Addressing Ehrman’s Mark 1:41 Text Controversy

I was thrilled that in a Facebook post of my previous blog post on Bart Ehrman’s work, Ehrman himself commented to defend his position. I will update the previous post to reflect Ehrman’s words on the matter, and I am very grateful to him for spending that time to discuss the matter.

Now, I’d like to cover a second claim of Ehrman’s about the changed text of scripture. According to Bart Ehrman in his book “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why,” Mark 1:41 has been changed, and this change was deliberate.

The Controversy

This is what we read from Mark:

And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter. (Mark 1:40-45 ESV)

Here is the same verse in other translations:

And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean. (Mark 1:41 KJV)

And being moved with compassion, he stretched forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou made clean. (Mark 1:41 ASV)

But this is from the NIV, which acknowledges Bart Ehrman’s point:

Jesus was indignant.* He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” (Mark 1:41 NIV)

*[NIV footnote: Many manuscripts Jesus was filled with compassion]

Bart Ehrman’s Solution

I’m sure the argument is far more complex, but this is a blog. I will simplify.

Because of the similarity of the synoptic gospels (synoptic means “looks the same”), the “general consensus” [A phrase meaning “what most scholars believe about a subject that it is impossible to know for sure”] about Matthew, Mark, and Luke is that Matthew and Luke depend on Mark, which is almost universally agreed to have been written first. Mark is usually dated 65-75 A.D. Matthew is usually dated sometime after 70 A.D. Luke is usually dated 80-90 A.D.

(However, nobody really knows. For example, one of the reasons to date the gospels at this time is that they hint at the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. However, this is a belief that assumes future-looking prophesy isn’t possible. (And all the Christians say: “Hm…….”))

Bart Ehrman says that when the writers of Matthew and Luke were copying Mark, they saw the word “indignant” orgisthes (ὀργισθες) and thought that was too harsh, so they refused to attach that emotional word to Jesus.

Other copiers of Mark changed “indignant” orgisthes (ὀργισθες) with the much more friendly “pity/compassion” splanchnistheis (σπλαγχνισθεὶς).

Then, somehow in a Greek Manuscript dating from the 5th century (the 400s A.D.) which has a Greek-Latin bilingual text, called “Codex Bezae,” we once again see the Greek word orgisthes (ὀργισθες) translated as “indignant” reappear in the manuscript record 400-ish years after the event described in Mark.

OBVIOUSLY, concludes Ehrman, the most reasonable explanation is that the REAL word here is “indignant,” and “pity/compassion” splanchnistheis (σπλαγχνισθεὶς) is a deliberate edit. We can know this because “pity” makes Jesus sound much better than “indignant” makes him sound. Guided by the cui bono principle, Ehrman says our Bibles have been changed, to make Jesus look better.

The Scholarly Answer

This issue has been addressed scholarly by Peter J. Williams in this 2012 journal article in Novum Testamentum. To put in mildly, he is not impressed with Bart Ehrman’s reasoning. (BTW, see his organization Tyndale House in Cambridge here. If you’re American, support it here.)

My Own Objections to the “Deliberate Edit.”

If encountering untranslated Latin phrases in Peter J. Williams’s work is too much work for you, I’ll present my own answer that is a bit more dumbed-down. My argument is based on Peter J. Williams’s own debate on this point with Bart Ehrman, available here, and with the scholarly work cited above.

The first point to make is that even thinking of cui bono – who benefits? – it is difficult to see why this would make Jesus look any better. The “good” word “pity/compassion,” splanchnistheis (σπλαγχνισθεὶς) is used 4 times in scripture. The “bad” word “indignant/angry,” orgisthes (ὀργισθες) is used 8 times in scripture. For example:

Be angry and do not sin (Ephesians 4:26)

And while the “bad” word is not used in relationship to Jesus, it is used in people who stand metaphorically in the place of God.

Interestingly, both the “good” and “bad” words are used by Jesus in his Parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:

Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35 ESV)

The first bolded word is splanchnistheis (σπλαγχνισθεὶς), the “good” word. The second bolded word is orgisthes (ὀργισθες) the “bad” word.

Isn’t it funny that those two words are used to describe the emotional state of the God-figure of the parable as it relates to a single person? If that is so, what would be gained by deleting that “bad” word in Mark 1:41?

It is also notable that Jesus, like the master in the parable, has compassion on the leper in Mark 1:40-45 who begs to be made clean. But then, we see — regardless of which word you choose — that Jesus gave a “strong warning” to the man.

That Greek word is embrimēsamenos (ἐμβριμησάμενος). This definitely means “to be moved with anger, to admonish sternly.” It is used five times in scripture, four of these times in relation to Jesus himself. Hm…

Questions to Bart Ehrman About the “Deliberate Editing” Between σπλαγχνισθεὶς and ὀργισθες 

This creates two strange issues for Bart Ehrman’s claim that the ancient scribes changed Jesus’s emotion to fit the acceptable narrative of Jesus.

First, if they changed one word in Mark 1:41, why didn’t they change the other word in Mark 1:43? If they changed orgisthes (ὀργισθες) to splanchnistheis (σπλαγχνισθεὶς) in Mark 1:41, why didn’t they not bat an eye when Jesus flips tables and runs people out of the Temple Courts with a whip in Mark 11:15?

Second, if Jesus has anger in the very next verse, why is this evidence for a deliberate change to smooth-over Jesus’s emotion?

Therefore, why isn’t the change a result of the scribe’s confusion between these two words? As Williams notes, the two words in the 5th century manuscript actually look quite similar.

My Own Explanation of the Change

Williams does a great job of saying how the two words look the same in the all-capitalized 5th century Greek text. This was certainly the “majority” way of writing at the time. However, Greek minuscule text (lower case) also existed, even though it was used less. As you can see here, we have examples of 5th century Greek minuscule text , as well. Therefore, I’ll supplement Williams’s argument on the capitalized text with my own argument from the lower case text that the scribes MAY have been reading from (because we simply don’t know).

Here’s an alternate explanation of the word change. They just messed up. Here’s how they messed up. In English, org- does not resemble spl-, but in Greek, ὀργ- has a strange similarity to σπλ- when you’re dealing with two languages and two alphabets. That is what I mean:

  1. Note that the “bad” word is orgisthes (ὀργισθες), which has a soft breath mark over the top of the Omega at the beginning.
    1. The first letter has a soft breath mark. This has no modification of the pronunciation. It is the apostrophe-looking-thing above the letter o. but a hard breath mark of a reverse-apostrophe-looking thing would indicate an “h” sound, turning “orgisthes” to “horgisthes.”
    2. The next letter is a Greek rho Ρ/ρ which has an “R” sound, but just happens to look like the Latin letter P/p.
  2. Note that the “good” word is splanchnistheis (σπλαγχνισθεὶς), which starts with the Greek Sigma – σ.
    1.  The lower case Greek Sigma is just an Omega with a line going sideways. That is really similar.
    2. The second letter is pi, with the “P” sound.
  3. The P sound and the R sound are very different. Also, the two Greek letters for P and R have very different shapes: ρ and π. HOWEVER:
    1. The Greek rho Ρ/ρ is a letter that looks exactly like the Latin letter P/p.
    2. Additionally, the manuscript in question (that Bart Ehrman believes is THE CORRECT text) is a dual Greek-Latin manuscript, so both of the Latin and Greek alphabets are in the scribe’s mind, by necessity.
  4. Next, note that The Greek gamma γ is also just an upside-down lambda – λ.
    1. These letters can easily get mixed up in the mind.
    2. Additionally, we do not know the quality of the manuscript from which they were copying.
  5. In the following verses, Jesus “sternly warned” the leper – embrimēsamenos (ἐμβριμησάμενος) in 1:43 not to share anything.
    1. This gives a distraction of the text’s plot that adds to the text’s physical similarity.
  6. Additionally, both the good” and “bad” words have similar endings, with the “good” word ending with –θεὶς and the “bad” word ending with –θες. 
  7. THEREFORE, to mix these two words, a scribe will have to:
    1. change the to an σ
    2. confuse the Greek ρ with the Latin p
    3. flip the γ to a λ
    4. confuse –θεὶς with -θες
    5. Not notice the difference, as Greek word for “pity” splanchnistheis (σπλαγχνισθεὶς) is applied to Jesus in Mark 6:34, Mark 8:2, and Mark 9:22 and the Greek word for “angry” orgisthes (ὀργισθες) is used by Jesus in his parables in Matthew 18:34, Matthew 22:7, Luke 14:21, and Luke 15:28.
      1. Even if the mistake was noticed, as there were no “erasers” in the 4th century, he would have to decide if he wanted to erase THE ENTIRE PAGE, and start over.
    6. It would also help if Greek wasn’t his strong suit in the whole “translation” thing.

And what do you know?  We read the following from the Cabridge University’s explanation of the Codex Bezae:

The manuscript is the work of a single scribe, one trained primarily to copy Latin texts.

Ha! He wasn’t even an expert in Greek! Well that is quite a helpful fact for the Williams side.

But, on the other hand, Bart Ehrman thinks that a 5th century nobody monk from southern France, Africa, Egypt, Palestine, or Beirut deliberately became a whistle-blower to expose a fraudulent manuscript tradition, going all the way back to Matthew the Apostle, and Luke the Evangelist. We should acknowledge that this is a “possibility.”

But for some strange reason, Bart Ehrman can’t understand why these two words could possibly be a mistake. That is not a fault of scholarship. It is a woeful lack of imagination. But the Biblical word is “blindness.” It looks like a strange slavery to a mode of thinking about the Bible which assumes mistakes and then looks for them.

As the gospel says in Matthew about teachers who cannot see what is right in front of them:

Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15:140 

Giving Bart the Complete Benefit of the Doubt

So that was a plain-speak explanation of the controversy of Bible Translation that Bart Ehrman has consistently brought up, and why I am not in the least bit persuaded by Ehrman’s argument.

But let’s be clear: This textual thing is a controversy worth paying attention to. This is what people like Peter J. Williams and Bart Ehrman are hired to do when they are tasked with producing English translations of various Greek manuscripts (many of which have typos) into a single volume that you can hold in your hand. It’s hard work. But I come down on the Peter J. Williams side of the debate: “pity/compassion” is correct.

But let’s pretend Bart Ehrman is right. Not about the whole “deliberate editing” thing, but about the fact that “anger” is the correct word. Is Jesus feeling “pity” a contradiction with Jesus feeling “anger”? Does this change the character of Jesus? I actually don’t think so. I’d like to try and prove it with a story:

A father has a ten-year-old boy. The boy likes to play outside at a creek behind their home. However, one day, the father calls the boy into the house and says: “I have something very important to tell you. I saw a water-moccasin at the creek today. That’s a very dangerous thing. One day, I’ll teach you about poisonous snakes and how to kill them yourself, but today I’m telling you not to play in the creek until I say so. Is that clear?”

“Yes.”

“What are we not supposed to do?”

“Play in the creek.”

“Until when?”

“Until you say so.” 

“Very good. Now, I love you, but go play in your room or in front of the house in the field.” 

The very next day, the father hears the boy screaming. The boy is on the grass behind their house. The father runs to him, as sees him struggling to crawl towards the door. He is screaming in pain. He cannot walk. He is crying in fear. His shirt and shorts are wet with the muddy water of the creek.

His heel is bleeding. His leg is swollen and turning black. He was bitten by the snake. If nothing else is done, then that very day, the boy will surely die. 

Wouldn’t a good father on seeing his boy near death simultaneously feel both pity and anger? Wouldn’t the father’s anger also turn to compassion? Would a good father say “Well, too bad. I guess you’re going to die” or would he say “Do not be afraid! I am with you, and I will save you!”  Wouldn’t he rush the boy to the hospital? When he arrives at the hospital, would he say, “This is a stupid boy. Do what you wish,” or would he say “This is my son! Make him live!”

Once his child was safe and stable, wouldn’t the father put on his boots and gloves, pick up his shovel, block the flow of the creek to drain the water, get in the mud, dig into the muddy mess, pull that serpent out of the depths of the ground, and cut off his head with that tool which lets him enter the Earth?

Of course he would. And that is exactly what God the Father did through Christ the Son.

Conclusion

So, yes: there are legitimate questions about exactly what words are “the” words of Scripture.

But despite the things Bart Ehrman sees as “contradictions,” and despite whatever legitimate questions about word-choice exist in our current Bibles, the thing that is overwhelmingly clear is that our disobedience and sin have angered God. But God has compassion on humanity, and this compassion survives the willful disregard of his good instructions. All we must do to be saved is run to God the Father through Christ the Son.

Our God is both compassionate and angry, loving and wrathful, merciful and just, holy and approachable, both fully God and fully Man. He has already saved us by the power of his hand through the blood of his son. Soon — very soon — he will dig into the depths of the Earth, and kill that wicked serpent for good.

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