Ancient Book of Jokes

December 2015 Niniel Sanders

Laughter has always been popular, and making fun of other people has long been an excellent source of just that.

The oldest existing collection of jokes is a book called Philogelos, which means "the laughter lover", and is believed to have been originally written in the fourth century AD in ancient Greece. To put that into perspective, that is around the same time The Bible was put into the form we know today, weeding out texts that were deemed uncanonical, while keeping the ones that were canonical kept a definitive order.

The original collection has unfortunately been lost, but thanks to copies being made up through time, there are several manuscripts that contain either the entire original collection or parts of it. These manuscripts are all from between the 11th to the 15th centuries AD.

It is not the oldest collection of jokes altogether, however. It is simply the oldest that has survived until today.

The oldest collection that we know of was commissioned by Philip II of Macedon (382 - 336 BC), the father of Alexander the Great. He paid a social club in Athens to write down jokes that were told by the club's members to create a collection of them, which makes this the oldest collection of jokes we know of, albeit it is now lost.

Philogelos is not just noteworthy due to its age, however, but also because a good number of jokes remain funny even to modern ears. This is notable because our society is clearly very different than the one in which these jokes were first conceived, and usually for jokes to be funny, or even understandable, we require some form of context. Yet a lot of these jokes are still funny without any additional explanation, begging the question of how different things really are after all.

Of course, some of them are completely incomprehensible, and some of them are only funny with some additional explanation, but it is still thought-provoking how many of them are funny by themselves.

This was even tested in 2008, when a British comedian made a show containing these jokes and tested their potential on modern audiences. The show was a great success and confirmed that, indeed, not only did scholars find the material funny, but regular people did, as well.

So what were these jokes? Let's look at a few of them:

An intellectual caught sight of a deep well on his country estate and asked if the water was any good. The farmhands assured him that it was good and that his own parents used to drink from that well. The intellectual expressed his amazement, "How long were their necks, if they could drink from something so deep!"

An intellectual, falling sick, had promised to pay the doctor if he recovered. When his wife nagged at him for drinking wine while he had a fever, he said, "Do you want me to get healthy and be forced to pay the doctor?"

An intellectual came to check in on a friend who was seriously ill. When the man’s wife said that he had ‘departed’, the intellectual replied, "When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?"

An intellectual had been at a wedding-reception. As he was leaving, he said, "I pray that you two keep getting married so well."

A rude astrologer cast a sick boy's horoscope. After promising the mother that the child had many years ahead of him, he demanded payment. When she said, "Come tomorrow and I'll pay you," he objected, "But what if the boy dies during the night and I lose my fee?"

An incompetent schoolteacher was asked who the mother of Priam was. Not knowing the answer, he said, "It's polite to call her Ma'am."

A man, just back from a trip abroad, went to an incompetent fortune teller. He asked about his family, and the fortune-teller replied, "Everyone is fine, especially your father." When the man objected that his father had been dead for ten years, the reply came, "You have no clue who your real father is."

A glutton betrothed his daughter to another glutton. When asked what he was giving her as a dowry, he replied, "A house whose windows face the bakery."

A man with bad breath asked his wife, "Madame, why do you hate me?" And she said in reply, "Because you love me." Note: In the original Greek text, the word for "love" can mean both "kiss" and "love".

A misogynist stood in the marketplace and announced, "I'm putting my wife up for sale, tax-free!" When people asked him why, he said, "So the authorities will impound her." Note: At the time, authorities could confiscate goods sold without tax having been paid.

A misogynist paid his last respects at the tomb of his dead wife. When someone asked him, "Who has gone to rest?," he replied, "Me, now that I'm alone."

An intellectual on a sea voyage, when there was a big storm and his slaves were weeping, said, “Don’t cry. I’ve set you all free in my will.”