Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Did Jesus deliberately misquote the Old Testament?

This is the second post in a few days in which I'm "exploring our matrix"--that is, interacting with a blog post by James McGrath.

In a post, "Was Jesus Wrong on Purpose?," James looks at the story in Mark 2 where Jesus appears to misremember the Old Testament.

In particular, Jesus defends his disciples' action of plucking grain on the Sabbath by referring to a story recorded in 1 Samuel:
And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” (Mark 2:25-26)
The problem is, the story Jesus references involves Ahimelech, not Abiathar.

Interestingly, Matthew and Luke report the story--but omit the reference to Abiathar. In their versions, no priest is mentioned.

It is hard to see the omission of this potentially embarrassing discrepancy as coincidence. It seems to have been dropped because of its problematic nature.

James McGrath highlights a post by Mike Skinner who references William Placher's take:
“Is this all a joke? A mistake? By Jesus? By Mark? Mark so rarely misremembers texts that I doubt he is doing so here. I infer, then, that the point of his reply is to show that these Pharisees, eager to burden the common people with the details of the Law, are actually so ignorant of Scripture that they do not notice one misquotation after another. Such matters have not altogether changed, and those who quote a particular biblical passage as a means of condemnation often turn out not to know its context or relation to other biblical texts.” (William Placher, Mark (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible)
I agree that it is unlikely that Mark just "misremembers" the story of 1 Samuel but I'm not sure Jesus is simply ridiculing the Pharisees.

One of the reasons I think it is unlikely that Mark misremembers the historical books here is that Abiathar is actually a much more consequential figure than most contemporary readers realize--at least, he would have been considered significant to anyone interested in the cult.

Who was Abiathar?

Briefly, Abiathar is the last in a priestly regime. According to the Old Testament, Aaron had two sons: Eleazar and Ithamar. A careful reading of the biblical narrative reveals some interesting dynamics between their two lines. Here I want to draw in particular on Scott Hahn's work Kinship by Covenant (AYBRL; Yale University Press, 2007).

In the book of Numbers, it is Eleazar's son, Phinehas, who acts righteously when the second generation sins by slaying the idolators.

The whole scene is a kind of repeat of the story of the sin of the golden calf episode; Israel commits apostasy and sinners are executed. However, whereas in the former it was the Levites as a whole that stood against idolatry, this time it is only Phinehas who acts.

Specifically, Phinehas' appears to kill two individuals for the sin of immorality, catching them inflagrante delicto:
When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation, and took a spear in his hand 8 and went after the man of Israel into the inner room, and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman, through her body. (Num. 25:7-8).
Because of his zeal, God swears to Phinehas a covenant oath:
‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace; 13 and it shall be to him, and to his descendants after him, the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the people of Israel.’ (Num 25:12).
Now, what this promise actually entails is a bit unclear. As one of the sons of Aaron, Phinehas, was already a priest. What seems likely, however, is that this passage was read as describing the bestowal of the high priesthood on Phinehas' line.

This would mean that the high priesthood would belong to the sons of Eleazar, not the sons of Ithamar, since Phinehas was from Eleazar's line.

Yet, according to the biblical narrative, it was Ithamar's line that became the prominent priestly family. At the beginning of 1 Samuel we find descendants of Ithamar--Eli and his sons--serving at the sanctuary in Shiloh.

Later, in Samuel 21, we read the story cited by Jesus: David receives the bread of the presence from the priest serving at the tabernacle, Ahimelech. Ahimelech, notably, is of the line of Ithamar. 

The attentive reader will note though that under David Phinehas' line is finally elevated. The righteous priest Zadok, a descendant of Eleazar/Phinehas, is eventually installed by David's son Solomon as high priest, replacing Abiathar, the son of Ahimelech and descendant of Ithamar (1 Sam 22:20; 23:6; 30:7, etc.).

As many have noted, the rise of the Zadokite priesthood and the fall of the line of Eleazar is a leitmotif in the historical books. Of course, the narrative of 1 Samuel picks up with an indictment of the wickedness of the priest Eli.
Behold, the days are coming, when I will cut off your strength and the strength of your father’s house. . . 33 The man of you whom I shall not cut off from my altar shall be spared to weep out his eyes and grieve his heart; and all the increase of your house shall die by the sword of men. 34 And this which shall befall your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you: both of them shall die on the same day.
Indeed, this promise is fulfilled when Eli's sons are both killed. Eli dies when he hears the news, falling backwards and breaking his neck (1 Sam 4:18).

Yet, from the beginning of 1 Samuel, in contradistinction to the wicked house of Eli, we also find the promise of a coming faithful priest.
And I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind; and I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed for ever. (1 Sam 2:35).
Scholars rightly recognize that, in the narrative, this appears to be fulfilled in Zadok.[1]

As the narrative unfolds, two men emerge as prominent priests once David begins to reign: Zadok and the son of Ahimelech, Abiathar (cf. 2 Sam 8:17; 2 Sam 15:35; 2 Sam 19:11; 1 Kgs 4:4; 1 Chr. 15:11; 18:16; etc.).

In fact, the Chronicler makes the association of the two lines of Eleazar and Ithamar explicit:
With the help of Zadok of the sons of Eleazar, and Ahimelech of the sons of Ithamar, David organized them according to the appointed duties in their service. (1 Chr. 24:3; cf. 24:6)
Abiathar vs. David and Zadok

Yet Abiathar ends up involved in a coup that seeks to make Adonijah the royal successor to David (1 Kgs 1:7-8).

David then has Zadok anoint Solomon as his successor (1 Kgs 1:39). This is portrayed as the final fulfillment of God's promise to Eli that his house would come to an end--an oracle that climaxed with the announcement of a coming "faithful priest":
And to Abiathar the priest the king said, “Go to Anathoth, to your estate; for you deserve death. But I will not at this time put you to death, because you bore the ark of the Lord GOD before David my father, and because you shared in all the affliction of my father.” 27 So Solomon expelled Abiathar from being priest to the Lord, thus fulfilling the word of the Lord which he had spoken concerning the house of Eli in Shiloh. (1 Kgs. 2:26-28)
Specifically, we read that Zadok was installed in his place, implying that somehow Abiathar held a post that Zadok previously did not have.
The king put Benaiah the son of Jehoiada over the army in place of Joab, and the king put Zadok the priest in the place of Abiathar. (1 Kgs 1:25)
It would seem that Zadok's role as "the priest", establishes him as high priest.

Zadok is thus the faithful priest who goes before the "anointed" one, David.

The Zadokite priesthood is from then on closely associated with the house of David.
And they made Solomon the son of David king the second time, and they anointed him as prince for the Lord, and Zadok as priest. (1 Chr 29:22)

King Solomon was king over all Israel, 2 and these were his high officials: Azariah the son of Zadok was the priest (1 Kings 4:1-2).
The belief in the divinely instituted nature of the Zadokite priesthood is testified to in other texts. According to the vision of Ezekiel, only the sons of Zadok will be allowed to serve in the sanctuary:
. . . these are the sons of Zadok, who alone among the sons of Levi may come near to the Lord to minister to him. (Eek 40:46; cf. 43:18; 44:15; 48:11)
In addition, Ezra is said to be a descendent of Zadok (cf. Ezra 7:1-2). The importance of the Zadokite priesthood in the Dead Sea Scrolls is also well known. To name just a few examples:
  • 1QSa 2:3 explains that the Zadokites should be the leaders of the eschatological council. 
  • 1QSb 3:22-28 lays out the blessings for the priests of the Zadokite line. 
  • 1QSb 4:22-28 contains the blessings for the Zadokite high priest. 
  • 1QH discusses the conflicts the Zadokite high priest had with the "Wicked Priest", most likely a Hasmonean. (In fact, many trace the origins of the community back to the Zadokites' loss of the high priesthood). 
Suffice it to say, Zadok was a prominent figure for those interested in the temple.

A Proposal for Mark 2

There can be little doubt about Mark's interest in the temple. I cannot rehearse all of the data here, but see the fine monograph by Timothy Gray, Gray, The Temple in the Gospel of Mark (WUNT 2/242; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2008).

Returning to the episode in Mark 2, let us make two important observations. First, Jesus casts himself in the role of David. Second, Jesus mentions the last of an Old Testament priestly regime, Abiathar.

So why mention Abiathar as priest?

I like Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch's explanation:
Jesus probably mentioned Abiathar instead of Ahimelech to post a warning for the Pharisees. Abiathar is infamous in OT history as the last high priest of his line, who was banished from Jerusalem and the priesthood for opposing Solomon, the son of David and the heir of his kingdom (1 Kings 2:26–27). He thus represents the end of an old order that passes away with the coming of David’s royal successor. As Jesus compares himself and the disciples with David and his men, he likewise draws the Pharisees into the story by casting them as figures like Abiathar. The Pharisees, then, represent an old order of covenant leadership that is about to expire, and if they persist in their opposition to Jesus, the new heir of the Davidic kingdom, they will meet the same disastrous fate that befell Abiathar. Jesus’ allusion to this OT tradition was a subtle yet strategic way to caution the Pharisees against their antagonism to his ministry. (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010], 70). 
[1] See, e.g., Scott Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God's Saving Promises (AYBRL; New Haven, Yale University Press, 2009), 158-175; Stephen Hultgren, From the Damascus Covenant to the Covenant of Community (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 505.


DimBulb said...

I'm no Greek scholar but couldn't the Greek preposition "epi" which precedes the name Abiathar have a general sense and cause the passage to be translated to read "about the time of Abiathar the high priest..." The possibility of a more general meaning to the preposition would aid the Hahn/Mitch suggestion, wouldn't it?

Michael Barber said...

That would help Hahn/Mitch. I'd have to look more carefully at that translation possibility.