http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/B/BIBLE_HUMOR?SITE=OHCIN&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT Italy Event Probes Bible's Lighter Side By ARIEL DAVID Associated Press Writer ROME (AP) -- Humor in the Bible? Scholars say the Old and New Testament are riddled with humorous references and aim to set the record straight at a three-day congress beginning Monday, "Laughter and Comedy in Ancient Christianity." There's the tale from Luke's Gospel of Zaccheus, a diminutive and despised tax collector who, eager to see Jesus at a busy gathering, is forced into the attention-grabbing indignity of scrambling up a tree. Or the patriarch Isaac, whose name comes from the Hebrew word for laughter because of the joy and disbelief his birth brought to his aging parents, Abraham and Sarah. These witticisms may not have modern readers rolling on the floor. But scholars of Christian literature and theology at a three-day conference in Turin on "Laughter and Comedy in Ancient Christianity" insist the Old and New Testaments are riddled with humor and clever wordplay. They hope to show that humor, far from being considered sinful, had an important place in early Christianity and in the Bible itself, said Clementina Mazzucco, a professor of Ancient Christian Literature at Turin University. "There is a prejudice that states that humor and Christianity are incompatible," Mazzucco said in a telephone interview. "On the contrary, there are many episodes and dialogues in the Scriptures where irony and sarcasm are being used." Texts making farcical references to the Bible were also commonplace and accepted throughout the first centuries of Christian history. One is the "Coena Cypriani" - Cyprian's Supper - an anonymous parody from the fifth or sixth century in which many biblical characters, from Adam to St. Peter, take part in a great banquet and are satirized with brief, sharp verses. Mazzucco, who opened the congress on Monday, said the church's later tendency to condemn humor could have resulted from a strict interpretation of the Gospel's discouraging exaggerated laughter and derision. "In the past, the tradition of a strict ascetic Christianity prevailed," Mazzucco said. "Now, the relationship between Christians and the world has evolved and recently some studies started to focus on Jesus' sense of humor." Scholars and writers have long pondered Christianity's complex relationship with humor. Novelist Umberto Eco, a noted semiologist, or expert in the interpretation of symbols, explored the theme in his 1980 book "The Name of the Rose," a detective story set in a monastery during the Middle Ages. The tale - also made into a 1986 movie - is about a murderous conspiracy to hide from the world a treatise on laughter by Greek philosopher Aristotle. For Eco's secretive Benedictine monks, laughter and comedy are a danger to the church as they are considered a potential antidote to the fear of God's wrath and power. --- Associated Press reporter Marta Falconi contributed to this report.