Thursday, September 11, 2014

My "Aha" Moment and Those Who Don't Get It

I remember playing with fire once when I was a kid. 

Ok, I did it more than once when I was a kid.

But I remember one time when it almost got out of control. One day after the fourth of July a friend and I collected a pile of unexploded firecrackers. The fuses had burned off but the firecrackers had failed to explode. After trying a variety of methods to ignite them we decided to build a fire, throw them in and wait for the bang. When that failed to happen we decided to throw in the six or seven Bic lighters we had collected from around my friend’s house. That’s when the real pyrotechnics began.

Although the fireworks never ignited, the lighters did! Suddenly the lighters became fiery, molten plastic projectiles that were catapulted out of the fire into the surrounding woods. In a matter of moments we were confronted with a half dozen small fires that were in danger of burning out of control. The woods were too far from the house, so the garden hose wouldn't reach. We were forced to stamp out each individual fire before it spread too far. Whew!

In some ways I feel like I am in a similar situation over a blog post I wrote in June for Pete Enns.  I suppose I was playing with fire again.

The post was an attempt to explain my faith perspective as a biblical scholar who encountered the complexity of the Bible, but still maintains a strong faith in God. But instead what has happened is that some have taken a small, yet significant portion of that post, and like those molten plastic projectiles from my youth, have begun a number of small fires. Since I can’t possibly stamp them all out, I will try to communicate here what I originally said and some further thoughts about the portion that others have used to start these fires.

In the original post, I describe an “aha” moment when I realized that the Bible was different than I had understood it and that I was going to need to change if I was going to accept the Bible on its own terms. I talked about how I noticed that in Mark 2:23-27 Jesus uses, as a defense, a story about David eating the bread reserved only for the priests and giving some of it to his men. I noted how Jesus’ use of this story is at variance with what is described in 1 Samuel 21 where, in my opinion, David is clearly alone and, even more curious, Jesus mentions the wrong priest. 1 Sam 21 says that the name of the priest was Ahimelek, but Jesus says it was Abiathar.

In my post I related how I noticed the discrepancy while sitting in a Bible College class and that I pointed out to my teacher that “Jesus got it wrong” and that “Mark has the wrong priest.” I was relating what was quite a disturbing moment for young student of the Bible. I then continued on in the rest of the post to explain my understanding of Scripture and how I approach it.

While I received much positive feedback from those who could identify with my “aha” moment, there have been some that have turned my post into an argument over inerrancy (a word I never used) and have zeroed in on my story about Mark 2:23-27. And those responses have become nothing more than a game of shooting fish in a barrel.

The one response that has gone viral is from Craig Blomberg on Michael Kruger’s blog “Canon Fodder.” Let me start by stating that I am not picking a fight with him. I am honored that Blomberg responded to my post. I have followed Craig’s work for years and cut my teeth on parables using his book.

In his response Blomberg provides an alternative approach to interpreting Mark 2:23-27 based on a translation of the Greek preposition “epi” and how synagogues read through the entire Law every year (you can read the full explanation here). Blomberg is critical of me for not saying more about the passage and wonders why I didn’t give any other possible explanations (see my own explanation in the comment section below).

Blomberg’s question about why I didn’t give any other possible explanations is what bothers me about those responding to my post. They have missed the point of the series. The point was not to have an exegetical sparing match, but to talk about those moments when we were thunderstruck. But more importantly, at least for me, it was to talk about where I am at today.

Certainly I could have talked about other interpretations of Mark 2:26, but the purpose of the post was to talk about my personal faith as a bible scholar who wrestles with the Bible. Indeed, the majority of the post was about why I still believe in spite of some of the difficulties I have encountered.

More importantly, for me, to talk about the nature of scripture involves more than whether or not it contains “error.”  My comments about the story in Mark 2 don’t represent the sum of my approach to scripture. It’s that moment when I began to realize I would need to change how I read and interpret it. I hope that those he read our “aha” moment posts don’t conclude that an anecdote is the sum total of all we think about scripture.

But let’s take a moment and address the “real” issue everyone seems to find with my “aha” moment. It’s that I suggested that Jesus got the name of the priest wrong. Those who take issue with my statement seem to imply that I am suggesting that Jesus was therefore a fallible human being. Perhaps they equate making a mistake with sin. I am not sure, but I suspect that is the case.

It’s these kinds of assumptions that I think go right the heart of our understanding Jesus’ humanity. What does it mean to say that Jesus, was human? That he was God incarnate in human flesh? Does this mean that Jesus never got confused and called one of the disciples by a different name? Or that he forgot where he laid something? Did Jesus ever get so tired from travelling and teaching that miscommunicated something? Did he ever make a mistake when measuring a stone or a board? Did he ever hit his thumb with a hammer?

I am not sure, but I suspect that for some the idea of Jesus making a mistake like those named above equates him with sinful humanity. Again, I am not sure, but I think that is what they are thinking. I do not, however, understand Jesus to be someone who, as a human, was incapable of making mistakes. Making a mistake doesn’t make him sinful, it makes him human.

At the end of the day, I don’t know if Jesus “got it wrong” or not. I wasn’t there and my only access to the story is through what Mark tells me. My statement to my Bible College teacher was the realization of a young man who saw something new and, at the time, quite shocking.

But I do think that the way the story is related in Mark 2 is at variance with what is presented in 1 Samuel 21. And that is where the major difference lies between me and some others. I am able to accept a Bible that doesn’t act the way I wish it did. I can accept a Bible that doesn’t always lineup with history or even itself. And when I encounter a difficulty like Mark 2:26 my impulse is not to conclude that it’s wrong. But I also don’t feel the need to explain it to fit my modern understanding of history. Sometimes I find a very reasonable explanation and other times I realize there isn’t one. At least not one that “fixes” the Bible to fit into the paradigm I have constructed.

 At the end of the day, I still consider the Bible the word of God. And it’s the mystery and the paradox of the Bible that consistently draws me into it rather than drives me away.

I realize that there will be some who won’t accept this explanation. And a short blog post could become another fiery projectile in the blogosphere. But for those who are responding to the “aha” moments on Pete Enns’ blog I would ask that they consider the purpose of the posts rather than using them as a chance to shoot fish in the inerrancy barrel. 


  1. My disagreement with Blomberg’s interpretation is based on the following.

    Frist, let me talk about my conclusion that David is alone when he meets Ahimelech and lies about having men with him.

    In the preceding chapter (1 Sam 20) David is alone when he flees from Saul and meets Jonathon in the field. When David leaves Jonathon and meets the High Priest Ahimelech, the priest trembles because David is alone and he asks “why is no one with you.” Based on the flow of the narrative, it seems to me that David is alone. Ahimelech notices it and David, in addition to lying about being on a mission for Saul also lies about having men with him. My conclusion here is: one lie begets another. Added to this is my observation that the narrative of 1 Samuel does not indicate that anyone joins David until 22:1. Following a plain reading of the text, it seems to me that David is alone when he meets Ahimelech. I am not sure how David’s asking for five loaves of bread (21:3) suggests that David therefore has other men with him. He is on the run and wants enough food to supply him. I would add this to my observations. If David did have men with him, we might also ask why they didn’t bring him any weapons. David asks for a weapon and Ahimelech gives him the sword of Goliath. If David does have men, could we not also assume that they brought him a weapon? Did they all leave home without food and weapons?

    We can unravel the narrative to the point of being ridiculous. But based on a plain reading of the text, it seems to me that the author of 1 Samuel depicts David as fleeing from Saul alone and that he is still alone when he meets Ahimelech. If we didn’t have the statement by Jesus in Mark 2:26 I don’t think we would be tempted to think otherwise.

    Second, as to the name of the priest, 1 Samuel 22:1 clearly identifies the priest as Ahimelech not Abiathar. In fact we don’t meet Abiathar until 22:20 where we learn that he is the son of Ahimelech. He did serve as High Priest, later, and was actually better known as a one of David’s associates. Mark, I believe, knows the name of Abiathar much better than that of Ahimelech and simply confused the two of them. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to be the only one. In 2 Samuel 8:17 the father/son relationship is reversed and Abiathar is said to be the father of Ahimelech. The same thing happens in 1 Ch 24:6. It seems that the better known Abiathar was sometimes confused with his father, Ahimelech. The author of Mark, I would submit, does the same thing. Again, this is based on a plain reading of the text.

    I can understand why some NT scholars will want to suggest that how a Greek preposition was used in an unusual way or the way Scripture was used in a synagogue helps explain away what seems to be a mistake on the part of Mark and what he attributes to Jesus. But since I am not uncomfortable with the Bible sometimes saying two different and seemingly contradictory things, I don’t’ see a reason to accept a more elaborate explanation when one based on the plain reading of the text seems sufficient.

    More to the point, and the point of the series on Enns’ blog that I contributed to, this was a moment for me when I realized that not everything in the Bible lined up the way I wanted and/or wished it would. I live in the 21st century and expect that details like this will be accurate. Historiographers in the first century, however, didn’t have the same concerns that I do. In the end, the main thrust of what Jesus is arguing about doesn’t change. David did, according to 1 Sam 21, eat the bread that was from the presence of the Lord. The fact that Mark bought into David’s lie that there were people with him and also confuses the name of the son (Abiathar) for the father (Ahimelech) doesn’t change the point Jesus is making about the son of man being Lord of the Sabbath. I don’t feel the need to rescue Mark from his mistake.

  2. b"h

    "But I do think that the way the story is related in Mark 2 is at variance with what is presented in 1 Samuel 21."

    While true for a 21st century reader, the question is, does it make good sense to a first century reader? This pericope is fundamentally about Jewish Torah Law, not biblical history of a thousand years earlier. I'm sure you realize that. But you probably did not realize that clearly when you were a fresh bible student. So Yeshua's use of the passage about David eating the Showbread, via Mark, is not necessarily historical but judicial. The point being that the priest at Nob, Ahimelech "believed" that David had companions and thus made his Torah ruling for all Israel based on that proposition, even if not strictly true. So the priest ruled that "David's companions," whom he did not see, could eat of the Showbread if abstinent and pure, for the sake of not starviing (פיקוח נפש). Mark writes it as though David actually had companions. This could have been his interpretation of the certain judicial "effect" of the Torah ruling.

    The second point, dealing with ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως: Ahimelech was evidently the priest in authority at the Tabernacle at Nob. However, the Ark of the Covenant was not there, but was at Kiryat Yearim. I have a very hard time believing that there would be no priests in attendence of the Ark of the Covenant. I also think the Ark was of a higher level of holiness than the Tabernacle, though I admit that's a supposition. But if so, then it would be reasonable for first century Jews to conclude that the "High" Priest actually was in attendance with the Ark, while a lesser priest attended the Tabernacle. Whether you like the texts or not, there are passages in the Tanakh that say an Abiathar was father of an Ahimelech. So from a first-century Jewish point of view the "High" Priest might easily have been considered the father of Ahimelech. True, it's supposition. I don't have a final conclusion. But if your "Aha" moment means anything, it means that we 21st century readers may not have all the facts that the 1st century reader had.

    Best wishes.

    Ben Keshet