Difficult Passages Series — Mark 2:26

1.     Why is this passage listed among difficult passages?

The passage is difficult because the name of the priest who gave David the bread as recorded in 1 Sam. 21:1-6 is Ahimelech, who is listed there as Abiathar’s father. 

2.     How do we deal with the difficulties in this passage?

First in cases like this the scholars would check for textual evidence in the history of manuscripts to see if there could have been a transmission mistake.  In this case, they get the opposite result.  It appears from all the evidence we have that the earliest manuscript of Mark has Abiathar.  Also, the fact that both Matthew and Luke, in recounting the story, leave the name out, might indicate that they were aware of the problem.  

Second, we look to see if there is another way the phrase can be understood.  People have suggested that it might mean “When Abiathar who became high priest was alive”  or  “In the days of the father of Abiathar, the high priest..”  or “In the account of Abiathar…”  But commentators also say that none of these fit really naturally with the text.  So we are not really left with a satisfactory solution from that tactic either. 

We assume Jesus used the correct name for if he had not, the listeners would have surely corrected him.   So then we could guess that either Peter from whom Mark was getting his material or Mark who wrote it used a wrong name or there was a mistake in the very earliest copies before we have any record– but we have no evidence….

However, there is one more possibility.  It seems that the origin of this problem may be in the OT itself.  The OT itself seemingly transposed these two names.  Compare 1 Sam. 22:20 with 2 Sam. 8:17; 1 Chron. 18:16 and 24:6.   So Peter or Mark could have been taking the name from those later lists instead of the story itself.   This helps us explain the passage in Mark but does not explain why the names were transposed in the OT.  Did Abiathar have a son named after his murdered grandfather as a commentator suggested?  Further digging is needed.

3.     What are the key truths or inspirational messages of this passage?

 It is helpful to see that the name in Mark 2:26 is irrelevant to Jesus’ point.  Jesus is trying to get the Pharisees to see that what mattered in David’s day was not the strict keeping of religious law but the human emergency need for God’s anointed servant.  The same was true in Jesus’ day.   Jesus uses the OT story to point the way toward one of the great principles that he has given us to help us use our NT Sabbath – Sunday – well.  He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Mk 2:27-28 NIV.    This passage helps to keep us focused on others on the day of rest and worship.   

It is ironic that in this passage where the aim of Jesus’ teaching is to keep us from being legalistic about the Sabbath, there is confusion about a name that reveals our propensity to legalism over interpretations of inerrancy.