The Angry Healer
Bible Review magazine bids us farewell with at least one good article by Bart Ehrman, "Did Jesus Get Angry or Agonize?" (Winter 2005, final issue, pp 17-26,49). The essay addresses textual critical issues covered at more length in Ehrman's recent book, Misquoting Jesus. He considers the following passage in Mark (1:39-43), where Jesus could be healing someone out of compassion or anger.
Jesus came preaching in their synagogues in all of Galilee and casting out the demons. And a leper came to him beseeching him and saying to him, "If you choose, you can cleanse me." And [feeling compassion or becoming angry], reaching out his hand, he touched him and said, "I do choose. Be cleansed!" And immediately the leprosy went out from him, and he was cleansed. And rebuking him severely, Jesus cast him out at once.
Most English bibles favor the "feeling compassion" (SPANGNISTHEIS) translation, even though, as Ehrman notes (p 18), one of the oldest Greek manuscripts (Codex Bezae) has "becoming angry" (ORGISTHEIS), which is in turn supported by three other Latin texts. The problem with the "compassion" option is that Matthew (Mt 8:2-3) and Luke (Lk 5:12-13) would have followed this in their own versions of the account (or at least one them surely would have), as they both favor the theme of compassion. But neither has Jesus healing the leper out of compassion. They don't portray him angry either, but that's expected: Matthew and Luke take pains to censor Mark's accounts of Jesus' anger elsewhere (as in Mk 3:5 -- Mt 12:13/Lk 6:10).
Most of us prefer to view Jesus as compassionate whenever possible, not only because it makes him more attractive, but because (in a case like this) it seems to make more sense in context. Ehrman says that this is actually a reason for viewing it as the wrong translation:
"One factor in favor of the 'angry' reading is that it sounds wrong. If Christian readers today were given the choice between these two readings, no doubt almost everyone would choose the one more commonly attested in our manuscripts: Jesus felt pity for the man, and so he healed him. The other reading is difficult to figure out. What would it mean to say that Jesus felt angry?" (p 19)
But I disagree. It's the compassionate option that sounds wrong by Mediterranean standards. The leper's appeal to help is a challenge that puts Jesus on the spot in front of the crowds. "If you choose, you can cleanse me", is a veiled way of questioning Jesus' ability to heal, and daring him to prove himself. That's why Jesus rebukes him and tells him to get lost.
"Jesus' anger erupts when someone doubts his willingness, ability, or divine authority to heal... Someone approaches Jesus gingerly to ask: 'If you are willing you are able to heal me.' Jesus becomes angry. Of course he's willing, just as he is able and authorized. He heals the man but, still somewhat miffed, rebukes him sharply and throws him out." (p 22)
I agree with this except for Ehrman's depicting the leper's appeal as "ginger". The man is on his knees, shamelessly and stridently begging for deliverance. This constitutes a challenge that Jesus must meet head-on or lose face.
Jesus is featured consistently angry in Mark, less so in Matthew, and almost completely devoid of anger in Luke. The earlier the gospel, not surprisingly, the more we see the historical Jesus: the apocalyptic prophet who was angry at the world, demanded a better one, and who acquired a following the way macho men did in his culture.