Is There a Mistake in Mark 2:26?

by Julie M. Smith

And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful? And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him?”

             Many manuscripts omit the phrase “in the days of Abiathar the high priest,” presumably because in 1 Samuel 21, the priest in question was Ahimelech and not Abiathar. (Some variant readings state that it was during the lifetime of, not during the high priesthood of, Abiathar.[1]) There are many theories to explain the reference to “Abiathar” in this text:

  1. It did not refer to the time of the high priest but rather to the section of the scroll where the story about the bread could be found.[2] (Most are not convinced by this theory.)
  2. The phrase meant “in the lifetime of Abiathar.”
  3. It originally read “the father of Abiathar” but “the father of” dropped out because the beginning of the words “father” and “Abiathar” were similar.[3] (But why would Jesus refer to “the father of Abiathar”?)
  4. The whole phrase is a later addition. Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the text is that it is difficult to understand why Jesus would have made reference to any high priest, as it is not relevant to the story. So perhaps this phrase was an early (and incorrect) gloss. This would explain why the line is missing from Matthew and Luke: it was not included in their copies of the Gospel of Mark.
  5. The earlier reading, referring to Abiathar, is a textbook example of “the mistakes of men”[4] that can occur in a record: either Mark (or his source) erred in naming Abiathar here.[5] Because Abiathar was associated with David as the high priest during his reign,[6] it is an understandable mistake.

Most scholars agree that the text is in error; the other theories come mostly from those committed to the inerrancy of scripture. While the error is not terribly significant, it does raise an interesting question:  does the mistaken referent stem from Jesus or from Mark (or his source)? If it was Mark’s or his source’s error, then we have an instance where Mark did not correctly record Jesus’ words. If it was Jesus’ error—an option most LDS would not find acceptable, although perhaps some readings of Luke 2:52 (“and Jesus increased in wisdom”) would permit such a position—then that would speak to the nature of his mortal limitations.

[1] See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart:  United Bible Societies, 2001), page 68.

[2] See William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 116.

[3] See Robert H. Stein, Mark (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic, 2008), 146.

[4] Title Page, The Book of Mormon.

[5] Note that both Matthew and Luke omit any reference to the high priest.

[6] See C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to St Mark (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1959), 116.