Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Pinning the “Tale” on Ibn Anwar

Who is in danger of losing his marbles …

Jochen Katz

Ibn Anwar has published another attempt of attacking the Bible, this time concerning an alleged anachronism. In his article, New Testament anachronism: The anachronistic tale of Mark 2:26 (*), he writes:

In previous articles we have exposed and refuted fallacious charges of anachronism laid against the Qur’an by its detractors. The uninitiated missionary does not realise that the claim of anachronism is easily levelled against his Bible in a much more forceful manner. In this article we will look at one particular example out of numerous others of a clear anachronistic datum provided in the New Testament which is attributed to Jesus Christ. In the example in question we see Jesus anachronistically teach that David and his men ate the show bread which was reserved for the priests in the temple when they were hungry during the tenure of Abiathar as high priest. Any reader who is familiar with the story which is recapitulated (inaccurately) from the Old Testament knows that it was not Abiathar who was the high priest at that time but rather his father Ahimelech. The following are the relevant passages which you may read and compare for yourself:

Mark 2:26

1 Samuel 21:1-6

“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?”

David went to Nob, to Ahimelek the priest. Ahimelek trembled when he met him, and asked, “Why are you alone? Why is no one with you?” David answered Ahimelek the priest, “The king sent me on a mission and said to me, ‘No one is to know anything about the mission I am sending you on.’ As for my men, I have told them to meet me at a certain place. Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever you can find.” But the priest answered David, “I don’t have any ordinary bread on hand; however, there is some consecrated bread here—provided the men have kept themselves from women.” David replied, “Indeed women have been kept from us, as usual whenever I set out. The men’s bodies are holy even on missions that are not holy. How much more so today!” So the priest gave him the consecrated bread, since there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence that had been removed from before the Lord and replaced by hot bread on the day it was taken away.

Before raising the charge of an anachronism, Ibn Anwar needs to be more careful in observing what is said and what is not said in the texts that he refers to. The text quoted from 1 Samuel 21:1-6 does not say that Ahimelek was the high priest. There were plenty of priests in Israel, working in shifts. Based on the above cited text, we can only conclude that Ahimelek was the priest on duty when David came to the tabernacle and asked for food. There is no special title or function stated for Ahimelek in this text. In fact, and this may come as a shock for Ibn Anwar, the infamous wannabe scholar, neither Ahimelek nor Abiathar are ever referred to by the title “high priest” anywhere in the Old Testament.

Thus, the alleged contradiction and anachronism is not quite as straight-forward as Ibn Anwar would like to have it. This argument needs a lot more work.

There even is the issue whether the Greek term ἀρχιερεύς (archiereus, arch-priest) should actually be rendered as “high priest” in this case or rather as “the great priest” or “the renowned priest”, referring to his greatness in the sense of his lifetime achievement (being a leading priest for more than 40 years) rather than signifying an official title at a certain specific time. This is discussed in detail by J.P. Holding in his article, “Mark 2:26 and Abiathar”.

Holding also points out that in several passages in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 2:4, Mark 10:33, Acts 4:23, etc.) the word is used in the plural and usually rendered as “chief priests”, i.e. it refers to a group of high-ranking priests, not just one singular top-leader.1 If that is the correct interpretation in this case, no contradiction is left. Ahimelek and Abiathar could both belong to the group of “chief priests” at the same time. Jesus simply mentioned Abiathar in his statement because he is clearly the more important one in the overall biblical history. He did not say that Abiathar handed David the bread, he merely provided a time marker for when the incident took place.

Looking at it from a different angle, Keith Thompson’s rebuttal (*) to Ibn Anwar explains the use of the term “the high priest” as prolepsis, a position held by several biblical scholars.

Both of these proposed solutions are possible and satisfactory, though we may not know for sure which meaning Mark had in mind when writing the Gospel bearing his name.

[Update: There are at least two thorough discussions of this text which the interested reader may study, and which I was not aware of when I first published this present article: Daniel B. Wallace gives a detailed overview on many proposed solutions with their strengths and weaknesses in The Problem of Abiathar in Mark 2.26 (2000). Not covered in this overview article is a different interpretation and approach proposed recently by James M. Hamilton Jr. in a short blog entry, Typology Preserves Biblical Inerrancy, and a detailed journal article (2012).]

Although I find the solution presented by J.P. Holding appealing, for the purpose of this particular rebuttal, I am going to accept Ibn Anwar’s assumption that Abiathar – even though becoming a high priest soon after – was not yet a/the high priest at the time of this particular incident of David eating of the show bread that was given to him by Ahimelek. What I will present below can be viewed as a supplement to the argument made by Keith Thompson, and has the purpose of showing that if Ibn Anwar does not find “prolepsis” an acceptable explanation, he will then be in some trouble finding any answer to at least one Quranic anachronism that is repeated over and over again.

Basically, the question Ibn Anwar has to answer is this: “Is it acceptable to use the main name or title for a person when speaking about an incident taking place at a time when this person did not yet have this name or title?

In order to investigate this question, let us look at a few examples.

The secular2 encyclopedia Wikipedia has an entry titled, “Conversion of Paul the Apostle3 despite the fact that Paul was a persecutor of Christians at that time, and not yet an apostle when he got converted. Moreover, he was called Saul (Shaoul), not Paul (Paulus) at the time.4 Prolepsis is not an obscure literary device that needs special justification, it is a normal way of speaking and referencing even today. It is entirely natural to say, “The Apostle Paul was born in Tarsus”, even though he was clearly not an apostle at the time of his birth.

The name and title under which this person is best known is “The Apostle Paul” or “Paul the Apostle”, so that many speak even about earlier events in his life by referencing his “main name” and “main title”. Nevertheless, everyone understands that this is his later name and title, and that this was not his name or function at his birth, during his youth and at the time of his conversion. Some people whose only occupation is to find fault with others could certainly raise the objection that this way of speaking is an “anachronism”, despite the fact that it is common, normal, and understood by people who read and listen with understanding. On the other hand, one could view this as “prolepsis”, i.e. referring to somebody by a name or title even though this name or title was assumed only at a later time.

This is not peculiar to Christians, or to important people in Christian history. Searching with Google for the phrase “Prophet Muhammad was born” results in hundreds of Muslim web pages containing that phrase. To quote from just a few of them:

It was in the year 571 of the Christian era that Prophet Muhammad was born, on the 12th of the lunar month Rabi' I. He came of the noblest family of Arabia, the Quraish, who were held in the highest esteem, being guardians of the Sacred House at Makka, the Ka'ba, the spiritual centre of the whole of Arabia. (Source)

Prophet Muhammad was born in the city of Makka, which is located in the Hijaz region on the western part of the Arabian Peninsula. His exact date of birth is not known. The reason for this is that no particular calendar was used among the Arabs at that time. According to common opinion, … (Source)

It is obligatory for Muslims to learn about their religion; one of the most basic questions you may have is "where was Prophet Muhammad Born?" (Source)

The Prophet Muhammad was born on Monday 12th Rabi-ul-awal (571AD) which is approx. 20/22 of April. (Source)

The Day Prophet Muhammad was born (Sermon title)

Even non-Muslim websites talk that way:

The Islamic prophet Muhammad was born and lived in Mecca for the first 52 years of his life (570–622). (Wikipedia, Muhammad in Mecca)

The founder of Islam, the prophet Muhammad, was born in Mecca in the Year of the Elephant, CE 569-570. ... The Year of the Elephant was also memorable because of its solar eclipse. (Astronomy Today, Famous Eclipses of the Middle Ages - Part One)

Yet, everyone with just a little bit of education knows that Muhammad was called to be a prophet later in life. The Muslim sources claim that Muhammad was called as prophet at age 40. Nevertheless we find also the following statements made:

When he was 25 and in his prime, Prophet Muhammad, married Khadijah, a woman 15 years his senior. For 23 years, the couple lived a life of uninterrupted contentment in perfect fidelity. (Sources: 1, 2)

I have these questions; (1) Fatimah was born 5 years after Hijra. Prophet Muhammad married Khadijah when he was 25 and she was 40. Prophet Muhammad claimed prophet hood when he was 40, therefore Khadijah would have been 60 when she gave birth to Fatimah. How possible is that? (Source)

The sanctity of Muharram appears from the very name of the month in that, the Arabic word Muharram, exactly means “that which is made sacred” (derived from haram, meaning sacred). In addition, there is also a possibility that the name ‘Asyura is related to ‘asyu-nura (also Arabic) meaning those who have obtained divine light.[25] According to local belief, the day of ‘Asyura, which falls on the tenth of Muharram, recalls a number of important events. It traces the history of the great monotheistic traditions. On 10 Muharram the first apostle of God, Adam, was sent to earth; God gave His grace to Adam and Eve when they sought repentance after being thrown out of paradise; Henoch (Idris) was endowed by God with a noble position; Noah and his disciples touched land safely with their ark; Abraham was saved without harm after being burned by the King Namrud of Babylon; Moses got revelation directly from God in the Sinai desert; Joseph was set free from jail and his name was cleared of the accusation of having raped Zulaikha, the then Egyptian King's wife. Yacob recovered from serious eye disease; Jonas came out safely from the belly of a sea monster (the giant khut/nun fish). The day of ‘Asyura also coincides with the recovery of Job (Ayyub) from serious cholera; it is the reunion of Jacob and Joseph after separation for forty years; it is the birth day of Jesus and his Ascension to heaven; it is also the day when the Prophet Muhammad married Khadijah; it is the day of the creation of the heavens, the earth, the Pen (Qalam), and of Adam and Eve.[26] (Commemoration of Islamic Holidays)

Does Ibn Anwar really want to object to this common way of speaking? On the other hand, if he finds this acceptable, what exactly is his problem with Jesus saying,

“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?”

when Abiathar was a well-known chief priest for more than fourty years, and clearly already a leading priest during the time of this incident, although he may only have become the main chief priest a couple of weeks after this incident? In any case, it happened in the time of Abiathar, and Abiathar was mainly known for being the chief priest for a very long period of time. Thus, there is not really much of a problem to see Jesus refer to Abiathar, the high-priest, because being “high priest” was his main role in biblical history.

So far we only talked about relatively recent websites or books of lesser importance making such “proleptic” statements. One important early Muslim book that speaks this way throughout is Ibn Hisham’s revision of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasulallah, the earliest biography of Muhammad in existence. It speaks of “the prophet” and “the apostle” long before Muhammad’s call to prophethood. This occurs in section titles as well as in the proper text of the book. Some examples, quoted from Guillaume’s classic translation, The Life of Muhammad:


It is alleged in popular stories (and only God knows the truth) that Amina d. Wahb, the mother of God’s apostle, used to say when she was pregnant with God’s apostle that a voice said to her, … (p. 69)


The apostle was born on Monday, 12th Rabi’u’l-awwal, in the year of the elephant. … (p. 69)


The apostle lived with his mother Amina d. Wahb and his grandfather ‘Abdu’l-Muttalib … When he was six years old his mother Amina died. … Thus the apostle was left to his grandfather for whom they made a bed in the shade of the Ka’ba. … The apostle, still a little boy, used to come and sit on it … (p. 73)


After the death of ‘Abdu’l-Muttalib the apostle lived with his uncle Abu Talib, … It was Abu Talib who used to look after the apostle after the death of his grandfather and he became one of his family. (p. 79)


Khadija was a merchant woman of dignity and wealth. … when she heard about the prophet’s truthfulness, trustworthiness, and honourable character, she sent for him and proposed that he should take her goods to Syria and trade with them … The apostle of God accepted the proposal, … The apostle stopped in the shade of a tree … Then the prophet sold the goods he had brought and bought what he wanted to buy and began to return to Mecca. … Then she proposed marriage. The apostle of God told his uncles of Khadija’s proposal, and his uncle Hamza … went with him to … and asked for her hand and he married her. (pp. 82-83)

These events supposedly happened 40 to 34 years (birth and childhood) and 15 years (marriage) before Muhammad experienced his call to prophethood at age 40. In regard to that calling we read:


… the apostle at the time when Allah willed to bestow His grace upon him and endow him with prophethood would go forth for his affair and journey far afield until he reached the glens of Mecca and the beds of its valleys where no house was in sight. … ‘O ‘Ubayd tell us how began the prophethood which was first bestowed on the apostle when Gabriel came to him.’ And ‘Ubayd in my presence related to ‘Abdullah and those with him as follows: The apostle would pray in seclusion on Hira every year for a month to practise tahannuth as was the custom of Quraysh in heathen days. Tahannuth is religious devotion. (pp. 104-105)

Is this way of writing or speaking acceptable to Ibn Anwar? It is found in a core part of the early Muslim sources.

This proleptic way of speaking is also found in other passages in the Bible and even in the Qur’an. A prominent example is Abraham.

An important turning point in Abraham’s life was when God gave him a new name. He was not called Abraham all of his life, but his original name was Abram. This name change is reported in Genesis 17:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram[b]; your name will be Abraham,[c] for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: …”

15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” (Genesis 17:1-10, 15-16)

And the NIV provides these footnotes as explanation:

[b] Abram means exalted father.
[c] Abraham probably means father of many.

However, after Genesis 17, there exist only two references to Abram in the whole Bible (1 Chronicles 1:27 and Nehemiah 9:7). Everywhere else he is called by his new name Abraham, even when the writers refer back to events in his life that happened at a time when his name was still Abram. Here are a couple of examples:

Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?” To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’” (Acts 7:1-3)

This refers back to Genesis 11 & 12, long before his name was changed from Abram to Abraham.

This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, the name Melchizedek means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! (Hebrews 7:1-4)

The encounter of Abraham with Melchizedek is reported in Genesis 14:18-20, and it took place while his name was still Abram. A similar observation holds for these statements:

What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3)

And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. (James 2:23)

Both Paul and James quote from Genesis 15:6 when his name was still Abram, not yet Abraham. In fact, to use the name Abraham instead of Abram in referring to early events in his life began very early. We read in the Book of Joshua:

Joshua said to all the people, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. …  (Joshua 24:2-3)

This again refers to what is reported in Genesis chapters 11 & 12, many years before his name was changed from Abram to Abraham.

We see that such proleptic statements of using his later name for referring to incidents that took place earlier in Abraham’s life while his name was still Abram are quite common, even the rule. Would Ibn Anwar view them all as wrong, or is that an acceptable way to speak of Abraham?

If he insists that this is an anachronism and thus an error calling into question the inspired nature of the various biblical books that use this “anachronism”, what will he then say about the Qur’an that does the same?

What is worse, the author of the Qur’an seems to be completely oblivious to the fact that God had changed Abraham’s name at a certain time. The Qur’an knows nothing of Abraham’s original name and uses “Ibrahim” (i.e. Abraham) throughout. Here are some verses that refer to events that clearly took place in the time period before the name change:

They said: "We heard a young man talking (against) them who is called Ibrahim (Abraham)." S. 21:60 Al-Hilali & Khan

And (remember) when Ibrahim (Abraham) said to his father Azar: "Do you take idols as aliha (gods)? Verily, I see you and your people in manifest error." S. 6:74 Al-Hilali & Khan

He (the father) said: "Do you reject my gods, O Ibrahim (Abraham)? If you stop not (this), I will indeed stone you. So get away from me safely before I punish you." S. 19:46 Al-Hilali & Khan

And (remember) when Ibrahim (Abraham) said to his father and his people: "Verily, I am innocent of what you worship, S. 43:26 Al-Hilali & Khan

All these passages speak of Ibrahim’s destruction of idols and the dispute he had with his father about the worship of idols. Despite the fact that Abram’s father died long before Abram received his new name Abraham (Genesis 11:27-32; 17:5),5 the author of the Qur’an uses his later name, a name that was given to him about 70-80 years later.6

We have to ask Ibn Anwar: Is this not an oft-repeated anachronism in the Qur’an? If not, why not? If it is considered an anachronism when Abiathar becomes the high priest a couple of weeks after David and his men ate of the show bread and King Saul murdered Ahimelek for aiding David, why is it not an anachronism when the Qur’an uses the name Abraham already some 70 to 80 years before it was given to him by God?

Other passages regarding Abraham’s early story include his recognition that the stars, the moon and the sun cannot be God (Q. 6:75-79) which presumably happened before he confronted his father in regard to his idolatry but, in any case, before his father died. Then there is Abraham’s prayer of forgiveness for his father (Q. 9:114; 60:4), and several more passages that can be found on this overview page on Abraham in the Qur’an.

Using the name Ibrahim (Abraham) instead of Abram can be viewed as prolepsis, although ignorance is the more likely reason in the case of the Qur’an. But this becomes possible only because he was indeed called Abraham later in life. Other erroneous names or titles the Qur’an gives to certain people cannot be explained in this way, because these people never had those names or titles at any time in their lives, One glaringly obvious example is that the Qur’an gives an Arabic name or title to an Egyptian official in the time of Joseph, cf. the article Al-Aziz & Potiphar.

Other strong anachronisms in the Qur’an are: Selling Joseph for a few Dirhams (before coins were even invented), placing a Samaritan in the time of Moses, and transplanting Haman into the story of Moses and Pharaoh. Moreover, the Qur’an puts statements into Moses’ mouth which are anachronistic and wrong far beyond anything that could be justified with prolepsis, e.g. Kings in Israel before the time of Moses? and Moses and the Injil?

Those are some of the anachronisms that Ibn Anwar should be concerned about – in addition to the one he just failed to defend: Did the Egyptians Use Crucifixion?  Most of the above are hundreds of years out of step with history, not just a some weeks or months, and they cannot be explained by prolepsis or any other stylistic or literary device. They are simply historical errors.

Many of these stories are a mixture of legends and corrupted versions of biblical stories7 as was recognized already by the critics in Muhammad’s time who charged him with re-telling “tales of the ancients” (Q. 6:25; 8:31; 16:23; 23:83; 25:5; 27:68; 46:17; 68:15; 83:12-13). In addition to plagiarizing old tales, the author of the Qur’an messed up on a lot of the details.

Finally, there is another kind of anachronism in the way the Qur’an talks about itself that is discussed in the article, Is half the Qur'an already fully detailed?

Ponder well, which kind of “game” you want to get yourself into, Ibn Anwar. When playing “Anachronism Squash” the main question is whether you can effectively squash the anachronisms coming at you, or if you get squashed by them. Or, in your own words, “The uninitiated [Muslim] missionary does not realise that the claim of anachronism is easily levelled against his Bible Qur’an in a much more forceful manner.”


[First published: 7 August 2012]
[Last updated: 24 November 2012]


1 In fact, using the same prefix “arch-”, various churches have archbishops, archpriests, archdeacons, and Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have archangels; all of them in the plural, referring to a group of high-ranking bishops, priests, deacons, or angels, but not necessarily one singular top-leader.

2 Wikipedia is developed by a very broad internet community and user base, but secular in its main approach. On the other hand, there are academic books written by scholars in New Testament Studies that formulate similarly; e.g. Richard N. Longenecker (ed.), The Road from Damascus: The impact of Paul's conversion on his life, thought, and ministry (McMaster New Testament Studies), Eerdmans, 1997.

3 Accessed on 1 August 2012. The same date of access holds for all quotations from other webpages that are given in this article.

4 There are several interpretations how people understand the change of name from Saul to Paul. A lively discussion can found on many webpages and blogs (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc.), and we do not need to repeat that here. Still, one thing is clear: at the time of his conversion he used his Jewish name, Saul (Shaoul), and this was also how Jesus addressed him (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14). Thus, it was Saul who was converted, whatever may be the exact reason for the later change of his name. It is also undisputed that from Acts 13:9 onwards he is only called Paul (1, 2), except when reporting himself about his earlier conversion.

5 Another issue is that the Qur’an gets the name of Abraham’s father wrong, calling him Azar instead of Terah.

6 Note that Q. 21:60 says explicitly that Abraham is a youth, a young man at the time, while Genesis 17:1 says that he received his new name at the age of 99.

7 See the articles in the section on the Sources of the Qur’an for detailed discussions.

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