Hermeneutics of Humour

Excerpts from Peter Leithart’s new book, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture:

deepexegesis-s“My insight, if such it is, into the workings of humour was reinforced and generalised when I watched Shrek, a movie that I now tell my students is a gold mine of hermeneutical insight. All the funny parts of that film assume that the viewer has information the movie does not provide, information from three main sources: nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and popular culture, especially movies…”

Johannine Jokes

…How does all this apply to our reading of Scripture? Scripture has the same literary properties as the texts we have been examining. Just as Eliot read Dante who read Virgil who read Homer, so Matthew had read Jeremiah, who knew Kings (or wrote it), and the writer of Kings had read the Hexateuch. Let us look at some examples. Let me tell some biblical jokes, again taken from John 9.

The nearest intertextual echoes are the ones that John has built into his joyous, humourous gospel. First, John 9 records the story of Jesus healing a blind man, and already in John’s gospel, sight has become an important theme. “No one has seen God at any time,” John tells us toward the end of his prologue (1:18), but John’s comment that “the only-begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained (v. 18) gives us some hope that with the Word’s arrival in flesh the unseen God will be seen. We are not disappointed: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (14:9). In contrast to the Synoptics, which use dunamis to refer to Jesus’ miracles, John uses semeion, “sign,” a word that emphasises their visibility. Many “behold” Jesus’ signs and believe (2:23, 6:2). To see the kingdom requires not just new eyes but a new birth by water and Spirit (3:3). Those who are not reborn may see the signs and the sign-giver, but do not believe (6:256; 36). Seeing and believing are closely linked in John (4:48; 6:30).

All this should be rumbling around in the reader’s mind as he comes to chapter 9 and watches Jesus pass by a man blind from birth, that is, a man whose physical condition mirrors the spiritual malady of unbelief that Jesus has challenged on several occasions. The rumblings return at the end of the chapter, when Jesus announces that he has come to bring judgment, which takes the form of giving sight to the blind and blinding the seeing (9:39). The Pharisees demand to know whether Jesus considers them blind, but Jesus will not give them that excuse. Because they claim to see, because they have seen Jesus’ works and refuse to believe, they are still in their sin (9:40-41). They see, but they are self-blinded, and, with the Pharisees standing in front of Him, Jesus goes on to describe the conduct of blind shepherds (10:1-18)…

…How Can We Know?

John 9 has taken us all over John’s gospel, chasing connections. And then it took us back to Genesis 1 and Genesis 3, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Who knows where else it maight take us if we had infinite time? But how can we be sure we have gotten the joke, and not read unintended humour in a serious text? How can we know we are laughing the right things?…

…Literary explanation functions the same way [as scientific theorising], and the proof of a literary hypothesis is similar to that in history and science. The data in a literary interpretation is the text itself, these particular words on the page in this particular arrangement. We assume that these words did not appear randomly on the page, but were placed there by some intelligent being. The goal of interpretation is to account for this data.

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