The Presence and Purpose(s) of Humor in Acts

To have a sense of humor, to be able to recognize that something is funny, is widely understood to be a significant feature of human experience. People love to laugh, even if there are debates about what humor is and whether or not something is supposed to be humorous! Humor was widespread in the literature of the ancient world, in comedies, novels, histories, and across the different genres of the Old Testament (e.g., Radday and Brenner, eds., On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible). However, is humor to be found in the book of Acts? Surprisingly little has been written on this question. Richard Pervo briefly included humor as evidence that Acts belonged to the genre of ancient novel (Profit with Delight, 58-66). In response, some pointed out that the presence of humor does not require the conclusion that Acts is unhistorical (Goldingay, Reiser). Jakob Jónsson included a survey of Acts in his (1961) study of Humour and Irony in the New Testament, concluding that “the humour of the Acts is mostly a humour of an amusing situation” (185). Some discussion has surrounded the presence or absence of humor in individual episodes in Acts (e.g., Rhoda in Acts 12:13-14; Eutychus in Acts 20:9; see e.g., Alexander P. Thompson in JSNT 2019: 223-36). Yet, commentaries rarely address the question of whether or not Luke describes an incident humorously. There are apparently only a few articles that survey humor in Acts as a whole (Goldingay, 1997; Berder [in French], 2005; Reiser [in German], 2009; all assuming humor to be present). No one (as far as I’m aware) relates the possibility of humor in Acts to the place of humor in Old Testament narrative. Thus, little has been done on the presence and function(s) of humor in Acts as a whole and how this might relate to Luke’s overall aims in the book.

This paper will argue that although Acts is a historical account of serious matters, including the persecution and suffering of the early church, there is nevertheless evidence of humor in Acts and this humor can be understood in light of Luke’s theological aims in the unfolding of God’s plans in salvation-history. The paper will begin by briefly surveying both the limited literature on humor in Acts and some of the (complicated) theories for identifying humor. With this in mind, the paper will then examine four specific texts in their literary contexts: Acts 12:13-16; 19:13-16; 19:32-34; and 20:9-12. The paper will investigate whether or not humor is present in these common contenders for humor in Acts and suggest some explanations for the how the humor functions in each passage. The paper will then point to other places where humor may be present in Acts and conclude with reflections on the place of humor in the overall aims of Luke’s account of the spread of the Word in Acts.

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