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Irony and Humor

Irony is a mode of expression in which what is said is the opposite of what is meant; consequently, ironic statements cannot be understood without rejecting their apparent sense. Humor starts with the perception of irony or of some other inconsistency strong enough to provoke confusion or tension. Sudden release from such tension often results in a smile or in laughter; the inner feeling is of sympathetic joy or of playfulness. Things that are thus perceived and the reactions to that perception are called comical.

There are many examples of irony and humor in the Bible. Genesis 17–18 tells of Abraham and Sarah's laughter when they think they have a joke on God. In 1 Samuel 17 it is ironic that the young shepherd boy David is victorious over the giant Goliath, and in 2 Samuel 12 the prophet Nathan ironically makes King David pass sentence on himself. The Psalms describe God as a laughing god who finds sinners ridiculous in their pride and self‐deceptions (2.4; 37.13; cf. 59.9; Prov. 1.26). The prophets used sarcasm and satire rather than humor in the positive sense. They ridiculed the belief in idols (Isa. 44; cf. Hos. 13.2) and drew up a ridiculously exact list of the jewelry of luxurious women (Isa. 3.18–23). Generalizations and exaggerations are also characteristic of prophetic discourse.

The book of Proverbs provides examples of humor and irony that are different from the biting sarcasm of the prophets and the amusing storytelling of the narrator. The sign of true wisdom is obedience to God's law; the sinner is therefore ridiculous. A lazy man wants to sleep in the morning (Prov. 6.9–10) and does not have the energy to lift his hand to his mouth when he is eating (19.24). The slothful person lying in bed is like a door on its hinges, turning back and forth (26.14). A rich fool thinks he can buy wisdom with money (17.16). Women are generally respectfully described, unless they are brawling (21.9), contentious (27.15), or immoral (11.22).

In the synoptic Gospels, similes, parables, and terms used by Jesus are often akin to similar expressions in rabbinic literature. The rabbis used humor and irony in their discussion about even the most serious matters. Since Jesus was (called) a rabbi, it is not surprising that he uses irony and humor as well. In his sayings he describes comical people (Luke 11.5–8; 18.1–8; Matt 5.25; 25.1–12), comical ideas (Matt. 5.36; 7.6, 9–10, 16), and comical events (Matt. 5.15; 7.3–5; Luke 14.7–14). These humorous texts point toward the earliest strata of Christian tradition and probably originated from Jesus himself.

In the gospel of John everything happens simultaneously within two frames of reference. One is mystical, sublime, heavenly: there Jesus is the eternal, divine Logos. The other is the earthly, the temporal, that of the “flesh” (John 1.14). The incarnate Jesus and the eternal Christ are the same person, and his message is interpreted in terms that have a double meaning. This results in a certain kind of irony, and the human intellect asks questions that show its lack of understanding and insight (John 2.20; 3.4; 4.11, 15, 33; 6.15, 26, 34; 7.35; 12.16, 28–30; 13.4–11, 28–29; 16.17–18). Here two tunes are interwoven into one musical composition. Those who are attentive only to the sublime tune will hardly find humor in the narrative, but readers conscious of the earthly tune will perhaps think of the incarnation of Logos as a metamorphosis in the Greek sense, and then the way is open to the understanding of what has been called “divine irony.” Among such ironical examples are the declarations of Jewish and Roman authorities (John 11.49–53; 18.5) and Jesus’ feigned ignorance (Luke 24.19).

The book of Acts is a kind of story in which the humor often consists in amusing situations. There is something comical about Peter's return to the congregation (12.1–19), missionaries as gods (14.1–18), and Demetrius's wonderful speech in Ephesus (19.23–41).

Paul had rabbinical training and uses ironical questions about theological matters (Rom. 3.29; 6.1, 15; 7.7, 13). He describes himself as a fool for Christ's sake (1 Cor. 4.9–10), and even speaks of God as foolish and weak (1 Cor. 1.18–31). The letter to Philemon is a masterpiece of sympathetic irony and gentle humor.

See also Literature, The Bible as

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Jakob Jónsson

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