|Vol. 14 No. 4 April 2012||
Louis Rushmore, Editor
Mark 2:25-26 reads, “And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungered, he, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him?” (KJV). This speech of Jesus also appears in Matthew 12:3-4 and Luke 6:3-4, except that these two Gospel records omit the phrase “in the days of Abiathar the high priest,” which appears in Mark 2:26. However, the Old Testament reference is 1 Samuel 21:1-6, and the name of the priest associated with this event in that text is Ahimelech – not Abiathar.
Hence, Bible critics charge that there is a contradiction between Mark 2:26 and 1 Samuel 21:1. Further, Bible critics claim that the reason for the apparent contradiction within Scripture is owing to any of these following possibilities. (1) The biblical text is wrong or erroneous in either or both passages. (2) Our interpretation of the respective passages is incorrect. (3) Jesus made a mistake, not knowing the Old Testament Scriptures sufficiently well, or He purposely misrepresented events and Scripture in the Old Testament to make a point in His discussion with opponents. (4) The source from which Mark obtained his information was wrong. (5) Mark made a mistake in writing down the facts (Wallace).
Especially Jewish critics of Christianity make pointed attacks on our Lord Jesus Christ based on the comparison of Mark 2:26 with 1 Samuel 21:1. As bad as that is, then, they jump to a call for the dismissal of the entire New Testament and Christianity as well. They say things like, “So from this we see that even the words of Jesus are not reliable. How can it be that the ‘son of God,’ according to Christianity, God himself, makes such elementary mistakes? To a Jewish reader this indicates that the people from the New Testament just did not know their Bible. For a Jew this is enough to disqualify the whole New Testament” (Silver).
Having unshakable confidence in the plenary inspiration of the Bible and the omniscience of the Godhead, it is unthinkable for Christians to imagine that the biblical text has not been providentially preserved satisfactorily to convey truth to mortal man. Likewise, what true Christian could demote Jesus Christ to the frailty of human shortcomings by accusing Him of a lack of familiarity with the Old Testament? He was God in the flesh, and He was active in the Old Testament, as other lessons pertaining to Jehovah in the Old Testament make us understand (1 Corinthians 10:4). The only things that members of the Godhead do not know are things that they have chosen not to know (e.g., past sins of forgiven souls, Hebrews 8:12; 10:17; Jesus while on earth knowing the time of the Second Coming, Matthew 24:36). Being the very image of truth (John 14:6), Jesus Christ would not corrupt the biblical record for the purposes of winning an argument; He was not an advocate, for instance, of situation ethics. Supposing that either Mark’s source were wrong or that Mark himself erred in transcribing the information, or supposing that either Mark’s source or Mark himself purposely injected a contradiction into Scripture for whatever reason is as objectionable as the foregoing suppositions. The integrity of the inspired Word of God and the divine nature of members of the Godhead themselves are at stake.
The only reasonable explanation to Bible believers is that there is a problem with the hermeneutical treatment or interpretation of Mark 2:26. Only after a search for any plausible explanation for harmonizing 1 Samuel 21:1 and Mark 2:26 proved fruitless could one properly come to the conclusion that a contradiction exists in Scripture between those two passages.
One of the fundamental principles of nearly any study or investigation is that of being “innocent until proven guilty.” …A book is presumed internally consistent until it can be shown conclusively that it is contradictory. This approach has been accepted through literary history, and is still accepted today in most venues. …If we believe the Bible is innocent until proven guilty, then any possible answer should be good enough to nullify the charge of error. This principle does not allow for just any answer, but any possible answer. …The Bible student need only show the possibility of a harmonization between passages that appear to conflict in order to negate the force of the charge that a Bible contradiction really exists. (Lyons 8-9)
Gladly, the child of God voluntarily arises to the occasion to defend the Scriptures against attack (Philippians 1:17) and to explain his confidence in the Christian system (1 Peter 3:15). Scripture is inviolate (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21), and counter claims of “the opposing party [have] the burden of proving it [the Bible] to be otherwise” (Greenleaf qtd. in Wallace 9). “Remember, virtually all the Bible difficulties that critics raise have been known for 2,000 years. None of them are new. Instead of throwing your faith away, do some digging” (Pratt).
Well, what are some of the plausible solutions to the apparent contradiction between Mark 2:26 and 1 Samuel 21:1? They are many, but only one is necessary to dispel the notion of biblical contradiction. The Christian has nothing over which to concern himself. Students of God’s Word have always been aware of questions revolving around Mark 2:26, and they have offered numerous suggestions for proper biblical interpretation that disarms cries of contradiction. In no particular order, note the following possible explanations.
One Person, Both Names
“It is possible that both father and son bore both names (1 Sam 22:20; 2 Sam 8:17; 1 Chron 18:16)…” (Robertson’s). From the biblical passages cited by Robertson, one observes that the grandfather was Ahimelech, his son was Abiathar and his son was Ahimelech. “…the line ran thus; Ahimelech, Abiathar, Ahimelech, so that Abiathar was the son of Ahimelech, while Ahimelech (the second) was the son of Abiathar” (Haley 320). The name Ahimelech, then, could have been closely associated with Abiathar also, so that either of the names Ahimelech or Abiathar could rightly refer to the Bible character of 1 Samuel 21:1.
In addition, Bible characters commonly were known by more than one name, so that it could be correct to refer to Ahimelech in 1 Samuel 21:1 as Abiathar.
First, it may be that the two names belonged to the same man. …For example, Moses’ father-in-law was known both as Reuel and Jethro (Exodus 2:18; 3:1). And Peter is sometimes called Peter, Simon Peter, Simon, and Cephas (Matthew 14:28; 16:16; 17:25; John 1:42). It may be that Abiathar and Ahimelech were the same person. (Lyons 10)
Both Ahimelech and Abiathar Were Present
“…Abiathar [is] mentioned though both [were] involved” (Robertson’s) in the event of 1 Samuel 21:1-6. It was common for the son or sons of the high priest to participate with their father in many of the activities of the Tabernacle or Temple. One of the sons of the high priest would eventually be the high priest himself.
Abiathar Better Known than Ahimelech
John Haley observed: “…since Abiathar was, from his long association with king David, much more famous than his father, his name, although he was not as yet high-priest, may be used here by a kind of historical anticipation” (320). “Abiathar served David for the entirety of his reign of 40 years and had the privilege, along with Zadok, of carrying the Ark of the Covenant, the most sacred Jewish religious object” (JPH).
Abiathar was better known than Ahimelech. The son of the high priest was regarded as his successor, and was often associated with him in the duties of his office. It was not improper, therefore, to designate him as high priest even during the life of his father, especially as that was the name by which he was afterward known. …For a long time, during David’s reign, he was high priest, and it became natural, therefore, to associate “his” name with that of David; to speak of David as king, and Abiathar the high priest of his time. This will account for the fact that he was spoken of rather than his father. (Barnes’)
Overlay of Later Title
A title achieved later in life becomes part of one’s designation or identity, even when speaking of events in that person’s life that occurred prior to attainment of the title. This is true respecting the reference to high priest in Mark 2:26: “this was done in the days of ‘Abiathar,’ who was afterward high priest, and was familiarly spoken of as such; as we say that ‘General’ Washington was present at the defeat of Braddock and saved his army, though the title of ‘General’ did not belong to him until many years afterward” (Barnes’). “The words ‘the high priest,’ coming after ‘Abiathar’ are just his title, much like we might say, ‘When President Obama attended college, he made many friends.’ Obama was not president while he was in college, but whenever we mention Obama, we refer to him as President Obama” (JPH).
During the Days of Abiathar
We must be careful to read the text of Mark 2:26 and not to misconstrue the meaning of what our Lord Jesus uttered on that occasion. “…Jesus did not say Abiathar was the priest who ministered to David, but simply that the event occurred during the lifetime of Abiathar. …the phrase ‘in the days of’ may not be intended to modify Abiathar’s priesthood, but his entire life” (Lyons 10).
Of 17 commentaries on Mark that I checked, ranging variably in date and ideological slant, all but one opted to see epi as meaning either “when” or “in the days of” – as a time reference. The one that differed read it as meaning, “in the section of the OT on Abiathar”… Abiathar was a high priest during David’s reign as king, and he is mentioned some 29 times in the Old Testament in relation to his priestly role. Those familiar with the Hebrew Bible in the 1st century (when The Gospel of Mark was written) would easily connect Abiathar to David, so Mark 2:26 is merely reminding readers of the time frame of David’s eating the consecrated bread. (JPH).
First Samuel is correct in stating that the high priest was Ahimelech. On the other hand neither was Jesus wrong. When we take a closer look at Christ’s words we notice that He used the phrase “in the days of Abiathar” (v. 26) which does not necessarily imply that Abiathar was high priest at the time David ate the bread. After David met Ahimelech and ate the bread, King Saul had Ahimelech killed (I Sam. 22:17-19). Abiathar escaped and went to David (v. 20) and later took the place of the high priest. So even though Abiathar was made high priest after David ate the bread, it is still correct to speak in this manner. After all, Abiathar was alive when David did this, and soon following he became the high priest after his father’s death. Thus, it was during the time of Abiathar, but not during his tenure in office. (Howe and Geisler)
1 Samuel 21 Does Not Identify the High Priest
Lyons observes, “…1 Samuel does not give the name of the high priest when Ahimelech assisted David. Samuel mentions a priest named Ahimelech, whereas Christ mentioned a high priest named Abiathar. These were two different offices in the Mosaic age” (10).
Remember, as J.W. McGarvey observed: “We are not bound to show the truth of the given hypothesis; but only that it may be true. If it is at all possible, then it is possible that no contradiction exists…” (qtd. in Lyons 10). Eric Lyons noted:
…the apologist does not have to know the exact solution to an alleged contradiction; he need only show one or more possibilities of harmonization. We act by this principle in the courtroom, in our treatment of various historical books, as well as in everyday-life situations. It is only fair, then, that we show the Bible the same courtesy by exhausting the search for possible harmony between passages before pronouncing one or both accounts false. (11)
We conclude, therefore, that there is no contradiction between Mark 2:26 and 1 Samuel 21:1. The biblical text has not been proven erroneous. Jesus did not make a mistake in what he said in Mark 2:26. Mark did not make an error, unintentionally or otherwise, when he penned Mark 2:26. Any apparent contradiction between Mark 2:26 and 1 Samuel 21:1 is owing to deficient hermeneutics or faulty biblical interpretation. Proper exposition of Mark 2:26 and adequate familiarity with the Scriptures dispels any notion that a contradiction exists in the Bible.
Barnes’ Notes. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2006.
Haley, John W. An Examination of the Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible. Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1951.
Howe Thomas and Norman L. Geisler. The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation. Kindle Edition. Seattle: Amazon, 1992.
JPH. “Mark 2:26 and Abiathar.” Tekton. 12 Apr 2012 <https://www.tektonics.org/tsr/abby.html>.
Lyons, Eric. The Anvil Rings, Vol. 1. Montgomery: Apologetics P., 2003.
Pratt, Bill. “Is There a Mistake in Mark 2:26?” Tough Questions Answered. 12 Apr 2012 <https://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/2009/09/27/is-there-a-mistake-in-mark-226/>
Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2006.
Silver, Eliyahu. “Why don’t the Jewish people recognize the New Testament?” Harrington Sites. 12 Apr 2012 <https://www.harrington-sites.com/Jewish.htm>.
Wallace, Daniel B. “Mark 2:26 and the Problem of Abiathar.” Bible.org. 12 Apr 2012 <https://bible.org/article/mark-226-and-problem-abiathar>.