Mark 2:22 and The Charge of Contradiction

Introduction

One day Jesus and his disciples were walking in a field on the Sabbath and his disciples began picking grain as they walked. In shock and apparent disbelief, the Pharisees question Jesus concerning the actions of his pupils. “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2:24) As their rabbi, Jesus is responsible for their indiscretion. Does he not care about God’s law and commands? How does Jesus respond to the Pharisees? He quotes a story in the Old Testament regarding arguably the greatest king of Israel who appeared to do something unlawful on the Sabbath. Jesus remarks, “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 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?” (Mark 2:25-26) His response appears to silence the Pharisees for a time but it raises a question for readers today. If you know your Old Testament history (1 Sam. 21:1-6), Abiathar was the son of the high priest, Ahimelech— not the high priest at that time.

Was Jesus incorrect? Did he get it wrong? Is this a bonafide contradiction in the Bible? The goal of this paper is two-fold: 1) I will highlight possible interpretive responses to this passage that alleviates the charge of contradiction and 2) I will offer some thoughts on supposed contradictions in the Scriptures. Before we get to the possible interpretive positions, I want to point out that various scholars, pastors, and theologians have wrestled with this text since Mark’s writing. This is not a new problem for modern readers, with the passage having been viewed as somewhat problematic from the beginning. I note this point because if the Church did not hold a high view of Scripture, this seeming error would never have been discussed because errors would be just par for the course. Nevertheless, the Church has always held that God’s Word is true, without any mixture of error as far as it is properly understood and interpreted. I want to warn you up front, this can be a little dense to read. Yet, when something as serious as saying the Bible has errors in it is made, we ought to meticulously and tediously discuss these matters. Pull up your pants, get your reading glasses on, and let’s get our hands dirty in the text of Scripture

Abiathar as the Actual, Sole High Priest

One major question to ask is whether or not Ahimelech was the high priest during David’s time at all. His name appears twelve times in 1-2 Samuel but he is simply described as “Ahimelech the priest”. Furthermore, the city of Nod where Ahimelech ministered within was referred to as “…the city of priests” (1 Sam. 22:19). As Saul is meting out vengeance for Ahimelech helping David, over eighty priests were slaughtered (1 Sam. 22:18). The problem of Abiathar being called the high priest when his father was the high priest goes away if his father was not technically the high priest to begin with. Samuel does not ever explicitly use the phrase “high priest” which compounds this issue. We as readers simply assume Ahimelech is the high priest. Perhaps he’s not.

Both Abiathar and Ahimelech as High Priests

Another possibility is to posit that both Abiathar and Ahimelech were high priests during the time of 1 Samuel 21. Could it be the case that the title of high priest was given to multiple men at the same time? In fact, the Scripture evidences this in both the Old and New Testaments. In 2 Samuel 15:24-35, Abiathar shares his priestly responsibilities with another priest named Zadok. Both of these priests serve under David, fulfilling the role and duties associated with the high priestly office. Furthermore, in the Gospels, both Annas and Caiaphas are said to be high priests at the same time (Luke 3:2; John 18:19-24; Acts 4:6; 19:14). Annas was the father-in-law of Caiaphas and is still considered the high priest as Caiaphas begins the office. The term and title of high priest was likely more fluid than we realize, allowing multiple men to hold it at the same time. The term was “elastic” and could be used to designate different priests serving at the same time.

Reasons Why Abiathar Would Be Mentioned

Why would Mark mention Abiathar the high priest instead of Ahimelech when David appeared before the latter? The issue could be one of prominence and name recognition. Of the twelve times Ahimelech’s name is mentioned, two of them are in reference to “Abiathar, son of Ahimelech.” When you compare Abiathar to Ahimelech, his name is mentioned twenty-eight times in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. In terms of theological and historical importance, Abiathar is a more important person, especially as it relates to David. Mark and other Jewish writers occasionally speak of more than one person or passage and list the more prominent person first. For instance, in Mark 1:2-3, the test says, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” The quotation is actually two verses from two different books (i.e., Mal. 3:1 and Isa. 40:3). Malachi’s quotation is even first but Mark says the prophecy is from Isaiah the prophet. Why was his name mentioned and not Malachi? Isaiah’s prominence was quite apparent, especially by the first century. He would be mentioned instead of Malachi simply because he is more widely known. There’s also another reason why Abiathar was mentioned and not Ahimelech. Abiathar apparently named his son after his father Ahimelech (1 Chron. 24:6). You have two people with the same name. Jesus likely would have used Abiathar instead of Ahimelech to avoid the confusion concerning the two people named the same name.

There also may be another reason for mentioning Abiathar instead of Ahimelech. Jesus could be making a rhetorical slight and statement against the Jewish leadership who are seeking to entrap him. That Jesus and the Jewish leadership were at odds is an understatement. New Testament scholar Dr. N.T. Wright notes:

Jesus was claiming to be speaking for Israel’s God, her scriptures, and her true vocation. Israel was trusting in her ancestral religious symbols; Jesus was claiming to speak for the reality to which those symbols pointed, and to show that, by her concentration on them, Israel had turned inwards upon herself and was being not only disobedient, but dangerously disobedient, to her god’s vision for her, his vocation that she should be the light of the world. Jesus’ contemporaries, however, could not but regard someone doing and saying these things as a deceiver. His agenda clashed at every point with theirs. In symbol, as in praxis and story, his way of being Israel, his way of loyalty to Israel’s god, was radically different from theirs.[1]

As you can imagine, the Pharisees and Jesus we destined for conflict. How does this relate to Abiathar? Jesus might be utilizing Abiathar’s name and unsavory legacy to make a statement about the persnickety complaints of the Pharisees. In the book From Creation to New Creation, Nicholas Perrinargues, “Abiathar is a descendant of the unfaithful high priest Eli, who was promised God’s judgment (1 Sam 2:30-36). This judgment is fulfilled when Abiathar joins in with Adonijah’s rebellion against the Davidic king Solomon (1 Kings 1:7). Solomon responds to this treachery by deposing Abiathar in favor of Zadok (1 Kings 1:8; 2:26-27). So while Ahimelech was the high priest in David’s story, Jesus chooses to refer to Abiathar, “as an emblem of a rebellious and therefore failed priesthood.”[2] Jesus is saying that He and His followers are like David and his men, but the religious leadership are like Abiathar and faced a similar future rejection from God.” There might be a theological and religious reason for mentioning Abiathar instead of Ahimelech—one that is directly relevant to Jesus’ ongoing struggle with the religious leadership.

Translating the Preposition Epi implying a Title

Some have argued that there’s a better way to translate the Greek preposition επι/epi. The word can be translated in a broader fashion, thus removing the contradiction. Our translation is too limited. Instead of translating the phrase meaning something like “in the time when Abiathar was the high priest”, one could make a good argument that the preposition epi should be translated something like “in the days of/or in the time associated when Abiathar the high priest…” You could read that and think that’s a distinction without a difference. Yet, if the second way of translating the text is correct, the phrase “the high priest” is a title, not a temporal distinction implying Abiathar was the high priest during the 1 Samuel 21 story. New Testament scholar Dr. Craig Blomberg writes, “It [Mark 2:26] 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.’”[3] Jesus does not directly indicate Abiathar gave David and his men bread to eat in Mark 2. Dr. David Garland argues, “The text does not say that David came to Abiathar but that this event happened when Abiathar was high priest. Abiathar is specifically identified as the high priest and was more than just a priest, as Ahimelech was. The term reflects the convention of eponymous dating (see Luke 3:2), and Abiathar was the high priest during David’s reign and especially linked to him.”[4] We must be careful to read the passage rightly, without making false assumptions the Text doesn’t make itself.

Translating the Preposition Epi implying a Section of Scripture

Some scholars argue that epi could be translated as “in the story or in the passage about Abiathar.” Again, Dr. Craig Blomberg writes, “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.”[5]  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.” We so often take for granted that the Scriptures were not delineated by their chapter and verses in Jesus’ day. They had to find ways to reference portions of Scripture and associating them with people and notable events was often how they did it. A modern example of this would be like us referring to the 90s as the Clinton era despite Clinton not being the president for the whole decade of the 90s. Regardless though, Clinton’s presidency is forever associated with that tumultuous period of time

On Contradictions in General

As we’ve seen, the charge of contradiction is not as cut and dry as it seems. How should we handle charges or claims of errors and contradictions in Scripture? I’d like to offer some advice when it comes to these charges. First, each and every claim should be thoroughly and meticulously studied and not simply taken at face value. Again, that God’s Word could be in error is a serious claim. We need to exhaust ourselves in making sure a contradiction is actually a contradiction. Could it be the case that we do not adequately understand the passage? Could it be the case that there is more going on at an interpretation level than I can comprehend? Could it be the case that I may not have all the facts? This endeavor might take a while but it is warranted given the high stakes in this matter. Second, a very helpful task would be making sure we even know what counts as a contradiction or an error. There are things in Scripture that are difficult to obey, difficult to understand, and some even difficult to reconcile. The devil isn’t the only one in the details; so are definitions. Until an established definition of what constitutes a real error or contradiction is determined, there will always be more heat than light.

Third, we need to make sure that just because Scripture does not measure up to a modern literary convention or practice does not mean it is in error. For instance, Scripture writers are selective, they often harmonize in accounts, they intentionally leave out details, they often aim for accuracy instead of precision, they arrange information thematically instead of chronologically, and utilize a host of different genres with their own interpretive practices sometimes within the same text. What this means is we should let the writers and the cultural and historical context of their day determine what is an error and not judge an ancient text by a 21st century standard. To judge texts with modern, recent standards is an example of chronological snobbery, the idea that we are more intelligent, more progressed, and more wise simply because we find ourselves appearing later in history.

Fourth, we need to be ok with the idea that we aren’t going to know or understand everything. We aren’t called to omniscience, but faithfulness and trust. We have to be fine with saying, “I don’t know” sometimes because “I don’t know” is not the same thing as saying, “I know this has to be a contradiction!” or even “It doesn’t matter if it is contradictory!” There is an element of mystery in our walks with the Lord and even in our understanding of Scripture. Mystery is an acceptable aspect of the Christian life because it can foster trust and reliance on the Lord. We do not know everything, but we know the Lord who has always been trustworthy. We know and love God. A part of knowing and loving him is giving him the benefit of the doubt when we don’t always understand or even when the evidence seems or appears to speak against our understanding. C.S. Lewis highlighted how our love for him as a person should change our estimation of things we don’t understand. He said:

To believe that God—at least this God exists—is to believe that you as a person now stand in the presence of God as a Person. What would, a moment before, have been variations in opinion, now become variations in your personal attitude to a Person. You are no longer faced with an argument which demands your assent, but with a Person who demands your confidence. A faint analogy would be this. It is one thing to ask in vacuo whether So-and-So will join us tonight, and another to discuss this when So-and-So’s honor is pledged to come and some great matter depends on his coming. In the first case it would be merely reasonable, as the clock ticked on, to expect him less and less. In the second, a continued expectation far into the night would be due to our friend’s character if we had found him reliable before. Which of us would not feel slightly ashamed if, one moment after we had given him up, he arrived with a full explanation of his delay? We should feel that we ought to have known him better.[6]

Just as we would give the benefit of the doubt to a trustworthy friend who was a little late for a coffee date, we should also be intellectually patient with the Lord and things we do not presently understand. Whereas we don’t fully understand everything and cannot explain everything we find in the Bible, we can rest assured someone knows infinitely more than we do and can be trusted. It is an act of faith to suspend judgment for a time and allow God to be God. This is not blind faith but an honest admission that we cannot see all ends and our level of knowledge isn’t as high as God’s insight and wisdom.


[1] N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God. (Fortress Press, 1996), 442.

[2] Benjamin L. Gladd and Daniel N. Gurtner, “The Temple, A Davidic Messiah, and a Case of Mistaken Priestly Identity (Mark 2:26)” From Creation to New Creation: Biblical Theology and Exegesis. (Hendrickson, 2013), 163-178.

[3] Craig Blomberg, “Does the Bible Ever Get it Wrong? Facing Scripture’s Difficult Passages (#2): Craig Blomberg”, September 2, 2014, accessed May 16, 2021. https://www.michaeljkruger.com/does-the-bible-ever-get-it-wrong-facing-scriptures-difficult-passages-2-craig-blomberg/

[4] David E. Garland, The NIV Application Commentary: Mark. (Zondervan, 1996), Kindle Loc. 2564.

[5] Blomberg.

[6] C.S. Lewis, “On Obstinacy in Belief” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960), 26.

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