HOUSMAIL HM#111                                                                                                                               11 Sept 2003


The Jews accused the disciples of breaking the law, when passing through the fields one Sabbath day, they casually plucked and ate some heads of grain. (Matt 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-26-28; Luke 6:1-5) In answer to this accusation, Jesus referred to the incident when David was fleeing from Saul, and came to Nob, to "Ahimelech the priest" who he asked for food. (1 Sam 21:1-6) The priest had nothing else to offer except the specially consecrated shewbread which was reserved for eating in the tabernacle, only by the priests on duty. (Levit 24:5-9) Ahimelech obviously regarded feeding the hungry as a priority over-riding other laws! So he gave the bread to David. (and later paid for it with his life when King Saul discovered what he had done)

Our problem is that in Mark, Jesus says that the incident occurred "in the days of Abiathar the High Priest" . Ahimelech is not mentioned. (Matthew and Luke do not name a Priest at all.) However the OT source says that it was Ahimelech who gave the bread to David! And Abiathar is identified as Ahimelech's son.

Jewish Anti-Missionaries seize on this as an example of CONTRADICTION, which they claim should be regarded as invalidating the New Testament. And they allege that if Jesus could make such an obvious mistake, then He could NOT be the Messiah!

So how do we reconcile this "discrepancy"?

Did Jesus get it wrong?

The role of priesthood and High priest was reserved for Aaron and his sons and their descendants as a "perpetual priesthood". (Exod 40:30-15)

The "bread of the Presence" which David ate was the "consecrated bread", which was kept at the door of the Tabernacle (Exod 29:32 RSV) and was legally reserved to be eaten only by priests. (Exod 29:33-34) It was to be made fresh daily. Any left over to the next morning was to be burned. On the face of it, it was completely illegal for Ahimelech to give it to David!

From later genealogies (1 Chron 6) we learn that Ahitub, the father of Ahimelech, and grandfather of Abiathar, was a direct descendant in the blood line of Aaron and his son Eleazar. From this we can be certain beyond reasonable doubt, that Ahimelech the son of Ahitub, and his son Abiathar, would have been the high priestly family of the day.

Not much is known about the movements of the Tabernacle after the Israelites conquered the land when it was set up at Shiloh. (Josh 18:1) However, by the time of Saul, it appears to have been re-located to Nob. This is not stated in so many words, but we may safely infer it from several clues. e.g. One of the high priest's "badges of office", a garment which was called the "ephod", was kept there. The "shewbread" (Exodus 25:30) was kept there. The priestly family resided there.

When Saul summoned Ahimelech and his family from Nob to Gibeah * , and then murdered them for their assistance given to David, Abiathar alone escaped, with the ephod in His possession.

* Several commentaries consulted differ about the precise locations of the two, but the consensus indicates that they were a few hours walk apart.
The most likely reason for Abiathar's escape would have been the requirement of the Law for some priests to remain "at home" to maintain a 24 hour a day priestly presence in the Tabernacle. Despite Saul's demand for them to present themselves, they could not all go and leave the Tabernacle unattended. Saul's information from Doeg named Ahimelech as the one who had given David assistance. So Saul's murderous rage was directed principally at Ahimelech. It was "Ahimelech and his father's house" who were required to present themselves to Saul. But it would have been understood, even by Saul, that the law required that the Tabernacle could not be left without any priests at all, to attend to the constant ritual. It is more than reasonable to conclude that this number must have included Abiathar -- especially if, as suggested below, he (not Ahimelech) was already officiating in the role of High Priest.
Far fetched? Not at all! When Abiathar fled to David after the murder of the other priests, he took an ephod with him. (1 Sam 23:6) Of course all priests wore an "ordinary" linen ephod. (1 Sam23:18) However, from the way it is mentioned and later used, it seems that David regarded Abiathar's ephod as the special High Priest's garment. (1 Sam 23:9) . If Ahimelech was still occupying the office of High Priest, why was he not wearing this special robe when he was summoned to go to Saul? (or at least carrying it with him?) Why did Abiathar have it? We suggest here that most likely, it was because he was probably wearing it in his official duties, back at the Tabernacle, when his father and the 84 other priests were murdered by Saul!


Yes it would be quite possible! In fact there were several provisions in the Law of Moses, which could have made it a legal necessity! e.g. Ahimelech might have become aged, and too frail for some of the more physically and mentally demanding duties of the High priest. Or he might have suffered some accident resulting in one or other of the physical deformities which would have prevented him from entering the Tabernacle itself. (Levit 21:17-23) However this would still have allowed him access to the outer area where he could perform other duties, and eat the consecrated bread, or in this case, give it to David.

Of course, these suggestions are "speculative" -- but the fact remains that if for any reason Ahimelech had become incapable or disqualified, Abiathar would have been the next in line to take over the duties.

Whatever the circumstances, we do know that Abiathar already had the custody of a High Priest's Ephod when he fled to David. And this may well be the reason why Jesus so positively and authoritatively identified him as THE High Priest at the time of this incident. BOTH things could be true. Abiathar could have been High Priest already -- but it was his father Ahimelech, who actually gave the bread to David.


Of course, in the absence of totally positive Scripture this might well be dismissed by determined unbelievers, as just one more of the several speculative solutions which have been offered by Christian apologists from time to time. (Some of these are far too "stretched" to rate a mention here. Others include such things as "copyist errors".) However this one does fit the facts remarkably well. It should not surprise us that Jesus chose to interpret them this way when He identified Abiathar (not Ahimelech) as the High Priest at the time.
Of course, we are dealing in a realm where the Bible is (almost) silent. At the very best, in the 21st century, any of these answers must remain in the realm of "informed speculation".

What can be shown as fact, is that for those who search for God with all their heart, (Jer 29:13) the claims of Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah are beyond dispute. Not the least of these "proofs" is that He is risen from the dead and alive today, seated in heaven at the right hand of God, just as the OT prophecy said . (Psalm 110:1) THAT is demonstrated by God's countless answers to prayers made "in the name of Jesus". For TRUE disciples THAT is a daily experience!

If Jesus is not alive, then God's answers to those prayers would be a lie!


Jews and Christians alike should know that a sheep can be lifted from a ditch on the Sabbath, to alleviate animal suffering, (Matt 12:11) and that the same applies to healing suffering humans on the Sabbath! And those who know that food already prepared in advance, can be eaten on the Sabbath without breaking the law, (Exod 16:22-30) will know also that there was in fact no breach of the Law by the disciples in this incident! The priority of genuine human need overrides all such "religious ritual laws"!
More to the point -- For those of us who already know beyond question, that Jesus is risen from the dead, and therefore confirmed by God as the prophesied Messiah, (Rom 1:3-6) it is much more reasonable to assume that He got it right , than to receive ill informed accusations from unbelieving Jewish Anti-Missionaries, that He was so seriously mistaken about the facts!