Gospel: Mark 1:40-45
40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ 42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ 45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country and people came to him from every quarter.
For those of us who lead Bible Studies, this week is interesting. To begin with, the week is an excellent illustration of how the Lectionary interrupts the flow of the gospel we are studying. And, secondly, the reading which we may have been expecting provides a fascinating illustration of some of the intricacies of translation and interpretation.
As always, this post is long. There are four distinct sections which have slowly moved me towards what I see in the reading:
The Athletic Lectionary
What to Translate
The Main Variation: Anger or Compassion? and
My take on the flow, so far, in Mark's Gospel
There is also a short section on what might influence us as we make interpretive choices: How do we navigate all this?
The Athletic Lectionary
After a sequential flow through Mark Chapter 1, Lent is now foreshadowed in the Revised Common Lectionary by Transfiguration Sunday. The Lectionary leaps forward to Mark Chapter 9 for Transfiguration, and then back to early Mark Chapter 1 (verses 9-15) for Week 1 of Lent, and jumps forward again to the end of Mark 8, for Week 2 of Lent, (verses 31-38) immediately before the reading for Transfiguration. For those study groups who have been following Mark's developing theology, it is a brilliant illustration of how the Lectionary and the Calendar of the Church Year impose upon the gospel an order which is likely to have rather surprised the author of Mark!
In the flow of Mark, the reading we expect is that set for Epiphany 6. This is Mark 1:40-45, and it's the natural text to follow on from last week, which was Mark 1:29-39. But the season of Epiphany; that is, the showing or revealing of Christ, leads us into Lent and Easter. And the date of Easter Day is always fixed by the first full moon after the March equinox. It means the date Easter shifts from year to year, and as we will have noticed, that means Lent and Ash Wednesday shift as well; Lent is always 5 Sundays and Palm Sunday.
So this year, the date of Easter has pushed the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, which is set as Transfiguration Day, back to February 11. The readings for this The Transfiguration take precedence over Epiphany Week 6 which, in my part of the church, just disappears…
Well, it's just one more healing story, except…
What to Translate?
Except that this reading is extraordinary in that it illustrates how the translation of a single word can dramatically change our understanding of a text. As I began to form up a plan to focus upon this difference, I found something else. The Greek text is disputed. That is, different Greek manuscripts have a different word; it's not just an argument about how to translate the same word. And just to make it harder for this very ordinary minister who sometimes sounds out his Greek with difficulty, there are several Greek words which vary!
It's a great opportunity to illustrate the reality of textual variation, which might be used to explore people's sense of what the "inspiration of scripture" means;
it is a useful text to explore the methods of textual criticism, one of which has a direct application to how we might choose to interpret the texts before us,
and that's before the two main interpretations expose different truths about Jesus!
The two main translations of the text are that Jesus was "moved with pity" when the leper approached him, or that Jesus was "angry" when the leper approached him.
Dylan Breuer says about this difference
this is what I would have to say from the pulpit about the question of whether Jesus was moved with “pity” or “anger” to heal the leper:
It just doesn't matter. What matters is what he did. He gave everything he had to give, not to enhance his own power -- he understood that true power comes from God, and he had no interest in gaining worldly power -- but to empower the powerless. The leper that he met was an outcast with no voice at all in the community, and the man that went on his way after his encounter with Jesus was whole: brought back in to community, free to act in community to Jesus' advantage or not. Jesus didn't just give him a cure; Jesus gave him his voice. (Sarah Laughed)
Although I agree with this, the differences between the text, and the reasons we choose a particular word as the likely original word of Mark, expose themes within our culture, particularly the theme she labels "sentimentality." We ignore this at our peril.
Added to that, the reading is not "just one more healing." It is about giving everything we have; in the flow of Mark, the cost of Jesus' loyalty to his God is beginning to materialise. (This is why I have chosen this text, and am ignoring the Transfiguration reading, for the moment.
The New Revised Standard Version translation of Mark 1:41 says
40 A leper* came to him begging him, and kneeling* he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved with pity,* Jesus*stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’
The asterisks in the text indicate translation notes. For the word leper, the NRSV notes: "The terms leper and leprosy can refer to several diseases" (not just Hansen's Disease.);
for kneeling it notes: "Other ancient authorities lack kneeling," which means some of the Greek manuscripts leave the word out;
where Jesus is "asterisked" the Greek text says: he, which means they have placed Jesus' name into the text so we are not confused between he the leper and he Jesus,
and where it says "moved with pity," NRSV notes: "Other ancient authorities read anger." We shall begin there.
The Main Variation: Anger or Compassion?
In Mark 1:41, some Greek texts contain the word ὀργισθεὶς, which can be transliterated into English as orgistheis. It means to be moved with anger. Other texts have σπλαγχνισθεὶς from the Greek word we can spell out as splagchnistheis. This could mean moved with anger, but it could also mean moved with compassion! We see the results of these differences in English translations:
… moved with pity, Jesus… (NRSV)
41 Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand… (NIV) (NIV is softening the anger.)
41 Moved with pity, he stretched (ESV)
And being angry, stretching out his hand… (Mark Davis, also quoted below)
As in my few examples, the pity-compassion reading is by far the most popular English translation.
A minor variation
The Society for Biblical Literature Greek text says: kai orgistheis ekteinas— literally: and angry stretching;
The United Bible Society Greek New Testament says: kai splagchnistheis eckteinas;
and the Greek used by the King James says: Ho de Iesous splagchnistheis eckteinas — literally: the yet Jesus being moved with compassion stretching.
How do we choose?
Sometimes there is universal agreement between the Greek manuscripts. And some variations are so minor as to be almost irrelevant. We can see in the Greek of the KJV how a copyist has made who the word he refers to explicit, just as NRSV uses an asterisk to clarify that in this case he is Jesus.
For those who have been formed in an environment which emphasises the integrity of the Greek text there is some perhaps sobering news. The Society for Biblical Literature Greek text agrees with the Westcott-Hort text (the "widely influential nineteenth-century edition of the Greek New Testament") at 6,049 points and disagrees at 819 points. It agrees with the Greek used by the NIV at 6,312 points and disagrees in 616 places. And NIV differs from my UBS Greek at 231 places. (SBLGNT Introduction) So where does biblical authority and inspiration lie if we have been influenced by notions of inerrancy?
The significant choices
Textual Critics work on a number of principles. We can see some of these illustrated in the work of Bruce Metzger, who wrote the companion text to the United Bible Society Greek New Testament. At Mark 1:41, he says
It is difficult to come to a firm decision concerning the original text. On the one hand, it is easy to see why orgistheis ("being angry") would have prompted over-scrupulous copyists to alter it to splagchnistheis ("being filled with compassion"), but not easy to account for the opposite change.
That is, you can see why someone would choose and easier, less confronting reading. The principle, everything else being equal, is to follow the harder choice. So, presumably, the SBL text is persuaded by this; it uses orgistheis as the most likely original text. Metzger continues:
On the other hand, a majority of the Committee was impressed by the following considerations. (1) The character of the external evidence in support of orgistheis is less impressive than the diversity and character of evidence that supports splagchnistheis.
That is, which is the best attested and most common word? This will often imply the original word that was used. They give greater weight to manuscripts which other evidence suggests are older, for example.
(2) At least two other passages in Mark, which represent Jesus as angry (3:5) or indignant (10:14), have not prompted over scrupulous copyists to make corrections.
So why would you soften Jesus' anger here, if you don't soften it somewhere else? He is suggesting the copyists were not embarrassed by Jesus' anger in the case of our text, either.
(3) It is possible that the reading orgistheis either (a) was suggested by embrimesamenos ["warn sternly"] of ver. 43, or (b) arose from confusion between similar words in Aramaic (compare Syriac ethraham, "he had pity," with ethra`am, "he was enraged").
The introduction to Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, pages xiii to xxxi gives a concise summary of the methodology of the textual critics, and how they settle on the most likely original text. My UBS text was published in 1975. But against this work by Metzger's committee, the SBL text (around 2010) has chosen orgistheis; opinions vary over time, and with new work.
Although most textual witnesses say the text reads "moved with pity," some manuscripts have "infuriated." As the more difficult reading, this is to be preferred. Bart Ehrman (2000) asks:
"If the text of Mark available to Matthew and Luke had used the term splagxnisqei\j, feeling compassion, why would each of them have omitted it? [He is noting that in the parallel stories in Matthew 8 and Luke 5, Jesus is moved with neither compassion or anger. Why would they leave out the compassion of Jesus?] On only two other occasions in Mark's Gospel is Jesus explicitly described as compassionate: Mark 6:34, at the feeding of the 5000, and Mark 8:2, the feeding of the 4000. Luke completely recasts the first story and does not include the second. Matthew, however, has both stories and retains Mark's description of Jesus being compassionate on both occasions (14:14 [and 9:30]; 15:32). On three additional occasions in Matthew, and yet one other occasion in Luke, Jesus is explicitly described as compassionate, using this term (splagxni/zw). It's hard to imagine, then, why they both, independently of one another, would have omitted the term from the present account if they had found it in Mark."
And to complicate matters even more, splagchnistheis itself can bear the sense of anger or pity! Quoting the huge Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Nuechterlein says of the word:
It also was seen as the seat for the impulsive passions, such as anger or anxious desire. It was never used in the pre-Christian Greek world to mean mercy or compassion as it came to mean in the later Jewish-Christian writings.
This last paragraph should indicate that "literal" or "word for word" translations simply don't exist. Like the English word "nice," Greek has many words which bear a wide range of meanings which depend hugely upon context; we might remember that in some English expression, nice means the exact opposite of likeable or agreeable!
To illustrate what is at stake in the text for Epiphany 6, I have reproduced much of a post by Mark D Davis. Firstly, the more common reading, where
similar to what one might find in most common Bibles… [i]t chooses to translate most of the questionable terms as a compassionate Jesus and a happy, but disobedient man who has been cleansed. It reads like this: And a leper comes to [Jesus], imploring him [and bowing], and saying to him, "If you will you are able to cleanse me." And having compassion, stretching out his hand he touched him and says to him, "I will, be cleansed." And immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. And speaking earnestly with him, he immediately sent him away. And says to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone, but go present yourself to the priest and bring what is commanded by Moses regarding your cleansing, as a testimony to them." But going out he began to proclaim much and spread the word abroad so that nowhere was [Jesus] able to appear to enter into a city, but was out in deserted places; and they came to him from all places.
He makes an important change in translation from the NRSV. He highlights that the contrast in the last verse is not simply between town and country, with Jesus stuck out in the sticks because of his popularity, or notoriety. Instead, he includes the ἐρήμοις of the text; that is, the deserted wilderness places mentioned in Mark 1:12,35. I noted this theme last week:
But then Jesus goes out of the house into solitude— into a lonely place (ἔρημον) which is the same word as the wilderness into which he is driven by the spirit and the wilderness (ἐρήμῳ) in which John had appeared. (Mark 1:12, 4)
In this movement of people, there are themes of allegiance (which involve power,) and the movement of Jesus on his own also makes a statement about allegiance and power: Jesus is his own person, not bound by the needs and identity of the house. His power comes from the place Israel has always met God, which is wilderness. His allegiance is to God. (One Man's Web) [In English we sometimes use the word eremos or desert with respect to spirituality; e.g., see the web site at eremos.org.au]
Don't we love this Jesus? Deep, spiritual, and compassionate. Yet there is an alternative reading which Davis highlights.
In this translation, I am going with the more edgy, difficult reading of words. Partly this is due to the phenomenon that later translations often soften the edge of texts, so an edgier meaning may have the weight of being more original. It is not an exact science, but here you go. I did make one commentary insertion. I believe v.45 is meant to say that Jesus could not go into villages - not because he is too popular, but because he is now ritually unclean. And a leper comes to [Jesus], summoning him [...] and saying to him, "If you dare, you are able to cleanse me." And being angry, stretching out his hand he grabbed him and said, "I will, be cleansed." And immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. And snorting with indignation, he immediately threw him out and says to him, "Beware that you say nothing to anyone, but go away, show yourself to the priest and bring what is commanded by Moses regarding your cleansing, as a testimony against them." But going out he began to declare and spread the word abroad so that nowhere was [Jesus] able to appear to enter into a city, but was out in deserted places because he was considered unclean; and they came to him from all places. [The bolding of the text in these quotations is by Davis.]
Is Jesus is angered by the leprosy, or by the fact that the man forces him to show his hand, or was "the source of Jesus' indignation … his realization that the leper had already been rejected by the priests." Turton is quoting Myers at this point, and continues
Myers (1988, p153) interprets the command for the leper to show himself to the priests as an injunction to become a witness on behalf of Jesus that the old order has been overturned and the new one announced by Jesus has begun. The Greek translated here as "for a proof to the people" is actually a technical term for bearing witness in a hostile situation. [But m]ost exegetes see this as Jesus carefully following the precepts of Mosaic law, which calls for a healed leper to prove it to the priests so that he may be considered ritually clean again.
In the view of Davis' "edgier" translation, having touched the unclean man, Jesus is now forced to remain outside the towns until he is ritually clean.
How do we navigate all this?
I get lost in the Greek; my grasp of the language is poor. Others of us not only lack the facility to sound out the words, but also have little access to commentaries. This comes back to my previous question about where biblical authority and inspiration lies. The text is important. The opinions of the scholars are important. But I wonder if perhaps most of all, it is important to be immersed in the texts. The real power of the text is not when we posit theories or argue over variations, important as they are. The real power is when the text is given the time to form us; indeed, to re-form us or to, as it were, repent us!
It seems to me that this immersion involves at least three key steps. One is to give time to the variant readings we don't really like. We too often want a nice Jesus who rather than disturbing us will simply comfort us and affirm us as we are. And we end up with a blancmange Jesus who challenges us to do nothing. Of course Jesus was angry; he was human, fully human. So what does fully human, compassionate, deeply felt anger look like? How may we be angry and yet Godly? Wrestling with "the angry reading" helps us explore this, and be changed.
The second step is, simply, time. Time lets us be opened. It lets us be inspired, which is another way of saying we give time and room for the spirit to flow into us. Quick reading, especially by preachers, tends to be shallow reading. Time immersed means we hear the echoes of other stories; connections to other parts of the text begin to flow unbidden.
Finally, immersion in the text is about practising the text rather than doing theory. I doubt that Mark ever imagined biblical scholars who would do disinterested exegesis rather like a scientist investigating physical data. The problem with armchair exegesis on its own is that such theorising imagines (often unconsciously) that it has a certain authority over the text. Certainly, we consider the alternatives, and make careful choices. But this is always an exercise in authority; we choose whose reading, and whose interpretation, to follow. Practice of the faith, another name for repentance and following Jesus, lets us be reformed. It slices into our theorising with the sharp blade of real life.
Our age imagines, says James Alison, that if we
get our hermetic story right… then this head knowledge will gradually pass down into our heart and our desires, so that by our head instructing our heart we will put our old desires to death, and push ourselves to desiring new things in line with our story… thus coming to practise the love of neighbour as ourselves… fitting them into the story…
I suggest to you that this is simply unacceptable as a model for how any human being in fact learns anything. I suggest it is more reasonable to perceive ourselves as bodies who are called into being over time by others prior to ourselves… we come as imitators to be humanised and socialised bodies over time… But this means that it must be part of any story of salvation which we learn to tell that it avoid the dangers of succumbing to being intellectually hermetic prior to practice… (On Being Liked pp20-21)
In other words, we need to give the text time to push us around. We need to "try on" the various ideas and readings for size; e.g., anger vs compassion. We need to begin to practice the readings. Then the text will have time to read us. It will become a voice we imitate, a voice which forms us both through and despite the choices, and errors, we make in interpretation.
Time practising the text will allow it to break us out of our hermetic; that is, sealed and insulated and tidy theories, so that we find the kingdom is indeed at hand.
And the practice of the text will also feed back into our interpretation of the text, as well as opening our eyes to more possibilities.
My take on the flow in Mark
Mark's first showing of Jesus is as a disrupter: (the unclean spirit in the synagogue, and the people who recognise his different authority but can only ask what is this?) Those who are outside the constriction of the synagogue (it contains an unclean spirit) flock to him at the end of Sabbath.
He heals even the least of the least; indeed he goes to the house of the woman who is known only as a mother in law. I am reminded of a church foundation stone which read "Mrs. John Brown BA," and was laid at a time when having any kind of university qualification was a rare achievement. She was made invisible by her husband. But to be known only as a man's mother-in-law was even more reducing, and perhaps an insult. (See here)
Mark also shows us Jesus was centred in God, coming from, and returning to, wilderness. The wilderness (eremos) is still there in this Sunday's reading; people come out to the eremos, to the place where God first meets Israel, seeking healing from Jesus.
Jesus as healer raised the woman by the hand, and now stretches out his hand to touch the leper. He contravenes all the boundaries. And in contradiction to the psychology of uncleanliness, healing flows from him whereas the culture believed that impurity flowed from the leper, and organised itself on that assumption. (We still think impurity contaminates rather than that purity cleanses; witness draining 38 million gallons when someone pees in a reservoir!) So for Jesus to send the leper to the priest "as a testimony to them," (1:46) is a direct confrontation.
In a sense, the leper cornered Jesus; this is a truth seen by those who read not "choose you can make me clean," but sense something of "if you dare..." in his request.
Constantly I am reminded of Bill Loader's word that "the life of grace must dodge between the powers." I take it that the life of grace not only receives from God, but also gives of God to others, and eventually, this giving will bring us to the notice of the powers. If I do not ever come to the notice of the powers, it raises the question of whether I have been dodging anything; indeed, we might wonder if we have merely been acquiescing in a pious kind of way, living out the blancmange discipleship of an equally bland Jesus.
Jesus has been seeking to fly below the radar; the demons have been silenced. The leper will be instructed to be silent, but that will be too late. Even if he is silent, to heal means to touch, to let the love of God flow, but to heal means also to be interpreted as the unclean one, as he destabilises all the boundaries people have drawn to remain safe. Such a one cannot be tolerated.
So the leper pulls Jesus into the limelight in a new way. I think he was unconcerned with his own perceived uncleanness (as opposed to Davis' view above.) Nor do I think it is not popularity that means he will be mobbed and idolised that worries him. Instead, he knows that to touch this man is to come to the notice of those who can harm him.
And after a week in eremos, he chooses to take the costly route, and goes to Synagogue anyway. In chapter 2 he is on full display. And they are waiting; in the first pericope the scribes are there, (2:6) and the whole chapter shifts from wonderment and confusion among the ordinary people, to hostility and suspicion from the authorities. By Chapter 3 his rejection by those in power is complete: "The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him." (3:6) And still Jesus chooses to go on. Will I practice following him? It occurs to me that the person I see, and how I understand what I see upon the mountain top in Mark 9, will be profoundly shaped by my answer!
Andrew Prior (2017)
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