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Angry or Compassionate?

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

“A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.” — Mark 1:40–42

As we read this passage, Jesus’ response to the man was “indignant.” [NIV] But other versions say that Jesus was “moved with compassion.” [NLT, NASB], or “moved with pity.” [ESV] So why do these translations differ?

The Bible was written in different languages. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic and the New Testament was written in Greek. These in turn have been translated into English. The challenge is to take the language and culture of the Old and New Testaments and translate them into our modern language and culture.

In the New Testament, we don’t have the original documents or what scholars call the Autographs. We have copies of copies of copies…you get the point. What scholars seek to do is to find the most accurate documents to translate into our modern English. The problem comes in because the documents sometimes differ from each other.

Many scholars believe that the earliest documents are the best because they are less likely to contain changes or errors in the transmission and copying of the scribes. Scholars seek to determine what the original text really said. So this means they need to compare documents and make an educated determination.

This whole field of study is called “Textual Criticism.” The goal is to discover what the original Autographs contained. That being said, we are about 95% sure that we have an accurate representation of the original Autographs. And no major doctrine is going to fall because of various passages where we have questions. In fact, most of the variants are due to spelling, punctuation, word order and other minor differences.

Needless to say this is a very complex and challenging topic. I want you to know that you can be confident that whatever translation you are reading, you can trust it as God’s Word even though we don’t have the original autographs.

Now to our question at hand, “what are we to make of the differences of the translations in Mark 1:42?”

The real question is what Greek word was used for Jesus’ reaction? Was it οργισθεις which means “indignant” or σπλαγχνισθεις which means “to have compassion?” The NIV uses tοργισθεις and translates the verse “indignant.” The other translations use σπλαγχνισθεις and translate the verse “had compassion…” So what’s up?

The translation team for the NIV chose “indignant” even though “had compassion” had better textual support. I explain why that did this in a moment. The Greek word σπλαγχνισθεις “had compassion” has more textual support than οργισθεις. This means more of the earliest manuscripts had σπλαγχνισθεις than οργισθεις. Generally, the earlier the better, less chance of an error being introduced to the text. [Think the old telephone game where you whispered a message from one person to the next until the last person tried to say what the first said.]

Textual scholars seek to determine what the text should be. They do this using a number of tools. First, many scholars look at all the textual support of a reading. In other words, how do the earlier manuscripts translate Mark 1:41? And the answer is the earliest manuscripts have much more support for σπλαγχνισθεις “had compassion” than οργισθεις “indignant.” That’s why they chose to translate Mark 1:41 as “had compassion.”

Another way that Textual Scholars look at these passages, is how the scribes might make changes to the text. Scribes would sometimes make changes to the text to make it softer. In this case a scribe might change the harsher, “indignant” to “had compassion.” The NIV team apparently felt that the harder reading is the more likely reading. The reading “indignant” has some later textual support but the reading “had compassion” has the strongest earliest textual support. The NIV Team felt that the evidence of textual support wasn’t as important as the evidence of a harder reading. Again, sometimes translation is an art as much as it is a science.

Before I finally answer the question that began this blog, let me just say that this is one of the most challenging fields in New Testament studies and I have just barely scratched the surface on this subject. If you’re confused don’t feel bad, the water we have waded into is deep.

Hopefully, you can now see why the translations differ. You maybe wondering which translation is the right one. Here is my answer, “I don’t know.” They both are possible. Let me show you.

Jesus could and did show compassion to hurting people like the leper. This is easy to see. But we can also see Jesus being indignant with the man because Jesus shows similar emotion in Mark 3:5. Or we could say that Jesus was “indignant” with the man’s condition and the damage that sin was doing to the man. These are all possible translations.

Here’s what you should take away. You can be confident in the Bible you read. Translation is an art as well as a science. We have incredible manuscript support for our English Bibles. None of our discussion brings any of the major doctrines into jeopardy. We can have complete confidence in God’s Word.

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