Fun with Puns

Once there was an island king who was worried about pirates. He was so afraid the pirates would come and steal his golden throne that he hid it in the attic of his grass hut. Sadly, the heavy throne came tumbling down out of the rafters and killed the foolish king. The moral of this story is – ready? – “People who live in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones.”

Somewhere along the line, some literalistic, English-speaking killjoy concluded that the pun is the lowest form of humor. He probably prepared statistical analyses for some government agency.

The pun is a form of humor that’s nearly universal. Any language with words that have similar sounds and different meanings will develop, and delight in, puns. [1]

The Apostle Paul uses a double pun in his little letter to Philemon. Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus, which means “useful.” The slave was anything but useful! He stole from his master and ran away, but then Onesimus met Paul in the big city and became a Christian. Now Paul must send Onesimus back to Philemon. It’s the right thing to do, but it is full of danger. Philemon could have put Onesimus the slave to death – especially since Onesimus had stolen from his master. A lenient punishment would have been branding the slave with the Greek letter delta (the first letter of the Greek word for slave, doulos).

To keep that from happening, the apostle sent this twenty-five verse letter saying:

“I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment” (Philemon 10). 

And Paul uses a double pun to make his case. He explains: “Formerly, he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me” (Philemon 11). The Greek pun translates nicely into English. Onesimus (whose name means “useful” – a common slave name) once was useless, but now he is useful

But there is a second pun in Greek that we don’t see in English. This pun is based on the word chrestos (χρηστός) – “something of high value, fine.” Pronounced aloud, chrestos sounds exactly like Christos (Χριστός): Christ! This second pun would read, “Formerly, he was not a Christian to you, but now he is indeed a Christian to you and to me.”

Aren’t words great!

  [1] O’Brien, D. E. (1990). Today’s Handbook for Solving Bible Difficulties (p. 127). David E. O’Brien.

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