Ephesians 5:4 and Humor


#1

Salvete, omnes!

When I read Ephesians 5:4 in translation, in the original Greek and in the Vulgate Latin, I am yet confused about what, ifany, humor and/or lightheartedness is proper to the Christian.

It would seem that, in the early Church, humor of any kind was frowned upon. Yet, I see no reason for this. Cannot Christians be a little lighthearted once in a while (if not more often?) as long as we also maintain knowledge of what should be seriously observed? It has been my experience that, in many cases, joking, even sometimes about more serious topics, can be set aside when that serious topic is actually present or more immediate to one.

You may look up the reference in the translation/source text of your choice, but here I wish to look at/inquire into a few key words in the passage…

– “filthiness” (Grk. αισχροτης, Lat., turpitudo): The nature of this term seems to convey a sense of “moral baseness” in both languages. Fair enough. However, the entire context of this passage seems to lean toward that in word. What, precisely, is “moral baseness” in word? Is it simply obscenity? If so, what do we define as “obscenity”? Why would, for example, telling a joke about sex (even licit sex) be considered “base”? Is not sex a natural (and, yes, God-given) part of life?

– “silly talking” (Grk., μωρολογια, Lat., stultiloquium): This is clearly referring the veral acts. However, what, precisely, is it referring to? Is it referring to light-hearted humor or just joking around? Once again, it seems we may have here a prohibition against levity generally as being improper to the Christian. But, I ask, once again, why? Can we not have some fun but also be serious where/when it counts? Granted, I have alwyas had a bit of a problem with absurdist comedy, though I’ve always thought that more a matter of personal taste.

– “coarse jsesting” (Grk., εθτραπελια, Lat., scurrilitas): Here, the Latin translation seems to differ markedly from the Greek original. The Greek original would seem to have many connotations, including, yes, “double-entendre” but also “keen wit” generally. The Latin, once again, seems to imply “buffoonery”, similar to the “morologia/stultiloquium” above. In either of these three cases, however, I just don’t see a problem! What is, indeed, wrong with being witty, if you’re doing it merely to be funny/make others enjoy/laugh with you? Is laughter and levity in all its forms to be prohibited?

Is there any definitive Church teaching on this particular passage? How should we as Christians understand it? I am indeed quite confused with this one.

Thanks in advance.


#2

4 There must be no foul or salacious talk or coarse jokes – all this is wrong for you; there should rather be thanksgiving.

Vile.


#3

Most of the Hebrew words for laughter are actually talking about bitter, mocking laughter. Normal laughter and humor tends to be incorporated into generic phrases like “joy.”

Similarly, “foolish talk” is usually the sort of things you might say now and be sorry for saying later.

In general, the ancient world thought that a wise person didn’t get unbalanced easily by emotion. Kids were mastered by their feelings, whereas adults had self-control. So you read people like St. Justin Martyr talking about how Christians have this kind of self-mastery, without losing it to excessive sorrow or anger or such.

OTOH, we do read a fair amount of things by early Christians, or about early Christians, that include them saying or doing funny things, much as Jesus did.

I think it was St. Polycarp who had the Roman prosecutor telling him to say, “Away with the atheists!” (Christians didn’t believe in pagan gods, so they were called “atheists.”) So Polycarp pointed to the crowd of pagans and said, “Away with the atheists!”

St. Clement of Alexandria suggested that if you had trouble believing in the Resurrection, you should go to a taverna, catch a fly, drown him in water, and then let him sit someplace dry on the table. If a fly could dry out and come to life again, how much more could God rise from the dead?

Somebody has a free audiobook of saint humor, but I don’t remember the website.


#4

I think that our conscience can help us decide what is good light-hearted humor, without the use of coarse language or ridicule of others.

Good humor helps us to relieve tension.


#5

The term is quite strong. This is not a matter merely of telling jokes, but of being deliberately “ugly”, i.e. wantonly obscene.

– “silly talking” (Grk., μωρολογια)

Plutarch uses it for the way in which drunks talk, not just for saying something silly, and so it could then be a warning against getting drunk and running your mouth off without any thought for what you are saying, much along the lines of James 3.

– “coarse jesting” (Grk., ευτραπελια)

This is the strange one: Aristotle (line 13) uses ευτραπελια for wit, as you say, and βωμολοχια for excessive playfulness, i.e. stupid talking. Chrysostom’s commentary on the verse (in English, sorry, but Documenta Catholica Omnia will have the original) is quite insistent that levity of any kind is inappropriate. (Lampe also lists Origen’s Commentary on Ephesians 5.3 (p.559-20), and Basil of Caesarea’s letter 42.4 (3.129B; M.32.356C), should you want more.)


#6

Thanks, so far, for the replies. I am very interested in hearing more if others have something to contribute.

When I was thinking of “humor” earlier, as a trained classicist, I am thinking of Roman poetry in particular. It actuallly seems that the Church did have some room for secular/pagan Roman poetic satirists such as Horace or Juvenal and even admired them to some extent. Even poets like Catullus were at least copied and at least one of the latter’s poems weren’t even translated until the 19th(?) century because of its vulgarity. As I understand it, though, many indeed Catholic satirists followed, to various extents, the Horatian and Juvenalian models and they seemed not to have any problem with this satirical approach. As far as Catullus, in at least one early example, he is at least held up with indifference as a good poet. Why, indeed, would C.'s manuscripts even be copied had there not at least been some interest, for whatever reason, in his works. Indeed, Juvenal could be quite biting in his critiques, yet they seemed to find some favor with Catholic scholars almost from the beginning.

I guess I’ve always taken such humor, particularly the satirical kind, as not necessarily directing hate to the people involved but, rather, directing disgust to the things they do. The poets are attacking the ridiculousness of their actions, not necessarily (directly) the people who perform these actions.

I guess the question becomes, where should the Christian draw the line when it comes to humor? How “edgy” (at least in today’s terms, and, I suppose, even in antiquity) should he/she be? While Horatian and evan Juvenalian satire might, in my above analysis, be permissible (and, indeed, it seems they were early on), Catullan “bawdy/lewd” humor might be more questionable.

What do you guys think of all this? Again, as a student of the classics, I am especially curious about this as it relates to the kinds of authors I cited above. In my line of work, I am curious as to how/whether I should ascent to the kinds of humor contained in these works.

(To those who have no idea what I’m talking about, I apologize. However, I don’t think it practical to go over all the subtleties of these authors. There just wouldn’t be enough time in this post. However, I hope even folks who may be a bit confused get the general gist of what I’m getting at and I would appreciate their input based on what they unerstand here. I am particularly interested, though, in responses from folks who have some background on this subject, though every little bit helps!) :slight_smile:

Gratias vobis multas!


#7

This is the strange one: Aristotle (line 13) uses ευτραπελια for wit, as you say, and βωμολοχια for excessive playfulness, i.e. stupid talking. Chrysostom’s commentary on the verse (in English, sorry, but Documenta Catholica Omnia will have the original) is quite insistent that levity of any kind is inappropriate. (Lampe also lists Origen’s Commentary on Ephesians 5.3 (p.559-20), and Basil of Caesarea’s letter 42.4 (3.129B; M.32.356C), should you want more.)

Would you, then, agree with the “no levity” rule? Why or why not?

(Sorry, BTW, if I am doing this “quoting” formatting thing wrong. Again, I’m quite the “newbie” here…)


#8

I wouldn’t personally, because neither my faith nor my conduct is bound by Chrysostom’s belief, but others may feel that theirs is. If you look at monastic rules, I suspect that you will find expressions similar to his.

Thinking of ecclesiastical reception of pre-Christian works, didn’t Augustine have some sort of great personal crisis regarding the Latin classical works which he had studied before converting?

(Sorry, BTW, if I am doing this “quoting” formatting thing wrong. Again, I’m quite the “newbie” here…)

It’s okay; you just have to box the target between the command in square brackets and the end-command (i.e. /command) in square brackets: [insertcommandhere]text[/insertcommandhere]


#9

Well, no doubt, Christians are to be penitential people. We are to take things seriously.

To your question as to whether or not Christians can laugh and be light-hearted, it depends what you mean and when. In a church or cemetery, such behavior would not be permissible. However, in other circumstances, it depends. Provided the joke is not immoral, there is no reason why laughing at a joke or having fun is wrong - even monks have recreation. If the joke is cruel or harsh, if it reveals something about someone that shouldn’t have been, or if it’s unchaste, or heretical, then there is a sin in it. The gravity depends on the exact matter being joked about.

Similarly with being light-hearted. St. Teresa of Avila used to say “God, save us from your sour-faced saints!”. So joy is certainly a good thing, as many passages of Scripture will prove. But to be consistently party-minded, lacking seriousness (levity, in otherwords) isn’t right. The reason many of the early Church fathers seem to be so grave at times is because party-culture was very common (as it is now). But this doesn’t mean they are against all fun.

I hope this was helpful to you,
Benedicat Deus,
Latinitas


#10

Is it this one, by any chance?

alleluiaaudiobooks.com/catholic-audiobook-the-joy-and-humor-of-the-saints/

(I’ve not listened to this yet, so it could be something completely different…)


#11

St. Teresa of Avila said “Deliver me from sour saints!”

There was an incident in her time as Mother Superior that one of the nuns said, at the daily recreation time, “We should be in our cells contemplating.” And then St. Teresa said to her: “Then go to your cell and pray to the Lord, and we will play with Him here!”


#12

Erm, what?? :stuck_out_tongue: (There’s a reason I’m a Liberal Arts major… LOL) Would you (or someone else, indeed) mind personal messaging me to give me a step-by-step non-techie explanation of how to quote…? Thanks! :slight_smile: (For now, I just put regular quotes to separate my comments from yours. I hope it’s at least somewhat clear…)


#13

The New Jerome Biblical Commentary has the following:

Ephesians 3-5 “In portraying the conduct of those outside God’s family, the author incorporates against a list of vices (see comment on 4:31), which includes three NT* hapax legonmena: aischrotes, “shamefulness,” morolgia*, “foolishness,” and eutrapelia, “buffoonery.””

The referenced note on 4:31 ends with “The vices listed here are those that are disruptive of communal life.”


#14

Nonne loqueris Latine? Optime! Latina rediviva semper mihi loqui placet!

Moving on… :wink:

It does. Thank you kindly. So, then, are you saying that the early writers’ often pronounced gravity was more “reactionary”, or, am I choosing perhaps the wrong term to describe it? Further, am I to understand not engaging in “party culture” to mean that this lifestyle shouldn’t be the end-all/be-all, taking away from serious reflection on/care for our spiritual lives? (I’m thinking of Christ’s saying woe to those who laugh now.) After all, enjoying oneself while, at the same time, keeping one’s soul, as it were, intact (surely there’s a better word) shouldn’t be inherently sinful, should it?

Thanks again. Vale. :slight_smile:


#15

Done.


#16

“In response to the excesses of the day,” then? Sure; that sounds about right.

Further, am I to understand not engaging in “party culture” to mean that this lifestyle shouldn’t be the end-all/be-all, taking away from serious reflection on/care for our spiritual lives? (I’m thinking of Christ’s saying woe to those who laugh now.)

“taking away from”? If by that you mean “keeping us from engaging in safeguarding our spiritual welfare”, sure; but, along the lines of the St Theresa of Avila anecdote, I would think that it doesn’t mean to eschew all expressions of joy inasmuch as they use time ‘better spent’ being serious and reflective. :wink:

After all, enjoying oneself while, at the same time, keeping one’s soul, as it were, intact (surely there’s a better word) shouldn’t be inherently sinful, should it?

The patriarch David danced and sang. I’m guessing it’s not intrinsically evil to be of good cheer and to express it… :slight_smile:


#17

Re: Sugarmouse – Yes, I did mean the free audiobook that you linked to. Thanks!

Re: Gorgias said:

The patriarch David danced and sang. I’m guessing it’s not intrinsically evil to be of good cheer and to express it… :slight_smile:

There was a religious obligation for all the maidens of Israel to sing, dance, and be merry on certain festival days. So obviously God wasn’t against it. :slight_smile:


#18

What are your sources for this analysis? Or, is this just your opinion?

Are you sure that what Paul is talking about here purely relates to bitter or mocking humor, or are the terms that he uses to be more broadly understood? How do you know that Paul is definitely referring to the Hebrew notions of bitter/mocking humor?


#19

After some time, I was just thinking on this subject again today.

It is interesting that at least one of the terms in question here is a hapax legomenon. In other words, it occurs nowhere else in Scripture (and, possibly?, nowhere else in any other text that comes down to us). This makes understanding the meaning of such terms more than a little difficult.

I am also wondering: Are any of these kinds of humor/joking to be considered inherently sinful? I mean, as I say, I personally see nothing inherently sinful in even what might be considered “coarse jesting”, since even sexual references, though humorous, are referring merely to natural processes. However, I might argue that such “coarse jesting”, when done in a mean spirit such as one which seeks in malice/mischievousness to “test the boundaries”, woudl be sinful, even though the joke, in and of itself, may not be. Is this perhaps a valid understanding of such matters? Or, rather, again, is anything about, say, “coarse jesting” inherently evil? If the latter is the case, why would it be considered inherently evil, and, indeed, where is the line between a joke that is inherently evil and one that is not?

I have also heard it said that some things that Paul and others “advise” against are not necessarily him or others “advising against” sin per se. Could this be a case of Paul, while advising against something, say, because of the customs of the day, not necessarily condemning what he advises against as sin?


#20

The Church really doesn’t have very many “teachings” on specific Scriptural passages. There are certain interpretations of portions of Scripture which may or may not be acceptable, and this is based on the Church’s wider teachings.

For example, we would never interpret any text referencing predestination as being a reference to God damning individuals to Hell without taking into account their free will. Likewise, we would never interpret Jesus refer to the Father as His God as somehow meaning that Jesus Himself wasn’t God.

But the Church defined the doctrine, rather than the “authoritative interpretation” of particular verses. We interpret the verses with the doctrine.

That said, does the Church have an official teaching on humor, and what we may joke about and what we may not? Well, I’m not sure, but I kinda doubt it. The Church isn’t really THAT much of a micro-manager. There’s not some official listing of acceptable jokes that all Catholics must use when being humorous. :slight_smile:

But there’s lots of doctrines which we can use to determine what sort of humor is appropriate in a given situation. For example, we should always treat our neighbor charitably. Therefore, in a given situation, we might decide not to tell jokes about people dying, let’s say when a friend has lost a parent.

Or, furthermore, we are never permitted to blaspheme. Well, jokes that blaspheme are therefore sinful.

In other words, we have to exercise a bit of simple common sense, and apply Church teachings to our own lives, whether we’re telling jokes or not.

… and when we’re not sure, it’s always good to simply apply the Golden Rule.

I’m not sure that making this so much of an academic issue is all that necessary. :slight_smile:


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