Friday, July 15, 2022

Nobody Smiles in the New Testament

Why is that, do you suppose? I am not sure the question can be answered, but characters do not smile (meidiaō) in the New Testament and the word smile never appears. A relaxed smile is seen as an expression of inner contentment, happiness, and emotional calmness. A smile, however, can be used in numerous ways. For example, to put others at ease, or it can be used, deceitfully, to fool someone into thinking that all is well, but that is because people generally understand a smile to reflect a contented inner being and friendliness. The absence of smiling in the gospels, for example, is a bit perplexing, for other emotionally related attitudes do appear. In Mark, for example, Jesus is moved with pity (1:41); he is angry (3:5), greatly surprised (6:6), exasperated (8:12), indignant (10:14), hungry (11:12), sorrowful (14:31), and feels forsaken by God (15:34)—but never smiles.

Mark has missed many opportunities to tell the reader that Jesus or some another person smiles. Here are two examples where Mark misses a chance to show Jesus' humanity: Mark 7:29, Jesus replies to the Syrophoenician woman's retort: "and he [smiling] said to her..." Mark 14:45, Judas's deceitful kiss: "and [he smiled] and kissed him…" (compare also:1:41; 2:5; 5:19; 5:24; 6:34; 5:36; 6:31; 8:21; 9:23; 10:21; 12:34; 16:6). Or should one assume that Mark wants his readers to think that Jesus never smiled? The author of the Gospel of John does tell the reader that "Jesus wept" (John 11:35); so why not at some point portray Jesus smiling?1

The absence of smiles in Mark is all the more perplexing when one realizes that characters are made to smile in other ancient literature. For example, smiles are mentioned in the Septuagint (Sir 21:20) and the New Testament Apocrypha (Acts of Paul 3:4, where Paul smiles). And smiles appear in classical literature: in the Illiad 1.595, where the Goddess Here smiles; in the Illiad 5.426, where Zeus smiles, and in the Odyssey 4.609, where Menelaus smiles.

The author of the Gospel of Mark, as a rule, does not encourage the reader's imagination with visually descriptive language.2 I have argued that whenever Mark occasionally does use language that titillates a reader's visual imagination it appears to be due to inadvertence.3 The most glaring exception to Mark's lack of visually descriptive language is the Anointing at Bethany (Mark 14:3-9), which is quite descriptive. It is, however, possible that Mark wants to cast Jesus as a clever man4 and has been influenced by Sirach 21:20, which has this to say about smiling:

A fool raises his voice when he laughs, but a clever man only rarely smiles.

How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1A related attitude, laughter (gelōs), only appears once in the New Testament in a positive sense (James 4:9). Other uses of laughter in the New Testament occur as scornful laughter (katagelaō: Matt 9:24, Mark 5:40, Luke 8:53). Did Jesus ever laugh, do you suppose? While Mark does not specifically rule it out, s/he does not encourage the reader to think of Jesus as laughing.

2See Hedrick, "Conceiving the Narrative: Colors in Achilles Tatius and the Gospel of Mark," pp. 177-97 in R. Hock, J. B. Chance, J. Perkins, eds. Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative (Scholars Press, 1998).

3Hedrick, "Conceiving the Narrative," 186-97.

4Note Jesus' clever response to the question of the Pharisees and Herodians about paying taxes to Caesar, Mark 12:17.



  1. Hi Charlie,

    I assume Jesus smiled because I view him as having a very human laugh out loud sense of humor: for example, how about changing the image of Israel's kingdom from a mighty cedar tree to a mustard seed plant? ("a parody poking fun at the mighty tree symbol": Mk 4:30, Ezek 17:22), or comparing rich folks getting into the kingdom with a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle? ("a humorous hyperbole, comic disproportion": Mark 10:25), or promising a kingdom of laughter (Congratulations, you who weep now! You will laugh." Luke 6:21)

    There's also something of a dark side to Jesus' humor. For example, "The kingdom of God is like leaven" (Luke 13:20, Matthew 13:33, Thomas 96:1). "Whoever eats what is leavened shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel." (Exodus 12:19)

    The Jesus Seminar voted the above sayings as authentic, and other examples could be given: "Five Gospels," 59, 92, 289, 347.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    1. Thanks Gene, Actually the word laugh appears twice more in the NT in a positive note. You point out Luke 6:21 and it also appears again in Luke 6:25.

  2. I apologize to Charles for not posting something he asked me to share.

    I was introduced to the awakening historical Jesus by John Dart, when I read a review of the book below and an extensive article on it in either Interpretation or Theology Today in '76. I think Elaine Pagels would have something to say about laughter in the gospels, which Dart saw as something to be avoided because it was "gnostic." I bought Robinson's Nag Hammadi Library in '77, but as a young pastor, did not have the time to dig into it much.