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HUMOR. Humor may be defined as constituting a facetious turn of mind that issues in jocularity. It involves a perception of the incongruous or comic elements of life, and an ability not merely to appreciate them but to communicate them so that others may perceive the amusing factors also. It is generally less subtle than wit, which is marked by the full expression of the intellect in terms of some minor issue to produce a result that can be incisive, caustic, or merely amusing. Humor is normally more genial, sympathetic, and pleasant than wit, for since the latter is primarily an intellectual exercise, it is frequently of a keen, cold, analytical character, and lacks the saving grace of being able to laugh at itself. Humor and wit are alike, however, in being frequently associated with such moral values as truth and virtue. Humor is one of the principal antidotes to personal pride.


The English term.

The origin of the word is in the Lat. umor, which in a general sense meant “moisture” or “vapor.” In medieval physiology, the word was used of the four cardinal fluids (blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile), whose relative proportions in the body were thought to determine the physical and mental qualities, as well as the disposition, of the individual concerned. Black bile (black choler) produced melancholy, whereas yellow bile resulted in a brighter disposition. In the sense of caprice or whim, the term humor was commonly found in 16th cent. writings, though from the next cent., the meaning was broadened to include both the quality of action, speech, or writing that excited amusement and the faculty of perceiving and conveying what was ludicrous or comical. In its most developed form, the word was applied to the jocular treatment of a topic, whether in oral or written form.

Oriental humor.

As in so many other areas of life, the oriental attitude toward a matter such as humor is quite different from that of Western countries. Judging from the lit., life in the ancient orient seems to have been a depressingly insecure affair, and if ever circumstances produced anything parallel to the modern occidental situation-comedy, it was not given prominence in written records. Yet such things are bound to have happened periodically, and to have produced a purely comic, if perhaps rather unintentional result. One of the oldest jokes known to man is thought to have originated in Mesopotamia before the prosperous third dynasty of Ur (c. 2150-2050 b.c.), and perpetuated in something approaching the following conversation: “Who was that lady I saw you out with last night?” “That was no lady, that was my wife.” In general, the conditions of ancient life seldom admitted of sheer gaiety, and much of the laughter doubtless occurred under the influence of alcohol, when indelicate subjects and allusions would provoke raucous amusement.

In his days of prosperity, Job appears to have been a buoyant, cheerful individual (Job 29:24, ASVmg.), but aside from the joy of childbirth (Gen 21:6) and the merry laughter of children at play, scorn and derision seem to have been widely conveyed in laughter (Job 22:19; Pss 22:7; 52:6, etc.). Thus when God was spoken of as laughing, it invariably involved ridicule (Pss 37:13; 59:8, etc.).

Because there was nothing of the occidental self-consciousness evident in the oriental malefemale relationship, jokes about sex had little place in oriental humor, though indelicate comments on sexual functions would inevitably occur in conversation periodically. In general, the Hebrews had a curious modesty about sex, often referring to the male genitalia by such euphemisms as “hands” or “feet.” For the orientals, sex was meant to be indulged in, and precisely the same held true of religion. To the superstitious Mesopotamians, there could be no thought whatever of humor being associated with religion, and this stands in forcible contrast to the modern western attitude as represented in a cartoon that showed two angels, one of which was saying to the other, “I don’t mind being ignored so much; it’s the awful stories they tell about us that I dislike.” Because humor and wit have been linked in western thought with certain absolute values, it is inevitable that such religious matters as God, the saints, heaven and hell should be mentioned in a jocular context. For the orientals, however, and not least the Hebrews, religious beliefs, customs, duties and the like simply did not admit of anything but the most sober of interpretations.

Humor in the OT and Apocrypha.

Paronomasia in the Apoc. has been largely lost in the tr., although in Susanna two pungent wordplays related the fate of the lying elders to the names of the trees that they had supplied in giving evidence, as follows: “A mastic tree (schinôn)...God will split (schisei) you” (vv. 54, 55), and “a live oak tree (prînon)...God is waiting to saw you (prisai) in two” (vv. 58, 59). Other instances of humor are seen in the beguiling of Holofernes by feminine wiles (Judg 12; 13), the discovery of priestly deception (Bel 19-22), and the bursting open of the great dragon (Bel 23-28).

Humor in the NT.


D. Zuver, Salvation by Laughter (1933); F. Rosenthal, Humor in Early Islam (1956); W. F. Stinespring, IDB, II, 660-662.