Mark 2:26 and Abiathar
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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 showbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him?

The claim is made that Abiathar was not high priest when David did this; David was before Ahimelech.

The initial and simple answer notes that the verse in Mark says that this event took place "in the time of" Abiathar the high priest, which is not the same thing as saying that he was the one involved in the episode in question. This remains essentially correct but requires more detail.

To begin, the description of Abiathar as "high priest" is not titular. Neither Ahimelech nor Abiathar are ever given the title in the OT, though it is clear that Abiathar served as a leading priest (along with Zadok) and Ahimelech may have ranked highly as well.

The word for "high priest" is archiereus, a combination of hiereus, or priest, and arche, a word most often meaning "beginning" but also meaning supreme in rank or order.

Maurice Casey, in his book Aramaic Sources of Mark's Gospel, sees behind this language an Aramaic description that for us would be too literally rendered in Greek. It does not mean Abiathar was "high priest" but indicates that he was a great priest, a renowned priest.

That much is obviously true. Abiathar served David for the entirety of his reign of 40 years and had the privilege, along with Zadok, of carrying the Ark of the Covenant, the most sacred Jewish religious object. As a renowned priest, it is expected that in his days, the Law would be correctly observed [Casey, 151] and his name would invoke the honoring of the Law.

Jesus mentions Abiathar in order to say, in effect, "In the time of Abiathar, who as a renowned priest was a real stickler for the Law, and in whose days we would expect the Law to be followed, David and his friends were allowed to do this; yet, now you say that we can't do something similar?” Are you a better judge of the Law than Abiathar and his contemporaries were?"

Bringing Abiathar into the picture -- and his composite record of service in the entirety of the OT, by implication -- was therefore a subtle polemic against the Pharisees' authority.

Some choose to read the preposition (epi)as being able to mean "before" or "to": "The statement could, in fact, be seen as a usage that conveyed both the sense of appearance before an authority figure and an appearance in a legal situation, because the high priest would have been someone familiar with the legalities of letting a nonpriest eat the showbread." But no commentary takes epi here to mean physical location. The Translator's Handbook to Mark's Gospel (Brill, 1961) indicates that epi with the genitive makes this a "time" delineation [100].

Of 17 commentaries on Mark that I checked, ranging variably in date and ideological slant, all but one opted to see epi as meaning either "when" or "in the days of" - - as a time reference. The one that differed read it as meaning, "in the section of the OT on Abiathar," an idea based on a parallel to Mark using epi in Mark 12:26. Not one commentary said it meant "before", in a judicial sense.

Objection: Ahimelech was depicted much more favorably in this respect than was his son Abiathar, so your claim that Abiathar could be read as a great priest is false.

How is this said to be? Here are some examples offered.

  1. Abiathar used an "ephod" to forsee the future. This was "divination" comparable to tarot cards and palm reading.

    Hardly so. The inquiry using the ephod (whatever it was, and however it worked) was to Yahweh, and inquiring of Yahweh was not forbidden by the Law.

  2. There is nothing in the OT to suggest that Abiathar was especially a stickler for the Law.

    There did not have to be; it is implicit in the context. Abiathar was one of two (other than Zadok) to carry the Ark of the Covenant under David, and he did so for 40 years. For whatever flaws he had, David was regarded as Israel's greatest king. One may as well say that any man who served under George Washington in a high position for the duration of his Presidency was not thereby implicitly someone who did his job very well.

  3. Ahimelech was a person of high integrity, who was willing to reprimand a king who he thought was wrong.

    The context is that of responding to an accusation by Saul against him, to which we would expect such a response. However, it does not matter if Ahimelech was a person of integrity, nor does it matter in what way he responded to Saul. What matters is that from a NT perspective, Abiathar was a more prominent figure in the OT. Ahimelech barely makes a cameo compared to Abiathar.

  4. Abiathar aligned himself with David in order to save his life and then later proved himself to be an opportunist, who with Joab, David's leading general, plotted against Yahweh's choice of a successor to David as David lay dying (1 Kings 1:7) and was banished by Solomon.

    Nothing in 1 Kings says that Abiathar took his side because he was an opportunist. Nothing at all is said about his motives, or how he came to choose Adonijah over Solomon. Nor is it the case that Abiathar originally aligned himself with David purely to save his own life as nothing is said there about his motives.

    Note too that by the time of Solomon, Abiathar was at least 55-60 years old -- 40 years under David, and he wasn't just a kid when he met David from the looks of things. This looks like more of a case of Adonijah trying to take the old man for a ride by telling him lies and giving him the same "cock and bull" story he was feeding everyone else, telling them just what he wanted them to hear and nothing more. This is, in other words, the scenario of the old and complacent "official emeritus," not quite all there any more and giving in to the wiles of a conniving young usurper!

    By way of comparison, we may consider the many elderly victims of scams in this present era, who end up dumping their life savings into some scheme to raise the Titanic, or some such thing. This is why we have organizations like AARP and the Better Business Bureau. Abiathar wasn't so lucky, and lived in a time when living was harsher and the ravages of age were around every corner.

    It would also be wrong to see Abiathar consolidating his own position with the next king. What power did the king have to legitimately replace or place priests, and how do we know Abiathar needed that security in the first place? He wouldn't, unless he knew David's other possible successor was a threat to him, and we have no sign until the rebellion that Solomon would have been like that and would have wanted to dispose of Abiathar.

    As a side note, some may wonder why Abiathar didn't just use his ephod and inquire of Yahweh to learn what course of action he should take during the power struggle. We may as well ask why the elderly (or even the younger set) don't call a lawyer or the BBB before putting down the life's savings on that new mohair farm. When the risk is low enough, or covered up enough by whatever means, flattery and promises can get you anywhere, especially with the vulnerable.

Perhaps Mark thought that since the office of high priest existed in his time, it had also existed in the time of David.

That seems unlikely, since "high priest" was never used in the OT as a title, not even by Aaron. Some or most of the duties of that "high priest" did exist and were performed by persons in the OT period, but the designation as a title is never used.

How is the connection made to this being a time when the Law was followed?

Per Casey's argument, Abiathar was a renowned priest, one whose stature and time in office suggests a successful priest who followed the Law. Obviously, for him to be such a great priest, he could not be born in a vacuum. He had to have been influenced by people before him (as well as influencing people after him, but that is another issue that doesn't come in here); therefore, Jesus' purpose of citing "at the time of Abiathar" is to show that this was a time when the Law must have been closely followed and highly respected.

Ahimelech was obviously more important than Abiathar, because when Saul heard what had happened, he called Ahimelech, not Abiathar or anyone else, before him to give an accounting of what he had done. No other priest was questioned at this time except Ahimelech.

Obviously -- because Doeg the Edomite saw Ahimelech talking to David. This does not mean Ahimelech was not important in his own way -- we just don't know what his position was, and not vis a vis Abiathar.

Abiathar ‘escaped and fled to David’ (v:20). It wouldn't have been very likely that Saul, who was bent on killing every priest at Nob, would have allowed the 'ranking' priest to escape.

This answer says nothing about what rank Abiathar might have had, but anyway, this assumes that Saul: a) knew where Abiathar was at the time; b) that Abiathar was not smart enough to escape anyway (Saul doesn't show much in the way of a reasoned ability at times -- this is a man in the grips of an obsession and perhaps paranoia); c) that Saul was familiar enough, or cared enough, about the priestly rankings to know who he should go after; d) that the preists had such a ranking system.

Mark uses the same word that was used thirty-eight other times in the New Testament in reference to either Annas or Caiphas, or both, as "high priest."

True, but note these passages:

Matthew 2:4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
Mark 10:33 Saying, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests, and unto the scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him to the Gentiles:
Acts 4:23 And being let go, they went to their own company, and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said unto them.

The word behind "chief priests" is just another form of the one used for Abiathar, but plural. The arche- prefix means first in sense, either in order, time, place, or rank. So it is not merely used in a titular way even in the NT. Since there were no titular high priests at the time of Abiathar or Ahimelech, context and linguistic data tells us that arche- is used to refer to prominence rather than title. This works within Mark's status as a bilingual translating from Aramiac to Greek -- he has had to overliteralize the Aramaic words "great priest" into something that was just like "high/chief priest" in a titular sense.

But all those other references are in the plural. Mark's is in the singular.

This objection assumes that the singular use of archiereus elsewhere in the NT to refer to the "official" high priest somehow proves that Mark 2:26 MUST mean the same exact thing. But as noted, the plural was used to mean people other than high-office-holders. If that's true, what about someone referring to one priest out of a group of these non-office-holding priests? If there were ten of these people, which could be described as "priests" (plural), logically, if nine of them leave, what is the one left behind called?

You pointed out that Abiathar carried that Ark. But scoundrels, too, carried the Ark. Look at Eli's sons Hopni and Phinehas.

This is essentially the same as trying to use as an example the guy who was fired for viewing porn at his desk rather than someone like Abiathar who stuck it out for 40+ years under a pretty serious king. But the examples hardly hold. Hopni and Phinehas, please notice, ended up dead for their indiscretions. Rather than countering my point, this only proves it. Abiathar spent 40+ years in the job and didn't get punished.

You say David was regarded as Israel's greatest king, but Josiah outranked David:

2 Kings 23:24-25 Moreover Josiah put away the mediums, wizards, teraphim, idols, and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, so that he established the words of the law that were written in the book that the priest Hilkiah had found in the house of Yahweh. Before him there was no king like him, who turned to Yahweh with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.

Josiah was a reformer who had a reversal to accomplish and that's what he got praise for here. David didn't have a reversal to do like this one. This is apples and oranges.

In contrast, David gets more "air time" in the OT and NT than any other king. He is mentioned 1085 times, Josiah only 53. He accomplished more politically, religiously and personally combined (even if he was exceeded in singular aspects by his son Solomon -- who of course, owed him much in terms of influence and setting things up so that he had time to gather wealth and power, just like the WWII generation set the tone for later ease and prosperity) than any other Jewish king. He also got it said of him "...David did that which was right in the eyes of the LORD, and turned not aside from any thing that he commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite," and he was the point of comparison for all later kings, including Josiah (2 Kings 22:2, "And he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in all the way of David his father, and turned not aside to the right hand or to the left.")

Josiah outranked David? Josiah was measured by the standard of David.

Abiathar showed a lack of principle when he fled after David, who had gone into Philistine territory. Why didn't he just flee elsewhere?

Where was Abiathar supposed to go? Note that it is not a case of aligning with David purely to save his own life. There is no reason to say that Abiathar was only out to save his skin, as opposed to aligning with David for the long term health of the nation, or because he thought David was a better person to choose sides with.

Of course, odds were that he'd get the bonus of living longer if he sided with David, but why should that make him do something different? That's like saying you should refuse to do CPR because you might get a reward or publicity for saving a life.

Abiathar didn't have many options in the face of Saul's anger. He could hardly move to a pagan nation unless he wanted to become a beggar, for, as a priest, he certainly did not know how to farm or hunt, or how to pursue a trade. Going with David was the only possible place Abiathar could have gone that didn't throw his entire life into disarray, and doing so also allowed him to support David and be a help to his nation and people.

Joab is an example that disputes your claim that 40 years of service to David must have meant that Abiathar was righteous. Joab also served David for 40 years, but he too sided with Adonijah in the power struggle to succeed David. Solomon ordered his execution, even though Joab had served David faithfully for 40 years.

There's a big, big difference between Abiathar and Joab that makes their situations different, and it has to do with a concept that is well-known even today, and it was even "worse" in Biblical times: Nepotism. Abiathar was no kin to David. But Joab? That's another story. Joab was the son of one of David's sisters, Zeruiah. Family loyalty was prime in those days such that what we would call nepotism was expected and approved; therefore, David could not exactly "fire" him with ease, and note that when he did do so, giving command of the military to Amasa, it was only after Joab had crossed the line with a family matter by killing David's closer relative, his son, Absalom. It was also only after another "family matter" -- preferring Adonijah over Solomon -- that David pulled it all together and advised Solomon to do away with him. So, Joab's 40+ years of service, in spite of his foul-ups (which included a demotion), doesn't rank as a parallel.

What about Manasseh? He reigned 55 years, does that mean he was righteous?

This comparison is hardly apt. Priests are not kings, and priests were disciplined for profaning holy objects like the Ark, and not doing the rituals properly. Kings were not disciplined the same way for their own duties. Uzziah did commit profanation with with holy items (2 Chr. 26:19) but that is the only example. At the same time, Manasseh's own sins are visibly recorded.

-JPH

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