Melchizedek and Christ in Hebrews 7: A Typology

The name “Melchizedek” conjures cloudy images, if anything at all. He is a figure who has a brief role in the narrative of Genesis 14, where Abraham encounters him after the patriarch’s rescue of his nephew Lot. As suddenly as Melchizedek arrives on the scene, he is gone again. Anyone reading the Bible could look for him to pop up again in Genesis, but he does not. Instead, the reader must continue on until Psalm 110, over two-thirds of the way through the Psalms, to find him mentioned one time in one verse. Psalm 110:4 declares of the subject from 110:1, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.'”[1]

Psalm 110 opens a door for the author of Hebrews. This open door allows for a Messianic understanding of Psalm 110, but also for a significance unclear in the original narrative in which Melchizedek appears. Melchizedek is all but unknown in the New Testament, until the reader arrives at the epistle to the Hebrews. This epistle mentions Melchizedek in three different chapters, with multiple references in Hebrews 7. At the reading of Heb. 7:1-3, the reader may become quite confused. How exactly is the author of Hebrews able to justifiably describe Melchizedek in the terms found here? Theodoret of Cyrrhus wrote on this topic, and at one point, his dialogue states, “The passage is a difficult one, and requires much explanation.”[2] The aim of this series on Melchizedek and Christ is to describe the function of Jesus’ comparison to Melchizedek in the epistle to the Hebrews as a typology.

 

HISTORY OF INTERPRETATION

 In spite of the scarcity of references to Melchizedek in the Tanakh, he became quite an interesting figure over time as he was interpreted by various Jewish and Christian thinkers, in a kind of spectrum. On one end, he is omitted entirely. In the middle, some treated him as a righteous man, which is always a notable description in Jewish thought. On the other end, some treated him as a divine or near-divine figure. There are a variety of views on Melchizedek that have had impact in Judaism and Christianity over the centuries.[3] This paper treats the primary sources in this simpler spectrum model for the sake of brevity.

Jewish Sources

Melchizedek shows up in an assortment of Jewish literature and is portrayed variously. He is definitively found in two Qumran texts, Philo, Josephus, and the Targums. Jubilees also includes an interesting re-telling of the Genesis story. Each source is surveyed for a background for how the book of Hebrews understands Melchizedek.

Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

“There hardly are any traces of Melchizedek in apocryphal and pseudepigraphal texts.”[4] Only two significant mentions of Melchizedek occur in the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. Each take a different perspective on the biblical figure.

One text is Jubilees, which – at one point – recounts the events of Genesis 14. In that passage, the named figure is gone. Instead, Melchizedek is replaced by “the priests,” an ambiguous group that mutes what later became significant to Christianity and certain sects of Judaism. “This might be an intentional avoidance by the author of Jubilees, who favors Levitical priestly interests.”[5] Even if Steudel’s point is conjecture, it is, at the very least, a significant contrast with other Jewish texts that hold Melchizedek in high regard.

2 Enoch includes “the Exaltation of Melchizedek” in chapters 69 through 73.[6] In this narrative, Methuselah’s role is greatly expanded from the Genesis account, and there is a detailed narrative of Melchizedek’s parents. More specifically, Melchizedek has no earthly father: he is divinely conceived in the womb of his elderly mother.[7] 2 Enoch also presents a genealogy for Melchizedek via Shem, Noah’s son. It does not take the author long to grant Melchizedek a high status. In a vision to Nir, God says Melchizedek will be “the priest to all holy priests,” thereby exalting him to a high position. This text holds a high view on this ancient priest, but it may have been an attempt to counter the discussion in Heb. 7.

Qumran

At Qumran, Melchizedek was honored as both a righteous man and a more highly exalted figure. The clearest references to him are in the Genesis Apocryphon and the Melchizedek document from Cave 11.[8] Each work constructs a different interpretation of Melchizedek.

The Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen) is a second century B.C. [9] text recounting or rewriting of the book of Genesis as a conversation between Noah, Noah’s father Lamech, and Lamech’s father Methuselah, based on a report by Methuselah’s father Enoch. The recounting of Genesis 14 is essentially the same as the original. Melchizedek is presented in essentially the same way as in the biblical narrative. Differences between 1QapGen and Genesis do not appear in the Genesis 14 recounting until the issues of Salem and the tithe arise.

The Melchizedek document (11QMelch, or 11Q13) is a first or second century B.C. text[10] and it holds a significantly different interpretation. In this text, Melchizedek is announced as the judge on the eschatological “Day” when all mankind is separated into their ultimate, apocalyptic divisions.[11] More than that, he does not appear like an earthly mortal at all. He is portrayed “as a celestial high priest, judge, and savior aided by a heavenly retinue.”[12] Similar to 2 Enoch, Melchizedek is elevated to unique heights. “Rather he seems to be almost identical with the prince of light (cf. Rule of the Community, 1QS iii.20), the archangel Michael (cf. War Scroll 1QM xvii.6-8), the angel of truth (1QS iii.24), and the great hand of God (cf. 4Q177 xi.14); he further exhibits parallels to the Son of Man.”[13] It appears that the Qumran sect, like so many others, preferred to emphasize the etymology of “Melchizedek” for interpreting the man overall.

Philo

Philo of Alexandria was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, Egypt, who lived in the first centuries B.C. and A.D. He was quite prolific, and wrote on many subjects related to the Hebrew Bible. Among his thoughts on the events in the life of Abraham, the reader can find Philo’s perspective on Melchizedek. Philo mentions him in three works – each one giving a different piece of Philo’s interpretation of the figure at hand.

The work On Mating, with The Preliminary Studies contains a very short text on Melchizedek. Philo claims that Melchizedek’s knowledge about the ‘tradition of the tithe’ was self-taught.[14] Thus, Philo sees Melchizedek as a self-taught priest of YHWH, which is not at all a common occurrence in the biblical text. This is high praise.

In On Abraham, Philo specifically calls Melchizedek “the high priest of the most high God…”[15] Philo elevates Melchizedek as he seeks to clarify the priest-king’s importance to his readers.[16] The high priest in the Levitical system served a special purpose beyond that of the regular priests, so the philosopher borrows that idea to demonstrate Melchizedek’s importance.

The third text, Allegorical Interpretation of Genesis, Book III, includes a discussion on Melchizedek’s office. “King of Salem” is interpreted as “king of peace.”[17] The philosopher also explains the etymology of “Melchizedek.”[18] Philo contrasts this righteous king with a hypothetical despot as natural opposites. Further into the passage, Philo contrasts Melchizedek’s generosity of bread and wine with the Ammonite/Moabite inhospitality from the wilderness-wandering period of the exodus. Melchizedek is praised, but his opposites have “no thought of God.”[19]

Philo’s view of Melchizedek is certainly laudatory, based on his reading of Genesis in the Septuagint and his allegorical method of interpretation. At the same time, “Philo took Melchizedek to be an actual human high priest…”[20] So this human priest has “as his portion Him that is, and all his thoughts of God are high and vast and sublime…”[21] Melchizedek only thinks of God. He is generous to a hungry and thirsty people. He embodies peace and righteousness. For Philo, Melchizedek is the best kind of priest.[22]

Josephus

Josephus was a first century Jewish historian who had a relatively high view of Melchizedek, seen in The Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War.[23]

The Antiquities of the Jews is a history of the Jewish people, taking the Hebrew Bible seriously for matters of historiography. Ant. 1.180 demonstrates Josephus’ perspective on Melchizedek as a historical figure and interprets the etymology of his name as a historical comment on his character, as did Philo. So, for Josephus, Melchizedek is a righteous man. Again, this is high praise in Judaism, within both the Hebrew Bible and elsewhere.

Book Six of The Jewish War recounts the siege and sack of Jerusalem by Roman forces in the late first century. In the final chapter of that book, Josephus quickly recounts Jerusalem’s previous conquerors and the man to whom he attributes Jerusalem’s founding – Melchizedek. Mentioned at 6.438, Melchizedek is again called “the Righteous King, for such he really was…” Melchizedek is even called the first priest of God, and Josephus claims that this righteous king built the first temple to God in Jerusalem. One must notice the escalated view. In Antiquities, Melchizedek was a righteous king. In The Jewish War, his primacy of priesthood and temple construction elevate him even further. Josephus, ultimately, held a high view of Melchizedek.

Ancient Christian Sources

With the dissemination of the Epistle to the Hebrews came an explosion in Christian interest in Melchizedek. Thanks to Heb. 7, Christian thinkers became quite enamored with Ps. 110 even more than the Gen. 14 narrative. Due to my own previous study of this subject matter, I believe in a straightforward typological connection between Melchizedek and Christ. Thus, rather than surveying the wide number and variety of sources available, I present the following scholars and theologians, arranged in the order of their lives through history, beginning with a church father and concluding with a figure from the Great Awakenings.

Theodoret of Cyrrhus

Theodoret of Cyrrhus was a fifth century theologian and bishop of Cyrrhus who dealt with a series of heresies during his tenure as bishop.[24] “In 447 Theodoret composed Eranistes (‘the beggar’) or Polymorphos (‘the man of many shapes’): this is a work of great theological importance, which was composed to refute the monophysite teaching that Eutyches spread at Constantinople…”[25] This text is a dialogue between an orthodox Christian and a monophysite Christian. In the second dialogue, these two characters debate the meaning of the Epistle to the Hebrews’ thoughts on Melchizedek in the context of their discussion of monophysitism’s heresy, which claimed that Jesus had one nature at the incarnation, and not both.

Theodoret utilizes a comparison of “type” and “archetype” to demonstrate that Melchizedek was merely an image of the reality of Christ, a type of the archetype. He explains that the author of Hebrews does not and could not consider Melchizedek as divinely conceived in his mother’s womb, like Jesus. Rather, he points to a plain-sense reading of the Scriptures. Melchizedek’s mother and father are not recorded in Genesis 14, so the author of Hebrews shows this comparison between the Melchizedek and Christ in pointing from lesser to greater. If Melchizedek is a great priest who has no mother and father recorded in the Scriptures, then Jesus, the eternal high priest, who was divinely conceived in Mary’s womb, is of the same order and even better than Melchizedek.[26] The same reasoning is applied to each of Melchizedek’s descriptions in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Regarding the order of the Melchizedekian priesthood, Theodoret says priesthood “belongs rather to man than to God, the Lord Christ was made a priest after the order of Melchisedec. For Melchisedec was a high priest of the people, and the Lord Christ for all men has made the right holy offering of salvation.”[27] Theodoret is extremely helpful in looking at the Scriptures in context with a reasonable eye.

Thomas Aquinas

The medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas also took on the issue of the Melchizedekian priesthood in his seminal work.[28] The 22nd question of Summa Theologiae is on the Priesthood of Christ. Melchizedek is dealt with under Article 6 of that question. Aquinas’ thoughts on the Melchizedekian priesthood are significant due to the fact that his foundational assertion denies that Christ’s priesthood is according to the order of Melchizedek.

Aquinas raises three objections that lead to this denial.[29] 1) Since Christ is the supreme priest, he is also the source, which means his priesthood cannot be according to another order. 2) Since the “Old-Law” priesthood was closer in time to Christ’s day than Melchizedek’s, it makes more sense to Aquinas that Christ would take designations from that priesthood rather than Melchizedek’s. 3) Finally, he quotes Heb. 7:2-3 and declares these descriptors belong to the Son of God alone.

Aquinas’ next point, however, remains in line with Theodoret and others. Pointing to Gen. 14, Aquinas asserts Abraham’s tithe to Melchizedek makes the priest analogous to Christ in that their priesthoods are pre-eminent over the Old-Law priesthood. Melchizedek “symbolized in advance the pre-eminence of Christ’s priesthood over the Levitical priesthood.”[30] The very last paragraph in answer to question 22 is also in agreement with Theodoret. He quotes again from Heb. 7:2-3 and explains these descriptors with, “not because [Melchizedek] lacked these, but because we read nothing of them in Scripture.”[31] Aquinas’ two positive propositions are that Christ and Melchizedek are analogous because they are both pre-eminent over the Levitical priesthood, and that the magnificent claims of Heb. 7:2-3 can be understood by a simple explanation, which is the same as Theodoret’s.

Martin Luther

Within the enormous corpus of Martin Luther, the priest Melchizedek is mentioned and relevant Scriptural passages exposited quite often. Three volumes of lectures in particular prove the most helpful for understanding Luther’s exposition on the passage relevant to Melchizedek.

Luther largely utilizes the same methodology as Theodoret and Aquinas before him.[32] In his lecture on Gen. 14, he immediately explains the situation with typology.[33] For Luther, just like the last two Christian thinkers surveyed, Melchizedek is described thusly in Hebrews because of the omissions of the text in Genesis.

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards’ Typological Writings does not drill down on the Melchizedek passages as thoroughly as Martin Luther, but does make one statement about the priest. Edwards demonstrates Melchizedek as one who ‘resembles’ Christ via Ps. 110:4.[34] Edwards, therefore, also sees the Melchizedek/Christ comparison as typology. Though Edwards did not see fit to deal with Heb. 7:1-3 precisely to explain the order of Melchizedek, he does agree with Theodoret and others, that it is a typological comparison.

There is a thread though the history of the church that understands the Melchizedek/Christ comparison as typology, starting at least as early as Theodoret of Cyrrhus, that understood the descriptions of Melchizedek in Heb. 7 as stemming from omissions in the Old Testament Scriptures leading to a form of typological understanding of the figure. Next week, I will present the perspectives of seven contemporary scholars on the Melchizedek/Christ comparison.

***

To go straight to part 2, click HERE.

Part 3? Click HERE.

Part 4! Click HERE.

 

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001). All quotes of the Scriptures hereafter come from this translation.

[2] Theodoret of Cyrus, “Dialogues: The ‘Eranistes’ or ‘Polymorphus’ of the Blessed Theodoretus, Bishop of Cyrus,” in Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, Etc., vol. 3, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Blomfield Jackson (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 188.

[3] David Allen identifies seven major views on the identity of Melchizedek. Rather than looking at Melchizedek through particular categories – as a precise identification of Melchizedek could be a paper in and of itself – the present study examines the various perspectives on Melchizedek through a simpler rubric. David L. Allen, Hebrews, vol. 35, The New American Commentary series, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 408f.

[4] Annette Steudel, “Melchizedek,” Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls, vol. 1: A-M, ed. Lawrence H. Schiffman and James C. VanderKam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 535.

[5] Steudel, “Melchizedek,” 535. Emphasis in original.

[6] The text used for this study was from James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume 1: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments, The Anchor Bible Reference Library, New York: Doubleday, 1983. There is significant debate whether this work is from a Jewish or Christian author. It is placed in this section on Jewish interpreters because it is so heavily dependent on the Hebrew Bible.

[7] See esp. 2 Enoch 71.

[8] I did not treat the uncertain references to Melchizedek in the Dead Sea Scrolls, such as 4Q401 or 4Q544, due to space considerations and the tangential nature of the references. For a full treatment of references or connections to Melchizedek in Second Temple literature, see Eric F. Mason, ‘You Are a Priest Forever’: Second Temple Jewish Messianism and the Priestly Christology of the Epistle to the Hebrews, vol. 74, Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah, ed. Florentino Garcia Martinez, Boston: Brill, 2008.

[9] Steudel, “Melchizedek,” 536.

[10] Joseph L. Angel, “Melchizedek,” in Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture, vol. 2, eds. Louis H. Feldman, James L. Kugel, and Lawrence H. Schiffman (Lincoln, NE: The University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 1482.

[11] A. S. Van der Woude, “Melchisedek als Himmlische erlösergestalt in den neugefundenen eschatologischen midraschim aus Qumran höhle XI,” Kaf-He 1940-1965 Jubilee Volume. Oudtestamentische Studiën 14. P. A. H. de Boer, editor (Leiden: Brill, 1965), 362. Translation mine.

[12] Angel, “Melchizedek,” Outside the Bible, 1482.

[13] Steudel, “Melchizedek,” 536.

[14] Philo, “On Mating, with The Preliminary Studies,” in Philo, vol. IV, Loeb Classical Library, trans. F.H. Colson and G.H. Whitaker (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932), 509.

[15] Philo, “On Abraham,” in Philo, vol. VI, Loeb Classical Library, trans. F.H. Colson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935), 115. Emphasis mine.

[16] Shinya Nomoto blames Philo for the Christian conclusion that Jesus united the idea of two Messiahs – a priest and a king – rather than seeing it as the perspective of the authors of the Scriptures. Shinya Nomoto, “Herkunft und Struktur der Hohenpriestervorstellung im Hebräerbrief,” Novum Testamentum 10:1 (1968), 15.

[17] Philo, “Allegorical Interpretation of Genesis, Book III,” in Philo, vol. I, Loeb Classical Library, trans. F.H. Colson and G.H. Whitaker (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1929), 353.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 355. He quotes from Deuteronomy 23:3f, but his focus is especially on verse 4, which says, “because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt…”

[20] David L. Allen, 410.

[21] Philo, Genesis, 355.

[22] It is curious to note a comment on Melchizedek’s gift of bread and wine by Erwin R. Goodenough. He claims, “There are other proof texts, of course, which were often used by later Judaism to justify its wine rituals. So the fact that Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God, brought forth bread and wine, which apparently he held as he blessed Abraham, was made a precedent of the greatest importance for the later kiddush, but the original meaning of the incident is quite lost.” The author does not substantiate his claim with primary or secondary sources, but it is possible that Melchizedek in Gen. 14 sheds some light on the use of libations in cultic Judaism. Perhaps another topic for another paper. Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, vol. 6: Fish, Bread, and Wine (The second of two volumes), Bollingen Series XXXVII (Kingsport, TN: Kingsport Press, Inc., 1956), 128-29.

[23] References to Josephus come by William Whiston, A.M., trans., The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged, New Updated Edition, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987.

[24] Elena Cavalcanti, “Theodoret of Cyrrhus,” in Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity, vol. 3: P-Z, ed. Angelo Di Berardino, trans. Erik A. Koenke, Joseph T. Papa, and Eric E. Hewett (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 749.

[25] Ibid., 750.

[26] Theodoret of Cyrus, Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, Etc., 187ff.

[27] Ibid., 189.

[28] The text referenced for this study was Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: Latin text and English translation, Introductions, Notes, Appendices and Glossaries, vol. 50: The One Mediator (3a. 16-26), ed. Colman E. O’Neill, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

[29] Ibid., 155.

[30] Ibid., 157.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 6-14, Luther’s Works, vol. 2, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1960), p. 381ff. See also Martin Luther, First Lectures on the Psalms II: Psalms 76-126, Luther’s Works, vol. 11, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1976), 368

[33] Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, p. 381ff. See also Martin Luther, Selected Psalms II, Luther’s Works, vol. 13, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956), 312-13.

[34] Jonathan Edwards, “Types of the Messiah,” in Typological Writings, eds. Mason I. Lowance, Jr. and David H. Watters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 304. An interesting side note from the same passage in Typological Writings: Edwards saw the ‘order of Melchizedek’ traced through the promise to (2 Sam. 7:14) and line of David, making it a covenantal/genetic link, as well.

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