But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him:“how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat, except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?” (Mk. 2:25-26 NKJV)
When it comes to the topic of contradictions in the Gospels, Mark 2:26 has lead the way with much controversy. This alleged contradiction is not necessarily a contradiction between the Synoptic accounts. Rather, this seems to be a misrepresentation of an Old Testament text. This controversy is not new to our dispensation, for men all through history have tried to adopt a reasonable explanation to this controversy. This is by no means an issue between conservative scholars and liberal scholars only. Even in conservative evangelical circles, scholars struggle to find common ground on this text.
For some, this is a Christological issue. If one were to conclude that Jesus made a theological error, then Jesus’ messiahship and character could hang in jeopardy. The entire controversy hinges on Jesus’ statement of Abiathar being the high priest, when David went into the house of God and ate the sacred bread. The problem lies in the fact that Abiathar was not the priest in the scene that Jesus described. His father Ahimelech was mentioned as the priest. Some who hold to a Markan priority (the belief that Mark was the first Gospel), would suggest that Matthew and Luke eliminated the phrase altogether, to indicate they disagreed with Mark’s statement.
Some who hold to a Matthean priority (the belief that Matthew was the first gospel), would downplay the controversy, and ignore any reasonable argumentation that skeptics or other biblical scholars would bring to the table. Regardless of one’s position of Markan or Matthean priority, we should all seek to find a theological, hermeneutical, historical, and reasonable argument to defend our positions.
Let’s establish the main questions and allegations against Mark 2:26. Did Mark make a mistake when referencing Abiathar as high priest? Did Jesus make a theological error when referencing 1 Samuel 21? Did Matthew and Luke choose to disregard Mark’s statement because of his error? I want to spend the rest of our time in this article answering these questions. I will condense the issues into five main arguments that are made in regard to this text.
1.) Jesus misspoke when referencing 1 Samuel 21.
2.) Mark’s source (likely Peter) was mistaken when giving him the material.
3.) Mark wrote it wrong.
4.) This is a textual variant problem.
5.) This is a hermeneutical misinterpretation.
Argument 1: Jesus Misspoke
Typically, this audience is made up of Jew’s who deny the deity of Jesus, or different groups of skeptics. Rabbi D. M. Cohn-Sherbok argues “though Jesus seems to have been familiar with rabbinic hermeneutics, the arguments he employs are invalid from a rabbinic point of view.1” Even some who hold to the impeccability (inability to sin) of Christ would argue that Jesus could make mistakes, and still not commit sin. The argumentation goes along these lines, “Jesus had to learn how to walk like all other children. Therefore, in the process of learning, He would no doubt have tripped and fallen in His endeavor to walk. He also increased in wisdom just as He did in stature according to Luke 2:52. Therefore, He made mistakes even in His education of writing and speaking throughout His childhood.”
I would agree that mistakes are not equivalent to sin. I would also agree that Jesus did not come out of the womb speaking fluent Aramaic and writing full sentences in Koine Greek. I would also agree that Jesus fell as a toddler while learning how to walk, and had to learn to put two sentences together. However, we are dealing with a theological mistake, not a development flaw. This argumentation is comparing apples to oranges. Jesus making a mistake in His theology would have damaged His own messiahship in His ability to understand and teach the Old Testament.
Let’s examine this argument through context and logic. In Mark 2, the Pharisees are completely outraged that Jesus’ disciples were plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath. By Jewish tradition, this is a violation of the Sabbath. Jesus responds with a rebuttal in the form of a question about the life of David. If Jesus in the heat of debate, would have misspoken, and made a theological error, His adversaries would have viciously attacked Him, and discredited His argument. In fact, Jesus would have lost the debate and Peter would have been embarrassed to share this story with Mark had the Pharisees seen Jesus as making a mistake.
Consider this in the text, the Pharisees could not find fault with His teaching and continued on in their search for error. In Mark 3, they watched carefully to see if Jesus would heal a man on the Sabbath. Verse 2 of the chapter reads, “they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath so that they might accuse Him.” The first conflict over the Sabbath in chapter 2 was clearly not a win for the Pharisees argumentation. They were still looking for an accusation to trap Jesus with, even after His statement of “Abiathar” being the high priest.
My conclusion is this: position number 1 fails to meet a valid textual conclusion, coupled with a logical conclusion. If there was an audience in the world that was cheering for Jesus to slip up, it was the Pharisees. If Jesus misspoke by saying “Abiathar,” His ability to argue with the religious crowd of His day would have ended.
Argument 2: Mark’s Source was Wrong
Most church fathers from the 1st century on would agree that Peter was the man behind the Gospel of Mark. Bishop Papias of Hierapolis (60-130AD) claimed often that Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome as he scribed the preaching of Peter2. Irenaeus (130-200AD) also claimed that Mark penned his Gospel, as a scribe for Peter3. Other’s such as Tertullian, Eusebius, Justin Martyr, Clement, and Origen all attributed Mark’s Gospel to Peter. I believe it’s a safe conclusion from history, to attribute Mark’s Gospel to the oral teachings of Peter.
My main argument against Peter telling Mark incorrect information is that there’s no proof. To examine this claim, someone would have to bring evidence to the table in order to make this a viable argument. To this day, there is no viable evidence outside of assumption to support this claim. However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume this to be viable. Regardless of the date someone assigns to the Gospel of Mark, the events of Jesus’ life were a minimum of 25 years earlier to the writings. Peter had been teaching these stories of Jesus for a minimum of 25 years all throughout his ministry. At some point in time, it is likely that someone would have approached Peter about this error and pointed out that his information was incorrect. Even though Mark would have been faithful to write everything Peter said, he likely would have pressed the issue with Peter as well. There’s no doubt that Mark would have heard the story dozens of times from Peter before writing it. Argument number 2 seems to lack evidence and only makes the assumption as to what “may have” happened in transmission.
Argument 3: Mark Wrote It Wrong
Argument number 3 is the most common view among critical scholars. H. A. W. Meyer states in his commentary “Mark has erroneously confounded these two4” A modern critic who holds this position is Bart Ehrman. He tells of a story in his book “Misquoting Jesus” that while a student at Princeton, he was writing a paper for a doctoral seminar defending one of the classic Christian harmonizations of this verse. His professor asked him why he could not just accept the fact that Mark made a mistake5. This study began a major transformation for Ehrman. He eventually accepted this as a mistake made by Mark, and therefore, the scripture is unreliable. Ehrman would ultimately accept any view today that would point to Mark or Jesus as making a mistake. However, his journey began by concluding that Mark made a mistake. There’s more validity to this argument than arguments 1 and 2. The likelihood of Jesus mentioning the wrong name, and Peter rehearsing that same incorrect name for many years, is less likely based on what we have learned in arguments 1 and 2. It’s more reasonable to assume Mark just documented it wrong on the original autograph.
Matthew and Luke chose to leave out the extended phrase “in the days of Abiathar the high priest” or “when Abiathar was the high priest.” Did Matthew and Luke omit the phrase because they rejected Mark’s perspective? It is clear through internal evidence that often times, Matthew and Luke expounded upon Mark’s writings. A Markan priority makes the most sense when statistically comparing the Synoptic Gospels. It would appear that Matthew primarily used Mark’s material along with a document most scholars call Q. “Q” comes from the German word “Quelle” which means “source,” and it allegedly contained teachings of Jesus that Matthew and Luke used that are not found in Mark.
The question still remains, “did Mathew and Luke purposely remove the controversial phrase?” The answer, though basic, is that there is no written documentation that states Matthew or Luke rejected the reading as an error. There are no historical documents written by Matthew, Luke, or any patristic writer, that would give evidence to this assumption. This allegation is simply made on an assumption of omission. This is not the only text in Mark’s Gospel where he includes information that Matthew and Luke do not. In Mark’s account of the rich young ruler coming to Jesus (Mark 10:17-22), there is a serious claim about Jesus that Matthew and Luke chose not to include in their writings. In verse 21, Mark makes the claim that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Why did Matthew and Luke choose to neglect this important statement in their accounts? Should we assume that they rejected this view of Jesus? I do not believe that their refusal to include these kinds of statements were acts of rejection. Rather, they were most likely issues of relevance to their designated audiences and readers.
Some contend that since our earliest manuscripts of Mark 2 are roughly 3rd century, perhaps there’s a papyrus manuscript out there still buried in the sand that we have not archaeologically discovered as of yet. Perhaps that could be the case. However, that’s a major assumption without any proof. Because this view lacks evidence, we should not make this the basis for our argumentation. It’s also an assumption to dogmatically state that Mark intentionally or unintentionally wrote Abiathar, instead of Ahimelech, as a mistake. How do we know Mark did not intentionally use Abiathar’s name? Was Mark this careless with his documentation anywhere else in his writings? Mark referenced the Old Testament frequently, without this kind of controversy. We can equally assume, from a lack of evidence, that Mark either intentionally wrote Abiathar or accidentally wrote Abiathar. Neither of these positions can stand alone in defense. More reasoning would need to take place in order to weigh the evidence. Most of these issues will be addressed in argument number 5.
Argument 4: This is a Textual Variant
This argument would be the easiest one to excuse away the discrepancy. Some of the Western manuscripts remove the statement of Abiathar altogether. It would appear that scribes throughout history struggled with this passage as well. The Western manuscripts were known as “missionary texts” and the format was known as a “diglot.” A diglot manuscript would have Greek written on the left side of the page, and the Latin on the right. They were known as missionary texts because they were used to bring the Gospel into mostly European nations. Latin had become the main language of Europe, and Koine Greek was slowly vanishing out of the picture. In the process of transmission, Western scribes likely omitted the statement in order to guard the integrity of Jesus, Mark, and Peter. We cannot say for certain. Although one might appreciate their faithfulness to the message of Jesus, this method only brought harm to the argument. Even as a conservative evangelical, I affirm with the skeptics, that this was a purposeful omission to protect the message. Reasonable eclecticism would label this omission as not viable.
Other manuscripts such as various minuscule Byzantine manuscripts add the article τοῦ before ἀρχιερέως (high priest). The significance of the article is that it turns ἀρχιερέως into an appositive, while the anarthrous noun remains a predicate genitive to Ἀβιαθάρ (Abiathar). This means it would read similar to “in the days of Abiathar the high priest”. Most modern translations chose this rendering, by following the manuscripts that included the article τοῦ. The NKJV chose to italicize the entire statement “in the days” indicating the translators were not convinced this was an original reading. Oddly enough, their mandate to follow the Textus Receptus would allow for them to translate it as “in the days of Abiathar the high priest” or similar to the phrase. Though they translated it properly, their usage of italics with “in the days” seems odd given the fact that it could properly be translated directly from the Greek without using italics. It would appear that they also struggled to confirm this reading as the best even though their text contained it.
When it comes to other modern translations, it is interesting that many of them translated against their textual mandate. None of the current Nestle-Aland editions contain the article τοῦ before ἀρχιερέως. Yet, many of the modern translations (ie NASB, ESV, NIV) chose to translate the sentence as if it were included. In fact, not even the Robinson-Pierpont Majority text contains the article. The article is only found in a few Byzantine text types, along with a few Caesarean type readings. Though there’s some evidence to prove textually that the article belongs, it has muddied the waters more by translators appearing to purposely neglect their textual mandates.
There’s no doubt that the difficulty of defending Mark 2:26 would be more manageable if the article is legitimately found in the text. The question is, “what did Mark write?” This is a difficult one to discern even in textual criticism because the evidence can swing both ways. As Daniel Wallace regularly teaches his students, choose the reading that best explains both internally and externally the rise of the others. Though there seems to be some evidence to the article, the weight of textual criticism stands against it. Meaning the best reading would be “ἐπὶ ᾿Αβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως” which could be translated “when Abiathar was high priest.” So where does this leave us? Does this confirm that Mark, Peter, or Jesus made a mistake? We will examine these questions more closely in argument number 5.
Since the evidence does not weigh in favor of the reading “ἐπὶ ᾿Αβιαθὰρ (τοῦ) ἀρχιερέως(in the days of Abiathar the high priest),” I will not attempt to defend a reading that can be easily refuted. Wishful thinking would love for this reading to be true, as it makes the text easier to defend and explain away the discrepancy. However, we must look at the facts. The textual weight lies in the sentence structure without the article “τοῦ” in front of ἀρχιερέως (high priest). The reading with the most evidence is “ἐπὶ ᾿Αβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως.” The significance of this is that ἐπὶ ἀρχιερέως involves a predicate genitive “when Abiathar was high priest” while ἐπὶ ᾿Αβιαθὰρ τοῦ ἀρχιερέως involves an appositive to ᾿Αβιαθάρ “in the time of Abiathar the high priest.” This one article changes the entire structure of the sentence.
Argument 5: This is a Hermeneutical Misinterpretation
There are five possible arguments to defend this position. 1.) We have assumed that Ahimelech was the high priest in 1 Samuel 21. Ahimelech’s first appearance is in 1 Samuel 21:1 and his last appearance was at his death in 1 Samuel 22:16. In the ten appearances of his name, not one of them mentions him as being the high priest. It does, however, mention that he was a priest. Ahimelech was in the city of Nob when David came to inquire bread. However, Ahimelech was not the only priest in the city of Nob. The city was known as “the city of priests (1 Sam 22:19).” When Saul inquired of Ahimelech about whether or not he fed David, Saul called for all the priests to come before him (1 Sam 22:11). Saul’s fury against Ahimelech lead to Doeg killing 85 total priests of the Lord (1 Sam 22:18). The observation that needs be made is that we have hermeneutically assumed that Ahimelech was the high priest without any clear statement of it in 1 Samuel 21-22.
2.) We’ve assumed that there could only have been one high priest. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Ahimelech was a high priest. Is it possible that there could be more than one high priest in Israel? Let me give you two examples of where this took place in the New and Old Testament. In Jesus’ day, there were two official high priests, Annas and Caiaphas. According to Luke 3:2, “Annas and Caiaphas were high priests..” When Jesus stood trial, He was sent to Annas first (John 18:13-14), and then later sent to Caiaphas for examination (John 18:19-23). It is accurate to say that Jesus stood trial “when Annas was high priest in Jerusalem.” It is equally accurate to say that Jesus stood trial “when Caiaphas was high priest in Jerusalem.” Caiaphas was the son-in-law to Annas. It was clear that Annas was stepping out of the lead role, and allowing his son-in-law to lead the duties of the high priest.
Is it possible, that Ahimelech and his son Abiathar were both high priests unto the Lord; in the same way that Annas and Caiaphas were high priests? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. But let’s bring this closer to home. Is there an example of this in the Old Testament? Specifically, is there an example in the lifetime of David? Yes, there is an example, in fact, Abiathar is our example. In 2 Samuel 15:24-35, we see Abiathar sharing the responsibilities of a priest with a man named Zadok (2 Sam. 15:35). These two men served as priests unto the Lord all the days of David’s life. It is difficult to discern who was the “high priest” in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel because this particular term is never used. Could it be that Jesus was identifying in Mark’s Gospel, who the high priest was in the time of David’s entrance into the city of Nob? Or could it be that Abiathar and his father Ahimelech were both high priests at the same time, and Jesus referenced the more dominant character? We will discuss this more in-depth later, but both these ideas are viable options to consider when trying to reason through possibilities.
3.) We’ve hermeneutically assumed that Jesus was connecting the event of David, in the house of God, with Abiathar being the one who fed him. Jesus never said Abiathar gave David the showbread. It’s easy to assume that Jesus was insinuating that Abiathar fed David because his name was mentioned in the equation. Regardless of one’s stance on “when Abiathar was high priest” or “in the days of Abiathar the high priest,” there is no direct statement from Jesus or Mark that Abiathar was the one who fed David.
4.) We have limited the definition of the preposition ἐπὶ. Mark was not limited in how often he used the pronoun. In his Gospel account alone, he used ἐπὶ fifty-one times. Out of the fifty-one appearances, eighteen of them are used with a genitive object similar to the usage in the controversial Mark 2:26. Out of the eighteen, sixteen of them could easily be translated “before, in the presence of, or upon.6” These are common translations of the preposition ἐπὶ when following a genitive object in the Greek.
These common translations seem to fit the context in most of Mark’s usages. But in Mark 2:26, it does not translate properly. Most scholars would settle on the preposition “when” in translating ἐπὶ from this passage. However, there is another passage in Mark where this same dilemma appears in translation. In Mark 12:26, we see this sentence structure “ἐπὶ τοῦ βάτου (in the burning bush passage or in the passage about the burning bush) as an example of the same dilemma. To translate ἐπὶ τοῦ βάτου literally would read like this, “upon the bush, in the presence of the bush, or before the bush, God spoke to Moses.” If we go back to Exodus 3:4, it is clear through the Hebrew terminology, that God spoke from “within or in the midst(תָּוֶךְ tavek)” of the bush. Therefore, ἐπὶ must have a broader definition at times in certain contexts such as Mark 2:26 and Mark 12:26.
Anglican scholar J.W. Wenham made the argument that both in Mark 2:26 and Mark 12:26, the ἐπὶ may be understood as pointing to a specific Old Testament scripture7. So the reading would be in Mark 2:26 “in the passage about Abiathar the high priest.” And in Mark 12:26, it would read “in the passage about the burning bush.” Though the word “passage” is an English supply word, it certainly fits the layout of what Jesus was saying in Mark 12:26. Could this also be applied in the usage of ἐπὶ in Mark 2:26? I believe this position has viable argumentation to support a broader understanding of the preposition ἐπὶ and should be considered.
5.) Lastly, the usage of names to bring the audience or readers mind to a specific section of scripture. In regards to J.W. Wenham’s argument above, W.L. Lane finds Wenham’s argument “attractive.” However, he shares an objection to this view because Abiathar was not the central character in 1 Samuel 218. Though I can appreciate W.L. Lane’s perspective, I must disagree with his concern. The New Testament writers and orators did not have the luxuries that we have today to say, “Look back at 1 Samuel 21:1-6.” To start, 1 and 2 Samuel are considered one “book” in the Hebrew Bible. Second, chapter content was not fully established until the early 13th century by an Archbishop named Stephen Langston. Thirdly, verse content was not invented until 1551 in Robertus Stephanus’ 4th edition of his Greek New Testament.
To identify a specific text, Jesus would have used a specific event (David eating the showbread) and a major character who was a renowned leader in that same time frame (Abiathar). Though Ahimelech is mentioned as the priest who fed David, his name is limited in usage as compared to Abiathar. Ahimelech’s name is mentioned ten times in 1 Samuel 1-23 before his death. Out of the ten times he is mentioned, two of them are in reference to Abiathar being his son. However, Abiathar’s name is mentioned twenty-eight times throughout the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. He served David as a priest throughout his entire reign as king. Abiathar was the more recognizable name.
It was not uncommon for Mark to reference an Old Testament passage by giving precedence to the more renowned character. He did this in Mark 1:2-3 when quoting both Isaiah and Malachi9. Mark’s citation seems to give Isaiah credit for both Old Testament quotations. Why would Mark do this in his writings? It was not uncommon for a Jewish writer to quote the more renowned character of scripture. It’s not that Malachi was less significant or unimportant, after all, Mark quoted his words from Malachi 3:1. It was more of making a written point of emphasis to the reader.
Within this realm of names helping identify passages of scripture, consider this possibility as well. There were two Ahimelech’s mentioned by name in the lifetime of Abiathar: Abiathar’s father and also his son. Apparently, Abiathar named his son Ahimelech after his father (1 Chron. 24:6). For Jesus to state the name Ahimelech to an audience without a book, chapter, and verse content could have caused confusion rather than clarity. Especially since Abiathar’s priesthood far surpassed his father’s, and his son’s in citations.
Daniel Wallace is notorious for saying “an ounce of evidence is worth a pound of presumption.” There are many theories and presumptions about Mark 2:26. I fear that believers have been willing to trade evidence and truth for certainty in this matter. I do not believe that any view in the passage can walk away with absolute certainty. I do, however, believe there is enough evidence to give us a good hermeneutical, theological, historical, and reasonable argument for a position. I believe the evidence points itself to being a hermeneutical misinterpretation. Out of the five reasonings within the hermeneutical misinterpretation, I believe good arguments can be made from any or all of the five.
I also do not believe that well-meaning Christians can just write this discrepancy off as a textual variant by accepting minor readings or omissions. We should be honest with the evidence and material that we have without arguing from emotional bias or stubbornness. We should all be willing to chase down the truth and adapt to its findings. Great men all through the centuries struggled with interpreting and understanding this passage. We should not be anxious to run to a quick answer that will disregard or discredit great scholars who spent many months and years trying to answer the questions raised by this text. Each student of the Bible must come to their own conclusion. Their conclusion should demonstrate good hermeneutics, research, logical, and a proper demonstration of the material that is able to be defended. By following this same methodology, I leave my conclusion with argument number 5. I believe it can be argued and defended from various viewpoints greater than any of the other four arguments.
Grace and Peace,
Stephen Boyce Th.D.
1. D. M. Cohn-Sherbok, “An Analysis of Jesus’ Arguments concerning the Plucking of the Grain on the Sabbath,” JSNT 2 (1979) 31-41; here quoting from 31.
2. Ecclesiastical History Book 2 Chapter 15, Book 3 Chapter 30 and Book 6 Chapter 14.
3. Against Heresies (Book 3 Chapter 1)
4. The Gospels of Mark and Luke (Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Edinburgh: Clark, 1890)
5. Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The story behind who changed the Bible and why(San Fransisco: HarperSanFransisco, 2005), 9.
6. Mark 2:10, 4:1,4:26,4:31(2x), 6:47,6:48,6:49,8:6,9:3,9:20,11:4,13:9,13:15,14:35,14:51
7.”Mark 2:26,” JTS 1 (1950) 156.
8. The Gospel according to Mark [NIC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974] p.116, n. 86
9. This is a noted textual variant amongst manuscripts. The usage of “Isaiah” vs “prophets.” The weight of textual criticism and reasonable eclecticism affirms that Mark wrote “Isaiah” and later scribes “fixed” the text by changing the name to “prophets” in order to protect the “misquoting” of Malachi. The reading should remain “Isaiah” with the understanding that Jewish writers would often quote the more renown character of scripture. This was known as conflation (also see Matt. 27:9-10).
Edited by Kate Zerndt