I have had a number of great conversations with a good friend about our respective approaches to religious study. He is a trained theologian while I am a textual critic. His approach is one of broad strokes and a bigger picture, he sees the overall versus the details. Mine is one of close scrutiny, examining each word for cultural context, dismissing overarching messages to highlight issues within the text itself.
It has long been my view that theology is like water. If you think you have found an issue within a theological argument, don’t celebrate too early because chances are there is a backup theological explanation. The theology will find a way to slip through your fingers. It has excuses to get out of textual problems waiting in the wings so to speak. It is a fine tuned machine, and it relies on thousands of years of erudite apologetic arguments which have been crafted to get it out of nearly any bind.
This is why I prefer textual studies. The text, while diverse in variants and forms (all supporting each of a veritable plethora of theories and arguments), is linear. It is tangible. There are few excuses to get out of a textual issue which don’t rely on theological acrobatics. However, I find that doing so diminishes the meaningfulness of the text. It seems that the time has long since passed that theology relied on textual evidence. Now, textual evidence can be dismissed on theological grounds. This brings me to my point. What purpose does a text serve to theology if theology can escape textual issues? Does modern evangelical theology even need the text anymore?
Yeah, week two! Still dedicated to bringing you rational responses and critical insight into various biblical mysteries. If you like what I am doing please leave feedback or check out my published work. Today I want to cover one of my favourite textual variants and its implication on how we should read the passage in which it is contained.
In Mark 1:40-45 Jesus is seen healing a leper. We all know the story, Jesus sees the poor sod laying on the ground and he beseeches Jesus to help him. Jesus, being infinitely compassionate, heals the leper and kindly send him on his way asking that he not tell anyone, though he does anyway. Most extant copies of Mark 1:41 rely on a version of the Greek word splagchnizomai (σπλαγχνισθεὶς) which means to be moved by compassion. However, in a few manuscripts there exists a variant reading which might be the original.
In the Codex Bezae, a unique codex for more than this one reason, the text has Jesus not moved by compassion but by anger. The Greek word in question is orgistheis (οργισθεις) or iratus in Latin (my copy of Codex Bezae is a Latin/Greek diglot). An angry Jesus is hard to imagine, especially in light of passages like, the admittedly late addition, the Pericope Adultrae (John 7:53-8:11).
In critical studies we call this an example of lectio difficilior potior, or preferable to the more difficult reading. Scribes could, and did, change passages to fit certain theological requirements. While scribes would have many reasons to reign Jesus in in making him more compassionate there are no reasons to make him angry with the leper, at least none which coincide with orthodox Christology.
Another way we can be sure that this passage is more likely the original is by examining the language around it. When Jesus casts away the leper at the end of the pericope the language is incredibly hostile. The term used for Jesus sending he leper away (Mark 1:43) is ekballen (ἐξέβαλεν), a form which the New Testament contains a mere five times. It appears in this passage; twice it is used in the cleansing of the temple narrative (Matt 21:12; John 2:15); and it is twice used as Jesus is casting out demons (Mark 1:34; Matt 8:16). The sending off here is much more forceful than when Jesus more peacefully sends people away, like at the feeding of the five thousand (Mar 8:10) where the word is embas (ἐμβὰς) or apostelo (ἀποστέλλω), the root of the word “apostle.”
In this same passage (Mark 1:43) the Revised Standard Version reads “And he sternly charged him.” But what does this mean? The term in Greek is embrimēsamenos (ἐμβριμησάμενος) which means to admonish sternly or to scold. Why would a compassionate healing end with Jesus admonishing the leper?
What do you think?