15 Jokes From the World's Oldest Jokebook
By Erik van Rheenen
The oldest recorded joke—a lowbrow Sumerian quip stating "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap"—dates back to 1900 BCE, eking out a pharaoh wisecrack from Ancient Egypt by a solid three centuries.
But to pilfer one of the oldest jokes in the book means dusting off the Philogelos (meaning "Laughter Lover"), a Greek anthology of more than 200 jokes from the 4th or 5th century. From gags about dunces to jests at the expense of great thinkers, here are 15 jokes from the oldest existing collection of jokes, as translated by now-retired classical languages professor William Berg.
1. A student dunce goes swimming
"A student dunce went swimming and almost drowned. So now he swears he'll never get into water until he's really learned to swim."
2. An intellectual visits a friend
"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?'"
3. The miser's will
"A miser writes his will and names himself as the heir."
4. The sharp-witted spectator
"A sharp wit observes a slow runner: 'I know just what that gentleman needs.' 'What's that?' demands the sponsor of the race. 'He needs a horse, otherwise, he can't outrun the competition!'"
5. The hot-headed doctor
"Consulting a hotheaded doctor, a fellow says, 'Professor, I'm unable to lie down or stand up; I can't even sit down.' The doctor responds: 'I guess the only thing left is to hang yourself.'"
6. The cowardly sailor
"A coward is asked which are safer, warships or merchant-ships. 'Dry-docked ships,' he answers."
7. The jealous landlord
"An envious landlord sees how happy his tenants are. So he evicts them all."
8. The drunk barkeeper
"A drunk opens a bar, and stations a chained bear outside."
9. The guy with bad breath
"A guy with bad breath decides to take his own life. So he wraps his head and asphyxiates himself."
10. The wife-hater
"A wife-hater is attending the burial of his wife, who has just died. When someone asks, 'Who is it who rests in peace here?', he answers, 'Me, now that I'm rid of her!'"
11. The luckless eunuch
"A luckless eunuch got himself a hernia."
12. The husband with halitosis
"A husband with bad breath asks his wife, 'My dear, why do you hate me?' She give him an answer: 'Because you kiss me.'"
13. The gluttonous gifter
"A glutton is marrying his daughter off to another glutton. Asked what he's giving her as a dowry, he responds, 'She's getting a house with windows that look out onto the bakery.'"
14. Too tired to care
"Two lazy-bones are fast asleep. A thief comes in, pulls the blanket from the bed, and makes off with it. One of them is aware of what happened and says to the other, 'Get up! Go after the guy who stole our blanket!' The other responds, 'Forget it. When he comes back to take the mattress, let's grab him then.'"
15. The forgetful teacher
"An incompetent teacher is asked the name of Priam's mother. At a loss, he says, 'Well, we call her Ma'am out of politeness.'"
An earlier version of this story ran in 2014.