During her time at the 2011 conference of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco, California, BHD contributing blogger Robin Gallaher Branch enjoyed many stimulating lectures, including one by New Testament scholar Kelly Iverson on the role of humor in the Gospel of Mark. While most wouldn’t describe the Bible as a humorous work, Iverson uses the Gospel of Mark to show that some Biblical passages are littered with comical references that were read and interpreted as subtle (and not so subtle) jabs at the actions, inactions and miscues of key figures, especially Jesus’ disciples.
Robin Gallaher Branch’s summary of Iverson’s intriguing lecture is given below.
In his lecture “The Redemptive Function of Laughter: Performance and the Use of Humor in the Gospel of Mark,” Kelly Iverson, lecturer in New Testament at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, opened by saying that while humor is a Biblical phenomenon, many people unfortunately see the Bible as the world’s least amusing book. Indeed, they contend that it has an absence of humor and that the God of the Bible has no sense of humor. Some view Christianity and humor as not only bitter enemies but also as estranged bedfellows.
Iverson refuted such assertions by exploring Mark 8:14-21, the third sea story so far in that gospel.
Some elements of Biblical humor include misunderstandings, overlapping events, conflicting texts and the possible versus the impossible. Iverson reads Mark 8:14-21 as containing a lot of humor.
It begins with forgetfulness, a human trait and therefore a humorous condition. Despite the fact that the disciples just witnessed Jesus’ miracle of feeding the four thousand (Mark 8:1-13), they—serious fishermen themselves—had forgotten to bring bread aboard. “This is a humorous jibe,” Iverson quipped, especially since the disciples personally had just cleaned up leftovers in seven baskets (v. 8).
The two stories so far in Mark 8 show that the disciples remain uncertain, even clueless, about almost everything. They do not understand the relationship between bread and yeast; they do not understand Jesus’ ability to perform miracles. Iverson sees the scene when Jesus teaches, or tries to teach, his disciples about these things as deliberately written with humor in mind (vv. 15, 17-20).
Consequently, in Mark 8:14-16, humor provides a bridge. Here Jesus admonishes his disciples to watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod. Humor tempers Jesus’ stern rebuke.
Mark successfully uses laughter to expand the teaching of this section “beyond the disciples,” Iverson said, and into the lives of his readers and hearers. Humor can signal a relief, a way to release emotions. The physical effects of laughter allow a person to discard negative feelings, Iverson said.
Humor encourages the engagement of the audience, both readers and hearers. “Humor allows us to hear the truth,” Iverson said.
Iverson expanded the story and its lessons from the disciples to the readers and hearers. For Mark’s purposes, everyone—not only the disciples—has forgotten to take bread. Therefore, everyone goofed; everyone is encouraged to trust what he or she does not immediately understand. Mark’s light tone disarms the audience. “We laugh at the disciples, and while the joke is on them, we end up laughing at ourselves as well,” Iverson said.
Robin Gallaher Branch is professor of Biblical studies at Victory University (formerly Crichton College) in Memphis, Tennessee, and Extraordinary Associate Professor in the Faculty of Theology at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. She received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from the University of Texas in Austin in 2000. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for the 2002–2003 academic year to the Faculty of Theology at North-West University. Her most recent book is Jereboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women (Hendrickson, 2009).