A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Are there any jokes in the Bible?

November 5, 1993

Dear Cecil:

Are there any jokes in the Bible? I look for humor in nearly everything, but I've never been able to find any in the Bible. I realize most current humor is either sexually oriented, scatological, and/or disparaging to some group or other, all of which is quite antithetical to the Bible's purpose. But no humor at all? It's a long book and theoretically speaks to every aspect of the human condition. I'm not a biblical scholar and thus look to you and your vast research abilities to explain the total lack of frivolity, humor, or gaiety in this book.

Dear Willard:

Cecil must say that, vast though his knowledge is, yea, even of things biblical, he's never read the Good Book with a view to looking up the funny parts. Therefore, I've consulted specialists, who've furnished some candidate jokes. I'm not saying if these were on Christian TV you'd necessarily want to skip Letterman to hear them. However, they do employ the stuff of wit, such as wordplay, riddles, etc. Examples:

(1) Wordplay. Told by the Lord that his 90-year-old wife Sarah will bear a son, Abraham laughs to himself. And what's more, continueth the Lord, obviously a little peeved at Abe's attitude, "you shall call his name Isaac," from Yitzak, "he laughed." Not a line that's going to kill them in Vegas, but I didn't claim these were going to score big on the laugh-o-meter.

(2) Riddles. In Judges 14:14, Samson bets his bride's relatives they can't answer this riddle: "Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet." The relations are stumped, mainly because the riddle makes no sense unless you know Samson recently had seen honey deposited by bees in the carcass of a lion, which he had--urk--scraped out and eaten. The relatives pester the bride for the answer, and she pesters Samson, who finally breaks down and tells her. The newly-clued relatives say to Samson, "What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?" "If you had not plowed with my heifer," Samson ungallantly ripostes, "you would not have found out my riddle," whereupon he massacres 30 unlucky locals to raise enough swag to pay off the bet. Hilarious, eh?

(3) Subversive wit. In Mark 5, Jesus asks a man possessed by devils, "What is your name?" The devils reply, "My name is Legion; for we are many." Conceivably this is a pun on legion in the sense of "a vast bunch of" and legion in the sense of a Roman military unit. The devils beg to be sent into a nearby herd of swine, which stampedes into the sea and drowns. One can construe this (not without some strain) as a sly prayer that the Romans, an unwelcome presence at the time, would all take a running jump.

(4) Bathroom jokes. Scatological humor is beneath the Bible, eh? See what you make of 1 Samuel 4-6. The Philistines, having captured the Ark of the Covenant, are visited with twin plagues: mice and, depending on whose translation you accept, either tumors or hemorrhoids. Cecil naturally prefers the latter. Consider the ineffable poignance of the following: "There was a deadly destruction throughout all the city . . . and the men that died not were smitten with the hemorrhoids: and the cry of the city went up to heaven."

The Philistines ask their priests what to do, and the priests say to send the Ark back to the Hebrews with a "trespass offering." What kind of offering, the Philistines ask. "They answered, five golden hemorrhoids, and five golden mice, [one each for the five] lords of the Philistines." My consultants caution that the author of this didn't necessarily think it was funny, and I'm confident this column's refined and sensitive readers won't think it's funny either. But nobody's going to tell me whoever wrote it didn't have his tongue stuck firmly in cheek.

More biblical humor

Dear Cecil:

Regarding humor in the Bible, here are some jokes from the New Testament (John 1:45-51):

Philip found Nathanael and said unto him, "We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" [Joke!] Philip said to him, "Come and see!" [Boom!] Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, "Behold, an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile" ["Hey, here's an honest Jew" — joke]. Nathanael [not getting it] said to him, "How do you know me?" Jesus answered him, "Before Philip called you, I saw you yesterday, standing under a fig tree." Nathanael said [losing his cool], "Rabbi, you are the son of God! You are the king of Israel!" Jesus answered him, "Because I said I saw you standing under a fig tree, believest thou?" [Big joke! Gets laughs!] "You shall see greater things than these." [Release.] And he said to him, "Truly, truly I say unto you, you shall see the heavens opened and the angels of the Lord ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." [Boom!]

Preserving humor through translations from Aramaic to Greek to Latin to English is problematic, but with a little sympathy for the intent of the speaker, you can find a lot. 

PS: I tried out these jokes on my improv class this afternoon and after 2,000 years they still get laughs!

Del. You're a pro. (Close is the well-known improv pioneer and comic actor who once directed the Second City comedy troupe.) You could get laughs reading the phone book. Still, I'll admit the fig tree story is the closest I've heard to a Bible joke that's actually funny.

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