The story goes that Jesus and Satan had argued for days about who was more tech-savvy, and God grew sick of the bickering. He told them he would judge a two-hour task set. They e-mailed, e-mailed with attachments, downloaded and created spreadsheets, labels, charts and graphs.
Flash went the lightning. Boom went the thunder. Crash went the computers.
When the electricity came back on, Jesus began printing files. Satan cursed and screamed: “It’s gone! All my work is gone. How come he has all his work?”
God shrugged and said, “Jesus saves.”
That joke made the rounds recently on the Internet. What would Jesus think?
Such quips surely would rate a chuckle, said Robert Darden, associate professor of journalism at Baylor University and author of the book Jesus Laughed: The Redemptive Power of Humor.
“If we agree that Jesus was human and fully divine, he must have had a sense of humor,” Darden said. “I’ve never met a human who didn’t have a sense of humor.”
From Scripture, he said, we know Jesus wept at least once—when he learned that his friend Lazarus died—and got angry at least once, at the dishonest moneychangers at the temple.
“I think he could be silly when he wanted to be, angry when he needed to be and everything in between,” Darden said.
But scholars rarely suggest that Jesus used thigh-slapping jests in his ministry.
“Even when they do, their claims are frequently overstated,” said Bruce Longenecker, a Baylor professor of religion, who wrote the article “A Humorous Jesus? Orality, Structure and Characterisation in Luke 14:15-24, and Beyond,” published in Biblical Interpretation: A Journal of Contemporary Approaches in 2008.
Those who compile anthologies of humor bypass Jesus and his followers—and with good reason, he said. Texts about them deal with life-and-death matters.
Yes, Jesus told riddles and used wordplay, made points with hyperbole and irony—often at the expense of pompous Pharisees, which would have amused those who were not fond of the religious leaders.
“But it is clear that they are not classics of comedy from one of the greatest wits of all time,” Longenecker wrote. “They simply embody biting criticism by way of ridicule.”
Some speculate that the humor may be lost because the context has changed in the modern world. Readers might not “get” inside jokes. And writers in gospel times did not use “LOLs” and emoticons.
Then again, perhaps the debate continues because humor, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Consider whether—or how much—these parables of Jesus bear the marks of divine comedy:
• About judging: Jesus suggested the critic should get the log out of his eye before being obsessed with a speck of dust in someone else’s.
• About religious types who nitpicked at others while glossing over their own faults: Jesus asked why they strained at a gnat and swallowed a camel.
• About investments: A parable by Jesus tells of a manager who gave three servants money to handle on behalf of their master. Two invested and made money; the third one hoarded and was scolded.
• About the temple tax: When Peter told Jesus that religious leaders questioned whether Jesus paid the tax, Jesus told him to reel in a fish and check its mouth. In it was enough money to pay both Jesus’ and Peter’s tax.
From Darden’s standpoint, the coin-in-the-mouth fish tale is particularly funny. He’s certain observers would have laughed in amazement.
“By using something silly like a fish to make a serious statement, Jesus makes every moment a teaching moment,” he said.
English novelist/playwright Dorothy L. Sayers suggested in 1946 that “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.”
In his book The Humor of Christ, the late theologian Elton Trueblood examined numerous Gospel passages to make the case that Jesus used hyperbole “in a way that Hebrews would have thought hilarious,” said Brett Younger, associate professor of preaching at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta.
“I don’t think Jesus was a stand-up comedian, but I think he used humor to make a point, and exaggeration was humorous,” Younger said. “He doesn’t do a lot of it, but it’s significant.”
Scholars, pastors and theologians aren’t the only ones who weigh in on the matter. In Longenecker’s article, he noted the pop group King Missile suggested that, “if he wanted to, ‘Jesus could have been funnier than any comedian you could think of,’ the reason being that ‘Jesus was way cool.’”
A search of the Internet reveals the matter has captured the attention of bloggers. On http://open.salon.com, various artists’ conceptions of a laughing Jesus have been posted. A blogger called theglasscharacter suggests the artistic notion of a comic Christ is partly due to artists of the hippie era, who wanted to portray a human, real Jesus and so depicted him as a fun-loving individual.
Amid the speculation about whether Jesus was funny, Younger suggests, “I think there’s probably some value in looking at the New Testament for humor, but the far more important issue is joy—Jesus saying he had come that his joy may be in us and our joy might be complete.
“Joy is deeper than humor,” he said. “The Apostle Paul wrote about joy most when he was in prison, when he wrote to the Philippians. If there’s a theme in the book of Philippians, it’s joy in the midst of suffering. We think happiness is when suffering ends, but there’s a kind of laughter not far from tears.”