Bart Ehrman and the problem of Mark 2:26

Category: Bible/Christian Worldview 23 1

In the introductory chapter of his best-selling book, Misquoting Jesus, Bible scholar Bart Ehrman recounts how he went from being a Christian to a skeptic. In his story, he mentions that one of the passages that led to his eventual unbelief was Mark 2:26.[1] In Mark 2:26, Jesus brings up the Old Testament account of King David and the priest Abiathar to make a point about the Sabbath. While speaking Jesus says, “In the days of Abiathar, the high priest, he [David] entered the house of God…”

It may not seem like much, but this verse contains an alleged difficulty. What is this problem you ask? To understand, let us briefly go over the story of David and Abiathar. In 1 Samuel 21:1-6, we read about David fleeing to Nob. Here David comes to the house of God and the priest, Ahimelech. At the time David was being pursued by Saul, who was the reigning king. David and those with him were hungry, and David asked Ahimelech for some bread.

The problem with what Jesus said was that the incident with David occurred when Ahimelech was a priest, not Abiathar. Abiathar was the son of Ahimelech, and he didn’t become a priest until shortly after this episode. So, we have an issue with Jesus not knowing the history of Israel. According to skeptics, Jesus should have said, “In the days of Ahimelech…”

Is there a reasonable solution?

Did Jesus or Mark make a mistake or is there a reasonable answer to this issue? Let’s begin by looking at what Jesus said. In Greek, he simply says, “epi Abiathar archiereos,” which means “in the time of Abiathar, the high priest.” Scholar Gleason Archer notes that “epi with the genitive simply means ‘in the time of.’”[2] It could also be translated “in the days of.”[3] It is also possible that the Greek idiom in this verse can also carry the meaning of “in the passage about Abiathar.”[4] Typically, however, the first two meanings are the ones accepted.

So, does this verse refer only to the period when Abiathar was a priest or could it carry the meaning of during his lifetime in general which means there would be no problem in what Jesus said? The latter is not impossible. It would be like saying “’Now when King David was a shepherd boy,’ even though David was not actually a king at the time he was a shepherd boy.”[5] Another example would be “When President Obama was attending college…” He was not the president when he was going to school.

In fact, what I said in the introduction to this article is a better example. I said, “In Mark 2:26, Jesus brings up the Old Testament account of King David and the priest Abiathar to make a point about the Sabbath.” David was not king when the episode involving Ahimelech and Abiathar happened. I referred to him as “King” David because this is what most readers know him by.

The episode of David eating the consecrated bread did happen during the time of Abiathar, but not while he was a priest.[6] In fact, shortly after David left Ahimelech, Saul came in and killed everyone there except Abiathar. He fled to David and served as his priest. “Thus, it was during the time of Abiathar, but not during his tenure in office.”[7]

What does this mean?

Although it is possible to conclude that Jesus was referring to the actual time when Abiathar was a priest, it is equally possible that the alternate explanation is correct for the reasons given in this article. This interpretation is perfectly reasonable given the context. This is important to understand as this seems to be a problem that skeptics constantly commit when reading the Bible (and to be fair Christians have committed this error as well). They come across a passage that could be interpreted one way, and they end their study believing that no other explanations can exist.

Mark 2:26 shows us that when we come to a place in Scripture (or any document for that matter) where there might be a problem we should exhaust all of our options. We shouldn’t immediately give up when our instinct tells us one interpretation is correct when further study can reveal another point of view.

Ehrman mentions that when he wrote a paper on this passage, he “developed a long and complicated argument” to come to the same conclusion that we have here. He believed that his argument “was a bit convoluted,” and his professor admitted that Mark might have made a mistake. This, according to Ehrman, opened a “floodgate” and he now would follow a path of skepticism.[8]

This is remarkably sad because a reasonable answer to Mark 2:26 does not need “a long and complicated answer.” The answer was very simple. What Ehrman’s long argument was I do not know since he does not go into detail on what it was. Answers to difficult questions do not need to be overthought.

What do you think? Did Jesus make an error in Mark 2:26? Leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.

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[1] Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2005), 8-9.

[2] Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 362.

[3] Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1992), 370.

[4] Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell, The Bible Handbook of Difficult Verses (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2013), 207.

[5] Archer, 362.

[6] Archer, 362; McDowell & McDowell, 207.

[7] Geisler & Howe, 370.

[8] Ehrman, 9.

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