Jesus's popularity as a speaker during his life was due to the fact that he was extremely entertaining, and he was entertaining because he was funny. Jesus got people laughing. Then he got them thinking. His humor was broad, ranging from the intellectual to the childish. This seems odd today because Jesus gets translated so seriously, when, in fact, he was completely willing to make a fool of himself, or, more accurately, a child of himself, "the child of the man," as he liked to say.
My work on analyzing Jesus’s words at ChristsWords.com didn’t begin with any idea of Jesus's funny side. I didn’t know it existed. But after a few years of studying the Greek, that humor clearly emerged as an important aspect of his teaching style, and one that is the most tragically lost in translation.
Accurate translation is often impossible without highlighting Jesus's use of wittiness in his message. He calls his teaching the "good news" because it made people happy. In this article, we will start explaining some general aspects of his humor. In future articles in this series, we will look at some of his specific techniques. However, first a warning, jokes are not as funny when they are explained as when they are heard.
The entire Sermon on the Mount, in the original Greek, reads like a stand-up comedy routine. This has been translated out of the version you read in the Bible, but that section of Matthew has all the hallmarks of comedy, including:
We must remember that Jesus was a speaker, not a writer. And elements like his use of pauses and gestures must be imagined based upon the clues in his words.
The Nature of Humor
We miss the comedy not only because of the way the Bible is translated but also because of the way we read it. We are not looking for laughs. We are looking for truth or inspiration or intellectual arguments. All of these things can be found in comedy, especially when the humor is about things that are not easily expressed in "practical" terms. Mark Twain was making a deep philosophical point when he said, “Man is the only creature that laughs—or needs to.” All the great humorists are also moralists. In reading the Gospels seriously, we miss some of the most entertaining lines and interchanges ever recorded in history.
Can we read the English Bible looking for Jesus’s humor? It is very difficult because Jesus’s word order is changed completely. Humor has a structure that relies on surprise endings. Henny Youngman’s, “Take my wife…please!” relies on the “please” coming at the end. A word-by-word translation with a differing word order could be, “Kindly escort my spouse.” Where did the humor go? Every word in such a translation is accurate, but its meaning and humor are lost completely. This is what has happened in translating Jesus’s words, not just in some of them, but many of them. Jesus's words are not translated to be witty. This is why my upcoming novel on the Sermon on the Mount tries to follow Jesus’s word order word-by-word.
The word order of comedy, with the surprise at the end, exists in all languages, no matter what the “normal” sentence structure of that language is. Setups must create expectations for what is likely to follow. Punchlines must turn those expectations on their head. This is one reason why repetition is important. Repetition creates expectations. Jesus will often repeat an idea several times, often in the classical pattern of three, only to disrupt the repetition with a change that shifts its meaning. This structure also depends on words having double meanings. The surprise ending must shift the meaning of words in the setup. These double meanings are often very difficult to translate from one language to another. Like translating poetry, it doesn’t always work.
Taking Out the Humor
The Gospel translators often remove funny elements to make what they consider Jesus's "message" clearer. Instead, they make it more boring and predictable. Many of these “messages” change with the current fashion. For example, “hell” was important in Christian theology when the Bible was first translated into English, so that emphasis stays. Other ideas, such as the importance of “love” are more important today, so more modern translations add that word wherever it can be inserted (see this article), obscuring Jesus’s actual teaching. All the humorous techniques that Jesus used "muddy" the message from any current theological point of view.
We can even see some of this "cleaning up" in the translation from Greek to the Latin Vulgate, for example in the parable of the Two Sons, the responses of the sons were switched, ruining the punchline (see Matthew 21:30 for an explanation) because it is unexpected. It was so unexpected, it was originally “corrected” in the translation into Latin, taking away the surprise, replacing it with what people expect.
Even Luke's gospel “simplified” Jesus's sayings by eliminating certain key repetitious elements that we see in Matthew. For example, Luke often eliminates the repeated amens (“honestly”) in one of Jesus’s most common catchphrases: "honestly, I am telling you." \Eliminating the “honestly” takes away its joke. Someone telling you that he is being honest is often a sign of deceit. Think of how we name used car salespeople as “Honest John” in comedy sketches. In John’s gospel, those amens are often doubled, “Honestly, honestly, I am telling you.” This makes the line funnier.
A good example of how “extraneous” words are taken out of a punchline and other words, emphasizing the desired message, are added is Jesus's Parable of the Sower, (Matthew 13:23), Its ending is clearly humorous, constructed to get a laugh. That ending is repeated in Jesus’s later explanation of the parable.
The ending of the parable literally reads in the original word order:
"This one, of all people, bears fruit and produces: this one, indeed, a hundred. This one, however, sixty. This one, however, thirty."
Notice first, the use of repetition. The repetition of three examples is a common element in humor. Next, notice the use of “indeed” and “however.” These are “pause” words. They create pause points for delivery, raising expectations about what comes next. Any comedian will tell you that the pauses are as important in getting a laugh as the words, maybe more so. Jesus’s pauses weren’t recorded, but these pause words are clues to his delivery. Next, notice how production declines with each repetition. This is not what the audience expects. When emphasizing productivity, we expect it to increase. Now imagine Jesus was pointing to different individuals, say, among his students, as his expectations decrease. How would a Jerry Seinfeld or a Dave Chappelle deliver this to a live audience?
But look at how this Greek is translated in the NIV:
This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
What happened to the ending? All the pause words are gone, the punchline, the smallest quantity as the end, is moved, and explanation, “a crop” and “what was sown,” is added. Not only is the message more boring, but it is a little insulting. It treats the reader as if they are too slow to get the original meaning. Was the Bible written to teach six-year-olds? Jesus’s words would have made the six-year-olds laugh without insulting their intelligence.
In future articles in this series, we will look at more of Jesus’s catchphrases, more of how he structures setup and punchline, his use of exaggeration, more of the humorous words he uses, and provide a lot more specific examples. In the end, we will have a number of articles on Jesus’s different techniques that we can use when discussing the humor in specific verses.