Mark Tidbit 2: Jesus' Anger
Mark 1:40-45 tells of Jesus' healing of a man with a skin condition (scholars are all agreed now that the symptoms of what was traditionally translated as leprosy in the Torah is not what we now call leprosy but a general term for skin conditions). The man comes to him, begs on his knees, and tells Jesus that if he's willing, he can make him clean. There's a textual debate over what happens next. Most translations say that Jesus is filled with compassion and heals him. Most scholars favor the alternate textual reading that Jesus was angry and healed him, and I think they're right. I also think this reveals something about Jesus's character that's worth reflecting on for a little bit, something that reminds me of another powerful display of emotion on Jesus' part in the gospel of John.
The argument for the "anger" reading is incredibly strong. The word for having compassion has more support in the various textual traditions, which absent of any other considerations would count as good support for the choice most modern translations have made. The only problem is that other considerations are not absent but in fact favor very strongly the minority reading. The strongest argument that Jesus was indeed angry here is the difficulty of imagining how a statement about Jesus' compassion would get changed by copyists into a statement about Jesus' anger in the context of his healing of someone. Jesus is said to be angry at people elsewhere in Mark but only when the context makes it clear that he's angry. Copyists might easily have wondered what the anger in this context could be about and changed it to something that made more sense to them. On the other hand, if the original read that Jesus was compassionate, what possible motivation would a scribe have for changing it to speak of his being angry? The harder reading is more likely to be the original, other things being equal, and that seems stronger here than the fact that the harder reading isn't as well represented in the different textual traditions of Mark. Additionally, Matthew and Luke leave this part of the verse out, which makes more sense if they wanted to avoid the confusion of why Jesus might be angry but makes no sense if it originally read that he was compassionate.
The scholarly consensus is that the original text reads that Jesus was angry here. Out of the six commentaries I read (and three more whose conclusions I know), only one takes the view that Mark here says Jesus was compassionate rather than angry, and he simply ignores the issue and assumes the translations to be right. All the others discuss the issue, give the arguments, and conclude that Jesus was angry. Scholarly consensus doesn't mean the view is correct. I don't subscribe to the head-counting method of biblical scholarship. Still, differing from the majority consensus requires a strong argument that they're wrong or some good reason to presume another view. I've presented the argument itself in this case so you can judge for yourself. I think the scholars have good reason to adopt the reading they have. The translations seem to me to be going with the wrong reading.
So if Jesus is angry here, what's going on? Is he mad at the man with the skin condition for something he's done, perhaps his attitude? Is he mad simply because the guy is unclean and is approaching him? Either would seem really out of character for Jesus, but there are reasons within this short snippet that it's not anger at the man. That he says he's willing and then pronounces him clean and heals him is some reason not to think so. That he touches him despite his being ritually unclean also counts against both but is particularly strong against the second possibility. The guy is endangering Jesus with his uncleanness, as far as he can tell, but Jesus doesn't care. He doesn't have to touch the guy to heal him, and the guy doesn't suggest it either. The guy simply tells him that willing it would be enough, and Jesus touches him anyway. He reveals something about who he is here, since uncleanness in the Torah always transfers to the clean person touching the unclean person. Jesus makes the unclean man clean with his touch. In other words, it works in reverse of how the Torah says it normally goes. Something's different about Jesus, Mark is telling us.
So why is Jesus angry? All five of the commentators I read who take the reading that Jesus was angry here take the same view. Jesus wasn't mad at this man, but he was angry at the condition the man was in and the state of the world that would cause such a thing. Some of the commentators point out that some of the language here is similar to language in Jesus' encounters with demons and quite uncharacteristic of language in Jesus's healings. That would make sense if Jesus' anger here is at demonic forces behind this man's condition, but either way it's anger at the evil in the world that leads to such tragic and horrible circumstances. This man is suffering to the point of being socially ostracized. Jesus is mad that it could ever come to something like that. Why wouldn't he be?
I think this reveals something crucial about Jesus' character. It's not just in this passage but shows up in John 11 when Lazarus dies. The shortest verse in the Bible tells us simply that Jesus wept. Was he crying because he wouldn't see Lazarus again? He knew full well what he was going to be. His sadness there was at the pain in the lives of those who loved Lazarus and at the very fact of death in the world. That's something to be incredibly sad about, even if in this case he knew that Lazarus would be restored to life for a time. Jesus responds to evil and suffering with compassion and by restoring and healing, but first he reveals his heart. This kind of thing just plain sucks, and his heart shows through in Mark 1:41 when he angry enough here that he speaks pretty sternly to him after healing him, warning not to go around telling everyone about this. Even amidst his anger, he goes out of his way to touch the man even though he didn't need to, just to demonstrate that he makes clean rather than being made unclean by the man's uncleanness.
Later on, he would be made unclean by all our uncleanness, and we would thus be made clean by his cleanness. That's in fact the basis of this foretaste of such things. It reminds us of why he went to the cross. His anger at the awful state of things in this fallen world explains his reaching out to touch us when we were unclean, which is just mind-blowing. We are the man with the skin condition, and Jesus is willing to make us clean if we but seek him to do so, recognizing that it's on his terms. Unfortunately, this man didn't accept Jesus' terms afterward. I'll reflect on that part of this narrative in the next Mark Tidbit, but for now it's important to recognize how easy it is to do what this man did. We can so easily be this stubborn, thinking something must be right when it seems so obviously the best thing to do, when in fact the one who knows best has told us otherwise.
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Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.