Which priest gave David the bread of the Presence to eat, Abiathar or Ahimelech?

Posted on Jan.22, 2009. Filed in 1 Samuel, Mark. Average rating: 3.6 / 10 (Rate It).

Jesus was a controversial figure, often challenged by the religious leaders of his time. One dispute concerned his disciples’ failure to observe the sabbath by picking grain as they passed through a corn-field. When the Pharisees pointed out this transgression, Jesus justified his disciples’ behaviour by citing the example of David transgressing the rule that only the priests could eat the bread of the Presence. Unfortunately, Jesus asserted that the priest who gave the bread to David was Abiathar, when actually it was Ahimelech.

Mark reports the dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees as follows:

One sabbath he [Jesus] was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said 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 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.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’ [Mark 2:23-28 (NRSV)]

The incident that Jesus refers to here is recorded in 1 Samuel, but the priest there is not Abiathar but his father, Ahimelech.

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)]

So which priest gave David the bread of the Presence to eat, Abiathar or Ahimelech? If it was Ahimelech then either Jesus got it wrong or Mark 2:26 contains an error. If it was Abiathar then 1 Samuel 21:1-2 contains two errors.

Interestingly, the parallels to Mark in Matthew and Luke omit the reference to Abiathar:

He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 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.’ [Matthew 12:3-4 (NRSV)]

Jesus answered, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 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?’ [Luke 6:3-4 (NRSV)]

Perhaps Matthew and Luke spotted the error and removed it.

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1

    The various alternative translations all seem feasible enough.

    There may be a problem with “in the presence of Abiathar the high priest”: Jesus couldn’t have expected the Pharisees to have read about this because Abiathar isn’t mentioned in the passage. Perhaps, though, Jesus’ “Have you not read…” just refers to the bit about David eating the bread, not the bit about Abiathar.

    In any case, with various tenable options available, I think that inerrantists can deal with this apparent error without saying anything particularly implausible. It isn’t a big problem for inerrancy.

  2. 2

    Re: Agabus – it’s Acts 11:28.

    I don’t agree that the alternatives are very plausible. Anyone in Jesus’ position discussing the story would want to mention Ahimilech, not Abiathar.

  3. 3

    So your point isn’t that there’s anything wrong with the alternative translations, just that Jesus was less likely to say those things than “when Abiathar was high priest”, making that the most plausible reading of his words?

    I can see that carrying some weight, but not as being conclusive.

    Re Acts: Good catch; I’ve corrected the citation.

  4. 4

    No, my point is that (in my opinion) he would surely have said Ahimelech, not Abiathar, since it’s Ahimelech that’s relevant to the story.

  5. 5

    Perhaps I can put it a different way…

    Imagine that you know the Old Testament by heart, but you know nothing of the New Testament. If I told you that Jesus mentioned the bread incident, and that while doing so he also mentioned a high priest, you would surely expect (with about 99% confidence) that it would be Ahimelech.

    (That is, assuming he really is infallible in his own right.)

  6. 6

    It sounds as though we’re looking at two different claims of error here:

    My question is whether 1 Samuel shows that Jesus was wrong when he said “epi Abiathar”; I’m asking which priest was involved.

    It sounds like your question is whether 1 Samuel shows that Mark is wrong when he says that Jesus said “epi Abiathar”; you’re asking which priest Jesus said was involved.

    I’ll have a think about which is the better question to ask; I can see a case for each.

  7. 7

    I’m not sure that’s worth worrying about. There are three possibilities:

    1. Jesus deliberately said Abiathar even knowing Ahimelech was the priest.
    2. Jesus mistakenly said Abiathar.
    3. Mark wrongly recorded Jesus as saying Abiathar.

    As I’ve indicated, I feel 1 is unlikely. I wouldn’t really want to choose between the otiher two, though I would personally lean towards 3.

  8. 8

    It is plausible for Jesus to have said that the bread incident occurred during the time of Abiathar (provided that the Greek really does allow that). This is because, as the sole survivor of Saul’s massacre and David’s long-time ally, Abiathar may have been seen as the more central figure of the story.

    Here is an analogy.

    I might use the phrase “during Reagan’s time”. Because of his role as President, that would usually be taken to mean “during Reagan’s Presidency”. And there is nothing wrong with that. Suppose that I say “During Reagan’s time, Iran took American citizens hostage.” I’m _technically_ correct…Reagan was alive when the hostages were taken. But in most cases, we would really have expected me to say “During Carter’s time…”.

    However, there are some cases where I could use the phrase “during Reagan’s time” and it would not mean “during Reagan’s presidency” and everyone would know that. Were I to say “During Reagan’s time the Soviet Union collapsed”, no one would feel the need to correct me. This is so, even though the Soviet Union collapsed during Bush 41’s presidency.


    Reagan is seen as the most central figure in that collapse. Indeed, Reagan is so tightly connected to the Soviet Union’s collapse that were I to say “During Bush’s time, the Soviet Union collapsed”, some people might feel the need to correct me by saying something like “Well, during Bush’s _presidency_ it collapsed”.

    Abiathar, not Ahimilech, is seen as David’s major priestly ally. It makes sense for Jesus to say that the bread incident occurred during his time. For all we know, it might have sounded strange to Jesus’ first century hearers for him to say anything else.

  9. 9

    Whoa! I just noticed this. And I don’t know why it eluded me before. Does the I Samuel passage really just say “Ahimilech the priest” rather than “Ahimilech the HIGH priest”?

    Isn’t it possible that David entered the temple when Abiathar was HIGH priest, but that the priest that served him was not the high priest, but another priest, Ahimilech, who was also the father of the high priest?

    You might expect the older priest to have the higher rank. But it is not always so. Caiaphas was high priest when Jesus was crucified, but his father-in-law Annas was also alive at the time. Annas had himself been high priest in the past but continued to be priest after he stepped down from the high priesthood.

    It is conceivable that Ahimilech was also once the high priest, but had stepped down (though that is not necessary at all). In any event the event took place while Ahimilech was a priest and his son, Abiathar, was high priest.

    Obviously, there may be supporting passages regarding what terms in office Ahimilech and Abiathar held that undercut this harmonization. But nothing in these two passages is contradictory in the least.

  10. 10

    I believe that there’s an argument that there was no “high priest” at the time of Ahimelech and Abiathar, and that Jesus’ reference is anachronistic (and therefore an error). I was saving this for a later post, though, and haven’t yet looked into it.

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