw my comments as irreverent or belittling.

  • Grace

    Steve,

    You were the least irreverent – Would you mind stating what denomination or church you’re affiliated with? If you choose not to answer, I understand.

  • Orianna Laun

    There is wordplay taking place when Jesus called Peter a rock. It is clear that Christ is the Rock, but there is still the wordplay on Peter’s name. It is not trivializing it, Christ Himself said it. I heard a pastor clarify it this way: “You are a prince, and upon this principle I will build my church.” It does not carry quite the same weight, but the point is clear. Peter, whose name means “rock” makes the statement; Christ is the Rock. It is the wording that is the pun, not our Lord.

  • Tom Hering

    Here’s a resource for anyone interested in the humor of Christ and the Bible.

  • Grace

    Orianna 6:59 “Peter, whose name means “rock” makes the statement; Christ is the Rock. It is the wording that is the pun, not our Lord.”

    Using Christ as the Rock, and Peter, then calling the meaning a “pun” is not amusing, nor is it correct – however there are those who find almost anything amusing, no matter how distastful it is, especially the LORD Jesus who died for our sins. The wording is serious in the passages I posted earlier, they aren’t a joke, they aren’t “puns” of any kind.

  • tODD

    Grace (@3:32, 4:35, and 8:05 pm), wouldn’t it just be shorter to write “I am OFFENDED! Continually!“?

  • Grace

    tODD @ 3:46 PM

    ” maybe if you wrote more of your comment in ALL CAPS, bold, or links that don’t work, it would make more sense?”

    Oh my, tODD has chosen to ride his little “scooter” again. And then use ” links that don’t work, it would make more sense?

    And now THIS: A LINK that doesn’t work. I’m impressed tODD, you’ve decided to follow suit after complaing earlier :lol:

    tODD @ 8:29 PM “wouldn’t it just be shorter to write “I am OFFENDED! Continually!“?” :razz:

    POOR tODD!

  • Grace

    Here it is, as written, by tODD:

    “wouldn’t it just be shorter to write “I am OFFENDED! Continually!“?”

  • trotk

    Grace,

    Did Jesus laugh? Did He tell jokes? Did He pun?

    Why are you so offended that He might have used a pun or two, thus opening the door for us to play along?

    For another reference, check the call to Jeremiah, or the book of Hosea. God is clearly affirming that we can pun and yet be reverent at the same time.

  • Grace

    trotk 11:04 PM

    YOU WROTE: “Did Jesus laugh? Did He tell jokes? Did He pun?

    The Bible doesn’t say one word about Christ Jesus telling a joke, or laughing. was:

    33 When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled.

    34 And said, Where have ye laid him? They said unto him, Lord, come and see.

    35 Jesus wept.

    36 Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!
    John 11

    Sorrows

    3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

    4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted”
    Isaiah 53

    Christ sorrowed over this world, HIS grief was apparent from HIS love for us to die on the Cross at Calvary. Yet, little man can’t see it, or rather trivilizes HIS grief .

  • trotk

    Grace, if Jesus didn’t laugh, he didn’t share our full humanity.

  • Booklover

    It would be unthinkable that the Inventor of laughter would not use it.

  • Booklover

    Tom provided a link above concerning the vast amounts of humor used by the Lord, for those who ignored it the first time.

    It’s good news. Laugh.

    Jesus was always accused by the “holy” that he was having too good a time–eating, drinking, talking about parties in his parables, creating excellent wine. . .

  • Orianna Laun

    A pun is not irreverent, but if you think so, then call it a clever turn of phrase. Jesus used them, this is obvious. It likely would have helped reach his hearers. Wit can reach more people than plain speech. Many pithy sayings make a person think more than a serious one. Which get repeated and forwarded faster: jokes or deep thoughts? To say our Lord did not use wordplay is nearly as offensive.
    Without a doubt our Lord’s life was full of grief. He “entered in our hall of doom where death had royal scope and room,” as the hymn says. His people whom He loved rejected Him. He came to save sinners. Yes, He wept over Jerusalem, but if He says the angels rejoice over repentant sinners and the father runs in joy to receive his prodigal son, then how can we not believe that Jesus is capable of laughter?

  • Tom Hering

    One person here has a problem with the idea of Our Lord punning. Just one. The same person who has a problem with a number of things that are clear in Scripture, because she believes her personal interpretations are correct, while Christians who turn to other Christians to help them understand God’s Word are deceived by men. I suppose she strongly believes what 1 John 2:26 says, and that’s good. (“You have no need for anyone to teach you.”) Though she kind of misses the obvious fact that John, a man, makes that statement in a letter written to teach others! So John clearly didn’t mean that God never uses Christians to teach other Christians, or that Christians should never turn to other Christians (past or present) to grow in understanding. Also note that John was writing to a church, a community, and not to an individual who depends on no one but himself.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Grace- your image of Jesus is baffling. It is almost as if you deny the incarnation, likening it more to an apparition. Just saying.

  • tODD

    Being outraged at the drop of a hat is how we show our love for God.

  • Orianna Laun

    What, tODD? I was misinformed. I thought that forwarding sappily sentimentally spiritual emails was how I showed my love for God. I guess I’ve been doing it wrong.
    I remembered another pun, though. . .
    Two brothers bought a cattle ranch, but were at a loss as to what to name it. They asked their mother for ideas. She suggested calling it “Focus.” They asked why. She said you know the definition of focus is where the sun’s rays meet.”
    Oops, I hope I didn’t offend any non-meat eaters.

  • TE Schroeder

    There are roughly ten puns that have been shared on this topic. And while each one was supposed to give us a chuckle. unfortunately, no pun in ten did.

    If you groaned, then my work here is done.

  • Grace

    Jesus might well have laughed, but there is no passage in Scripture where it states that HE did laugh.

  • SKPeterson

    Grace – ever heard of the mountains – molehills distinction? We don’t even have a molehill on this issue of puns and the Word. Might I suggest a simple rereading of the log and speck parable. Not only is it entirely and perfectly apropos, but also note the implicit handyman humor from the son of a carpenter.

  • Grace

    SKP – - “log and speck” – -

    5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. Matthew 7

    SKP, since you mention it, perhaps you should consider taking it seriously for yourself!

    There is no passage of Scripture that states Jesus laughed. There is vast amounts of Scripture of Jesus preaching, admonishing, warning, healing the sick, raising the dead – the LORD Jesus Christ came to save us from our sins, HIS mission was to save us from our sins by dying on the cross -

  • trotk

    Aside from the hundreds of puns that are in the Bible (both OT and NT – and spoken by Jesus, no less!), as argument for God’s humor, we must understand that unless humor is sinful, it is God’s good work, and therefore Jesus probably dealt in it (as His puns evidence) as both God (who created it) and man (to whom it was given). And it is God’s good work, as Proverbs 15:13 (and many other verses) attest, and thus it must have been engaged in by the Son of God.

    The Bible has unbelievably funny moments, and lots of funny statements (many of which don’t come through because of language and cultural differences. Not to mention the puns and funny word plays throughout. I mean, Jesus called a woman a lapdog, and she wasn’t offended!

    My all time favorite, though, is, “So it came about in the morning that, behold, it was Leah!” Jacob didn’t laugh, but we sure can. Whoops, all those tender caresses last night went to the wrong woman!

    Grace, seriously. God oftentimes uses puns in serious moments. I think our hearts would break if we experienced the unmitigated grief of God over sin, and sometimes I think the puns are there to protect us. God puns on an almond tree when calling Jeremiah, and this is a book of grief.

  • trotk

    Grace, there is also no passage saying that he used the restroom, but as a human, he must have. That is probably a disrespectful analogy to you, but hey, God made Ezekiel cook his food over burning poop, so I don’t think it is that obscene.

  • trotk

    Another favorite:

    After He fasted 40 days, He became hungry!

  • Tom Hering

    There is no passage of Scripture that states Jesus laughed. (Grace @ 3:09 pm)

    There is no passage that says Jesus urinated, either. But I’m pretty sure He did from time to time, as it’s a normal, human, non-sinful thing to do.

  • Tom Hering

    trotk beat me to it.

  • tODD

    I know, right?

  • tODD

    Okay, now that this has sort of transformed into a thread on Biblical humor in general, here’s my favorite moment:

    When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”

    I just love how moronic the disciples are. Their response doesn’t even make sense. “‘Yeast’? What’s he talking about yeast for? Wait, there’s yeast in bread. You guys, he’s angry because we forgot the bread!”

    And, of course, any time we laugh at the disciples, we find reason to laugh (or, you know, cry, though I like to think that laughing implies learning) at ourselves. And then we see how Jesus didn’t simply call them idiots, but explained things to them. He loved them. Even though they were — and we are — idiots. I especially like that part.

  • Tom Hering

    Poor Todd aka Scooter! You call holy men of God idiots and morons, and place yourself above them! No Christian does such a thing. And I have a list of verses and passages, pulled out of context, to prove it!

  • Sam

    @ Grace: The great preacher Charles Spurgeon once said, “A religion that cannot stand a little laughter must be a very rotten one.”

  • Booklover

    Does God have a sense of humor? Have you seen the pufferfish??

  • kerner

    A tourist suffered a minor injury in Australia, and went to Mercy Hospital for treatment. While he was waiting, he was offered a cup of tea. The tourist, enjoying his tea, asked what kind it was. “This is Australia.”, he was told, “and we call it koala tea.” “It’s really tasty, but there are some loose tea leaves floating in it.”, said the tourist. “Of course,” replied his nurse. “The koala tea of Mercy is not strained.”

    ba-dum, ching.

  • SKPeterson

    There’s also the scatological humor employed by Elijah in his confrontation with the priests and prophets of Baal.


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