Breaking Jesus’ Roof

Breaking Jesus’ Roof March 4, 2024

One possible avenue I’ve been thinking of exploring as a next book project is the question of whether Jesus’ parables were intended to be funny. If and when I get around to pursuing that, I will obviously share more here. In the meantime, I will have some related links to share below, and would love to hear what you think about whether Jesus was funny and if so when and how.

As I’ve been leading a study of the Gospel of Mark in my Sunday school class, I’ve been struck by the humor in Mark’s Gospel. It isn’t only the exorcism story featuring the pigs that is comical (in that case political satire). In the first encounter with someone who is afflicted by a demon, Mark plays on the expectation that an exorcist will have to work hard to get a demon to reveal itself. In Mark, the demon senses the power that is present in Jesus and can’t help exclaiming in a way that reveals itself. Rather than having to try to get it to speak, Jesus has to tell it to be quiet.

Even funnier is a detail that hadn’t struck me before, in one of the most familiar stories in the Gospel of Mark. When the friends of a paralyzed man dismantle the (presumably thatched?) roof of the house Jesus was in so as to reach him, I don’t think I recall anyone stopping to remark on the fact that it was Jesus’ house. There is thus the possibility of double entendre when Jesus tells the man “your sins are forgiven.” It has overtones in that context of “I won’t charge you and your friends for the roof” as well as its religious meaning.

All of this struck me on Sunday morning. I left the class with a question related to my forthcoming books Christmaker and John of History, Baptist of Faith. Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist who begins proclaiming the kingdom of God after John was imprisoned. So when Jesus told someone that their sins were forgiven, should we assume that baptism was involved? If so, was it normally by full immersion, and in the case of someone with limited mobility, did Jesus make allowances for those circumstances? If he did (as the Didache later would codify) was this an innovation that began with John, and if it was Jesus’ adaptation of John’s practice for specific circumstances would John have approved? Christians eventually ceased treating baptism in living (i.e. flowing) water as the norm, and the Mandaeans make no exceptions. I suspect that these stark opposing stances represent the result of mutual self-definition between the followers of John who aligned with Jesus and those who did not. But isn’t it noteworthy that this question about Jesus as baptizer is so rarely asked? The objection that some present are said to have made, that this was blasphemy, would have arisen in connection with John’s practice and not only the words of Jesus on this one occasion. John’s baptism claimed to provide what the Torah said sacrifice provided, namely access to divine forgiveness. At any rate, my forthcoming books will explore these and other neglected topics, hopefully bringing both John the Baptist and Jesus into clearer focus as a result.

Back to the topic of sense of humor, something that my books argue was a commonality between Jesus and his teacher. Someone asked about the possibility that Jesus was humorous recently in the Academic Biblical subreddit. In that context Luke 13:31-33 struck me in a way it hadn’t before. Was Jesus’ message to Herod Antipas essentially this?

“If you want to kill me you’ll need to be quick, I’m headed to Jerusalem (which you think should be the capital where you reign as king but isn’t, nyah nyah), and they’re likely to beat you to it.”

Others have been mentioning this lately too. See for instance Diana Butler Bass’ post about the “worst wedding ever.” I am toying with the idea that that parable might be a riddle.

Ian Paul also blogged about this topic several years ago.

In other news, don’t miss my conversation with Dan Koch on his podcast You Have Permission! The title is “Good News! The Bible Disagrees with Itself.”

See also the following recent conversations on YouTube with Tripp Fuller and Sam Tideman, if you haven’t already:

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