Here's a story Jesus told about David according to Mark 2:23-28 (ESV):

One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And 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: how he entered the house of God, in the time of1 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?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

And this is the story he was talking about in 1 Samuel 21:1-6 (ESV):

Then David came to Nob to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech came to meet David trembling and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one with you?” And David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, ‘Let no one 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 do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.” And the priest answered David, “I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread—if the young men have kept themselves from women.” And David answered the priest, “Truly 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 an ordinary journey. How much more today will their vessels be holy?” So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there but 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.

Note that the name of the priest according to the Tanakh was Ahimelech and Jesus (according to Mark) calls him Abiathar. Someone made a mistake. Was it Jesus in recalling the story or Mark in recording Jesus' words?

The ESV included the following note at the place marked 1 in the Mark passage:

2:26 Or in the passage about

Initially that sounds like it might free us from viewing this as a mistake, but since the passage doesn't mention Abiathar at all, it doesn't much help.

This is one of Professor Bart D. Ehrman's favorite examples of problems in the Bible and he cites it in Misquoting Jesus as the passage the convinced him the Bible is not inerrant.

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    This was also asked on Christianity christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/1191/…
    – ashansky
    Oct 27, 2011 at 16:21
  • @ashansky: Thanks for the pointer. I wouldn't accept the accepted answer here, however. ;-) It's a really tricky hermeneutical problem. Oct 27, 2011 at 16:54
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    How do you know, for example, that there was only one? We know that there were multiple in the first century.
    – Ray
    Oct 28, 2011 at 12:41
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    @Ray: That, of course, also answers the question. (However, Jesus was talking about the high priest, which means one person, and referencing a story from before the First Temple. So be careful. ;-) Oct 28, 2011 at 15:54
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    @Ray: We need to be prepared to answer questions that make unstated premises and question the authority of Scripture. I hope that someone like the younger Dr. Ehrman (when he was not yet committed to debunking the Bible) would be able to ask questions like this and get helpful answers. I encourage you to submit your own answer. Oct 28, 2011 at 17:01

10 Answers 10


A detailed study on this issue by Daniel B. Wallace of the Evangelical Theological Society discusses five possibilities:

  1. Text-Critical: The text as it stands is incorrect and needs to be emended.
  2. Dominical: Jesus himself made a mistake or was intentionally midrashic (i.e., he embellished the OT story to make his point).
  3. Source-critical: Mark’s source (Peter?) made a mistake in reporting Jesus’ words, or else was intentionally midrashic.
  4. Mark erred in reporting what his source said, or was intentionally midrashic.
  5. Hermeneutical: The interpretation that “when Abiathar was high priest” is incorrect.

The author concludes that his preference is for the fifth option (hermeneutical), saying:

As for view 5, my preference right now is to take the prepositional phrase as meaning “in the days of Abiathar the high priest.” Although Mark apparently does not employ the temporal use of this preposition elsewhere, he almost surely does so here—for both “when Abiathar was high priest” and “in the days of Abiathar the high priest” are temporal expressions. Further, the construction ἐπί + genitive noun is frequently used with a temporal sense outside of Mark—with a meaning similar to ‘in the days of…’ BDAG lists numerous biblical and patristic references under ἐπί with a genitive for time, all in the sense of “in the time of, under (kings or other rulers).” Cf., e.g., Luke 4:27 (‘in the time of Elisha’), Luke 3:2 (‘in the time of the high priest, Annas and Caiaphas’) and even Mark 2:26 (‘in the time of Abiathar the high priest’).

He also addresses the case of people like Bart Ehrman by arguing that even if one of the other options is correct, the infallibility of the Bible and the doctrine of Christ's divinity are not necessarily affected:

Thus, inadvertently, when we frontload inerrancy and refuse to really probe the tough historical questions, we end up betraying our commitment to the incarnation. The deepest tragedy along these lines is when someone never differentiates doctrinal commitments, for this leaves him wide open to chucking his entire belief system when the weakest link is broken. From experience, I can tell you that this “domino view of doctrine” is altogether too prevalent and has been the ruin of a great many evangelical doctoral students.

  • Another data point in Mark is in 1:2 when he quotes Isaiah and Malachi, but only cites Isaiah. Oct 27, 2011 at 18:17
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    It seems like there is (at least) a sixth and seventh option: Ahimelech and Abiathar were the same person, or there were multiple people referred to as "high priest." See Annas and Caiaphas, at Jesus' trial. Nov 1, 2011 at 1:46
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    @GalacticCowboy: I don't think your first option is possible: "But one of the sons of Ahimelech the son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled after David." (1 Samuel 22:20 ESV) I believe high priesthood in David's time was for life unlike in Jesus' time. (But I don't have a source at hand for that.) Nov 1, 2011 at 16:45
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    +1 for quote, 'I can tell you that this “domino view of doctrine” is altogether too prevalent and has been the ruin of a great many evangelical doctoral students.' From personal experience, I likewise know several atheists who were at one time Christian. When you dig into why they gave up, they cite the issues like this associated with (perhaps misunderstandings of) inerrancy Jan 6, 2012 at 10:00

Firstly, I believe in the inerrancy of God's Word, but I don't believe it is always helpful to bend over backwards making things 'fit' - sometimes we have to just accept that we don't have the knowledge to do so (and in those cases I'd say the things that have been revealed are the things that matter - and also go along with jrdioko's quote against the 'domino view of doctrine').

However in this particular case I'm inclined to accept the very simple explanation that both the following statements are correct and represent a difference in emphasis not factual accuracy:

  1. David ate the 'bread of the Presence' in the time of Abiathar the high priest
  2. David ate the 'bread of the Presence' in the time of Ahimelech the [high] priest

noting that the day David ate the bread was the day (perhaps figuratively) Ahimelech died and Abiathar his son assumed his role.

  • David coming to Ahimelech in Nob seems to be the direct reason Saul killed him. Abiathar managed to escape. So you are right to say that the time Jesus refers to was a time of transition in the high priesthood. Oct 28, 2011 at 15:56
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    Creating plausible scenarios is not required for those who approach the scriptures in faith. But it is an answer according to Pr 26:5 Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit. Courtroom testimony often has truthful contradictions. Riddles produce contradictions. Even hyperbole can elicit charges of being lies. Plausible answers calm the nerves of those who hear God's voice but do not yet see (understand) the words beings said by Him.
    – Bob Jones
    Oct 29, 2011 at 15:35
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    @Bob I think I agree with the gist of what I think you are saying, except that plausibility is a cousin of truth, rather than being a completely separate concept as you imply (perhaps unintentionally). Oct 29, 2011 at 17:40
  • @Jack "cousin of truth" ..hmmm Ok. In Drash there can be no true hidden meaning in a literal lie. Since there is a picture of Christ in it, the literal is also true even if it appears to be a contradiction. This is the basis for the Midrash and Sensus Plenior practice of speaking from silence. So I probably did not mean to imply that they were not related. One might turn to Sherlock, “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” It is impossible that God should lie.
    – Bob Jones
    Oct 29, 2011 at 18:27

The word "Abiathar" in the text may go all the way back to Jesus and it's entirely possible he misspoke.

As Bruce Alderman's answer ably points out, we can never know the exact words that Jesus spoke as there were no recording devices at the time. Therefore, we must rely on the people who heard Jesus' words to remember them until they could be recorded in writing. For a critical 30 or 40 years, the teaching must survive in the form of oral traditions. There is very little evidence for what, if any, changes might have occurred to the teachings in this period.

However, we do know that Jesus' disciples considered Jesus to be a rabbi who spoke with authority (semikhah). The job of a rabbi was to pass on his wisdom to his disciples and the job of the disciples was to remember their master's teaching. Part of the reason Jesus picked twelve men to be his "inner circle" seems to be that he wanted them to have an even deeper understanding of his teaching than the crowds (cf. Mark 4:10-20). These men followed him for three or so years and probably heard the same teachings over and over again. If they had any questions, they would likely have been expected to ask Jesus privately.

(An argument might be made that this particular teaching was a one-off since it related to a very specific event: the disciples gleaning on the Sabbath. But it's also possible the disciples made a regular practice of picking grain on the Sabbath and used Jesus' answer multiple times. I don't think it really matters to my argument except tangentially.)

Now the author of Mark assembled some of the oral history that was preserved and wrote it down. It seems likely that he wrote the stories about Jesus in the format of an ancient biography in order to transmit them to gentile Christians. Around the same time or a little later, Plutarch wrote his Lives which was popular in the Greek-speaking world and share some literary features with Mark's gospel. (Another possibility is that Mark realized the generation of Apostles was dying out and that the oral tradition ought to be preserved in writing.)

Here is the parallel passages with unique matterial in bold and omitted words marked (...) Mark 2:26 (ESV):

how 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?”

Matthew 12:4 (ESV):

how he entered the house of God ... and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?

Luke 6:4 (ESV):

how he entered the house of God ... and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which ... is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those ... with him?”

Currently, most scholars believe that Matthew and Luke edited Markian material separately, so both Luke and Matthew chose to remove the reference to the the high priest. The other edits are very minor and to clear up the grammar of Mark which, according to Dr. Ehrman, is poor. This one parallel strongly supports the Markian priority hypothesis as both later writers make obvious, yet different edits.

Why did both Matthew and Luke remove the high priest reference rather than substitute Ahimelech? One plausible reason is that 30 plus years of oral tradition insisted on Abiathar. It's one thing to omit a non-essential detail and it's quite another to alter it completely. The path of least resistance is to just drop the reference to the high priest altogether.

Another answer by jrdioko points to the idea that the phrase is midrashic or that it should be understood as a general marker of a time period. In these cases, Abiathar shouldn't be considered a mistake so much as an interpretation problem to be solved. Using the name of one priest rather than another might have been intended to carry a deeper significance. Unfortunately, that Luke and Matthew both drop the phrase indicates that, at the time they wrote, the reason for the substitution had already been lost. If it had been retained, the authors would have had reason to preserve the text or even elaborate on it.

Therefore, we must take seriously the possibility that Jesus misspoke, the Apostles faithfully recalled his error, and Mark faithfully recorded their oral tradition. The error was only noticed after Jesus' death and it was too late to ask him to clarify the teaching.

Finally, we must consider what it would mean that Jesus misspoke (assuming the above analysis is correct). One surprising result is that it might actually increase our estimation of the reliability of oral transmission of Jesus' teachings before Mark. Afterall, it is remarkably probable that someone would have noticed the discrepancy over the years and yet the high priest phrase was not dropped until after the oral tradition was made obsolete by a written account.

Second, it suggests that the written transmission of the New Testament was not irredeemably corrupted by later scribes. They had ample evidence that something was strange about Mark's account of this story and yet they continued to copy Mark's words faithfully.

As for what it means to the Christian faith, I find it comforting that Luke and Matthew recognized an error in one of their sources and yet did not lose faith. Any further would be verging off-topic, but I personally am not shaken by this passage in the least.


Other answerers have attempted to made the case that this is not an error. I’m not entirely convinced by their arguments, but perhaps this question can be expressed more neutrally as, “Who introduced the priest’s name in Mark 2:26?”

The most likely candidate, I believe, is Mark himself.

Although at this late stage we cannot know for certain what exactly Jesus said, it’s fair to say he had a reputation for pithy responses to challenges, often responding to a question with another question.

In the parallels to this passage, in both Matthew 12 and Luke 6, Jesus’ question is, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?” Matthew continues, “He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests.” Luke follows the question similarly, “He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions.”

Mark expands on both Jesus’ question and his response.

Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 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.

The phrase “and in need of food” is redundant, and the phrase “when Abiathar was high priest” breaks the flow of the sentence. Both of these phrases weaken the force of Jesus’ reply.

Some critics might argue that Mark’s wording is more likely to be the original, simply because there is no reason for the evangelist to introduce problematic details. But there are several other examples of the gospel writers doing just that.

Here’s one from Jesus’ teaching about a future time of persecution and betrayal. This is found in Mark 13:12-13 | Matthew 24:10-13 | Luke 21:16-19.

This is how that persecution is described in Mark:

Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Matthew leaves out the family angle:

Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

And here is Luke’s take on it:

You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Perhaps Luke wanted to reassure his readers, but the line “not a hair of your head will perish” simply doesn’t fit, coming on the heels of “they will put some of you to death.” Luke’s redaction has reduced the coherence of the passage.

We can see something similar in the story of Herodias in Matthew. (I won’t quote the whole thing here; see the full story in Mark 6:16-29 | Matthew 14:1-12.)

According to Mark, Herodias “had a grudge against” John, but Herod “liked to listen to him.” But according to Matthew, Herod “wanted him put to death” but “feared the crowd.”. This is a significant difference, especially when both gospels later say Herod was “grieved” after Herodias’ daughter asked for John’s execution. Matthew’s redaction makes Herod’s grief inexplicable.

The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30 | Luke 19:11-27) offers a similar example. In Matthew’s version, the master has three servants. He gives five talents to one, two talents to another, and one talent to the last. In the end, the first servant earns his master five more talents, the second earns two more, and the third buries his talent. In Luke’s version, the master gives ten pounds to ten servants. But when the master returns from his journey, there are only three servants. The first has made ten talents, the second has made five, and “the other” (see verse 20) has buried his talent. Luke’s edits have completely broken the coherence of the passage.

And now back to the story of David and the bread. The name Abiathar in Mark’s narrative does not introduce any difficulty internal to this passage; the only difficulty is in correlating it with the original story in 1 Samuel.

We’ve seen that Matthew and Luke don’t try to correct the priest’s name--they simply don’t mention the high priest at all. We’ve also seen that the evangelists were not reluctant to add their own details to the narrative even when doing so introduced problems into the text. The simplest explanation for this passage is exactly that: Mark added the phrase about Abiathar himself.

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    I think another possibility is that Jesus misspoke, Mark recorded the words faithfully and Matthew corrected the mistake when he copied it from Mark. If you don't assume Jesus was unable to make mistakes, there's a lot going for this scenario in my opinion. Oct 31, 2011 at 16:49
  • @Jon: If it went back to Jesus, I don't see why nobody would have corrected it over the 30-40 years before it was written down. We can see, based on how Matthew and Luke treat the source we know about (Mark), that they are not reluctant to make changes even to the very words spoken by Jesus. Is there a reason to believe Mark was any different? Nov 1, 2011 at 6:01
  • @Bruce: Mark's reluctance to change the name is exactly the reason I think "Jesus misspoke" is a serious possibility. If I recall correctly, Dr. Ehrman makes the case that since there's no reason for someone to add in the mistake, it must go back quite a long way. (He goes too far when he expounds on the dire consequences to our faith if that's true, however.) I agree with your answer except that I think you dismiss one option too quickly. (I'm your +1.) Nov 1, 2011 at 16:41
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    @Jon: Regarding "no reason to add the mistake"; that's why it is called a mistake. If we look at the thousands of minor errors in later manuscripts, there is no reason for someone to have added them, yet they are there. I understand Dr. Ehrman's logic, I just don't think it matches the reality of life before the printing press. Nov 1, 2011 at 17:14

After King Saul's death - 2 Samuel 8:15-18 (NKJV) (emphasis mine):

15 So David reigned over all Israel; and David administered judgment and justice to all his people. 16 Joab the son of Zeruiah was over the army; Jehoshaphat the son of Ahilud was recorder; 17 Zadok the son of Ahitub and Ahimelech the son of Abiathar were the priests; Seraiah was the scribe; 18 Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was over both the Cherethites and the Pelethites; and David’s sons were chief ministers.

Again, after King Saul's death - 1 Chronicles 24:1-6 (NKJV) (emphasis mine):

1 Now these are the divisions of the sons of Aaron. The sons of Aaron were Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. 2 And Nadab and Abihu died before their father, and had no children; therefore Eleazar and Ithamar ministered as priests. 3 Then David with Zadok of the sons of Eleazar, and Ahimelech of the sons of Ithamar, divided them according to the schedule of their service.

4 There were more leaders found of the sons of Eleazar than of the sons of Ithamar, and thus they were divided. Among the sons of Eleazar were sixteen heads of their fathers’ houses, and eight heads of their fathers’ houses among the sons of Ithamar. 5 Thus they were divided by lot, one group as another, for there were officials of the sanctuary and officials of the house of God, from the sons of Eleazar and from the sons of Ithamar. 6 And the scribe, Shemaiah the son of Nethanel, one of the Levites, wrote them down before the king, the leaders, Zadok the priest, Ahimelech the son of Abiathar, and the heads of the fathers’ houses of the priests and Levites, one father’s house taken for Eleazar and one for Ithamar.

During Absalom's rebellion, long after King Saul's death - 2 Samuel 15:24-29 (NKJV) (emphasis mine):

24 There was Zadok also, and all the Levites with him, bearing the ark of the covenant of God. And they set down the ark of God, and Abiathar went up until all the people had finished crossing over from the city. 25 Then the king said to Zadok, “Carry the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the eyes of the Lord, He will bring me back and show me both it and His dwelling place. 26 But if He says thus: ‘I have no delight in you,’ here I am, let Him do to me as seems good to Him.” 27 The king also said to Zadok the priest, “Are you not a seer? Return to the city in peace, and your two sons with you, Ahimaaz your son, and Jonathan the son of Abiathar. 28 See, I will wait in the plains of the wilderness until word comes from you to inform me.” 29 Therefore Zadok and Abiathar carried the ark of God back to Jerusalem. And they remained there.

So apparently Ahimelech was indeed the son of Abiathar, and was also known as Abiathar. Confusing? definitely, but no one misspoke or made a mistake.


The Abiathar Problem, why Jesus got it wrong

In Mark 2:25 Jesus names Abiathar as the High Priest who gave David the show bread.

I accept that this was Mark’s version of what Jesus said as it was reported to him and that the other gospel writers differ in their accounts, possibly to avoid this conundrum.

In 1 Samuel 21:1 it is recorded that David came to Ahimelech the priest who gave him the show bread.

1 Samuel 22:9 Doeg the Edomite, identifies Ahimelech as the son of Ahitub. “I saw the son of Jesse coming to Nob, to Ahimelech the son of Ahitub.”

11 Then the king sent for Ahimelech the priest, the son of Ahitub, and all his father's house, the priests that were in Nob. 13 And Saul said unto him, Why have ye conspired against me, thou and the son of Jesse, in that thou hast given him bread, and a sword, and hast inquired of God for him, that he should rise against me, to lie in wait, as at this day? 16 And the king said, Thou shalt surely die, Ahimelech, thou, and all thy father's house. 18 Ahimelech and eighty five priests are massacred. 20 Abiathar one of the sons of Ahimelech (the son of Atihub) managed to escape and fled to David.

1 Samuel 14:3 identified Ahitub as the son of Phinehas, the son of Eli the priest at Shiloh). Eli > Phinehas > Ahitub > Ahimelech > Abiathar So in I Samuel it is quite clear that Ahimelech is the son of Ahitub, and that Abiather is the son of Ahimelech and Ahimelech gave the showbread to David and was murdered for showing David this kindness during the reign of Saul.

Why the confusion?

Sheva was the scribe who wrote 2 Samuel at the end of David’s reign. 2 Samuel 20:25 states that Sheva was scribe; and Zadok and Abiathar were priests. So we can assume that Sheva wrote this account along with Zadok and Abiathar.

Shavsha the scribe in Chronicles contradicts this

1 Chronicles 18:16 records that Zadok the son of Ahitub, and Abimelech the son of Abiathar, were priests; and Shavsha was scribe. This is a blatant error probably by Shavsha. Firstly it was “Ahimelech” not “Abimelech”, and secondly, Ahimelech was assassinated by King Saul and his son was Abiathar.

1 Chronicles 24:6 When David was old and he was preparing to hand over his kingdom to Solomon, and preparing for the building of the temple, and the order of priestly service, Shemaiah the son of Nethanel the scribe, recorded the priests names for the order of service, in the presence of the king (David) and the princes, and Zadok the priest, and Ahimelech the son of Abiathar, and the heads of the fathers' [houses] of the priests and of the Levites; one fathers' house being taken for Eleazar, and one taken for Ithamar.

This Abimelech is only mentioned one time in connection with Zadok the priest, which is inconsistent with all other texts, so it’s obvious that it’s a mistake.

Who was Abimelech?

In Genesis Abimelech is the king of Gerar, who takes Sarah after having been lied to by Abraham, who said “she is my sister”. Judges 8:31 Gideon’s concubine had a son named Abimelech. He killed all his brothers, the sons of Jerubaal, and he was prince of Israel for three years. Judges 9:22

It is easy to confuse two names that only have one letter to differentiate them.

Although it’s recorded that Shemiah wrote the list of the order of service, it’s probably still the same scribe Shavsha who made the first mistake calling “Ahimelech” “Abimelech”, who now carelessly switches the name of the elder “Ahimelech” with his son “Abiathar”.

Shavsha obviously got it wrong... Sheva’s earlier account would be the most authoritative version. If Jesus quoted from Shavsha’s account in Chronicles, he would also have gotten it wrong.

Why did Chroniclers provide us with a genealogy of Eleazar but not of Ithamar?

Surely Ahitub could not have been the descendent of both Eleazar and Ithamar? Could it be that the chroniclers we’re trying to legitimize the credentials of Zadok, while delegitimizing Abiathar?

The genealogy of Abiathar to Ithamar (as far as I could gather from various scriptures).

1 Samuel 4:11, 22:20, 14:3
Ithamar > ....? Eli > Hophni + Phinehas > daughter > Ichabod + Ahijah > Ahitub > Ahimelech > Abiathar > Johnathan

The genealogy of Zadok from Eleazer

According to 1 Chronicles 6 the children of Amram: Aaron, and Moses, and Miriam were: Aaron > Nadab + Abihu + Ithamar + Eleazar > Phinehas > Abishua > Bukki > Uzzi > Zerahiah > Meraioth > Amariah > Ahitub > Zadok > Ahimaaz

When Abiathar put Adonijah, David’s eldest son, on the throne, it was apposed by Zadok and Nathan who conspired with Bath-Sheba, to put Solomon on the throne. The coup succeeds and Abiathar falls into disrepute and is exiled by Solomon...The political revisionists, the chroniclers of Solomon, write Abiathar out of the genealogies in Chronicles or conveniently leave it out.

It is possible that they created the genealogy of Eleazer to Ahitub, to legitimize Zadok’s priestly line, which is of course at odds with Abiathar’s genealogy from Ahitub. Which explains why there is no genealogy from Ithamar to Abiathar . Read my study on the Bathsheba Conspiracy.

The 'two Abiathar' theory

1 Chronicles 24:1 The priestly office of Aaron continued through Eleazer and Ithamar.

1 Chronicles 24:3 From the lineage of Eleazar, David chose Zadok and his sixteen sons, and of the lineage Ithamar he chose Ahimelech and his eight sons, for the order of service in the house. When Solomon came to the throne, due to dubious circumstances, Ahimelech was banished and the revisionists got busy, resulting in the errors and contradictions.

Some apologists argue that there were two Ahimelechs and Abiathars. A good Abiatar and a bad one. That Ahimelech had Abiathar, who had Ahimelech who had Abiathar.

I don't see any support for that theory. First of all, according to Shemiah the scribe who wrote down the names of the priests for the order of service in David’s era, there were eight houses of priests descended from Ithamar....Saul massacred all of the priests of Ahimelech’s house, eighty five in total, only one escaped, that was Abiathar. We know from 2 Samuel that Abiathar had a son, who carried the ark with Zadok’s son, but his name was Jonathan, not Ahimelech. This is the same Ahimelech throughout the narrative, but for the slip up (son of Abiathar), why should this be a different Ahimelech to the one that has been so consistent in the narrative? Could be...is what I call theological gymnastics.

This whole argument is based on assumption with nothing to back it up, except the inconsistencies in scripture. The argument goes, “because the Bible is perfect, there has to be an explanation for the inconsistencies”, other than these errors are the result of political revisionism.

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    Hi Jack, welcome to BHSE! Please take the Site Tour to get a better feel for how the StackExchange format works and what kind of Questions and Answers are on-topic here. This is a great first answer, but could be improved by adding a bit of formatting to tidy it up and make it more accessible to readers. I've had a first attempt at this for you - please feel free to update it again as appropriate. Have a great day.
    – Steve can help
    Feb 28, 2020 at 13:41
  • 2 Samuel 8:17 doesn't seem to help your Chronicler theory.
    – user21676
    Feb 28, 2020 at 13:44
  • Can you elaborate on why 2 Samuel 8:17 doesn’t help my Chronicler story? Feb 28, 2020 at 17:40
  • The scribe associated with 2 Samuel 8:17 was Seraiah. The confusion arises here, it is recorded here that Zadok the son of Ahitub, and Ahimelech the son of Abiathar, were priests. Is it not possible that the names were accidentally switched around by Searaia? Feb 28, 2020 at 18:04

My conclusion is that Ahimelech's father's name was also Abiathar (as well as his son) and he was the "High" priest at that time.. according to 1 Chronicles 24:6, it says Ahmelech was the son of Abiathar

"And Shemaiah the son of Nethaneel the scribe, one of the Levites, wrote them before the king, and the princes, and Zadok the priest, and Ahimelech the son of Abiathar, and before the chief of the fathers of the priests and Levites: one principal household being taken for Eleazar, and one taken for Ithamar." - 1 Chronicles 24:6 KJV

Mark 2:26 did not a mistake because in mark 2:26 Abiathar is considered a "high" priest, Ahimelech was not a high priest, he was only a preist according to 1Sam 21:1. Therefore his father Abiathar was the "high" priest during that time, but was not mentioned until 1 Chronicles


In literal frameworks, the rule of unity says that apparent contradictions should each be accepted as true, with the confidence that the contradiction will be resolved in a higher unity.

Application of this rule gives us the Trinity in the face of the apparent contradiction that there is only one God, but the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are each God.

A corollary is that if a plausible answer exists that explains the apparent contradiction, it should be accepted as the 'higher unity'.

A higher unity is one where the mistakes which cause the apparent contradiction are resolved:

Reality - a mistaken concept of what is really real can produce contradictions. If eternity is timeless, and creation occurred in eternity, then there is no contradiction in the evidence of apparent long times required for light from distant stars to travel to earth, and the short time required for radiation halos in rock.

Understanding - Words are reusable symbols for a plethora of ideas. Their use produces ambiguity of meaning.

"The time" of Abiathar" is ambiguous. It does not state that Abiathar was high priest. Abiathar was the son of Ahimelech. The bread belonged to the priests and plausibly even belonged to Abiather. Certainly it was not unheard of for the high priest to have assistance in the performance of his duties, as Samuel was known to do for Eli.

Therefore, the solution is that Abiathar was assisting in the tabernacle when David approached Ahimelech. Ahimelech was uncomfortable even with the presence of David, but Abiathar was disposed to help him and since it was his bread, prevailed upon Ahimelech to give it to David. Since we presume that not all conversations are recorded exhaustively, it is not difficult to imagine a brief conversation taking place concerning the disposition of bread belonging to the priest to whom it had been given. Could an adopted son of a priest eat the bread? Abiathar later joined David and was appointed high priest by him.

The compromise was that they had been separate from women for three days. The grave of Christ separated him from the flesh for three days, after which, he was the High Priest. And through his adoption of us makes us a nation of priests. David's and his men were made to be priest's figuratively, by being separate from the flesh for three days.

Intentional 'mistake'

The first case of a mistaken name of a high priest occurs when Uzziah is called Azariah. The king as a type of Christ "did everything according to his father", "offered himself in the tabernacle as the burnt offering/sweet savor of offering/incense", "bore our sin/made leprous", "cast out of the camp", and then "became the high priest/was called by the name of the high priest".

Uzziah and Azariah represent Christ in the flesh and resurrection. Likewise Ahimelech and Abiathar represent Christ in the flesh and in resurrection. Ahimelech was put to death, and Abiathar ruled in his place as appointed by David.

Jesus used the same type of riddle that he found in scripture concerning Uzziah and Azariah (2 Kings 15:5-6). It was an intentional 'mistake' intended to point us to types of Christ buried in the riddles and apparent contradictions.

Ps 78:2 I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings [riddles] of old:

Pr 1:6 To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings [riddles].

  • @Jon Resolving apparent contradictions is a strong suit of SP, since it assumes that they are riddles. Heb 11:6 But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God [in the scriptures] must believe that he is [in the scriptures], and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him [in the scriptures].
    – Bob Jones
    Oct 29, 2011 at 15:27
  • 1
    -1: "Therefore, the solution is that Abiathar was assisting in the temple when David approached Ahimelech." The temple was build by David's son, Solomon. The answer to this question requires precision, not speculation. Oct 31, 2011 at 16:53
  • @Jon, are you targeting me or do you intend to rule out all 'plausible' answers to apparent contradictions as being out of line? Plausibility has been standard fare for addressing apparent contradictions for centuries.
    – Bob Jones
    Nov 1, 2011 at 0:06
  • 1
    I might be targeting you a bit. ;-) If this question were asked by a skeptic, such as Dr. Ehrman, your answer would be completely off target. The most probable solution to the apparent contradiction is that someone made a mistake. If the contradiction were within a book, I agree a plausible solution would be preferred over assuming the author didn't know what he was doing. But here, it's possible that Jesus, Mark or both screwed up the name of the high priest. After all, they are only human. Nov 1, 2011 at 4:39
  • 2
    Your hermeneutical presupposition is different from mine. I assume there is no contradiction but an intentional riddle since I find so many intentional riddles elsewhere. 42 generations vs 41, Yeshua vs Immanuel, The prophecy of the Nazarite, etc all tell me he is speaking in riddle, but tell you Matthew was error prone. I can document the riddles and their solutions. I expect it to be foreign to you since you are unfamiliar with practicing Remez and Drash. And certainly you have no experience with Sod. A true answer is not necessarily politically correct.
    – Bob Jones
    Nov 1, 2011 at 13:40

If The Holy Bible is inerrant then understanding what is found in Mark (and any other book) must be consistent with everything that is written:

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you. (John 14:26 NKJV)

Applying John means Mark correctly conveyed what Jesus actually said, and while Jesus spoke in Aramaic, the Holy Spirit inspired the words in Greek that accurately record what He said.1

Of the options listed in Daniel B Wallace’s study (jrdioko’s answer), there is one which permits the criteria of inerrancy and literal accuracy:

  • Dominical: Jesus himself made a mistake or was intentionally midrashic (i.e., he embellished the OT story to make his point).

Jesus did not make a mistake. He was intentionally midrashic to make the point He was Lord of the Sabbath and if He is Lord then He made the Sabbath for man.

First, the actual events must be correctly understood in the context Jesus uses. The example of David getting the showbread contains two authorities. One is King David over his men and the other is the high priest over the Bread of the Presence:

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 Samuel 21:6 NKJV)

There is nothing to suggest Jesus received or ate any of the grain. Rather, He permitted His disciples to do those things. Therefore the comparison Jesus is making is with that of Himself to the high priest who gave the Bread of the Presence to David for his men. The high priest allowed David to take the bread; Jesus allowed His disciples to pick the heads of grain.

However, the priest who gave David the bread was not Abiathar. It was his father Ahimelech:

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.” (1 Samuel 21:2-3 NKJV)

Now one of the sons of Ahimelech the son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled after David. (1 Samuel 22:20 NKJV)

When Jesus is seen as using a midrash approach to retell the story He has altered the original event to give Abiathar equal standing with his father, Ahimelech. When this is applied to Jesus in the current situation, the significance is that Jesus has equal standing with the Father.

By stating it was the son (not the father) who gave the bread, Jesus is saying it was the Son (not the Father) who permitted the disciples to pick and eat grain. By calling the son the high priest (not his father), Jesus is saying it is the Son who is the High Priest (not the Father). So it is the Son of Man (not God the Father) who is Lord even of the Sabbath and made the Sabbath for man.

There is no record of the Pharisees response to how Jesus used the Scriptures. However, they could have challenged His defense by pointing out that it was Ahimelech not Abiathar who gave David the bread. Had they done this Jesus could have responded with:

Then Jesus answered and said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner.” (John 5:19 NKJV)

Jesus would have concluded His midrash by making the point which is stated plainly in John. Essentially He is claiming equality with God which is a necessity if He is Lord of the Sabbath.

If inerrancy and literal accuracy is found in Mark, then the same standard must be used with Matthew where a similar event is recorded:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (12:1-8 NKJV)

The failure to record the name of the priest demands the conclusion Jesus was comparing Himself to Ahimelech. This is at odds with Mark. Therefore, while Matthew’s event has the appearance of being the same as Mark, inerrancy and literal accuracy demands they are seen as two different events. If that is the case then one must come before the other.

If the text is taken literally it includes information to show Matthew is describing the first event and Mark the second:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath(s) (σάββασιν). And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath! (σαββάτῳ)” (Matthew 12:1-2 NKJV)

Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath(s) (σάββασιν); and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath(s)? (σάββασιν)” (Mark 2:23-24 NKJV)

Both Matthew and Mark begin by using the plural Sabbaths: what is described takes place in the grainfields (plural) on the Sabbaths (plural). In Matthew the Pharisees question Jesus allowing His disciples to do what is not lawful on the Sabbath (singular); in Mark the Pharisees point out His disciples are doing what is not lawful on the Sabbaths (plural). Mark can be understood as describing an event that took place on a Sabbath after the one in Matthew.

Jesus first answer was to use the example of David receiving the bread from Ahimelech. He continued and cited the work of the priests on the Sabbath in the Temple and made the point that He is greater than the Temple. On a subsequent Sabbath He repeated the example of David receiving the bread but changed the priest from Ahimelech to Abiathar and omitted any reference to the Temple. Seeing the answers in this sequence enhances the midrash found in Mark.

Recognizing the events took place on two different Sabbaths can bring clarity to Luke who also describes a similar event:

Now it happened on the second Sabbath (σαββάτῳ) after the first that He went through the grainfields. And His disciples plucked the heads of grain and ate them, rubbing them in their hands. And some of the Pharisees said to them, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath(s)? (σάββασιν)” (Luke 6:1-2 NKJV)

The perplexing phrase, σαββάτῳ διαπορεύεσθαι can be understood as referring to the event in Matthew.

Luke begins by using a different method to describe more than one Sabbath. Instead of making the word plural which indicates Sabbaths in general he describes two consecutive Sabbaths. Then he uses the plural Sabbaths in the question from the Pharisees. Luke omits any reference to the high priest giving the bread; instead David is reporting as taking it:

But Jesus answering them said, “Have you not even read this, what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he went into the house of God, took and ate the showbread, and also gave some to those with him, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat?” And He said to them, “The Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.” (Luke 6:3-5 NKJV)

The omission of the role of the high priest removes the name and the conflict. Thus Luke can be seen as consistent with Mark or even adding a third Sabbath, one in between Matthew and Mark.

It should also be noted that Jesus statement that the bread went to others besides David is also at odds with the event described in 1 Samuel:

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?” (1 Samuel 21:1 NKJV)

Therefore either Jesus is using midrash placing David’s men in the original event in order to make the Pharisees question more relevant to Jesus role as the high priest or there was a second OT event (not recorded) where David was with his men and took the bread (all of the priests having been killed).

Thus Bart Ehrman and others who see the New Testament as infected with glosses and scribal errors can find the answers to their questions by rigorous application of the principles of inerrancy and literal accuracy.

1. Genesis 11 states the different languages are the work of the LORD and all Scripture is given by inspiration of God (2 Timothy 3:16). Taken literally it follows that the Greek language is a work of God to accurately convey what was spoken by Jesus.


"when Abiathar was high priest" is absent from manuscripts a b d e ff2 h i r t D W + and the Sinaiatic Syriac. There is no obvious reason for its accidental omission and scribes and readers then did not analyse the gospels with the scholarly attention devoted to them now, and if some reader was so attentive as to remember it contradicted the Old Testament, it is not very likely he would have bothered about something making not the slightest difference to Jesus' message. Hence the probability is that it is the work of an unknown interpolator.

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