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Ahimelech and Abiathar Confusion


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In Mark 2:23-28, Jesus refers to a story from 1 Samuel 21. In v. 26, he says "In the days of Abiathar the high priest." But in 1 Samuel 21:1 "the priest" is Ahimelech and in 1 Samuel 22:20 Abiather is introduced as "a son of Ahimelech." Abiathar dominates the priesthood throughout David's reign. Did Jesus make a mistake? Is there a reasonable explanation for this? (5/23/08)
In a former life (i.e., when I worked for a living), I was a risk analyst, and my specialty was scenario development. It was my job to think of all possible outcomes for a given situation and, if possible, the probability of each outcome. So I can always think of several alternative explanations for anything. Drives my husband nuts.

Here are the explanations that occur to me for the apparent disagreement between Mark 2:26 and 1 Samuel 22:20: Possibility 1. We know for a fact that there were things that Jesus did not know during his incarnation, e.g., the day and the hour that heaven and earth shall pass away (Matthew 24:36). We also know that God revealed information to him, even when there was no human way to know it, on a need-to-know basis (John 8:28, 11:14); however, we have no scriptural reason to believe that he knew all facts, e.g., how electricity works, during his incarnation. So for Jesus to know that the scripture was wrong and also to know for sure what was right seems to me to be unlikely in this case, because Jesus doesn’t seem to be referring to any burning need for a correction to the scripture. Regina’s Probability Assessment (RPA) of the earthly Jesus knowing something trivial that was incorrectly recorded in the scripture: 0.05%

Possibility 2. People misremember stuff all the time. I have heard pastors misquote scripture from the pulpit. RPA of misremembering: 2%

Possibility 3. When I was a kid, my dad would say something at the dinner table that was clearly not what he meant to say. Either my mom, my sister, or I would correct him or ask him what he meant. Even though all three of us heard him say the same thing, he was hard to convince, because what he heard was what he meant to say! RPA of misspeaking: 2%

Possibilities 4 and 5. If Jesus said something that agreed with scripture, Peter and Mark would have been very unlikely to make this mistake on their own. They had had years and years of teaching this story orally, and somebody would have pointed out the disagreement, at which point they would have been very careful not to make the same mistake again, especially in writing. RPA of an incorrect recording: 0.05%

Possibility 6. I don’t buy this one. RPA that everybody was wrong: 0.0001%

Possibility 7. Aha! There are indeed a few cases in which verses in scripture flat-out contradict each other, but this example is not one of them. The clue is right there in the reader’s question: Abiathar the High Priest dominated what we would today call the Church throughout most of the reign of David. John Wesley says that Jesus meant, “In the time of Abiathar, who was afterward the high priest.”

Note that Jesus is talking to Pharisees about the Law. He is saying in effect, “You are so concerned about the Law. Yet your own model of earthly righteousness, David, during the time of the famous High Priest Abiathar, ate the showbread. You don’t make any objection to that, and apparently neither did Abiathar, since he was one of David’s supporters. So perhaps your interpretation of the Sabbath Law is incomplete.” RPA that Wesley’s reconciliation is right: 95%

(By the way, the flat-out contradictions are a terrific problem for folks who accept “verbal plenary inspiration” of the Bible. Verbal plenary inspiration means roughly that every word of the scripture was dictated by God, including the translations.)


Copyright 2008, 2013 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved. This page has been prepared for the web site by RPB.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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