Jesus Got It All Wrong ? : Studies in Mark, Pt. 33

Mark 2.23-7 is an interesting pericope. It’s main focus is on Jesus and His disciples who, after picking some grain on the Sabbath, are confronted and challenged by the Pharisees. Though there could be two offenses here, 1) The picking of the grain on the Sabbath (e.g. viewed as work) or, 2) Walking more than the allotted and allowed on the Sabbath. It seems most likely that the first offense is in view. Within this story, though, there is yet another story: Jesus recounts an instance where King David, along with his followers, went into the temple and ate the consecrated bread because they were hungry. (I should say here that there is no reason to doubt that this event concerning David happened, though some have.)

To this, I would also add that one need not resort to arguments that either Mark or Jesus got this story wrong or that they misquoted Scripture. It is common, in many commentaries at least, to find persons suggesting that this passage is a clear invention or that it is found historically wanting. Put simply, the only thing found wanting is such an approach to this text. I should say here that it is amazing to me that, often times, those who are most critical of “literalists”, are actually worse than literalists. In other words, persons who are prone to rejecting a literalistic approach to the text, because they simply want to find or hold on to supposed contradictions, are unwilling to bend when a simple answer that relieves textual (or historical) tensions is offered. In the end, they are actually the ones who are the literalists.

When working through the research on Mk. 2.23-7, one sees this phenomenon repeatedly. In spite of this type of “liberal literalism” (did I just coin a phrase?), I want to offer a rather simple answer of how to understand Jesus’ remark concerning Abiathar in Mk. 2.26. First, the passage in English and secondly, the Greek:

“In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread…”

πως εισηλθεν εις τον οικον του θεου επι Αβιαθαρ αρχιερεως και τους αρτους της προθεσεως εφαγεν…”

For the sake of this post, all I want to focus on is the word “αρχιερεως”. In Greek, this is a compound word: arche + hieros. Put together, the two words can have a variety of meanings: 1) High Priest, 2) Chief Priest, 3) Head Priest, 4) First Priest, 5) Great Priest, etc. It goes without saying that in the Greek, one has a variety of words to choose from. Because Abiathar was not the High Priest during David’s reign, something else is probably intended, something like “Great Priest”. Indeed, Abiathar was a law-abiding priest! Moreover, he was a renowned priest in that he served David and for 40 years, along with Zadok, carried Israel’s most holy relic: the Ark of the Covenant. Suffice it to say, Abiathar was a “great” or “renown” priest.

When we take into consideration that Mark may have been translating from Aramaic into Greek, as Casey has shown, we realize that this may be the root of our confusion (I'm not arguing that there was an original Aramaic Mk., however. I'm simply saying that Mark, who evidently knew Aramaic very well--see my previous post which deals at-length with this subject--toggled between Aramaic and Greek languages and in doing so, had to come up with some rendering of terms.). It may seem to us that Mark’s use of “αρχιερεως” is wrong here but it might well be the case that when he translated from Aramaic to Greek, this kind of “over-literal” translation was the result. In Aramaic, רב כהן, literally means “great” or “abundant” “priest”. Thus, we cannot fault Mark for that but rather we can attempt to understand what happened in the process of translation (anyone who has ever done translation is immediately sympathetic to this or at least they should be!!!). Yes, Mark might have chosen another rendering but the fact is, he did not. We have what we have and before we, in all of our modern arrogance, attempt to suggest that Mark was wrong (or perhaps, Jesus was wrong), we should take into account the evidence before us, especially if it makes sense!

Lastly, and on a less pressing note (because we have already determined that Abiathar wasn’t a high priest), we should answer the question of what to make of the “epi” in Mk. 2.26. (If you read some articles and commentaries, you will quickly realize what argument I’m referring to.) When we take the epi + the genitive(s) here, according to Greek grammatical rules, we end up with a reference to “time” (see, for instance BDAG). Thus, epi does not mean “before” (as in the sense of “in the presence of” or “standing before someone”) but rather “in” or “in the ‘time’ of”. Clearly, Jesus is saying: “In the time of the great priest…” not “Standing before the great priest…”--again, Abiathar was not the chief or high priest over David. As we know, Abiathar was a renown priest under David!

I have tried to pare down a very complex argument into simple terms. I hope that in the process, I have done that and that I have also explained the passage in a most understandable way. To me, it is clear that in the process from going from one language to another, Mark encountered some difficulty; we cannot fault him for that, that’s just the nature of translating! It is also clear to me that what Jesus said and what Mark recorded are accurate, especially when the proofs I offered above are taken into consideration. Finally, I would hope that those who have an itch to somehow discredit the Bible and to also pick on those who are hyper-literalists (even though calling them out may be warranted!), will take the time themselves to dissect the text, the evidences and discussions in order that they might let go of their own types of unhealthy literalism(s).

*Note: I should probably say here that even if Jesus had misquoted the passage or gotten one detail of the story backwards, this is no indictment of Him (especially not of His divinity). Jesus was fully human and was born and lived out of a first-century, Mediterranean oral culture. For all we know, if my argument above is wrong, then Jesus might have simply heard the story this way and passed it on as such. Jesus never claimed to know anything and to try to suggest that He did is to make the Scriptures say something they never intended to. See, for instance: Mt. 24.36, Lk. 2.52 and Php. 2.5-11 for but a few examples. Thus, I'm not suggesting "accuracy" out of some theological need for Jesus (or Mark for that matter) to have to had told every detail of the story right!

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