“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (2): John Byron

“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (2): John Byron June 27, 2014

Today’s “aha” moment, the second installment in the series, is by John Byron (PhD University of Durham), professor of New Testament at Ashland Theological Seminary. Among his books are Cain and Abel in Text and Tradition: Jewish and Christian Interpretations of the First Sibling Rivalry and a recently released commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians.


When Pete asked me to write on my faith journey as a biblical scholar I was glad to oblige.  This is a topic that I have blogged on in the past and something I talk about with my students regularly.

It seems that Greg Carey’s Huffington Post article “Where do Liberal Biblical Scholars come from?” struck a chord with many. I found myself agreeing with many of Greg’s points, but especially with his statement:  “The best way for conservative churches to produce ‘liberal’ biblical scholars is to keep encouraging young people to read the Bible.”

I suppose we all come to this juncture in our faith journey at various times and in various ways. Like Greg, the questions that began confronting me were a result of reading the Bible. And it was the result of having a solid knowledge of the Bible’s contents that caused questions to surface and sometimes got me in trouble.

The earliest example occurred in Bible College. The instructor was discussing Mark 2:23-27, which narrates the challenge of the Pharisees to Jesus over his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. Jesus responds to their question by referring to the story in 1 Samuel 21:1-9 of David and his men eating the consecrated bread from the tabernacle.

The problem, however, as I pointed out to my teacher, is that 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, but 1 Samuel 21 clearly states that it was Ahimelek.

When I raised these points with the teacher, in the middle of class (I wasn’t as tactful then) he looked at me with confusion. He had never noticed these discrepancies before. I was asked politely to be quiet. Years later I was pleasantly surprised to read that it was this very same passage in Mark that signaled the beginning of Bart Ehrman’s faith journey, although he and I are, in many ways, in very different places.

In the end, of course, it wasn’t just one problem like Mark 2:26 that caused me to reexamine how I understood the Bible—but it was a hook and it began a process. Over time numerous passages forced me to conclude eventually that the Bible wasn’t a history book, meaning the authors were not trying to give me a blow-by-blow account from creation to the end of the first century.

Instead I came to realize that the Bible was first and foremost a theological book that contains history and uses history to direct me towards God. I would come to realize more and more that true faith—the faith God calls us to—was not focused on the Bible, but on the God to whom the Bible bears witness.

Now some will say to me: “God’s plan is clearly laid out for us in the Bible. Had you not gone and destroyed your belief in the word of God through theological education you would not be in the fix you find yourself!”

Well perhaps they are correct.  But it is too late now for me to change what has happened and I am unconvinced that I will ever be able to revert back to the way I was.  My approach to the Bible is as complicated as everything else in my pursuit of faith.

Here’s where I’ve come out: I consider the Bible to be a book written by fallible human beings who were attempting to describe their own faith and religious experiences and did so in an imperfect way. Yet at the same time, what I find within the Bible are words of life.

I am all too aware of the difficulties that arise when reading the Bible and the way that its influence on society has at times caused undue suffering even in the most sincere pursuit of faith.  But I also cannot escape the wisdom found on its pages nor can I ignore the way it has helped to shape the modern world in a positive way.  But in the end I am not called to have faith in the Bible but in God.

There are some who would read what I have just written and conclude that I have become one of the many casualties of a (liberal?) theological education.  A particular encounter in my “pre-educated” life seemed to predict such an outcome.

My wife and I had served in a church for three years.  As we were preparing to leave and begin my seminary training I received the usual jokes about attending “cemetery” and becoming too smart for my own good.

One individual in particular warned me in an almost conspiratorial tone, “Be careful brother, too much of that stuff can be dangerous and cause you to take your eyes off of God.”  I assume that he meant I would lose my faith.

In some ways I think he is right.  My education has been extremely dangerous to my faith, at least a faith that was taught to me, a faith that is shaken by things like Mark 2:26. On the other hand, through my serious study of the Bible and the questions that arise from it, I continue to find that faith—a true resting and trusting in God—is more present to me now than ever before.

I am like the man who said to Jesus, “Lord, I do believe. Help me in my unbelief!”  As a biblical scholar, I think that’s is a good place to be.


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  • Cue all the comments about how Jesus supposedly meant “the time of Abiathar, who later became High Priest,” thereby missing the point of the post.

    • Danny

      What I will say is that I highly doubt Jesus got it wrong when he said it. The author of Mark did.

      I think the Scriptures are entirely focused on pointing us toward Jesus our Savior… the historical minutia are just dwarfed by how much truth the Bible reveals about God, his character and nature, and his relationship with humanity.

      • Pixie5

        Yes the author got it wrong, and unfortunately we cannot verify that it came from Jesus’ lips also, although the story is a good one. The gospels are oral stories written down and contain many,many errors. So much so that the gospels contradict each other in many more significant details than what this blogger pointed out.

        Especially the “eyewitness” details of Jesus’ trial, death, resurrection and ascension which don’t agree amongst the gospels and also don’t agree with Acts either.

    • John

      The point being that in order to come to that conclusion, they have to add to the text; an unfortunately common occurrence in fundagelistan.

  • John

    “My education has been extremely dangerous to my faith, at least a faith that was taught to me,”

    I loved this! I wonder if the warnings against education flow from an unconscious anxiety that maybe Mark Twain was right? “Faith is believing something you know ain’t so.” A faith like that is pretty susceptible to education. I wonder if people intuitively feel the problems, with the descriptions of what the Bible is, but feel like if they don’t examine those problems they somehow don’t exist?

    • Brian P.

      One response is intentional ignorance. Another is going down the rabbit hole. A commonality among nearly all historical and traditional faith experience is that spiritual development is a journey of decisions of the latter type.

      Shame on the people who taught you faith was to be other. And shame on the people who taught them. An on.

      Or more so than shame them, pity them.

      And Mr Clemens, you’re so right. Yet, there’s also this: The mocker seeks wisdom and finds none, but knowledge comes easily to the discerning.

    • ajl

      And as Mr. Tumnis once said: Aslan is not safe, but he is good.

  • Brian P.

    Delightful story. Within this story too there are troubling themes of fear, power, and intentional ignorance. Having gone through similar experiences (perhaps more similar to Ehrman’s though than yours), the need for an unhealthy fear of the Bible itself seems bizarre. It’s almost the opposite of a Protestant ethos, almost as if the Bible can’t be trusted. There’s, again, a problem of power and specifically institutionalized power, that certain institutions almost need to place themselves above the Bible instead of under it. And there’s an intentionality of ignorance as a theme to resolve the problems and to ensure an outcome rather than to have faith in a journey and the God of that journey.

    All of these, together, seem to be corrupt forms into which the concrete of foundationalism can be poured. It’s been so long that I’ve now been outside of these environments.

    Are people still finding spiritual freedom in such ways of being, such ways of maintain a stance toward a Holy book and each other? It’s getting harder for me to imagine.

    The leading stories of the text itself are stories of faith dangerous to have. They are stories where faith comes and goes–even where things must die before they are resurrected. Patriarchs and prophets are confronted with the epiphanic. They are transformed, in very different ways, from vary different prior assumptions about God, to even quite different new positions, all quite unique and distinctive from one other.

    What does Christianity have to do with following them and even following the centermost person of the story in such strangeness of journey?

    Peterson described it as this: The way of Jesus cannot be imposed or mapped — it requires an active participation in following Jesus as he leads us through sometimes strange and unfamiliar territory, in circumstances that become clear only in the hesitations and questionings, in the pauses and reflections where we engage in prayerful conversation with one another and with him.

    Fundamentalism will continue as long as people either find in it fulfillment or sufficient fear of change. I personally can’t see how it is a spiritual journey, only a waypoint in a story like yours John.

  • David

    Beautiful tory of your faith journey: authentic, honest and unpretentious. Actually what I find is that sound scholarship often provides us with a more humble (less cocky and self-assured) faith. It also open our eyes to that mystery that is God. God becomes “bigger” and not “smaller”. A paradox.

  • Scott S.

    Nice description of your sea-change. One doesn’t have to attend seminary, either, to step outside the circle of received notions. I ended up north of John (who is obviously far north of Ehrman!), mostly because I perceived, tested, and then experienced such an abundance of wisdom in scripture that I could not possibly ascribe its existence to human generation. Looking back from that internalized, comprehensive truth, concerning Mark 2:26-type passages I have aligned my standard to Joseph A. Alexander’s:

    “It is best, however, as in all such cases, to leave the discrepancy unsolved rather than to solve it by unnatural and forced constructions. A difficulty may admit of explanation, although we may not be able to explain it, and the multitude of cases in which riddles once esteemed insoluble have since been satisfactorily settled, should encourage us to hope for like results in other cases…” I think that lines up somewhat with John’s wise final point and scripture quote.

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    ISV Mar 2:26 How was it that he went into the House of God during the lifetime of Abiathar the high priest and ate the Bread of the Presence, which was not lawful for anyone but the priests to eat, and gave some of it to his companions?”
    I see this question as one of commas, is “the high priest” a qualifier for “time” of a qualifier for Abiathar; so that it is referring to the (life) time of Abiathar, who at one time in his life was high priest. If one interpretation cannot possibly be correct, then take the other one. No need to claim Mark got it wrong.
    On what Jesus is doing in Mark in his Sabbath arguments, per D. Thomas Lancaster in his book “Sabbath Breaker”, I think he is showing that Temple laws trump Sabbath laws (since priests profane Sabbath to do temple things) and Life laws trump Temple laws (per David), therefore Life laws trump Sabbath laws.

    • Tim

      The issue is with your translation: “during the LIFETIME of Abiathar the high priest.” There is no word for “lifetime” in the Greek, so your translation is “fudging” a bit because its translators are aware of the very issue under discussion. A more literal translation would be something like the NAS (“in the time of Abiathar the high priest”) or the NRSV (“when Abiathar was high priest”).

  • Thanks for sharing how you’ve come to your present outlook. Until several months ago I would have been 100% with you. Continued reflection has led me to question the reliability of the Bible as a theological authority since it cannot be counted on for accurate history, scientific outlook or even consistent morality/ethics. Putting it entirely in a class by itself while also attempting to retain it as special revelation from a deity seems untenable to me.

    Your viewpoint seems similar to that of the Community of Christ, a denomination with roots in the Latter Day Saint movement and which retains its own editions of the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants as scripture. They view scripture in a way that looks much like what’s described here. Namely, reflecting human fallibility but pointing to God. http://www.cofchrist.org/OurFaith/scripture.asp

    • Bryan

      Byron stated that his faith should be in God and not in the bible. It would seem that you are rejecting the sixth grade Sunday school version of the bible and God in favor of something better, I presume.

  • Karen K

    John, I was wondering if you could clarify this statement: “I consider the Bible to
    be a book written by fallible human beings who were attempting to describe their own faith and religious experiences and did so in an imperfect way. Yet at the same time, what I find within the Bible are words of life.”

    Does this mean you see the Bible as a human book with human wisdom about God? Or do you see the Bible as a divinely inspired book–God speaking through fallible human beings? I guess I am asking about your views on inspiration. I find that there tends to be two extremes: those who function as though the Bible fell out of heaven and so needs to be “inerrant” and so rationalize away any discrepancies, and on the other hand those who see discrepancies and conclude the Bible is only a human book of wisdom.

    Is there room for a human-divine collaboration? That is technically what Christian doctrine teaches, but its largely an unexplored and unexamined doctrine.

    I think of issues, for example, around how orality affected the writing of the BIble as well as ancient text production. I feel like we are alarmed by things that are really just how things were done back then. Obviously, if people are writing down OT references from memory or narratives from memory there might be a misattribution here or there. Also, scribal culture and copying naturally leads to texts being formed a particular way than it would with modern technology of copy machines. But I don’t see this as a problem of “error” as much as God inspiring people in their context. So, there were no copy machines. Why then do we expect a product that is the result of a copy machine? Of course we should expect a text that has the influences of an oral culture and scribal culture. None of this should surprise us. And yet it does and it causes people to make, what I believe, are faulty conclusions about the BIble itself. In other words, it often seems to be a matter of misplaced and/or anachronistic expectations. To me the Bible looks like it would look if God was speaking through human beings in their cultural context.


    • ajl

      The standard answer of course is that the original “autographs” have no error. By using the word autograph it makes the lay people think the pastor is very smart and scholarly so they just nod and agree.

      I really do hope you get an answer to the question you posed because I think it was a very good one.

      • Brian P.

        “Original authographs” creates a level of indirection and shield. It’s a similar technique to, but different in its emphasis, “as properly interpreted.” More demographically distributed power structures and polities need to use the former. More centralized power structures can use the latter.

    • John Byron


      I would agree 100%. Yes, God uses humans and at times what humans give God. I agree that to look back and expect the ancients to write history the way we do is anachronistic. Yet, many of us do and this was how I was taught to read the bible. Now I try to observe what the authors were doing and learn from them, even though sometimes I am uncomfortable with what they do. But that’s because I am from the 21st century. 🙂

      I see the Bible as a human book which God speaks to us through. Do I think God impressed upon people at times a message to communicate? Yes. But not through dictation. I think we have to allow for human-divine collaboration. But many times we only look at the divine side.

      For myself, the idea of scripture being “God breathed” echoes Genesis 2:7 where God breaths into the “earthy human” and the human became a living being. The bible is very “earthy” at times, yet God breaths/works through it to bring it/me alive. I realize this sounds like Barth and neo-orthodoxy, but I think there is some value in this approach. It recognizes the very human side of the Bible but also recognizes that it is mysteriously wedded with the power of God.

  • So glad he had an honest and trustworthy professor, that when he as a young man found inherent problems with the text of the bible, his professor could tell him with care, ‘Shut it.’

    Why is this so common in Christian leaders / teachers, to purposely sweep the difficult stuff under the rug, to refuse to even look at it?

    • Brian P.

      Faith founded on fear rather than freedom. We could elaborate with thousands of words, but essentially and sadly that’s it. More positively though, welcome to a century of chaff’s blowing and burning.

  • toddh

    Wow, another day, another take on a bible verse that I have never heard before. I love this series! Part of what I do in my work with youth is to help them appreciate the insight of the author, that “the Bible was first and foremost a theological book that contains history and uses history to direct me towards God,” so they can wrestle with what that means early on, and not have to do it later in life like I did.

  • Bryan

    This is a very encouraging story. What I find to be most helpful is knowing what scholars do with the bible after it has been heavily deconstructed.

  • JerryQ

    I’m not getting the contradiction. In Mark, Jesus says “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need?” One who hasn’t read 1 Sam. might think his men were with him at the time, but they were not. Still, it says that this is what “David did” not “David and his men.” And in 1 Sam. 21, David is asking for bread for both he and his men.

    Second, in Mark, it doesn’t say that David spoke with and received bread from Abiathar but that he entered the house of God “in the days of Abiathar the high priest.” 1 Sam. makes it clear that he spoke with Ahimelek.

    I don’t think this is a wild rationalization. The contradiction just isn’t terribly convincing. Is there anything more that might convince someone that there’s an clear problem here?

    • John Byron

      Jerry the problems surrounding Abiathar are well-known. One problem with the phrase “the days of Abiathar the high priest” is that it suggests that he was the high priest when David fled Saul. But there is no clear evidence that this is the case. In fact, 1 Sam 22:20 suggests that Abiathar was under Ahimelek when it refers to him as “one of the sons of Ahimelek” when Saul has Doeg kill all the priests at Nob. Ahimelek is again the central character in that story and, it seems, the high priest, Abiathar only rises in the priestly ranks when his mentor/father(?) is killed. I suspect the fact that Abiathar became more associated with David than Ahimelek may have led to the confusion over the names.

      Also, the story in 1 Sam 21 is, in my opinion, pretty clear that David was alone. This is why Ahimelek is frightened and David lies in order to throw him off. David doesn’t begin to gather men around him until later in 1 Sam. If David would lie that he was on the king’s business why not also lie about having men with him?

      I will admit that this is a small incident which drew my attention early one. And that is why I shared it since it marks the beginning of my journey. Later I found many other challenges, one being the following rock in 1 Cor 10 that Pete talked about in his post.

      • Daniel Fisher

        A bit late, but I read it again and again, and I’m not getting the idea that David was really alone and was lying…. He asks for bread for he and his men, the priest offers such so long as his men have been pure around women, David complains that women have indeed be kept from his men…. This is quite a conversation where both of them are on the same page that David is asking for bread for he and his men… I’m not seeing the lie in here anywhere whatsoever. Why not lie about having men with him? Maybe, because he did in fact have men with him? Putting Jesus own interpretation as far out of my mind as I can, I read and read and read that story, and can still find no suggestion, indication, or even motivation for David to be lying to the priest about having men with him?

        Respectfully, it seems to me a bit of a stretch to depend on an interpretation shared apparently by very few others in order to find an error here.

  • leif

    Thanks for the honesty and insight John. I am embracing errancy as a worldview as well – in order to preserve my faith. In many ways it has helped me overcome many of the issues people on this blog talk about. But, while I embrace the idea, I really have one nagging question that I can’t really resolve – perhaps you have insight –

    Isn’t the Bible then more of a study in anthropology than it is in theology? That is, doesn’t it show how one people group (Jews) expanded their view of a creator? And, like an anthropologist studying any people group, you can see them migrate from polytheism to monotheism, from no belief in an afterlife to belief in an afterlife, from no devil to a personal devil.

    So, it isn’t that God communicated things to people over the ages, its just that the people began to refine their thinking about who their creator might be.

    Does this question make sense? And, what are your thoughts about the “spiritual’ side of the Bible?

    • John Byron

      Great questions and thoughts for which I’m not sure there are adequate answers. I have always tended to approach the divine side of the Bible as God working with humanity where he finds them. Thus, what humans may perceive as God “newly revealing to them” was there all the time, but only now have come to recognize it.

      I think one problem is the assumption that the Bible tells us everything there is to know about God and the way God works. I realize that some will take umbridge with that statement, but I think the other side of the coin is human hubris. We think we know all there is to know because we have the Bible. On the other hand, there has been 200 years of history since Jesus and God is still teaching us and we are still realizing new things about God (The reformation would be one example).

      As for the spiritual side of the Bible, I think this is where we can learn from our brothers and sisters in the Eastern church. They are much more open to the idea of mystery and unknowing. Western rationalism had impacted us to such a degree that we think we can and must explain everything. But it doesn’t. For me the mystery of the bible is that we have a very human book that God somehow speaks through to us. I would love to explain how that works, but I can’t. That is why I acknowledge that what I find in the Bible are the Words of Life.

      • ajl


        Have your read either J. Patterson Smyth’s How God Inspired the Bible: Reflections on the Present Disquiet (1892), or Washington Gladden’s Who Wrote the Bible: A Book for the People (1891)?

        These are the best books I’ve read on the human/divine aspects of the Bible (I loved Gladden’s book so much I purchased a first edition of it). They were saying (over 100 years ago) what you and Peter have been talking about on inerrancy. What I like about them is that they maintain a deep love for God but a very intellectual approach to literary criticism. I think what makes them such good books is that these guys were living smack in the culture and upheaval of Darwin, Wellhousen, and Gilgamesh but before the Fundamentalists changed the discussion points.

    • Andrew Dowling

      “so, it isn’t that God communicated things to people over the ages, its
      just that the people began to refine their thinking about who their
      creator might be.”

      I’d argue those two things are not as disconnected as they may seem.

  • Ross

    I do like this series as it gives a human face and experience to “progressives/liberals”, which I can identify with.

    Unfortunately there is this great battle within the whole body of believers between conservatives and progressives, which to me is just a series of “red herrings” where one side just can’t seem to communicate with and understand the other. I feel that the problem, which is usually couched in terms of a difference between what we think/believe is actually really a difference in how we think/believe.

    I see that the traditional conservative/fundamentalist camp is characterised by an overwhelming binary way of thinking, being either/or, black/white, often being a set of false dichotomies. For example, if the bible isn’t completely inerrant, then God must be a liar, or can’t exist. I for one just cannot think this way. The bible does not have to be completely “true” for there to be a God who does actually communicate with us. The bible can have authority, the writers can be inspired, but this does not mean that what is written cannot have some measure of finitude or fallibility in it.

    What this does mean is that there is uncertainty in life and the walk of faith. The way of “fundamentalism” (and I use this in a broadly generalised and fallible way here) seems to be about certainty. Leading to an unstated but very real belief that “correct doctrine” is the saving way to God. Anything which is not certain is the way to Hell and apostasy. Which in term leads to schism and continual factionalism. I’m not convinced myself that correct doctrine necessarily directly relates to a better life being lived.

    This is very ironic as it seems to lead to a continual battle to sort out the sheep from the goats or the wheat from the tares. Whereas, if the fundamentalists actually believed the bible they would realise it isn’t actually their job to do this. In fact this movement to “separationism” just leads to ripping up the wheat with the tares.

    I hope that those who are opposed to or afraid of progressives/liberals, will listen to their stories and recognise that this is a genuine journey of genuine believers struggling and succeeding to walk with Jesus. It may be because the way we think is different, that the journey may seem different, but the Lord we follow is the same one they follow. Maybe they may also be able to critically evaluate their own way of thinking and see whether or not it helps or hinders a genuine growth in their relationship with Jesus.

    On the other hand, I suppose antagonism in the opposite direction also causes problems. So we must equally show love to those who do not think like we do. To this end maybe we need to resist anger toward those we feel oppress us and concentrate more on expressing our hurt in the hope that we are heard than in attacking back.

    Ultimately it would seem to me more important for Evangelicals to be known more for love than for factionalism.

    • Tim

      Thanks for this. I heard it said once that some of the problems you’ve described here come from the invasion of gnosticism into the historic Christian faith. It is this element which seems to drive the need for “certainty” and “correct doctrine” as what ultimately becomes the means to salvation within (particularly) fundamentalist and evangelical circles.

  • JIZ

    I looked in the Catena Aurea to see what Aquinas may have had to say about this. On this point, he quotes Bede. (It’s interesting that scholars have been grappling with this for 1,300 years!)

    “There is, however, no discrepancy, for both were there, when David came to ask for bread, and received it: that is to say, Abimelech, the High Priest, and Abiathar his son; but Abimelech having been slain by Saul, Abiathar fled to David, and became the Companion of all his exile afterwards. When he came to the throne, he himself also received the rank of High Priest, amid the son became of much greater excellence than the father, and therefore was worthy to be mentioned as the High Priest, even during his father’s life-time”

  • Jerdna Friedemann

    This one i really don’t get. The context is so abundantly clear, how could one spin this until broken?

    “The problem, however, as I pointed out to my teacher, is that 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).”
    What??? The narrative in 1 Sam. 21 makes it clear what happened. David went into the temple alone. His men were elsewhere – why bring them to pick up bread? He says he will share the bread (“I have appointed my servants to such and such a place.”, “if the young men have kept themselves at least from women”, “Of a truth women have been kept from us about these three days, since I came out, and the vessels of the young men are holy”). i really don’t understand what would make one assume David lied three times instead of assuming David told the truth. Did David really need five breads for himself alone? Why would he bring his men if he was trying to stay hidden? Is it a good idea to come into the temple with a group of soldiers if you want to stay hidden?

    The priest David met was Ahimelek. The *high priest* at that time (which David did not meet) was Abiather. That’s more clear than sunlight.