Michael J. Kruger

  • Did Jesus Get the Priest Wrong?

    In a prior post (see here), I announced a new blog series designed to address problematic passage in the Bible.  This new series will feature guest posts from other evangelical scholars and is largely a response to the one by Peter Enns’ entitled, “Aha moments: biblical scholars tell their stories.”

    The contributor for this installment is Craig Blomberg (Ph.D., University of Aberdeen). Craig is the Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, and the author of numerous books. A few notables are The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, and Can We Still Believe the Bible? (the latter of which I reviewed here).


    In a recent post on his blog, Old Testament scholar Peter Enns invited New Testament scholar John Byron, professor at Ashland Theological Seminary, to write about an “aha moment” that changed his understanding of the Bible. Byron chose the same passage that Bart Ehrman described in the introduction to his Misquoting Jesus, which led to his reneging on his Christian commitment altogether in favor of agnosticism: Mark 2:26.

    Now clearly Byron and Ehrman are a far cry from each other theologically. Ehrman teaches at a state university (the University of North Carolina) and tells classes regularly he wants to disabuse them of any form of Christian faith. Byron teaches at a theologically centrist United Methodist Seminary, helping to train people for professional ministry, and still considers himself a devout Christian. But both appeal to this same passage as one reason they reject the inerrancy of the Scriptures.

    It’s too bad Byron actually says so little about the passage itself in his blog. Here is the sum total of his exegetical remarks: “Jesus got it wrong. The story in 1 Samuel 21 relates how David fled from Saul alone. When he stops at the tabernacle and asks Ahimelek for help the priest enquires why David is alone. David seems to lie when saying that his men well meet him later (v. 2). Moreover, Mark has the wrong priest. In 2:26 Jesus states that the priest was Abiather [sic], but 1 Samuel 21 clearly states that it was Ahimelek.”

    Let’s look at each of these two claims one at a time. Byron first claims that Jesus was wrong in saying that David gave some of the consecrated bread he received from the priests at Nob to his companions, because he traveled to Nob alone. He also takes David’s words that he has told his men to meet him at a certain place to be a lie, probably because the first part of 1 Samuel 21:2, that David was on a mission for King Saul, is clearly a lie. That also means that everything David says in verses 4–5 about his men being ritually pure would also have to be made up. But why then would David ask for enough bread for himself and others? The story in 1 Samuel makes no sense if everything David says is untrue. Just because he is trying to deceive the priest on one matter hardly means everything he says is false. Indeed, the most convincing deceptions in general tend to be based on half-truths.

    On any interpretation, however, nothing here suggests that Jesus got it wrong, as Byron claims. Jesus tells the story exactly as he would have learned it from the reading of the Hebrew Scriptures year after year in the synagogue. He is recounting the story perfectly accurately. We can debate to what extent David might have been lying, but Jesus has made no mistake in excerpting from the narrative precisely in the form he and his countrymen believed it to have been inspired.

    The more significant claim that Byron makes is that Jesus has the wrong priest. There is no doubt that 1 Samuel 21:1 explicitly says that the priest David spoke with at Nob was Abimelek. But the wording of Mark 2:26 in the Greek is very unusual. It uses none of the several standard ways of expressing when something occurred. Instead it says these events happened epi Abiathar. Epi is a preposition that commonly mean “upon,” “on,” “in,” “over,” “at,” “by,” “before,” and numerous other things, but only very rarely, “when.” Why did Mark use such a strange construction to translate Jesus’ Aramaic words, unless he recognized that Jesus meant something a little different than “when Abiathar was high priest”?

    In Mark 12:26, the same unusual construction reappears when Jesus is appealing to the story in Exodus 3 about Moses and the burning bush. He asks the Sadducees if they have not read epi tou batou—literally “upon the bush.” But that makes no sense. Translators recognize, therefore, that Mark is using epi in the sense of “in the passage about [the bush].” This is exactly how the Revised Standard Version of the Bible translated it; the New Revised Standard modified that to “in the story about [the bush].”

    Because ancient synagogues developed the practice of reading through the entire Law once a year and the rest of the Jewish Scriptures once every three years, they divided what Christians call the Old Testament into specific sections so rabbis knew exactly every Sabbath how much was to be read and expounded. They would often give a two-to-three chapter segment of text a simple one or two-word name, often based on a key character in that segment. Unfortunately, we have no comprehensive list of what these names were, if one ever even existed.

    John Wenham, a British biblical scholar, as far back as 1950 published a short note in the Journal of Theological Studies suggesting that “Abiathar” was the name of the larger multi-chapter segment of text in which this specific story about David and Ahimelek was found. Abiathar is, after all, the more important of these two characters for the Samuel narrative overall. Because this interpretation is somewhat speculative, several Bible translations settle for the well attested but vaguer translation, “in the time of Abiathar” or “in the days of Abiathar,” which equally leaves Jesus free from having made any mistake.

    I can understand why some scholars may not be convinced by this solution. But I am consistently amazed at how few ever even acknowledge knowing about it, much less interacting with it. I have cited it in several of my books, as have other leading evangelical commentators, who have found it completely satisfactory. It’s unfortunate that Ehrman, Byron, and Enns never once disclose if they are familiar with it and, if they are, what objections (if any) they have to it. Until they do, it really is inappropriate for them to claim with such confidence that they know Jesus or Mark got it wrong!

    For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

  • Does the Bible Ever Get it Wrong? The Moving Rock

    In a prior post (see here), I announced a new blog series designed to address problematic passage in the Bible.  This new series is largely a response to the one by Peter Enns’ entitled, “Aha moments: biblical scholars tell their stories.”

    The first contributor in this series is Greg Beale (Ph.D., Cambridge University). Greg is the J. Gresham Machen Chair of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, and the author of numerous books. A few notables are A New Testament Biblical Theology, The Book of Revelation (NIGTC), and The Temple and the Church’s Mission.


    Peter Enns begins his new blog series with his own story about what caused his view of the Bible to change.  One of the “culminating ‘aha’ moments” came from his study of 1 Cor 10:4: “for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.

    Paul is clearly referring back to the times when God refreshed the Israelites with water from a rock during their desert wanderings (Exodus 17; Numbers 20). However, Enns argues that Paul is doing more than just referring to the Old Testament accounts. Paul describes the rock as something which “accompanied them”—a clear reference, according to Enns, to ancient Jewish tradition that the rock in the desert actually travelled along with the Israelites.

    Since the Jewish tradition about a travelling rock is clearly a legend—a legend that Paul apparently took to be fact—then we have a real problem, says Enns, for the evangelical view of biblical authority. He puts it bluntly, “no rock moved in the Old Testament, but Paul said one did.”

    Of course, I have already responded to Enns’ argument in prior works (e.g., see my Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism, chapters 4 and 5). But I shall try to summarize some of those earlier points here, but the fuller discussion should be consulted, which also interacts with Enns’s responses to my critiques.

    The problem with Enns’ argument is twofold: (a) there are doubts about whether this Jewish “tradition” of a moveable rock was present in the first century; and (b) even if the tradition was present, there are doubts about whether Paul was alluding to it.

    As to the first problem, there is only one Jewish reference to this “tradition” that plausibly is dated around the first century A.D., but even part of this reference is clouded by textual uncertainty. The lone Jewish source is Pseudo-Philo, which is dated by the majority of scholars as early as the first century A.D., though there is some debate even about that. The main text in Pseudo-Philo is 11:15: “and the water of Marah became sweet. And it [the well or the water] followed them in the wilderness forty years and went up to the mountain with them and went down into the plains.” However, while some very good manuscripts (the ∆- group of mss. [A, K, P]) have “it followed,” the majority of manuscripts (the π – group of mss. [H, R, W, X, Y, Z, S, Ad, D, E, V, M, B, C, O, G]), which are also manuscripts of very good, indeed almost equal, authority with the ∆- group of manuscripts, have “the Lord [Dominus] followed.”

    If “Lord” is the correct reading, then the identification of the “following well” in Pseudo-Philo 10:7 (as well as, presumably, in 20:8) would apparently be the Lord himself. Put another way, if “Lord” is original, then the “following well” in 10:7 and the “water” in the preceding clause of 11:15 could well be viewed as metaphorical for the “Lord” in 11:15, which would take the legendary punch out of the evidence.

    The point is that this is not a minor textual problem, despite one’s final conclusions about it, and to base a major conclusion in 1 Cor. 10:4 on this Pseudo-Philo text is precarious. This leaves only Tosephta Sukka 3.11 (date ca. 300 A.D.) and Targum Onquelos Numbers 21:16–20 (date ca. 250–300 A.D.). These are the only really solid textual witnesses to the kind of Jewish legend that Enns says Paul was dependent on; however, because of their late date, it is difficult to say that the legendary tradition was even extant in the first century.

    As for the second problem, even if this Jewish “tradition” was extant in the first century, there are serious doubts about whether 1 Cor 10:4 demonstrates Paul’s adoption of it. He may well be doing a biblical–theological exegesis of Exodus 14–17 in the light of Psalm 78:14–20 (e,g., “he splits the rocks... and gave them abundant drink... he struck the rock so that waters gushed out”) and 78:35 (“God was their rock”), the latter of which appears to identify God with the “rock” of Ps. 78:15–16, 20.

    Note also some of the differences between Paul’s reference and that of later Judaism: (1) he identifies the rock as the Messiah, (2) he does not use the language of a “well,” and (3) he refers to the “rock” from which they drank as a “spiritual rock” from which “spiritual drink” was obtained (1 Cor. 10:4), not a literal rock, significant differences with the later Jewish legend, which appears to see a literal traveling well that “followed” Israel. Incidentally, note also that the idea of God in association with a “rock” that “followed” Israel in the wilderness is not unique to the later Jewish midrashic literature but occurs also in Exod. 14:19 in relation to Exod. 17:5–7, where in the latter passage the presence of the rock from which drinking water came may also implicitly suggest that God is a rock or at least is directly linked to the phrase “the Lord is among us” in response to the people’s doubt about this.

    In this respect, note the “following” concept in Exod. 14:19: “and the angel of God who had been walking before the camp of Israel, moved and walked behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them.” And the presence of God continues to move between the Egyptians and the Israelites as the latter go through the sea. Note similarly that Isa. 52:12 and 58:8 allude to Exod. 14:19 and prophesy that in the new, second Exodus God would also be Israel’s “rear guard.” Thus, in light of the fact that Exod. 17:6 very closely associates God with the “rock” (as does Psalm 78), it does not take much ingenuity to see how Paul could posit that Christ was a “following rock” in his pre-incarnate divine existence as the “angel of the Lord.”  Paul may be doing intratextual and intertextual exegesis, which is a form of biblical theology. Thus, Enns’s attempt to say that the “following” aspect is unique to the Jewish well legend is not correct, since both linguistically and conceptually the notion occurs in the Old Testament itself.

    In sum, we can conclude that Enns’ primary conclusions about 1 Cor 10:4 simply remain unproven. It is not certain that this Jewish tradition was even extant in the first century, nor is it certain (if it was extant) that Paul was alluding to it or adopting it.

    For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

  • New Series: Does the Bible Ever Get it Wrong? Facing Scripture’s Difficult Passages

    From Christianity’s earliest days, the Scriptures have had their critics. Porphyry, a third-century neoplatonic philosopher, was particularly aggressive in his attacks on the historical veracity of the Gospels, often pointing out what he deemed to be their inconsistencies, contradictions, and historical problems.

    For example, he pointed out how Mark 1:2 is not really quoting (just) Isaiah as the passage seems to indicate (frag. 9). Instead, it is actually a composite quote of Isaiah 40:3 and Mal 3:1 (with a little Ex 23:20 thrown in). Porphyry also attacked the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, claiming they contradict one another (frag. 11).

    Feeling the weight of Porphyry’s attacks, Christian thinkers began to respond. Most notable is a (later) response by Augustine, who spends much time defending the consistency of the Gospels in his On the Harmony of the Gospels. Elsewhere, Augustine was quite clear about why the truth and consistency of the Scripture mattered:

    For it seems to me that most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books.... For if you once admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement as made in the way of duty, there will not be left a single sentence of those books which, if appearing to anyone difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away (Letters 28.3)

    Augustine’s response paved the way for Christians in the subsequent centuries, and even in the modern day. He showed that the historical consistency of the Scriptures really mattered.

    Of course, not all agree with Augustine. In fact, Peter Enns has recently invited a number of Christian scholars to blog on his website who have come to believe that the Scriptures contain historical mistakes or errors. The series is called “Aha Moments: Biblical Scholars Tell Their Stories” and is (largely) written by scholars whose beliefs about the Bible had changed after they realized that, at least at some points, the Scriptures were simply mistaken.

    No doubt Enns’ new blog series has resonated with many folks who have qualms about the difficult passages in Scripture. But I think it is important for these same folks to know that there are other Christian scholars who think there are reasonable answers to some of these difficult historical issues. These scholars have studied at major universities, have been introduced to the same critical problems, but have reached different conclusions about the truthfulness of Scripture.

    Thus, I am beginning a new series here at Canon Fodder where I invite evangelical scholars to respond to some of the critical issues raised in Pete Enns’ “Aha moments” series. Scholars who have agreed to participate include Craig Blomberg, Greg Beale, Darrell Bock, Andreas Köstenberger, and Don Carson. Other names will be added as we go along.

    Of course, this series will not be able to respond to every single issue raised by Enns’ series (last I checked it is up to 15 installments!). But it will at least provide some other perspectives on the types of issues raised.

    No doubt there are some out there who will look at this new series and dismiss it as typical naive, fundamentalist, anti-intellectual, Enlightenment-driven, apologetic maneuvering. To deny errors in the Bible, some might think, is equivalent to believing in a geocentric universe.

    But the scholars in this series are certainly not anti-intellectual fundamentalists. They are reputable scholars who have made substantial contributions to their field. They simply disagree with the insistence that there are no reasonable solutions to these problematic passages in the Bible. Surely there can be honest scholarly disagreement about such things without the use of pejorative labels.

    Moreover, the belief that the historical veracity of the Scriptures really matters is not a new one in the history of Christianity—it is not an American invention nor simply the product of the Enlightenment (as is so often claimed).  Robert Wilken points out how such concerns predated the Enlightenment:

    The central issue, as stated by Porphyry and reiterated by Augustine in his defense of the Scriptures, was whether the Gospels provided a reliable account of the history of Jesus…. The question of faith and history, so much a part of modern theological discourse since the Enlightenment, was also a significant part of the debate between pagans and Christians in the ancient world (The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 147).

    Thus, this new series is simply trying to do what Christians have always done throughout the history of Christianity, namely to offer an explanation for why we believe the Bible is true in all that affirms.

    As a final thought, it is my hope that those who have contributed to Enns’ series will receive this new  series on my website as it is intended, namely as a charitable and collegial engagement over these issues. Sure, there will be disagreements—even vigorous disagreements. But I personally know a number of the scholars in Enns’ series and consider them friends. I trust that such friendships can endure some healthy dialogue and difference of opinion.

    For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

  • The New Testament Books Are Unique Because They Are Apostolic Books

    Note: This is the third installment of a new blog series announced here.

    One of the most basic facts about the New Testament canon that all Christians should understand is that the canon is intimately connected to the activities of the apostles.

    Jesus had commissioned his apostles “so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority” (Mark 3:14–15). When Jesus sent out the twelve, he reminds them that “For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt 10:20). Thus, he is able to give a warning to those who reject the apostles’ authority: “If anyone will not receive you or listen to your words… it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matt 10:14).

    In sum, the apostles had the very authority of Christ himself. They were his mouthpiece. As such, their teachings, along with the prophets, were the very foundation of the church. Paul describes the church as “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets” (Eph 2:20). If the church wanted to know the true Christian message, they would always need to look back to the teaching of the apostles.

    But the apostles didn’t just teach about Jesus orally. At some point—a very early point—the apostolic message was written down. Often it was written down by the apostles themselves. At other points it was written down by companions of apostles who were recording their message. Either way, the authoritative apostolic message found its way into books.

    For obvious reasons, the church would value apostolic books over and above other type of books. And this is exactly what happened. The books that the church regarded as apostolic were the books that were read, copied, and used most often in early Christian worship. These are the books that eventually became the New Testament canon. The canon is the byproduct of the ministry of the apostles.

    In fact, the church’s overt dependence on apostolic writings is precisely why we see a proliferation of “apocryphal” books in the second century (and later) that were named after apostles. We have the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of John, and even the Gospel of the Twelve! Rather than raising doubts about the apostolic nature of the New Testament, these apocryphal writings actually serve to confirm it. They show that the early church valued apostolic books so much that forgers had to try and mimic the genuine ones in order to get a hearing. For more on the late date of these apocryphal writings, see prior post here.

    Of course, some modern scholars dispute the apostolic authorship of some of the New Testament books, claiming they were written by later authors only pretending to be the apostles. However, these claims are by no means proven, and many other scholars dispute them. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that the early church was in a better position to ascertain the authorship and origins of these books than are modern scholars two thousand years later.

    In the end, the New Testament canon exists because of an early Christian belief that the apostles spoke for Christ. That belief led Christians to value apostolic books. And those apostolic books eventually formed the New Testament that we know today.

    For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

  • About Michael J. Kruger

    Dr. Michael J. Kruger is President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC. In addition, he is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serve as an Associate Pastor (part-time, of course) at my home church, Uptown PCA.

    • Ph.D., University of Edinburgh(advisor Larry W. Hurtado)
    • M.Div.  Westminster Theological Seminary in California
    • B.S.  The University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill

    Visit Dr. Kruger’s website: Canon Fodder. Follow Dr. Kruger on Twitter: @michaeljkruger