Was Jesus Mistaken?
Critics of Christ 2,000 years ago once saw His disciples walking through a field plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath and accused them of doing that which the Law of Moses forbade (Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28). As was often His practice, Jesus responded to His enemies with a question (cf. Matthew 12:10-12; 15:2-3; 21:23-25). He asked: “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?” (Mark 2:25-26). Nearly twenty centuries this side of the Pharisees’ criticisms, Christ’s critics today allege that He erred in His response. In an article titled, “Tough Questions for the Christian Church,” skeptic Dennis McKinsey stated:
How can it be that Jesus contradicts the Old Testament (1 Samuel 21:1-2), saying that Abiathar gave David the showbread instead of Ahimelech, and saying that David had men with him, when he was actually alone (Mark 2:25-26)? Does the church expect me to rely upon the teachings of a “son of God” who is demonstrably mistaken about what God’s Word says? (1998).
Supposedly, Christ mistakenly spoke of Abiathar when He should have said Ahimelech (1 Samuel 21:1), and referred to David’s companions when he allegedly had none at that time. Are these accusations justified? Was Jesus wrong?
Admittedly, 1 Samuel 21:1 does speak of David visiting “Ahimelech the priest,” rather than Abiathar. However, when Jesus spoke of this event 1,000 years later, He did not say that “Abiathar gave David the showbread,” as McKinsey alleged. Jesus referred to the event as occurring “in the time of Abiathar the high priest” (NASB, emp. added; Greek epi Abiathar archiereos) or “in the days of Abiathar the high priest” (cf. KJV, NKJV, NIV, emp. added), and not necessarily while Abiathar was the high priest. According to Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich in their Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, the word epi can function simply as a “marker of temporal associations,” meaning simply “in the time of, at, on, for” (2000, p. 367). The phrase “in the time/days of” may be intended to modify Abiathar’s entire life, rather than just his priesthood. And, his “priesthood” could have been mentioned merely to clarify the person to whom Jesus was referring. The fact is, Abiathar was a son of Ahimelech, and served as high priest during the reign of King David (cf. 1 Kings 1:7). What’s more, based upon how much more information the Bible gives us about Abiathar, he was probably much more well known than his father among the Jews.
If someone today were to speak of how many Christians were imprisoned “in the days of Paul, the apostle,” it may be that he actually was referring to the time before Paul became an apostle, yet still referred to him as “Paul, the apostle.” Such language would not force one to conclude that the reference to the imprisonment of Christians must be confined to the time when Paul was an apostle. Similarly, since Jesus did not specifically say that Abiathar was the high priest who ministered to David, but simply that the event occurred during the lifetime of Abiathar (who later became the high priest), the allegation that Jesus erred is superfluous.
But what about the accusation that while “David...was actually alone” during his visit with Ahimelech, Jesus indicated that he had men “with him” (Mark 2:25-26)? Did Jesus err in this regard? This charge is simply another instance where skeptics refuse to treat the biblical text fairly in hopes of finding a genuine mistake. Consider the situation where a colonel in the army might visit a general’s quarters “alone” to discuss provisions for his men, while instructing his men to wait for him at a nearby designated location. In one sense, the colonel was alone with the general, yet in another sense, the colonel and his men had traveled to the general’s location in order to request essential provisions that would have been used for both the colonel and those who were with him.
No doubt, McKinsey based this second accusation upon what Ahimelech first asked David when the future king of Israel came unto him: “Why are you alone, and no one is with you” (1 Samuel 21:1)? If one were to stop at this point without considering subsequent verses, he may very well come to the conclusion that Jesus blundered in His reference to the events in 1 Samuel 21:1. However, following Ahimelech’s question (“Why are you alone?”), David informed him, “I have directed my young men to such and such a place” (21:2). Thus, although David may have entered the presence of Ahimelech without his men, he informed Ahimelech that he had directed them elsewhere while he visited with him. Ahimelech obviously understood David to mean that the men were not too far away, and were hungry, because he informed David that although he had no common bread to eat, there was holy bread, “if the young men have at least kept themselves from women” (21:4, emp. added). David responded by saying, “Truly, women have been kept from us.... And the vessels of the young men are holy” (21:5, emp. added).
To assert that Jesus erred in these two instances is to claim that which cannot be proven. The truth is, Jesus referred to this Old Testament event in a way very similar to how we converse today about various matters—whether using a figure of speech, called prolepsis, where we assign a name or title to a time that precedes it, or where we refer to someone being alone in one sense, and a part of a larger group at the same time. Such accusations appear to say more about the heart of the critic than the truthfulness of Jesus and the Bible writers.
[NOTE: For a full refutation of the idea that Jesus condoned breaking the Sabbath law, or that Matthew 12:1-8 and Mark 2:23-28 can be used legitimately as proof texts to justify situation ethics, please see Lyons (2003) and Miller (2003).]
Danker, Frederick William, William Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich, (2000), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
Lyons, Eric (2003), “Did Jesus Condone Law-Breaking,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2323.
McKinsey, Dennis (1998), “Tough Questions for the Christian Church,” Biblical Errancy, October, [On-line], URL: http://mywebpages.comcast.net/errancy/issues/iss190.htm.
Miller, Dave (2003), “Situationism,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2266.