Does the Gospel of Mark Reveal Jesus’ Anger or His Compassion?

What the Codex Bezae reveals about Jesus’ temperament

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2012.—Ed.


 
Codex Bezae

In the fifth-century C.E. Codex Bezae, an early edition of the New Testament written in Greek, the Gospel of Mark describes Jesus’ anger before healing a leper (Mark 1:41). While later scribes changed Jesus’ anger to compassion, it is likely that Codex Bezae preserves the original reading. Image: Cambridge University Library/ff.288v & 289r from Nn.2.41.

Textual variants among ancient manuscripts aren’t usually as controversial as chapter 1, verse 41 of the Gospel of Mark. Sometimes one scribe spelled a word differently on his manuscript, while another might have accidentally skipped or repeated some of the text he was copying. These cases are minor variants and don’t really change the meaning of the text. Other times, however, scribes added to or even changed text to clarify a passage or suit the theological preferences of their communities. That’s when things get interesting, and this passage in the Gospel of Mark offers an especially intriguing example.

In Mark 1:41, a leper has approached Jesus seeking to be healed. Most Greek manuscripts (the New Testament was originally written in Greek), as well as later translations, say that Jesus was moved with compassion and healed the man. A few manuscripts, however, say that Jesus’ anger was kindled before he healed him. So did the verse mean to convey Jesus’ anger or his compassion? If this were a popularity contest, the “compassion” reading would surely win. In 1998, the authoritative book Text und Textwert recorded only two Greek manuscripts (and a few early Latin ones) that contained the reading expressing Jesus’ anger. But, as Dr. Jeff Cate announced in The Folio,* the bulletin of the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center at the Claremont School of Theology, close examination of one of those two Greek manuscripts has shown that it does not contain the word for either anger or compassion. Just as Matthew and Luke did when retelling Mark’s story in their gospels (cf. Matthew 8:2–4; Luke 5:12–16), the scribe of this Markan manuscript simply left it out.

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Mark

Mark composes his account of the life of Jesus in this scene from a 12th-century manuscript from Constantinople.

This now leaves the other Greek manuscript, the fifth-century C.E. Codex Bezae, as the sole Greek witness to the reading expressing Jesus’ “anger.” Much like the cheese in “The Farmer in the Dell,” Codex Bezae stands alone.

But most interesting of all, the Codex Bezae may in fact have the better (i.e., original) reading. As New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman pointed out in a 2005 article in Bible Review, “one factor in favor of the ‘angry’ reading is that it sounds wrong.”** It is much easier to believe that early scribes were troubled by Jesus’ anger and changed it to his feeling compassion, rather than the other way around. Later scribes also would have preferred the easier “compassion” reading and copied it until it became the more popular reading. (As Ehrman explains, there are other passages in the Gospel of Mark that seem to support the reading conveying Jesus’ anger.) Thus does Codex Bezae now stand as a lonely witness to what is very likely the original Greek text of Mark 1:41.

——————

Based on Strata, “Jesus’ Anger Rewritten as Compassion,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2012.
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on May 24, 2012.
 


 

Notes:

* Jeff Cate, “The Unemotional Jesus in Manuscript 1358,” The Folio 28, no 2 (2011), p.1.
** Bart D. Ehrman, “Did Jesus Get Angry or Agonize?” Bible Review, Winter 2005.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The “Strange” Ending of the Gospel of Mark and Why It Makes All the Difference by James Tabor

Mark and John: A Wedding at Cana—Whose and Where? by James Tabor

What’s Funny About the Gospel of Mark? by Robin Gallaher Branch

The Secret Gospel of Mark in Debate
James D.G. Dunn reviews Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery by Tony Burke
 


 

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  • Theophilus says

    To me it makes perfect sense that our Savior may have been indignant at the leper’s remark, since, while acknowledging His ability to heal him, he also said, “If you are willing. . . .” Christ’s compassion is unquestioned and unquestionable, so perhaps the Redeemer of mankind sensed a inadvertent slight.

    Either way, the man was still healed.

  • Fran says

    Maybe Jesus was angry at the disease and showed compassion to the man.

  • TruthSurge says

    Why would a god ever get angry? He created everything and supposedly has everything going according to his master plan? Everything that happens he already knew and some would say CAUSED. Anger only happens when something goes AGAINST your plans, out of your control. If it was foreordained, you wouldn’t be angry about it. TS

    • Christopher says

      Your definition of anger leaves a bit to be desired, no offense. I’d change one word.

      “Angel only happens when something goes AGAINST your WILL.”

      God does not desire for anyone to experience brokenness – whether physical or emotional. His creative will, from the beginning, is that all is “good,” or “very good.” No sickness; no death; no suffering.

      However, the forces of darkness have intervened, instilling man with darkness and temptation. As a result, the earth has entered into a state which is against the will of God. In this variant reading, I believe that Jesus is expressing the sort of anger that is righteously directed towards something that is contrary to one’s will – namely, deformity/illness (leprosy).

      Seeing an element of His creation in such a pitiful, rejected state is rightly a source of frustration for the God who made everything to be “good.”

      Furthermore, if you examine the language being used by the leper – “If you should desire it, you are able to make me CLEANSED/PURIFIED” – you can unearth a bit of the context that isn’t always readily available to 21st century believers. This man has been, according to the law of the elders, rejected from his spiritual community and NOT allowed a place in the synagogue. Lepers were rejected by the ancients as being cursed by God. The act of becoming cleansed would allow this man to participate in the community of worship without fears of prejudice by the Jews.

      In essence, this man – who has already been subjected to a life of ridicule, self-loathing and religious persecution – is asking for Jesus to bring Him to God. Jesus, as is consistent with His charge against the religious folk of His day – is angered, not at the leper, but at the sort of falling away of His Father’s people that leads to this sort of ugliness.

      I honestly think that either variant is suitable to express this gut-wrenching, visceral reaction to witness religious persecution against the downtrodden.

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