Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Ibn Anwar’s False Charge of Anachronistic Error:

An Exegetical Examination of Mark 2:26

Keith Thompson

In his article New Testament Anachronism: The anachronistic tale of Mark 2:26, Muslim eisegete Ibn Anwar has highlighted what he feels to be a significant error in Mark’s Gospel. In this article we will demonstrate that although Ibn Anwar sees fit to level the charge of anachronism against Holy Scripture, the reality is that Ibn Anwar has been quite selective in his citing of scholars and with the information he provided. This rebuttal will demonstrate that Ibn Anwar failed to inform his readers about what other scholars have said concerning this issue since it is obvious that his intention was to give a very one-sided argument without bothering to adequately interact with the responses given by the other side. A more honest approach would have been to present the best of both sides if you are seriously looking into truth, and not simply trying to score cheap polemical points which only come back to implode in your face.(1)

In Mark 2:25-26 we read:

25And 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: 26how 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?" (Mark 2:25-26 ESV)

The factuality of the phrase “in the time of Abiathar the high priest” is in question for Ibn Anwar and those he cites. He asserts that, “it was not Abiathar who was the high priest at that time but rather his father Ahimelech.” Therefore this is argued to be an historical error.

It is true that at the time David ate the holy bread of the Presence, Abiathar’s father Ahimelech was serving as high priest (1 Samuel 21:1-8). V. 2 explicitly states, “David said to Ahimelech the priest...” This is not debatable. What we must keep in focus, however, is what the Greek of Mark 2:26 actually says. Ibn Anwar cites skeptics like Bart Ehrman and liberal scholars such as Raymond Brown, as well as some moderately conservative scholars such as Craig Evans and others who believe this to be an error based on their view that Mark is saying Abiathar was literally serving as high priest during this particular event with David.

However, Ibn Anwar provided insufficient exegetical reasons for rejecting the arguments of the many other scholars who favour the view that there is no error. Neither did Ibn Anwar provide any meaningful exegetically based reasons to assume that the view of his scholars should be accepted while the position held by those who deny that there is an error here should be rejected or ignored.

What Ibn Anwar’s article is trying to establish is that Mark 2:26 is saying that Abiathar was actually serving as high priest during this episode with David and the bread of the Presence. Ibn Anwar wants us to believe that Mark’s statement actually means the same thing as saying “during the time that Abiathar was functioning in his role as high priest.” However, according to Arndt and Gingrich,(2) the Greek phrase epi Abiathar archiereōs literally means, “in the time of Abiathar the high priest,” just as the ESV renders it above, since epi with the genitive carries that meaning (cf. Acts 11:28).

If the text said something like “while Abiathar was serving as high priest” then Ibn Anwar would be correct in jumping to his conclusions. But since we are merely told that this episode with David happened “in the time of Abiathar the high priest,” there is no real problem since Abiathar was both alive and present at this time and would very shortly assume the role of high priest. One shouldn’t automatically read into Jesus’ words the notion that Abiathar was already serving as high priest. All that the text allows for is that this episode happened in the time of one named Abiathar who, as matter of fact, was a high priest.

As opposed to assuming an historical anachronism, one can validly interpret Jesus’ words as a prolepsis. Prolepsis is a literary device which was commonly used both in ancient literature and today. This literary device encompasses anticipatory assigning of a title or name to something or someone at a time in which such title or name wasn’t actually used for the thing or person in question.

For example, I could say that, “During the time when the Apostle Paul was occupied with his intense early studies of rabbinic traditions…” However, Paul wasn’t an Apostle during that time, nor was he called Paul (he was called Saul), and yet no one who knows anything about literary devices would accuse me of error. They would realize that I am speaking proleptically, i.e. referring to Paul by a title and name which were only given to him at a later period of his life.

Another valid way of employing this literary feature, according to J. A. Cuddon’s A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, is to speak of, “a future event [which] is presumed to have happened.”(3) Hence, Christ can refer to Abiathar’s high priesthood even though it hadn’t actually come to pass since he was speaking proleptically, much like in my example above concerning the Apostle Paul. As the highly credentialed and respected Old Testament scholar Dr. Gleason L. Archer noted concerning this issue:

“A careful examination of Mark 2:26 reveals that Christ did not actually imply that Abiathar was already high priest at the time of David’s visit. He simply said ‘Epi Abiathar archiereōs,’ which means ‘in the time of Abiathar the high priest.’ As things turned out, bloody King Saul soon had Ahimelech and the entire priestly community of Nob massacred by Doeg the Edomite (1 Sam. 22:18-19); and Abiathar the son of Ahimelech was the only one fortunate enough to escape. He fled to join David (v. 20) and served as his high priest all through David’s years of wandering and exile. Naturally he was appointed high priest by David after David became king, and he shared the high priesthood with Zadok, Saul’s appointee, until David’s death. Under these circumstances it was perfectly proper to refer to Abiathar as the high priest – even though his appointment as such came somewhat later, after the incident at Nob – just as it would be proper to introduce an anecdote by saying, ‘Now when King David was a shepherd boy,’ even though David was not actually a king at the time he was a shepherd boy ... epi with the genitive simply means ‘in the time of’ ... The episode did happen ‘in the time of’ Abiathar; he was not only alive but actually present when the event took place, and he very shortly afterward became high priest...”(4)

This is why the respected Japanese linguist and Old Testament scholar David Toshio Tsumura can rightly remark that in reference to the title “high priest” in connection with Abiathar in Mark 2:26, “... a historian could use this title proleptically.”(5)

Many have spotted this common device. Due to the fact that, as Archer rightly pointed out, Abiathar was alive and present during the time of David eating the bread, and would shortly become a very important high priest, it is not surprising that Jesus would say “in the time of Abiathar the high priest.” Abiathar’s role was very crucial and noteworthy during that period and to make note of his future priesthood in that episode is befitting.

To, therefore, conclusively prove that Mark 2:26 is in error Ibn Anwar must show that the use of prolepsis, i.e. speaking proleptically, wasn’t an acceptable way of speaking or writing at that time.

Interestingly, Ibn Anwar quoted the scholar Larry Hurtado in his 2011 commentary on Mark who actually agrees with us! Hurtado stated that,

“It is possible that the Greek phrase here translated in the days of Abiathar the high priest may mean simply ‘the time of Abiathar the [later] high priest’ and not that Abiathar was high priest at the time of the incident.”

However, without dealing with the text exegetically and the arguments in favour of this view, Ibn Anwar merely brushes aside Hurtado’s remark for insufficient conspiratorial and speculative theories, which we will cover shortly. Suffice it to say that even one of the scholars who Ibn Anwar quoted to affirm his position ended up supporting our position instead.

It may be helpful to demonstrate that there are other occurrences of this form of prolepsis in the Old and New Testament’s which are never considered erroneous or negative. This helps to show that our position (that Jesus was speaking proleptically in a valid sense) is consistent with other common Old and New Testament tendencies. One could mention that in Genesis 22:1 we are told that, “... God tested Abraham and said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’” However, Abraham wasn’t tested yet in v.1. He wouldn’t actually be tested with the sacrifice of Isaac until later on in the chapter. No one is going to accuse Moses of being anachronistic or in error for referring to this situation as happening before it actually did. That would be absurd. Basically, the clause is a summary statement of what will be reported in the later part of the chapter; the purpose of the whole story is shortly stated at the beginning. Therefore, one needs to keep this literary device in mind as you take on the whole sweep of Scripture. Another example is that in Genesis 27:23 it is said that Isaac blessed Jacob. However, this is proleptic since he doesn’t actually bless Jacob until v. 27. Moreover, in Exodus 7:6 it is stated that Moses and Aaron did what God commanded them (i.e., everything concerning Pharaoh and the Egyptians resulting in God’s judgement). However, they don’t actually do everything until later in the narrative. Thus, Moses was writing proleptically as if this already happened even though it had not. There are many other Old Testament examples of this which could be noted.

One could also note New Testament examples. In Matthew 10:4 we are told about, “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him [Jesus].” Yet Jesus wasn’t betrayed by Judas until Matthew 26. Hence, this event is spoken of in the sense that it was presumed to have already happened, even though within the narrative context it hadn’t. To be sure, in Acts 13:24 Paul speaks of Jesus proleptically since although Jesus hadn’t saved the world through His death and resurrection as soon as He came on the scene, we read that, “God brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, just as he promised.” Hence, Paul can speak of Jesus being the savior in reference to the time when He was only first brought to Israel, even though His act of saving the world would not come until after His three years of ministry (cf. John 1:19 where Jesus’ savior-hood i.e., His taking away the sins of the world is connected to his crucifixion i.e., Him being the lamb of God). And finally, in John 8:58 Jesus said, “‘I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!’” However, “Abraham” didn’t come into existence; his original name was Abram until Genesis 17:5 when God changed his name. The Greek name αβραμ (Abram) wasn’t used here in John 8:58, αβρααμ (Abraham) was. Thus, it is not at all shocking to see Christ refer to Abiathar the high priest because being “high priest” was his main role in biblical history. Now it makes sense how Jesus could speak of this episode in terms of being “in the time of Abiathar the high priest” without any notion of official occupancy when David ate the holy bread.

Hence, instead of simply picking scholars whose bias against the New Testament’s inspiration and veracity are just as evident as Ibn Anwar’s, this Muslim polemicist needs to consider all of the facts before attempting to discredit the Gospels on such flimsy argumentation.

Moreover, a possible reason to consider behind Jesus’ decision to mention Abiathar instead of his father Ahimelech is given by the Roman Catholic scholars Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch. They argue that Jesus' point was 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 covenantal 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.”(6)

Now, Ibn Anwar has made it abundantly clear that he is willing to discard all of this information for two reasons (even though he didn’t present this information well or at all in some cases, and even though his two reasons do not actually touch upon the issue of Markan exegesis at all): 1) Matthew and Luke do not include the reference to Abiathar’s high priesthood in their accounts and therefore must have viewed it as an error; and 2) some later manuscripts of Mark omitted the reference and therefore must have viewed it as an error. William L. Lane presents the relevant facts noting that, “The words ἐπὶ Ἀβιάθαρ ἀρχιερέως are absent from D W 271 abeffir1sysin and the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke.”(7)

Hence, Ibn Anwar takes the position that Mark 2:26 is just an error and that this later historical information conclusively bears that position out. However, in regard to reason 1) it is nothing more than a subjective guess to assume that we can probe into the minds of Matthew and Luke and therefore know their exact reasons for not including the reference to Abiathar in Matthew 12:3-4 and Luke 6:3-4.

To dogmatically assert that it was because they viewed it to be an error is just an assertion, irrespective of who says it is (whether it is Ibn Anwar, Ehrman, Brown or whoever). One simply can not say with certainty that Matthew and Luke didn’t include the reference for that reason. If that were the reason then why wouldn’t Matthew or Luke (or both) just replace Abiathar with Ahimelech in the episode to correct the supposed error? That would show they did believe there was an error. However, Luke and Matthew simply omitted the phrase.

And even if we assume that they did omit it for the reason Ibn Anwar claims, that still wouldn’t imply that they thought Mark was mistaken. This would only suggest that they were perhaps aware that there may be people who would view this as a mistake (like Ibn Anwar) and would therefore use this as a means of discrediting the testimony of the Gospel.

With that said, the fact remains that we simply do not have enough evidence either way to be dogmatic about the reasoning behind their omissions since we do not have access to their minds. To therefore forcefully assert that Matthew and Luke omitted this phrase for this reason is simply a fallacious argument, to say the least. As we just mentioned, there are numerous possibilities one could speculate about.

Besides, this all assumes Markan priority anyway. Yet has Ibn Anwar provided any evidence to prove this theory? No. Hence, if Markan priority is an incorrect theory, and we find many qualified and capable scholars who actually reject it, then this puts a major hole in Ibn Anwar’s entire argumentation.

For a scholarly survey examining the different theories of the relationship of the Gospels we recommend Craig L. Blomberg’s book, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey. Blomberg presents the pros and cons for the various theories held by different scholars. We also recommend the works of B. C. Butler and W. R. Farmer who argue for Matthaean priority. And for a scholar who outright rejects the so-called hypothetical Gospel titled Q (German, Quelle) we suggest taking a look at the writings of Mark Goodacre.

Now what is one to make of some of the later manuscript copies of Mark omitting the reference of Abiathar? Even if these copies suggest that some later scribes mistakenly assumed that the reference to Abiathar posed a problem, this only reveals something about their assumptions concerning the text. It does absolutely nothing to prove that they were actually correct in thinking that Mark was mistaken.

Besides, who made these scribes the final authorities or the infallible interpreters so that their understanding should be taken as objective truth? And since many copyists didn’t make any changes here but left in the reference to Abiathar, would Ibn Anwar therefore view this as evidence that there is no mistake on the part of Mark? If not, why not? If the later copyists are the final authorities then why not do so? I don’t think Ibn Anwar has thought this argument through well enough.

How does one automatically jump from a few manuscript copyists thinking there is a problem, to there actually being a problem? This is especially strange since there are many modern competent Greek scholars with access to much more information and facts who believe there is no problem based on good academic reasons. What is more, why is Ibn Anwar so confident that these later scribes removed the reference because they thought it was an error? Who is to say they didn’t remove it because they wanted to avoid the possibility of others thinking it was an error? For Ibn Anwar to make this his foundational argument or support pillar and reason for rejecting the evidenced views opposed to his, in light of the fact that he can’t probe their minds, is simply astonishing. The level of bias, haste, and arrogance really is overwhelming.

In conclusion this is a good example of how not doing meaningful research into both sides and not thinking over the issues thoroughly can get you into trouble. On a side note it should be pointed out that this issue of Mark 2:26 was one of the reasons for Bart Ehrman’s questioning of the inerrancy of Scripture early on in his academic studies. However, it is my prayer that if people are faced with a difficulty which they don’t understand, that they will then truly make it their task or project to find answers. Instead of giving up and declaring defeat with a heart full of doubt and being swayed by unregenerate professors etc., one must pray to have an open heart ready to seek and receive evidence and answers. As soon as one is no longer truly open to evidence but shuts down, that is when error will start to seep in, resulting in heresies and/or apostasy. In light of the evidence, we have seen no strong reasons to assume that the content of Mark 2:26 is mistaken. However, we have seen good evidence that it is accurate.

Christ has risen, He is Lord.


(1) Ironically, this is the same polemicist who goes out of his way to defend the egregious blunders and gross historical anachronisms of the Quran, and expects others to view his explanations as reasonable. For instance, Ibn Anwar has produced an article trying to prove that the Quran hasn’t confused Mary, the sister of Moses, with Mary, the mother of Christ. He also has just come out with a piece where he deceptively quotes sources to show that the Quran is not mistaken for claiming that the Egyptians would crucify people. The reason we view this as deception on his part is because he has deliberately misrepresented the argument being made, which is, that the Quran is mistaken for claiming that Egyptians employed crucifixion as a method of punishment during the time of Joseph! No informed Christian apologist has ever denied that the Egyptians used crucifixion to torture and kill people, and this is therefore nothing more than a red herring on the part of Ibn Anwar. For a thorough refutation of Ibn Anwar’s feeble attempts of trying to explain away these gross, irreconcilable mistakes in the Quran we recommend the following rebuttals: 1, 2

(2) W. F. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, [University of Chicago, 1957], p. 286

(3) J. A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 3rd ed., Basil Blackwell, 1991, pp. 747-748 parentheses mine

(4) Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, [Regency Reference Library, 1982], p. 362

(5) David Toshio Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007], p. 529

(6) Scott Hahn, Curtis Mitch, The Gospel of Mark, The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, 2nd Catholic Edition, [Ignatius Press, 2001], p. 22

(7) William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark: The English Text With Introduction, Exposition, and Notes, Volume 2 of The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1974], p. 116