Bultmann was not right about everything, but he was certainly right when he recognized that presuppositionless exegesis was not possible. There are few texts where an exegete’s presuppositions can cloud his interpretation more than Mark 2.26. The issue here is not simply a conservative vs. liberal debate. Of course, battle lines are drawn by one’s bibliological convictions, but the tapestry of this passage is richer than that. Source criticism (specifically, whether one holds to Markan priority or Matthean priority), tradition criticism, textual criticism, and christological constructs are also lurking in the background here, to name a few. We will have a chance to explore these issues only briefly in the time allotted.
In Mark 2.26, as found in Nestle-Aland27, Jesus is reported as saying: πῶς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ θεοῦ ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως καὶ τοὺς ἄρτους τῆς προθέσεως ἔφαγεν, οὓς οὐκ ἔξεστιν φαγεῖν εἰ μὴ τοὺς ἱερεῖς, καὶ ἔδωκεν καὶ τοῖς σὺν αὐτῷ οὖσιν; Or, in English, “Haven’t you ever read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry? How he entered into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the sacred bread that is not lawful for anyone but priests to eat, and also gave it to his companions?” (Mark 2.25-26). The fundamental problem with the phrase “when Abiathar was high priest” is that this incident in David’s life is recorded in but one passage in the OT, 1 Sam 21.1-7. But there, Ahimelech is mentioned as the priest; Abiathar, his son, would later become high priest, but he is not introduced into the narrative for another chapter (22.20).
On the one hand, the prepositional phrase, ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως, has caused some angst for evangelicals because it ostensibly is a historical error. And if so, whose error is it? Did some early scribe corrupt his copy of Mark, which then influenced other witnesses and became the predominant text? Or did Mark add this as an editorial comment on his own? Or did he copy down accurately what his source said (which, according to patristic writers at least, would have been the apostle Peter)—a source that created the historical discrepancy? Or is it possible that Mark’s source repeated Jesus’ words accurately, but that Jesus made a mistake? Or did Jesus summarize the OT text accurately, but the OT was in error? Assigning error to someone is one route that is taken today in dealing with this problem. What I wish to contend, however, is that several presuppositions are at work in assigning blame; the matter cannot simply be isolated to a bibliological problem. Yet even here, there are rather different approaches to the problem by evangelicals.
In addition to the bibliological issue is the question of which Gospel came first. Those who embrace Markan priority tend to argue for an error on Mark’s part that would have been detected and eliminated by Matthew and Luke. Those who embrace Matthean priority tend to downplay any error on Mark’s part by various, although rather brief, explanations.
Then there is the christological issue. Very few scholars even entertain the notion that Jesus could have had a mental lapse. Here is where both liberal and conservative scholars are usually in agreement, but for different reasons: the more conservative scholars, because of their high christology and high bibliology, almost never raise the possibility that Jesus could have erred for that would apparently impugn the character of both the Lord and the Bible. Less conservative scholars (moderate as well as liberal) often see only part of the pericope going back to Jesus, and v 26 is sometimes relegated to a later source. But Jewish scholars have no problem seeing this pericope going back to Jesus and attributing error to him.
Textual criticism also plays a role in this passage. There are variants that either alter the prepositional phrase and its subsequent translation or eradicate it altogether. But one’s text-critical theories inform his decision here—or at least they should!
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, the interpretations of this text are so vast and our time so short that we will have to park ourselves on that part of the iceberg that is above water. Perhaps that is the safest place to be though after all.
The fundamental problem in this text is that Abiathar was not the high priest when David went into the sanctuary and ate the showbread. This raises several questions; in the least, someone or something seems to be wrong. Here are the facts: (1) 1 Sam 21.1-7 mentions Ahimelech as the priest when David entered the sanctuary; (2) Abiathar was Ahimelech’s son; although he was a priest when this incident occurred, he was not the high priest but would become so later (after Saul murdered his father and eighty-four other priests); (3) Ahimelech’s ministry was in Nob, while Abiathar’s would especially be in Jerusalem; (4) except for the possibility of text-critical solutions, Mark’s Gospel has the words ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως, normally translated “when Abiathar was high priest.” In addition, there are several other, less significant differences between the dominical version of this story and that found in 1 Sam 21.1-7 (Gundry lists seven). Continue Reading →