IS “ABIATHAR” A MISTAKE IN MARK 2:26?
by Shawn Brasseaux
The Bible says in 1 Samuel chapter 21: “ Then came David to Nob to Ahimelech the priest: and Ahimelech was afraid at the meeting of David, and said unto him, Why art thou alone, and no man with thee?  And David said unto Ahimelech the priest, The king hath commanded me a business, and hath said unto me, Let no man know any thing of the business whereabout I send thee, and what I have commanded thee: and I have appointed my servants to such and such a place.  Now therefore what is under thine hand? give me five loaves of bread in mine hand, or what there is present.
“ And the priest answered David, and said, There is no common bread under mine hand, but there is hallowed bread; if the young men have kept themselves at least from women.  And David answered the priest, and said unto him, Of a truth women have been kept from us about these three days, since I came out, and the vessels of the young men are holy, and the bread is in a manner common, yea, though it were sanctified this day in the vessel.  So the priest gave him hallowed bread: for there was no bread there but the shewbread, that was taken from before the LORD, to put hot bread in the day when it was taken away.”
About 1,000 years later, Christ Jesus comments in Mark chapter 2: “ And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him?  How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him?” It certainly seems bizarre that Jesus spoke of a High Priest named “Abiathar” instead of the High Priest Ahimelech. Was He mistaken? No. (By the way, the parallel passages of Matthew 12:3-4 and Luke 6:3-4 do not name any priest. Variations in the Bible are a mark of strength not weakness. There is no “conspiracy” among its writers to try to make everything the same. Verbatim language would be grounds for suspicion.)
Let us first establish the link between Ahimelech and Abiathar. Ahimelech was High Priest at the time of 1 Samuel chapter 21 (our opening passage). Abiathar was one of Ahimelech’s sons. Read chapter 22, especially verses 9-23 (cf. 21:7). Once King Saul hears of Ahimelech helping David, Saul mercilessly executes Ahimelech and all his priestly brethren and sons in Nob! “And one of the sons of Ahimelech the son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped, and fled after David” (1 Samuel 22:20). Abiathar survives the genocide and becomes an ally of David.
After David becomes King of Judah, he appoints Abiathar as High Priest. “And David said to Abiathar the priest, Ahimelech’s son, I pray thee, bring me hither the ephod. And Abiathar brought thither the ephod to David” (1 Samuel 30:7). “And David called for Zadok and Abiathar the priests, and for the Levites, for Uriel, Asaiah, and Joel, Shemaiah, and Eliel, and Amminadab” (1 Chronicles 15:11). “And unto Abiathar the priest said the king [Solomon], Get thee to Anathoth, unto thine own fields; for thou art worthy of death: but I will not at this time put thee to death, because thou barest the ark of the LORD God before David my father, and because thou hast been afflicted in all wherein my father was afflicted” (1 Kings 2:26).
The Bible contains no error in Mark 2:26. When Jesus called Abiathar “high priest” here, it is not to say that He thought Abiathar was High Priest at the time of 1 Samuel chapter 21. Abiathar was certainly not High Priest yet. Still, David eventually appointed Abiathar to be High Priest, and this connection is likely what Jesus is underscoring. It is no different from us saying, “United States President George Washington was born and grew up in Virginia.” Of course, we are not implying Washington was president as a newborn infant (no, he was 57 years old when he assumed the presidency!). We are commenting in retrospect, Washington having already served as president. In Mark 2:26, Jesus is speaking of Abiathar in the sense of review: Abiathar has already functioned as High Priest (and that was during David’s reign, David and Christ closely associated). “In the days of Abiathar the high priest” is best understood as “in the lifetime of Abiathar the high priest” (true) as opposed to “when Abiathar was high priest” (erroneous, factually incorrect—which the Bible never said anyway).