And it shows that the ancients had a fairly odd sense of humor … but maybe you just had to be there.
The oldest recorded joke, according to the list, goes back to the Sumerians, who lived in what is now southern Iraq and were long past their heyday in 1900 B.C., when a scribe recorded a joke about young women, flatulence, and marriage. Perhaps he could hardly keep a straight face as he wedged the cuneiform characters into his clay tablet. I couldn’t crack a smile, however, because I didn’t think it was funny.
The second joke on the list dates to the 1600s and was told about the Egyptian king Snofru, and is as sexist as it is lame. “How do you entertain a bored Pharaoh?” asks the jokester.
“You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the Pharaoh to go catch a fish.”
Many of his hearers, no doubt, hoped the court clown would fall into the Nile and be eaten by a crocodile.
An appropriate joke on the list was collected in what is known as the oldest known book of jests, the 4th century A.D. “Philogelos” (or “Laughter-Lover”), which gives us a clue as to what the ancient Greeks and Romans thought was funny.
Asked by the court barber how he wanted his hair cut, the king replied: “In silence.”
When it comes to ancient humor, maybe silence is best.
(The image above dates from a royal Sumerian tomb in Ur, and decorated a 26th century B.C. harp.)
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.