How do you explain the textual variant in Mark 1:41 (Jesus felt indignation vs. Jesus felt compassion)?
How do you explain the background to the textual variant in Mark 1:41 (whether Jesus felt anger or compassion)? It seems that it is very hard to resolve this variant. We can detect and resolve many textual variants easily…but when it comes to Mark 1:41 how do you consider this variant and explain its background. Which word should we consider as the authentic one. This example gives more propensity to Bible textual critics to doubt the authenticity of New testament–God’s word. How do you take this?…. Thank you…
In my opinion, the only thing which marks this textual variant as unusual is that it is so hard to decide which was most likely the original. With well over 95% of all known textual variants, the “correct” original is either definite or nearly definite. This is part of the whole story about textual criticism which leads to the conclusion that somewhere around 99.5% of the Greek New Testament is not in doubt.
But, there are two reasons this one sticks out, despite the fact that in the end this is not a big deal at all, at least in my opinion (see below). First, like I just said, unlike nearly all variants, the correct answer in Mark 1:41 is not clear. Second, the two possibilities–that Jesus showed compassion or felt indignation are really quite different. That they are quite different is clear to anyone.
Here is the explanation of the first point. One commonly-used rule in textual analysis is that, when there are two readings, the more “difficult” one is to be preferred. In other words, which is more likely, that a scrupulous copier of the text would change angry to compassionate or would change compassionate to angry? Clearly, logic strongly favors the first option. Why would someone purposefully or accidentally change the text he or she was copying to make it more difficult? Therefore, this rule very strongly prefers the conclusion that the original of this passage has Jesus feeling anger/indignation (rather than compassion) over the situation with the lepers.
But, in this case, the amount of evidence for the alternative reading is SO slight–primarily being from Codex Bezae–that the quantity and quality of texts very strongly favors the conclusion that the original was compassionate. Add to this that Codex Bezae, though a very early manuscript, has the reputation of having a number of questionable textual variants.
So, we have two lines of evidence, one which strongly favors Jesus having a feeling of indignation, and the other strongly favoring that Jesus was feeling compassion. These are the facts of the case, which is part of why this variant is problematic. For this reason, no responsible scholar will make a strong, definite statement about Mark 1:41.
Now to the second point. One will have to admit that Jesus having feelings of compassion and feelings of indignation are very different feelings. We like to think that Jesus felt compassion often and anger only rarely, but if we look at the text of the New Testament, we can see Jesus getting frustrated and even angry, both with his spiritual enemies, such as the Pharisees, and with his disciples. His frustration and even anger toward the apostles is particularly notable in Mark! (one can list many examples, but one is Mark 8:33). Therefore, although this variant clearly has a really great impact on this particular verse–we have to admit this! In the end, the impact on our overall view of Jesus is not largely impacted by which we choose–compassion or anger.
There are two possible questions to be answered here:
1. Can we be confident about the correct original Greek of Mark 1:41?
2. Does this difference have a dramatic and significant impact on our overall view of Jesus from the scriptures (ie not from this one passage, but from the Bible overall)?
I believe the answer to both is no. Yes, it is true that we simply cannot be sure of the original (although I favor indignant, if you want my opinion), but yes, it is also true that this distinction, though quite stark, does not have a huge impact on our overall view of Jesus, of the truth, or of the inspiration and accuracy of the New Testament. The reason for this is that in this situation Jesus had good reason to feel compassionate toward the lepers, but anger over those who were trying to use the situation to undermine his credibility and ministry. Both readings are consistent with what we know of Jesus, both from Mark and from the gospels as a whole. In fact, it is not unreasonable to propose that Jesus both felt compassion toward the lepers and anger to his opponents at the same time.