A certain comedian was asked, “When the rooster gets up in the morning, why does he hold one foot up in the air?”

The comedian replied, “Because if he held up both he’d fall down.”

Ha ha! You must be thinking to yourself, “Dr. Boli has a new writer on his staff, one of those young kids who are up on all the latest jokes.” But in fact this joke is a fairly old one. It comes from a joke book compiled in Syriac in the 1200s by Mar Gregory John Bar Hebræus, who was Maphrian of the East from 1264 to 1286. Mar Gregory was merely a compiler, so most of his jokes are considerably older than that. Dr. Boli thinks that a religion whose maphrians sit around compiling books of jokes is a religion that has its priorities straight.

The book has a whole section of “laughable stories of actors and comedians,” and it is clear that the medieval Syriac-speaking Christians developed a Borscht Belt long before we had thought of such a thing.

An actor had taken money on loan from a certain man, but then denied it. The lender took him to court, and the judge asked him,

“Do you have any witnesses?”

The lender said, “No.”

The judge turned to the actor. “Now swear to me that you have not received the money.”

“If it’s all right with you,” said the actor, “could you let my brother swear for me? I know for certain he hasn’t taken anything.”

Some of the jokes make fun of people who are ostentatiously religious, showing that our maphrian had a fine contempt for hypocrisy.

An actor heard a man saying to his companion, “When you’re traveling at night and you want the dogs not to molest you, shout this verse from the Psalms in their faces: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.”(1)

The actor broke in: “But tell him to take a stick in his hand, too. Not all dogs understand the Psalms, although there may be some of them who read them.”

Of course there’s a big section of fools, too. Fools say the darnedest things.

A fool said. “My father went to Jerusalem twice, and he died and was buried there. But I don’t know which time he died—the first time or the second.”

Often the mark of the fool is overlooking the obvious.

Another fool whose hawk had escaped asked the governor to shut the gates of the city until he had caught him.

But sometimes these fools make us wonder how foolish they really are.

Another fool was praying: “O Lord, give me five thousand pieces of silver, so that I may give a thousand of them to the poor. But if you don’t trust me, just give me the four thousand and give the other thousand to the poor yourself.”

Then there are cynical professionals like doctors and lawyers.

A certain man had been a painter, but became a physician instead. When he was asked why he had done that, he replied, “Everyone could see the mistakes I made in painting. All the mistakes I make in healing are buried in the ground.”

The book comes to us in a translation by the indefatigable E. A. Wallis Budge, who was Keeper of the Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities in the British Museum, and who seems to have read Arabic, Syriac, and Ethiopic as fluently as he read Egyptian hieroglyphs and Assyrian cuneiform. Dr. Boli has modernized the fussily literal translation, but the jokes themselves need no modernization. Many of the stories in the book are not really laughable; some are remarkable occurrences that happened too early to be reported in a supermarket tabloid, and some are pithily wise sayings from philosophers and kings. But there are plenty of jokes, and it does us Westerners good to see how little we differ in the fundamental things from our Eastern brethren. We have added this book to the new page of Syriac Christianity in the Eclectic Library.

The Laughable Stories collected by Mâr Gregory John Bar-Hebræus, Maphrian of the East from a.d. 1264 to 1286. The Syriac text with an English translation. By E. A. Wallis Budge. London: Luzac and Co., 1897.



  1. Big Brother says:

    One of those stories reminds me of an old joke I read in one of the many joke books I had as a kid:

    Architects cover their mistakes with ivy, doctors with sod, and cooks with mayonnaise.

    But apparently my family wasn’t quite midwest-WASP enough to cover main dishes in mayonnaise even if they didn’t turn out well, so I never really got that third line.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      Dr. Boli’s cook uses goat cheese. The only meat available was this roadkill from the Parkway? No, thank you. With goat cheese? Yes, please!

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