The Bible is renowned for many reasons, but its capacity to elicit laughter isn’t one of them. Profound, boring, thought-provoking, out-moded, terrifying, censorious … take your pick. But funny it is not. The American intellectual Jack Miles claimed recently that the Bible “is morally serious to the virtual exclusion of charm”.
Such sentiments are understandable. There’s no disputing that the Bible’s concerns are, at core, as deep and weighty as they come. Even so, there is humour to be found within its pages. For the most part, however, it’s not of the side-splitting or slapstick variety.
Almost all the intentional humour is in the Old Testament. Sarcasm, irony, punning, wordplay, humorous imagery and exaggeration – each were liberally employed by the ancient Hebrew authors. Like all the best communicators today, they appreciated that humour is an excellent way to win over an audience.
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Why, on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, are its praises being sung by so many prominent atheists?
Richard Dawkins himself, best-selling author of The God Delusion, has led the charge. In an article published in the Christmas issue of New Statesman, Dawkins hailed the KJV as an “astonishing piece of English literature”. He hoped to “encourage our schools to bring this precious English heritage to all our children, whatever their background”.
Here in Australia there have been similar calls. A few weeks ago, Prime Minister Julia Gillard got into the act. “It’s impossible to understand Western literature,” she opined, “without having that key of understanding [of] the Bible stories and how Western literature builds on them and reflects them”.
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Growing up, I thought of Pantera as a heavy metal band. That was before I read the Greek philosopher, Celsus whose anti-Christian writings are recorded by the Christian writer, Origen. Around a century after the composition of the biblical Gospels, Celsus wrote various works opposing Christian doctrine.
One writer describes Celsus as “the first Nietzschean”, such was his vehement objection to the traditional (and historical) teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was born of a virgin, taught and ministered around Galilee to much acclaim, and was then crucified by Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, and seen alive again three days after his death.
Among Celsus’s claims about the fallacies of Christian history is the report that Jesus was fathered by a Roman soldier called Pantera (Origen, Contra Celsum, I:32, 34). This is the first known mention of this view, so we can’t know how prevalent it was (it was later picked up in some Jewish writings). However, it is attractive to those who would like to ‘domesticate’ the Christmas story.
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Quentin Bryce may have entertained the Masterchef crowd, but she declined to use the enormous Lord Hopetoun Bible printed in 1901 by the Bible Society for the inauguration of Governors-General.
However, no offence or protest was intended; in fact the opposite: she wanted to hold her own modest-sized Bible instead. The Acting Governor-General, Marie Bashir, opened an historic Bibles exhibition in Sydney last week because Quentin Bryce was in Fromelles where, among her duties, she returned a fallen WWI digger’s pocket-sized New Testament to his side.
The Bible is still very close to the centre of public life in Australia, even if there is occasional strident objection to the appropriateness of its use.
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First it was the Police Bible; now it’s the Poverty and Justice Bible. The market segmentation of the Bible reading audience knows no bounds. It’s easy to be cynical about ‘trendy’ versions of the Good Book – are they not merely publishing manoeuvres designed to flog a dead religious horse?
Well, yes and no. Of course, repackaging and relabelling an old product is a time-honoured way of making more sales and expanding markets.
Some Bibles, like the various Teen Study Versions, just seem to add to the Scriptures dubious cultural commentary about wearing make-up, handling break-ups and pursuing middle-class-ness. But there is a more useful, corrective side to the specialist Bible industry.
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