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!