Whenever I have talked about the story of Jesus and the leper in Mark 1:40-44 on the blog — most recently a week or so ago — I have gotten a number of comments from readers that made me realize that I wasn’t being at all clear about what I was talking about.

These comments came from people who appear to have thought I was talking about a historical event that really happened, one way or the other, and that I was trying to figure out which it was. Did Jesus really get angry or did he really feel compassion? In response to my view that Mark 1:41 originally indicated that Jesus got angry, some comments stressed that what really mattered was not his emotion but the fact that he did what he did. Others wanted me to know that it didn’t matter to them which emotion was ascribed to Jesus, because in their opinion the whole thing never actually happened at all.

Both of these views (they’re obviously at the opposite ends of the spectrum) thought I was discussing historical realities. But that’s not what I was talking about. I too don’t believe the episode “actually” happened (i.e., that it’s a historical episode from the life of the man Jesus himself). It’s a story found in one of the Gospels. And I was studying it as a story.

I find

that my students often have trouble differentiating between literature and history when studying the NT – that is, differentiating between the question of what an author (say, of a Gospel) was trying to communicate and what really took place in the past. But these are not the same thing. And so I stress with my students that some ways of studying the Gospels are concerned with knowing what the author wanted to communicate, and other ways are concerned with knowing what Jesus really said and did.

Some people aren’t interested in that distinction, because for them the ONLY thing that matters is what actually happened. If Jesus didn’t heal this guy at all, what’s the point of even talking about it?!? Other people (fewer, I think) aren’t interested in the distinction because for them the ONLY thing that matters is the text in front of us. For them: we don’t have the past, all we have are texts, and so we should focus on the text, not on some supposed history that lies behind it. I know a number of theologians, preachers, and biblical interpreters who have that view (but not too many layfolk).

Others of us are interested in BOTH things. But it is of utmost importance that, if that’s the case, we make the distinctions crystal clear. Understanding what Mark (or any other ancient author) said about Jesus is not the same thing as asking about what Jesus really said and did.

But – to take on the first set of people not interested in the distinction – why in the world would it matter how Mark portrayed an incident in Jesus’ life if it didn’t happen? Who cares about the story if it’s just a story with no bearing on historical reality?

I suppose I used to ask the same question when I was a conservative evangelical Christian, but I have to admit that now I wonder how I could even ask such a thing. I read fiction all the time. I *love* fiction. And I love it even if the fictional characters never lived. And I learn a lot from it. The “historical truth” of the plot and characters has nothing to do with what I can get from it. No one needs to think that King Lear, or David Copperfield, or Owen Meany (to pick three of my all time favorite characters from the 17th, 19th, and 20th centuries!) actually lived in order to read, re-read, think about, and study the books that tell of their “lives.” In each case, the details of the portrayal are very important (was Jesus compassionate or ticked off? It really matters for Mark’s portrayal).

Someone may object (many have!) that with the stories of Jesus it’s different, because there we are dealing with a historical figure, not a fictional creation, and so what matters in stories about historical figures is what really happened. That too is not true, I think. My wife right now is writing a book on Shakespeare’s tragedies. It’s true that Macbeth never lived. But Julius Caesar did. Juliet never lived. But Cleopatra did. The way a Shakespeare scholar studies Macbeth (or Romeo and Juliet) is not essentially different from the way she studies the play Julius Caesar (or Antony and Cleopatra). She studies it as a literary text, even if it is based on a historical figure.

Now, for those who think that the ONLY way to study a text – whether Shakespeare or the Bible – is to treat it as a literary creation, and that, as a consequence the history behind the text doesn’t matter, I would say this. Some of us (not all of us) are interested not only in literary texts but also in history. We want to know what happened in the past. Especially with important figures (Julius Caesar, Jesus, and Joan of Arc). And our literary sources for these figures (not Shakespeare so much, but the sources that *he* used – e.g., Plutarch) can provide us information on what actually happened in their lives.

But what if the sources we want to use were not *written* in order to give us disinterested “historical accounts” of what “really” happened? Can we use them to know what happened in the past? Yes we can, but to do so we need to use these sources gingerly and critically, with solid historical criteria to get behind what they “say” to the historical events themselves. It’s not easy, but it’s what historians DO. And why do they do it? Because some of us are interested not only in literature but also in history. And why shouldn’t we be? There’s no law saying what a person should be interested in. And texts like the Gospels can provide us information, not only about what each Gospel writer (and his sources) wanted to say about Jesus – i.e., their own theologically-religiously construed understanding about Jesus – but also about the man himself as an actual person who lived in first century Palestine. Since these are two different interests (literary and historical), asking two different sets of questions, they will require two different sets of methods – for studying one and the same text.

So to repeat: as a historian, I have reason to think that Jesus didn’t actually heal the leper, so that he didn’t actually feel either compassion or anger at the event. But as a literary scholar I am interested in how Mark portrayed the event. And that’s what I was trying to get at in my posts on the topic.

Over $2 Million Donated to Charity!

We have two goals at Ehrman Blog. One is to increase your knowledge of the New Testament and early Christianity. The other is to raise money for charity! In fact, in 2022, we raised over $360,000 for the charities below.

Become a Member Today!

2023-10-12T10:55:17-04:00October 10th, 2023|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Share Bart’s Post on These Platforms


  1. Richardson18 October 10, 2023 at 8:08 am

    As a former conservative Christian, still deconstructing/deconverting, it never occurred to me to read scripture in any way other than finding out what actually happened historically. It’s fascinating to read the Bible now, with what I call “new eyes!” Dr. Ehrman, your books, podcasts, online courses, and blog posts have been so helpful along this journey. I just want to thank you for your efforts to present scholarly knowledge and information to laypeople like myself.

    • BDEhrman October 11, 2023 at 5:24 pm


    • Okgo5555 October 11, 2023 at 11:11 pm

      Bart, you should have known how upset it makes people when someone evaluates the content of the Bible exgetically!

      I was honestly tracking with you and i get a little tickle when you give us a little theology here and there.

      • sLiu October 20, 2023 at 6:42 pm

        u should have seen [still on youtube?] after Ehrman’s debates where 20 year old something, students respond the debates of course- critical of Ehrman. & where did they get there original concepts- from more flawed Church leadership [punning off of Wiersbe’s more often preached of those].

        I was one of those [nonsensical], but I stayed far from any discussion, because we were the chosen generation from Church of Philidelphia!

        Thank u for classifying Ehrman’s theology which is no harm to reality.

    • Linnea October 16, 2023 at 1:37 pm

      I totally agree with Richardson18 that Barts texts have been very helpful during the deconversion. I don’t Think I have been able to deconvert without the knowledge I now have about the bible.

  2. Silver October 10, 2023 at 9:50 am

    You write here “ It’s true that Macbeth never lived.” Is that in fact the case? Was he not a king of Scotland reigning 1040 – 1057?

    • BDEhrman October 11, 2023 at 5:25 pm

      Ah, right. Sorry. Don’t tell my wife I said that.

  3. J.MarkWorth October 10, 2023 at 10:00 am

    Of course, Macbeth DID really live. Hamlet didn’t, King Lear didn’t, but Macbeth was a real Scottish king. He is buried on the Isle of Iona.

    • BDEhrman October 11, 2023 at 5:25 pm

      Ah, right. Sorry. Don’t tell my wife I said that.

  4. GeoffClifton October 10, 2023 at 10:00 am

    Ooops. MacBeth was a real 11th century Scottish king and Shakespeare’s play is (very) loosely based on his rise to power and reign.

    • BDEhrman October 11, 2023 at 5:25 pm

      Ah, right. Sorry. Don’t tell my wife I said that.

  5. aandersnjr October 10, 2023 at 12:04 pm

    I agree that he likely didn’t heal a leper. But I would be willing to suggest that the angry part of the story might well have been true- it passes some of the historical criteria you bring up in your class on Wondrium- most dramatically, it clearly fits the criteria of dissimilarity (no Christians would have wanted to portray Jesus as angry). In addition, the story is in our earliest source (Mark). I don’t have enough of a historical background to know if this is a plausible reading, but it doesn’t at all seem implausible to me that a Rabbi going around Galilee claiming that the world is about to end might be subject to fits of anger.

    This reads like a trend to me in Mark- Jesus does a miracle, but also attaches a moral or theological lesson. For instance, I suspect Jesus may have forgiven the sins of the paralytic, but the healing part was of course mythological. Similarly, he likely didn’t respect the Syrophoenician woman because she was an outsider- not worthy of Israel; it’s the healing part that was made up

  6. BobSeidensticker October 10, 2023 at 2:37 pm

    (This question is not on the topic of this post.)

    Twice in the Bible, women wash Jesus’s feet with their hair (Luke 7:38, John 12:3). I see how that’s a humbling act, but it seems so impractical. Hair is a very poor towel.

    “Yeah, I wish I could’ve cleaned your feet better, but what can I do when I’m wiping with hair? Well, at least you can see that I’m sacrificing myself.”

    Am I missing something? Does hair symbolize something more than just femininity?

    • Oudeis October 16, 2023 at 10:54 am

      Trimalchio dried his hands on a boy slave’s head in the Satyricon (section 27), a first century CE Latin text. Not sure if this was a common practice. When I was looking this up I did notice that it seems to be a thing on TikTok! Looks like its current day advocates have long curly locks.

      There is this article that looks at Luke 7:36-50 in detail:
      Cosgrove, Charles H. “A Woman’s Unbound Hair in the Greco-Roman World, with Special Reference to the Story of the ‘Sinful Woman’ in Luke 7:36-50.” Journal of Biblical Literature 124, no. 4 (2005): 675–92. https://doi.org/10.2307/30041064.

      • BDEhrman October 19, 2023 at 7:03 pm

        Ah, Charlie was a couple of years head of me in my graduate program. Erudite scholar, good guy; in the summer we used to smoke cigars at the pool so we could study and no one would come near us.

        • Oudeis October 21, 2023 at 8:45 am

          Interesting to know! Thanks.

  7. dwcriswell October 10, 2023 at 3:40 pm

    Here is a question I do not know the answer to but I think an interesting question: Is there a difference in interpreting a fictional story labeled as fiction, versus a fictional study that is claimed to be true? It seems many stories in the NT are the later.

    • BDEhrman October 11, 2023 at 5:38 pm

      It depends on what you’re studying them *for*. If it’s to find out about the past, then there’s a big difference. If it’s to know what an author is trying to say, there is little difference in the approach one takes to interpretation.

  8. nanuninu October 10, 2023 at 6:38 pm

    Now I understand, what you tried to say to me and how you suffered for your sanity.

    • BDEhrman October 11, 2023 at 5:39 pm

      I’m watchin’ my ears here….

  9. seahawk41 October 10, 2023 at 9:57 pm

    This relates more to earlier topics on the blog. Last week I was watching a Wondrium course on the History of Mathematics. Discussing Euclid, the professor pointed out that Euclid didn’t do all the math he presented, but rather gathered all that was known at the time, organized it and put it into a logical format. Once that was done, the Greeks stopped copying the works that had gone into Euclid’s Elements. Why copy all that stuff when we have it all in one place? So we no longer have much of the work of Hipparchus, Eratosthenes, and many others. Sound familiar? Likely what happened to Q and who knows how much else.

  10. Mustafa2 October 10, 2023 at 11:41 pm

    Not to play devil’s advocate, but how would the historicity of Jesus differ from the historicity of someone like Robin Hood?

    • BDEhrman October 11, 2023 at 5:40 pm

      Every case has to be decided on its own grounds, based on the nature of our surviving sources. My sense is that we know a lot more about the actual individual person Jesus than the actual person(s) Robin Hood was based on.

    • sLiu October 20, 2023 at 6:49 pm

      Jesus Christ was reported as God-man [divine]. Robin Hood was human [legend]

  11. R_Gerl October 11, 2023 at 6:08 pm

    I think the historical Jesus probably did engage in some `faith healing’ but I agree that this story isn’t historical. As you pointed out, Mark has Jesus being angry whenever he is healing people and, as I wrote in another comment, it seems that Mark does this to make Jesus into an authority figure that Roman readers would respect. Or, to use your wording, Mark portrays Jesus as a harsh authoritative figure rather than a softy. In Mark 9:19-24 Jesus is angry at the man and crowd for not believing in his faith healing powers. Here, Mark has Jesus behaving like a harsh Roman authority figure who would feel insulted and take umbridge when their abilities are questioned in any way. Mark might as well have Jesus say, “who the hell are you to doubt my powers?”. Although that is what many Romans would consider proper behavior from an authority figure, it is totally unreasonable. How could these local uneducated people know what Jesus was capable or incapable of doing? It seems Mark wrote these stories to portray Jesus in a particular way. Mark 1:22 has Jesus speaking with authority. Mark gives the reader a Romanized Jesus.

  12. giselebendor October 12, 2023 at 12:06 pm

    What we assume Jesus may have said and how he might have said it, whilst we assume it- let alone believe it with perfect faith- has great significance in the way we approach Jesus as a model to be emulated.

    If during the past millennia the image of Jesus as an all-loving, peace loving, all-forgiving ,humble saintly figure grew at the expense of a more multi-faceted understanding of who Jesus may have been and how his message may have evolved or was lost in the interim,we might find more dots to connect from the stories as they are told.

    In the same way that the Church opted for a very reduced amount of canonised Gospels in order to present a consistent story, so Jesus’ character may have become “sanitised”
    and reduced to one consistent image only. Jesus’ full humanity, though, would have been complex, surprising,unpredictable,affected by mood, religion,culture and environment.

    For those reasons, whether we can apply the stamp of historical reliability to any and all stories or not,the fact that the stories affected – historically so- the evolving Christianity remains, in my view,a witness to their forceful nature.

    That’s why, it seems,whether the stories happened or not doesn’t matter. We do indeed care to confront and understand them.

  13. Seeker1952 October 13, 2023 at 7:43 pm

    What 3 books would you want to have if you were stranded for a long time on a desert island?

    Of course the correct answer are books about shipbuilding and navigation.

    The standard Eurocentric answers, from a literary standpoint, would almost certainly include the Bible and Shakespeare. But what about a third? Something from the ancient Greeks, eg, the Iliad, Odyssey, Greek myths, Greek drama? Or maybe just a personal favorite?

    I suppose James Joyce’s Ulysses could keep one busy for a long time and, if I’m not mistaken, contains plenty of allusions to other great (Eurocentric) literature.

    More consideration should be given to more recent fiction, to non-Eurocentric literature (eg, the Bhagavad Gita, the Quran), and to non-fiction, eg, science, history, etc. But I can’t think of anything that has achieved the same level of (Eurocentric) recognition and consensus as the Bible and Shakespeare.

    • BDEhrman October 15, 2023 at 3:21 pm

      ANd I guess the other question is whether the Bible and Shakespeare each get to count as a single book….

  14. SteveHouseworth October 13, 2023 at 11:07 pm

    I recently read R.G. Price’s ‘The Gospel of Mark as Reaction and Allegory’ which presents a wholly allegorical interpretation and explanation. I think his treatment is both informative and credible. Jesus’ role, his emotions, e.g. anger and compassion, the other characters, treatment of the leper and fig tree make total sense when viewed as allegory.

    Now, additions and changes made by the authors of Matthew and Luke become windows into the mindset of other perspectives. However, those authors do not necessarily change the nature of the stories from allegory to historical. Even if a real Jesus existed, ministered, was crucified – the synoptic gospels can be entirely allegorical – as you have alluded Shakespeare treated historical people in his plays.


    • BDEhrman October 15, 2023 at 3:24 pm

      I’d say most historical figures make excellent allegories.

  15. Elkojohn October 14, 2023 at 12:35 am

    i like using http://www.biblegateway.com with 63 English translations to compare bible verses.

    Here’s the tally on Mark 1:41:
    angry, indignant, incensed = 7
    compassion, pity, sorrow, mercy = 56

    Dr.Bart, why are so many translators afraid to reveal that in this verse Jesus was angry?

    • BDEhrman October 15, 2023 at 3:26 pm

      Because they genuinely think it’s a scribal mistake, given the vast proponderance of mss that have “felt compassion”

  16. stevenpounders October 16, 2023 at 8:30 am

    When you study the gospel as literature, even when you don’t think a particular story actually happened, are you also trying to understand something about the history of the Christians who circulated the story?

    • BDEhrman October 19, 2023 at 6:56 pm

      ABsolutely! It’s one of the chief points of interest.

  17. curtiswolf69 October 17, 2023 at 6:32 am

    The way that I look at it is even if a story about Jesus did not happen it tells us something about what the ancient world thought was possible. Clearly they believed in miraculous healings even if they did not actually occur.

Leave A Comment