Multiple sources

The leper as an expulsed Essene community member

The leper as an expulsed Essene community member

Mark 1:40-45 tells the story of the cleansing of a leper. In verse 40 the leper begs Jesus to clean him, and in most manuscripts Jesus is ‘moved with pity’. Some manuscripts, however, say that Jesus reacts with anger. What reaction would be authentic? Is there something that favours the minority reading?

To answer these questions, I believe it is interesting to confront Mark 1:40-45 with Josephus’ description of the Essenes (War II:120-161) and with a passage from Dalits in Early Buddhism by Paramanshi Jaideva.

Josephus says on the expulsion of Essenes from the community:

(143) Men convicted of major offences are expelled from the order; and the ejected individual often comes to a most miserable end; for being bound by their oaths and customs, he is not allowed to share other men’s food and so he is forced to eat grass, his starved body wastes away and he dies of starvation. (144) This has led them out of a compassion to take many offenders back at their last gasp, since they feel that men tortured to the point of death have paid a sufficient penalty for their misdeeds.

On p. 170 of Dalits in Early Buddhism by Paramanshi Jaideva, the Encyclopedia of Religion of Ethics is quoted on the expulsion prevalent in the caste-system:

For the minor violation of the rules of the tribe and its preventions, a sort of purification function is arranged and the tribe members are given a treat. But for the serious crimes or impudence, one is excommunicated from the caste, that is, the members of that tribe have no relation with the punished member. Neither anyone eats food with him, nor does he smoke nor talk with him. The people remain aloof from him just as they do from a leper and his life becomes so miserable that he becomes ready to accept any condition.

I think we can interpret Mark 1:40-45 against this background. A punished Essene, a leper, comes in despair to the Essene priest Jesus, who abolishes his punishment of expulsion, he is ‘made clean’ again. It is clear from the context that Jesus’ intervention is a decision and not a medical treatment. His decision is the overruling of the punishment of the suppliant, imposed by another Essene priest. The expulsed man is asked to show himself to that priest. It looks as if Jesus is challenging the authority of that other priest, who is too hard-hearted in his opinion. Jesus also asks the man to make an offering for his reintegration in the community.

As Josephus mentions compassion as motive for the reintegration of punished community members, I believe that the word for compassion (σπλαγχνισθεις) in Mark 1:41 is authentic. Anger can have a place in this situation too, but only as a second reaction: Jesus may be angry towards the other priest because he has protracted a harsh punishment for too long.

In my chronological theory Jesus and Josephus have worked together about half a year preparing the war against the Romans in Galilee. This makes the confrontation of Josephus’s report with Mark 1:40-45 all the more interesting. Josephus’s verse 144 above might have its foundation in a conversation with Jesus, who told Josephus about his attitude towards the reintegration of desperate punished community members.