How do we approach the issue of Biblical inerrancy?

Did at any time in your theological studies have you approached the issue of innerancy and if there are different errors and contradictions throughout the Bible.

I have read Barth Ehrman’s stuff and boy does he have a list of them and then I started to really check online and then started to really research the issues and now I can’t help myself but to always look at the Bible texts with skeptical eyes.

An example that really bothers me (amongst others) is

Mark 2:26 - Jesus says:
“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?”

But in 1 Samuel 21:1-6 we are told that Ahimelek was high priest at that time.

I have checked a lot of sources regarding this, do you think this really is an error (that shouldn’t matter to christians) or is there a legitimate answer to clarify this apparent problem?

Thank you in advance.


Hi Vlad,

Thanks so much for your question! I have done study on the issue of biblical innerancy, but I should qualify that by mentioning that my emphasis has been in philosophy and theology rather than textual criticism. That said, I am very familiar with Barth Ehrman and his claims of textual inconsistencies. I am also familiar with these particular texts and the seeming discrepancy.

In this particular case I think it is important to consider the exact words that Jesus uses. You happened to cite the translation that is most direct from the Greek in Mark 2:26, which is helpful, so thanks! In verse 26 Jesus says specifically that David entered the house of God in the days of Abiathar, which is a nonspecific phrase about a general period of time. This does not necessarily imply that Abiathar was the high priest at the time that David at the shewbread.

We know from 1 Samuel 22 that King Saul had Ahimelech killed after David ate the bread, but that his son, Abiathar, escaped and joined David. He was later made high priest, and even though this wasn’t during the time David ate the bread it isn’t incorrect for Jesus to speak the way that he did. Abiathar was still alive when that event took place. Additionally, he took office as high priest after his father, Ahimelech, was killed. Therefore, Jesus’ nonspecific phrase about the days of Abiathar can be understood rightly as the time of his life and subsequent role as high priest. I hope that helps to resolve the tension!

Additionally, it’s probably good that you consider Barth Ehrman’s methodology before you draw conclusions about the validity of his arguments. Ehrman is a textual critic, not a historian. He often uses criteria for textual authenticity to argue on historical grounds, and this creates all kinds of problems for his arguments. My two primary issues with his method is that he misstates the criteria for the establishment of authenticity of historical texts and then misapplies them.

If you’d like to see specific examples of this I can send you some notes. Just shoot me a personal message! Also, I have found William Lane Craig’s responses to Barth Ehrman’s arguments to be very revealing and helpful. You can find his comments in full online.

Thanks again for your question, Vlad!

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Thank you very much for your response Michael. I have found this explanation in other places on the internet but I was afraid to accept it because of all the textual critics that were against it and because I don’t have a formal education in Biblical Textual Criticism or first century history of judaic, roman and greek culture so that i could make up my own mind.

I have seen all of William Lane Craig responses and comments with regard to Bart Ehrman and also the debate they had together. I have been very interested in apologetics, history and The Bible for ever, but now after so many years I need to make a decision so I can be able to sleep again :).

One of the people that I really appreciate as a very competent professional or as Bart Ehrman would put it “a completely competent” professional is Daniel B. Wallace. He has writen a very long piece on this particular subject called “Mark 2:26 and the Problem of Abiathar” found here. He gives several ways to interpret this but in the conclusion which in itself is too long to post here, he says that:

" In 1883, Thomas M. Lindsay could write about the Abiathar problem: “Various explanations of the difficulty have been given, none very satisfactory.”38 It’s one hundred and twenty-one years later and you may feel, as do I, that if Lindsay were to rise from the dead he’d repeat his complaint verbatim!

But we must put this problem in perspective. What is at stake? Is the deity of Christ at stake? Apparently not, for two of the leading advocates of the “Jesus erred/midrashed” view embrace the deity of Christ. Is the inerrancy of scripture at stake? Possibly so, for if either option 3(a), or 4(a) is adopted, inerrancy cannot hold up. Is the infallibility of scripture at stake? Ironically, it seems to be so only if Gundry’s view is given full force and if Jesus’ use of scripture would have been perceived as self-serving and as eisegetical, for Jesus’ invoking of scripture here is directly related to a matter of faith and practice."

Ending the conclusion he says:

“Along these lines, I am reminded of what a sage wrote nearly one hundred and fifty years ago. J. A. Alexander concluded, concerning this passage, “It is best, however, as in all such cases, to leave the discrepancy unsolved rather than to solve it by unnatural and forced constructions. A difficulty may admit of explanation, although we may not be able to explain it, and the multitude of cases in which riddles once esteemed insoluble have since been satisfactorily settled, should encourage us to hope for like results in other cases…””

In the notes found here it says regarding to this passage:

" tn A decision about the proper translation of this Greek phrase (ἐπὶ ᾿Αβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως, epi Abiathar archiereōs ) is very difficult for a number of reasons. The most natural translation of the phrase is “when Abiathar was high priest,” but this is problematic because Abiathar was not the high priest when David entered the temple and ate the sacred bread; Ahimelech is the priest mentioned in [1 Sam 21:1-7]. Three main solutions have been suggested to resolve this difficulty.

(1) There are alternate readings in various manuscripts, but these are not likely to be original: D W {271} it D W {271} it sy and a few others omit ἐπὶ ᾿Αβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως, no doubt in conformity to the parallels in [Matt 12:4] and [Luke 6:4]; {A C Θ Π Σ Φ 074 ƒ and many others} add τοῦ before ἀρχιερέως, giving the meaning “in the days of Abiathar the high priest,” suggesting a more general time frame. Neither reading has significant external support and both most likely are motivated by the difficulty of the original reading.

(2) Many scholars have hypothesized that one of the three individuals who would have been involved in the transmission of the statement (Jesus who uttered it originally, Mark who wrote it down in the Gospel, or Peter who served as Mark’s source) was either wrong about Abiathar or intentionally loose with the biblical data in order to make a point.

(3) It is possible that what is currently understood to be the most natural reading of the text is in fact not correct. (a) There are very few biblical parallels to this grammatical construction (ἐπί + genitive proper noun, followed by an anarthrous common noun), so it is possible that an extensive search for this construction in nonbiblical literature would prove that the meaning does involve a wide time frame. If this is so, “in the days of Abiathar the high priest” would be a viable option. (b) It is also possible that this phrasing serves as a loose way to cite a scripture passage. There is a parallel to this construction in [Mark 12:26]: “Have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush?” Here the final phrase is simply ἐπὶ τοῦ βάτου ( epi tou batou ), but the obvious function of the phrase is to point to a specific passage within the larger section of scripture. Deciding upon a translation here is difficult. The translation above has followed the current consensus on the most natural and probable meaning of the phrase ἐπὶ ᾿Αβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως: “when Abiathar was high priest.” It should be recognized, however, that this translation is tentative because the current state of knowledge about the meaning of this grammatical construction is incomplete, and any decision about the meaning of this text is open to future revision."

The whole way I have been thought to approach Scripture and trust the Bible has been shakened and I need help with this. If the offer is still available, I would like to go through the notes you so generously offered to send me.

Thank you very much for all your time and effort.