Ehrman on Abiathar: Is the Bible Ever Mistaken?

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Excerpt 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... Continue reading

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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.

This article has been reproduced with permission. Daryl Witmer is the founder and director of the AIIA Institute, found online at:

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Comments Comment RSS

8/21/2008 5:26 AM #

Barts' defection from the ranks of Bible believers certainly gave his career a jump start.  For some strange reason he is considered one of the leading theologians of this era now. His opinion on Christianity is greatly desired by our leading intelligensia and his comments valued.

Sadly, this whole episode is paralleled somewhat in the Bible in the story of Simon the Sorcerer in Acts the 8th chapter.   Simon wanted to pay money for the incredible abilities of the Apostles.  In other words his view was money is  more important than eternity.  This was bluntly pointed out by the scathing reply of Peter in Acts 8:21-23.  Hopefully Bart will repent as Simon did and not forfeit eternity with God for the few years of 'success' he enjoys now.

Ron Chitwood - 8/21/2008 5:26:37 AM

10/29/2008 10:44 PM #

Ron may be right, but, on the other hand, perhaps Bart Ehrman is simply a bitterly disappointed man that defected from what felt was a farce because God / the Bible didn't add up to his neatly (obsessive?) packaged notions of what they ought to be.  In other words, he was looking for a Christ (via the Bible) on *his* terms.  

The explanation in the article above is the best I've encountered (and there are some very complex ones out there).  Believing in the authority of scripture is *not* helped by a "scientific" (i.e. critical) approach to the words.  When we look at anything through *our* lens of perception / experience, the image is inevitably distorted.

Darrin Roush - 10/29/2008 10:44:51 PM

1/19/2009 3:02 AM #

"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."

Am I the only one who sees a serious doctrinal problem with such a statement?  That is "in the original autographs."  The thing to gather from statements like these is that God's word is no longer inerrant.  According to that line of reasoning, the only time God's written word was inerrant was in some original autograph that few people in the history of the world have ever seen.  And furthermore, these "original autographs" have never been all together in one place (for instance, the original autographs that Moses wrote had long since been destroyed by the time the apostle Paul wrote) so therefore, a complete inerrant Bible has never existed on the face of the earth.  If you accept such unbilbical teachings, then you can't (or for that matter, nobody ever) produce a copy of what it is you claim to defend.  Imagine the conversation you would have with the unbeliever you are trying to convince:  

You- Yes, come to Jesus and he will forgive all of your sins, I know so because God's word is absolute.

Gainsayer- Oh so you mean that book you are carrying is the inerrant word of the living God?

You-  Well, not this book.  This book is mostly correct, it just has some copyist errors which I can't identify with absolute certainty, nor do I know exactly how many copyist errors exist that I thought were true.  

Gainsayer- So, if God did not deem it important enough to preserve some parts of his word, then what makes you think he preserved his word as a whole?  And if you admit error in one part, then how do you know it doesn't carry over to other parts, considering you are basing your faith on documents you can't even show me.  

You-  Well, the small errors are no big deal, we just overlook those and assume that the manuscript evidence will confirm the biggest part.  

Gainsayer-  So, you have full faith that the originals were inerrant even though no shred of evidence exists that supports your claim?  Doesn't the Bible say to prove all things?  How can you prove something for which there is no evidence? It sounds like you are placing absolute faith in inerrant originals on what errant copies tell you.  If you want me to believe, you have to prove that the original copies were inerrant.

You-  Well, I can't prove the originals were inerrant, I just believe they were based on what the copies of them say which may or may not be trustworthy.

Gainsayer- Sounds like you are building your faith on a weak foundation.  I will not accept such uncertain answers to such and important matter.  I will continue to live my life the way I choose until I know for sure what the truth is.    

This situation is no different than Erhmans when he said, “Hmmm. . .maybe Mark did make a mistake.  Once I made that admission, the floodgates opened.”   When you open the door of, well maybe the copiers did make a mistake, then you open yourself up to a whole flood of doubt that will make you ready to correct any seeming contradiction the Bible makes because, its probably just a copyist error anyways.  Then, if you continue at that pace, you will find yourself correcting doctrines that just don't seem fair to you until you get to the same point as Erhman and your not a Christian at all.  This is an extremely serious error that has been promoted by mainline Christianity and critical text advocates for a while now.  And for one, I refuse to participate in it.  Psalm 12: 6-7

6The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.

7Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.

Wes - 1/19/2009 3:02:08 AM

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