This is an interesting question that many Bible readers have pondered. In Mark 2:26, Jesus refers to Abiathar as the high priest when David entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence. However, 1 Samuel 21 indicates that Ahimelech was the high priest at that time, not Abiathar.
There are a few possible explanations for this apparent discrepancy:
1. Jesus is referring to the broader high priestly line
Some scholars suggest that Jesus is not naming the specific high priest, but rather referring to the high priestly line that Abiathar belonged to. After Ahimelech was killed (1 Samuel 22), his son Abiathar took over as high priest. So by referring to Abiathar, Jesus may have simply been citing the larger high priestly office that both men held consecutively.
This view understands Jesus’ words as being intentionally general rather than a mistake. Jesus’ point was simply that David received the bread from the high priest at that time, without concern for which particular high priest it was.
2. “In the days of Abiathar” can mean during his lifetime
Another possible explanation is that the phrase “in the days of Abiathar” may simply mean during the lifetime of Abiathar. Abiathar was alive and active during the time period when David entered the tabernacle and ate the bread. So Jesus could be referring to that broader timeframe of Abiathar’s life.
This view takes Jesus’ words in a straightforward chronological sense. While Ahimelech was the actual high priest when the incident took place, Abiathar was alive and ministering alongside his father at the tabernacle during the same general time period.
3. Abiathar was acting high priest
Some argue that while Ahimelech held the official office of high priest, his son Abiathar may have been functioning in an acting or deputy high priest capacity. During David’s encounter, Abiathar could have been the one that actually gave the bread to David, explaining Jesus’ reference.
This proposes that while the office legally belonged to Ahimelech, Abiathar was the de facto high priest on duty during this specific event. So Jesus accurately named the acting functional high priest at that moment in 1 Samuel 21.
4. The high priestly line is named after Abiathar
Another suggestion is that the high priestly line may have been commonly named after Abiathar, even though he wasn’t technically high priest until after Ahimelech’s death. Just as we may name a presidential administration after the president, even though other officials actually served in it.
This view suggests Jesus is simply using the common designation for that era of priesthood. Even though Ahimelech was high priest, it could have been colloquially called “Abiathar’s high priesthood” since he was part of the same priestly line.
5. Copyist error in the Gospel text
Many scholars also point out the possibility of a simple copyist error or mistake being introduced into the Gospel text of Mark during the process of transmission. A scribe may have accidentally written down Abiathar instead of Ahimelech while copying Mark. If so, the error was then propagated to later copies.
This view acknowledges that Mark 2:26 as we have it contains a factual mistake, nothing more. The original text likely did name Ahimelech, but an early copyist wrote the wrong name by accident. As we do not have the original manuscripts, it is difficult to verify.
6. Jesus is using a historical convention
One explanation favored by some is that Jesus is referring to Abiathar according to a historical convention used by later rabbis. Abiathar was the more famous high priest, and thus his name was used for the era.
Just as we might refer to presidential eras by the most famous individual (i.e. the Lincoln administration), Jewish teachers would sometimes name priestly eras after well-known figures. Since Abiathar was a more prominent high priest, his name was used for that general period.
This convention explained Jesus using the name Abiathar for the time when Ahimelech was technically high priest, since Abiathar better represented that priestly era.
7. Jesus is affirming Abiathar’s record
A complimentary explanation often given is that Jesus is intentionally affirming Abiathar’s faithfulness in recording this event. Although Ahimelech was the one who gave David the bread, Abiathar is the one who went on to record the incident according to 1 Samuel 21.
By mentioning Abiathar, Jesus is implicitly affirming the accuracy and faithfulness of Abiathar’s record of these events. If this is the case, it sheds further positive light on Jesus’ high view of Scripture.
8. Combined priestly authority
Given that Ahimelech and Abiathar worked side by side, some argue that they jointly held high priestly authority together. Though Ahimelech was the official high priest, Abiathar carried significant priestly authority as well under his father.
From this angle, Jesus can accurately reference either man as exercising the high priestly prerogative to give David the bread. It was a shared authority between both father and son.
9. Later association doctrine
Some commentators argue that Jesus is referring to a well-known Jewish doctrine of “later association” that was commonly used in ancient rabbinic teaching. This doctrine attributed an event to a later figure associated with it, even if they weren’t originally involved.
The reasoning was that the later figure validated and accepted the event as part of their legacy. So referring to them in connection with the event was Seen as a valid teaching technique.
If Jesus had this doctrine in mind, his mention of Abiathar would make sense as a way to connect David’s experience with a high priest that affirmed its authority.
10. Priority of theme over detail
One recurring argument is that Jesus’ main point about David’s eating of the consecrated bread takes priority over precision in the secondary detail of which exact high priest was involved. His theme centered on justification through need, not clerical authority.
From this perspective, Jesus was emphasizing the conceptual meaning of the story rather than the minutia of the historical details. As such, his use of Abiathar is inconsequential to the thematic point He wanted to get across.
As with many apparent Bible difficulties, there are a variety of plausible explanations. The above ten views represent some of the main interpretive options that have been proposed by scholars, each of which have merit and textual support. Often times, more than one solution could feasibly apply in a complementary way.
In the end, Jesus as the divine Son of God speaking authoritatively in the Gospel of Mark would not have simply made an obvious mistake or false statement about the Old Testament priesthood. Reasonable explanations for his reference to Abiathar exist.
For the sincere reader of Scripture, this issue should not be cause for confusion but rather an opportunity to examine the rich interpretive traditions that have been cultivated around this textual puzzle over the centuries.
With careful study and an open mind, we can gain insight into profound truths about Scripture, its authority, transmission, intended purposes and legitimate interpretation that deepen our confidence in God’s Word rather than detracting from it.