I'm using the Forge this week to supplement a TektonTV vid to be loaded today. This is a reprint of material from Trusting the New Testament concerning a textual question surrounding Mark 1:41, as considered by Bart Ehrman.
Mark 1:40-1: The Mean Jesus
And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean.
This passage nearly always seems to arise when Ehrman wishes to illustrate how orthodox scribes corrupted the text of the New Testament. The case is as follows:
- The word rendered “compassion” in the above should actually be rendered anger.
- Christian scribes, puzzled by Jesus’ behavior and anger at this unfortunate leper, changed the word to “compassion.”
Our analysis consists of three questions.
Is Ehrman correct about “anger” being the original reading? The answer to this question is, quite likely, yes. Ehrman’s case for the original reading being “anger” is coherent and logical, and is in accord with the evidence. It also fits well with the context, for as Ehrman also points out, the word used in v. 43 (“and forthwith sent him away”) is the same as is used of Jesus casting out demons. It is a strong word indicating that the leper was not treated with kid gloves.
Is it such a problem if Jesus was angry in this passage? It is here where Ehrman’s case is more controversial. In order for Ehrman to argue that scribes changed the text out of some sort of confusion or embarrassment, it needs to be shown to begin with that what is in the text is problematic. Ehrman’s argument in this regard is that the text shows Jesus treating the leper unfairly, in a way that scribes found embarrassing; hence they changed the text.
There are two aspects to responding to Ehrman’s analysis of the passage.
The evidence shows that scribes were not at all embarrassed by Jesus’ anger in other passages. Indeed, one wonders why, if this were such a problem for Christians, why did they not dispense with the Old Testament, and why did they identify Jesus with the YHWH of the OT? This was an option taken by the Marcionite heretics of the early second century, but was clearly not the path of orthodoxy. Beyond this, as Ehrman admits, even elsewhere in Mark (3:5) Jesus is said to be angry, and in Mark 10.14 he is indignant with his disciples.
It is here where we may take first notice of Ehrman’s way of presenting matters differently to his scholarly audience than he does to a popular readership. Ehrman, as Wallace notes, “argues implicitly” in a scholarly article on this topic “that Jesus’ anger in Mark 1.41 perfectly fits into the picture that Mark elsewhere paints of Jesus” and that “apart from a fuller understanding of Mark’s portrayal, Jesus’ anger is difficult to understand.” In Misquoting Jesus, however, Jesus’ anger is presented as though it represented a significant difficulty for our portrait of Jesus, especially in Mark.
Is Jesus’ anger in this passage somehow morally problematic? This question is the more critical one, however. Ehrman paints a picture of Jesus getting angry at a poor, suffering unfortunate who just wanted to be healthy. But several aspects of the story warn us not to take it so simply, and give us an intelligible reason for Jesus to be angry, and rightfully so.
o We hardly need to imagine this person to be covered head to toe in leprosy and suffering in great pain. Indeed, by law and custom, he was required to stay away from others and openly declare himself “Unclean!” as a warning. Instead, he came to Jesus and kneeled down in front of him. For him to be able to do this suggests that his leprosy was limited in scope and coverage – otherwise he would have been detected long before he approached so closely.
o The preceding passage (1:39) refers to Jesus preaching in the synagogues of Galilee. It seems likely that this episode occurred as Jesus was teaching in a synagogue setting, which also coheres with the indication that the man was “cast out” of the place where they were. In any event, the healing took place publicly – in such a way that this leper forced Jesus’ hand to get an immediate healing.
o To make matters worse, once Jesus touched the leper to heal him, others would immediately consider Jesus ritually unclean. Correspondingly, Mark notes that once the man spread the word about the healing, Jesus could no longer enter the city, and had to stay in the desert (1:45) – which is what he would have had to do until the time of ritual impurity had passed.
So it is that Jesus’ reason for being angry becomes perfectly coherent. By forcing Jesus’ hand publicly, and compelling him to leave the city for a time, this leper interrupted Jesus’ ministry and made it less effective by restricting his movements, and also compelling people to go where Jesus was to receive their own healings. The leper could have waited until Jesus was somewhere else so that the healing could be done without all the fuss.
Thus, we have the final question: Was the change made out of embarrassment? From the above two points, the answer is clearly no. We can only speculate, then, as to why the change was actually made; perhaps scribes thought that compassion was a more likely reaction in the context, simply because it was a healing. But whatever the reason for the change was, it is obvious that scribal embarrassment over an “angry Jesus” was not one of them.