What the Codex Bezae reveals about Jesus’ temperament
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.
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.
* Jeff Cate, “The Unemotional Jesus in Manuscript 1358,” The Folio 28, no 2 (2011), p.1.
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
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on May 24, 2012.
The BAS Library includes online access to more than 9,000 articles by world-renowned experts and 22,000 gorgeous color photos from…
Plus, you get access to so much more from your All-Access pass:
Biblical Archaeology Review print edition:
Enjoy the same current issues in glorious, traditional, full-color print …
Biblical Archaeology Review tablet edition:
Stay on top of the latest research! You get …
All of this rich and detailed scholarship is available to you—right now—by buying a special All-Access pass.
That’s right: when you purchase your All-Access pass, you get a ticket to four decades of study, insight and discovery. Why not join us right now and start your own exploration?
Whether you’re researching a paper, preparing a sermon, deepening your understanding of Scripture or history, or simply marveling at the complexity of the Bible – the most important book in history—the BAS All-Access pass is an invaluable tool that cannot be matched anywhere else.
You'll get to experience all the discoveries and debate in beautiful clarity with Biblical Archaeology Review, anytime, anywhere! And the Library is fully searchable by topic, author, title and keyword, as well as the Special Collections like this one.
The All-Access pass is the way to explore Bible history and biblical archaeology.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.
Send this to a friend