Saturday, March 14, 2015

Mark 1:41: Anger or Compassion? What Can We See? What Does Hope Show?


In Mark 1:40 "there came a leper" to Jesus, saying "If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean." According to most manuscripts, Jesus, "moved with compassion" (splanchnistheis), heals the leper (v. 41). Why does Codex Bezae say that Jesus was "moved with anger" or "angered" (orgistheis)? A few manuscripts simply leave out either splanchnistheis or orgistheis.

Charles C. Torrey long ago posited separate oral traditions, in Aramaic, for the story. That is to say, one Aramaic word or phrase conveyed "anger," the other, "compassion." Frederick C. Grant, writing in 1943, economically suggests for both manuscript traditions a single underlying Aramaic word, perhaps ragaz. Ragaz signifies anger but can also express other powerful emotions (Frederick C. Grant, The Earliest Gospel, Chapter 5: "Was Mark Written in Aramaic?"; see also Nestle's An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the Greek New Testament (1901), 264-65. Bruce D. Metzger notes a Syriac confusable (ethraham and ethra'em, mercy and anger) as another explanation for the divergent Greek tradition--a simple misunderstanding underlay the "anger."

Bart Ehrman will have none of that. He finds "completely mystifying" any explanation that posits an Aramaic Vorlage. Metzger's confusables become "merely accidental." Nobody knows whether the Gospels had an Aramaic Vorlage or whether Mark or his first copyists were themselves bilingual in Aramaic and Greek; yet to assert, as Ehrman does, that the Gospels belong to a wholly Greek scribal tradition is to sidestep a lot of philology.

Professor Ehrman goes on to make a case for the priority of orgistheis. The reading, he argues, fits Mark's portrayal of a Messiah whose personality and emotions transcend even Messianic expectations. The Jesus of Mark shows Himself paradoxical, unpredictable, iconoclastic. Never was a Prophet more startling to any generation. Putting the conundrum of Mark 1:41 to one side, I do see merit in what Ehrman says of Mark's larger message. It matches what C.S. Lewis says of his own first encounter with the Jesus of the Gospels. Who are we to expect a Messiah that we readily comprehend? a King tailor-made? Elijah eludes us; Messiah must escape us. It will take effort to cast tradition away and come to "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."        

As might be expected in our fragile generation (we "fly to pieces like glass" at anything new, says Joseph Smith), debate over Ehrman's assertions and arguments both flourishes and rages. The textual questions that linger about Mark 1:41 have now become a matter of common knowledge. The Internet sags under the critical load.

The Prophet Joseph prepared us for such startling views of a Jesus at once both emotionally charged and down-to-earth friendly. People misunderstand meekness, he taught, so I "will personify Jesus for a moment to illustrate the principle." Joseph then "cried out with a loud voice, Woe unto you, ye doctors, woe unto you, ye lawyers, woe unto you, ye scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites, etc." After the Jeremiad Joseph again "personifies" Jesus as saying "But you cannot find the place where I ever went that I found fault with their food, their drink, their house, their lodgings; no never"  (History of the Church 5:18).

The questions about the divine personality do not end with Mark 1:41, but the emotions of Jesus, as portrayed throughout Mark and the other Gospels, cleanly escape our mortal imaginations--as our watery translations attest. Speaking of Mark 1:43, in which the narrative tension still runs high, C.S. Mann notes: "The rare verb embrimaomai is a strong word, for which there is no satisfactory English equivalent." Reymond E. Brown, speaking of John 11:33, 38 and following Matthew Black and M.-E. Boismard, notes of embrimaomai (to sigh deeply within, to anger, to scold) and of tarassein (to shudder) "that these two Greek expressions are variant translations of the one original Aramaic expression which means 'to be strongly moved'" (Anchor Bible: John I: 426). The supposed Aramaic original of be "strongly moved"--and perhaps several like Aramaisms are in play in both John and Mark--may or may not be expressive of anger. The idea is a surge of sudden emotional energy the exact focus of which may not be discernible.

There clearly are several Aramaic words and phrases that may shed light on the strange Greek verbs expressive of emotional intensity in the Gospels. I see another such instance in the rare Hebrew idiom nikhmar raxamim, which I will discuss below. Yet given the absence of any surviving Aramaic or Hebrew manuscripts, as well as the difficulty of reconstructing an "original" Semitic diction and grammar for the individual units composing Mark, deciding which of the several possible idiomatic choices, if any, underlies either the divergent Greek reading of Mark 1:41 or any like places remains an open question.

Authorship of Mark's Gospel perforce required some act of cultural if not linguistic translation; whether more than one hand helped effect that translation we cannot tell. Neither do we have any means to date a supposed later scribal softening of "anger" into "compassion." In view of our ignorance, text criticism of Mark 1:41 cannot go much beyond the sort of thing that Nestle, Grant, or Metzger suggest. Should we brush aside the evidence from Aramaic and grant priority to "anger" in the textual tradition, we can ponder the implications without going into scholarly overdrive or asserting a righteous indignation.

And let's be very clear. Whether orgistheis or not, what Mark shows us of Jesus is no bland "righteous indignation," rather an emotion so dreadfully divine that the mountains melt at His presence. Mark himself is less than sure about the implications of the revelation: he believes he sees divine compassion, then "he" also claims to see anger (at least one early scribe so saw). Mark gives us but glimpses of the Divine; Jesus escapes us still.

The true question facing the reader of Mark 1:41 should not be whether Mark consistently represents Jesus as quick to anger, but why Jesus was so painfully responsive to, even emotionally overwhelmed at, hope? I would say at suffering--but it was the suffering hopeful to whom the Lord responded. The responsiveness that Jesus brought to bear on the hope that met Him easily overthrows any other man. Emotion at root cannot be so evenly parceled out between anger, compassion, love. One man hears the divine voice; another stops his ears at thunder. Whether orgistheis or splanchnistheis, what we meet in the Gospels is an emotional response that can only be characterized as Divine--the soul of the Son of God. No Greek participle suffices--we come to the edge of the ineffable. In other words, the anger of the Son of God both is and is not your anger; His compassion both is and is not--and never can be--your compassion. His silence is not your silence.


Emotion untranslatable to moderns often surges from Scripture. At times it overwhelms. Perhaps such scriptural outpourings come closest to reflecting the Divine.

Consider two familiar places in the Old Testament.

Genesis 43: 29 And he lifted up his eyes, and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother's son, and said, Is this your younger brother, of whom ye spake unto me? And he said, God be gracious unto thee, my son. 30 And Joseph made haste; for his bowels did yearn upon his brother: and he sought where to weep; and he entered into his chamber, and wept there.

1 Kings 3:24 And the king said, Bring me a sword. And they brought a sword before the king. 25 And the king said, Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other. 26 Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it. 27 Then the king answered and said, Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it: she is the mother thereof.

Each story pivots about a moment of extreme emotional intensity: "for his bowels did yearn upon his brother" (ki-nikhmeru raxamahav al axhiv); "for her bowels yearned upon her son" (ki-nikhmeru raxamehah al benah). Each story reminds us of the pure love of Jesus.

The idiom combines a rare and difficult verb k-m-r (to become black, to become hot, thus to burn black) with the noun rxm (womb, innards, bowels; raxamim, bowels, compassion). Genesis 43:30 thus tells us how Joseph's bowels blackened with intense heat, his bowels did burn. Nahum Sarna reads: "his mercies were heated up" (JPS: Commentary on Genesis); for E.A. Speiser, the literal meaning is: "to boil over with emotion" (Anchor Bible: Genesis). The Targum and Peshitta versions (both Aramaic) of Gen. 43:30 and 1 Kings 3:26 yield plenty of material paralleling the supposed Aramaic antecedent of splanchnisthies/orgistheis. The Septuagint, though also poignant, shows less color. In the Peshitta the true mother's emotions spin topsy-turvy (hpk gwl); the Septuagint speaks of a yearning in her metra. (The LXX tellingly uses a different noun in the Joseph story: ta egkata, innards.)

In both Genesis and 1 Kings the black heat within can only answer to pained yet positive emotions of deep yearning; anger doesn't fit the story line. Facing the same or similar idiom in a more complicated narrative a baffled translator might mistake a black-hot burning or a topsy-turvy emotion for an expression of anger rather than pity. But that is besides the point. Every reading becomes both riddling and translation. What the reader of Mark 1:40-45, and the like, anxiously seeks is the cultural understanding, and Genesis 43:30 and 1 Kings 3:24 do convey the constellation of emotion at its scriptural best.

Let's return to Mark's narrative.

Mark 1:40 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.

41 And Jesus, moved with compassion (or with anger), put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean.

There are reasons for preferring orgistheis. Commonly held rules of interpretation favor the difficult reading. Ehrman, despite the sole occurrence in the Greek textual tradition (along with some attestations in the Old Latin), is fond of pointing out that the gentling of anger into compassion meets psychological expectations; compassion heightened into anger would require unwonted energies. Besides, two verses later comes a verb expressing an intensity of emotion that defies translation: embrimesamenos from embrimaomai (groan, roar, snort within, brimo, be angry). We then meet exebalen (He threw or drove him out).

Yet an angry reaction at the petition for mercy has never satisfied anyone. Ehrman is clear on this point: Mark means not to satisfy but to shock. His purpose is to reveal "God manifest in the flesh," not to explain or to justify Him. We emerge from Mark's transforming Gospel reading and speaking "with a new tongue" (see 2 Nephi 31:14). Jesus is, as Paul says, "manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels" (1 Timothy 3:16, the italic added).

And Jesus, his bowels yearning, or his bowels burning black with intense emotion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean.

A countenance more in sorrow or in anger? For Ehrman, a single word triggers Jesus's response: "if." "If thou art willing." To question the Lord's willingness to save, not the sight of advanced leprosy, is what provokes the Healer. Might the idea find reflection in the words of Zenock?

Thou art angry, O Lord, with this people, because they will not understand thy mercies which thou hast bestowed upon them because of thy Son (Alma 33:16).

Bart Ehrman's view of a hotly jealous Lord strikes most readers as extreme. That's the idea but: Questioning mercy in the very request? Who can tell whether the seeker was cutting it close? I wouldn't wish to "be cut off while in the thought" (Moroni 8:14). We mustn't lose sight of the leper for the doubter or the cynic. Above all things, we long to "understand the mercies."

Jesus, groaning within, or sighing deeply, orders the blessed leper to "tell no man" but repair to the priest to fulfill the requirements of the law. He then drives him away. Given this burst of emotive verbs and solemn imperatives, the possibility for mistaking a Semitic idiom about burning within, even boiling over, for an expression of anger fits. It's all one--forget textual priority. While the Hebrew expression in Genesis 43:30 certainly is not the Vorlage of any of the verbs found in Mark 1:40-45, it does form part of the cultural understanding a discerning student ought to bring to the text. Without such informed and in-gathered cultural understanding, no translation can meet its purpose. It is the compelling verbal energy rushing to meet the reader, not the particular choice of words or even translation, that matters. At the leper's approach, meek Jesus becomes the Word of God "manifest in the flesh."


Why does Jesus drive the man away? The human reaction would have been to drive a leper away, and the Law of Moses so requires it; Jesus drives away a man cleansed. In the paradox we see the humility and perfection of Jesus. He seeks no adulation, no praise from the cleansed leper; nor does He seek the fame that attends the working of wonders. As he groans within, deeply sighing, and chases the blessed away, just so does Jesus anger at adulation and praise. He drives fame and honor far from His face.

Mark catches the suddenness of the thing. The leper appears out of nowhere and vehemently pleads. Jesus, overwhelmed with a surging emotion, fervently echoes the plea--"I will"--and burning with the divine energy catches hold of the untouchable slave to disease. But the energy of mercy, the energy that then moves out to heal, cannot end with the cleansing: it tumbles into the world with a charge and a command. "See thou tell no man"; "Go." Should he tarry, the man would certainly wither in the continuing discharge. As the Targum of Genesis 43:30 shows, that energy is tightly rolled; its expression, the unfurling of waves. The Hand of Mercy also holds the sword of divine justice, turning every way. The moment of healing for this man also marks the moment of peril.

The man "full of leprosy," and therefore met by Jesus with emotional shock, was covered with compassion. Compassion, just as did Jesus' hand, "caught hold" and held him in a powerful grasp. Divine mercy also knows a letting go. Cleansed, the whole man may now face squarely the further tests of life. Just so with all mankind: released in love "from a more exalted sphere," "Thou hast placed us here on earth." Even in glorious premortality we met strivings and drivings. Release came, but the wrestle of choice continues. "I will; Be." The mask of leprosy removed, the natural man, however loved, however blessed, stood revealed before Jesus. Mercy had been fulfilled--and that was enough. There was not a moment to lose--"Dawn goes down to day"; "To day, if ye will hear his voice." When Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden, and the flaming sword fixed, the power to choose--"free forever"--determined the pathway.

The natural man chooses praise, adulation, fame--emotion run amok. He chooses to "publish" and to "blaze." Jesus set the man free to pursue what men pursue.


Jesus' most overpowering emotional expression is silence. Jesus cherished conversation yet He always returns to stillness. Paradoxically, it is Jesus' silence that best helps us understand His raging compassion. Why is this so? Because that silence, often countering ferocity, best exemplifies His powers of control. But all who know Jesus also see how such discipline is not reserved for the trials before worldly rulers nor solely for the scourge or the cross. No. A like discipline undergirded all His tears. It undergirded His anger; it knew His compassion.

Jesus stands separate.

Art may serve where translation escapes us. Mihaly Munkacsy's Christ Before Pilate portrays Jesus on trial before assembled humanity. The debate rages on, the Divinity of Jesus Christ the "Great Question" on all minds (see Alma 34:5). Though at the center of the painting, as of the debate, Jesus stands increasingly unnoticed. Captivated by argument, germane or no, few now turn their gaze toward Him; certainly none penetrates the calm divinity of His mind. None disturb His silence. Pilate absorbed, attuned only to his own inner debate, looks on Jesus with a scowl. He doesn't really see Jesus. No one does. All are distracted or abstracted. At that very moment, stands Mankind Before Jesus.

Notes (Under Construction)

"So dawn goes down to day"--Robert Frost, "Nothing Gold Can Stay."

I enjoy reading Bart Ehrman's commentary on Mark 1:41, as now published in many places. Ehrman has introduced a whole generation to this particular textual variant and to an inkling of its Nachleben, and for this he deserves our gratitude. My own training in the principles of text criticism focused on the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Egyptian texts--not the Testament. What, then, to say?

I sense an earnestness in Ehrman's treatment of variants where detachment may be more instructive. His insistent, rarefied logic will not adduce the best reading(s) for Mark 1:41. Neither do Ehrman's broad conclusions about the Jesus of Mark logically counter or linguistically contradict notions of an Aramaic Vorlage for the Greek texts. Let's continue to ponder the studies of Metzger, Brown, and company.

The paper I'm using in preparing the present essay, also found online, is "A Leper is the Hands of an Angry Jesus."

Proctor, M.A. (dissertation), "The 'Western' Text of Mark 1:41: A Case for the Angry Jesus."

Biblical Archaeology Review [Bible History Daily],  Does the Gospel of Mark Reveal Jesus' Anger or His Compassion?"

Cate, Jeff, "The Unemotional Jesus in Manuscript 1358," The Folio, Fall 2011, ABMC, Claremont.
Cate now shows that Codex Bezae, alone of Greek manuscripts, has the variant reading. What to make of the few corresponding Latin manuscripts?


Mann, C.S. The Anchor Bible: Mark (1986), 219:

"The more difficult reading of 'indignation' can easily be understood as being changed to 'compassion,' but it would be very difficult to imagine a change from 'compassion' to 'indignation.' Mann, as have others, sees the indignation as likely expressive of "an indignation at the Satanic disorder in God's creation."

Such anger may be of-a-piece with divine compassion--thus either translation serves to make a point about Jesus' saving love and mercy.

"43 sent him away: Literally, 'drove him away.' The emotion demonstrated here perhaps arises from exhaustion after a period of healing, or perhaps (and more likely in view of Jesus' words) from a desire on Jesus' part to protect himself from a reputation as a wonder-worker.

stern warning: The rare verb embrimaomai is a strong word, for which there is no satisfactory English equivalent."

See also 3 Nephi 17:14:

And it came to pass that when they had knelt upon the ground, Jesus groaned within himself, and said: Father, I am troubled because of the wickedness of the people of the house of Israel.

The Nephite language traces back to Hebrew; at any rate, following John 11:33, 38, we can guess how the phrase "groaned within himself" best reflects the Greek. Again, "troubled" echoes John 11:33: terassein (to shudder). And consider how "I am troubled," given the context, is the sort of reading which could be mistaken by a scribe for "I am angry": "I am angry because of the wickedness of the house of Israel." Anger, trouble, and compassion often flow together.

Elder James E. Talmage, in Jesus the Christ, views the haste of dispatch as mirroring the gathering storm. Should the man not quickly--and quietly--repair to the priests, rumors of disregard for the Law might fuel the hearts of Jesus' determined opponents. Such a view of Mark 1:40-45 not only resonates with Latter-day Saint history, with its legacy of persecution, but reflects Elder Talmage's own experiences. He knew whereof he spoke.