40-45: And there came to Him a leper, beseeching Him, [and kneeling down] and saying to Him: “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
And being moved with compassion, He stretched forth His hand, and touched him, and said to him: “I am willing; be made clean!” And immediately the disease went from him, and he was made clean. And He sternly charged him, and immediately sent him out, and said to him: “See you say nothing to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing the things which Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no more openly enter a city, but was out in deserted places, and they were coming to Him from every quarter.
A leper: The Biblical term often translated as “leprosy” included many forms of skin disease, including psoriasis and ringworm. Scholars tell us that what we call leprosy today, Hansen’s disease, may have only entered Palestine somewhere around 300 B.C. and that many of those described as lepers undoubtedly had distasteful skin diseases but not Hansen’s disease. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia:
The probabilities are that “tzara’at” (Note: the word usually translated as “leprosy” in the Old Testament) comprised a number of diseases of the skin, which, owing to the undeveloped state of medical science at that period, were not distinguished. The white spots, upon which so much diagnostic stress was laid, were in all likelihood those of vitiligo, a disease quite common in tropical countries, and characterized by bright white spots, the hairs on which also become white. Vitiligo begins as small patches, which slowly spread, often involving ultimately large areas of the body’s surface. The disease is harmless, but most disfiguring in those of swarthy complexion.
In the Septuagint “tzara’at” is translated by “lepra.” It is reasonable to assume that the Hebrews attached the same meaning to “tsara’at” that the Greeks did to “lepra,” which is derived from “lepros” (= “rough” or “scaly”). According to the medical writings of Aegineta, Aetius, Actuarius, Oribasus, and others, lepra was uniformly regarded as a circular, superficial, scaly eruption of the skin; in other words, their lepra was the psoriasis of modern times. There is absolutely nothing in the Greek description of lepra that suggests even in a remote manner the modern leprosy. The Greeks, in speaking of true leprosy, did not use the term “lepra,” but “elephantiasis.” It is evident, therefore, that they meant by “lepra” an affection distinct and apart from the disease of leprosy as now known. The confusion and obscurity that have enveloped this subject for centuries have resulted from the use of different terms in successive ages to designate the same disease, and from the total change in the meaning and application of the word “lepra.”
Whatever it was, once a person caught it, it was considered incurable, and those diagnosed with leprosy were banned from society. While the early Israelites didn’t operate on the Germ Theory of disease, they understood something about infectious diseases, and those suspected of leprosy were kept isolated until their diagnosis was confirmed (Leviticus 13:5). But the loathing directed at lepers was not merely fear of a disease; leprosy made a person ritually unclean. In a sense, leprosy was viewed as a sign of God’s disfavor.
Later Jewish practice prescribed that while lepers might attend synagogue, they must be the first to enter and last to leave, and must stay in a special compartment to isolate them from the other worshippers. No less than a distance of four cubits (six feet) must be kept from a leper.
Beseeching Him: The Greek word used is parakaleo, a present tense participle, showing that it was an ongoing or continuous or repeated calling.
This man was having an apparently serious and incurable disease and is driven by desperation to violate the social codes (instead of backing away and shouting ‘Unclean, Unclean’, He comes to and calls to Jesus) in order to find a cure.
And being moved with compassion: So in the majority of MSS. A few manuscripts, though, have the curious variant orgistheis, “moved with anger”.
The late Bruce Metzger, in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, says thus about the variant:
It is difficult to come to a firm decision concerning the original text. On the one hand, it is easy to see why orgistheis (“being angry”) would have prompted over-scrupulous copyists to alter it to splagchnistheis (“being filled with compassion”), but not easy to account for the opposite change. On the other hand, a majority of the Committee was impressed by the following considerations. (1) The character of the external evidence in support of orgistheis is less impressive than the diversity and character of evidence that supports splagchnistheis. (2) At least two other passages in Mark, which represent Jesus as angry (3:5) or indignant (10:14), have not prompted over scrupulous copyists to make corrections. (3) It is possible that the reading orgistheis either (a) was suggested by embrimesamenos “warn sternly”] of ver. 43, or (b) arose from confusion between similar words in Aramaic (compare Syriac ethraham, “he had pity,” with ethra’am, “he was enraged”).
The scholar R.T. France (in his commentary on Mark) disagrees with the reason no. 2 given by Metzger above, saying that in the other two passages in Mark (3:5; 10:14), the reasons why Jesus is angry or indignant is clear, as opposed to this passage which is more ambiguous as to why.
With regards to the ‘anger’ variant, a number of people (for example the Christian economist and theologian Chad Myers) have suggested that the leper ‘dared’ Jesus to declare him clean, something only priests could do. Because of this, Jesus becomes angry. Then, after healing the man, He “snorted with indignation” (Greek: embrimesamenos, originally used to describe the snorting of horses) and ‘drove out’ the man back to the priests (the probable meaning of exebalen, a word which was also used to describe Jesus ‘casting out’ demons).
On the other hand, others (such as R.T. France) suggest that Jesus was not angry with the leper himself, but with his disease, which represents the work of the Evil One. Another factor which may have also angered Jesus is the system which had ostracized this man (and those like him) as an outcast on the grounds of ‘impurity’, forever dooming the man to a life outside of ‘normal’ society.
As for the use of the word exebalen, this word is also used Mark 5:40 to describe Jesus sending the dead girl’s family out of the room where she is lying. Obviously, the image here is not of Jesus grabbing the girl’s family by the collar and angrily throwing them out!
And touched him: To touch a leper defiled a Jew almost as much as touching a dead person. Jesus would have been made ‘unclean’ as per the Law because of this particular act (then again, ‘a king is not bound by his own rules’).
And he was made clean: To the rabbis, the cure of a leper was as difficult as raising a person from the dead. In all of Biblical history only two people had been cured of leprosy: Miriam, Moses’ sister (Numbers 12:9-15), and Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5). Healing a leper had not been done in Israel for seven hundred years, and was thought to be an earmark of the Messianic Age (Luke 7:22), when leprosy would no longer afflict people.
Show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing the things which Moses commanded: cf. Leviticus 14:1-32.
And He sternly charged him: Here is another instance of the so-called ‘Messianic Secret’, which is a common theme in Mark’s Gospel. There are some plausible theories as to why Jesus commanded His followers to keep His identity a secret:
1.) Jesus, despite being the Messiah (Christ), did not appear as a military leader, which was quite different from what the Jews expected from the Messiah. He might also have wanted to suppress public fervor about Himself until the opportune time to retain some measure of anonymity in order to be able to move about the country freely without a multitude of followers on His tail.
2.) It was not the proper time for Jesus to be revealed as such yet.
As a testimony to them: The Greek can also mean “as a testimony against them.” It is not clear whether them refers to the priests or the people. The phrase (a testimony against/to them) was usually interpreted as Jesus abrogating/fulfilling the old Mosaic Law, suggesting that new state of affairs is at hand.
But he went out and began to talk freely about it: Remember that Jesus lived in a society where the literacy rate is low and the common way of spreading a news is by word of mouth (in other words, gossiping). Because of this, the story about the incident would have spread really fast, and Jesus could no longer enter in towns privately like He used to without being mobbed by crowds and so decided to stay in less-populated areas, but even there the crowds come to Him.
Here is one of another ironies that is present in Mark: Jesus strictly orders someone not to reveal to the people who He is, but those commanded would disobey Him anyway.
1.) Commentary by St. Ephrem the Syrian (Commentary on Tatians Diatessaron):
‘“If you are willing, you can cleanse me.” So he stretched out his hand.’ In this stretching out of His hand He seemed to be abrogating the law. For it is written in the law that whoever approaches a leper becomes impure…He showed that nature was good in that He repaired its defect. Because He sent him to the priests, he thereby upheld the priesthood. He also ordered him to make an offering for his cleansing. Did he not thus upheld the Law, as Moses had commanded? There were many proscriptions against leprosy, but they were unable to procure any benefit. Then the Messiah came, and by His word, bestowed healing and abolished these many precepts which the Law had reckoned should exist for leprosy.
2.) From the Haydock Commentary:
Verse 44. It was not the intention of Christ, that he should not tell anybody; had that been His wish, He would easily have realized it: he spoke thus purposely, to shew us that we ought not to seek the empty praises of men. He bade him also offer the sacrifices prescribed, because the law remained in full force till the passion of Christ, in which was offered a perfect sacrifice, that did away with all the legal sacrifices. (Nicholas of Lyra)