I’ve written previously about humour, or parody, in the biblical book of Jonah and possibly in the Job narrative, and elsewhere, but I haven’t as yet posted any thoughts about Jesus’ use of humour even though this is where my investigation of biblical humour actually began. So I will correct that now by posting a few thoughts about humour in the sayings and stories of Jesus.
Every culture has a unique style of humour and it is very difficult to translate humour from one language or culture into another; something is almost always ‘lost’ in the translation. As a result, we may miss the humour in Jesus’ words if we do not understand the characteristics of first century Jewish humour, especially when employed as a teaching method. According to some scholars humour was a common feature of teaching of the Second Temple period. For example, Jakob Jónsson wrote that “The literature of the rabbis is of special importance in this connection as it was a common homiletic method in their circles to include comical and humoristic examples in their illustrative teaching and preaching.” Hershey Friedman noted that “The Talmud and the Midrash … frequently make use such hallmarks of humor as sarcasm, irony, exaggeration, humorous questions, etc.” Bruce Longenecker cited several scholars who noted that Jesus’ figures of speech included irony, parody, or satire and “amusingly pithy turns-of-phrase” while some were “wholly comical”. He argued that modern readers might miss the humour in Jesus’ teachings because “in our predominantly print cultures, we have lost our sensitivity to the kinds of structural patterning and rhetorical delivery that was elementary to discourse in the predominantly oral cultures of antiquity”. He quoted Dorothy Sayers: “If we did not know all His retorts by heart, if we had not taken the sting out of them by incessant repetition in the accents of the pulpit … we should reckon Him among the greatest wits of all time.”
This article deals primarily with Jesus’ use of hyperbole as a form of humour. Not all exaggeration is humorous, but exaggeration was a common feature of Jesus’ teachings and was often humorous. We find two types of exaggeration in the teachings of Jesus:
A. Overstatement: overstating something in order to forcefully bring home a truth. An example of overstatement is in the saying: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away … And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matthew 5:29-30). Readers easily recognise this as an overstatement rather than an imperative to be applied literally. Another example is the saying: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Jesus is not instructing his disciples to hate the people who are closest to them, but rather, he is overstating a position in order to make a point forcefully: that compared with the love that a disciple must have for him in order to be his disciple, any other expression of love, by contrast, is “hatred”.
B. Hyperbole: this is a gross exaggeration, to the point of unreality. The exaggeration is so obvious a reader is unlikely to take it literally. This type of exaggeration is common to Jewish humour of the Second Temple period, and occurs frequently in Jesus’ teachings. Some examples of hyperbole are:
- “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:24).
- “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.” (Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25). This is such a gross exaggeration that some commentators have questioned whether Jesus really said this. The word for “camel” and the word for “rope” have identical spellings in Aramaic (גמלא), so Jesus might have actually said “it’s easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle …” There is a common explanation that “the eye of the needle” was a small door in one of the gates of Jerusalem, and for a camel to get through its driver had to remove all its packs and the camel had to crawl through on its knees. These are interesting ideas, but miss the point that Jesus is using a gross exaggeration to make the claim that for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God is impossible! Jesus went on to say: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (verse 26). The point of the “unreal” exaggeration is that God can do the impossible: he can even save rich people!
- “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?” (Matthew 7:3) The hyperbole in this story is in the contrast between a tiny speck of dust and a huge splinter (“log”). A speck of dust in the eye is an irritation, but a huge splinter would cause blindness. By contrasting these two situations Jesus points to the stupidity of offering advice to people about sensitive matters when we are blinded ourselves by even bigger personal issues. The message is more effective when stated humorously: in laughing at ourselves we are more open to receiving the truth and to being gently guided to a better way.
An unusual or unreal story-line is an effective use of humour to direct the listener’s attention to the main point and sometimes accompanies hyperbole in Jesus’ stories. For example, the story of the “ten virgins” or bridesmaids (Matthew 25: 1-13) portrays a wedding party which includes five bridesmaids who are unprepared for their role in an event which normally would have been planned with precision. In the culture of Jesus’ immediate audience, weddings were a major event which lasted several days and were planned to the smallest detail possibly months or years ahead. Everyone involved in the wedding knew their role and how to prepare for it. Part of the traditional first century Jewish wedding was a procession at night when the bridal party went to meet the groom. The bridesmaids carried torches for lighting the way and the torches were used as a feature in a “fire dance”. This was a traditional part of every wedding, and the bridesmaids would have learned and practiced the dances well in advance. It was an important part of the celebrations and it’s inconceivable that some detail of it would have been overlooked or forgotten. Jesus’ audience would immediately have recognised that his story was unrealistic and therefore comical with a main point which came in a “punch line” in verse 13: “keep watch”, or “be prepared”. Something as important as a wedding takes a great deal of preparation, and one would pay attention to every detail to make sure everything went as it should. How much more should they be prepared for the coming of the kingdom of God.
Didactic humour serves a number of purposes: it is memorable; it is interesting and keeps the audience engaged; it helps to focus on one main point; it makes the listener more receptive to the lesson; it encourages a response. Jesus employed humour frequently and effectively.
 Jónsson, J., Humour and Irony in the New Testament: Illuminated by Parallels in Talmud and Midrash (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1965) p.90
 Friedman, H.H., “He Who Sits in Heaven Shall Laugh: Divine Humor in Talmudic Literature” Thalia 1997; 17, 1/2, p.37
 Longenecker, B.W., “A Humorous Jesus? Orality, Structure and Characterisation in Luke 14:15-24, and Beyond” Biblical Interpretation 16 (2008) 179-204 p.181, citing R.A. Horsley and N.A. Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), p. 47.
 Longenecker 2008 p.183, citing H. Palmer, “Just Married, Cannot Come”, NovT 18 (1976), pp. 241-57 (248).
 Longenecker 2008 p. 184
 Longenecker 2008 p.182, citing D. Sayers, The Man Born to be King (London: Victor Gollancz, 1946), p. 26.
 Stein, R.H., The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1978) p.8
 Stein 1978 p.11f
 Several of Jesus’ teachings referred to blindness in a humorous or satirical way. For example, “They are blind guides.And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14), is not hyperbole but meets the criteria for humour.
 This would make the hyperbole symmetrical but wouldn’t remove it. All early manuscripts and quotations in the church fathers have ‘camel’ not ‘rope’. George M Lamsa’s Syriac-Aramaic Peshitta translation has the word ‘rope’ in the main text but a footnote on Matthew 19:24 which states that the Aramaic word gamla means rope and camel, possibly because the ropes were made from camel hair (The New Testament according to the Eastern Text, George M Lamsa, 1940, p.xxiv and note on Matthew 19:24.) Similar sayings in the Babylonian Talmud have “an elephant going through the eye of a needle” (Berakoth, 55b , Baba Mezi’a, 38b).
 Jesus’ audience would have been familiar with Pharisaic theology which argued that wealth was a sign of God’s favour (because of righteousness) while poverty was a sign of God’s disfavour (due to sin). This saying turns this theology on its head and reverses the order.
 “The shock effect of some stories suggests that their didactic function is to reinvigorate and puzzle the mind.” (Terri Bednarz, Humor-neutics: Analyzing Humor and Humor Functions in the Synoptic Gospels (Fort Worth: Brite Divinity School, 2009). p.137