In preparation for my presentation on humor in Jewish-Christian dialogue in San Antonio (SBL), I have been studying theories of humor in the ancient world. Laughter and humor are very early topics in philosophy. Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, for example, are careful to address what seems to be an integral element of the human experience. While these thinkers do not agree entirely on the value of humor, they all share a common concern for the darker elements of laughter.
Plato, through the voice of Socrates, warns against laughter as much of it follows from malice. He was worried that delighting in the pain or ridiculousness in others would bring about an evil mixture of pleasure and pain in the soul. Laughter is dangerous because it might be used to elevate yourself by deriding another person. This is an example of what we might now call "superiority theory." Superiority theory suggests that laughter results in a sudden feeling of superiority over someone else. Thomas Hobbes (who later expands this theory) argues that people feel a kind of “sudden glory” over someone less clever. Or as Lodovico Castelvetro wrote, most people will laugh at the “deception of the naïve.” Why do adults like to laugh at the simple errors of children? The answer, according to this theory, is that there is a primal sense of superiority at work.
Aristotle acknowledged that not every instance of laughter is derisive. He suggests that relaxation and amusement are necessary elements of life. But Aristotle also warns that many jokes are abusive and too much laughter is a vice. Moderation, as always, is the rule. Too much joke-telling is the mark of the buffoon; whereas an inability to enjoy the occasional joke is boorish and dour. So Aristotle also associates humor with laughing at those perceived to be inferior in some way.
Cicero too worries about the power dynamics humor can betray. When improperly employed humor can deride a beloved person or one who is suffering. Serious matters, it seems, deserve serious responses. So as long as western philosophy has been speaking about laughing matters, there has been a tendency to include a warning about the negative motives and negative outcomes of laughter.
Nowadays we have different theories of humor (e.g. incongruity, psychic release, play signals) but I wonder if superiority theory might help us understand a few passages that refer to laughter in the Bible. Gen 18:12-15 might be the most famous example:
So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
Why is Sarah afraid? And why is she afraid enough to lie about laughing? Could it be that laughing might have been taken as an affront to the Lord's superiority? Could it be that Sarah was worried about laughter along the same lines as Plato and company? Or consider Ps 2:2-4:
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.’ He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision.Maybe in situations of extreme powerlessness people take comfort in a God who is superior to all other political forces. The way that laughter is represented here demonstrates the Lord's superiority. Hobbes would likely see this as an illustration of superiority theory.
While the philosophically minded Qohelet famously declares that sorrow is better than laughter (Eccl. 7:3), Qohelet also reminds us that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh” (3:4). But most instances of laughter in the Hebrew Bible require attention to a specific context to measure the motives and outcomes of laughter. Laughter—both on the lips of humans and the Lord—can take the form of derision. The Bible presents several kinds of laughter and, moreover, includes several stories that are funny (perhaps intentionally so). This brings us to Jesus.
Jesus seems to have taken Qohelet’s lesson to heart. In Luke’s sermon on the plain, Jesus teaches, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” He parallels this saying in the negative by saying. “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:21, 25). Jesus’s point, perhaps dissimilar to Qohelet’s, assumes an impending Day of the Lord that demands extreme action in the present. Jesus seems to postpone the time for laughter to a coming age marked by a reversal of social fortunes, abundant food, and an end to persecution. Keep in mind that Luke's Jesus is especially concerned with elevating the (perceived) inferior and demoting the (perceived) superior. Could Plato's take on humor help us understand the reference to laughter in Luke 6?
Here is another example:
James and John say to Jesus, "Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?" (Luke 9:53–54). Jesus rebuked the brothers. Could this be how these two get their nickname? In Mark they are called "the sons of thunder" (3:17). Maybe this was a derisive nickname meant to humble would-be Elijahs? By the way, the echo of Elijah's fire from heaven reminds us of another story featuring derisive humor. 1 Kings 18:27:
Elijah began to tease them: "Shout louder! 'He's a god, so maybe he's busy. Maybe he's relieving himself. Maybe he's busy someplace. Maybe he's taking a nap and somebody needs to wake him up."
Ooo that's harsh. You don't bounce back from that right away. . . . No, I'm a writer, I know dialogue and that's particularly harsh.