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Anger may be hiding inside the word pity in ancient manuscripts

      Fetch your Bible. Open it to Mark 1:41. The line in the New American Bible (NAB) reads, “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean.’” The word I want to focus on in that passage is “pity.”

      What is of interest to me is that not all translations use the word “pity.” Some translations, for example the Revised English Bible, use the word “anger” instead of “pity.” Thus, the passage reads, “Moved with anger, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean.’” Why “anger” instead of “pity”? Because some, though not most, of the ancient manuscripts read “anger” instead of “pity.” In other words, the editors of the Revised English Bible didn’t just pull the word “anger” out of thin air and slam it down into that passage. Those editors based their decision on the authority of some manuscripts.

      Now the word “anger” in context with Jesus has precedent in the Gospels. The word “anger” also appears at Mark 3:5 (“looking around at them with anger…”), and at Mark 10:14 a word similar to anger is used (“When Jesus saw this he became indignant…”). In those two instances, though, the context for “anger” or “indignant” makes sense. Here at Mark 1:41 the word “anger” seems misplaced.

      But here’s the thing: if “pity” were the original reading (as opposed to “anger”), then most likely Matthew and Luke would have used that word in their respective parallels (Matthew 8:2-4 and Luke 5:12-14). After all, both Matthew and Luke use the word “pity” at other places in their respective gospels (Matthew 9:36: “At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity…” and Luke 7:13: “When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity…”). Thus, it makes far more sense that “anger” was the original reading. It is easier to understand why scribes and the later Synoptics changed the word from “anger” to “pity” than it is to understand why scribes and the later Synoptics changed the word from “pity” to “anger.”   

Be that as it may, the NAB (and likewise the New Revised Standard Version) uses “pity,” and I’m perfectly content with that word.

But let’s play with this. What nuance does the word “anger” bring to the passage?

      Re-read Mark 1:41 again using the word “anger.” At whom or what is Jesus angry?

      If you read the entire passage in which Mark 1:41 lays, that is, Mark 1:40-45, you will note that the usual foils for Jesus are not present; that is, the scene contains no mention or hint of the Pharisees or scribes who frequently test Jesus or try to trip him up (see The Woman Caught in Adultery at John 8:1-11 for a classic example of this). No, the scene is just Jesus and the leper; no one else is around, except for perhaps Simon and a few others (see Mark 1:35-39).

 Furthermore, it is the leper who approaches Jesus and, kneeling down before Jesus, asks Jesus to heal him. Is Jesus angry at the leper? Perhaps. Maybe the leper caught Jesus at a bad time. Highly unlikely, however. So if only Jesus and the leper make up the scene, then who or what is the object of Jesus’ anger?

      I submit that Jesus is angry at the leprosy. Why would Jesus be angry at a disease? Because the disease has disfigured and made an outcast of a child of God. A son of Abraham suffers from a hideous disease, a disease that causes others to shun this fellow Jew. That angers Jesus, and so his response to the leper makes perfect sense: “I do will it. Be clean.” Jesus wants this man, who is the image and likeness of God, to be whole again. Jesus wants this man, in whom God blew the breath of life, to be brought back into the community of Israel and not be shunned.

      Pity or anger?

      I’m betting it didn’t make any difference to the leper.


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