Was Jesus Mistaken About Abiathar? : Why Thoughtful Study is Better Than Ad-Hoc Harmonizations

In his 2005 New York Times best seller, Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman told the story of how he discovered that there were mistakes in the Bible. Despite having attended stalwart evangelical institutions, like Moody Bible College and Wheaton College, in Illinois, Ehrman arrived at Princeton Theological Seminary, having serious questions about the Bible’s reliability.

….. in a series on the “historical criticism” of the Bible….

Did Jesus mess up when He referenced the Old Testament, or did He say what He did on purpose? (Credit: Christianity Today magazine.)

When Harmonization is Helpful … and When the Search for Ad-Hoc Harmonizations Can Lead Someone Away from Faith

Bart Ehrman decided to write a hefty paper about a famous Bible discrepancy in Mark  2, where critics have claimed that Jesus mistakenly named “Abiathar” as a high priest in days of King David, when he should have used the name “Ahimelich.” Ehrman used the tools of “historical criticism” he had learned, trying to harmonize the details to somehow make the Bible “fit.” After pages and pages of analysis, a professor suggested to him that perhaps Mark or Jesus simply got that particular detail wrong.

At that moment, years of effort to “defend the Bible” came crashing down around Dr. Erhman. He remained a Christian after that for a few years, albeit a rather liberal or progressive one. But he gave up his faith altogether soon thereafter, the process of deconstruction having run its course to a full-blown agnosticism, if not downright atheism.

This story helped to catapult book sales of Misquoting Jesus, and later titles, thus giving Dr. Erhman the privilege of selling millions of books, for over the past 17 years. Every year or so, I have run into someone I know, or someone close to them, who has looked to Dr. Ehrman’s books as part of their deconstruction movement out of Christianity. Anytime Dr. Ehrman shows up on YouTube, he gets thousands of views.

Now, I am not saying that Dr. Erhman has been in it for the money. He is not. Nor is he purposefully attempting to destroy the faith of other believers in telling his story. He is not doing that either. Some Christians take a cheap shot at Ehrman and make wild accusations like these. Not only are such accusations unfair, they fail to adequately address some valid questions about what the Bible is actually teaching, concerns raised by Dr. Ehrman.

Other Christians have taken a more measured approach, but still find themselves nervous when they hear such claims, suggesting that Jesus, or someone else in the Bible, was wrong. The natural tendency is then to gravitate towards some relatively quick, ad hoc explanation of the discrepancy. You then latch onto some “possible” way of interpreting a passage differently, breathe a sigh of relief, and then move onto the next difficulty.

Now, such harmonization is not without merit. One of my favorite YouTube apologists, Inspiring Philosophy, somewhat leans towards this very approach with that passage. However, caution is in order, as such harmonization efforts can easily come across as either self-serving or overly complex, thereby encouraging skeptical critics to remain hardened in their skepticism.

A Quick Sidebar: One or Two Temple Cleansings?

A quick example here can suffice: All four Gospels each record one instance of Jesus cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem. However, while Matthew, Mark and Luke place this event around the week prior to Jesus’ Crucifixion, John places the event at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Some Christians, with godly scholarly support, contend for a harmonization approach, whereby we are to conclude that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice during his public ministry, first at the beginning of His public ministry, and second towards the end of His public ministry (One gracious, friendly commentator on a previous blog post even gave me a theological reason why there must have been two cleansings…. though well intended, I was not convinced).

While there is nothing technically wrong with this harmonization, it can come across as sounding rather ad hoc, or forced, as it fails to answer the question as to why no one single Gospel records the two Temple cleansings. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that Jesus could have gotten away with the first Temple cleansing in John, without getting arrested, but the second Temple cleansing chimes in well with his arrest later in the Passion Week.

Rather, a much better solution is to say that John was not trying to give a chronological account of the one Temple cleansing. Instead, John put the (single) Temple cleansing first in his narrative, to theologically highlight the fact that Jesus came to take down the Old Covenant, as represented by the Temple, and install a New Covenant, centered around faith in Jesus as the Son of God.

In other words, Temple worship does not save us. But faith in Jesus does. And that is Good News!! There is no real concern about possibly “de-historicizing” or “demythologizing” the Bible, as Rudolf Bultmann tried to do. It just makes better sense to read the text this way. No ad hoc harmonization required.

The main problem with a rather ad hoc harmonization approach to the Scriptures is that it tends to reduce Bible study to working a puzzle, merely trying to find solutions to a problem to be solved, instead of seeing Bible discrepancies as a window into exploring a mystery that sets a truly Christian imagination on fire. While sometimes solving a puzzle in the Bible is a worthwhile endeavor, as is the case with syncing up Paul’s description of his missionary journeys, when compared to potential discrepancies we find in the Book of Acts, the rich 2,000 year history of Christian reading and study of the Scriptures suggests meditating on the intricacies of Bible discrepancies actually helps the reader enter into the theological depths of God’s Word, at a whole new level. When the juices begin to flow to help the believer to expand their imagination, to think God’s thoughts after Him, to see that there are mysteries unfolding in the text, then that is a wonderful sign that the Holy Spirit is at work.

Connecting the dots associated with what at first appears to be conflicting data points in the Bible have led to some of the most remarkable conversions in the history of the church. It is that type of fired up Christian imagination that helped to turn former skeptics, like the 5th century Augustine of Hippo, to the 20th century Oxford don, C.S. Lewis, to having faith in Jesus. Bishop Ambrose in Rome helped Augustine see the Bible in a whole new way. J.R.R. Tolkien did this for his Oxford scholar/friend C.S. Lewis.

A Case Study on Doing Bible Study Without Excessive Harmonization

British pastor/teacher Andrew Wilson takes the difficult Mark 2 passage regarding Jesus’ supposed “mistake” about Abiathar as an illustration to make this very point, and he makes the illustration a lot better than I can. I took part of Wilson’s essay from behind the paywall at Christianity Today magazine to post the best part here, so I hope Christianity Today will not mind (it may just inspire someone to subscribe to CT, which would be for their benefit).  Enjoy and be edified:

One of my favorite discrepancies is Jesus’ “mistake” in Mark 2. In this passage, the Pharisees criticize Jesus for letting his disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath. In response, Jesus explains that he and his friends are doing what David and his men did when they ate the holy bread in the time of Abiathar the high priest (Mark 2:25–26). The problem is, 1 Samuel 21 tells us that Ahimelech, not his son Abiathar, was the high priest at the time that David and his men ate the holy bread. Either Jesus made a mistake or Mark did. In either case, evangelicals get nervous.

Scholar Bart Ehrman said that when he discovered this discrepancy in seminary, it kick-started his departure from Christianity. Progressive UK pastor Steve Chalke made it his opening salvo in a debate with me about the truthfulness of the Bible. Countless Christians, on the other hand, upon seeing the problem, have rushed to their study Bibles or other resources where they discover, in relief, that the Greek phrase epi Abiathar could mean “in the passage about Abiathar” rather than “in the time of Abiathar.” “That must be it,” they exclaim. “Problem solved. On to Mark 3.”

Yet there is far more going on in Mark 2. Jesus’ argument is not that he has found an obscure guy in the Old Testament who once ate bread on a Saturday. His point is that David, Israel’s true king-in-waiting, and his consecrated friends were allowed the holy bread that day. Jesus is interpreting his actions through the story of Israel’s greatest king. He is saying, in that cryptic way he often does, “I am David. These guys are my men. So they can eat what they want.”

So Jesus is David, the true king of Israel, and the disciples are his allies. But they aren’t the only characters in the story. Herod is Saul, the current king who has drifted from God and now wants to kill the pretender to the throne. John the Baptist is Samuel, the fiery prophet who prepares the way for the new king and confronts the old one. Judas is Doeg the Edomite, the betrayer. And Abiathar? He is Eli’s great-great-grandson, the last surviving member of the old priestly line, whose eventual removal from the priesthood would prove true God’s word through Samuel (1 Kings 2:27).

All of this means that Jesus mentions Abiathar rather than Ahimelech for good reason. He is saying, “I am David, these are my men, and the current priests are Abiathar. They are in charge now, but in just a few years their priesthood will end, just like Abiathar’s. And my kingdom will be established, just like David’s.”

I think that’s wonderful. The Holy Spirit didn’t put discrepancies in Scripture to provide fuel for skeptics, employment for commentators, or annoyance for evangelical Christians. He did it to make us think, search, meditate, read, learn—and be ever filled with awe.

Andrew Wilson’s treatment of this difficult passage is a good example of a better way we should deal with certain Bible discrepancies.  In the next post in this series, just in time for end of Holy Week, we will examine one of the most puzzling passages in the Gospels. To give you a hint, we will be talking about “Zombies” in the Bible. Look for it on Good Friday!

In the meantime, please keep Michael Licona in your prayers for his big 7-hour debate with Bart Ehrman, to be recorded tomorrow, on the question, “Did the Resurrection of Jesus Really Happen?” It happens tomorrow, April 9th, starting at 9:30am, EDT!!

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

2 responses to “Was Jesus Mistaken About Abiathar? : Why Thoughtful Study is Better Than Ad-Hoc Harmonizations

  • Clarke Morledge

    Hi, Boris. Are you going to listen in on tomorrow’s debate between Michael Licona and Bart Ehrman, on the historicity of Jesus’ Resurrection? If you are, I’d be curious to know what your reaction would be to it (Unfortunately, the debate costs $$ to watch, because it will be very long).

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  • Clarke Morledge

    Here is another good example of what on the surface appears to be a mistake, or an error in the Bible, but that is actually an intentionally made statement meant to provoke further thought at a symbolic level:

    In the Bill Mounce post in this historical criticism series, I link to two videos where Mounce discusses the story in the Gospels where the Jesus instructs the disciples to go on a preaching mission throughout Palestine.

    Why I Trust the Bible: Bible Translator Bill Mounce Answers Real Questions and Doubts

    But the Gospel writers differ with respect to whether or not Jesus instructed them to take a staff with them, or NOT to take a staff with them. Interestingly, a lot of Christians take the angle very similar to what Bart Ehrman used to think, in that the Gospels are actually describing two separate events: one mission with taking a staff, and another mission without taking a staff.

    Sure, this is possible. But is it the best explanation? Ehrman once believed this line of thinking, but he later on rejected it to conclude that this episode is describing a single event, and not two events, and that at least one of the Gospel writers made an error and got it wrong. Ehrman’s theological journey is typical of how such deconstruction of Christian faith works in practice. I have seen this time and time again, over and over again:

    https://ehrmanblog.org/are-christian-apologists-just-being-dishonest-what-do-you-think

    But I would argue that there is a better answer. It is the same one that Mike Licona gives in the video below. The Gospel writer who says “take a staff” is describing the historical version, if you had a video recorder present. The other reports are describing the same event, but the admonishment NOT to take a staff is meant to be symbolic, intentionally trying to teach that the disciples should trust in God for all of their needs, and not trust in their own efforts. The Gospels use these types of intentional symbolic rhetorical devices quite frequently, and other Greco-Roman bios literature of the day used these exact same literary techniques!! Which makes sense if you believe that the Gospels were written in the 1st century, by Greek speaking writers!!

    Alas, some Christians are not going to be persuaded by this, and skeptics like Bart Ehrman are not going to be persuaded by it either, despite the abundance of evidence to the contrary!!!!!!

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