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Is There Sarcasm in the New Testament?


Here is an unusually interesting question I have received:



During the time that the New Testament was being written, especially during Paul’s time, did they have in society what we consider sarcasm? Sometimes certain sentences pop out to me as they could have meant them in a sarcastic tone. I know it is probably just me since I am a sarcastic person.



Now *that’s* an interesting question that I, literally, have never been asked before!   But it’s something I’ve thought about a bit over the years, and I think the short answer to it is 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 it 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 Corninthians 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 started 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 important 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.”


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  1. Avatar
    prestonp  August 7, 2018

    And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

    When the day of Pentecost had come they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed as resting upon each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit . . .

    Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

    Then Peter stood up with the Eleven… “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

    50 days after the Lord was raised from the dead He sent His Holy Spirit just as He promised. In 50 days the disciples knew He was alive, resurrected and pouring out the Holy Spirit!

  2. Avatar
    Hormiga  August 7, 2018

    I’ll have to say that the general impression of Paul’s personality as expressed in the seven undisputed(*) epistles makes it very hard for me to think that he *didn’t* engage in sarcasm, probably frequently and effectively. Paul was not Mr. Rogers.

    The same is true for some of the OT prophets, of course.

    (*) Mostly undisputed, as I understand it.

  3. Avatar
    elwoody  August 7, 2018

    Sarcasm is an acquired bitterness. It takes a certain cultural sensitiveness to hear the nasty cut. The word comes from the Greek verb ‘to cut flesh’. As we might say, sarcasm is a put-down.

    A person in need might well pray to beseech God. Jesus puts down the man who wears fine clothes and says loud prayers at the Temple. Jesus makes the put-down ‘Such a man prays to impress his fellow citizens; and he is so rewarded’. In other words, the man’s prayer fails to impress God, and his loud words produce a useless reward. That seems to me to be a nasty cut.

  4. Avatar
    mtelus  August 8, 2018

    Thank you.

    You point out that by the Gospel of John the theology is fully developed versus the Gospel of Mark.

    You define Theology (very roughly: how to understand the religious significance of those texts).

    1) I wanted to know how many theological elements or themes or categories that you look at and apply to your analysis of the Bible?

    2) It is safe to say everything written in the Bible is 100% Theology disseminated from the author to the reader or are their parts in the Bible where there is no theology at all, like Christ riding on a donkey versus walking or weather conditions, etc…

    • Bart
      Bart  August 10, 2018

      1. I try not to bring theological views to the text when I read it, but to see what theological views it is espousing; 2. A good bit of the Bible is not particularly theological. See, e.g., 1 Chronicles chs. 1-9 (!)

      • Avatar
        mtelus  August 11, 2018

        That helps put things in perspective.

        Is it possible to blog an overview of theological views/categories?

        Your breakdown of Christology has been invaluable, I would be interested in your presentation of theology that can serve as an overview and introduction.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 12, 2018

          I’m afraid it’s not something I will probably be going into, since systematic theology has not been “my thing” for forty years now!

  5. Alemin
    Alemin  August 10, 2018

    Although not in the NT, my favourite example of biblical sarcasm is Elijah in 1K18:27, when the prophets of Baal aren’t getting a response from Baal:

    Around noon Eliyahu began ridiculing them: “Shout louder! After all, he’s a god, isn’t he? Maybe he’s daydreaming, or he’s on the potty, or he’s away on a trip. Maybe he’s asleep, and you have to wake him up.” (CJB)

    I think sarcasm is a pretty strong part of Jewish culture today, so maybe it has some history back then.

  6. Avatar
    godspell  August 11, 2018

    Just remembered perhaps the most famous instance of sarcasm in the New Testament.

    “Su legeis” (You say so.)

    How else would you interpret it?

    I mean, he’s spent years trying to explain about the Kingdom, what it means, what it doesn’t mean. He came into town with no weapons, a handful of followers, and all he did was talk, have supper, maybe disrupt activities in the temple courtyard a bit.

    And all any of these people can think about is whether he wants to be king.

    They’re not worth talking to. They have no ears, and will not hear. Let them think what they want. “Sure man, whatever you say.” Sarcasm.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 12, 2018

      I t *could* mean something like, “That’s how you, but not I, would put it.”

  7. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  May 2, 2019

    I’ve always assumed that the “render unto” remark was sarcastic. Everything belongs to God, doesn’t it? The reply Jesus made was perhaps both clever and sarcastic.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2019

      I think the idea is that since Caesar minted the coin, he has the rights to it; God made us and that’s what he’s concerned about, not the wretched coin. I.e. stop worrying about Rome. Worry about yourself.

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