There are two quick answers to the question, “Did Jesus have a sense of humor?” The first is, “Of course not”. There was absolutely nothing funny about his mission – la via dolorosa, the Crucifixion, and the enormous responsibility of dying for the sins of all men.
The second answer is, “Of course he did”. He might have been divine, but he was also human, and a sense of humor is one of humanity’s most characteristic traits. At some point even the sourest, pinched, and humorless person has to laugh.
The fact is that none of the Gospels or the epistles record a funny or laughing Christ. He neither makes others laugh nor finds anything to laugh at. Some critics infer from the tales of his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem that he must have enjoyed himself. At the many banquets described in the New Testament, could he have always kept a straight face? Or not shared in a joke?
Was there no bantering and joking between him and his disciples like there almost always is when men get together? Was everything in the three years recorded in the Gospels such a serious affair? Surely, even a man on a mission as revolutionary as his could not have thought only of his Father, his being, and his divine purpose. If God indeed created him as a man, then he must have given him room for comic pause.
Yet Jesus was God. The Synoptic Gospels tell of the mystery of the Trinity, one God in three divine persons; and the Gospel of John expands the notion even further. Logos, the Hellenistic concept of an eternally existent reason which pre-existed Christ and the Holy Spirit and was coterminous with God (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”).
The Word became flesh, John goes on, and Jesus Christ – this complex divinity of ineffable parts – became even more complex. He was now human.
The Gospels are are noticeably silent about Jesus’ early years. The twelve years between his birth and his appearance in the temple where he preached get no mention. Surely as a boy he must have found things funny. His father was a carpenter who must have misplaced things, banged his thumb, stumbled over the water bucket, and got kicked by the mule. His mother, saintly though she might have been, certainly must have had her share of comic mishaps.
Some Biblical critics have suggested that Jesus learned his communication skills from John the Baptist who was known for his empathy, oratory, and powerfully convincing arguments. Others have noted that no man could have learned such an ability to speak in parables, empathize with the poor, be congenial at banquets and ceremonies, and especially get along so well with his disciples had he not been a normal, engaging, and social child. Jesus must have learned how to get along, to influence, and to persuade from a very young age. As any good communicator knows, a good, relaxed, empathetic speaker has a good sense of humor. Jesus was so good at what he did, he must have bonded with his mates with some teasing, wit, sarcasm, and humor.
All this of course is speculation. Since the Bible provides no clues to Jesus’ sense of humor, one can only surmise; and, as above, there seem to be only tw0 camps of opinion.
Jesus’ humanity was essential to the Kingdom. The sins of the world were so many, so offensive, ignorant, and insulting to his Father, that only a horrific suffering would suffice. Although he could have given a universal spiritual amnesty to sinners, he chose a painful death to exemplify the nature of a true Christian (i.e. selfless, obedient, and penitent). There is no doubt that Christian tradition values both Christ’s divinity and his humanity.
Whether or not Jesus was funny is not the point. If he was human, of course he was. All of us know that everything is funny. Mel Brooks found the Nazis funny:
Germany was having troubleSo did Charlie Chaplin:
What a sad, sad story
Needed a new leader to restore
Its former glory
Where oh where was he?
Where could that man be?
We looked around and then we found
The man for you and me and now it's
Springtime for Hitler and Germany
Deutschland is happy and gay
We're marching to a faster pace
Look out, here comes the master race
Rednecks, women, blacks, disabled, WASPs, crackers, the Russian Patriarch - everyone gets a laugh. The Pope is the leader of the world’s Catholics, empowered by God to speak ex cathedra, and a good, prayerful man. Yet who but the most devout cannot find something very funny in his full-drag regalia?
Or the Dalai Lama in photo ops with athletes and Hollywood stars?
Two men considered among the most holy and revered in the world either have a good sense of humor, or are so serious that they don’t realize how they look to others.
Humor is as human as intelligence, insight, and creativity; and wit, riposte, mimic, and sarcasm are in our nature. Robert Reich’s Locked in the Cabinet, Russell Baker’s Growing Up and especially The Good Times; and Roald Dahl’s Boy and Going Solo are some of the best memoirs written in recent years. Reich tells the story of his White House years with a diffident humor that puts the arrogance, competitiveness, and pomposity of the Cabinet in hilarious perspective. Baker does the same for his life in the press; and Dahl is at his funniest when he describes his RAF days and his horrific wounds after a near-death crash in the desert.
Exodus might be a rip-roaring story of adventure, military might, courage, and valor. The Song of Solomon lyrical and sensual. The stories of Moses, Noah, Daniel, Elijah, and Joshua uplifting and inspirational; the Psalms wise and poetic; but there is nothing to laugh at. Who said that the mythical history of the Jewish people was supposed to be funny?
The New Testament is equally serious. While the Christian God is certainly less intimidating and more generous and forgiving, everything from the story of Bethlehem to the fiery end of the world still has meaning and purpose. It is not meant to be funny. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were writing about the greatest man who ever walked the earth, his divinity, and his Kingdom to come.
There is nothing funny about law books either – Torts, Contracts, and Mergers and Acquisitions are not meant to be vaudeville. Neither are scholarly papers on organic chemistry, biomedicine, or medical ethics. There are plenty of volumes of straightforward, no-nonsense facts. Why should the Bible be any different?
Because it is a human story, although with divine inspiration, that’s why. A story, whether myth or revelation, is still a story, and one surprisingly has no warts,bad teeth, stumbling, banana peels, clowns, mishaps and misadventures of life. How can life be such a side show and the Bible so serious?
How can life itself be taken so seriously when it is, by and large, a three-ring circus?