(Investigator 113, 2007 March)



David seemingly killed Goliath twice – first with a stone, second with a sword – Daniel failed to count to three, and Jesus misnamed a priest. Skeptics declare these to be "contradictions".

For many years I've tested the Bible by referring to scientific literature and proved hundreds of points correct. This result, however is undermined if hundreds of other statements contradict each other.

First, let's be clear on what a contradiction is.

Two propositions are contradictory when one affirms what the other denies. (Luce 1958) For example:
      1. "All the disciples fled" vs. "Some disciples did not flee".
      2. "No priests helped David" vs. "Some priests helped David".
      3. "Some rules don't apply to everyone" vs. "All rules apply to everyone".
      4. "God so loved the world" vs "God did not so love the world ".
In all four examples one proposition in each pair must be true, the other must be false. That's how to identify contradictions – they can't both be true; they can't both be false.

However, when critics call pairs of statements in the Bible "contradictory" they usually don't claim that one is true. Rather, they usually wish to assert that at least one is false and probably both are false. Most alleged Bible contradictions are really alleged discrepancies/inconsistencies.

Goliath's cause of death is not a contradiction since skeptics do not claim that one of the two causes of death is true – rather skeptics usually reject the whole story. The accusation the skeptic wishes to make is: "The Bible is inconsistent on Goliath's death".


King Nebuchadnezzar decreed that young captives be trained for three years before being presented to him. (Daniel 1:5)

At the end of the time…the chief of the eunuchs brought them [Daniel and friends] in before Nebuchadnezzar.... (1:18-19)
However, the following chapter (Daniel 2) is set in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar's reign and context suggests the 3-year training period is finished.

This date or time discrepancy has several possible explanations.

For example:

By Hebrew usage, fractions of time were reckoned as full units. Thus Samaria which was besieged from the fourth to the sixth year of Hezekiah, is said to have been taken 'at the end' of three years (II Kings xviii. 9,10) and in Jeremiah xxxiv. 14 'at the end of seven years' means evidently when the seventh year has arrived. If, now, the author following a custom which was certainly sometimes adopted by Jewish writers, and which was general in Assyria and Babylonia, 'post-dated' the regnal years of a king, i.e.' counted as his first year not the year of his accession but the first full year afterwards, and if further Nebuchadnezzar gave orders for the education of the Jewish youths in his accession year, the end of 'three years'…might be reckoned as falling within the king's second year.
(The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, 1962, pp 777-778)
Next consider Goliath:
50 So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine, and killed him; but there was no sword in the hand of David.

51 Then David ran and stood over the Philistine, and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath, and killed him, and cut off his head with it. And when the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled. (I Samuel 17)

After the stone hit his forehead Goliath may still have been alive but would have died shortly. In that sense he was killed with the stone. Cutting off Goliath's head finished him off but this could not have taken place if the stone had not dropped him first! Therefore both stone and decapitation together killed Goliath.

Another explanation follows from "And when the Philistines saw..." We're getting two viewpoints of both armies. From the Israelite viewpoint the stone killed Goliath; from the Philistine viewpoint it was decapitation.


Some "discrepancies" require deeper analysis.

For example, critics allege that Jesus got wrong the name of a high priest who lived 1,000 years earlier:

And he [Jesus] said to them, "Have ye never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him? (Mark 2:26)

The priest in the incident was not Abiathar but his father Ahimelech:

1 Then came David to Nob [the main religious centre], to Ahimelech the priest…
3 "Now then, what have you at hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here."
4 And the priest answered David, "I have no common bread at hand, but there is holy bread here…"
6 So the priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence… (1 Samuel 21)

The story implies Ahimelech was high priest since:
Furthermore, when King Saul later arrived he questioned Ahimelech, not Abiathar.

After that Saul ordered the killing of Ahimelech and all the priests at Nob – 85 deaths. (I Samuel 22:18)

At this stage Abiathar gets his first mention:

20 But one of the sons of Ahimelech the son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled after David.
21 And Abiathar told David that Saul had killed the priests of the LORD.
22 And David said to Abiathar, "I knew on that day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, that he would surely tell Saul. I have occasioned the death of all the persons of your father's house.
23 Stay with me, fear not; for he that seeks my life seeks your life; with me you shall be in safekeeping."


Some apologists argue that Mark 2:26 "when Abiathar was high priest" should read "in the days of Abiathar the high priest".

Then we could compare it to me saying "England fought two world wars in the days of my grandfather." This does not imply that my grandfather was already a grandfather in 1914. The intent of the statement is not to state when he became a grandfather but to state approximately when the world wars occurred. If my grandfather was born in 1900, became grandfather in 1950 and died 1970 then the world wars occurred "in his days".

Similarly, "in the days of Abiathar the high priest" does not imply he was high priest at the holy bread incident but that it occurred in the lifetime of Abiathar.

The Greek word in Mark 2:26 is epi. Some Bibles render it "when" and others "in the days of". Since the translators are undecided the preceding explanation using "in the days of" is doubtful too.

Others argue that epi in Mark 2:26 is used idiomatically and means "in the passage about Abiathar the high priest". (Douglas et al 1982) This argument is based on similar grammar in Mark 12:26 and Luke 20:37. If correct, then Abiathar was high priest in the written passage, i.e. in I Samuel 21-23, but not necessarily at the start of the passage.

However, there is another explanation which we'll consider after discussing the Old Testament priesthood.


The Old Testament only speaks of "priests" never "high priests". Why did Jesus call Abiathar "high priest"?

The Greek word achierus is used about 40 times in the New Testament in reference to the high priest in Jerusalem, and another 60 times in the plural to mean "chief priests" i.e. the Temple hierarchy. Another word, hierus, occurs 30 times and means priest/priests.

If Abiathar was an achierus he was high priest – except no one is called "high priest" in the Old Testament.

Had Jesus said hierus it would imply Abiathar was an ordinary priest. But Jesus said achierus, implying Abiathar was "high priest".

The Jewish priesthood began with Moses' brother, Aaron. The ordination ceremony of Aaron and two of his sons is in Leviticus 8-9. Although Aaron is not called "high priest" he had greater status and prominence than his sons.

Aaron's position as leading priest was hereditary. The following table lists the line of descent through two of Aaron's sons for 10 generations:

Aleazer Ithamar
Abishua ?
Bukki ?
Uzzi ?
Zerahiah Eli
Meraioth Phineas
Amariah Ahitub
Ahitub Ahimelech
Zadok Abiathar
Ahimaaz & Azariah Jonathan
Lev. 10:12; I Sam. 14:2-3, 18-19; 4:3, 18; II Sam. 15:24-29; I Kings 4:1; I Chron. 6:3-8, 50-52

Aaron was succeeded as leading priest by his son Eleazar. (Exodus 6:23; Numbers 20:28; Deuteronomy 10:6) Another son, Ithamar, was in charge of the Levites. (Exodus 38:21)

The Levites were assistants to the priests and therefore were sometimes called "priests". Officially, however, the priests and Levites were distinct groups. (Deuteronomy 31:9; I Chronicles 9:2, 10, 14; 23:3, 24-32)

In David's time Zakok and Abiathar (see table) were joint leading priests. Abiathar, however – we'll see later – had greater status than Zadok.

Since Abiathar was the leading priest, people in the 1st century would naturally compare his status to Jerusalem's high priest and therefore consider Abiathar high priest. The 1st century historian Josephus, for example, called various Old Testament priests "high priest". (Antiquities V, 11:3; VIII, 1:3; X, 8:6) So does Hebrews 5:1-4; 7:28.

Consider the English term "governor". History books use this English word for officials in the Roman Empire and other long-gone empires. Calling an ancient official "governor" suggests a similarity in status and function to modern governors without implying that ancient empires used the English word.

Similarly with the term achierus: Jesus would be correct in using the term if Abiathar had the equivalent status and role of a 1st-century high priest.


The question now is: Was Abiathar the leading priest with the same status and role as a 1st century high priest?

After the slaughter at Nob, Abiathar used the "ephod" to get instructions from God for David. (I Samuel 23)

This ephod was not the ordinary linen ephod – the linen garment worn by priests and their assistants – but the ephod with a pocket or compartment containing the "Urim and Thummin". (Exodus 28:27-30) These were a form of lot, possibly two small flat stones, opposite sides colored black and white, giving three possible results when thrown – i.e. two white, two black, or one of each. Probably Proverbs alludes to it:

The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from the LORD. (16:33)
Every time David "inquired of the Lord" (I Samuel 30:7; II Samuel 2:1-3; 5:19) it was through Abiathar wearing the sacred ephod.

Abiathar possessing this ephod after his father's murder identifies him as leading priest – in 1st century terminology a high priest.

David offered Abiathar protection and safety. (1 Samuel 22:22-23) The two were friends during David's fugitive years and then through David's 40-year kingship. The other leading priest, Zadok, joined David several years after Abiathar.

When David became King in Jerusalem Abiathar attended the Ark of the Covenant there, whereas Zadok served 9km away at the Tabernacle at Gibeon. Abiathar's status therefore seems greater. (II Samuel 15:25-29, 35-36; I Chronicles 15:1-3, 11-15; 16:39)

When King David was old, Abiathar joined in a plot to stop Solomon becoming king (1 Kings 1:5-21) and was removed from the priesthood. (1 Kings 2:26-27).

Before his dismissal Abiathar was senior to Zakok which is implied by:

The king [Solomon]…put Zadok the priest in the place of Abiathar. (I Kings 2:35)


But who was the leading priest (or high priest) about 45 years earlier at the "holy bread" incident at Nob?

The holy-bread incident involved Ahimelech. Abiathar is not mentioned. Who therefore was high priest – father or son?

The answer, if we make a plausible assumption, is:

Sons often inherited their father's position when the father became too old to function effectively. If this was the case with Ahimelech, Abiathar would have performed his father's duties and functioned as high priest while Ahimelech was still alive. Abiathar possessing the official linen ephod and wearing it without anyone objecting supports this scenario. After Ahimelech's death Abiathar continued as high priest for 45 years.

The conclusion from all the above expressed concisely would use Jesus' phrase – "When Abiathar was high priest…"


After David became King David, the Old Testament seems to confuse Ahimelech with Abiathar i.e. father with son:  

Zadok the son of Ahitub and Ahimelech the son of Abiathar… (II Sam. 8:17)

Zadok, son of Ahitub and Ahimelech son of Abiathar were priests… (I Chronicles 18:16)

With the help of Zadok…and Ahimelech…David organized them [the priesthood] according to the appointed duties in their service. (1 Chronicles 24:3)

Ahimelech the son of Abiathar… (I Chronicles 24:6, 31)

The Macarthur Study Bible (p. 589) suggests that the Ahimelech here is the grandson of the Ahimelech killed at Nob – giving the lineage Ahimelech-Abiathar-Ahimelech. But this would give Abiathar's role and status to his son without explaining Abiathar's absence. Also, only one son of Abiathar is anywhere mentioned and he was Jonathan. (II Samuel 15:27)

Another suggestion is that ancient copyists accidentally transposed the names. It seems unbelievable however that identical copy-errors were made in five places!

The context of all five transpositions is a period of religious/political prosperity. Since Ahimelech (father) and Abiathar (son) had both contributed to David's success, I suggest the two names were deliberately transposed to produce a play on words (or pun) to emphasize the two men's role.

Most Hebrew names had meanings and:

After the slaughter at Nob, Abiathar accompanied David as friend and priest for about 45 years. Therefore Abiathar was, in loyalty and service, "brother of the king" i.e. he became "Ahimelech".

The father, Ahimelech, had given David and his hungry men bread, making Ahimelech "father of abundance" i.e. he was "Abiathar".

When in his old age Abiathar (son) turned traitor, the Bible uses his real name because he was no longer "brother of the king" but was again "Father of abundance [or pre-eminence]" – this time pre-eminent in treachery.


Some apologists argue that both priests had both names – Ahimelech Abiathar (father) and Abiathar Ahimelech (son). Indeed, many Bible characters had two or three names or a change in name. However, to infer extra names solely to explain inconsistency, when there's no other evidence, seems contrived.

Most alleged Bible inconsistencies are solved, as in the present article, by:

  1. Background historical material;
  2. Making plausible assumptions;
  3. Identifying figures of speech such as metaphor, exaggeration, repetition, parenthesis, allegory, pun, etc. If figures of speech are taken literally, the statement in which they occur will be misunderstood and seem false.


Let all the detail we've considered not sidetrack us from Jesus' lesson:

The "holy bread" was renewed every Sabbath and was by law only eaten by priests. Ahimelech, confronted by human need – a famished group of men – put their welfare ahead of the law.

And that's Jesus' point – God's laws are meant to promote human wellbeing but if a situation occurs where this intention is thwarted then the law should be set aside and the rule "Love your neighbor" put first.


Douglas, J.D. et al (eds.) 1982 New Bible Dictionary, Inter-Varsity.

Luce, A.A. 1958 Teach Yourself Logic, English Universities Press, pp 68-70.

Whiston, W. (Translator) 1971 Josephus Complete Works, Kregel.




(Investigator 114, 2007 May)

My articles in Investigator 113 have several minor errors:

On page 35 the phrase "bank and the lender" should be "bank and the borrower".

In the article The Bible Consistent I wrote, "when King Saul later arrived he questioned Ahimelech, not Abiathar." Actually King Saul did not "arrive" since he sent for Ahimelech and the other priests – they went to King Saul. (II Samuel 22:11)

Perhaps readers noticed that Jesus' seeming confusion between Ahimelech with Abiathar has a further possible explanation beyond those I explicated in #113.

If I'm correct (pp 23-24) that the names were deliberately transposed in five passages to produce a pun, then Jesus may have done the same. That is in saying "Abiathar", Jesus may have referred to the meaning of the name – "father of abundance" – which would then mean Ahimelech.

To be sure of the best explanation for Jesus' seeming error we need to know the 1st-century practice in Galilee when discussing Ahimelech/Abiathar. Did Galileans identify them by the names or the meaning of the names? Lacking this information, however, still leaves us with at least three plausible solutions.

If anyone thinks I wasted too much space on the alleged discrepancy, consider that there's a website with about 100 pages devoted to it, and it covered less ground than I did in ten!