— What Is Lost in Translation from Greek
Both because of the way the Bible is translated and because of the way we read it, we miss some of the most entertaining speeches and interchanges ever recorded in history. This site didn’t begin with any idea of discussing Christ’s humor, but, after over a decade of studying the Greek, that humor is clearly the main aspect of his teaching that is lost in translation. Accurate translation is often impossible without highlight the humor.
The Greatest Story Teller Ever
Christ’s popularity during his life was due to the fact that he was an extremely interesting speaker, but part of the reason he was so interesting was that he was so entertaining. Jesus got people laughing, then he got them thinking. His humor was broad, ranging from the intellectual to the childish. This seems odd today because Christ gets translated so self-righteously, when, in fact, he was so willing to make a fool of himself, or, more accurately, a child of himself.
Christ’s words were not translated to be witty, certainly not in translation to English. We can even see some of this “cleaning up” in the translation to the Latin Vulgate. Even Luke’s version of Jesus’s sayings was simplified to eliminate certain repetition elements that were primarily humorous. For example, he eliminates a lot of the “amen’s” meaning “truly” or “honestly” that is often associated with the “I tell you” line because its value was primarily humorous.
The Official Approved Version
It is no wonder, we don’t laugh when we read these words today. They have been “sanctified” of all their original humor when put into their current written form. However, originally they were not written at all. They were spoken. (Read this article on the differences between spoken language and written.)
The fact that Jesus’s words were spoken makes the Gospel Greek different from the rest of the New Testament, which was written as letters. All those who wrote letters, however, clearly spoken in Greek (see this article). This is not the common academic view, which teaches that Christ taught in Aramaic, but that opinion is not based on evidence as much as historical politics. Those that make the claim for Aramaic simply cannot explain the Greek words we see today nor many aspects of their humor, specifically the Greek plays on words that don’t work in other languages (a verse-by-verse description of wordplay here). The oldest Greek versions of the words themselves make it impossible to imagine an earlier Aramaic version that could possibly give rise to the Greek we see today as a translation. (NOTE: I would love to debate this issue with someone who is honest and knowledgeable about language translation because every article I read on this topic ignores all the key evidence we see in the Greek words themselves.)
The Actual Words as Recorded
These words were not spoken like formal grammatically correct written language, cleaned up by editors. We see them that way they are often presented in the Gospels that way. They were much more likely performed, that is, many statements were structured in order to entertain as well as educate. To understand the difference between written humor and spoken humor, think about Shakespeare. If you read Shakespeare’s comedies, you may not find them particularly funny. However, if you see any of them performed, you will laugh from beginning to end. This humor is not stand-up with simple jokes. It is a performance, creating humorous scenes and situations.
Most of all humor is in the performance and the interaction with the audience. We must imagine the performance and interactions today because they were not recorded. Shakespeare was written first, then performed later. In that case of Jesus, however, his words were performed first, then written. However, like Shakespeare, many of the words don’t quite make sense unless you imagine them performed by someone with great wit, warmth. and lots of shtick. However, with Jesus, we also have to imagine the audience interactions because the complete script was not recorded, just his part of it.
The Common Forms of the Humor
This article discusses some of the most common forms and elements of humor that Christ uses. Of course, jokes aren’t particularly funny when they are explained, so don’t expect to laugh out loud reading this article. The goal is only to give those reading his words a different way of understanding them. This article also helps people understand how to read the “Spoken Version” versions of his verses on this site, which are written to emphasize Christ’s humor and imagine the type of shtick that the recorded words suggest. Some of this business is clearly childish, but this is consistent with Christ’s title for himself as “the son of a man,” which has the sense of a “child of a man.”
Let us start. not with Christ’s words, but his silences.
The Pause between the Set Up and Punch Line
The famous humorist Mark Twain observed, “No word was ever as effective as a rightly timed—pause.” In translating Christ’s words into a spoken performance (see these verses here), it is easy to see where these pauses go. Many of them follow what is translated as the “and’s” and “but’s” that, in written translation, create so many run-on sentences. However, many of these pauses occur before final keywords. Keywords at the end of a Greek sentence or phrase is uncommon since Greek word order normally puts the most important words first, not last (again see this article).
The pause works in humor because it “sets up” the laugh. A surprising number of Christ’s verse can be broken down into classical comedy form called the “set up”, “punch line,” and “tagline.” The set up creates expectations. The punch line confuses those expectations and generates a laugh. The tagline is a second punchline to keep the laughter going.
Again, Christ’s “body of work” was spoken, not written. Punctuation, even spaces between words, didn’t exist in written Greek at the time. The translations here try to capture how the words would be spoken today, which includes the pause. Of course, this is not entirely possible because Greek is constructed differently than English. The verbs are not usually in the middle of the phase but at the end. This is important because the word order is what makes the pause work. At least one example below shows an example of why that is sometimes necessary for the joke to work.
Of course, there are too many examples of Christ’s use of the pause to capture even a good sample. In some “sermons” practically every other verse leans on that pause.
In the Greek, these places for the pause are easy to spot. Whenever an unexpected or surprising word appears following a “set up”, it is easy to imagine a pause before it. Of course, these surprises themselves are hard to hear today because we think we are familiar with what Christ said. To quote Christ, we hear but we do not listen. The truth is that the many, many of the phrases with which we think we are familiar often do not even come close to what Christ actually said. They are changed, almost always in word order and too often to simplify meaning. The meaning that the translators think is important is emphasized. This usually isn’t the funny one. Of course, wordplay based on word sounds is lost entirely. Still, let us start with some easy examples, starting with the basic pause.
The First Beatitude
This pattern of “set up”/pause/”punch line”/pause/”tagline”/pause, starts very early in the New Testament with the “Beatitudes.” This method is used there almost to the point of zaniness. Of course, this is lost in translation because these verses have been “sanctified” to a shocking degree. They are changed to the point that not only is the humor lost, but Christ’s point (pause) and its sharpness (pause), is often blunted as well.
Let’s start with the first beatitude. This is normally translated as “Blessed are the poor of spirit blah, blah.” Now, this version sounds very religious, especially because it seems to praise the poor, but it isn’t what Christ said. Not really. I can’t even imagine him saying something like that in the way we hear it today. Too sanctimonious.
What he said in these verses starts with a single word.
That word only means “blessed” in the sense that the lucky and fortunate are blessed by good luck. It doesn’t mean “blessed” in the sense of “holy” at all. It also means “happy,” which works as well with most of the humor in the Beatitudes. “Happy-go-lucky” might even capture the feeling of the word as well.
Of course, we don’t know how he said it, but it wasn’t followed by a verb. There is no “lucky are” and certainly no “blessed are” here. Just the statement: lucky! Perhaps it was addressed to someone as we might say, “You are lucky!” Or perhaps Christ pointed to someone when he said it. Gestures too have to be imagined when we read Christ. He didn’t say these things in an auditorium on a stage, but with a group of people, around him, often huge groups.
However, here is where the pause it critical. After Christ says, “Lucky!” the pause gives the crowd time to think, “Who is lucky?”
To which thought, after the pause, Christ’s responds, “Beggars!”
This is a punch line. No one sees beggars as lucky and no one sees this word coming. So, it is a surprise. Of course, translating “beggars” as “the poor” makes this phrase seem more caring, but it also waters down the joke.. We will see why in a moment. The word Christ used means “beggars.” Said with the right tone and twinkle, you can see how saying beggars are lucky would get a laugh, though perhaps a few nervous giggles at the very beginning of this “sermon.”
At this point, we need to imagine another pause as Christ waits for the giggles to die. Then Christ adds:
Now, when I read this, the image I get is bums begging for booze. Calling these guys lucky is crazy enough to work. Now in English, this joke works because we call alcohol “spirits.” Did it work in Greek koine the same way? It is hard to say but in modern Greek oinospneuma(the words for “wine” and “spirit”), refers to alcohol. In ancient Greek, the word meant “wine spirit” (or, more humorously, “wine breath”) and referred to the courage fighters got from drinking. Was “begging” associated with drinking as much during Christ’s time as it is in modern society? Well, the nature of drunks hasn’t changed, so we can guess how they behaved then when they were out of drink and money.
However, the surprise works on other levels as well even if we abandon the one that is obvious in English. The word pneuma means “spirit” but it primarily means “breath.” (You can read another whole boring article about that word here.) So Christ is saying someone begging for breath is lucky. Not a joking matter? Ahh, but the word has a double meaning which automatically trip up the expectations of the audience.
Of course, the secondary meaning of pneuma is “spirit” as in “spiritual.” Since Christ was a spiritual teacher, this meaning is obvious, though more to us today than his listeners then. We cannot even hear the “breath” meaning, but that was the every day meaning of the word and the idea of “begging for breath” makes more sense than “begging for spirit, then and now. But that meaning “beggar for spirit” it is funny too. What does it even mean? All these people have come to hear him talk. Is he calling them “spiritual beggars?”
The end of this verse is so familiar today that it is difficult to hear as those words as those during the period heard it. Especially as how the fit it together with the first three words here: “Lucky! Beggars! For spirit!”
Again, we have to imagine the pause during what I hear laughter. As it dies down, the audience wonders, “Okay, why are these beggars lucky?”
Christ says, “Because, the kingdom of heaven is made up of them.”
The joke here is that heaven is made up of beggars. (Or that it is owned by beggars, which seems less likely.)
Of course, we cannot hear the “kingdom of heaven” in the same way as Christ’s audience. It was a new phrase then and nobody knew what it meant really. Christ spends most of his teaching explaining what the idea is. But they knew what a kingdom was and they knew what the word translated as “heaven,” bt not how we think of it. The word meant “the sky”, “the universe beyond our world,” and, more specifically, the the home of the “stars,” that is, the heroes of history and mythology, both Greek and Jewish. Christ is not only putting beggars among these heros but saying that it is made up of the beggars, not the heroes.
Repetition and catchphrases
Another very common form of humor in the repeated pattern. All humorists use this technique because the audience get trained by repetition. The audience learns where the laughs are coming. This is make the timing of the pause all that more effective. It also builds the laughs as more and more people catch on how the pattern works. When a bit is used the first time, it is too surprising for many. But through repetition, they learn to anticipate the punch line.
Of course, the simplest repeated pattern is the “catch phrase.” The history of humor is filled with repeated catchphrases, especially the golden age of TV, where, for awhile, every successful comedy had a character catchphrase. “To the moon, Alice, to the moon.” “Honey, I’m home.” “Kiss my grits.” “Dy-no-mite!” “Na-noo, na-noo.” catchphrases aren’t only used in humor, but in commercials as well because they are memorable, but all end up being funny, if only through repetition. “Where’s the beef?” “I ate the whole thing.” “Does it hurt and have a temperature?”
Of course, Christ had is own catchphrases. “Amen, I say to you,” is the most obvious, which is more like “Tell you true!” this is repeated to the point of pure humor in the Gospels. “the kingdom of heaven,” and “the son of man” are two more. One of the funniest is “Boo-hoo to you!” (discussed later) which, unfortunately, gets translated as “Woe to you.” Of course, we have a hard time hearing these phrases as humorous because we didn’t hear them that way originally, but each one is rooted in humor. Even “the weeping and gnashing of teeth” hits me as humor, though as a different kind (exaggeration), which we will discuss later in the article.
Christ uses repeated patterns in many different ways and I may list a number of them in the future, but for now, we will stick with the beatitudes because they are an obvious example. They appear right at the beginning of the Gospels. The repeat the same patterns and even words in different ways. Let us look at how the fourth beatitude repeats the pattern set up in the first beatitude.
The Fourth Beatitude
Again, we start with “Lucky!” Now, when Christ pauses, the audience knows what is coming next, and people are probably already tittering. The thought is, “Who is ‘lucky’ this time?”
“The hungry and thirsty!” Obvious laugh line. By now, of course, the audience is in on the joke. Of course the hungry and thirsty are as every bit as lucky as beggars! But the pattern lead them to ask, “Okay, which hungry and thirsty?”
“For justice!” The tagline. Of course, this turns the meaning of “hungry and thirsty” completely around. Another laugh, bigger than the first.
But the audience now knows how this works. They are set up to expect an explanation of why these people are so lucky. The pause waits for the laughter to die down.
Then Christ says, “Because they will get their fill!”
This is a BIG laugh line, a tagline on top of the tagline.
It brings together both the idea of being hungry and the idea of getting justics, BUT getting “your fill of justice” is clearly a double edged sword. Those who think they want justice may want to rethink what they are asking for.
This is also a great example of how a verb at the end of the sentence works so well in humor. The last part “get their fill” is not a series of words in Greek, but a single verb.
Of course, a lot of humor is based on exaggeration. A lot of this exaggeration suggest the humorous business that accompanied it when it was delivered. A lot of what Christ says is “over the top” and wouldn’t have worked at all if the people of the time didn’t see the humor in it. A lot of it would have simply come across as crazy.
No one can read Christ statement about seeing a speck in our brother’s eyes while missing the beam in our own without being struck by how exaggerated it is. Even, then you have to imagine it being performed in front of a crowd, with Christ having one arm over one eye, acting at the “beam” while offering to remove a speck from a friend’s eye. This is very broad humor, slapstick. Christ wasn’t afraid of embarrassing himself by seeming childish.
Unfortunately, people reading Christ today take every humorous exaggeration as gospel. (Pause). For them “a beam in the eye” is a weird outlier, rather than what is absolutely typical of Christ. They cannot hear the “perpetually flaming trash heap” as funny, partly because it has been translated into the boring “eternal fires of hell,” but partly because generations of people have been brought up to see Christ as “holy”, “divine,” and little besides that. So, we don’t hear the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” as a humorous illustration, as much as the Truth, with a capital “T.” This makes Christ a really grim character, like John the Baptist, but that certainly isn’t how he acts in the Gospels. He acts as though he doesn’t have a care in the world.
A great repeated example of this grimness is the repeated phrase “Woe to you,” which Christ uses many places, most noticeably in his long diatribe against the religious leaders of his time in Matthew 23:13-39. “Woe to you” sounds properly religious because you never hear anything like that said in real life. The Greek term translated as “woe” is an exclamation of grief like a wail or a sob, not just a term for sadness. It is an exaggeration.
However, people say something that means “woe to you” all the time in real life. They say, “Boo-hoo to you!” Notice, however, this phrase cannot be said seriously. Closer is the Jewish, “Oy vey”. “Oy vey” is often, perhaps usually, used humorously, but it can also be a sincerely expression of sorrow as well. The Greek word translated as “woe”, ouai, is very similar. In English, we might use “so sad” in a similar way, with multiple meanings. It has an ironic edge. It can be used to minimize a list of people’s complaints about their hardships, rather than emphasize people’s mistakes. Christ uses “So sad for you” to make fun of both. It makes the condemnation lighter, not heavier because it is exaggerated and entertaining.
In listening to thousands of sermons, it is clear that pastors prefer quoting Paul, instead of Christ, even when both make the exactly same points. Indeed, most of Paul’s points comes directly from Christ. Since the faith is called “Christian” and Christ was the son of God, you would think that every pastor would go directly the source, the words of Christ. But few do. Why? Because Christ exaggerates and plays around so much and that pastors cannot explain his words in any logical way except as grim warnings. They cannot see or admit that Christ could see the humor in very serious matters. But what is humor other than the ability to see something from two perspectives at once?
Paul takes Christ’s messages and tones them down. Paul would be politically correct and say “sadly for you,” not “boohoo to you.” Paul was a writer and a preacher, while Christ went beyond preaching into entertaining. Christ work was spoken, not written. It takes a certain force of personality to make his material work in front of a crowd.
People clearly “got” Christ’s exaggerated humor for centuries and centuries. Remember, the movement was started with Christ’s words written in the Greek. People read it and got the exaggerations as entertainment. The philosophy came later, but the sharpness of Christ’s points was always there. It fit the overall pattern of the historical Christ as an exaggerated character in real life: the lowest of all men, a “bastard” who was condemned to death as a criminal who rose from the dead to become the highest of the high, the son of God, the most famous man in human history.
It wasn’t until Christianity got “churchified” that the humor and exaggeration were completely lost. The Bible became the Vulgate and, in the process, more formalized. That process continued as the Vulgate gave birth to the various translated Bibles, with every version focusing on the “religious” issues of its age.
Adultery and Cutting off “Members”
To illustration how Christ’s exaggerated humor works, we will look at Christ’s discussion of adultery, also from the Sermon on the Mount, Christ’s first sermon in the Gospels. This is a great example because of the exaggeration clearly has sexual overtones. Christ was never crude, but here he comes close. Everyone listening understood exactly what he was saying, even if people today don’t get it.
First, he give the traditional commandment, as follows the pattern in this section, then he says:
“But I tell you what. Everyone staring at a woman.”
Imagine him exaggerating the “staring” and drawing out “woman” to make it sound very, very womanly. The first necessary pause comes here.
“Pining for her,” he continues, again exaggerating the passion of the idea, which is a very euphonic, multi-syllable verb in Greek.
“Has already defiled her,” he continues. Again, imagine an exaggerated “defiled.” Then comes the necessary pause.
“In his…” Here he stops again, perhaps seeming to search for the word that keeps it clean. He comes up with it and says triumphantly, “Heart!”
Now, imagine this kind of exaggeration in the next section.
“So, if it is your…uh…,” He says, searching for the word, “Eye trips you up.”
Imagine him pointing at his eye and acting it a little stumble.
“Puck it out! Toss it away!” Again, imagine him acting this out.
“Because it is altogether better to have your…uh,” Again he searches for the word. “Member destroyed.”
Again, a pause as the audience figures out the member to which he is referring.
“Than have your whole body just tossed,” he says, with the word “tossed” having a lot of double meanings, making it one of this favorites in these situations. “In the trash heap!”
Again, using the repeating pattern, Christ does the last section. Again, just imagine a lot of exaggerated words and gestures.
“And if your, uh…” he says, starting a gesture downward with his hand, suddenly lifts it up and flexes it. “Right hand! Trips you up, you should cut it out! Knock it off! And toss away! It is SOOO much better to have a, uh, ‘member’ destroyed than have your wholly whole body dumped into that trash heap.”
Now, try reading the “original” in any Bible you choose. Is it easier to image the grim man who made that speech drawing everyone from miles around or this entertainer? Which makes his point about looking at a woman as sex objects more persuasively, the “threatening” preacher or the moral humorist?
Christ and His Interactions with Others
How did Christ contemporaries criticize him, as a stern moralizer or as a party animal? John was the stern moralizer, and they called him crazy (Matthew 11:18 For John came neither eating nor drinking,). Christ took his message and made it something new, something amazingly entertaining. So what did they call him? A drunkard and party animal (Matthew 11:19 The Son of man came eating and drinking.)
And when Christ joked, people joked right back at him and he loved it! The most famous example is the discussion with the Canaanite woman where Christ refers to her people as “puppies.” Of course, in most translations, this comes across as a cruel insult instead of a joke. But if it was an insult, why does the woman come back with what is clearly a joke about the puppies getting the crumbs (Matthew 15:27). Christ liked her joke so much her granted her wish instantly.
However, Jesus was not above the humorous insult. When the Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod wants him dead, Jesus sends word back to Herod referring to him as a “vixen” (Luke 13:32). This is lost in translation, which renders it as the more polite “fox”. But the Greek word has both male and female forms, fox and vixen. Jesus chooses the female form, which is much less of a compliment than “fox”, which simply means “crafty”.
Or look at the apostles. Admittedly, they are not portrayed as the brightest bulbs on the tree, but, again, that is because we don’t see the humor inherent in so many situations. A lot of time, these people are having fun. They were criticized for enjoying themselves on a holy day, and Christ explains by asking, “Can the children of the bride chamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them (Matthew 9:15)?” So there was a sense of celebration in their group. This explains a lot of verses with which many people seem to struggle.
For example, when Christ says that people shouldn’t divorce, Matthew 19:9, the apostles come back with the statement, “if that’s the case, it’s better not to marry!” this is clearly a joke. It is say, “Well, if I can’t get divorced, I can’t marry.” It is especially funny because these apostles were all or almost all married men. During these times, hardly anyone got divorced, even though it was legal. The comment is a typical married men complaining about marriage. It works in any era. Even today, with divorce so common, this joke still works. We might phrase is as, “I was about to get married, but then I found out what a divorce costs.”
Christ’s follow up to the apostles in this scence is just as light hearted, “Well, everyone can’t welcome this lesson [about staying married], except those to actually get it.”
Other Forms of Humor
There are many other forms of Christ’s humor, but it would take a book to cover them all. However, some of them are even more common than the one’s we’ve discussed. Among his other forms of humor are:
- Playing with double meanings. This is perhaps the most common form of humor. Any verse which seems particularly impossible in English translation is probably a play on words. For example, the word for “mountain” and “mule” are the same in Greek. So when Christ says that with enough faith, we can command a “mountain” to move, is he really taking about a mule.
- Playing with sound-alike words. Christ does this a lot as well. For example, thefirst-person pronoun “ego” is usually unnecessary in a sentence because it is part of the verb. It is used only to emphasize the role of the speaker. However, Christ most frequently uses “ego” with the verb that means “to say.” Why? The phrase is “ego lego.” I am always reminded of the commercial “let go my Eggo” when I run into it.
- Using complicated words for the sake of humor. Christ normally speaks very simply, especially in conversations with people. However, sometimes, especially when confronted by the scribes (the academics of the period) and Pharisees, he will start to use big, complicated words that he almost never uses otherwise because they are the kind of words they use. It is his way of making fun of them. Whenever we see a verse with a lot of very uncommon Greek words, it is usually this type of situation. For example, see Matthew 7:23.
- Making up words. The Bible is written in koine, which is described as the “common” Greek, as opposed to educated Greek. However, a common feature of koine is the “coining” of new words. Putting the parts of other Greek words together to make new words. Christ does this, not to make deep philosophical points, but to be funny. For example, the word that gets translated a “thee of little faith” is a made up word where Christ makes put the lack of faith into the form of an personal address. “Mr. Tiny Trust’ is a close approximation in English. This seems to be humorous to me.
- In the parables, Christ usually uses a minimum of tricks to tell the story simply. However, it is easy to imagine him doing funny voices portraying the characters. He often tosses in a trick or two from the list above but nothing to distract from the story. However, often at the end he will add a subtle punch line. The “some a hundred fold, some sixty fold, some thirty fold” at the end of the Parables of the Sower is a good example. Why offer diminishing returns except to get a little laugh at the end? We only have to imagine the “hundred fold” being said dramatically and the “sixty” being said with a little disappointment, and the “thirty” being said with a shrug and a sigh.
Ancient Greek Humor
Finally, we should also note something of what we know about ancient Greek humor. Humor was a common feature of the Greek theater. Aristophanes mades political jokes, imitating actual politicians. Gree humor, like all humor and that of Jesus, uses exaggeration and caricature make its points. Symbolic characters, like those in the parables, were common. The caricature of for the “common man”, for example, was often an old man who is easily fooled.
The Greek-speaking people of the ancient world told jokes, just like we do today. They actually had ‘joke-groups’ who met and traded jokes. One such group gathered regularly in the Athenian Temple of Heracles in the 4th century B.
Jesus often makes “actors” the foil of his humor. More commonly, the ancient Greek foil for jokes was the idiot (baffon). One such joke goes: “An idiot, wanting to go to sleep but wanted a pillow. He asked his slave to give him an earthen jar for his head. The slave said that a jug was too hard. The idiot told him to fill it with feathers.” If we read Jesus some of the most severe statements made by Jesus regarding cutting off members, we hear these ancient echoes of jokes exactly like this.
One of Jesus’s favorite targets was the intellectual elites of his society, the Pharisees, their lawyers, and writers. When we read his statements about them, we should keep in mind the ancient tradition of jokes about all of the “educated” classes, For example, jokes about doctors. There was an ancient Greek job about someone who went to see a physician. He complained, “I feel groggy for a half hour after I get up, and only then do I feel normal.” The physician prescribed a simple solution, “Get up half an hour later.”
As research continues, this article will be updated to reflect other common types of humor as they are encountered.