Does Jesus Have a Sense of Humor? (Part 1)

Does Jesus Have a Sense of Humor? (Part 1) September 6, 2017

Religion is funny. Christian Science is neither Christian nor science. And, fundamentalism is not fun. That’s funny.

But, have you ever wondered if Jesus was funny?

In the closing line of his classic book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton speaks of Jesus’ lack of humor: “There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have some- times fancied that it was His mirth.”1 According to Chesterton, Jesus was probably not funny.

Jesus Was Funny

But Jesus was funny. This fact is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Jesus’ entire earthly ministry.

Our inability to see Jesus as funny is not rooted in the pages of Scripture, but rather in the way Jesus has been portrayed in many popular films. In 1927 the legendary director and devout Christian Cecil B. DeMille produced the life of Jesus in the movie King of Kings. He was very careful to portray Jesus as very pious with little humanity; he even had a glowing aura around him, which made him appear like something of an icon on the screen. He was without humor and appeared as a very serious holy man.

The Library of Congress holds more books about Jesus (seventeen thousand last time I checked some years ago) than about any other historical figure, roughly twice as many as about Shakespeare, the runner-up.2 One University of Chicago scholar has estimated that more has been written about Jesus in the last twenty years than in the previous nineteen centuries combined.3 Yet I have found only one book that examines Jesus’ humor, Elton Trueblood’s The Humor of Christ, published in 1964. Trueblood says:

There are numerous passages . . . which are practically incomprehen- sible when regarded as sober prose, but which are luminous once we become liberated from the gratuitous assumption that Christ never joked. . . . Once we realize that Christ was not always engaged in pious talk, we have made an enormous step on the road to understanding.”4

Trueblood goes on to say, “Christ laughed, and . . . He expected others to laugh. . . . A misguided piety has made us fear that acceptance of His obvious wit and humor would somehow be mildly blasphemous or sacrilegious. Religion, we think, is serious business, and serious business is incompatible with banter.”5 Other scholars say, “If there is a single person within the pages of the Bible that we can consider to be a humorist, it is without a doubt Jesus. . . . Jesus was a master of wordplay, irony, and satire, often with an element of humor intermixed.”6 In the appendix of The Humor of Christ, Trueblood lists thirty humorous passages of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels alone (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).7

3 Reasons We Miss Jesus’ Humor

There are at least three reasons why modern Bible readers and hearers are remiss in capturing Jesus’ sense of humor.

First, many people are so familiar with some Bible texts that they wrongly assume they know what the texts mean and are not able to hear them in a fresh manner.

Second, because the death of Jesus is the centerpiece of our theology, it has in some ways so dominated our thinking about Jesus that his life prior to his death is seen as little more than one of avoiding sin and being an acceptable sacrifice, which means that his humor and fun are overlooked. But the fact that Jesus was often invited to parties because people liked him, crowds thronged around him, and his fiercest critics falsely accused him of being nothing but a party animal suggests he was fun to hang with (Luke 5:33; 7:31–35).

Third, being removed from Jesus by two thousand years means that some of those ancient cultural clues and euphemisms are lost on us. The cultural framework required for humor was made obvious to me while in India, because every time I turned on the television and watched an Indian show I could not figure out for the life of me what the jokes meant. Nonetheless, it is important to note some of Jesus’ ancient funnies.

Jesus said that Christians who don’t evangelize are as helpful as a house fire in Mark 4:21: “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand?”

Perhaps his most hilarious funny is Matthew 19:24: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” In trying to figure out what Jesus was talking about, more than a few Bible commentators have done origami to that section of Scripture. Possibly the most common explanation is that there was some hole in some wall in some town that a camel could pass through only by lying on its gut and shimmying through like a Marine crawling in boot-camp training, and some people called that place “the eye of the needle.” Or Jesus was telling a joke, and the guys in suits missed the punch line.

Scholars in the area of humor say, “The most characteristic form of Jesus’ humor was the preposterous exaggeration.”8 The whole idea of a camel being threaded through a needle like a line of thread was an ancient funny where he exaggerated to make a point. Likewise, the guy who says he’s so hungry he could eat a horse does not intend to masticate an entire horse—hooves, tail, and all.

Another example of Jesus using preposterous exaggeration is found in Matthew 7:3, which says, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” This Hebrew funny from carpenter Jesus probably got the most laughs on the job site with the framing crew who knew the difference between a two-by-four and a speck of sawdust that blows off a table saw.

For yet another example of Jesus’ preposterous exaggeration, we can consider his encounter with Peter in Matthew 16:13–20. There, Jesus nicknamed Cephas after the WWE wrestler, calling him Peter, which means “the rock,” just before Peter proved he was merely a pebble by rebuking Jesus, and Jesus calling him Satan, or at least Satan’s wing-man (Matt. 16:21–23).

Thankfully, Jesus is fun and funny. As a result, hanging with him in heaven forever will not be like getting your taxes done while at the dentist forever and ever and ever…

  1. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 160.
  2. Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (New York: Far- rar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), 11.
  3. Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 20.
  4. Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 10.
  5. Ibid., 15.
  6. Ryken, et al., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, s.v. “Humor—Jesus as Humorist,” 410.
  7. Trueblood, The Humor of Christ, 127.
  8. Ryken, et al., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, s.v. “Humor—Jesus as Humorist,” 410.

This blog is adapted from the book Religion Saves by Mark Driscoll.


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