Indignant vs. Filled with Compassion

Mark 1:40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
41 Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” [italics mine]

Can someone be angry and filled with compassion at the same time? That’s the question for the difference in how various Bible versions render Mark 1:41 - the healing of the man with leprosy. Before reaching out his hand to heal the man, Jesus is overcome with emotion. What does he feel? The New International Version 2011 says “Jesus was indignant” but most translations render it “Filled with compassion” (ESV: “Moved with pity”).

This is not a translation issue in the literal sense. The NIV 2011 committee (taking from the TNIV) made a decision which extant manuscripts to use for translation. Most of the earliest manuscripts use the Greek word for σπλαγχνισθείς which is translated “filled with compassion” versus a smaller number of later manuscripts that use ὀργισθείς, which means “filled with anger”. Why did the NIV 2011 committee choose “indignant”? Perhaps because they felt it better reflected Jesus’ character - he feels insulted the leper would insinuate he does not desire his healing. 

Does this mean he is angry at the leper? Of course not - he is repulsed by the implication he would desire the man to remain in his illness. 

Is there a conflict between feeling indignant and being filled with compassion? I don’t think so. It is absolutely plausible Jesus was both angry and compassionate the same time. He is so with the man with the shriveled hand in Mark 3:5. He heals out of anger and grief at the Pharisees’ hardness of heart. Granted he is not angry at the man with the shriveled hand but I don’t think Jesus is mad at the leper either. He is both indignant AND filled with compassion.

Even without a feeling of indignation, Jesus’ willingness to heal is evident. The encounter with the leper is repeated in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Each instance, the leper asks Jesus “if you will” OR “if you are willing” - this formulation is a question of intent and desire and not used to indicate the future tense. The leper is not questioning Jesus’ ability but his desire. He believes Jesus has the capacity to heal and wants to know if Jesus wants to. There’s an obvious implication the man would not have approached Jesus on his knees if he didn’t believe Jesus desired his healing. The leper believed it was in Jesus’ character to desire his healing and his question is more a pleading to make this healing happen.

I don’t have the space here to examine how this text informs our view of theodicy - why God allows suffering and evil. However, I would interpret this event, along with all of Jesus’ healing encounters, to indicate Jesus does not desire people to suffer from illness and disease. There may be other scriptural evidence that God intends suffering from disease but I do not consider this passage to be one of them. 

Lastly, the most extensive discussion of the manuscript differences in the translations can be found here - the note is reproduced below: 

note 74 tc The reading found in almost the entire NT ms tradition is σπλαγχνισθείς (splancnisqei", “moved with compassion”). Codex Bezae (D), {1358}, and a few Latin mss (a ff r) here read ὀργισθείς (ojrgisqei", “moved with anger”). It is more difficult to account for a change from “moved with compassion” to “moved with anger” than it is for a copyist to soften “moved with anger” to “moved with compassion,” making the decision quite difficult. B. M. Metzger (TCGNT 65) suggests that “moved with anger” could have been prompted by 1:43, “Jesus sent the man away with a very strong warning.” It also could have been prompted by the man’s seeming doubt about Jesus’ desire to heal him (v. 40). As well, it is difficult to explain why scribes would be prone to soften the text here but not in Mark 3:5or 10:14 (where Jesus is also said to be angry or indignant). Thus, in light of diverse msssupporting “moved with compassion,” and at least a plausible explanation for ὀργισθείς as arising from the other reading, it is perhaps best to adopt σπλαγχνισθείς as the original reading. Nevertheless, a decision in this case is not easy. For the best arguments for ὀργισθείς, however, see M. A. Proctor, “The ‘Western’ Text of Mark 1:41: A Case for the Angry Jesus” (Ph.D. diss., Baylor University, 1999).


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