“The [Princeton Seminary] course was on the exegesis of the Gospel of Mark, at the time (and still) my favorite Gospel. For this course we needed to be able to read the Gospel of Mark completely in Greek (I memorized the entire Greek vocabulary of the Gospel the week before the semester began); we were to keep an exegetical notebook on our reflections on the interpretation of key passages; we discussed problems in the interpretation of the text; and we had to write a final term paper on an interpretive crux of our own choosing. I chose a passage in Mark 2, where Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees because his disciples had been walking through a grainfield, eating the grain on the Sabbath. Jesus wants to show the Pharisees that “Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath,” and so reminds them of what the great King David had done when he and his men were hungry, how they went into the Temple “when Abiathar was the high priest” and ate the show bread, which was only for the priests to eat. One of the well-known problems of the passage is that when one looks at the Old Testament passage that Jesus is citing (1 Samuel 21:1-6), it turns out that David did this not when Abiathar was the high priest, but, in fact, when his father Ahimelech was. In other words, this is one of those passages that have been pointed to in order to show that the Bible is not inerrant at all, but that it contains mistakes.
In my paper for Prof. Story, I developed a long and complicated argument that even though Mark indicates this happened “when Abiathar was the high priest,” it doesn’t really mean that Abiathar was the high priest, but that the event took place in the part of the Scriptural text that has Abiathar as one of the main characters. My argument was based on the meaning of the Greek words involved and was a bit convoluted. I was pretty sure Prof. Story would appreciate the argument, since I knew him as a good Christian scholar who obviously (like me) would never think there could be anything like a genuine error in the Bible. But at the end of my paper he made a simple one-line comment that for some reason went straight through me. He wrote: “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.” I started thinking about it, considering all the work I had put into the paper, realizing that I had had to do some pretty fancy exegetical footwork to get around the problem, and that my solution was in fact a bit of a stretch. And I finally concluded, “Hmm… maybe Mark did make a mistake.”
Once I made that admission, the floodgates opened. For if there could be one little, picayune mistake in Mark 2, maybe there could be mistakes in other places as well. Maybe, when Jesus says later in Mark 4, that the mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds on the earth,” – maybe I don’t need to come up with a fancy explanation for how the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds when I know full well it isn’t. And maybe these “mistakes” apply to bigger issues. Maybe when Mark says that Jesus was crucified the day after the Passover meal was eaten (Mark 14:12; 15:25) and John says he died the day before it was eaten (John 19:14) – maybe that is a genuine difference. Or when Luke indicates in his account of Jesus’ birth that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth just over a month after they had come to Bethlehem (and performed the rites of purification; Luke 2:39), whereas Matthew indicates they instead fled to Egypt (Matt. 2:19-22) – maybe that is a difference. Or when Paul indicates that after he converted on the way to Damascus he did not go to Jerusalem see those who were apostles before him (Gal. 1:16-17) whereas the book of Acts indicates that that was the first thing he did after leaving Damascus (Acts 9:26) – maybe that is a difference.
For me, then, this realization that the Bible may have mistakes was a real turning point.”
Bart Ehrman, New Testament scholar, former fundamentalist/evangelical Christian