“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.)
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.
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.
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 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.
¹ The Gospels of Matthew and Luke with their genealogies had probably not been written when Hebrews was originally produced and disseminated.
- David M. Moffitt, Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews (SNT 141), 2011.
- Anders Aschim, “Melchizedek and Jesus: 11QMelchizedek and the Epistle to the Hebrews”, The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism (SJSJ 63), 1999.
- Michael C. Astour, “Melchizedek (Person)”, Anchor Bible Dictionary.
- Fred L. Horton Jr, The Melchizedek Tradition: A Critical Examination of the Sources to the Fifth Century AD and in the Epistle to the Hebrews (SNTS Monograph Series 30).