He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” (Mk. 2.25-6 NIV)
But only you and your sons may serve as priests in connection with everything at the altar and inside the curtain. (Num. 18.7a NIV)
Some notable theologians have thought that Jesus was mistaken when He named Abiathar the Jewish High Priest (Mk. 2.25-6) while, at the incident of David getting the priest’s bread, Abimelek was the actual one in office (1Sam. 21&22). However, Jesus was not wrong in His designation of High Priest for at least two reasons.
First, Jesus could have been speaking of the general timeframe by the use of the Greek epi. Although technically Abimelek was High Priest, his son Abiathar was the only one who escaped slaughter by Doeg at the command of King Saul. Abiathar took the ephod of the priesthood by which David consulted God’s will in 1Sam. 23. 9-11 (which service was open to only the High Priest-Num. 27.20-1). Abiathar served as priest to David while both were hiding out from Saul. When David became king, Abiathar was formally installed as High Priest. Therefore, Jesus was right to say that he was High Priest during this time.
The second reason why Jesus was correct in naming Abiathar the High Priest, was that all the High Priest’s sons were “alternates” for the service of High Priest. If at anytime the High Priest would have become ritually defiled (and there were numerous ways of defilement), then one of his sons would step in and perform the requirements of this priesthood. One of these timely requirements was the yearly Yom Kippur sacrifice and entering into the Most Holy Place of the Jewish Temple to sprinkle the atoning blood. That the sons of the High Priest were authorized to perform this ritual (as an “alternate”), is seen in Num. 18.7 where the sons are included in the ministering “(literally: “behind the veil”).