Signs of humour: especially in written texts across cultures

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David Ker, in one of the posts that stimulated this series, poses the serious and significant question: given the cultural gulf that separates us from the authors of Scripture how can we be sure something we see as funny tickled ancient Hebrew funny bones?

Spotting humour is easier in speech than writing, and spotting humour is difficult across cultures. Anyone who has worked in a different culture knows how people’s “sense of humour” is to a considerable extent culturally determined.

There’s a whole academic discipline studying such questions, and several biblical scholars have put these studies to work. For we have such a cross-cultural written case everytime we think something in Scripture is funny!

In his paper F. Scott Spencer “Those Riotous – Yet Righteous – Foremothers of Jesus: Exploring Matthew’s Comic Genealogy.” In Are we amused?: humour about women in the biblical worlds, edited by Athalya Brenner, 7-30. Continuum, 2003, lists some attempts to approach such questions and arrives at a list of clues that humour is present. I have modified his list:

  • incongruity
  • lighthearted mood
  • surprise
  • ingenuity (cleverness is often a mark of humour think of puns)
  • inferiority
  • disguise or something or someone pretending to be something else
  • “inelasticity” (following Bergson)
  • human pretension revealed in all its lack of glory!

8 Comments

  1. Very good, Tim. It would be great to see examples of each of these. As you mentioned in a previous podcast, humor in the Bible can be sharp and cutting. I think we need to include mockery and also showing someone acting stupidly (the disciples and especially Peter) as being clear signs of comedic intent. Hyperbole ought to be on the list. It’s probably the first sign of humor across cultures.

    One thing that is a sure sign that something is NOT humorous is laughter. Unless of course you include mockery on the list. I don’t suppose that the crowd laughing at Jesus planning to revive the little girl was supposed to be funny. He was being ridiculed. Again, if we want mockery or ridicule to be considered a form of humor then those passages in which God laughs at the nations because he knows their time is coming, well then that’s funny.

  2. You mentioned sex and death. Scatological humor is near universal as well and probably easy to identify.

    1. Author

      The trouble with recognising humour by subject is much the same as with recognising it by stock characters, like sometimes a strict father is funny, sometimes (think Jepthah’s daughter) it’s no joke. So though often talk of sex, death or scatology is funny, sometimes it’s no joke. We need criteria (like the ones for poetry in your other comment) that help us decide of Ecc 12:1-7 is a deadly serious and discouraging look at aging, or whether it was meant to be funny. That I think is where these criteria come in…

  3. I thought this quote from the NET Bible on Phil 2:6 is a good example of proving the existence of a literary form by linguistic means:

    “This passage has been typeset as poetry because many scholars regard this passage as poetic or hymnic. These terms are used broadly to refer to the genre of writing, not to the content. There are two broad criteria for determining if a passage is poetic or hymnic: “(a) stylistic: a certain rhythmical lilt when the passages are read aloud, the presence of parallelismus membrorum (i.e., an arrangement into couplets), the semblance of some metre, and the presence of rhetorical devices such as alliteration, chiasmus, and antithesis; and (b) linguistic: an unusual vocabulary, particularly the presence of theological terms, which is different from the surrounding context” (P. T. O’Brien, Philippians [NIGTC], 188-89). Classifying a passage as hymnic or poetic is important because understanding this genre can provide keys to interpretation. However, not all scholars agree that the above criteria are present in this passage, so the decision to typeset it as poetry should be viewed as a tentative decision about its genre.”

  4. Author

    Laughter is a narrated event, sometimes it is funny, think (perhaps) Sarah laughing (Gen 18:12) when God promises her a child, her laughter is mockery, but her mockery of God is part of a narrative that is humorous. It has:
    * incongruity
    * lighthearted mood (perhaps)
    * surprise
    * inferiority (Sarah is certainly inferior to the Lord who made everything)
    * disguise or something or someone pretending to be something else (the Lord appears as three men)
    * “inelasticity” (Sarah expecting the laws of biology to survive contact with their creator)
    * human pretension (Sarah claims to know better than God)

    All it does not have from my list is:
    * ingenuity

    But it does have:
    * exaggeration

    Which you (rightly I think) suggested adding 🙂




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