Wise use of humour can be extremely beneficial. It encourages, builds relationships, gently rebukes, and tactfully suggests a better way. Conversely, some become slaves to laughter, addicted to witty repartee to the point that they will do or say anything to provoke a laugh, despite the harm or hurt perpetrated or the coarseness employed. Humour is one of God’s great gifts, but our human depravity mars this too. Pride and ego twist humour into an abusive, mocking, destructive force. Paul speaks to this question in Ephesians 5. He carefully demarks those things which are “improper for God’s holy people” and “out of place” (vv.3-4). One of these is “coarse joking” (eutrapelia), along with “obscenity” (aischrotēs), and “foolish talk” (mōrologia).
All three words only occur in the New Testament in Eph. 5:4. The third term in this series is eutrapelia and it is translated as “crude joking” (English Standard Version), “coarse jesting” (New English Translation), “coarse joking” (New International Version), or “vulgar talk” (New Revised Standard). The adjectival form of this word describes something that turns easily. When applied to intellect, it suggests a mental agility and suppleness which can be positive – ready wit, or negative – mockery.
Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, devoted considerable space in his ethical writings to the appropriate use of wittiness. When a person employs wit (eutrapelia) with tact and refinement, he demonstrates a tasteful balance. He restrains himself from jesting that is abusive both of the gods and humans, a demonstration of the hybris (an arrogant disposition) that generates vulgarity and obscenity unless tightly and ruthlessly controlled. Such a person enjoys a good joke, so long as it is not abusive or boorish. In wise and respected leaders eutrapelia can even be considered virtuous because it demonstrates self-restraining tact and an unwillingness to offer mean-spirited jests at the expense of others. When describing the young, Aristotle says they are “fond of laughter (philogeloioi), and therefore witty (eutrapeloi): for wit (eutrapelia) is cultured insolence.”1Plutarch in one of his biographical essays discusses the Roman lawyer, Cicero. He remarks that “his facility for sarcasm and eutrapelia was seen as a virtue and an attractive feature of his court speeches, but he used it to excess, thus injuring a number of people and gaining a reputation for meanness [or of being malicious].”2
Philo used eutrapelia once in his account of the Jewish appeal to the Roman emperor Gaius. When the Jewish representatives finally succeeded in gaining an audience, one of Gaius’ questions was “Why do you refuse to eat pork?” Philo then writes “the question was greeted by another outburst of laughter from some of our opponents because they were delighted, while with others it was a studied attempt to flatter him, intended to make the remark seem witty (eutrapeliai) and sprightly [charming (chariti)?].”3 Josephus used it in a more positive sense to describe the petition by Joseph, the Tobiad, to Ptolemy Epiphanes to gain his favour towards the Jews in Palestine. Joseph succeeded in winning Ptolemy’s friendship, as well as the contract to collect taxes in Palestine. A significant turning point comes in the initial conversation when Joseph responds to the complaints of Ptolemy about the conduct of the Jewish leaders. Joseph’s response gave pleasure to Ptolemy because of its “charm and ready wit (chariti…kai…eutrapeliai).”4 Josephus tells a similar story about Joseph’s son, Hyrcanus. He also won Ptolemy’s regard through his witty replies. “The king, who admired his reply for being so clever, and to show approval of his wit (eutrapelias), ordered all to applaud.”5
Eutrapelia describes a quickness of wit that was greatly prized in antiquity. It can be used virtuously or wickedly. The Syrophoenician woman’s response to Jesus in Mark 7:27-29 is probably a good example of an appropriate witty response in the context of a spiritual conversation. Or perhaps Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ about paying taxes to Caesar might fall into this same category (Mark 12:15-17). Paul gives evidence in his writings that he has a significant capacity for witty repartee. His wish in Galatians 5:12 that the agitators among the Galatian Christians “would go the whole way and emasculate themselves” might skirt the edges of propriety.
The other two terms Paul associates with eutrapelia in Ephesians 5:4 indicates that he is not using this word positively in that context. The terms translated as obscenity and foolish or senseless talking contextually locate the significance of eutrapelia here as vulgar, coarse, abusive jesting that is hurtful and destructive. It defines not only a type of speech, but an attitude, a way of life.6 Perhaps our English term ridicule provides a near equivalent. But it may also have the sense of scurrilous innuendo, perhaps similar to our term “suggestive language.” Engaging in such verbal abuse or innuendo runs contrary to the conduct that Jesus Christ mandates among his followers. If we are “light in the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8), our speech will be disciplined by our love and gracious spirit. Paul urged the Colossian believers to “season with salt” their discourse (Colossians 4:6), particularly with those who are not part of God’s family.
Christians can enjoy wittiness and engage in it, but within the bounds of Christian love and grace. Wit that ridicules, embarrasses and abuses has no place in God’s family and will not provide good witness to those who are not yet followers of Jesus. Given the high value that humour possesses in Canadian culture, a biblical perspective on this is important. It is one of the ways that defines how we discern the relationship between Christianity and culture.
- how do you control the use of wit in your preaching, teaching, counseling? How do you know when you have crossed the line?
- what should be our response when we hear humour being inappropriately used in our Christian context or Canadian culture? Should we challenge it? Or ignore it?
- the use of sarcastic ridicule in our closest relationships can become habitual and very damaging – with our children and our spouses. Do you need to repent of something here and develop new habits of conversation that express Christ’s love and grace?
- 1Aristotle, Rhetorica II.12.1389b10-12.
- 2Plutarch, Cicero 5.4.
- 3Philo, De Legatione 361.
- 4Josephus, Antiquities 12.172-173.
- 5Ibid., 214.
- 6P.W.van der Horst, “Is Wittiness Unchristian?“ in Miscellanea Neotestamentica, Volume II, edited by T. Baarda, A.E.J.Klijn and W.C.van Unnik (Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1978), 163-177.