Most translations of Mark 1:41-42 describe Jesus’ healing of a skin-diseased man something like this: “Feeling compassion and stretching out his hand, he touched him and said, ‘I want to.’ Immediately, the skin disease fled from the man, and he was cleansed.”
So what’s the difficulty? Bart Ehrman believes that the text should not read “feeling compassion” (Greek, splanchnistheis); in his estimation, the original reading of the text was “becoming angry” (Greek, orgistheis). Ehrman goes so far to imply that this reading affects “the interpretation of an entire book of the New Testament.”
Although the manuscript evidence for “becoming angry” is mixed, I find Ehrman’s case for orgistheis to be convincing. It makes far more sense to think that a copyist changed “becoming angry” to “feeling compassion” than for the opposite to have occurred. And, in Greek, the two words neither look alike nor sound alike, so this can’t be an issue of confusing similar terms.
Still, I fail to see how, Ehrman’s estimation, this single word changes our understanding of Jesus or of Mark’s Gospel. With or without orgistheis in Mark 1:41, this Gospel depicts Jesus as a passionate prophet, rapidly crisscrossing Galilee and Judea as he moves toward his impending encounter with a Roman cross. By the third chapter, Jesus has already upset so many religious leaders that they’re making plans to murder him (3:6). He becomes annoyed when people don’t trust him (3:5; 9:23). At the same time, Mark makes it clear that Jesus constantly feels compassion for downtrodden people (6:34; 8:2; 9:22-23). As such, either reading of the text would fit Mark’s presentation of Jesus. Understanding the text to declare that Jesus became angry does not significantly change my understanding of this Gospel.
Bart Ehrman does clearly err at one point in his treatment of this text. Dr. Ehrman claims that, after Jesus heals the man,
he ‘severely rebukes him’ and ‘throws him out’ [Mark 1:43].These are literal
renderings of the Greek words, which are usually softened in translation. They
are harsh terms, used elsewhere in Mark always in the contexts of violent
conflict and aggression.
In Mark 5:40, ekballo describes how Jesus sent a deceased child’s family from the room where her body lay. I don’t think Mark intended us to envision Jesus grabbing the girl’s parents by the collar and hurling them through the door. It’s possible that ekballo carries such a meaning in Mark 1:12—“the Spirit violently hurled Jesus out into the desert”?—but it’s more likely that Mark simply intended ekballo to convey the vibrant urgency that makes this Gospel so fascinating.
So what actually happened when Jesus healed this leprous man? And, if Jesus was angry, why was he angry? It’s important to notice where Jesus was teaching when this healing occurred. Apparently Jesus was in a synagogue (1:39) where the Jews of the town had gathered to hear God’s Word. If so, this man’s presence could have rendered an entire Jewish community unclean! Although Jesus challenged the traditions that had been added to the Law of Moses, he consistently called his people to live by the laws that God had graciously given them through Moses (see Mark 1:44). According to these laws, the leprous man should have sequestered himself away from his fellow Jews (Leviticus 13). Instead, he placed an entire Jewish community in danger of ceremonial uncleanness. Is it any wonder that Jesus became angry? And still, Jesus healed him.
So was Jesus angry or was he compassionate?
Luke 22:19-20 and Luke 22:43-44: Why Did Jesus Die?
Ehrman proposes the absence of these verses as proof that the author of Luke’s Gospel didn’t view Jesus’ death in quite the same way as the authors of the other Gospels.
Luke … has a different understanding of the way in which Jesus’ death leads to
salvation than does Mark (and Paul, and other early Christian writers). … It is
not that Jesus’ death is unimportant. It is extremely important for Luke—but not
as an atonement. Instead, Jesus’ death is what makes people realize their guilt
So did Luke really disagree with Mark and Paul and other writers about the death of Jesus?
Dr. Ehrman is correct that Luke’s Gospel doesn’t emphasize Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice for people’s sins. The idea of sacrificial atonement for sins was, after all, more prominent in Jewish theology, and Luke was probably writing for an audience that had been heavily influenced by Greek and Roman culture. For Luke’s readers, what was most meaningful wasn’t that Jesus would suffer as a sacrifice for sin. What would impress Hellenized persons was the fact that a person so righteous and so divine would submit himself not only to live in human flesh but also to die the darkest possible death.
This does not mean, however, that Luke did not view Jesus’ death in terms of atonement. Neither does it mean that the sacrificial aspect of the crucifixion didn’t interest Luke. It simply means that sacrificial atonement was not the aspect of Jesus’ death that was most meaningful to Luke’s audience. So, Luke focused on Jesus as a divine martyr—a different emphasis, to be sure, but not at odds with other New Testament depictions of Jesus. Simply put, different emphases do not amount to contradictory understandings of the same event.
The same point may be made when it comes to Luke 22:43-44. Here, some unknown copyist added a couple of clauses to emphasize Jesus’ passionate prayer in Gethsemane. Ehrman argues that only in these verses did Luke portray Jesus in dread or distress:
Rather than entering his passion with fear and trembling, in anguish over his
coming fate, the Jesus of Luke goes to his death calm and in control. … It is
clear that Luke does not share Mark’s understanding that Jesus was in anguish,
bordering on despair.
Who Was Really Misquoted?
As I examine Misquoting Jesus, I find nothing that measures up to the title or to the promotional copy. What I find is a great deal of discussion about a handful of textual variants—none of which ultimately changes any essential belief that’s presented in the New Testament. What’s more, despite the sensational title of Misquoting Jesus, I find only a half-dozen times when Jesus might have been misquoted, and most of these supposed changes simply echo statements that are found elsewhere in Scripture.
And, so, returning to our initial questions: Have the New Testament manuscripts changed over the centuries? Without a doubt! But are the changes in the manuscripts “highly significant”? And do any of them “affect the interpretation of an entire book of the New Testament”? Not that I can tell.
 MJ 132.
 The presentation of evidence for orgistheis in MJ does not really do justice to Ehrman’s argument as it is presented in “A Leper in the Hands of an Angry Jesus,” in New Testament Greek and Exegesis, ed. A.M. Donaldson and T.B. Sailors (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003) 77-98—one of Ehrman’s best articles.
 The two words do sound similar in the Syriac language and, to a lesser extent, in Aramaic. However, since there is no evidence that Mark originally circulated in written form in either of these languages, any argument based on these possibilities would be sheer speculation.
Peter Jones pointed out to me two additional examples of Mark’s presentation of Jesus as a passionate prophet—the use of the two powerful verbs epitimao (also used to describe silencing of demons) and phimoo (more commonly used to describe the muzzling of a wild beast) to describe Jesus’ calming of the storm in Mark 4:39.
 MJ 136.
 MJ 166-167.
 “Dying-for” is a distinctly Jewish concept, while the noble death of a hero predominates in Greco-Roman traditions (Martin Hengel, The Atonement: The Origins of the Doctrine in the New Testament [London, UK: SCM, 1981]).
 MJ 142-143.
 MJ dust jacket, hardcover edition.