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Ehrman on Abiathar: Is the Bible Ever Mistaken?

by Daryl E. Witmer

Bart D. Ehrman was born in 1956. He grew up near Lawrence, Kansas. At the age of 15 he claims to have been spiritually born again. In 1973 he enrolled at Moody Bible Institute and then went on to attend Wheaton College, graduating with a B.A. in 1978. His profile as a young Bible-believing evangelical thinker was nearly impeccable. But then Ehrman went to Princeton Theological Seminary — and everything changed.

One day a Princeton professor by the name of Cullen Story gave Ehrman an assignment that required him to reconcile the apparent discrepancy between 1 Samuel 21:1-6 and Mark 2:26. The 1 Samuel text makes it clear that Ahimelech was high priest when David entered the Temple to acquire bread for his starving men. But in Mark 2 Jesus seems to be saying, when one first reads the text, that when this incident occurred, Abiathar — the son of Ahimelech — was the high priest. How can both accounts be correct?

In order to resolve this seeming conflict, Ehrman wrote a detailed and complex argument based on the meaning of the Greek words in the text and the contention that what was really meant was that this event took place in a part of Scripture that portrays Abiathar as a main character.

He submitted the paper, hoping for the best. When his work was returned he immediately spotted a single-line comment that Professor Story had made at the end of the paper. It said simply, “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.”

Bart Ehrman said that this comment “went straight through me” and resulted, after much reflection, in his finally concluding, “Hmmm. . .maybe Mark did make a mistake.” He says, “Once I made that admission, the floodgates opened.” It wasn’t long before he began to regard the whole Bible as being full of errors. He then published his revised conclusions, and eventually even wrote a book on the subject called Misquoting Jesus, ©2005 HarperOne.

In fact, Dr. Ehrman (today a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) has gone on to write more than 20 other books. He has become popular and proficient at portraying the Bible as a flawed and failed book. His latest release, God’s Problem (©2008 Harper One), denigrates Scripture for providing no adequate response to the difficult issues of suffering and evil.

It seems possible that Bart Ehrman’s mission in life would have been altered had he only realized that resolving the “Abiathar problem” was not so impossible to solve — that it certainly didn’t require anyone to conclude that either Mark or Jesus or both had made a mistake. Other intellectually credible resolutions have been proposed. Read on.

Notice that when Jesus spoke and Mark wrote of David’s visit to the Temple for showbread, the text says that this visit occurred “in the days of Abiathar.” That phrase does not necessarily imply that Abiathar was holding office at the time. (The truth is, he wasn’t!) It simply means that David entered the Temple in the general time that Abiathar (eventually a noted priest) was living.

For instance, if I was to say, “Log cabins were common in President Lincoln’s time” — does that mean that no one ever built or saw a log cabin until Abraham Lincoln became President on March 4, 1861? Hardly. He himself grew up in a log cabin.

In somewhat the same way, Abiathar was an influential high priest in his day –even more so than his father. So it is not unusual that Jesus may have used him as a reference point even before he actually became high priest. David’s visit occurred during the time of Abiathar, although it did not occur during the tenure of Abiathar as high priest.

In whatever way this and other apparent Bible discrepancies are resolved, a resolution is always possible. The Bible, as it originally came from God to men, does not contradict itself. Ever. In the original autographs, the Bible is 100% inherently inerrant. So why doesn’t everyone see it that way? Well, a great deal depends on how one approaches the Bible in the first place. It seems that Professor Story and then, perhaps due to his influence, Bart Ehrman came to view the Bible quite skeptically. They were not, and are not, looking for solutions. They seem to prefer to presume that the Bible is guilty of error.

In their excellent book, When Critics Ask (©1992 Victor), Geisler & Howe state: “The Bible, like any other book, should be presumed to be telling us what the authors said and heard. Negative critics of the Bible begin with just the opposite presumption. Little wonder, then, that they conclude the Bible is riddled with error.”

And little wonder that in this case, instead of The Gospel According to Mark and/or Jesus being wrong, it is Professor Story and Bart Ehrman who are sadly, tragically, wrong.

RECOMMENDED: Misquoting Truth, by Timothy Paul Jones, ©2007 IVP