Abiathar and Ahimelech: Reconciling 1 Samuel 21:1-6 and Mark 2:26

A twelve tribes of Israel breastplate, worn by the high priests. Credit: Pinterest

Dr. Bart Ehrman, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of the North Carolina at Chapel Hill (he has been for at least a decade now) and I have some history. I don’t mean that I’ve dated him, or that I’m related to him or was a friend of his back in high school or a college acquaintance, but that I was a student of his. Yes — I was a student of Dr. Ehrman’s back at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill back in the Spring of 2003 in his New Testament Literature class.

I took his class as part of an English Link setup where students could pursue an English course but write on a favorite subject of theirs. Students who signed up for the English Link course would have to sign up for two classes (English and another class, the options provided by the University), but all the student’s English courses would pertain to the subject matter of that second class. Since I took New Testament Lit, all my English papers were on the New Testament.

So, with that said, I have read a good bit of Professor Ehrman’s work — and I do respect him as one of the most knowledgeable textual critics worldwide that I’ve ever encountered. So, there is great honor in me responding here to someone I greatly respect, a former university professor of mine.

I’ve spent the last two weeks (over that now) responding to the claims of Richard Dawkins in his book, The God Delusion. Now, after responding to that book in what seemed to be a million ways, I’m prepared to move forward into some of what I started with Dawkins: defending the Gospels (including the two Jesus genealogies).

Responding to Dr. Ehrman will be a new series, to some extent, since Ehrman’s arguments focus more on the New Testament manuscripts than reasoning for the existence of God.

A turning point came in my second semester, in a course I was taking with a much revered and pious professor named Cullen Story. The course was on the exegesis of the Gospel of Mark, at the time (and still) my favorite Gospel. For this course we needed to be able to read the Gospel of Mark completely in Greek (I memorized the entire Greek vocabulary of the Gospel the week before the semester began); we were to keep an exegetical notebook on our reflections on the interpretation of key passages; we discussed problems in the interpretation of the text; and we had to write a final term paper on an interpretive crux of our own choosing.

I chose a passage in Mark 2, where Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees because his disciples had been walking through a grain field, eating the grain on the Sabbath. Jesus wants to show the Pharisees that “Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath” and so reminds them of what the great King David had done when he and his men were hungry, how they went into the Temple “when Abiathar was the high priest” and ate the show bread, which was only for the priests to eat. One of the well-known problems of the passage is that when one looks at the Old Testament passage that Jesus is citing (1 Sam 21:1-6), it turns out that David did this not when Abiathar was the high priest, but, in fact, when Abiathar’s father Ahimelech was. In other words, this is one of those passages that have been pointed to in order to show that the Bible is not inerrant at all but contains mistakes.

In my paper for Professor Story, I developed a long and complicated argument to the effect that even though Mark indicates this happened “when Abiathar was the high priest,” it doesn’t really mean that Abiathar was the high priest, but that the event took place in the part of the scriptural text that has Abiathar as one of the main characters. My argument was based on the meaning of the Greek words involved and was a bit convoluted. I was pretty sure Professor Story would appreciate the argument, since I knew him as a good Christian scholar who obviously (like me) would never think there could be anything like a genuine error in the Bible. But at the end of my paper he made a simple one-line comment that for some reason went straight through me. He wrote: “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.” (Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. New York: HarperCollins, December 2008, pp. 8-9)

In order to look at this in a clearer light, let’s read the texts of 1 Samuel 21:1-6 and Mark 2:23-27 :

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 Samuel 21:1-6)

And now, Mark 2:23-27:

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

25 But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him:26 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?”

27 And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. 28 Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:23-27)

In 1 Samuel 21:1-6, “Ahimelech” is “the priest”; in Mark 2:23-27, “Abiathar” is “the high priest.” Ehrman wants to claim that these statements are contradictions, but they’re not. The reason? One is priest, and one is high priest. Believe it or not, the position of high priest has always been distinguished from that of an ordinary priest. There are many ordinary priests (though being a priest was extraordinary), but there were fewer high priests — and it’s likely that only one high priest served each year.

“Priest” and “high priest” aren’t the same thing, don’t mean the same thing, and are two positions that could be occupied by two different people. When David goes into the temple and eats the showbread in 1 Samuel 21, Ahimelech is the priest who gives it to him; and yet, Abiathar could have very well been high priest at the same time. In other words, two different names are mentioned because of two different offices (one was a priest, the other was high priest over all other priests; yes, there were multiple priests serving during the time of David).

Ahimelech and Abiathar were father and son

The priest offering sacrifices around the altar of the tabernacle. Image Credit: Paleo-Orthodoxy

There is an even better solution to what appears to be a contradiction: Ahimelech and Abiathar were father and son. The events of 1 Samuel 22 tell all:

When Saul heard that David and the men who were with him had been discovered—now Saul was staying in Gibeah under a tamarisk tree in Ramah, with his spear in his hand, and all his servants standing about him— then Saul said to his servants who stood about him, “Hear now, you Benjamites! Will the son of Jesse give every one of you fields and vineyards, and make you all captains of thousands and captains of hundreds? All of you have conspired against me, and there is no one who reveals to me that my son has made a covenant with the son of Jesse; and there is not one of you who is sorry for me or reveals to me that my son has stirred up my servant against me, to lie in wait, as it is this day.”

Then answered Doeg the Edomite, who was set over the servants of Saul, and said, “I saw the son of Jesse going to Nob, to Ahimelech the son of Ahitub. 10 And he inquired of the Lord for him, gave him provisions, and gave him the sword of Goliath the Philistine.”

11 So the king sent to call Ahimelech the priest, the son of Ahitub, and all his father’s house, the priests who were in Nob. And they all came to the king. 12 And Saul said, “Hear now, son of Ahitub!”

He answered, “Here I am, my lord.”

13 Then Saul said to him, “Why have you conspired against me, you and the son of Jesse, in that you have given him bread and a sword, and have inquired of God for him, that he should rise against me, to lie in wait, as it is this day?”

14 So Ahimelech answered the king and said, “And who among all your servants is as faithful as David, who is the king’s son-in-law, who goes at your bidding, and is honorable in your house? 15 Did I then begin to inquire of God for him? Far be it from me! Let not the king impute anything to his servant, or to any in the house of my father. For your servant knew nothing of all this, little or much.”

16 And the king said, “You shall surely die, Ahimelech, you and all your father’s house!” 17 Then the king said to the guards who stood about him, “Turn and kill the priests of the Lord, because their hand also is with David, and because they knew when he fled and did not tell it to me.” But the servants of the king would not lift their hands to strike the priests of the Lord18 And the king said to Doeg, “You turn and kill the priests!” So Doeg the Edomite turned and struck the priests, and killed on that day eighty-five men who wore a linen ephod. 19 Also Nob, the city of the priests, he struck with the edge of the sword, both men and women, children and nursing infants, oxen and donkeys and sheep—with the edge of the sword.

20 Now one of the sons of Ahimelech the son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled after David. 21 And Abiathar told David that Saul had killed the Lord’s priests. 22 So David said to Abiathar, “I knew that day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, that he would surely tell Saul. I have caused the death of all the persons of your father’s house. 23 Stay with me; do not fear. For he who seeks my life seeks your life, but with me you shall be safe.” (1 Samuel 22:6-23)

Ahimelech was serving as priest in 1 Samuel 21 when he gives David the showbread, but here in 1 Samuel 22 (the following chapter), Saul has been informed that the priest had given bread and the sword by which David killed Goliath to David; Saul tells the men around him to kill the priests, including Ahimelech (Saul specifically threatens Ahimelech). While Doeg the Edomite kills the priests and massacres the citizens of Nob, one son of Ahimelech, Abiathar, escapes to David.

The next thing we know? Abiathar is being called “priest,” without any explicit announcement as to when David made him priest:

Then they told David, saying, “Look, the Philistines are fighting against Keilah, and they are robbing the threshing floors.”

Therefore David inquired of the Lord, saying, “Shall I go and attack these Philistines?”

And the Lord said to David, “Go and attack the Philistines, and save Keilah.”

But David’s men said to him, “Look, we are afraid here in Judah. How much more then if we go to Keilah against the armies of the Philistines?” Then David inquired of the Lord once again.

And the Lord answered him and said, “Arise, go down to Keilah. For I will deliver the Philistines into your hand.” And David and his men went to Keilah and fought with the Philistines, struck them with a mighty blow, and took away their livestock. So David saved the inhabitants of Keilah.

Now it happened, when Abiathar the son of Ahimelech fled to David at Keilah, that he went down with an ephod in his hand.

And Saul was told that David had gone to Keilah. So Saul said, “God has delivered him into my hand, for he has shut himself in by entering a town that has gates and bars.” Then Saul called all the people together for war, to go down to Keilah to besiege David and his men.

When David knew that Saul plotted evil against him, he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod here.” (1 Samuel 23:1-9)

Abiathar appears to be priest, and it’s assumed he is because he brings the ephod to David at Keilah (only the priests and kings could possess the ephod). We don’t read that Abiathar was a priest before his father (Ahimelech’s) death, but it doesn’t matter. Mark 2:26 says that it was “in the days of Abiathar the high priest” when Ahimelech served David bread, and this could mean that Abiathar, Ahimelech’s son, was already in place as a priest before his father was killed.

He could’ve been a priest who escaped death and the slaughtering of Nob (where he himself was high priest) to come to David and swear allegiance to him. Ahimelech and Abiathar were father and son, and it would make sense for either Abiathar to be high priest before his father’s death (Ahimelech may have been up in age and unable to fulfill the obligations of high priest) or be made priest after his father’s death.


Image Credit: sapphirethroneministries

As we’ve seen with the texts of 1 Samuel 21 and Mark 2, Ahimelech and Abiathar were father and son, so 1 Samuel 21 quoting Ahimelech and Mark 2 quoting “Abiathar the high priest” aren’t necessarily contradictory claims. In fact, when one examines 1 Samuel 22 and 1 Samuel 23 and sees that Saul kills Ahimelech and Abiathar escapes to David where he is then identified as “priest,” it’s easy to see that the Mark 2 claim capitalizes on Abiathar’s reign instead of identifying Ahimelech who was noted as a priest, not a “high priest.”

The writers of Scripture, even in the Old Testament, were approximators (they rounded off to the number “90” rather than give the number “94,” for example), but that doesn’t make them contradictory in their claims. There’s only 1 chapter between Ahimelech serving David showbread and Saul killing Ahimelech because of his loyalty to David. We can surmise it was likely a day, two, or even three days that transpired between the events of 1 Samuel 21 and 1 Samuel 22, so claiming “Ahimelech” or “Abiathar” wasn’t a matter of contradiction but a matter of historical accuracy.

With that said, we can firmly put the idea that 1 Samuel 21:1-6 and Mark 2:23-27 contradict to rest.