How well did Jesus actually know his Bible?
This isn’t a common question posed by Christians, but it is one that the end of Mark 2 forces upon the reader. In Mark 2:25-26, Jesus re-tells a biblical story as part of a confrontation with the Pharisees. However, his version of the story is riddled with . . . mistakes?
Jesus’ biblical reference comes in response to the questioning of the Pharisees concerning his disciples’ activity of picking grain on the Sabbath. He returns their question (“Why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”) with another question, “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, in the time of Abiathar the 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?”
Jesus seems to be referencing a tale found in 1 Samuel 21:1-6. The problem is that Samuel’s version of this story is significantly different from Jesus’ version. In Samuel’s narrative, David was by himself. There is no mention of hunger. David does not enter the house of God. The priest was Ahimelech, not Abiathar.
Most Christian interpreters try to smooth over the differences between the versions of the story presented in 1 Samuel and Mark 2. These efforts are, in my evaluation, usually unsatisfying. But there is another, perhaps more creative, interpretive possibility.
What if Jesus misremembers this tale on purpose? What if his misquotation is an ironic jab at the Pharisees?
This is the conclusion that theologian William Placher reaches:
“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: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, 51)
My experience does confirm that those who use religion or religious clobber-texts to condemn other people usually are not very familiar with the sacred texts they hold so dear. This reading is further supported if Placher is right and Mark rarely “misremembers texts.” Why doesn’t Mark (or a later scribe) spot and correct Jesus’ mistake? Why do Matthew and Luke carry over these mistakes (Matthew 12 and Luke 6)?
Perhaps they caught the irony in Jesus’ response.
What do you think?
Are you convinced by Placher’s interpretation?
If not, how do you reconcile the two texts and Jesus’ apparent mistake/ignorance?