New Testament

Relax, Even Jesus Made Mistakes !


When speaking with a Christian friend the other day, I was told that what made Jesus different from every other human being who ever lived was that Jesus never made a mistake; that he was the only human being to have ever lived a completely perfect life.  So I got to do one of my favorite things.  I grabbed my Bible and we had ourselves a little Bible study.   There is a very clear example in the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus does indeed make a mistake.  The later Gospels, Matthew and Luke, apparently caught this mistake while copying from Mark, and removed it from the equation.

The example that we looked at together is at the end of the second chapter of GoMark.  It is a story where Jesus is challenged by Pharisees in Galilee, after his followers were caught violating the Sabbath laws.  It goes like this: (all quotes will be from the NRSV)

Mark 2: 23-28
One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’

There are at least two points of interest in the above little example.  I will discuss the first here and the second at the end of the post.  The first problem is that Abiathar was not mentioned in the story referred to by Jesus.  That story, from 1 Samuel 21, references Ahimelech, who was the father of Abiathar.  It should be noted that his decision to help David would cost him and many others their lives; an incident known as the massacre of the priests of Nob. See 1 Sammy 22.

Any knowledgeable Palestinian Pharisee, when hearing this mistake come out of Jesus’ mouth, would have immediately challenged and corrected him, but we are not given that response in the Christian Bible.  Here is how that story of David reads from a chapter earlier in 1 Sammy.

1 Samuel 21: 1-6
David came to Nob to the priest Ahimelech. Ahimelech came trembling to meet David, and said to him, ‘Why are you alone, and no one with you?’ David said to the priest Ahimelech, ‘The king has charged me with a matter, and said to me, “No one must know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.” I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. Now then, what have you at hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.’ The priest answered David, ‘I have no ordinary bread at hand, only holy bread—provided that the young men have kept themselves from women.’ David answered the priest, ‘Indeed, women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition; the vessels of the young men are holy even when it is a common journey; how much more today will their vessels be holy?’ So the priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the Lord to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away.

It was the father, Ahimelech, not his son, Abiathar who was the priest in the story.  This mistake was apparently noticed by later Christian authors because in the retelling of this same story in both GoMatthew and GoLuke the authors completely removed the reference to the priest, telling the story without naming him.  Have a look for yourself:

Matthew 12: 1-8
At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’

Luke 6: 1-5
One sabbath while Jesus was going through the cornfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, ‘Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ Jesus answered, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?’ Then he said to them, ‘The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’

Notice that both have removed any reference to Abiathar.

Oh, remember I was saying that there was a second item of interest in this story?  Of course you do.  If one will take a few minutes to read a couple of chapters before 1 Sammy 21, one will find out that David was lying to the priest.  He was not on any secret mission for King Saul; he was fleeing for his own life, running from King Saul.  His lies cost Abiathar’s father, Ahimelech, and almost a hundred other priests their lives.

The example Jesus used was a story of David lying to a priest resulting in the murder of an entire town full of priests.  The only priest to survive was Ahimelech’s son, Abiathar, who would later, along with Zadok, become High Priests under King David; well until Solomon came along, anyway.  But that’s another story for another day.

What was my Christian friend’s response, you might ask?  It wasn’t Jesus that made the mistake; it was the author of GoMark.  After all, we know that Jesus lived a perfect life and never made a mistake.  *facepalm*

Here are a few ways that Christian apologists have attempted to address the dilemma.

Apologetics Press – https://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=6&article=1830

Bible.org – http://bible.org/article/mark-226-and-problem-abiathar

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Discussion

10 thoughts on “Relax, Even Jesus Made Mistakes !

  1. Isn’t this the exact issue that sent Dr. Ehrman on the journey away from inerrancy? I seem to remember reading that his professor wrote a comment on his paper that maybe Mark just made a mistake, and that opened the floodgates of Ehrman’s mind. The rest is as they say, history, if I’m remembering it correctly.

    Posted by Byron Curtis Smith | January 5, 2012, 7:09 pm
    • I had to pull out my dust-covered copy of Misquoting Jesus, but that was indeed the passage that he referenced at the beginning of the book. His professor notated on Ehrman’s assignment, “Maybe Mark just made a mistake”. So you remembered it pretty well.

      I’ll go a step further and propose that maybe Jesus made the mistake. I don’t hold it against him. Everyone makes mistakes.

      I’m not sure that using a reference to David lying to a priest and causing the death of scores of other priests is the best example, especially since it didn’t have anything to do with working on the sabbath to begin with, but that’s just me.

      I would have to agree with the end message of Jesus in the Markan story. The sabbath is made for mankind, mankind isn’t made for the sabbath. That would certainly be an challenging response to the official position of Second Temple Judaism.

      Posted by Xcntrik | January 8, 2012, 5:13 pm
  2. Great post. I have heard the same explanations (and tried my best to learn them, as I used to be an inerrantist myself). I would bet my paycheck that evangelicals would not accept similar tortured explanations in defense of other religious claims like they claim for their own, though. But what’s good for the goose, should be good for the gander as well.

    Posted by Byron Curtis Smith | January 5, 2012, 12:48 pm
    • Oh, I forgot something else, too. If an error requires such sophisticated “justifications” for its existence, isn’t it natural to assume that, if actually true, its presence requires sophisticated theological meaning? What additional theological meaning is really gleaned from the idea of Abiathar being high priest as opposed to Ahimelech (I suppose you could chase Christology down the rabbit hole here, but why would anyone do so)? Why didn’t the Holy Spirit inspire this tidbit of information in the other gospels that you quoted? It gets very tough to be an inerrantist, as I found out.

      Posted by Byron Curtis Smith | January 5, 2012, 1:13 pm
  3. Yes, I read those two apologetics links. They like to think it was during the lifetime of Abiathar, who was high priest later on in Jerusalem, not during the actual time he served as high priest! Yet I do not see how they can wriggle their way out of a Markan / Petrine / Jesusian error like that! The Greek is absolutely clear on this: ἐπὶ Ἀβιάθαρ ἀρχιερέως = during the time of Abiathar the high priest = during the time of the high priest Abiathar = when Abiathar was high priest. Somehow I don’t think liberal Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox have a problem with this. Just the conservative ones, particularly those of the Evangelical bent.

    And when one believes the Bible is the Inerrant Word of God, one must jump hoops and contort one’s self into pretzels!

    Posted by Ed-M | January 5, 2012, 10:21 am
    • “And when one believes the Bible is the Inerrant Word of God, one must jump hoops and contort one’s self into pretzels!”

      Perhaps that explains the anger.

      Posted by Xcntrik | January 8, 2012, 5:23 pm
    • I am a Christian, but I’m not an angry Evangelical. To say that “during the time of the high priest Abiathar = when Abiathar was high priest” is errant. When people refer to King David, or if someone is talking about the times of King David, are they only referring to the time when he was king? Does referring to David as “King David” force us to only think of the times when he was king and forget about when he was a boy, or when he served/fled Saul? No, the time of King David does not equal the time when David was King and is not limited to only the time that David was officially King. Similarly, if I am telling a friend a story about another person, I might say, “My friend John the Policeman experienced this or that”. In this case, I’m telling you a story that is about John who is a Policeman, or John who all we know is a Policeman, and the story I’m telling you could very well have happened when John was younger or even older – when he was not a policeman. If I say, “My wife went to elementary school” that does not mean that my wife went to elementary school while we were married, nor does it mean that she was my wife while she went to elementary school. I’m simply saying that she’s my wife to help you know who I’m talking about.

      Posted by baliad | December 26, 2015, 7:28 am

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  1. Pingback: Resources for 1 Samuel 21:1 - 6 - March 11, 2012

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  3. Pingback: Relax, Even Jesus Made Mistakes ! | My Blog - January 18, 2012

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