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Biblical Questions
Was Abiathar High Priest When David Ate Showbread? (Mark 2:25-16 vs. 1 Sam. 21:1-6)

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The Dilemma
It is alleged that in the gospel of Mark Jesus improperly identified Abiathar as High Priest when David ate the showbread. The first of the two relevant verses reads:
But He said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?" (Mark 2:25-26)
The latter reads:
Now David came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech was afraid when he met David, and said to him, "Why are you alone, and no one is with you?" So David said to Ahimelech the priest, "The king has ordered me on some business, and said to me, 'Do not let anyone know anything about the business on which I send you, or what I have commanded you.' And I have directed my young men to such and such a place. Now therefore, what have you on hand? Give me five loaves of bread in my hand, or whatever can be found." And the priest answered David and said, "There is no common bread on hand; but there is holy bread, if the young men have at least kept themselves from women." Then David answered the priest, and said to him, "Truly, women have been kept from us about three days since I came out. And the vessels of the young men are holy, and the bread is in effect common, even though it was consecrated in the vessel this day." So the priest gave him holy bread; for there was no bread there but the showbread which had been taken from before the LORD, in order to put hot bread in its place on the day when it was taken away. (1 Sam 21:1-6)
And so it is often asserted that very plainly these two verses demonstrate an errancy of the scriptures (and therefore disprove the authenticity of the Bible).

Assuming that Jesus or Mark didn't know the Old Testament well enough to accurately reflect that Ahimelech rather than Abiathar was the high priest is a foolish and dangerous proposition. However, facts around these texts actually make clear there is no contradiction or error here. The apparent "problem" in Mark's account is easily resolved by properly consulting more than one reliable English translation and/or the original Greek. Although some respectable Bible translations (the RSV and ASV, for example) improperly translate "epi Abiathar archiereoos" as "when Abiathar was high priest," the Greek in v. 26 literally means "in the time of Abiathar the high priest" (as in the NKJV above, NIV, NAS, KJV, and Amplified). Epi is best translated "in the days of" or "in the time of" because it is part of the genitive case here (prepositional/possessive). This is the consistent genitive translation in the NT, as demonstrated in verses like Acts 11:28.

Mark 2:26 therefore contains a perfectly normal and accurate statement for Jesus to have made, regardless of who the high priest was at the precise time of David's seeking the bread. In fact, Ahimelech was Abiathar's father and was slaughtered along with the rest of the priestly community in Nob by Doeg the Edomite on the command of King Saul. Abiathar was the only priest to escape and immediately served as David's high priest (with Zadok) until David died. Just the same as one could say "in the days of King David" to refer to this or any other event that happened contemporarily with David (even though he was not YET "king"), Jesus could rightly say "in the time of" Abiathar the high priest," regardless of whether he was high priest yet or not1. The use here of "epi" is "locative" rather than "temporal," as scholars on the book of Mark remark. The emphasis on Abiathar rather than Ahimelech is expected in Jesus' teaching, as Abiathar officiated in Jerusalem, which was the context for Jesus and his "house of God" (not Nob). The readers would have more naturally related to the mention of Abiathar than Ahimelech.

1 Standard examples in modern speech further amplify this point. For example, it would not be uncommon to hear documentaries reference "President Reagan" as such during his acting era, even though he wasn't President then. This statement would not imply that Reagan was president while acting (although many would argue that he was acting while he was president).

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