Was Jesus Angry or Compassionate According to Mark 1:41? The NIV vs. NLT

As I was leaving work Friday I noticed that we received copies of the new book Which Bible Translation Should I Use?.  I couldn’t resist grabbing one to look at over the weekend. The book presents essays written by four scholars advocating for a translation of the Bible they have been actively involved in. Wayne Grudem writes for the ESV, Douglas Moo for the NIV, Ray Clendenen for the HCSB, and Philip Comfort for the NLT. Each essay begins by “laying out some of the guiding principles of the particular translation before discussing 16 specific passages that will serve as a basis for comparison and the distinctive natures of the four translations.” (From the Forward, 3)

The passages discussed are: Exodus 2:5-6; Psalm 1:1; Ezekiel 18:5-9, 21-24; Matthew 5:1-3; Mark 1:40-45; Mark 16:9-20; Luke 17:3; John 1:3-4, 14, 18; John 2:5-3:1; 1 Corinthians 2:1,13; Galatians 5:2-6; Colossians 2:8-15; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 Timothy 2:12; Jude 4-5; Revelation 3:20.  Each passage provides a different issue which affects how the passage is translated. I’ll give one example which involves an issue of textual criticism. The passage is Mark 1:41 and I chose this one in particular because the NIV 2011 has taken some heat for the textual variant they adopted for their translation. Although all four authors discuss the passage I will highlight the two best.

Douglas Moo for the NIV

“The versions display several differences in the way they translate this narrative from early in the life of Jesus, but one surely stands out. At the beginning of verse 41, ESV, HCSB, and NLT refer to Jesus’ ‘pity’ or ‘compassion’ as the motivation for his cleansing of the man with leprosy. But the NIV says that ‘Jesus was indignant.’ How in the world could there be such a big difference in translation? The answer is that the versions are translating different Greek texts.”

“The difference here reveals an important but somewhat hidden part of the translation process—translators must decide just what Greek words they are going to translate. The problem is that we do not have one single ‘inspired’ Greek New Testament. Rather, we have thousands of manuscripts that we have to sift through and compare. Where these manuscripts have different ‘readings’ of the Greek, we must decide which one is the most likely to have been the original word, or words, the biblical author wrote down. Now, in God’s providence, we have so much good information about the Greek text that we can usually be pretty sure about what the original Greek actually was. And even when we have doubt about the original, we should not worry. The differences are so minor that not important New Testament teaching is ever in doubt.”

“Still there are differences, even if minor, and they do affect the meaning of some specific texts. The variant in Mark 1:41 is a good example. Most of the Greek manuscripts have a verb that is accurately rendered in the ESV, HCSB, and NLT as ‘have compassion’/‘pity.’ The other option, the Greek word means ‘be angry’ or ‘indignant,’ is found in only one Greek manuscript (and several others in other languages). Why in the world, then, you might be asking, did the NIV decide to base its translation on this word? Simply because of a basic principle of textual criticism: prefer the reading that can best explain the others. In other words, we have to ask his question: as scribes copied the Gospel of Mark over the centuries, would they have been more likely to put the Greek word for ‘anger’ in place of the one for ‘compassion’? Or the reverse? The answer is clear: they would have been far more likely to substitute ‘compassion’ for ‘anger.’ The Gospels frequently refer to Jesus’ compassion as the motivation for this healings. Scribes would know this and would tend to use that language here also. Moreover, the idea of Jesus’ being ‘angry’ does not fit the context very well. For this reason the great majority of recent commentators on the Gospel of Mark have decided that the original Greek here referred to Jesus’ anger. [Moo says in a footnote here: “I have 14 Mark commentaries in my home library. Thirteen of them prefer the word for ‘anger.’”] As we saw what the man with leprosy had suffered, Jesus responded initially with ‘anger’ or ‘indignation’ at the terrible plight of people in the sin-ravaged world.”

“The point I am making here is not that the NLT, ESV, and HCSB are wrong in putting ‘compassion’ or ‘mercy’ in their texts—the textual critical issue is a tough call, and the major printed editions of the Greek New Testament (the United Bible Societies 4th ed. and the Nestle-Aland 27 ed.) both have the Greek word for ‘compassion.’ My point, rather, is that the NIV option is defensible, representing as it does the view of most scholars on the Gospel of Mark. The NLT, to its credit, while putting ‘moved with compassion’ in the text, includes the alternative in a footnote. The ESV and HCSB do not even mention this alternative, failing to alert the English reader to the reading that most scholars consider the original.” (95-97)

Philip Comfort for the NLT

“The most notable difference between the translations occurs in Mark 1:41, where three translations (NLT, ESV, HCSB) indicate that Jesus was ‘moved with compassion/pity’ (spangchnisthesis) at the leper’s request for healing. One translation (NLT) notes that some manuscripts read that Jesus was ‘moved with anger,’ and yet another translation (NIV) actually follows these manuscripts and reads that Jesus ‘was indignant’ (orgistheis) at the leper’s request for a healing. The two readings are very different! Was Jesus moved with compassion or was he indignant? First, let us look at the textual evidence. The number of manuscripts that support ‘was compassionate’ is impressive (see fig. 6 below).

Figure 6: Manuscripts Supporting ‘Was Compassionate’

Manuscript

Date (AD)

א (Codex Sinaiticus) 4th century
A (Codex Alexandrinus) 5th century
B (Codex Vaticanus) 4th century
C (Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus) 5th century
L (Codex Regius) 8th century
W (Codex Washington) Early 5th century
f 1 12th-14th centuries
f 13 11th-15th centuries
33 9th century
565 9th century
700 11th century
Syriac 2nd-6th centuries
Coptic 3rd-4th centuries
Diatessaron 160-175

The manuscript evidence for ‘was indignant’/‘was moved with anger’ is slim (see fig. 7 below).

Figure 7: Manuscripts Supporting ‘Was Indignant’

Manuscript

Date (AD)

D (Codex Bezae) 5th century
ita   (Old Latin) 350
itd   (old Latin) 450

“Most scholars believe this to be a significant textual dilemma because the variant is such an obviously difficult reading, while the text has such exceedingly strong documentation. The argument runs as thus: If ‘being compassionate’ had originally been in the text, why would any scribe want to change it to ‘being indignant’? Thus, ‘being indignant’ (or ‘being angry’) must have been original, which was then changed to ‘being compassionate.’ But we must remember that the scribe who wrote ‘being indignant’ was the scribe of D (who is often followed by ita d). This scribe (or a predecessor) was a literary editor who had a propensity for making significant changes in the text. At this point he may have decided to make Jesus angry with the leper for wanting a miracle—in keeping with the tone of voice Jesus used in 1:43 when he sternly warned the leper. But this was not a warning about seeking a miracle; it was a warning about keeping the miracle a secret so as to protect Jesus’ identity.”

“Therefore, it would have to be said that, though it is possible Mark wrote ‘was indignant,’ nearly all the documents line up against this. This is not to say that Jesus never got angry or exasperated with people; he did (see Mark 7:34; 9:19; John 11:33,38). It simply seems unwise to take the testimony of D in this instance when good arguments can be made against it, according to both external and internal criteria. As such, I think the translators of the NIV made a daring but wrong decision.” (160-62)

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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4 Responses to Was Jesus Angry or Compassionate According to Mark 1:41? The NIV vs. NLT

  1. Dr. Moo’s approach on this specific variant is so oversimplified that it draws into question, for me, the depth of his whole approach. He abuses the “prefer the more difficult reading” canon as if it is a hard-and-fast rule instead of a general guideline. Dr. Moo asks, “As scribes copied the Gospel of Mark over the centuries, would they have been more likely to put the Greek word for ‘anger’ in place of the one for ‘compassion’? Or the reverse?” Wrong question! For there is another obvious option: simply omitting the reference, and thus harmonizing the passage with what we see in Matthew and Luke. A smattering of copyists did indeed take this harmonizing step. What Dr. Moo is suggesting implies either (A) that the copyists who were responsible for the ancestors of every Greek copy of Mark in existence, except for the one copy that is most notorious for its Latinizations, harmonizations, interpolations, and quirk-readings — namely, Codex Bezae — conspired to insert “filled with compassion,” or (B) the copyists who were responsible for the ancestors of every Greek copy of Mark except Codex Bezae independently made an identical replacement, even though a simply deletion would have resulted in an equally natural, and more harmonized, text.

    What we are looking at in Codex Bezae in Mark 1:41 is a case of text-simplification undertaken by the person who prepared a “Western” Text in the second century: coming to a term that was difficult to translate into Latin, this person took his best shot at replacing the original term (splangchnistheis) with one that (he thought) was more clear (orgistheis). And thus the reference to Jesus getting angry came into being, and became the default reading of Latin MSS descended from that “Western” Text. (The same sort of text-simplification, by the way, can be plainly observed in Codex Bezae in Mark 7:19; the difficult-to-translate original wording there is replaced in Codex Bezae with something more specific and easier to render into straightforward literal Latin, namely, a reference to waste being released into the sewer-pipe.)

    Moo acknowledges that “The idea of Jesus’ being ‘angry’ does not fit the context very well.” Amen! Let’s bear in mind not only what copyists were likely to write, but also what Mark was likely to write. It is extremely unlikely that Mark would have painted such an opaque depiction of Jesus getting angry in this scene.

    Moo also mentions that out of 14 commentaries on Mark in his home library, 13 of them prefer the word for ‘anger.’ Well, first of all, commentators, like manuscripts, should be weighed, not counted. Secondly, I suspect that if one were to consult those 13 commentators individually, one would find half a dozen explanations of why Jesus was angry. Moo proposes that Jesus was angry “at the terrible plight of people in the sin-ravaged world,” but this is just one of several theories — all of which, imho, are the result of imaginative squinting to make sense out of what is essentially a nonsense-reading that was created when an early copyist tries to simplify the original wording.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

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  2. Pingback: Was Jesus Angry or Compassionate According to Mark 1:41? The NIV vs. NLT | Neodecaussade's Weblog

  3. Karen says:

    I believe that using the word “indignant” is very miss leading especially to new christians it makes it look like JESUS was upset because someone asked Him to heal them. I just don’t believe that JESUS would have ever had that type of attitude. And i really don’t think you gave a good reason really why you decided to use that word insead of, compassion or pity. Indignant doesn’t even fit with who JESUS was.

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  4. I recently came across this “translation” in my new NIV Bible, and I prefer the “indignant” translation. Why? The leper state to Jesus, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus was “indignant” because of course He is willing. This is the same reaction Jesus had to the father of the mute epileptic boy, When the boys father said “if you can” Jesus replied with a stern “IF I CAN?” Jesus, as the Word made flesh, represents the incarnate will of the Father on earth, and Jesus healed ALL who came to Him. This is pertinent today for those who when praying for healing say, “If it be your will, Lord?” and today the Lord replies “IF?!” This is even more relevant when we read 1 John 5:14,15 where it is written, “if we pray according to His will we know He hears us, and when he hears us he does what we ask of Him.”

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