Humor is found throughout the Bible in various forms. God wants people to experience delight (Ps 37:4), communicate effectively (Mt 18:15-17), and live abundantly (John 10:10). The following sections discuss how humor, as described above, is used in the Bible. God laughs, laughter exists in heaven, Jesus used humor, and humor is a vehicle used to help humanity grow closer to God and one another. The Bible is the truth (2 Tim. 3:16). Humor cannot exist without truth (Parrot 5) and is a reflection of the truth that makes the truth more accessible (Flynn 66-9).
Before any study of humor can be carried out, humorous discourse must be broken down into three groupings: universal humor, culture-based humor, and linguistic-based humor (Schmitz 89). Universal humor is the most basic form of humor and is not dependent on culture or language. An example of universal humor is: “Last week I went fishing and all I got was a sunburn, poison ivy, and mosquito bites” (Schmitz 96). No understanding of the original culture or language is required to appreciate this type of humor.
Culture-based humor is not universal because the listener must have an understanding of the culture to comprehend the humor. An example of cultural-based humor is: “This year for Father’s Day I got a special gift in the mail: the bill for Mother’s Day” (Fechtner 104). To understand this type of humor the listener must have an understanding of American culture. This joke would be lost in the cultures where these days are not celebrated, in cultures where credit is not extended, or in the cultures where Father’s Day does not directly follow Mother’s Day.
Linguistic-based humor is also not universal because the listener must have an understanding of the original language to comprehend to humor. An example of linguistic-based humor is: “How does a dog stop a VCR? He presses the paws button” (Schmitz 101). The non-English speaking listener would most likely have a difficult time understanding this humor. In no other language does the word for a dog’s foot sound similar to the button of a VCR that stops the tape. To further complicate things, in the future people will not know what a VCR is. A second example: “Americans won’t allow the importation of Canadian beef, and now some Canadians have a beef with Americans who import Canadian drugs” (Danbom 668). The word “beef” used in the above sentence is slang, something that is very difficult to translate for a non-English speaking person.
A short study of the above-mentioned groupings gives the modern-day Western reader a clue that extracting humor from the Bible based on the original contexts and languages can prove to be a difficult task. Humor can get lost in translation (Hall 3-4 and Bell 384). Communication between cultures, languages, and different time periods has a probability for misunderstanding (Norrick 389-90). The biblical interpreter will likely miss much of the humor in the Bible because of the linguistic and cultural differences—even if the interpreter is a student of biblical languages and biblical culture. It is also likely that the biblical interpreter will find something humorous in the Bible that was not meant to be humorous in its original context. Another caveat exists in that much of the Bible is from an oral tradition. The Bible is a written document. It is one thing to read Garrison Keillor’s humor in a book; it is a totally different experience to hear him on the radio. The following section of the dissertation seeks to examine humor in the Bible as faithfully as possible given the limitations of cultural and linguistic humor and given the difference between oral and written communication.