The other day I heard a fascinating programme on ABC Radio National, featuring Professor in classics at Cambridge University, Mary Beard telling jokes from the oldest collection of jokes in the world, Philogelos: The Laughter Lover. The collection, which contains 265 jokes, is written in Greek, and the language used indicates that it may have been written in the 4th century CE, according to William Berg, an American classics professor. The targets of the humour include teachers, students, eggheads and fools. You can also see comic Jim Bowen performing some of these jokes on YouTube. Here is a selection of these jokes:
An egghead, 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 egghead visiting his country-estate asked if the water in a well there was good to drink. He was told that it was good, and that his own parents used to drink from the well. The egghead was amazed: “How long were their necks, that they could drink from something so deep!”
An absent-minded professor is asked by a friend to bring back two 15-year-old slave boys from his trip abroad, and replies “fine, and if I can’t find two 15-year-olds I will bring you one 30-year-old.
An incompetent astrologer cast a boy’s horoscope and said: “He will be a lawyer, then a city-official, then a governor.” But when this child died, the mother confronted the astrologer: “He’s dead — the one you said was going to be a lawyer and an official and a governor.” “By his holy memory,” he replied, “If he had lived, he would have been all of those things!”
“An egg-head doctor was seeing a patient. ‘Doctor’, he said, ‘when I get up in the morning I feel dizzy for 20 minutes.’ ‘Get up 20 minutes later, then’”).
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.”
A misogynist was sick, at death’s door. When his wife said to him, “If anything bad happens to you, I’ll hang myself,” he looked up at her and said: “Do me the favour while I’m still alive.”
A barber, a bald man and an absent-minded professor are taking a journey together. They have to camp overnight, so decide to take turns watching the luggage. When it’s the barber’s turn, he gets bored, so he amuses himself by shaving the head of the professor. When the professor is woken up for his shift, he feels his head, and says “How stupid is that barber? He’s woken up the bald man instead of me.”
A fellow says to a butcher from Sidon, ‘Lend me a knife as far as Smyma.’ ‘I don’t have a knife that reaches that far,’ answers the butcher.
This last one could be considered a direct ancestor of Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch: A man complains the slave he has just bought has died. “By the gods”, answers the slave trader, “when he was with me, he never did any such thing.”