Every now and then someone asks me if there is any sarcasm used in the New Testament.  You would think the answer would be fairly obviously, No.  But, well, I’ve dealt with the issue before, and my response was Yes.

Let me start by giving a definition of sarcasm.  You can find various definitions just on the Internet, but the basic idea is that sarcasm is a form of humor that used irony in order to mock another.

It is difficult to identify sarcasm in ancient writings.  In fact, as you’ve probably noticed, sometimes it’s hard to know if someone is being sarcastic when they are speaking directly to our face.  The way we typically detect sarcasm is by the context of the comment and the non-verbal signs given – the facial expression, for example, or the tone of voice used and the words orally emphasized.  You have none of that for the writings of the New Testament – only a bit of information about context (inferred from the text itself) and no non-verbal signs.  So we have to make reasonable guesses about what is sarcastic and what is not.

In my judgment there are passages, though, that appear to be employing sarcasm.  I’ll give one example from the words of Jesus and a couple from the writings of Paul.

The example from Jesus’ words appears in the Sermon on the Mount, one of the places where Jesus appears to be making a humorous comment but that is somewhat biting toward the people he is referring to.  It’s interesting how most people don’t observe Jesus’ humor, but there seems to be a good bit of it.  (The classic study is Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ).  One that I’ve always liked is a familiar phrase that people often don’t realize is meant to be funny.  It’s right after Jesus says “Do not judge, so that you be not judged”  (Matt. 7:1).   And he gives the example “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but don’t notice the log that is in yours?” (Matt 7:3).

To see why it’s funny you have to actually think about it literally, someone with a tree trunk hanging from their eye objecting to someone else who has a tiny speck of wood in theirs.  But it’s not just funny, I think, but sarcastic, humor being used to scorn those who judge and accuse others for things that they themselves are far more guilty of.  One can think of many, many examples in our world – for example, people in power moralistically attacking others for things they themselves do all the time.

With respect to Paul, scholars have long suggested that he employs sarcasm in his first letter to the Corinthians.  Most readers don’t see the verses in question as sarcastic because they don’t put them in the context of the entire letter and of what Paul is trying to emphasize.  Paul is writing to the Corinthians in part because there were people in the church who believed that because they had received the spirit of God (when they placed their faith in Christ and were baptized) they were thereby exalted to a kind of heavenly status and were already ruling with Christ in the heavenly places.   They thought they were superior to other people and had transcended the pain, suffering, and trivial matters here on earth.  Paul couldn’t disagree more.

He writes 1 Corinthians to tell them that they will indeed become glorified beings in the future.  But it has not happened yet.  It will only happen when Christ returns and his followers are transformed into glorious, immortal beings, no longer to experience pain and suffering and death (this is the point of the final main chapter, ch. 15). Paul’s main point in 1 Corinthians is that it has not happened yet, and people who think it has are deceived and blind.

In the opening section of the letter (chs. 1-4) Paul emphasizes the point repeatedly.  Life in Christ in the present age means suffering the way Christ himself did, it means following a crucified man and experiencing his fate, it means imitating the apostles of Christ who are poor, abused, and mistreated.  It is not a glorified existence (yet), but a humble and painful one.  Paul uses his own life as proof.  On the earthly level it is a life of pain, misery, and abuse.  And he’s Christ’s apostle!

And then, in the midst of this proof, he turns on his readers with what appears to be a sarcastic comment in which he reflects back to the Corinthians their own (false) claims about their current lives in Christ, in order to mock them “Already you have all you want!  Already you have become rich!  Quite apart from us you have become kings!”  (4:8-9).

Most people misread these verses, thinking Paul really means it, that he’s praising them for their exalted status.  But that’s just the opposite of what he’s doing.  He’s actually ridiculing them for thinking that’s the case.  That much is clear from what he says next: “I wish you had become kings, so that we might be kings with you!”  He then talks about how the apostles of Christ – the very leaders of the Christian communities — are massively suffering (not reigning as kings!), under the sentence of death.  But it is also clear from the context of the whole letter: those two verses are the opposite of what he maintains throughout the book.  And so they are meant in a mocking, ironic tone, not as a statement of fact.

The other place Paul uses sarcasm is my favorite.  He writes the letter to the Galatians in order to convince his gentile readers that they do *NOT* need to start following the practices of Judaism – such as circumcision and kosher food laws – in order to be followers of Christ, despite what some other missionaries who have come among them have insisted.  These other missionaries were apparently themselves gentile converts to the faith, who claimed that to be true followers of the Jewish messiah, you have to become Jewish.

That meant not only avoiding ham and shellfish, etc., and observing the Sabbath, but also, for men, have surgery to become circumcised.  Paul thinks this is absolutely wrong and completely contrary to the truth.  Followers of Jesus do not need to become Jewish.  Jesus saves both Jews and gentiles as they are.  He, Paul himself, has been attacked by these other missionaries as preaching an incorrect message (by not emphasizing the ongoing importance of the Jewish law).  And he counter-attacks by saying these other missionaries are cursed by God for preaching a false Gospel.

Then, near the end of the letter, he pulls out the sarcasm, in my favorite verse of the book.  “I wish those who unsettle you would be cut off.” (Gal. 5:12).   That last phrase could be taken two ways, and that’s probably intentional.   It *could* mean “cut off” from God, or from the Christian community.  Or it could mean physically.  He wishes that when these false gentile missionaries themselves go into surgery to “become Jewish” the knife will slip.  And so sometimes the verse is translated “I wish … they would be castrated.”  I think it almost certainly means the latter, and probably with the implication of the former.


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2023-11-27T20:55:16-05:00November 29th, 2023|Paul and His Letters, Reflections and Ruminations|

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  1. Seeker1952 November 29, 2023 at 9:36 am

    “Love” is one of the most wonderful words and ideas in the English language. But it has such a wide range of meanings and is so overused that I find myself dissatisfied with its use in the second part of the Great Commandment.

    Would you agree that in that context it’s less about a feeling and means something more like actively “caring” for your neighbor’s welfare in the same way as you care for your own? I can’t think of a better word than “caring” because it has both an emotional/motivational and an action-oriented connotation, as in “caring for” or “taking care of”.

    I guess I’m suggesting the commandment be changed to “care for your neighbor as you care for yourself.”

    Other words or short phrases instead of love might be generosity, altruism, active compassion, self-sacrifice, service, or even old-fashioned charity. For that matter I prefer the wording of the golden rule to that of the commandment.

    I suppose the change might lessen the commandment’s (emotional) intensity but it would be more clear.

    As a retiree I probably spend too much time trying to find exactly the right word—which will probably itself seem unsatisfactory by tomorrow.

    • BDEhrman December 2, 2023 at 2:32 pm

      Yes, the kind of love Jesus promoted was not about emotions but action.

      • sLiu December 7, 2023 at 6:53 pm

        thank U for that clarification as I Never understood:

        ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ & rich preachers behaving what they spout.

        ” Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

        The one who showed him kindness; that is, the one who has served the man’s self-interest. Jesus turns the answer on its head, brilliantly. “Go and do likewise.” BURN!

        there is so much hate in the USA!

        RUTh Graham: “If God doesn’t punish America, He’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.”

        • BDEhrman December 9, 2023 at 1:13 pm

          Ha! Well, Ruth, maybe he should!

  2. jhague November 29, 2023 at 11:54 am

    “These other missionaries were apparently themselves gentile converts to the faith…”

    Why do you think these missionaries were gentile converts rather than Jews?

    It would seem that Jewish missionaries would definitely think that gentile converts would need to become Jewish.

    • BDEhrman December 2, 2023 at 2:40 pm

      IN part because he indicates in 5:12 that he hopes they will mutilate themselves, which is usually taken to mean that he hops that when they have the operation the knife slips and he speaks of “these who have been circumcised” as if they were not raised that way (6:13), and indicates they don’t have much concern for the rest of the law.

  3. Stephen November 29, 2023 at 1:08 pm

    What about Mark 10: 23-27, especially v27? I’ve always suspected a bit of irony in Jesus’ final comment in the passage. Rich people can be saved, but it’ll take a miracle!

  4. JoshMarkham November 29, 2023 at 1:59 pm

    This is a really excellent topic. I have for years thought Jesus’s opening words at John 13:34-35 ( NIV) were sarcastic:
    34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

    There is of course nothing new about this commandment, as it is given at Leviticus 19:18. Was Jesus sarcastically saying that for all intents and purposes, it was a “new” commandment, because his audience for practical purposes, lived their lives as though they had never even heard of the commandment? Kind regards, Josh Markham

    • BDEhrman December 2, 2023 at 2:43 pm

      Interesting idea. I think the way it’s usually understood is that “love your neighbor” refers to loving your fellow Israelite, but the new commandment is that your love be directed to those who are Jesus’ followers instead.

  5. RuthieL November 29, 2023 at 4:01 pm

    Hi, Dr. Ehrman. Paul references the Adam and Eve story in Romans 5:12 and 1 Corinthians 15:22 as a reason why Jesus had to die and be resurrected. Did Jesus himself in the Gospels ever allude to Adam and Eve as having anything specifically to do with his life and mission? Thanks!

    • BDEhrman December 2, 2023 at 2:45 pm

      No, not in the Gospels.

  6. Stonefeather November 29, 2023 at 9:51 pm

    In Mark 12, Matthew 22 and Luke 20 we see the Sadducees employing sarcasm against Jesus with their “trick question” regarding the resurrection, a thing they do not believe in. In the resurrection, which of the seven brothers is the widow married to? They believe their question is unanswerable! But Jesus gives as good as he gets: in the resurrection, says he, there is no marriage, because they are like the angels. Since the Sadducees also don’t believe in angels, he has returned to them an unanswerable answer.

    Another example that occurs to me is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus’s questioner has his own question handed back to him: which of those who encounter the injured man is his neighbor? The answer seems easy… *too* easy, it turns out. The one who showed him kindness; that is, the one who has served the man’s self-interest. Jesus turns the answer on its head, brilliantly. “Go and do likewise.” BURN!

  7. Alfields1969 November 30, 2023 at 12:11 am

    I think it’s hard to read/see sarcasm or humor in the Bible because we can’t a) really see Jesus using something as “earthly” as sarcasm (because, you know, how can God be sarcastic? Isn’t that some sort of sin?) and b) we see Paul as this curmudgeonly, humorless individual who randomly goes on tangents and rants. Actually I think we see most of the Bible that way…

  8. Erland November 30, 2023 at 10:28 am

    Not really sarcasm, but I have heard that some people consider Jesus a great humorist. An example of that is the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13, Mark 4, Luke 8), which they think can be called “The Parable of the Foolish Farmer”. For the hearers must have laughed when they heard of a farmer wasting his seed in that way: throwing it along the path, om rocky ground, and among thorns.

    I think this idea comes from a scholar, and Bart perhaps knows who….

  9. Kirktrumb59 November 30, 2023 at 2:48 pm

    Dr. E, you are spot-on re: how we (or at least those of us with a normally functioning right hemisphere in an appropriate cultural context) detect sarcasm.
    In the neurobiz we refer to non-linguistic manifestations of language collectively as prosody (Greek-derived as you know) or prosodic intonation. Prosodic intonation, which must be both executed and comprehended properly for the sarcasm/irony to “work,” not only can obviate the meaning of the linguistic response (what’s actually said) but can override it.
    My pal: “Do you want to accompany me to see Barbra Streisand?”
    Me: “Oh yeah, that’s exactly what I wanna do.”
    What I SAID is, sure. My prosodic intonation (body language, tilt of head, eye rolling, accompanying gestures, vocal tone) is correctly interpreted as ‘that’s exactly what I don’t want to do’ and my pal won’t begin searching for her subway pass.

    Pedanticism aside, more pedanticism: I don’t “see” the Gal. 5:12 as sarcasm. This is a double entendre. But yes, humorous.
    -Take my wife, please.
    -Guy gets hungry, opens the fridge. The jar of mayonnaise shouts, “hey close the door, I’m dressing!”

  10. GeoffClifton November 30, 2023 at 4:39 pm

    Thank you Dr Ehrman for another fascinating post. I must admit on seeing the title I did think of Galatians 5:12 but hadn’t really considered the other examples you gave. I was reminded of the priest at my wife’s Catholic Church, who tells a story of young seminarians being put on the spot by their rector, who asks them if Jesus ever laughs in the Gospels. The priest leaves the story there, but I assume he is getting at the Gnostic Gospels where Jesus does laugh. Presumably, if the seminarians answer the rector’s question in the affirmative, they are then punished for having read heretical writings.

  11. tms December 1, 2023 at 1:59 am

    This is off-topic, but I didn’t know where else to post it. If it breaks the rules, just delete it.

    Since you talk a lot about the telephone game, I thought you might enjoy this musical version of the game: https://youtu.be/SJYaYHmCmAE?si=eJCnX9k4UZVLoK83

  12. Drmustafaalj12 December 1, 2023 at 11:18 am

    I am a belgian resident. I read about your study. It’s a very impressive one annd i have just a quick question regarding it. My studies are dentistry actually but i am interested in religion. Particulary in studies which analyzees 1000+ works of historians to decide on what the consensus of scholars is, for strong evidenced NT events.

    My question: Is it fair to say that the majority of atleast 25% of the studies you read from historians agree on the 12 events you mentioned are strongly evidenced, but other passages or teachings of the New Testament (specifically that jesus taught the atonement and claimed divinity) have weak evidence? This doesn’t mean that these two things are necessarily not true but it means we can’t say with strong conviction that these things happened? I just want to know if my interpretation of reliability of the passage of the New Testament is accurate.

    IDK what their reasons are exactly to count these 2 as weakly evidenced but i hypothesis that the New Testament is written in greco roman literature style so that’s limitation, because there isn’t chain of narration. Also there is gap between of almost 1 century before earliest manuscripts.

    • BDEhrman December 4, 2023 at 11:09 am

      Yes, I’d say most scholars gree that some these events are strongly attested and probably historical, but that Habermas is overly confident that all of them are “agreed on” by everyone. I, for example, do not think that the emnpty tomb story is at all plausible historically.

      The dificulty with Jesus’ sayings about atonement and his own divnity is that they are not as widely attested and clearly are the sorts of things his later followers would want him to have said, and so it is harder to decide if they put those kinds of syaing on his lips.disabledupes{5e2cb0567bf0354453a473f671cb0692}disabledupes

  13. Drmustafaalj12 December 1, 2023 at 12:03 pm

    I am sorry, i mean by the 12 events are the events that Gary Habermas mentioned about the resurrection.

  14. thelad2 December 1, 2023 at 5:18 pm

    Greetings Bart. I hope you’ll forgive me for going off topic, but I’m not sure when – or even if – you’ll be talking about the Didache again. Apology out of the way, can you suggest a good book/commentary on this fascinating work? Thank you.

    • BDEhrman December 4, 2023 at 11:18 am

      You might start with the relatively short (20 pages or so) but informative overview/commentary by Clayton Jefford in his book Reading the Apostolic Fathers, or the full volume by Thomas O’Loughlin The Didache.

  15. Breinboldt December 1, 2023 at 7:56 pm

    Revelation 2:24 is probably employing some of this sarcasm:

    But I say to you, the rest who are in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not known the deep things of Satan, as they call them— I place no other burden on you

    “…the deep things of Satan..” looks like a play on 1Cor 2:10 “the deep things of God”

  16. curtiswolf69 December 1, 2023 at 8:00 pm

    Do you think that Paul’s opposition to following Jewish law had to do in part with the hurdle of circumcision for older male converts? I was circumcised as a baby. Needless to say, I don’t remember it. But it has to be very painful for an older male. If you want to covert as many people to Christianity, it is clear that this would be an impediment.

    • BDEhrman December 4, 2023 at 11:25 am

      I don’t think so. I think his view was much deeper than that, on the very fundamental theologidal level, not the practical missionary (or surgical) level….

  17. Jimmy December 6, 2023 at 10:07 am

    These two episodes may not be sarcasm but I giggle every time I read them.
    Ex 34.21-24 the golden calf episode in the desert. Moses ask’s Aaron what is going on. Aaron replied “so I said to them , let any who have gold take it off. So they gave it to me and I threw it into the fire and out came this calf!

    Mark 5:24-31 it is the story of the woman with the issue of blood for 12 years. Jesus turns to the crowd and asks “ who touched me “ . The disciples answered “ you see the crowd pressing around us and you ask ‘who touched me’

    When someone ask me what are my favorite Bible verses are I give them these.

  18. Drmustafaalj12 December 8, 2023 at 6:27 pm

    Dr Ehrman, please i hope you help me with this last thing. In reply to my email, i posed a question similar to the one i gave you, G.habermas gave me this answer ”Jesus’ teachings on the atonement and his deity are well-evidenced in many ancient sources, ”

    So just because you are more knowledgeable than me about the historical research field of NT. Does the majority or atleast 25% of NT historians or scholars disagree with G.habermas about the historicity of jesus teaching atonement and preaching divinity?

    • BDEhrman December 9, 2023 at 1:37 pm

      Well, he doesn’t actually say that in the sentence he quotes you. He says that ancient sources contain Jesus’ teachings on such things. I disagree with him on the word “many.” Among the Gospels, Jesus teaches about his own divinity only in the Gospel of John. His teachings on atonement can be found in Matthew, Mark, and John, but not Luke. But of course it’s true Jesus is recorded as calling himself divine in John and that he will provide atonement in Mt, Mk, and Jn. The questoin is whether the man Jesus himself taught these things, and figuring that out, unless you are a hard-core believer in the infallibitiy of the Bible, is not simply a matter of seeing if there’s a verse or ten that say so.

  19. Drmustafaalj12 December 9, 2023 at 4:57 pm

    I respect your honesty and how you made it clear to me their arguments of using ”its stronger than any ancient greek document” is actually not but fooling the unknowledgeable people. I watched most of your debates and you have clarified when they tried to mislead the people with their arguments. I am not saying that this is what Habermas was trying to do but i saw you exposing few of them in your debates.

    I was wondering as last comment really, just because you didn’t tell me like how many of the historians disagree with him about the historicity of jesus himself teaching atonement and claiming divinity, is it fair to say that 25% historian think its weakly evidence because only few verses in the NT doesn’t make it strongly evidenced?

    By the way, i think the interpretation of his research is wrong. Yes those 12 facts are historically undisputable. But we as muslims believe that jesus wasn’t crucified. They crucified someone whome God made look like jesus. Therefor the only alternative explanation to his 12 facts is that jesus wasn’t dead after crucifixion took place and thats why his companions saw him. Rather than crucified and resurrected.

    • BDEhrman December 15, 2023 at 5:31 pm

      I don’t have any way of putting a percentage on it. Most scholars of the NT and the historical Jesus are committed Christians; those who are conservative in their theology (Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox) almost always think that Jesus referred to himself as divine and spoke of his coming atonement. My view is that we can’t decide on what happened historically based on the number of scholars who think one thing or another. By far the most NT scholars think the Bible is inspired by God, for example, but I don’t see that as an argument that it reall is.
      But of course there are alternatives to the 12 facts. One is that some of them are not facts.

  20. Drmustafaalj12 December 29, 2023 at 8:25 am

    So this is flow in the studies that were conducted about the historicity of jesus teaching atonement and jesus claiming divinity… Please Dr Bart Ehrman i really feel like my whole faith can shake because of this question. And I have been living with doubt for approximately 5months, i just don’t have any idea where to find this answer. So would you say atleast 25% historians that are agnostics or/and atheists or christians don’t think that jesus claimed divinity or that he taught the atonement teaching is a strongly evidenced unlike those 12 facts which are strongly evidenced?

    • BDEhrman January 2, 2024 at 4:26 pm

      That view is widely held among critical scholars, whether Christian or not. Conservative Christian scholars, and others, I suppose, would say otherwise. For you, the issue probably shouldn’t be how many scholars think this that or the other thing, but what the evidence and arguments are, and whether you find them convincing. You can find my views (about Jesus claiming divinity for himself, e.g.) argued out in How Jesus Became God, and they are not my own inventions, but are views held pretty widely outside of conservative Christian circles.

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