Musings on Mark: Abiathar the High Priest

πῶς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ θεοῦ ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως καὶ τοὺς ἄρτους τῆς προθέσεως ἔφαγεν, οὓς οὐκ ἔξεστιν φαγεῖν εἰ μὴ τοὺς ἱερεῖς, καὶ ἔδωκεν καὶ τοῖς σὺν αὐτῷ οὖσιν; (Mark 2:26)

The Bible notoriously gets details wrong. Matthew attributes to Jeremiah what was loosely written in Zechariah (Matthew 27:9-10; cf. Zechariah 11:13); Luke places Jesus’ birth a decade later than Matthew does (Luke 2:2; cf. Matthew 2:1); John thinks Jesus’ purging of the temple happens at the beginning of his ministry rather than the end (John 2:13-17; cf. Mark 11:15-18); and so on. Both professional apologists and those of the pop variety have no shortage of responses to these kinds of textual issues, many of which involve serious mental gymnastics of the exegetical and historical kind. [1] Sometimes they are entertaining; more often it is too painful to watch.

Here in Mark 2:23-28 we find a detail that Mark need not have gotten wrong.

23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Mark 2:23-28, NRSV)

This pericope is one of the controversy narratives that feature in this section of Mark’s Gospel. In the previous unit (2:18-22), Jesus had to deal with the question of fasting – “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not?” (2:18)  In 2:23-28, the Pharisees are upset that Jesus’ disciples were going through a field of grain and plucking heads of grain to eat. Wasn’t this an unlawful act? (Exodus 24:21) Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is to tell a story found in the Hebrew Bible.

21  David came to Nob to the priest Ahimelech. Ahimelech came trembling to meet David, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one with you?” David said to the priest Ahimelech, “The king has charged me with a matter, and said to me, ‘No one must know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.’ I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. Now then, what have you at hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.” The priest answered David, “I have no ordinary bread at hand, only holy bread—provided that the young men have kept themselves from women.” David answered the priest, “Indeed women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition; the vessels of the young men are holy even when it is a common journey; how much more today will their vessels be holy?” So the priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the Lord, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away. (1 Samuel 21:1-6, NRSV)

David and his men had been roaming the countryside trying to avoid Saul the king of Israel. He arrives in the city of Nob, a town in the tribe of Benjamin, that is referred to as “the city of the priests.” (1 Samuel 22:19) There he meets with Ahimelech the priest from whom David requests five loaves of bread so that he can feed himself and those with him. [2] Ahimelech has no bread to offer except “the bread of the Presence” and he cannot give it away to anyone who has been with a woman. In fact, the bread of the Presence was to be consumed by the priests and replaced the next day. (See Exodus 25:30) David informs him that he and his men have kept themselves from sexual interaction with women and Ahimelech gives the bread to him.

In Jesus’ Cliffs Notes version we notice a problem in a pretty big detail. Jesus says that the ἀρχιερέως – “high priest” – is Abiathar and not Ahimelech. (2:26) This is problematic because Abiathar is Ahimelech’s son and it is only after Ahimelech is killed by Saul in Nob that Abiathar becomes the high priest. (1 Samuel 22:6-23) So who is right? The Deuteronomic Historian in Samuel or Jesus in the Gospel of Mark?

Attempts to Reconcile

In the ESV Study Bible, we read this note that attempts to rectify the problem (and thereby rescue inerrancy):

The incident with David actually occurred when Ahimelech, not his son Abiathar, was high priest (1 Sam. 21:1). “In the time of Abiathar” could mean: (1) “In the time of Abiathar who later became high priest” (naming Abiathar because he was a more prominent person in the OT narrative, remaining high priest for many years of David’s reign); (2) “In [the Scripture section] of Abiathar, the high priest” (taking Gk. epi plus the genitive to indicate a location in Scripture, as in Mark 12:26). Abiathar, the only son of Ahimelech to survive the slaughter by Doeg (1 Samuel 22), is the best-known high priest in this larger section of 1 Samuel. [3] 

So here we see two possibilities: either Abiathar was named because he was better known than Ahimelech, or the Greek construction of ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως is offering us a locating in the Hebrew Bible to which Mark’s readers could refer. Neither possibility seems plausible for at least four reasons.

First, it is simply inaccurate to say that Abiathar was high priest when this incident occurred. He wasn’t. Regardless of whether Abiathar is “a more prominent person” in the narrative to which Jesus refers, it is simply inaccurate to describe him as the high priest at the time this event is said to have happened.

Second, while it is true that in Mark 12:26 that ἐπί plus the genitive τοῦ βάτου (“the bush”) is Jesus’ narrowing down of where the quote “I am the God of Abraham, etc.” comes from, the connection in 12:26 takes place right away – “Have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush [ἐπὶ τοῦ βάτου]….” If the intention of Mark had been to communicate that ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως meant “in the section about Abiathar the high priest,” why didn’t he put it in verse 25 when he said, “Have you never read?” That would have been the time to insert ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως. There would have been no confusion then. 

Third, some manuscripts of Mark omit ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως entirely in a bid to avoid the contradiction and others insert the Greek definite article τοῦ before ἀρχιερέως “to permit the interpretation that the event happened in the time of (but not necessarily during the high-priesthood of) Abiathar (who, was afterward) the high priest.” [4] So clearly later editors saw a problem and sought to correct it. 

Fourth, in both Matthew’s version of this narrative (Matthew 12:1-8) and Luke’s (Luke 6:1-5), Abiathar isn’t even mentioned! Here are all three passages, beginning with Mark.

Mark 2:26 – πῶς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ θεοῦ ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως καὶ τοὺς ἄρτους τῆς προθέσεως ἔφαγεν, οὓς οὐκ ἔξεστιν φαγεῖν εἰ μὴ τοὺς ἱερεῖς, καὶ ἔδωκεν καὶ τοῖς σὺν αὐτῷ οὖσιν;

Matthew 12:4 – πῶς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τοὺς ἄρτους τῆς προθέσεως ἔφαγον, οὐκ ἐξὸν ἦναὐτῷ φαγεῖν οὐδὲ τοῖς μετ’ αὐτοῦ, εἰ μὴ τοῖς ἱερεῦσιν μόνοις;

Luke 6:4 – ὡς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τοὺς ἄρτους τῆς προθέσεως ἔλαβεν καὶ ἔφαγεν καὶἔδωκεν καὶ τοῖς μετ’ αὐτοῦ, οὓς οὐκ ἔξεστιν φαγεῖν εἰ μὴ μόνους τοὺς ἱερεῖς;

If you look, there is no mention in either Matthew or Luke of Abiathar the high priest. Given that Matthew and Luke came after Mark and both used Mark as a source for their texts, it seems that the authors of Mark and Luke recognized the error and just chose to omit it altogether. This redactional activity makes sense since it didn’t matter who the high priest was when David ate the bread of the Presence. The point Jesus was making was that there are times when it is morally right to violate a sacred command in the interest of preserving life. Just as David was in the right when he broke divine law in eating of the bread of the Presence because he needed sustenance, so too the disciples are in the right when they broke divine law in picking heads of grain on the Sabbath because they needed sustenance.

For those who are not concerned with inerrancy, the inclusion of Abiathar rather than Ahimelech is not an issue. Mark obviously got the name of the high priest wrong when he put together his Gospel. But for inerrantists, this detail is highly problematic because it is flat out wrong. If Jesus is right, the Hebrew Bible is wrong. If the Hebrew Bible is right, Jesus is wrong.

Any way you slice it, inerrancy is in trouble.


[1] And let’s not even get started on creationism!

[2] It should be pointed out that when Ahimelech asks David why he is alone, David responds with an outright lie – “The king has charged me with a matter, and said to me, ‘No one must know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.'” (21:2) Saul did not charge David to do anything of the sort.

[3] Lane T. Dennis and Wayne Grudem, editors, ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 1,897. See also William Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 115-116.

[4] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition (Stuttgart, Germany: Germany Bible Society, 1994), 68.

Featured Image: By Scanned by: User Lavallen – Book: “Biblia, det är den heliga skrift, med förklaringar af P. Fjellstedt.” part I, page 167, Public Domain,

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