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Here's a story Jesus told about David according to Mark 2:23-28 (ESV):

One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of1 Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

And this is the story he was talking about in 1 Samuel 21:1-6 (ESV):

Then David came to Nob to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech came to meet David trembling and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one with you?” And David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, ‘Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.’ I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.” And the priest answered David, “I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread—if the young men have kept themselves from women.” And David answered the priest, “Truly women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition. The vessels of the young men are holy even when it is an ordinary journey. How much more today will their vessels be holy?” So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the LORD, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away.

Note that the name of the priest according to the Tanakh was Ahimelech and Jesus (according to Mark) calls him Abiathar. Someone made a mistake. Was it Jesus in recalling the story or Mark in recording Jesus' words?

The ESV included the following note at the place marked 1 in the Mark passage:

2:26 Or in the passage about

Initially that sounds like it might free us from viewing this as a mistake, but since the passage doesn't mention Abiathar at all, it doesn't much help.

This is one of Professor Bart D. Ehrman's favorite examples of problems in the Bible and he cites it in Misquoting Jesus as the passage the convinced him the Bible is not inerrant.

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This was also asked on Christianity… – ashansky Oct 27 '11 at 16:21
@ashansky: Thanks for the pointer. I wouldn't accept the accepted answer here, however. ;-) It's a really tricky hermeneutical problem. – Jon Ericson Oct 27 '11 at 16:54
I suppose the question is unanswerable if one does not agree with your premise that one or the other is wrong. – Ray Oct 28 '11 at 12:39
@Ray: That, of course, also answers the question. (However, Jesus was talking about the high priest, which means one person, and referencing a story from before the First Temple. So be careful. ;-) – Jon Ericson Oct 28 '11 at 15:54
@Ray: We need to be prepared to answer questions that make unstated premises and question the authority of Scripture. I hope that someone like the younger Dr. Ehrman (when he was not yet committed to debunking the Bible) would be able to ask questions like this and get helpful answers. I encourage you to submit your own answer. – Jon Ericson Oct 28 '11 at 17:01

5 Answers 5

up vote 10 down vote accepted

A detailed study on this issue by Daniel B. Wallace of the Evangelical Theological Society discusses five possibilities:

  1. Text-Critical: The text as it stands is incorrect and needs to be emended.
  2. Dominical: Jesus himself made a mistake or was intentionally midrashic (i.e., he embellished the OT story to make his point).
  3. Source-critical: Mark’s source (Peter?) made a mistake in reporting Jesus’ words, or else was intentionally midrashic.
  4. Mark erred in reporting what his source said, or was intentionally midrashic.
  5. Hermeneutical: The interpretation that “when Abiathar was high priest” is incorrect.

The author concludes that his preference is for the fifth option (hermeneutical), saying:

As for view 5, my preference right now is to take the prepositional phrase as meaning “in the days of Abiathar the high priest.” Although Mark apparently does not employ the temporal use of this preposition elsewhere, he almost surely does so here—for both “when Abiathar was high priest” and “in the days of Abiathar the high priest” are temporal expressions. Further, the construction ἐπί + genitive noun is frequently used with a temporal sense outside of Mark—with a meaning similar to ‘in the days of…’ BDAG lists numerous biblical and patristic references under ἐπί with a genitive for time, all in the sense of “in the time of, under (kings or other rulers).” Cf., e.g., Luke 4:27 (‘in the time of Elisha’), Luke 3:2 (‘in the time of the high priest, Annas and Caiaphas’) and even Mark 2:26 (‘in the time of Abiathar the high priest’).

He also addresses the case of people like Bart Ehrman by arguing that even if one of the other options is correct, the infallibility of the Bible and the doctrine of Christ's divinity are not necessarily affected:

Thus, inadvertently, when we frontload inerrancy and refuse to really probe the tough historical questions, we end up betraying our commitment to the incarnation. The deepest tragedy along these lines is when someone never differentiates doctrinal commitments, for this leaves him wide open to chucking his entire belief system when the weakest link is broken. From experience, I can tell you that this “domino view of doctrine” is altogether too prevalent and has been the ruin of a great many evangelical doctoral students.

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Another data point in Mark is in 1:2 when he quotes Isaiah and Malachi, but only cites Isaiah. – Jon Ericson Oct 27 '11 at 18:17
It seems like there is (at least) a sixth and seventh option: Ahimelech and Abiathar were the same person, or there were multiple people referred to as "high priest." See Annas and Caiaphas, at Jesus' trial. – GalacticCowboy Nov 1 '11 at 1:46
@GalacticCowboy: I don't think your first option is possible: "But one of the sons of Ahimelech the son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled after David." (1 Samuel 22:20 ESV) I believe high priesthood in David's time was for life unlike in Jesus' time. (But I don't have a source at hand for that.) – Jon Ericson Nov 1 '11 at 16:45
+1 for quote, 'I can tell you that this “domino view of doctrine” is altogether too prevalent and has been the ruin of a great many evangelical doctoral students.' From personal experience, I likewise know several atheists who were at one time Christian. When you dig into why they gave up, they cite the issues like this associated with (perhaps misunderstandings of) inerrancy – Mike Pennington Jan 6 '12 at 10:00

Other answerers have attempted to made the case that this is not an error. I’m not entirely convinced by their arguments, but perhaps this question can be expressed more neutrally as, “Who introduced the priest’s name in Mark 2:26?”

The most likely candidate, I believe, is Mark himself.

Although at this late stage we cannot know for certain what exactly Jesus said, it’s fair to say he had a reputation for pithy responses to challenges, often responding to a question with another question.

In the parallels to this passage, in both Matthew 12 and Luke 6, Jesus’ question is, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?” Matthew continues, “He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests.” Luke follows the question similarly, “He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions.”

Mark expands on both Jesus’ question and his response.

Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.

The phrase “and in need of food” is redundant, and the phrase “when Abiathar was high priest” breaks the flow of the sentence. Both of these phrases weaken the force of Jesus’ reply.

Some critics might argue that Mark’s wording is more likely to be the original, simply because there is no reason for the evangelist to introduce problematic details. But there are several other examples of the gospel writers doing just that.

Here’s one from Jesus’ teaching about a future time of persecution and betrayal. This is found in Mark 13:12-13 | Matthew 24:10-13 | Luke 21:16-19.

This is how that persecution is described in Mark:

Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Matthew leaves out the family angle:

Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

And here is Luke’s take on it:

You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Perhaps Luke wanted to reassure his readers, but the line “not a hair of your head will perish” simply doesn’t fit, coming on the heels of “they will put some of you to death.” Luke’s redaction has reduced the coherence of the passage.

We can see something similar in the story of Herodias in Matthew. (I won’t quote the whole thing here; see the full story in Mark 6:16-29 | Matthew 14:1-12.)

According to Mark, Herodias “had a grudge against” John, but Herod “liked to listen to him.” But according to Matthew, Herod “wanted him put to death” but “feared the crowd.”. This is a significant difference, especially when both gospels later say Herod was “grieved” after Herodias’ daughter asked for John’s execution. Matthew’s redaction makes Herod’s grief inexplicable.

The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30 | Luke 19:11-27) offers a similar example. In Matthew’s version, the master has three servants. He gives five talents to one, two talents to another, and one talent to the last. In the end, the first servant earns his master five more talents, the second earns two more, and the third buries his talent. In Luke’s version, the master gives ten pounds to ten servants. But when the master returns from his journey, there are only three servants. The first has made ten talents, the second has made five, and “the other” (see verse 20) has buried his talent. Luke’s edits have completely broken the coherence of the passage.

And now back to the story of David and the bread. The name Abiathar in Mark’s narrative does not introduce any difficulty internal to this passage; the only difficulty is in correlating it with the original story in 1 Samuel.

We’ve seen that Matthew and Luke don’t try to correct the priest’s name--they simply don’t mention the high priest at all. We’ve also seen that the evangelists were not reluctant to add their own details to the narrative even when doing so introduced problems into the text. The simplest explanation for this passage is exactly that: Mark added the phrase about Abiathar himself.

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I think another possibility is that Jesus misspoke, Mark recorded the words faithfully and Matthew corrected the mistake when he copied it from Mark. If you don't assume Jesus was unable to make mistakes, there's a lot going for this scenario in my opinion. – Jon Ericson Oct 31 '11 at 16:49
@Jon: If it went back to Jesus, I don't see why nobody would have corrected it over the 30-40 years before it was written down. We can see, based on how Matthew and Luke treat the source we know about (Mark), that they are not reluctant to make changes even to the very words spoken by Jesus. Is there a reason to believe Mark was any different? – Bruce Alderman Nov 1 '11 at 6:01
@Bruce: Mark's reluctance to change the name is exactly the reason I think "Jesus misspoke" is a serious possibility. If I recall correctly, Dr. Ehrman makes the case that since there's no reason for someone to add in the mistake, it must go back quite a long way. (He goes too far when he expounds on the dire consequences to our faith if that's true, however.) I agree with your answer except that I think you dismiss one option too quickly. (I'm your +1.) – Jon Ericson Nov 1 '11 at 16:41
@Jon: Regarding "no reason to add the mistake"; that's why it is called a mistake. If we look at the thousands of minor errors in later manuscripts, there is no reason for someone to have added them, yet they are there. I understand Dr. Ehrman's logic, I just don't think it matches the reality of life before the printing press. – Bruce Alderman Nov 1 '11 at 17:14

The word "Abiathar" in the text may go all the way back to Jesus and it's entirely possible he misspoke.

As Bruce Alderman's answer ably points out, we can never know the exact words that Jesus spoke as there were no recording devices at the time. Therefore, we must rely on the people who heard Jesus' words to remember them until they could be recorded in writing. For a critical 30 or 40 years, the teaching must survive in the form of oral traditions. There is very little evidence for what, if any, changes might have occurred to the teachings in this period.

However, we do know that Jesus' disciples considered Jesus to be a rabbi who spoke with authority (semikhah). The job of a rabbi was to pass on his wisdom to his disciples and the job of the disciples was to remember their master's teaching. Part of the reason Jesus picked twelve men to be his "inner circle" seems to be that he wanted them to have an even deeper understanding of his teaching than the crowds (cf. Mark 4:10-20). These men followed him for three or so years and probably heard the same teachings over and over again. If they had any questions, they would likely have been expected to ask Jesus privately.

(An argument might be made that this particular teaching was a one-off since it related to a very specific event: the disciples gleaning on the Sabbath. But it's also possible the disciples made a regular practice of picking grain on the Sabbath and used Jesus' answer multiple times. I don't think it really matters to my argument except tangentially.)

Now the author of Mark assembled some of the oral history that was preserved and wrote it down. It seems likely that he wrote the stories about Jesus in the format of an ancient biography in order to transmit them to gentile Christians. Around the same time or a little later, Plutarch wrote his Lives which was popular in the Greek-speaking world and share some literary features with Mark's gospel. (Another possibility is that Mark realized the generation of Apostles was dying out and that the oral tradition ought to be preserved in writing.)

Here is the parallel passages with unique matterial in bold and omitted words marked (...) Mark 2:26 (ESV):

how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?”

Matthew 12:4 (ESV):

how he entered the house of God ... and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?

Luke 6:4 (ESV):

how he entered the house of God ... and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which ... is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those ... with him?”

Currently, most scholars believe that Matthew and Luke edited Markian material separately, so both Luke and Matthew chose to remove the reference to the the high priest. The other edits are very minor and to clear up the grammar of Mark which, according to Dr. Ehrman, is poor. This one parallel strongly supports the Markian priority hypothesis as both later writers make obvious, yet different edits.

Why did both Matthew and Luke remove the high priest reference rather than substitute Ahimelech? One plausible reason is that 30 plus years of oral tradition insisted on Abiathar. It's one thing to omit a non-essential detail and it's quite another to alter it completely. The path of least resistance is to just drop the reference to the high priest altogether.

Another answer by jrdioko points to the idea that the phrase is midrashic or that it should be understood as a general marker of a time period. In these cases, Abiathar shouldn't be considered a mistake so much as an interpretation problem to be solved. Using the name of one priest rather than another might have been intended to carry a deeper significance. Unfortunately, that Luke and Matthew both drop the phrase indicates that, at the time they wrote, the reason for the substitution had already been lost. If it had been retained, the authors would have had reason to preserve the text or even elaborate on it.

Therefore, we must take seriously the possibility that Jesus misspoke, the Apostles faithfully recalled his error, and Mark faithfully recorded their oral tradition. The error was only noticed after Jesus' death and it was too late to ask him to clarify the teaching.

Finally, we must consider what it would mean that Jesus misspoke (assuming the above analysis is correct). One surprising result is that it might actually increase our estimation of the reliability of oral transmission of Jesus' teachings before Mark. Afterall, it is remarkably probable that someone would have noticed the discrepancy over the years and yet the high priest phrase was not dropped until after the oral tradition was made obsolete by a written account.

Second, it suggests that the written transmission of the New Testament was not irredeemably corrupted by later scribes. They had ample evidence that something was strange about Mark's account of this story and yet they continued to copy Mark's words faithfully.

As for what it means to the Christian faith, I find it comforting that Luke and Matthew recognized an error in one of their sources and yet did not lose faith. Any further would be verging off-topic, but I personally am not shaken by this passage in the least.

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In literal frameworks, the rule of unity says that apparent contradictions should each be accepted as true, with the confidence that the contradiction will be resolved in a higher unity.

Application of this rule gives us the Trinity in the face of the apparent contradiction that there is only one God, but the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are each God.

A corollary is that if a plausible answer exists that explains the apparent contradiction, it should be accepted as the 'higher unity'.

A higher unity is one where the mistakes which cause the apparent contradiction are resolved:

Reality - a mistaken concept of what is really real can produce contradictions. If eternity is timeless, and creation occurred in eternity, then there is no contradiction in the evidence of apparent long times required for light from distant stars to travel to earth, and the short time required for radiation halos in rock.

Understanding - Words are reusable symbols for a plethora of ideas. Their use produces ambiguity of meaning.

"The time" of Abiathar" is ambiguous. It does not state that Abiathar was high priest. Abiathar was the son of Ahimelech. The bread belonged to the priests and plausibly even belonged to Abiather. Certainly it was not unheard of for the high priest to have assistance in the performance of his duties, as Samuel was known to do for Eli.

Therefore, the solution is that Abiathar was assisting in the tabernacle when David approached Ahimelech. Ahimelech was uncomfortable even with the presence of David, but Abiathar was disposed to help him and since it was his bread, prevailed upon Ahimelech to give it to David. Since we presume that not all conversations are recorded exhaustively, it is not difficult to imagine a brief conversation taking place concerning the disposition of bread belonging to the priest to whom it had been given. Could an adopted son of a priest eat the bread? Abiathar later joined David and was appointed high priest by him.

The compromise was that they had been separate from women for three days. The grave of Christ separated him from the flesh for three days, after which, he was the High Priest. And through his adoption of us makes us a nation of priests. David's and his men were made to be priest's figuratively, by being separate from the flesh for three days.

Intentional 'mistake'

The first case of a mistaken name of a high priest occurs when Uzziah is called Azariah. The king as a type of Christ "did everything according to his father", "offered himself in the tabernacle as the burnt offering/sweet savor of offering/incense", "bore our sin/made leprous", "cast out of the camp", and then "became the high priest/was called by the name of the high priest".

Uzziah and Azariah represent Christ in the flesh and resurrection. Likewise Ahimelech and Abiathar represent Christ in the flesh and in resurrection. Ahimelech was put to death, and Abiathar ruled in his place as appointed by David.

Jesus used the same type of riddle that he found in scripture concerning Uzziah and Azariah (2 Kings 15:5-6). It was an intentional 'mistake' intended to point us to types of Christ buried in the riddles and apparent contradictions.

Ps 78:2 I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings [riddles] of old:

Pr 1:6 To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings [riddles].

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@Jon Resolving apparent contradictions is a strong suit of SP, since it assumes that they are riddles. Heb 11:6 But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God [in the scriptures] must believe that he is [in the scriptures], and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him [in the scriptures]. – Bob Jones Oct 29 '11 at 15:27
-1: "Therefore, the solution is that Abiathar was assisting in the temple when David approached Ahimelech." The temple was build by David's son, Solomon. The answer to this question requires precision, not speculation. – Jon Ericson Oct 31 '11 at 16:53
@Jon, are you targeting me or do you intend to rule out all 'plausible' answers to apparent contradictions as being out of line? Plausibility has been standard fare for addressing apparent contradictions for centuries. – Bob Jones Nov 1 '11 at 0:06
I might be targeting you a bit. ;-) If this question were asked by a skeptic, such as Dr. Ehrman, your answer would be completely off target. The most probable solution to the apparent contradiction is that someone made a mistake. If the contradiction were within a book, I agree a plausible solution would be preferred over assuming the author didn't know what he was doing. But here, it's possible that Jesus, Mark or both screwed up the name of the high priest. After all, they are only human. – Jon Ericson Nov 1 '11 at 4:39
Your hermeneutical presupposition is different from mine. I assume there is no contradiction but an intentional riddle since I find so many intentional riddles elsewhere. 42 generations vs 41, Yeshua vs Immanuel, The prophecy of the Nazarite, etc all tell me he is speaking in riddle, but tell you Matthew was error prone. I can document the riddles and their solutions. I expect it to be foreign to you since you are unfamiliar with practicing Remez and Drash. And certainly you have no experience with Sod. A true answer is not necessarily politically correct. – Bob Jones Nov 1 '11 at 13:40

Firstly, I believe in the inerrancy of God's Word, but I don't believe it is always helpful to bend over backwards making things 'fit' - sometimes we have to just accept that we don't have the knowledge to do so (and in those cases I'd say the things that have been revealed are the things that matter - and also go along with jrdioko's quote against the 'domino view of doctrine').

However in this particular case I'm inclined to accept the very simple explanation that both the following statements are correct and represent a difference in emphasis not factual accuracy:

  1. David ate the 'bread of the Presence' in the time of Abiathar the high priest
  2. David ate the 'bread of the Presence' in the time of Ahimelech the [high] priest

noting that the day David ate the bread was the day (perhaps figuratively) Ahimelech died and Abiathar his son assumed his role.

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David coming to Ahimelech in Nob seems to be the direct reason Saul killed him. Abiathar managed to escape. So you are right to say that the time Jesus refers to was a time of transition in the high priesthood. – Jon Ericson Oct 28 '11 at 15:56
Creating plausible scenarios is not required for those who approach the scriptures in faith. But it is an answer according to Pr 26:5 Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit. Courtroom testimony often has truthful contradictions. Riddles produce contradictions. Even hyperbole can elicit charges of being lies. Plausible answers calm the nerves of those who hear God's voice but do not yet see (understand) the words beings said by Him. – Bob Jones Oct 29 '11 at 15:35
@Bob I think I agree with the gist of what I think you are saying, except that plausibility is a cousin of truth, rather than being a completely separate concept as you imply (perhaps unintentionally). – Jack Douglas Oct 29 '11 at 17:40
@Jack "cousin of truth" ..hmmm Ok. In Drash there can be no true hidden meaning in a literal lie. Since there is a picture of Christ in it, the literal is also true even if it appears to be a contradiction. This is the basis for the Midrash and Sensus Plenior practice of speaking from silence. So I probably did not mean to imply that they were not related. One might turn to Sherlock, “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” It is impossible that God should lie. – Bob Jones Oct 29 '11 at 18:27

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