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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Laughter

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LAUGHTER

The two words found in NT for ‘laughter’ correspond almost exactly in significance with the two commonly occurring in OT. καταγελάω (Matthew 9:24 || Mark 5:40 and Luke 8:53) = לָענ, which always means scornful, derisive laughter (e.g. Proverbs 17:5, Isaiah 37:22, Psalms 2:4). On the other hand, γελάω (Luke 6:21) = שׂחַק, which is the more general term, and while sometimes implying derision (as in Job 30:1, Proverbs 1:26), is more usually found in the sense of merry laughter, as opposed to the gloom of sadness (e.g. Proverbs 29:9, Ecclesiastes 3:4; Ecclesiastes 2:2; Ecclesiastes 10:19, Proverbs 14:13). But, while in OT these words and others denoting mirth and gleefulness are often found, their parallels are very rare in NT. Beyond the two passages already mentioned, there is only one (James 4:9) in which laughter is referred to,—and this is obviously a reminiscence of Christ’s sayings as reported in Luke 6:21; Luke 6:25,—and one other in which jesting (εὐτραπελία)* [Note: See Trench, Synonyms, s.v.; and cf. ‘the pleasantries of fools’ (χάριτες μωεῶν), Sirach 20:13.] is forbidden to the Christian by St. Paul (Ephesians 5:4). The word which does occur in NT, and which is characteristic of it, is χαρά (53 times), χαίρω (6 times); but this is almost always a restrained and chastened joy rather than one which breaks out into laughter—describing the condition of the mind rather than the expression of the emotions. A stronger word, implying more emotional demonstration, is ἀγαλλιαω; see esp. Luke Luk_10:21, where it seems to be implied that Jesus manifested His joy by outward signs; the word in Luke 1:41; Luke 1:44, Luke 6:23 (σκιρτάω) is stronger still, and can hardly be used except where almost extravagant demonstrations of pleasure are intended.

It has been too readily inferred from the comparative absence in NT of allusions to mirth, that Jesus was characterized by a certain sobriety of demeanour which precludes us from thinking of Him as ever laughing or even smiling, and that Christianity from the first discouraged anything in the form of laughter-provoking mirth. Thus the statements—‘We are never told that (Jesus) laughed, while we are once told that He wept’ (Farrar, Life of Christ, p. 242); ‘we never read that Jesus laughed, and but once that He rejoiced in spirit’ (Jer. Taylor), and similar statements are based on nothing more than a dim and untrustworthy tradition,† [Note: The alleged Ep. of P. Lentulus, Procons. of Judaea, to the Roman Senate.] and convey an impression which is far from being warranted by the general tenor of the Gospel narrative. The common use of the title ‘Man of Sorrows,’ dictated no doubt by the deepest motives, and the conventional portraits of Christ, showing Him always pensive and often sorrowful, have been responsible for fostering the thought of a Christ who was constantly grave, if not sad. A writer like Renan goes to the opposite extreme; but there is at least as much support for his representation of a teacher whose ‘sweet gaiety constantly found expression in lively reflexions and kindly pleasantries.’‡ [Note: Vie de Jésus, 1879, p. 196.] What evidence there is, indeed, is on the whole against the traditional view. Jesus definitely dissociated Himself from the austerer school of His time (Luke 5:33 ff., Matthew 9:14, Mark 2:18); He made it a habit to enter convivial assemblies, and was a guest at feasts where laughter, jest, and song were a part of the order of the day;§ [Note: Edersheim, describing marriage-feasts, says, ‘Not a few instances of riotous merriment and even dubious jokes on the part of the greatest Rabbis are mentioned’ (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, i. p. 355).] He watched, if He did not join in, the merry games of children (Luke 7:32), and loved their company. He chose, as an analogy for the joy of God over a redeemed soul, the exuberant merry-making (Luke 15:23; Luke 15:25) of a father to whom his son was restored,* [Note: εὐφραίνεσθαι in Lk. is specially used of convivial mirth (see Luke 12:19; Luke 15:23).] and in bidding His disciples rejoice in their very tribulations, uses a word which suggests vehement demonstrations of joy (Luke 6:23). There is nothing in the Gospels to encourage the supposition that He frowned upon innocent mirth or checked its exhibition in His followers. On the contrary, on one occasion at least, He declined to interfere with a spontaneous outburst of exhilaration on their part (Luke 19:37). He bade them, even when they fasted, not be of a sad countenance (Matthew 6:16), and His chief concern was not so much to regulate the manner of their joy as to purify its motive (Luke 10:30).

Against the a priori view that Jesus never laughed, a view which is based upon a misdirected reverence and a one-sided conception of His nature, has to be set the consideration that such a view tends to dehumanize the ‘Son of Man.’ The faculty for laughter, as recent psychologists have shown, is eminently human, and its absence is a defect.† [Note: See James Sully. Essay on Laughter.] There may be saintly men to whom anything like boisterous hilarity is impossible, but he whose face is never lit with a smile, and whose voice never has the infectious ring of joy, is lacking in fullorbed humanity (cf. Carlyle, Sartor, ad init.). If Jesus showed the natural emotions of sorrow, there is every reason to suppose that He showed those of joy.

There is as little support for the view that the NT encourages a religion in which laughter finds no legitimate place. The first disciples of Jesus, like those of St. Francis, who became known as joculatores Domini, appear to have shown a vivacity and cheerfulness in complete contrast to the rigid and frigid demeanour engendered by Pharisaism; and this attitude was encouraged by their Master, who did not expect ‘the sons of the bride-chamber’ to mourn so long as the ‘bridegroom’ was with them (Matthew 9:15; cf. Matthew 15:1-2).

But there is more to be said. Nearly all the world’s greatest teachers have employed laughter, in one or other of its subtler forms, as a means of gaining a hearing for the truth they had to deliver. Was Jesus an exception to this rule? Is there any real reason for refusing to apply to His case the saying, Ridentem dicere verum quid vetat? Can it be said that He never used the Socratic method of proving the reasonableness of His teaching by showing the incongruous and even ridiculous position in which those who rejected it involved themselves? It has been very generally assumed that such a method was beneath the dignity, or foreign to the nature of the Son of God. Thus it is said, ‘He brought peace wherever He came, but He never awakened mirth … The inquiry whether Jesus had the sense of humour is not simply trivial and irreverent; it betrays a fundamental misconception of that holy life of redeeming love.’‡ [Note: See art. ‘Our Lord’s Use of Common Proverbs,’ Expositor, Dec. 1902.] The question, however, cannot be so easily disposed of. In the Gospels there are sayings of Jesus which a rational exegesis finds it almost impossible to explain apart from the assumption that they show a vein of humour. Indeed, the writer just quoted admits that Jesus ‘deigned to make use of the quaint and often humorous maxims so dear to the common folk.’ It is allowed by writers of the most orthodox school that irony and satire were used by Jesus upon occasion; if He saw fit to employ these sterner weapons, the gentler one of humour would not be beneath Him. When Jesus says to the Jews, ‘Many good works have I showed you from my Father; for which of these works do ye stone me?’ the touch of irony is unmistakable (John 10:32),* [Note: Westcott, in loc.] as it is also in the expression ‘everlasting tents’ (Luke 16:9). When He says to His disciples, ‘Sleep on now’ (Mark 14:41), it is in a tone of gentle raillery;† [Note: F. W. Robertson, Serm. (2nd ser.) xx. ‘The Irreparable Past.’] and His conversation with the Syrophœnician woman is in the same tone (Mark 7:25 ff.). His answer to the lawyer, ‘This do and thou shalt live,’ seems to be most naturally interpreted as ironical (Luke 10:28). The reply to His critics, ‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mark 2:17), is in the same vein, as is the passage, ‘Full well (καλῶς) do ye reject the commandment of God’ (Mark 7:9). In Matthew 6:2, literalists have sought in vain to prove that it was a practice among Pharisaic almsgivers to ‘sound a trumpet’; obviously the passage is satirical. The element of satire runs through the scathing denunciations of the Pharisees and scribes (23, etc.). But the crucial instance is the parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-9). Commentators have exhausted their ingenuity in devising all possible and impossible explanations of Christ’s commendation of the steward, through failing to see that the whole passage is sarcastic, pouring laughter upon the futile trust that men put in the power of mammon; Luke 16:9 in particular is ‘a sudden turn of the sublimest and most crushing irony.’‡ [Note: See Expositor, Dec. 1895; Good Words, Oct. 1867.]

But if it was in keeping with the mission of Jesus that He should use irony, still more natural was it that humour (wh. see) should enter into His speech. Humour is in its nature both human and humane. The greatest humorists have been the best lovers of men and the most endowed with sympathy (e.g. ‘gentle’ Shakspeare and Charles Lamb). The foremost religious teachers have almost invariably been possessed of humour, and have proved the truth of Milton’s dictum (Preface to Animadversions upon the Remonstrant) that ‘the vein of laughing hath ofttimes a strong and sinewy force in teaching and confuting.’ It is probable that the reluctance, which has existed from early times, to admit any tone of raillery or playfulness in Christ’s teaching, has been responsible for the loss of the original force of some of His sayings. Jesus has suffered from His reporters. Yet enough passages remain to show that this element was often present. The pictures of a man endeavouring to serve two masters at once (Matthew 6:24), of another who feeds swine with pearls (Matthew 7:6), of a camel trying to get through a needle’s eye (Matthew 19:24), of a light being put under a bushel (Matthew 5:15), of him who sees a splinter in his brother’s eye, but fails to notice the beam in his own (Matthew 7:8), of Beelzebub at variance with Beelzebub (Matthew 12:24 ff.), of men who have eyes but do not see (Mark 8:18), of one blind man guiding another (Matthew 15:14), of a father who should give his son a stone instead of a loaf (Matthew 7:9)—these are all instances of that perception of the incongruous which is the soul of humour.§ [Note: the Logion of Grenfell and Hunt: ‘Thou hearest with one ear (but the other thou hast closed).’] We know that Jesus sometimes used words with a play upon their meaning (Luke 5:10, Matthew 4:19, Luke 9:60). The ready way in which He answers a question by propounding another which at first seems irrelevant (Matthew 20:22; Matthew 21:24), His unexpected manner of turning the tables upon a critic (Luke 7:36 ff.), His use of illustrations which would cause, by their homely aptness, an involuntary smile (Mark 2:21, Luke 11:6), His epigrammatic way of putting a truth so as to give a sudden satisfaction (Mark 2:27), and His use of daring hyperbole (Luke 19:40),|| [Note: | Cf. the obscure saying, reported by Papias and quoted by Irenaeus (adv. Hœr. v. 33. 3), of the vine with ten thousand stems. In its exuberant playfulness of fancy it exceeds anything in the Gospels; it is probably based on an actual saying of Christ (see Westcott, Introd. p. 433).] are indications that Jesus thought it not beneath Him to laugh with those that laugh.

On this whole subject nothing can be more just than the words of A. B. Bruce (Parabolic Teaching of Christ, p. 149):

‘With pathos often goes humour, and so it is in the parables.… The spirit of Jesus was too earnest to indulge in idle mirth; but just because He was so earnest and so sympathetic, He expressed Himself at times in a manner which provokes a smile; laughter and tears, as it were, mingling in His eyes as He spake. It were a false propriety which took for granted that an expositor was necessarily off the track, because in his interpretation of these parables an element of holy playfulness appears blended with the deep seriousness which pervades them throughout.’

Literature.—Martensen, Chr. Ethics, i. 186 ff.; D. Smith in Exp. Times, xii. [1901] 546; Expositor, ii. viii. [1884] 92 ff.: Welldon, Fire Upon the Altar, 105; G. H. Morrison, Sun-rise, p. 43.

J. Ross Murray.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Laughter'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/l/laughter.html. 1906-1918.

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