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Can the Bible Be Wrong and Still Be Inerrant?

We all know Bart Ehrman’s favorite biblical mistake is in Mark. Chapter 2 has Jesus speaking these words:

He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry – how he entered the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the sacred bread, which is against the law for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to his companions?”  Mk 2:25-26 NET

The problem is that Abiathar was not high priest during the incident that is mentioned. 1 Samuel 21:1-7 records this event and it is clear that Ahimelech filled this role.

Unless I am mistaken, this leaves four obvious possibilities. Either Jesus was mistaken when He spoke these words, or else Mark was mistaken when he wrote them, or else Peter (the traditional source for Mark) was mistaken when he spoke these words, or else the passage in 1 Samuel is mistaken in its reading.

The NET footnotes suggest an additional possibility (which I find less likely) in which Jesus is here citing a general area in 1 Samuel. Instead of “when Abiathar was high priest” it suggests something like “in the days of Abiathar” (which the ESV goes ahead and translates as “in the time of Abiathar”).

So, which of these, or others,do you think is most likely? Why? If you think that Jesus, Mark, Peter, or 1 Samuel were wrong then is the Bible inerrant? If so, how would you define inerrant?

This is a tricky passage. Many have stumbled here and some have flat out turned away because of problems like this. I don’t think that we’ll reach a consensus on this, but its good to use our brains a little.



16 Responses

  1. Hmm….Haven’t looked into this one. I look forward to others who have and their responses.

  2. If Mark records Jesus’ error of Peter’s error then that doesn’t hurt inerrancy. But if the error is Mark’s (which I think it probably is) then inerrancy is no more (assuming that one defines inerrancy as ‘free from error’). Then again, the NET note is possible, unlikely in my mind, but possible.

    I posted some stuff on this text (in response to another blogger) a while back (here).

    • Yeah. I see the NET note/ESV translation as an attempt to show a way out of the attacks on this passage rather than a probability. Still possible I suppose.

  3. Is there any manuscript evidence that might indicate where the error made its way in? I don’t have my NA27 or tc books handy.

    • To my knowledge there is no manuscript that suggests the original reading was “Ahimelech was high priest.”

      According to the NET, “D W {271} it sys and a few others omit ‘ἐπὶ ᾿Αβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως.’ . . . {A C Θ Π Σ Φ 074 Ë13 and many others} add τοῦ before ἀρχιερέως giving ‘in the days of Abiathar the high priest.'”

      However NET suggests (and I think most would agree) that these both were done after the fact in response to the difficulty in this passage.

  4. Probably so. I only have a couple of commentaries on Mark. I may check those out and a few other pertinent resources, just for curiosity’s sake.

  5. Brooks (NAC) lists the following possibilities: 1) Markan memory slip; 2) Greek construction must mean “in the account of” in Mark 12:26 means the same thing here, i.e., in that portion of Samuel that deals with Abiathar; 3) the original text read “Abba-Abiathar,” which would then be correct. Abba was deleted in transmission. Brooks states that the last option is likely the best explanation, but is not free of difficulty.

    William Lane (NICNT) lists 1) the Abba deletion; 2) grammatical construction in 12:26 can mean the same thing as in 2:26. Lane seems to lean in favor of the second option, but also discusses (briefly) the negative argument against it.

    I find the possibility of scribal error possible, but with not ms evidence, I wouldn’t argue such. The grammatical option is also possible, though I have not looked at those texts. Scribal error could be possibly at play there too.

  6. Dan Wallace has an article on this issue here. I haven’t read it yet, but I am sure will be helpful.

  7. You asked if this topic hurt the doctrine of inerrancy. It really depends on your articulation of inerrancy. If you need everything to be historically and scientifically (modernistically) correct, then it does. If that is the case, then you would also have to deal with other (probable) historical inaccuracies (Mark’s description of Jesus having a purple robe during the crucifixion, Matthew’s placing of a guard at Jesus’ tomb, etc.).

    Inerrancy is never claimed from Scripture and is, admittedly, a post-apostolic innovation. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t articulate the truthfulness of Scripture in a way that is meaningful and relevant under the label “inerrancy.” I am hesitant to lay out my view on inerrancy to avoid being labeled, but I do (quite unfairly) ask, Matt, what do you mean exactly when you say ‘inerrancy’?

    • I left “inerrancy” open-ended. I wanted to see how others would deal with the issue, thus why I did not give my view of inerrancy. But I knew someone would ask eventually.

      I remember you from Criswell, so I’m sure you’ve got a copy of Erickson’s Christian Theology. On pages 248-50 he gives various conceptions of inerrancy. I hold to limited inerrancy (the third on his list).

      Limited inerrancy also regards the Bible as inerrant and infallible in its salvific doctrinal references . . . The Bible’s scientific and historical references reflect the understanding current at the time it was written . . . God did not reveal science or history to [the authors] . . . For the purposes for which the Bible was given, it is fully truthful and inerrant.

      With that definition in my mind, I would certainly say that despite this problem (from whatever source it comes from) does not affect the inerrancy of the Bible.

  8. If we just got rid of systematic theology we wouldn’t have problems like this. 🙂

  9. also. while we’re at it, have you read Craig Allert’s, “A High View of Scripture?” Check it out, see what you think.

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