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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Humour

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HUMOUR.—Humour in its highest form is the sign of a mind at peace in itself, for which the contrasts and contradictions of life have ceased to jar, though they have not ceased to be; which accepts them as necessary and not without meaning and value, indeed as giving an added charm to life, because it looks at them from a point above them. In other words, humour is the faculty which lets a man see what Plato calls ‘the whole tragedy and comedy of life’ (Philebus, 50B)—the one in the other, comedy in tragedy, tragedy in comedy.

The Gospels make it plain that the environment of Jesus was quite a normal one. He had lived among men, worked, played, and talked with men from infancy to manhood, and was familiar with the language of men and with their habits of mind. Hence it may be noticed that in speaking to men He uses the language of reality and experience. His words are stamped as His own by their delicate ease, which implies sensibility to every real aspect of the matter in hand, a sense of mastery and peace. There lay a broad contrast between the common sense His hearers had gathered from experience and the moral ideals which He propounded, and it is quite clear that this contrast did not escape Him, nor can He have failed to see that, judged by the ordinary common sense of men, His sayings were absurd. With this consciousness of the superficial absurdity and the underlying value of what He said, He bade men when smitten on the one cheek ‘turn the other’ (Matthew 5:39), go ‘two miles’ with the man who exacted one (Matthew 5:41), yield the cloak to him who took the coat (Matthew 5:40),—in fact, His followers were asked to be ‘lambs,’ missionaries ‘among wolves’ (Matthew 10:16, Luke 10:3), and to ‘leap for joy’ when they were ill treated (Luke 6:23). In all these sayings there is obvious contradiction between the surface value and the thought beneath.

Again, there is abundant evidence of the use of the grotesque by Jesus—a use natural to homely and friendly talk. Would a father, for example, offer a hungry child a stone instead of bread, a snake instead of a fish, a scorpion instead of an egg (Matthew 7:9-10, Luke 11:11-12)? The Pharisee, He says, is like a man who cleans the outside of his cup and forgets that he drinks from the inside (Matthew 23:26). Do men, He asks, ‘gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles’? (Matthew 7:16). He urges His hearers not to cast their ‘pearls before swine’ (Matthew 7:6). The idea of having ‘a beam in one’s own eye’ is grotesque, as He meant it to be (Matthew 7:3-5). When He bade His hearers take no care for the morrow, because caring for the morrow was the distinguishing mark of the Gentile as contrasted with the Jew (Matthew 6:32), He spoke with full knowledge of Jewish character, and must have known that His hearers would smile. ‘Do not even the publicans so?’ (Matthew 5:47), is an instance of reductio ad absurdum. ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath days to do evil or to do good?’ (Luke 6:9), was, His critics on the spot would feel, an absurd question, except that it caught them in a dilemma. Similarly, to ask the rich young ruler if he had kept the commandments, ‘Thou shall not kill,’ etc., must have struck the onlooker as odd, and Jesus can hardly have failed to feel this (Mark 10:19). The simile that follows, of the camel and the needle’s eye, shows recourse to the grotesque again (Mark 10:25). It should be remembered that Jesus’ hearers were not unfamiliar with religious teaching given in ironic form.

There is humour in the appeal to the practice of the Egyptians and Syrians of calling their tyrannic and worthless rulers Euergetes, ‘Benefactor’ (Luke 22:25); and in the accompanying suggestion that the real chief among Christ’s followers is ‘he that doth serve’ (Luke 22:26), there is a conscious reversal of ordinary notions, which would make the hearers smile even while they realized the serious meaning. There is a hint of playfulness in the promise that Peter shall ‘catch men’ (Luke 5:10). The question put to the rich fool, ‘Then whose shall those things be?’ (Luke 12:20), has a grim touch,—there is a suggestion in it of reckonings grievously wrong; and something of the kind lurks in the tale of the man who built his house on the sand—a tale told, it must be remembered, by one who had been a τέκτων (Matthew 7:26). There are other stories, too, of people of pretension who are ludierously out in their reckonings, e.g. the king who went to war with a light heart (Luke 14:31), and the man who could not finish his tower (Luke 14:28). There is surely grim humour also in the words, ‘It cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem’ (Luke 13:33).

In conclusion, there are in the recorded sayings of Jesus many traces of their origin in conversation. He is a man speaking to men in the language of men, and pathos, contrast, humour, and spontaneity are the natural and pleasant marks of that language. He, like all great teachers, speaks from the abundance of His heart (Matthew 12:34), and a smile is felt in His words, as in the words of all who see contradiction without loss of inner peace. See also art. Laughter.

Literature.—Martensen, Christian Ethics, i. 186.

T. R. Glover.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Humour'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/h/humour.html. 1906-1918.

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