Melchizedek: King, Priest, Time Lord

Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek—by Dieric Bouts the Elder, 1464–1467

“The ring of the King,” said Ransom, “is on Arthur’s finger where he sits in the land of Abhalljin, beyond the seas of Lur in Perelandra. For Arthur did not die; but Our Lord took him to be in the body till the end, with Enoch and Elias and Moses and Melchisedec the King. Melchisedec is he in whose hall the steep-stoned ring sparkles on the forefinger of the Pendragon.” — C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

“He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe.” — Doctor Who, “The Family of Blood”

I still remember my astonishment many years ago, reading Hebrews for the first time and coming across this character named Melchizedek who was apparently an eternal and immortal being, without parents and without beginning or end. This was one of those places in the Bible where the line between religion and fantasy seemed to blur.

When I read Genesis 14 — one of only two places in the Old Testament where the immortal referent of Hebrews is mentioned — I get a sense of a character who doesn’t quite belong to the world around him; an enigmatic priest serving El Elyon, the god whom Abram equates with Yahweh, and who is also king of a city that seems to be Jerusalem but not quite. He always struck me as someone like the Tom Bombadil character of The Lord of the Rings, a powerful but reclusive wizard who disappears from the narrative once the main characters move on. More lately, he reminds me of Doctor Who, a character who seems human but whose influence extends across time and space.

Somehow, this obscure character insinuated himself right into the heart of primitive Christian theology — as well as several parallel trends in Jewish and Gnostic thought, as we shall soon see. Whether an eternal cosmic being or merely a folkloric character, Melchizedek is more important to the development of Jewish messianism and Christianity than many people may realize.

The origins of Melchizedek

The name “Melchizedek” means “king of righteousness”, though some scholars believe it is actually a theophoric name meaning “my king is Zedek”, Zedek being a Canaanite god. There is one comparable name in the Bible: Adonizedek, another Canaanite king of Jerusalem whose name meant either “my lord is righteousness” or “my lord is Zedek”. (However, Adonizedek is called Adonibezek elsewhere in the Old Testament and only Adonibezek in the Septuagint. Hebrew scribes might have changed his name in Joshua 10 due to influence from the name Melchizedek, once the latter entered the biblical tradition. See Auld, Joshua.)

The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1626

The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1626

Melchizedek is first mentioned in Genesis 14, a chapter about a war in which four kings invade and pillage the five cities of Dead Sea region. Abram’s nephew Lot is among the prisoners taken, so Abram and his personal army pursue the invaders and defeat them. Upon his return, the triumphant Abram is greeted by “King Melchizedek of Salem”, who is also said to be “priest of El Elyon”. Abram then receives a blessing from this priest.

There’s no need to delve too deeply into this story, but there are some particulars of interest. If you read an English translation of verse 20, it will probably say something like “Abram gave Melchizedek one-tenth of everything” (CEB). The Hebrew actually says “he gave him one-tenth of everything”, and though the antecedents are ambiguous, the grammatical logic implies Melchizedek gave tribute to Abram. Why translate it the other way? We shall see further on.

What is Salem? This is usually considered to mean Jerusalem, though the only biblical passage that makes this connection is Psalm 76.3 (which uses “Salem” in parallel with “Zion”). There is an alternate tradition that equates Salem with Shechem, the northern city near the Samarian holy site of Mt. Gerizim. This is not particularly close to the presumed location of the Dead Sea plain, though Jerusalem isn’t either; furthermore, Abram supposedly pursues the invaders to Dan and “Hobah, north of Damascus”. These distant locales are somewhat closer to Shechem than to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. Interestingly, a quote from the Samaritan historian Pseudo-Eupolemus tells a different version of the story that has it take place in northern Palestine:

Later, the Armenians waged war against the Phoenicians. After the Armenians won a victory and had taken Abraham’s nephew as prisoner, Abraham, accompanied by his household servants, came to the assistance of the Phoenicians, gained mastery of the captors, and captured the enemies’ children and women. …He was also received as a guest by the city at the temple Argarizin, which is interpreted ‘mountain of the Most High.’ He also received gifts from Melchizedek who was a priest of God and a king as well.

(Note also that it is Melchizedek who pays tribute to Abraham here.) The story as a whole is not considered to be historical by modern Bible scholars. For a time, some suggested that Melchizedek was part of a “Zadokite” line of priest-kings who ruled pre-Israelite Jerusalem, but what we know of Bronze-Age Jerusalem from El-Amarna tablets rules out this view. Many now consider chapter 14 to be a late addition to Genesis. Only four verses concern Melchizedek at all, and these are generally considered to be an even later insertion. (Try reading the passage without vv. 18–20, and see how the story flows more naturally.)

The only other mention of Melchizedek in the Old Testament occurs in Psalm 110. This is a Royal Psalm that celebrates the inauguration of a priestly ruler and warlord. In Hebrew, the initial letters of the first four verses form an acrostic that spells “Simeon”, so many scholars believe this psalm to have been written in honour of Simon Maccabeus, who became the high priest and ruler of Jerusalem in 141 BCE (Horton, p. 31). Verse 4 contains the reference to our priestly friend:

Yahweh has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

For comparison, see the wording used in 1 Maccabees 14:41 about Simon:

The Jews and their priests have resolved that Simon should be their leader and high priest forever

Once Psalm 110 was accepted as scripture, it began to influence Jewish ideas about the identity and role of the eschatological Messiah. In particular, Psalm 110 was profoundly influential on early Christian theology — and it is the most frequently cited OT passage in the New Testament, if I’m not mistaken.

Reconstruction of the Temple of Herod, Southeast Corner by  James Tissot

Reconstruction of the Temple of Herod, Southeast Corner by James Tissot

Melchizedek and sectarian Judaism

We know now, thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls and other manuscript discoveries, that during and prior to Roman rule over Palestine, Melchizedek had come to be regarded in some Jewish circles as an angelic figure and heavenly priest.

Some additional background is in order here. The ancient Jews (and Christians) believed that things on earth were mere copies of more perfect “originals” that existed in heaven, the realm above the moon and the firmament. Thus, there was a perfect celestial Jerusalem with a celestial temple, where angels served as priests much like the human priests who served in the physical temple built by Herod. Descriptions of the heavenly temple are particularly common in apocryphal Jewish writings like 1 and 2 Enoch, 4 Ezra, Jubilees, and so on.

Melchizedek was apparently such a priest. He had been the original founder of the Jerusalem priesthood, and apparently, some traditions viewed him as having ascended to heaven. In 2 Enoch, for example, he is taken to Eden (which was a level of heaven) by the angel Gabriel. He even had a divine birth according to the tradition told in 2 Enoch; his barren mother conceived supernaturally, with no participation by his celibate father.

According to 11QMelchizedek, a remarkable document found at Qumran that dates to around the first century BCE, Melchizedek will appear with the angels at the end of days to atone for the saints of God and judge the followers of Belial (the devil). Curiously, the extant fragments of this text do not mention Psalm 110, but they do equate Melchizedek with the elohim (“god”) who judges in the divine court described in Psalm 82.

Melchizedek also seems to appear in two other Qumran texts, Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and 4Q401, as an angelic priest in the heavenly temple — assuming scholars’ reconstructions of these highly fragmentary documents are correct.

Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish philosopher whose ideas also exerted considerable influence on Christianity, explicitly equates Melchizedek with the eternal Logos in one of his works (Legum Allegoriae III §§79-82). Exactly how much emphasis Philo puts on Melchizedek as an individual here is difficult to determine, but what’s important is that this too could have elevated Melchizedek in people’s eyes as a divine being. (In Philo’s system of thought, the Logos was the intelligent mediating force between God and the material universe often described as “Wisdom” in some biblical texts, notably Proverbs. The Logos would later be equated with Jesus in the Gospel of John and other Christian writings.)

A few sources from Rabbinic Judaism, which developed in parallel with (but separately from) Christianity, speak of four “artificers” who will appear in the last days. These include Elijah, Messiah ben David, Messiah ben Joseph, and a “righteous priest” or Melchizedek.

Abraham and Melchizedek, Verdun Altar, by Nicholas of Verdun, 1181

Abraham and Melchizedek, Verdun Altar, by Nicholas of Verdun, 1181

Melchizedek in the Epistle to the Hebrews

In Christianity, many of the functions just described are transferred to the figure of Jesus Christ, but Hebrews is the only canonical book to make an explicit connection between Jesus and Melchizedek.

Basically, the argument of Hebrews seems to be this: the Son of God has appeared in the last days, functioning as both an atonement sacrifice and as the high priest of the heavenly temple who offers that same sacrifice in the holy of holies — a celestial analog of the ritual described in Leviticus 16. How can Jesus, who is not of the line of Aaron, function as this priest? By being a member of Melchizedek’s priesthood, which supersedes the Levites by virtue of the fact that even the Levites paid a tithe to Melchizedek (in a manner of speaking) through their ancestor Abraham. (Thus the theological importance of interpreting Gen 14:20 to mean that Abram pays tribute to Melchizedek instead of vice versa!) What qualifies Jesus to be a member of Melchizedek’s priesthood? Because he is like Melchizedek, “without father, without mother, without genealogy¹, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Hebrews 7:3). He is eternal and immortal, unlike other priests. Thus, Christians are able to live under a new law mediated by a new high priest in a temple superior to the one on earth.

Although there is some scholarly dispute over whether the author of Hebrews really believes Melchizedek is an immortal, angelic figure, the various lines of evidence for Jewish belief in a heavenly priesthood and the apparently widespread belief in Melchizedek as a supernatural being strongly suggests that this is exactly what is meant in Hebrews. As Moffitt (p. 204, see bibliography) says:

Given the author’s own description of the angels as “ministers” (λειτουργοί, 1:7), and as “ministering spirits” (λειτουργικὰ πνεύματα, 1:14), it is virtually certain that he also considers the angels to be heavenly priests.

…It is also highly likely that the author of Hebrews considers Melchizedek to be one of those ministering spirits. First, the writer’s strange statement that Melchizedek is “without father, without mother, that is, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days, nor an end of life” (7:3, cf. 7:8) makes good sense if the author conceives of him as an immortal angel.

Aschim (p. 139, see bibliography) concurs, and notes that Hebrews must be drawing on the same tradition as 11QMelchizedek, because both texts associate the “order of Melchizedek” with the Yom Kippur ritual — a point of contact that cannot be derived from the two biblical mentions of Melchizedek.

Melchizedek offering bread and wine to Abraham, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Melchizedek offering bread and wine to Abraham, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Melchizedek after Hebrews

Because Hebrews is vague about the precise relationship between Jesus and Melchizedek, and even seems to leave open the possibility that Melchizedek is a superior being, some later Christians assumed that was the case. The third-century theologian Hippolytus wrote disparagingly of “Melchizedekians” who believed Melchizedek was greater than Christ in power. The third-century Egyptian ascetic Hierax believed that Melchizedek was actually the Holy Spirit. (For a detailed description of such groups and their beliefs, see Horton.)

The Nag Hammadi texts found in Egypt show another trajectory of development. The tractate Melchizedek, which might date in part to the second century, expounds on Melchizedek’s role as priest and executor of the final judgment, and apparently even identifies him with Christ himself. Mark the Hermit in the fifth century also wrote of Christians who believed that Melchizedek was both God and the Logos prior to becoming Jesus through the incarnation.

In later Gnostic texts, Melchizedek becomes first a heavenly envoy who deprives cosmic archons of the souls in their possession and takes them to the Treasury of Light, and later becomes the Receiver who supervises the entire heavenly operation. (Gnostic Christians had rather complicated and arcane theories about how souls and heaven worked.)

It’s fascinating, really, to see what Jewish and Christian theology came up with based on an obscure episode in Genesis spanning just four verses. If Hebrews is considered to be an authoritative work on matters of Christian theology, then the very basis of what salvation and atonement mean in Christianity ultimately relies on these very speculative traditions about a seemingly marginal Old Testament character.

Footnotes

¹ The Gospels of Matthew and Luke with their genealogies had probably not been written when Hebrews was originally produced and disseminated.

Bibliography

19 thoughts on “Melchizedek: King, Priest, Time Lord

  1. Do you know when the story of the war of the kings was added to Genesis? Who wanted to portray Abram as a warrior? Why those kings in particular?

    Did the insertion of the Melchizedek passage have anything to do with justifying the Hasmonean take-over of the high priesthood?

    BTW if Melchizedek’s name implies a deity named ‘zedek’ – in rabbinical literature zedek is the Hebrew name of the planet Jupiter. Does that support the dating of the Melchizedek insertion to the Hellenic era?

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    • Those are all tough questions, Anat.🙂

      As for wanting to portray Abram as a warrior, Westermann says this about Genesis 14 in his commentary:

      “Its purpose is to depict Abraham as a great and mighty prince, victorious over the mighty kings of the East. The desire to represent Abraham in this light is understandable from the perspective of the late postexilic period, in the context of other efforts to give the early patriarchs a significant role on the stage of world politics (cf. the books of Daniel and Judith). Only in this late period is the bizarre collocation of such diverse elements conceivable.”

      As for the Melchizedek verses being a Hasmonean insertion: that might be a possibility, except that the passage is in the Septuagint, which was probably translated in the third century BCE. So it’s late, but maybe not that late. On the other hand, we have the problem that Genesis 14 is not found among any of the 27 or so Genesis manuscripts recovered from Qumran. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, and maybe some of their copies simply didn’t have that passage yet.

      Regarding “Zedek”, I don’t know the connection with Jupiter. The use of zedek/sadoq as a theophoric element in Canaanite names seems to go back quite early; but Zedek as a personification of righteousness was very much emphasized in the Qumran sect; the War Scroll reads “Zedek (Righteousness) shall rejoice on high” (1QM 17:8) for example. So anyone with that kind of name in scripture, folklore, or some other source might have caught the attention of late biblical editors in that period.

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      • Thanks for the response. So the initial version of Genesis:14 is late Persian or early Hellenic? And the Melchizedek verses are somewhat later Hellenic, but well before the Hasmoneans.

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  2. Great post – maybe we should all be less dogmatic about how we use/interpret obscure references in Scripture?

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    • I think so. And be willing to accept that New Testament authors often based their arguments on weird exegesis and mythology that doesn’t make as much sense to us today.

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  3. I’ve tried to do some follow-up reading on Psalm 110’s association with Simon Maccabee. Mostly what I’ve found is that the hypothesis was popular in the first half of the 20th century (Horton’s book originally released 1976).

    Everything else I’ve seen, however, suggests the idea quickly fell out of favor with most scholars (e.g. the acrostic doesn’t conform to regular spellings of ‘Simon’ or ‘Simeon’, or Simon was a priest who became king, while the song is about a king who became priest). It seems that anyone who mentions the hypothesis immediately qualifies that it’s not popular anymore, and that the song was written in the ‘early monarchic period’.

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    • You’ve probably studied the matter more than I have then. The sources I consulted suggested there was a division of opinion on the topic. Horton seemed to prefer a Maccabean dating of 142–141 BCE, though he acknowledged the possibility of an early dating. Astour (Anchor Bible Dictionary) implies the Maccabean dating is indisputable.

      I think there is a more subtle issue involved as well. If the alternate view, that Psalm 110 and perhaps also Genesis 14 are ancient, pre-exilic traditions, is true, then it is remarkable that no one paid any attention to them until about the 1st century BCE and 1st century CE, when numerous exegetical traditions in multiple locales (Palestine and Alexandria) suddenly appear with midrashic interpretations of Melchizedek.

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      • Would the dating for the Septuagint that you noted above rule out a 114 BCE date for Psalm 110? Even assuming that the Septuagint was a gradual translation process (which I gather is the consensus) that seems like a short time frame for a Psalm to be composed in Hebrew and become canonical enough to be translated in the Septuagint.

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      • The third-century BCE translation of the Septuagint applies only to the Pentateuch. (Strictly speaking, “Septuagint” should refer only to the Pentateuch, though it gets used more broadly to refer to all the Old Greek translations.)

        The Psalms were probably translated in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE, though no one knows exactly when. So there is no real problem with dating some of the Psalms quite late. Books like Daniel and Sirach that we know are second-century works have Old Greek “Septuagint” translations.

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      • It’s definitely an intriguing idea; it makes *sense* of the chapter very well. And you make a strong point about the late explosion of interest in Melchizedek. I wonder how that thinking might apply to certain other obscure mythical figures who became incredibly popular in late Second Temple apocalypticism? Enoch and Genesis 5.24 come to mind.

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      • Mark, I think there’s a strong argument to be made that Genesis was also written or canonized quite late among the Old Testament books. That’s why you have one tradition in which Moses is the first to encounter Yahweh, but then newer Genesis traditions come along later and push that back even further to the time of Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham. And then finally Genesis 4:26 pushes that back to the days of Seth. It’s also why no book of the Old Testament aside from Chronicles seems to be aware of Adam and the other ante-diluvian patriarchs.

        The great interest in Enoch is obviously due to that enigmatic statement in Gen 5:24, and the Enochic literature might have emerged not that long after Genesis became well known.

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  4. Harvard professor Jon D. Levensen thinks that the Melchizedek passage “may have served to establish the antiquity of Israel’s holiest site and the priestly and royal dynasties associated with it.” He points out that Jerusalem/Salem is never again mentioned by name in the Torah. (The same word appears in Genesis 33:18, but most translations that I consulted translate it as an adverb indicating how Jacob arrived in Shechem, rather than as a proper name.) The incident also gives an ancient provenance to tithing. You may be interested in reading chapter 8 of James L. Kugel’s The Bible As It Was. Kugel cites other Jewish and Christian interpretations of Melchizedek, including that of Josephus (Antiquities 181; Wars 6:438). Some Jewish interpreters contended that Melchizedek was Noah’s son Shem, as Kugel documents on pp. 160-161.

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    • Yeah, if you do the math on the genealogies, Shem is still alive in the time of Abraham, and in fact outlives him. The rabbis needed to explain what he was up to all that time, so they came up with the idea that he was Melchizedek.

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  5. I have to think that the reference in Gen 14:18 to the gift of bread and wine by Melchizedek to Abram must have had some attraction for Christians exegetes, yet nothing is mentioned about that in Hebrews. That strikes me (a Lutheran) as such a natural connection between Melchizedek and Christ, but the author of Hebrews doesn’t pick up on it.

    I know that theorizing upon silence is tricky, yet this silence strikes me as particularly loud. Any thoughts? Educated guesses? Wild ideas?

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    • Pastor Mark, I’ve puzzled over that one myself. R. Williamson, “The Eucharist and the Epistle to the Hebrews“, concludes that the author comes from a background that doesn’t celebrate the eucharist and might even be opposed to the eucharist.

      I think these are possible. It’s also possible that if the author is addressing a Jewish audience, the eucharist would be too distasteful to bring up. (Theophagy and blood consumption might be fine in Greek circles, but not in Jewish!)

      On a similar note, I find it interesting that the author neglects any mention of Jesus as a Davidic messiah.

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      • Paul, thanks for the referral to Williamson – I’ll have to look that up sometime.

        About the Davidic messiah matter: I think it’s quite intentional on the part of the author of Hebrews to NOT identify Jesus as Davidic. The Davidic identity of the messiah is a quite controversial issue within the NT. Both Mark and John deny that identity for Jesus. Even Paul only mentions it in Romans when he is writing to both Jews and Gentiles. He never mentions it to any of his own Gentile churches.

        And that may also raise once again the matter of the intended audience of Hebrews, whether it is really that much a Jewish audience. It may indeed be a quite mixed audience, given the Roman connections of the text. But I should look up Williamson about this.

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      • “The Davidic identity of the messiah is a quite controversial issue within the NT. Both Mark and John deny that identity for Jesus.”

        Agreed, and I don’t think this gets the attention it should in academic circles. It affects the complexion of early Christianity and its beliefs about Jesus quite a lot.

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