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Was Mark (and/or Jesus) Wrong on Purpose about Abiathar? -- Irony, Memory & Chronology in Mark 2:26

[Note: I drafted this post in November and wanted to sit on it, but now that Mike Skinner, James McGrath, and Michael Barber are all posting on the topic, I'll just throw mine out there. Why miss a chance to be almost sort of timely, amIright?!]

accuracy or inaccuracy is a place to begin, not a conclusion to reach

Thanks to Brian Renshaw's October BS Carnival I found Andrew Perriman's excellent survey of criticism & apologetics on Mark 2:26, which concludes "we are stuck with the discrepancy, unless anyone has a better solution." Surprisingly, my wheels started to turn. Without question, the plain and literal reading is that Mark, and Mark's Jesus, and/or Jesus himself are all completely incorrect. The time when David ate the Tabernacle's showbread, was not "the days of Abiathar the high priest" because Abiathar's father, the more obscure Ahimelech, was the high priest in 1 Sam. 21 who fed David's men with God's bread. Wrong is wrong. But wrong can be interesting, too.

What tickles my fancy today is not the challenge to resolve a discrepancy, so much as the opportunity to bust open a false dichotomy. Some in academia tend to see problems like this in binary terms. It's either right or its wrong. Things either line up or they don't. But logically, there are always four possibilities:

 (1) The text is correct, and in the way that Mark intended.
          purposefully correct - standard apologetic view

 (2) The text is correct, but not in the way Mark thought it was.
          accidentally correct - apologist's last ditch defense

 (3) The text is incorrect, which Mark didn't realize.
          accidentally incorrect - standard critical view

 (4) The text is incorrect, which Mark knew perfectly well.
          purposefully incorrect - the possibility of stable irony, or something like it

If we sincerely wish to investigate afresh, instead of just defending older views, we might try taking all four of these positions, each in turn, and then compare the plausibility of any resulting scenarios. This fits well with the increasingly common and happily enlightened standpoint of cutting edge Biblical Studies, which says that such questions may not be as simple as "Is this text right or wrong". The better question is usually, "How did this text come to be as it now is?"

To that end, consider all four options above. Begin with option (1) or (2) and we have to reach for creative solutions, like Craig Blomberg. Sometimes that kind of imaginative thinking is the best way to solve real historical problems. That is, not as often as some of us wish, but historical inquiry can be surprising. Next, resolve yourself to option (3) and you secure credibility like John Byron. Nothing's as certain to prove as a bald faced contradiction. Unfortunately, resolving that "the text is wrong" solves, at best, only half of the problem. Writers are indeed only human, but we shouldn't merely assume that all inaccuracies are simply mistakes.

Beyond these, the overlooked option (4) is logically necessary to consider. In this case, we ask, What if Mark's Jesus is making a citation that's intentionally wrong? Or, perhaps more likely is something not far from that, such as, What if "the days of Abiathar" is a looser kind of historical reference?

In a way, option four combines the creative historical imagination of the apologist with the staunch rigor of the critic. As Wayne Booth showed decades ago, the ways of "stable irony" depend on a contradiction which the reader is expected to recognize as plainly wrong, which sparks a search for deeper meaning. In many cases, this fourth investigation may prove to be fruitless, but we must consider every logical option. We may not determine that Abiathar was an instance of stable irony, but this kind of nuance can spark better thinking all around.

A determination of inaccuracy is not a conclusion to reach, but a place to begin.

If mature scholarly nuance is sometimes a matter of getting from "either or" to "both and", then try on this twist:

Instead of "either wrong or not-wrong", what happens if we think in terms of "both wrong and not-wrong"?


~~~~~ 2 ~~~~~


For modern scholars, trained with an archival basis for understanding historiography, an historical reference is expected to be precise in denotation, description, and citation. However, the fact that we largely credit Leopold von Ranke with making history "scientific" is evidence of the contrary situation (by and large) in all previous centuries. Obviously, technology is the other big factor - not only printing but the industrialized wealth which enabled the rise of both well-stocked archives and professionalized academia. In short, perfect accuracy can be expected these days only because perfect accuracy became possible. On the other hand, we are starting to realize Plato was eventually correct in his fears about writing. Massive literary archiving (and now electronic archiving) has made us cease to appreciate many facets of what it was like when people's relation to the past was largely a matter of relying upon memory.

In composing a Gospel narrative, were rhetorical strategies for historical reference restricted by the limitations of audience memory? Or were they not?

Perriman cites William Craig: "evidence from Tannaitic documents is that the section of scripture was named from a term that came early rather than late in the passage" - as if we should expect the writer of Mark (and/or Mark's Jesus) to cite passages of text like highly skilled ancient scribes. Historiographical convention (such as it was) belonged to academic elites, then as much as now, but popular historical reference was a familiar practice through cultural traditions. The one was never much like the other. Passages have citations. Stories have heroes. Just as the referential practices (of scribes compiling the Talmud and Mishnah) were appropriate for their needs as ancient academic transcriptionists, it was similarly appropriate that synagogue readings and annual festival traditions reminded Jewish folks primarily of the major figures such as Moses, David, and Abraham. Which social group should we expect Mark (and/or Jesus himself, hypothetically) was most likely to imitate?

In the Gospels, when Jesus name-checks the Hebrew Bible, he usually mentions the great ones, which makes good rhetorical sense (for Jesus, and adds narrative verisimilitude for Mark) because crowds could plausibly be expected to remember Jonah, or Adam, or Elijah. In the Gospels, Jesus quotes passages with vague or general citation. He refers not to works of literature but to an experience of David. Jesus didn't discuss commentaries and verify citations in order to sound like a scribe. Jesus did what the common people could understand easily. He told stories.

Now that Chris Keith has shown (conclusively, imho) that Jesus did not possess scribal-literate status, and that Jesus did not exercise scribal levels of literacy, the idea that Mark's Jesus should have referred to Ahimelech, because it would have been more precise, requires serious reconsideration. To the contrary, for a speaker or writer in the first century who wanted to succeed at historical reference while communicating with common folks, any reference to Ahimelech would have been risky. His name is obscure. His role was not large. His story was not particularly memorable.

By comparison, Abiathar's presence in the Davidic storyline is more substantial by far. By any reasonable standard, Abiathar was the bigger name, the one who should have been more widely remembered, and the one best suited for communicating a historical reference to an audience of synagogue Jews, to say nothing of uneducated gentiles!

What if Mark (sand/or Jesus) deliberately sacrificed chronological precision for the sake of rhetorical effectiveness?

Perriman notes three parallel references to "in the days of Abiathar" ('epi Abiathar', 'epi Klaudiou', etc) - all conveying a similarly temporal sense and referring to periods of official political rule, However, all three parallels are drawn from Luke-Acts and while Luke's syntax is generic Mark's usage may be personalized. At least, Luke's historiographcal tendencies cannot be enforced as the standard since neither Mark nor Jesus has ever been accused of being a "careful historian", as Luke has long been (however dubiously) perceived.

We should not expect Mark's 'epi Abiathar' to be formal and official.

That said, wrong is still wrong. "In the days of Abiathar" remains chronologically inaccurate.

But "wrong on purpose" is a special kind of rhetorical gambit.


~~~~~ 3 ~~~~~


Let's consider the "story-life" of Abiathar. By this phrase, story-life, I mean something like shelf-life or battery-life, more like the duration and lingering potency of Abiathar's presence in the story of David. More specifically, we might say Abiathar's story-life is primarily the sum total of his character's literary presence within the Davidic Storyworld of 1Sam, 2Sam & 1Kings, and secondarily his significance within the reduced Plotline or Timeline of the larger Davidic Narrative. Note the two qualifications. I said primarily [significance in storyworld content] and secondarily [significance in plot structure]. In alignment with that basic two-stage distinction, we need to extend this concept like a support beam, running between story and memory.

In short, an audience's mnemonic Abiathar may differ from the archival and literary Abiathar.

(Side note: We could equivalently say "Your interpreted Abiathar may differ..." but that terminology isn't helpful or necessarily relevant to the concepts I have in play, at the moment.)

In a context of public communication, whether extemporaneous, by reading, or by recitation, Abiathar's story-life is not a matter of textual detail. In a public reading or speech, Abiathar's story-life is a matter of mnemonic recall. More precisely, if you're caught up on recent Social Memory Theory, Abiathar's story-life is actually a bit of a variable. It's the collective yet pluriform result of the varying and personalized process of mnemonic construction. (With narrative or "episodic" content, especially, most of what we think of as memory "recall" is likely to be memory "construction". So acknowledged, note that I may go on to use both terms in various ways.)

The literary or historical Abiathar one makes reference to when addressing an audience invokes the mnemonic story-life of Abiathar as "recalled" by each individual reader or audience member. Obviously, for some individuals there may be no Abiathar in memory at all. Collectively, however, one would have been far more likely to find a mnemonic Abiathar in most minds, among first-century Jews, than one would be to have found a mnemonic Ahimelech. Imagine 100 first century Jews in the same local Judean synagogue, with similar attendance rates on Sabbath and very different levels of intellect, attention span, and focusing ability. Those same 100 people are going to have little chance to recall Ahimelech and a far greater chance to recall Abiathar. We can be certain of this simply by reading the literature.

Take a survey yourself, with narrative sensibilities. Which parts of a story are memorable? The plot. The conflict. The characters who lingered longest and seemed to make the largest impact. With that in mind, look at the books of Samuel and Kings and compare the memorability of Ahimelech when contrasted with Abiathar.

If you're counting citations, Ahimelech's name appears meaningfully eight times in 1 Sam, and not again (apart from, negligibly, the subtitle of Psalm 52). All eight mentions appear in two juxtaposed episodes at 1 Sam.21-22, as Ahimelech gives David the showbread, after which Saul interrogates and then executes Ahimelech for having helped David. Essentially, Ahimelech gives David bread, confesses, and gets killed for it. Nothing about this individual character or his personal behavior is outstanding or notable. The only reason we talk about Ahimelech today is because of this controversy about the Gospel reference in Mark.

Now contrast that with Abiathar, whose 25 meaningful appearances are spread broadly from 1 Sam 22 to 2 Sam 20, and whose story-life continues into the first four chapters of 1 Kings. At his introduction, Abiathar is immediately and clearly seen to be far more heroic than his father: escaping from Saul, pursuing and joining with David the fugitive, taking the high-priestly ephod of his father to David instead of giving it to Saul, keeping the priestly ephod and enabling David to speak with God on multiple occasions, thus becoming a priest by this action and blessing David's claim in the eyes of the people. In later years, as David's story goes on, Abiathar remains loyal to David during the rebellion by Abaslom but obeys David and bears the Ark (with Zadok) back to Jerusalem, becoming David's mouthpiece in the city on occasion (with Zadok) until David was re-enthroned. Finally, Abiathar splits from Zadok and supports Adonijah when Zadok supports Solomon, leading to when Zadok replaces Abiathar after Solomon removes his priesthood and banishes him.

The long and short of all this is that Abiathar was a memorable and significant character in the Davidic storyline. At the absolute minimum, Abiathar was certainly far more rememberable than his father Ahimelech. What's more, in addition to his own heroism and late dramatic reversal, Abiathar's presence in popular memory would also have increased due to his frequent textual association with Zadok, whose name appears 24 times between 2 Samuel & 1 Kings, including nine times in conjunction with Abiathar (six mentions as comrades under David plus three more times their names are paired under Solomon, after the kingdom was split).

All in all, then, Abiathar has a significant story-life, both his literary story-life in the text of the Hebrew Bible and his mnemonic story-life in the mind of any reader or hearer who remembers the Davidic storyline. The mental conception of Abiathar is not an accounting exercise about labeling a time period but a narrative-shaped vision of one human life lived in the context of famous past times. A rhetorical invocation of Abiathar, in the first century, invites the listening crowd to recall and/or reconstruct their memory of Abiathar's role in David's story. In such a context, the mental trace of a previous and probably unconscious literary synopsis - the mental trace by itself and not any literary synopsis from fresh research in the archives - is the only way Abiathar's story-life (or Ahimelech's story-life, for that matter) could be an accessible historical reference for a storyteller who was speaking to any small group of listeners... such as, for example, the early churches hearing Mark's Gospel read aloud to them in community.

While the relative size of given characters' mnemonic presence(s) is not necessarily proportional to their literary presence(s), it's true in general that the stronger the literary presence, the stronger the mental trace for that character, especially in the collective recall of a Jewish community.

At any rate, Abiathar was by far the more accessible reference for any first century audience of Jews. 

All we need now is a rhetorical purpose for referencing Abiathar, instead of Ahimelech.


~~~~~ 4 ~~~~~


Chronologically, the distinction between Abiathar and Zadok is where our search for ironic chronology gets a bit more intriguing.

Apart from one brief aside, Zadok doesn't really show up in David's storyline until the rebellion of Absalom, after which Zadok and Abiathar are regularly mentioned in lockstep together. Abiathar's story-life prior to Zadok features Abiathar as the only high priest in David's kingdom, beginning from his first appearance when he brought the priestly symbol of authority, which helped to divinely legitimize David's travelling entourage. In chronological terms, the "days of Abiathar" don't quite go back to the incident with the show bread, but they do, with the ephod, mark the days when David began acting as God's chosen King, albeit unrecognized.

[EDIT: This was the section where my November draft stalled out. My own guess was forming above, that Abiathar could represent Jesus himself, as the unsanctioned minister more blessed by God than the establishment's Ahimelech. Intriguing or not, I put this section on the back burner until I could dig into the history of interpretation. Then, last week, I was shocked but elated to find Skinner writing (scooping!) the very words of my draft, "Wrong on Purpose" in his reference to William Platcher's suggestion that Jesus was mocking the Pharisees, and this morning thrilled to find Barber citing Scott Hahn's guess (the opposite of mine) that Abiathar was the illegitimate precursor to Zadok's coming establishment. Obviously Barber & Hahn's interpretation favors the Roman Catholic viewpoint as deeply as mine flatters those of us who prefer to stand "outside of organized religion". How delightful! 

At any rate, the contrast present in our guesses gives me the opportunity to emphasize that my point here isn't to speculate on what rhetorical symbolism Mark (and/or Mark's Jesus and/or Jesus himself) was aiming to communicate by deliberately referencing Abiathar. Simply establishing that we have at least three suggestions - Platcher's, Hahn's, and my own - makes the point well enough for my purposes here. In particular, Hanh's suggestion is similar to mine in that it relies on a rhetorical contrast between Abiathar and Zadok, the one core idea I had actually settled on for this section [4] of the post.

I'll now allow draft fragments to fill out section 4 and my pre-drafted conclusion will follow. End of EDIT.] 

What was the public perception of Abiathar's time frame? To answer that question, begin with a thought experiement, how would *you* segment David's storyline into time periods? How would *you* subdivide a timeline of David's life-story?

Jesus did it by Priests, not Kings...

...possibly reflects that Mark's Jesus was avoiding blatant talk about kings... Herod & Caesar...

...by speaking of the time of Abiathar, Jesus refers to David's humble days before his kingdom...

...Jesus himself, gleaning food from a field, was in his own humble days, before his own coming kingdom
and *that* may be Mark's side point to make, here...

Any ancient audience member whose memory was precise enough, or who took the trouble and had the ability to go look it up - well, for one thing, such a reader would have been comparably rare, and perhaps extremely rare. Nevertheless, such a persnickety and resourceful reader would probably also have proven savvy enough to defer tentatively on the possible interpretation that Jesus had meant the period of Abiathar's presence in the Davidic story, as opposed to Abiathar's official period of holding the high-priesthood...

...or could still defer to the option that Jesus meant Abiathar's entire life, not his period of rule, but the bulk of an audience only needed to know that this was a high priest before Zadok. So, before David was king.

"Abiathar? Oh, you mean the guy before Zadok." was a lesser referential risk than missing entirely. "Ahimilech? Ahimilech who?!?"

In short, when Mark 2:26 says David ate the showbread "in the days of Abiathar", that may have been simply a general way of saying, "in the period of David's life before Zadok".


~~~~~ Conclusion ~~~~~


Artistry can be more important than accuracy. The way we say something can matter more than the thing which got said. And as we've learned from the study of Memory, sometimes distortion can be a beneficial phenomenon. My little bit to add is merely this: Due to audience memory, deliberate referential distortion can be a viable rhetorical stragegy. If you live in Decatur, Georgia, and you tell people you're from Atlanta, that's not strictly right or wrong. It's both right and wrong. I live in Arlington, Texas, but on the road I tell people that home is "Fort Worth". My mother has told people I live in Dallas, which is even more incorrect than Fort Worth, but far more functionally communicative to her friends. It's inaccurate, but it's inaccurate on purpose.

We can all relate to distorted Geography. The point today is distorted Chronology.

When Americans occasionally say the great depression happened in the days of F.D.R., that's not entirely true because it began before Roosevelt took office, but it's close enough because the depression was tackled and beaten under Roosevelt's guidance, so the chronological distortion aligns with popular audience memory to make a feasible temporal reference. Likewise, an official political designation like "in the days of Augustus" is a deliberate distortion in one direction or another - either limiting the possible range of chronological reference, if not including Octavian's years before coming to power, or expanding that range if it does include any years of his rule before the Senate bestowed on him the title "Augustus". Even standard convention, like that of Luke's Gospel and Perriman's comparisons (section 2, above), was subject to distortion.

I've made four basic points in this post.

First, it's less important whether "Abiathar" is precisely right or wrong as a chronological reference, and arguing over whether it was right or wrong is putting a dead end where a wellspring should be. It's more important that we consider the rhetorical options for why Abiathar may have been "wrong on purpose". Logically, this is always one of the four options for assessing apparent inaccuracies and it must be addressed, despite (sometimes willful) critical ignorance of "stable irony" and the work of Wayne Booth.

Secondly, it's anachronistic to argue that the author of Mark 2:26 (and/or Mark's Jesus, and/or Jesus himself) should be held to the standards of a modern archivist, and arguing that Mark (or Jesus) should be held even up to the standards of ancient scribes should be just as categorically improper. Rather, a popular ancient storyteller such as Jesus would have drawn upon cultural memories which were accessible to a majority of listeners, even among Pharisees. I am arguing that this point applies equally, regardless of whether we might be considering the actual audience memory of Mark's Gospel audiences or the hypothetical audience memory of Jesus' interlocutors in the story-world of Mark 2:26, whether fiction or non-fiction.

Thirdly, I've suggested that Ahimelech wasn't a memorable enough character in the Davidic story for anyone in Jesus' circles to have relied on his name for historical reference, especially if we're going for something as chronologically precise as a particular period of a trivial high priest's official years of rule. Even if Jesus himself had miraculously become the first century counterpart of a southern baptist champion at "sword drill", such exacting knowledge would have been unique, so the reference still wouldn't have been viable. In either case, any storyteller savvy enough to understand audience memory (in a practical way) should have preferred the distorted chronology that people could actually remember, as opposed to a more precise reference so obscure it had to be widely forgotten. Therefore, instead of asking Which priest should Jesus have been referring to? or instead of asking, Who was high priest at the precise moment when David was stealing the showbread? the proper scholarly question ought to be, Was Abiathar's "story-life" a more accessible chronological reference than either Abiathar's OR Ahimilech's precise period of officially holding the high priesthood?

Fourthly, whatever Mark's (and/or Jesus') rhetorical purpose, I suggest the reference to Abiathar most likely chronologizes the period prior to Zadok. This priestly division of time was probably the first alternate method as opposed to the more obviously accessible, "in the days when David fled from Saul". Whether the name Abiathar itself is intended to have a symbolic impact, the method of dividing time by a reference to priests was politically safer for Jesus than to mention David being at odds with King Saul. (This applies both literarily to that point in Mark's narrative in which Jesus was so far avoiding Herod's notice and also historically to that point in Jesus' actual Galilean ministry in which John was imprisoned.) Another irony of sorts! It may be less rhetorically important what Abiathar symbolizes with respect to Jerusalem than what Abiathar does not symbolize - because Abiathar is not Saul - with respect to Tiberias or Rome.

All together, none of this has yet argued that the "Wrong on Purpose" interpretation is more likely the most appropriate conclusion to draw on Mark 2:25-26. I have not argued that this interpretation is better than the standard critical or apologetic readings offered by anyone else. Finally, I have not even begun to assemble a collection of similar references where historical texts (let alone ancient historical texts) have been similarly "Wrong on Purpose". What I have endeavored to accomplish, merely, is to establish firmly that this suggestion is (A) worth considering, and (B) not apologetic. (The writer's intention cannot technically be defended, since nobody knows for certain what that was, and if it could, then every critics is an apologist!) But the heart of apologetics is to argue that the text was not wrong, or somehow not "really" wrong, or in the last ditch "accidentally right". But an argument in favor of stable irony requires us to begin with asserting inaccuracy, from which there are two options. Either Mark (and/or Jesus) was wrong by accident, or else with intent. This last option is what the critics most often avoid, which makes them less truly critics than apologists-in-reverse. At any rate, textual accuracy or inaccuracy should not always be our endgame. It is often a much, much more interesting place to begin.

Obviously, future work is required. I'm just the amateur who suggests new hypotheses. If Abiathar was a more accessible reference, according to social and cultural memory of the time, then a greater public awareness of Abiathar's literary/historical existence meant that chronological imprecision could be reasonably accommodated. In order to reference an obscure event such as David eating the showbread, it was essential to communicate clearly which (scripturally speaking) historical time frame was being referred to, at least roughly. The chosen method of communicating that temporal period had to be effective, but that effort did not necessarily have to align with the scribal method of citing texts, or the historian's method of citing political rule.

I leave all this, sincerely, for the purview of my betters.

Anon...