One of my favorite discrepancies is Jesus’ “mistake” in Mark 2. In this passage, the Pharisees criticize Jesus for letting his disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath. In response, Jesus explains that he and his friends are doing what David and his men did when they ate the holy bread in the time of Abiathar the high priest (Mark 2:25–26). The problem is, 1 Samuel 21 tells us that Ahimelech, not his son Abiathar, was the high priest at the time that David and his men ate the holy bread. Either Jesus made a mistake or Mark did. In either case, evangelicals get nervous.
Scholar Bart Ehrman said that when he discovered this discrepancy in seminary, it kick-started his departure from Christianity. Progressive UK pastor Steve Chalke made it his opening salvo in a debate with me about the truthfulness of the Bible. Countless Christians, on the other hand, upon seeing the problem, have rushed to their study Bibles or other resources where they discover, in relief, that the Greek phrase epi Abiathar could mean “in the passage about Abiathar” rather than “in the time of Abiathar.” “That must be it,” they exclaim. “Problem solved. On to Mark 3.”
Yet there is far more going on in Mark 2. Jesus’ argument is not that he has found an obscure guy in the Old Testament who once ate bread on a Saturday. His point is that David, Israel’s true king-in-waiting, and his consecrated friends were allowed the holy bread that day. Jesus is interpreting his actions through the story of Israel’s greatest king. He is saying, in that cryptic way he often does, “I am David. These guys are my men. So they can eat what they want.”
So Jesus is David, the true king of Israel, and the disciples are his allies. But they aren’t the only characters in the story. Herod is Saul, the current king who has drifted from God and now wants to kill the pretender to the throne. John the Baptist is Samuel, the fiery prophet who prepares the way for the new king and confronts the old one. Judas is Doeg the Edomite, the betrayer. And Abiathar? He is Eli’s great-great-grandson, the last surviving member of the old priestly line, whose eventual removal from the priesthood would prove true God’s word through Samuel (1 Kings 2:27).
All of this means that Jesus mentions Abiathar rather than Ahimelech for good reason. He is saying, “I am David, these are my men, and the current priests are Abiathar. They are in charge now, but in just a few years their priesthood will end, just like Abiathar’s. And my kingdom will be established, just like David’s.”
I think that’s wonderful. The Holy Spirit didn’t put discrepancies in Scripture to provide fuel for skeptics, employment for commentators, or annoyance for evangelical Christians. He did it to make us think, search, meditate, read, learn—and be ever filled with awe.
Andrew Wilson is an elder at Kings Church in Eastbourne, England, and author most recently of The Life You Never Expected.