Thursday, January 7, 2016

Was Jesus Angry at the Leper?

In Mark 1:41, we read a story of Jesus healing a leper, simple enough on the surface, but with a puzzling aspect.

40 And a leper came to Jesus, beseeching Him and falling on his knees before Him, and saying, "If You are willing, You can make me clean." 41 Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, "I am willing; be  cleansed."

In some of the most reliable Greek manuscripts, verse 41 reads

Becoming angry, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, "I am willing; be cleansed."

That's quite a difference, "moved with compassion" versus "becoming angry". One translation says "Jesus was indignant". It's not a simple copyist error, the  ancient version of a typo. Some manuscripts say SPLANGNISTHEIS, some say ORGISTHEIS Misquoting Jesus [1]. Typical copyist errors include misspelled words, missed or added letters, even a whole line could be skipped or duplicated. But it is too much to think SPLANGNISTHEIS was miscopied as ORGISTHEIS  or vice versa.  Is it even possible to know the intent?

Leprosy 101

What is leprosy anyway? The disease leprosy that we are familiar with in the modern world is called Hansen's disease, named after G. H. Armauer Hansen, who discovered the causative bacteria in Norway in 1873 Wikipedia [2]. Hansen's Disease is somewhat preventable with a vaccine and quite treatable with antibiotics.

But Biblical leprosy appears not to be Hansen's Disease, though some include Hansen's Disease under the Biblical definition of leprosy. Leprosy is translated from the Hebrew word tsara'ot. "The Hebrew word for leprosy is tzaraath which is derived from the word tsara, which means to be struck. To be struck, is to be affected by something overwhelming, in which a primitive root of "tsara" means to scourge, which to scourge means to whip or inflict punishment" Chaim Bentorah [3].

Biblical leprosy is a broader term than the leprosy (Hansen’s disease) that we know today. The Hebrew tsara’ath included a variety of ailments and is most frequently seen in Leviticus, where it referred primarily to uncleanness or imperfections according to biblical standards. A person with any scaly skin blemish was tsara’ath. The symbolism extended to rot or blemish on leather, the walls of a house, and woven cloth. Other Old Testament references to leprosy are associated with punishment or the consequences of sin.  
Others have suggested that the translation of tsara’ath includes “molds.” The recent discovery of a highly toxic mold (Stachybotrys sp.), which contaminates buildings and causes respiratory distress, memory loss, and rash, lends support to the translation of tsara’ath to include “mold.” As noted, tsara’ath incorporates a collection of contemporary terms, including Hansen’s disease, infectious skin diseases, and mold (or even mildew) diseases. Biblical Leprosy [4]

The fact that it can extend to leather or cloth or even houses suggests it is more than Hansens's Disease. Strong's simply defines tsara'ot as "perhaps some fungus or mould" Strong's [5].  And Wikipedia [6] argues "Tzaraath is sufficiently dissimilar from leprosy to be considered a different disease altogether"

Translators, Again

How did tsara'ot become associated with Hansen's Disease? It's not entirely clear, but part of the answer is that tsara'ot was translated as "lepra" in the Septuagint, a Hebrew to Greek translation of the Old Testament done before Christ was born. Hebrew to Greek, Greek to English, and tsara'ot became leprosy. Only problem is that lepra didn't mean leprosy as in Hansen's Disease Jewish Encyclopedia [7]. Nonetheless, nowadays Biblical tsara'ot is confused with leprosy.

Shun Me

Sufferers of tsara'ot were forced to live outside the camp, a sort of quarantine. They were diagnosed by the Levitical priests, and it was also the priests who allowed them back into the camp if they were cleansed. Being forced to live outside the camp gave rise to the other meaning of leper, that of outcast. But tsara'ot meant something more in that culture - punishment. "The Talmud, and the majority of historic Jewish literature in general, regards tzaraath as a punishment for sin" Wikipedia [6].  "Every leper mentioned in the Old Testament was afflicted because of some transgression" Jewish Encyclopedia [7].  In the eyes of the community, those with tsara'ot were being punished for sin, they deserved it. In modern parlance "you must have done something". In the church today, do we look at a person with health problems and think to ourselves, "he must have done something"? Do we shun that person? Treat them like a leper?

The Bible doesn't actually say that tsara'ot is always punishment for sin however.  According to the historic sources, tsara'ot is the result of certain sins, chief among them "an evil tongue" or gossip. But why would gossip have such a severe penalty? We understand that everyone sins, we should all have tsara'ot or worse. If someone you know is cast out of the camp for tsara'ot, do you look down on them because they must have done something, or feel compassion because you are guilty too?


What would Jesus do? What did Jesus do? So far, we know he either felt compassion or was angry with the metsora, the one impure with tsara'ot. We saw that the New Testament manuscripts disagree on one word in Mark 1:41. How do we know which is right? The people who study the ancient manuscripts are called textual critics. Since the original letters penned by the authors don't exist anymore, all we have are copies of copies of copies (at best). The early copyists made mistakes as well as deliberate changes to "improve" the text, at least improve it according to their own thinking. We do have 5700 manuscripts of the New Testament, some are only fragments the size of a postcard, others are complete copies. We also have early church writers who quoted those original documents. Sadly, there are tens of thousands of discrepancies  among the manuscripts. Hence the job of textual critics is to seek out the words of the original authors.  In 85% of the cases, the correct reading is straightforward, a simple copyist error that got propagated by later copyists. Sometimes, like Mark 1:41, it isn't so easy to tell what did Mark actually write.

Critics look at lots of factors to make their educated guesses, age of manuscripts, reliability of manuscripts, etc. One factor is to ask which reading best explains the existence of the other. Bart Ehrman explains:

The question to be asked is this: which is more likely, that a scribe copying this text would change it to say that Jesus became wrathful instead of compassionate, or to say that Jesus became compassionate instead of wrathful? Which reading better explains the existence of the other? When seen from this perspective, the latter is obviously more likely. The reading that indicates Jesus became angry is the “more difficult” reading and therefore more likely to be “original.” Misquoting Jesus [8]

Mr. Ehrman has lots more to say about Mark 1:41, as well as other problematic texts. His book is well worth reading. It is easier for us to think of Jesus as feeling compassion to heal the metsora. It appears Matthew and Luke thought so too because in their accounts, they omit any mention of Jesus' emotional reaction (Mt 8:1-4, Lk 5:12-15). Critics believe that Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels from Mark's, that is, they had Mark's letter in hand and copied much of it word for word, making their own changes for their own reasons. If that is true, neither of them wanted to mention Jesus' anger, but didn't go so far as to change the text to say compassion. Some copyist centuries later probably did.

WWJD (Why Would Jesus Do That?)

Assuming Mr. Ehrman is correct, we now have two problems. 1) The wrong text was used  for centuries (not that it affects anything significant), and 2) we now have to ask what it means that Jesus was angry at the leper. Or in Ehrman's words, "At what, though, would Jesus be angry? This is where the relationship of text and interpretation becomes critical." Misquoting Jesus [9]. Some scholars think Jesus was angry at all the disease in the world, some think He was angry the metsora was outcast, some think He was angry at the law of Moses. These theories don't really hold water. Ehrman's explanation is that Jesus was angry at the inference in the question of the metsora, "If you are willing, You can make me clean." Jesus was willing and able. The times Mark records Jesus being angry, it is when someone questioned his willingness, ability, or authority.

Maybe we assert doubt by asking "If you're willing". Although it sounds to me like a valid question, maybe it is actually expressing doubt.  After all, we are to "come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need" Heb 4:16. On the other hand, Jesus Himself prayed "Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done." Lk 22:42 On the third hand, SPLANGNISTHEIS may have meant something different to Mark than it did to the copyist centuries later, so he really did improve the text for later generations.

Was Jesus angry at the leper? Why? Do any of these theories ring true to you? I would invite your comments.


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