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Jesus's Humor - Part Seven - Other Tricks
Jesus’s humor was similar to the Greek humor of his time, but in many ways gentler. Like Jesus, the Greek’s used exaggeration and caricature. Symbolic characters, like those in the parables, were common. The caricature of the "common man," for example, was often an old man who is easily fooled.
People of the era told jokes, just like we do today. They actually had ‘joke-groups’ who met and traded jokes. One such group gathered regularly in the Athenian Temple of Heracles in the 4th century B.C. The ancient Greek foil for jokes was often the idiot (buffoon). One such joke goes: “An idiot, wanted to go to sleep but wanted a pillow. He asked his slave to give him an earthen jar for his head. The slave said that a jug was too hard. The idiot told him to fill it with feathers.”
Like Jesus, other favorite targets were the intellectual elites of society, their lawyers, their philosophers, and their doctors. When we read Jesus’s statements about the Pharisees, he was following this ancient tradition. For example, there is an ancient Greek joke about a man seeing a physician. He complained, "I feel groggy for a half-hour after I get up, and only then do I feel normal." The physician prescribed a simple solution, “Get up half an hour later.”
Developing His Ideas
Like all humorists, Jesus worked before live audiences allowed him to hone his words. The record of the four Gospels enables us to see how Jesus developed his humorous approach to the paradox of life over time. In the previous article, I used the "if your hand trips you up" line from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:30) to illustrate the more bawdy aspects of Jesus’s humor, “And if it is that right of yours, a hand, that trips you up, you should cut it off…” and so on.
But Jesus uses a more developed approach later in Matthew 18:8 by buildng on the original. “If, however, that hand of yours or that foot of yours trips you up, cut it off and toss [it] from you! It is good for you to show up into this life limping and deformed than, having two hands or two feet, to be tossed into this pyre, this perpetual one.
In this later version, both the “hand or foot" trips you up. This is more logical because a hand is less likely to trip you than your foot. The new version also adds some wordplay, with the Greek words, "good" versus "maimed" and "halt." In Greek, these three adjectives are sound likes: kalos (good), kullos (limping) and cholos (maimed).
Interactions with Others
And when Jesus joked, people joked right back at him and he loved it! The most famous example is the discussion with the Canaanite woman. Jesus’s use of the word “dogs” comes across as an insult to English translations instead of a joke. However, Jesus actually uses the word that means "puppies," the diminutive, to refer to her children. If this was an insult, why does the woman come back with what is clearly a joke about the puppies getting the crumbs (Matthew 15:27). Jesus liked her joke so much he granted her wish instantly.
Jesus often joked with his students. Admittedly, they are not portrayed as the brightest bulbs in the Gospel, but, a lot of times, these people are having fun. When they were criticized for eating on what some considered on a fast day, and Jesus explains by asking a question (Matthew 9:15) : "Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them?" So there was a sense of celebration in their group. This playfulness explains many verses.
For example, when Jesus says that people shouldn't divorce, Matthew 19:9, the apostles come back with the statement (Matthew 19:10), "If that's the case, it's better not to marry!" This is clearly a joke. Probably spoken by a married man. The comment is what we expect of married men joking about marriage. It works in any era.
Jesus responds with a joke of his own (Matthew 19:11): "Not everyone makes room for this idea, but to them, it has been given." The verb “makes room for” is choreo, the root of our word, “choreograph,” so Jesus is likening marriage to dancing, and not everyone can dance, but the last part, the punchline, makes this dance into a gift.
Other Forms of Humor
There are many other forms of Jesus’s humor, but it would take a book to cover them all. Here are a few more.
Playing with double meanings. This is perhaps his most common form of humor. For example, the Greek word for "mountain" also means "mule" in the form Jesus uses. So when he says that, with enough faith, we can command a "mountain" to move, is he really talking about a mule?
The use of unusual and complicated words. He often used this technique in verses using exaggeration. These words were often the punchlines, the final word in the verse.
Playing with sound-alike words. We see an example of that above with kalos (good), kullos (limping) and cholos (maimed).
Using complicated words for the sake of humor. Jesus normally speaks very simply, especially in his stories and conversations. However, when confronted by the scribes (the academics of the period) and Pharisees, he will start to use big, complicated words. For an example, see Matthew 7:23.
Making up words. The most famous example is in the Lord’s Prayer, where he makes up a word meaning “existing upon.” See this article on it.
Not all of Jesus’s statements were primarily humorous, but most had humorous aspects to them. In future articles, I will be pointing them out and referring back to this series of articles when these different types of humor are used.