Abiathar Again: Studies in Mark, Pt. 34

Nick Norelli has chosen to write a reply post to my previous entry in my “Studies in Mark” series. I appreciate the comment that this is a great series. Thank you for that, Nick. I work hard in trying to understand both Mark and his Gospel account. I would like to take the time, here, to answer Nick’s responses. I will approach this in a segment-by-segment manner.

To begin, in his introductory paragraph, Nick says I suggest that when it comes to Mark 2.26, the approach of the “liberal listeralists” is just wrong. Actually, I never said this. Instead, I attempted to make 2 points: 1) that, in general, there are liberals who criticize literalists but in fact, they themselves, in their own way(s) are employing a type of rigid literalism, and 2) that many scholars have adopted this mentality when it comes to Mark 2.26 but if they can let go of their presuppositions, there might be another way to relieve the seeming tensions of the passage.

Nick surely has it right that the heart of my argument focuses on the Greek term ἀρχιερέως and that it can be translated a number of ways. He is also correct in recounting the fact that I think Mark’s Greek could be an “over-literal” translation of Aramaic. To this, Nick replies:

“I think Michael is a little too confident in the ‘evidence’ before us and much too confident in his conclusion. I think it a case of special pleading to take the lone use of ἀρχιερέως in Mark that causes a problem and try to fix the problem by turning to alternative translations. This alternative would not be suggested anywhere else in Mark or the rest of the New Testament.”

There are a number of problems with the offered response:

1. It is not a case of special pleading to take what appears to us to be a problem word in Mark and ask if alternative translations might provide some insight. I said it before and I stand by this comment: Anyone who has ever worked in detail with translating, knows some of the problems that can be encountered. It is far from special pleading to suggest that this could be one of those cases.

2. Nick is wrong, at least in part, that this alternative (that is, turning to Aramaic) would not be suggested anywhere else in Mark or the New Testament. I say “partially” because for this specific term, he may be right. However, when one gets into the nitty gritty of Mark, we see traces of Aramaic all over the place!!! Again, read my post on Aramaic in Mark! The number of times that Mark finds it necesarry to explain his Aramaic-to-Greek renderings (or just Aramaic) is plentiful. It appears that Mark finds it necesarry to do this when unknown words cropped up. Evidently, he does not need to do this in 2.26. Only familiarity with the Aramaic and Greek terms in Mark would lead one to realize this.

3. If one reads the Peshitta version of Mark (in Aramaic) they find that I am not creating a case of special pleading—indeed second century translators (into Aramaic) used רב כהן, as did 4th and 5th century translators! There is no way then, none whatsoever, to suggest that I am even close to being out of line! This is simply a straw man claim! *By the way, in Aramaic, רב כהן literally means—as two words—“great” or “abundant” “priest”.

*Note: I found at least 8 different words to describe a priest in the Hebrew Scriptures. I also found that when translated into Greek, one of the things that happens is that these 8 words are translated as, wait for it...ἀρχιερέως. Look at Lev. 4.3, for instance. In the Hebrew, it is הכהן המשיח (the anointed priest) but the Greek writers of the Septuagint render it none other than ἀρχιερέως. The same thing type of thing happens in the very same book at Lev. 21.10. There were find the Hebrew הכהן הגדל but the Greek translators use their second favorite rendering ο ιερευς ο μεγας. If you research this topic enough, you will find that despite the many different terms to describe a priest in the OT, the Greek writers toggle between a very small selection (2 or 3) terms. As this shows, sometimes they had to consolidate and perhaps even be over-literal or wooden-literal in their renderings!!! Well, how about that!

4. One of the leading, if not “the” leading NT scholar on Aramaic—who is by no means an inerrantist—makes the Aramaic argument. Thus, Nick, again, you are out of line saying that I am enacting or engaging in special pleading. I am conversing with other serious linguists and NT scholars on this subject, not to mention the earliest translators. Many 4th and 5th century scholars assert that the NT was only and originally written in Aramaic first. Though I do not hold this view, I cite it to show that I am not the one who is out of line!!!

5. I do not mean to sound arrogant when I say this but your comments reveal to me that as far as Biblical Studies go, you are not familiar with the bulk of serious scholarship that has been done on Mark's Gospel. If you were, there would be no way you could say that I was attempting to "turn to an alternative translation". I say this because for the last 40 or so years, serious Markan scholars have been discussing the Aramaic basis / originality of Mark's Gospel. They, in no way, are turning to the Aramaic (nor am I) just for the sake of it or because they can. Actually, from a text-critical standpoint, turning to the Aramaic is how one grades Mark's Greek!!!!! In fact, one of the criteria for deciding whether or not Mark's Greek can be trusted is to see how easily it can be translated back into Aramaic. The easier, the more trustworthy. Even the Jesus Seminar uses this criteria! Anyways, the idea that Mark originally dealt with Aramaic has come in different forms. Some have suggested that there was a written Gospel and some have suggested that Mark, being bi-lingual with his first language as Aramaic and his second as Greek, always had to translate. Personally, I opt for the latter. The great Greek grammarian JH Moulton said it well (and I agree): "[Mark's] Greek is always Greek, yet translation Greek; not that he translates an Aramaic writing but because he reproduces an Aramaic κατεχησις." To get familiar with this aspect of Markan studies, I kindly point you to the works of: CC Torrey, JT Hudson, WF Howard, JR Harris, JH Moulton, LaGrange, Dalman, Hoskyns, Davey, Fiebig, Burrows, and Casey to name but a few!

6. By making the case that this is special pleading (which, I hope you realize by now that it is most definitely not!) does not negate the evidence I offered. Just because this example is unique in the NT is not proof that your argument is right. There are plenty of unique words and meanings in the NT overall and in each work (e.g. hapax). Also, there are occasions where the same words are translated differently. See for instance my previous post that dealt with καταλυματι.

Nick’s next problem is that I don’t speak of Mt. and Lk. and their failures to mention the Abiathar story. My initial reply is that it really doesn’t matter that they didn’t. But to get at what Nick is really after, I would say that even initially, from a literary / narrative standpoint, Mark includes this story where he does because it makes logical sense. I’ve written before that Mark is attempting to show the mounting violence towards Jesus by the religious leaders (this is the first scene where the religious leaders themselves confront JC to His face. Right after this, they plot to kill Him, see: 3.6). This story is but one scene in that overarching story. That could be one reason why it is included. Another reason could be that if these events (in chp. 2) happened to one another in close proximity, this could be why they’re mentioned together. The previous answer is quite convincing, though, in my estimation—especially if one understands how Mark is charting mounting violence.

Next, Nick says:

“I’m also not persuaded by the argument from translating Aramaic to Greek as it seems that this presupposes Mark to be concerned with getting exact wording correct in recounting the sayings of Jesus. I can’t see that this was a goal of any of the Gospel writers.”

(Again, see point #5 above. But also realize that there are many scholars, even from the early centuries who have argued that all of the Gospels were originally written in Aramaic!) Back to the lecture at hand. As for "getting the exact wording right", this seems like a moot point to me and is not at all what I suggested, not at all. I shall not even reply at-length to this because it is not a presupposition that I hold or even came across as seeming to hold. In fact, I said that it is likely that Mark’s translation was over-literal (thus, not “exact” wording—so, Nick, either we have the same view on this or you disagree with yourself). But again, this often happens when one translates. And let me just say this, if you have ever taken courses on translating or read the translations of novice students, almost every single one of them is over-literal most of the time—this is because they want to be cautious! Every translator goes through parts where they have to be over-literal because that’s the best alternative that they have. And as I have suggested, it could well be the case that Mark's rough Greek (if he was a novice) is only a further indicator of his first language being Aramaic.

From there, Nick says:

“Lastly, just because something makes sense (i.e., is possible) doesn’t mean that it makes the best sense (i.e., is probable).”

This is correct. However, I do think that the proof I offered makes the best sense of the seeming tension that exists in the verse. I choose to research before pronouncing “error” on the text—pronouncing error seems like the easy way out, especially when another, good, possible explanation can be offered. The text is not guilty until proven innocent for me but rather, the other way around.

Finally, I expected someone to quote Ehrman regarding this post. They did! Here’s the thing, even if one does not accept my argument, they do not have to concur with the “happy agnostic” Bart Ehrman. Instead, there is a much more simple answer that can be given than what I offered above. Timothy P. Jones says this:

“Mark’s reference to the high priest indicates the position that Abiathar eventually obtained. Abiathar was present in the tabernacle during the incident described in 1 Sam. 21 (see 1 Sam 22.20) but he didn’t become high priest until later.” “It is still a commonly accepted practice to refer to a person by the office or status that he or she ultimately attained. For example, a children’s biography of George W. Bush asks, ‘Where did president Bush attend college?’ Even though Bush attended college 30 years before becoming president, the title president is ascribed at this point because this was the office that he ultimately attained” (153).

For me, Jones’ argument is likely. However, I think my argument is more likely. In fact, along with the Aramaic linguists, especially Casey, I think it is the most likely. Neither is it unlikely nor is it special pleading. This is why, my friend Mr. Norelli, I can be so confident in my answer. Too bad, I think, that Mr. Ehrman tried to do some fancy exegetical footwork (which eventually led to that devastating decision of rejecting Christ) when further in-depth study might have answered his questions or at least given him an alternative.

Nick, I hope that I have responded graciously to your challenge. I am always hesitant to argue back online because it can often come across as incredibly obtuse. I am not attempting to sound that way here. While your caricature of me being a special pleader is certainly wrong, I also disagree with most of your other statements. That is why, here, I am arguing my case firmly but I am also trying to do it in a spirit of love and grace. I hope I have accomplished that and I also hope that you will see that the scholarship I present is not just haphazard or whimsical; it is scolarly based and thought out. Further, I hope this might spur you on to get deeper into Markan studies.

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