In a prior post (see here), I announced a new blog series designed to address problematic passage in the Bible. This new series will feature guest posts from other evangelical scholars and is largely a response to the one by Peter Enns’ entitled, “Aha moments: biblical scholars tell their stories.”
The contributor for this installment is Craig Blomberg (Ph.D., University of Aberdeen). Craig is the Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, and the author of numerous books. A few notables are: The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, and Can We Still Believe the Bible? (the latter of which I reviewed here).
In a recent post on his blog, Old Testament scholar Peter Enns invited New Testament scholar John Byron, professor at Ashland Theological Seminary, to write about an “aha moment” that changed his understanding of the Bible. Byron chose the same passage that Bart Ehrman described in the introduction to his Misquoting Jesus, which led to his reneging on his Christian commitment altogether in favor of agnosticism: Mark 2:26.
Now clearly Byron and Ehrman are a far cry from each other theologically. Ehrman teaches at a state university (the University of North Carolina) and tells classes regularly he wants to disabuse them of any form of Christian faith. Byron teaches at a theologically centrist United Methodist Seminary, helping to train people for professional ministry, and still considers himself a devout Christian. But both appeal to this same passage as one reason they reject the inerrancy of the Scriptures.
It’s too bad Byron actually says so little about the passage itself in his blog. Here is the sum total of his exegetical remarks: “Jesus got it wrong. The story in 1 Samuel 21 relates how David fled from Saul alone. When he stops at the tabernacle and asks Ahimelek for help the priest enquires why David is alone. David seems to lie when saying that his men well meet him later (v. 2). Moreover, Mark has the wrong priest. In 2:26 Jesus states that the priest was Abiather [sic], but 1 Samuel 21 clearly states that it was Ahimelek.”
Let’s look at each of these two claims one at a time. Byron first claims that Jesus was wrong in saying that David gave some of the consecrated bread he received from the priests at Nob to his companions, because he traveled to Nob alone. He also takes David’s words that he has told his men to meet him at a certain place to be a lie, probably because the first part of 1 Samuel 21:2, that David was on a mission for King Saul, is clearly a lie. That also means that everything David says in verses 4-5 about his men being ritually pure would also have to be made up. But why then would David ask for enough bread for himself and others? The story in 1 Samuel makes no sense if everything David says is untrue. Just because he is trying to deceive the priest on one matter hardly means everything he says is false. Indeed, the most convincing deceptions in general tend to be based on half-truths.
On any interpretation, however, nothing here suggests that Jesus got it wrong, as Byron claims. Jesus tells the story exactly as he would have learned it from the reading of the Hebrew Scriptures year after year in the synagogue. He is recounting the story perfectly accurately. We can debate to what extent David might have been lying, but Jesus has made no mistake in excerpting from the narrative precisely in the form he and his countrymen believed it to have been inspired.
The more significant claim that Byron makes is that Jesus has the wrong priest. There is no doubt that 1 Samuel 21:1 explicitly says that the priest David spoke with at Nob was Abimelek. But the wording of Mark 2:26 in the Greek is very unusual. It uses none of the several standard ways of expressing when something occurred. Instead it says these events happened epi Abiathar. Epi is a preposition that commonly mean “upon,” “on,” “in,” “over,” “at,” “by,” “before,” and numerous other things, but only very rarely, “when.” Why did Mark use such a strange construction to translate Jesus’ Aramaic words, unless he recognized that Jesus meant something a little different than “when Abiathar was high priest”?
In Mark 12:26, the same unusual construction reappears when Jesus is appealing to the story in Exodus 3 about Moses and the burning bush. He asks the Sadducees if they have not read epi tou batou—literally “upon the bush.” But that makes no sense. Translators recognize, therefore, that Mark is using epi in the sense of “in the passage about [the bush].” This is exactly how the Revised Standard Version of the Bible translated it; the New Revised Standard modified that to “in the story about [the bush].”
Because ancient synagogues developed the practice of reading through the entire Law once a year and the rest of the Jewish Scriptures once every three years, they divided what Christians call the Old Testament into specific sections so rabbis knew exactly every Sabbath how much was to be read and expounded. They would often give a two-to-three chapter segment of text a simple one or two-word name, often based on a key character in that segment. Unfortunately, we have no comprehensive list of what these names were, if one ever even existed.
John Wenham, a British biblical scholar, as far back as 1950 published a short note in the Journal of Theological Studies suggesting that “Abiathar” was the name of the larger multi-chapter segment of text in which this specific story about David and Ahimelek was found. Abiathar is, after all, the more important of these two characters for the Samuel narrative overall. Because this interpretation is somewhat speculative, several Bible translations settle for the well attested but vaguer translation, “in the time of Abiathar” or “in the days of Abiathar,” which equally leaves Jesus free from having made any mistake.
I can understand why some scholars may not be convinced by this solution. But I am consistently amazed at how few ever even acknowledge knowing about it, much less interacting with it. I have cited it in several of my books as have other leading evangelical commentators, who have found it completely satisfactory. It’s unfortunate that Ehrman, Byron and Enns never once disclose if they are familiar with it and, if they are, what objections (if any) they have to it. Until they do, it really is inappropriate for them to claim with such confidence that they know Jesus or Mark got it wrong!
Boxing Pythagoras says
This is an interesting interpretation of Mark 2:26, and one which I had not heard before. Thank you very much for providing it!
I only have one quibble, with this article, and it is admittedly tangential, and not related directly to the passage in question. My issue is with the claim that Ehrman “tells classes regularly he wants to disabuse them of any form of Christian faith.” This is a fairly egregious untruth. Dr. Ehrman has never even said such a thing in his books, let alone in his classes at a public university. The truth is quite the opposite, in fact. Ehrman has very repeatedly stated that there are scholars– some of whom are very close friends of his– who have very similar views to his regarding the New Testament, and who yet remain fully committed Christians. Ehrman has never stated a goal of disabusing ANYONE of “any form of Christian faith,” let alone regularly repeating such a goal in his classroom.
John Byron says
Many thanks to Michael Kruger for providing a forum for those who would like to respond to Pete Enns’ “Ah ha” moment” series. I am glad that the internet provides us with a venue for free and open discussion.
I am honored that Craig Blomberg responded to my post. I have followed Craig’s work for years and cut my teeth on parables using his book.
When I wrote that “Jesus got it wrong” I knew that I would be kicking a hornet’s nest. Anytime one suggests something like that you are going to attract attention. I appreciate that Craig didn’t jump on that statement. I think he saw it for what it was: The realization by a young follower of Jesus that something in the New Testament that doesn’t seem to line up with the Old Testament.
Craig carefully and respectively offers an alternative view to the conundrum I presented. I am of course aware of that interpretive point of view and can even see some merit in it. But I don’t subscribe to it.
Craig wonders why neither I nor Pete Enns talk about the other possible interpretive approaches to Mark 2:26 and other difficult passage. And Craig’s question is what bothers me about those answering us and here and on other blogs. They have missed the point of the series.
Those who have answered us have turned this into a discussion about inerrancy. But I studiously avoided that word since the goal of the series (I thought) was to talk about our “ah ha” moments in which we began to realize that the nature of scripture was different than how we had traditionally read and understood it. Certainly I could have talked about other interpretations of Mark 2:26, but the purpose of the post was to talk about my personal faith as a bible scholar who wrestles with the Bible. Indeed, the majority of the post was about why I still believe in spite of some the difficulties I have encountered.
For me, to talk about the nature of scripture involves more than whether or not it contains “error.” I’ve been waiting for someone to call me out for saying that “Jesus got it wrong.” (Although I also said that Mark got it wrong. I would be quite willing to say Mark got it wrong on both counts with what he attributed to Jesus.) But that story doesn’t represent the sum of my approach to scripture. It’s that moment when I began to realize I would need to change how I read and interpret it. I hope that those he read our posts don’t conclude that an anecdote is the sum total of all we think about scripture.
One further point. I noticed that someone has responded about the way Craig compares me with Bart Ehrman. In fairness to Craig, I do point out that Mark 2:26 is the passage that was an “ah ha” moment for both Bart and me. But I did that to show how you can wrestle with the Bible and still end up at very different places.
C.M. Granger says
Could you elaborate about why you find the argument Craig mentions unsatisfactory?
Justin Taylor says
For those wanting to track down the Wenham article referenced, here’s the bibliographic information: John W. Wenham, “Mark 2:26,” Journal of Theological Studies ns 1.2 (Oct. 1950): 156.
Actually, that’s not what Ehrman does at all with his students. You should try talking to them, the Christians in his classes, that
!I agree with C.M Granger. I would love the chance to here your side on teh reasons for respectfully rejecting this view? I think it would helpful for those of us still working through to arrive at our own positions to have all the data on both sides! Thanks for joining in the discussion
Brian Small says
Blomberg is mistaken: Ashland Theological Seminary is not a United Methodist Seminary.
John Byron says
My disagreement with Blomberg’s interpretation is based on the following.
Frist, let me talk about my conclusion that David is alone when he meets Ahimelech and lies about having men with him.
In the preceding chapter (1 Sam 20) David is alone when he flees from Saul and meets Jonathon in the field. When David leaves Jonathon and meets the High Priest Ahimelech, the priest trembles because David is alone and he asks “why is no one with you.” Based on the flow of the narrative, it seems to me that David is alone. Ahimelech notices it and David, in addition to lying about being on a mission for Saul also lies about having men with him. My conclusion here is: one lie begets another. Added to this is my observation that the narrative of 1 Samuel does not indicate that anyone joins David until 22:1. Following a plain reading of the text, it seems to me that David is alone when he meets Ahimelech. I am not sure how David’s asking for five loaves of bread (21:3) suggests that David therefore has other men with him. He is on the run and wants enough food to supply him. I would add this to my observations. If David did have men with him, we might also ask why they didn’t bring him any weapons. David asks for a weapon and Ahimelech gives him the sword of Goliath. If David does have men, could we not also assume that they brought him a weapon? Did they all leave home without food and weapons?
We can unravel the narrative to the point of being ridiculous. But based on a plain reading of the text, it seems to me that the author of 1 Samuel depicts David as fleeing from Saul alone and that he is still alone when he meets Ahimelech. If we didn’t have the statement by Jesus in Mark 2:26 I don’t think we would be tempted to think otherwise.
Second, as to the name of the priest, 1 Samuel 22:1 clearly identifies the priest as Ahimelech not Abiathar. In fact we don’t meet Abiathar until 22:20 where we learn that he is the son of Ahimelech. He did serve as High Priest, later, and was actually better known as a one of David’s associates. Mark, I believe, knows the name of Abiathar much better than that of Ahimelech and simply confused the two of them. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to be the only one. In 2 Samuel 8:17 the father/son relationship is reversed and Abiathar is said to be the father of Ahimelech. The same thing happens in 1 Ch 24:6. It seems that the better known Abiathar was sometimes confused with his father, Ahimelech. The author of Mark, I would submit, does the same thing. Again, this is based on a plain reading of the text.
I can understand why some NT scholars will want to suggest that how a Greek preposition was used in an unusual way or the way Scripture was used in a synagogue helps explain away what seems to be a mistake on the part of Mark and what he attributes to Jesus. But since I am not uncomfortable with the Bible sometimes saying two different and seemingly contradictory things, I don’t’ see a reason to accept a more elaborate explanation when one based on the plain reading of the text seems sufficient.
More to the point, and the point of the series on Enns’ blog that I contributed to, this was a moment for me when I realized that not everything in the Bible lined up the way I wanted and/or wished it would. I live in the 21st century and expect that details like this will be accurate. Historiographers in the first century, however, didn’t have the same concerns that I do. In the end, the main thrust of what Jesus is arguing about doesn’t change. David did, according to 1 Sam 21, eat the bread that was from the presence of the Lord. The fact that Mark bought into David’s lie that there were people with him and also confuses the name of the son (Abiathar) for the father (Ahimelech) doesn’t change the point Jesus is making about the son of man being Lord of the Sabbath. I don’t feel the need to rescue Mark from his mistake.
steve hays says
There are some basic problems with Byron’s position:
i) If he thinks Jesus was obviously wrong, why didn’t Mark quietly correct the mistake rather than drawing attention to the mistake by reproducing the (alleged) misidentification? Presumably, Byron believes the Gospel writers were not above redacting the words of Jesus. Why not save face in this instance?
ii) Surely this was a well-known story in 1C Judaism. So confusing the actors would be surprising.
iii) Treating the two names as interchangeable evidently goes all the back to the source. As one scholar notes, commenting on 2 Sam 8:17, “Also in 1 Chr 24:3,6,31. It seems likely that the order of the names has been transposed because elsewhere Abiathar is consistently said to be the collogue of Zadok,” J. Vannoy, 1-2 Samuel (Tyndale 2009), 314.
In that event, Jesus is simply following conventional precedent. If the author of Samuel himself uses these two names interchangeably, it’s hardly a mistake for Jesus to emulate the practice of the very source he’s alluding to.
iv) Moreover, it’s not hard to see how this would occur. The close association is only natural given the combined fact that you have both a direct familial succession as well as a direct priestly succession. As a result, the author of Samuel, as well as the Chronicler, already feel free to substitute one for the other: treating the two men (father/son, fellow priests) as if they were one.
Perhaps Byron never understood inerrancy in the first place. Inerrancy doesn’t preclude literary conventions–or intentional theological associations, as a way of connecting two things.
Considering the recent Five Views on Inerrancy by Zondervan, perhaps the accusation of misunderstanding inerrancy can be leveled in several different directions.
John Byron says
Sigh, once again. I am not talking about inerrancy, It is not a category by which I measure the Bible. My disagreeing with Blomberg is not a matter of not understanding literary convention. It is a result of looking at the evidence and concluding that, in my opinion, the wrong priest is mentioned in Mark 2:26 and that there is no need to explain it away.
steve hays says
Of course Byron is talking about inerrancy. He imputes two mistakes to the Markan account.
steve hays says
You’re simply repeating your original allegation, rather than responding to the counterevidence. You yourself say “In 2 Samuel 8:17 the father/son relationship is reversed and Abiathar is said to be the father of Ahimelech. The same thing happens in 1 Ch 24:6.”
You chalk that up to confusion, just as you chalk up Mark’s statement (or Christ’s statement) to confusion. Why is “confusion” the first and only explanation you reach for? If, by your own admission, the intersubstitutability of the names reflects a pattern, why do you assume that’s due to confusion rather than intentional? Why not infer that Mark, Samuel, and Chronicles deliberately do that as a way of linking the two figures? What if that’s a literary strategy?
You need to add some new tools to your explanatory toolkit. Your repertoire is too limited. “Confusion” is not the only explanation, much less the best explanation.
John Byron says
I appreciate that we disagree. What I don’t appreciate is your antagonistic tone and, to be frank, your attempt at belittling me and my conclusions. While I am happy to discuss scholarly ideas in an informed and respectful manner, I won’t be baited into the type of discussion you seem to favor. Thanks to Michael Kruger for providing this forum for discussion of ideas. I am sorry that I will not be able to continue participating.
steve hays says
Your reaction is telling. You feel belittled, yet you belittle Jesus. You think everyone ought to treat you with utmost respect, yet you disrespect Jesus. When a professing Christian imagines that he’s entitled to greater deference than Christ, that’s rather revealing, don’t you think? A test of faith is how seriously we take ourselves in relation to how seriously we take our Lord.
C.M. Granger says
But if you’re not talking about inerrancy, what is the “aha” moment you’re writing about on Enns’ blog? Could you clarify?
steve hays says
That depends. I think a contributor like Michael Bird lacks a clear understanding inerrancy. He imagines it to be an American idiosyncrasy. By contrast, Peter Enns doesn’t misunderstand inerrancy: he rejects it outright.
Thank you both Dr. Blomberg and Dr. Byron. Thanks that I couldn’t sleep last night because I kept thinking about this. I love losing sleep. Really. Thanks that I’m tired.
Pavel E. says
The Spanish translation of this article is available here: http://verdadeseternas.com/canon-fodder/jesus-menciono-al-sacerdote-equivocado/
I’m very tempted to add Steve Hays commentaries’ translations as an Apendix to the discussion. They are very valuable in my opinion.
steve hays says
Thanks Pavel. For what it’s worth, I have a more detailed response to the “aha” moments here:
If you like, you’re more than welcome to translate that and add that as an appendix.
Pavel E. says
Thank you, Steve!
I’ve added some of your insights and a link to your site as an appendix. I’m planning to translate that post as well. I’ll let you know.
Steven Avery says
Mark 2:26 (AV)
How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest,
and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests,
and gave also to them which were with him?
Much of this question involves a corruption in the Critical Text, the lack a definite article, and then having to translate “when Abiathar was high priest” (NETBible). Then comes the fun (ie. rather wild interpretative apoloegetics, all for a corruption.)
This textual-translation issue was well understood when the versions began to use the corruption text. The learned Frederic Charles Cook (1804-1889) wrote about it here in some detail:
The Revised Version of the First Three Gospels Considered in Its Bearings Upon the Record of Our Lord’s Words and of Incidents in His Life (1882)
“The old reading simply states the fact that Abiathar, well known as the High Priest appointed by David himself at a much later period, was present when the young David with his attendants ate the shew bread. What the Revisers make our Lord say, is that Abiathar was High Priest at that time. A grosser anachronism could scarcely be committed, and here it is distinctly imputed to our Lord Himself, on the authority of St. Mark, the Petrine Evangelist.
This extraordinary falsification of well-known history is effected by the simple omission of the definite article (τοῦ) before High Priest. … ”
And I will add that Christopher Wordsworth (1807-1885), the Bishop of Lincoln, referenced by Cook and writing before the corruption became popular, says that the wording in the traditional Bible text suggests that Abiathar was not High Priest at the time. His whole section is worthwhile:
The New Testament … in the original Greek:
with notes by C. Wordsworth (1856)
Daniel Wallace, citing Thomas Fanshawe Middleton (1769-1822), essentially agrees that the historic Reformation Bible text is essentially a solution to the question:
“Middleton cites several classical references to back up his statement. In grammatical terms, we could say ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως involves a predicate genitive (“when Abiathar was high priest”) while ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ τοῦ ἀρχιερέως involves an appositive to Ἀβιαθάρ (“in the time of Abiathar the high priest”)”.- Daniel Wallace, The Problem of Abiathar in Mark 2.26, 2011
Incidentally, to be clear, I am not saying that there is still not an apologetics issue, or discussion, with the proper text. However, it is rather easily handled.
Please note. There are many hard error blunders in the Critical Text. Many of them, like “the daughter of Herod”, are ultra-minority corruptions. The swine marathon from Gerasa is one that is an especially informative and even entertaining study. There are dozens of such errors that need no apologetics, since they are not actually the Bible.
Christian apologetics is an important work. It is crippled if it has to defend corruptions. Hort’s textual theories have been discarded, en masse. So why use and defend the residue, the Vaticanus-primacy Westcott-Hort recension. We have the pure Bible, easily available.
Thy word is very pure:
therefore thy servant loveth it.
Yours in Jesus,