How Jesus told a good gag

It's not a book known for its comedic value, but look beyond the death, disease and destruction of the Bible, and lo, you will find a joke or two.

That is the view of theological scholars who have gathered in Italy to try to dispel the idea that ancient Christians were a po-faced lot, who struggled for a sense of humour.

In a three-day conference at Turin University, entitled Laughter and Comedy in Ancient Christianity, experts have been presenting papers on themes such as Laughter in the Old Testament and Comedy in the Bible Today.

Some have found indications that Jesus Christ had a sense of humour and references to laughter and comic moments in the scriptures.

"There is a prejudice that states that humour and Christianity are incompatible," says Clementina Mazzucco, the conference organiser.

"On the contrary, there are many episodes and dialogues in the scriptures where irony and sarcasm are being used."

She cites the example of a disciple who, referring to Jesus's home town, asked: "How could anything good ever come from Nazareth?"

Another example is in Luke's gospel, when Zaccheus, a short man and despised tax collector, has to climb a tree to see Jesus. Jesus picks Zaccheus out of the crowd and asks if he will put him up for the night.

The scholars also point to the fact that the Old Testament patriarch Isaac's very name means laughter in Hebrew, and was chosen because of the joy his parents Abraham and Sarah experienced when he was born.

Ms Mazzucco says these signs of humour may have been suppressed when the church adopted a strict interpretation of the gospels' discouragement of exaggerated laughter and derision. Increasing numbers of scholars now believe Jesus had a distinct sense of humour, she says.

"People liked Christ," says Beppe Grillo, one of Italy's leading satirical comedians. "If he had been too serious a man he wouldn't have had such a following.

"Nowadays though, the only thing that makes Italians laugh is when you say something good about Italy."