An Instructive Biblical Contradiction

I ran across a particularly instructive apparent Biblical contradiction while I was reading Mark the other day. Jesus’ disciples have just gleaned[ref]gleaning means “to gather grain or other material that is left after the main crop has been gathered”[/ref] on the Sabbath, which is unlawful according to the Pharisees. Jesus responds to the Pharisees:

Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26 how he entered the house of God, when Abi′athar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?”

But we have a problem here. Abi’athar wasn’t the high priest during this episode of the Old Testament. His father Ahim’elech was. Abi’athar was present during this episode, but as a priest under his father. Jesus seems to have misremembered history, or possibly Mark (the recorder of this Gospel) or Peter (the traditional source of this Gospel) made a mistake.

A quick note before I launch into analyzing this passage. The first and most important goal of exegesis is understanding what the author meant, not resolving difficulties or attempting to harmonize the Gospels with each other or the Bible as a whole. An explanation that is logically coherent can still fail utterly because it doesn’t mesh with the speaker or author’s historical background and, most importantly, why the speaker or author would word a passage a certain way.

Anyways, the first layer to peel back is the actual Greek. In particular, translating the word ‘when’ here is tricky because ‘when’ in English conveys a more precise timing than the Greek word used (ἐπὶ). An equally valid translation renders the word “in the days of”, as attested to by other translations and ancient Greek sources.

Now speaking generally, Jesus has a reason for mentioning Abi’athar over his father Ahim’elech. According to the commentary from the Second Catholic Edition RSV New Testament:

Jesus probably mentioned Abiathar instead of Ahimelech to post a warning for the Pharisees. Abiathar is infamous in OT history as the last high priest of his line, who was banished from Jerusalem and the priesthood for opposing Solomon, the son of David and the heir of his kingdom (1 Kings 2:26-27). He thus represents the end of an older order that passes away with the coming of David’s royal successor. As Jesus compares himself and the disciples with David and his men, he likewise draws the Pharisees into the story by casting them as figures like Abiathar….Jesus’ allusion to this OT tradition was a subtle yet strategic way to caution the Pharisees against their antagonism to his ministry.

I read many other explanations online (here and here), but I find this explanation the most compelling because, in accordance with the criteria above, it actually provides a reason for why Jesus would speak this way. This manner of interpretation then fits in well with general scholarly understanding of the Gospels: If Jesus said something and the Evangelists mention it in their gospels, those words are mentioned for a reason. The Evangelists mention non-essential actions of Jesus (Like Jesus doodling in the sand), but his quotes are chosen more carefully.

This interpretation also has an added point to commend it: Jesus begins his story with a massive insult towards the Pharisees in saying “Have you never read…” The Pharisees, being learned Jewish men, would be incensed at the implication that they haven’t read the Jewish Scriptures. So he begins his story with a massive internet-worthy insult towards the Pharisees, and ends it with a not-so-veiled warning towards that same group. We thus have coherence of tone. We also have a case of Jesus being sassy, which for the record is more common than people seem to expect of Jesus meek and mild.

I hope this walkthrough was instructive. I don’t claim to have expertise in exegesis, but I figured an amateur with the backing of scholars isn’t too much presumption. Mostly, I wanted to show how even seemingly blatant Biblical errors can make sense without straining credulity given a little research. Overall, that’s the attitude I try to take towards all scriptures, even ones I don’t consider inspired (The Qur’an, The Book of Mormon, etc.). If they don’t make sense, I first need to check that I’m not the one who is missing something.