Melchizedek and Christ in Hebrews 7: Part 2

Last week, I introduced several literary threads regarding Melchizedek in ancient Jewish and Christian sources. Melchizedek is treated in various ways in Jewish texts. In a number of Christian sources, I showed a significant trail of thought where several scholars see the Melchizedek/Christ comparison in Hebrews 7 as typology. This week, I intend to survey a number of significant commentaries for their perspectives on the comparison. This survey is not exhaustive, but it is representative of the field. Recent years have produced an increasing number of high quality studies of the Epistle to the Hebrews, with a few particular studies on the question regarding Melchizedek’s function in Heb. 7, as well. These commentaries are considered in the order of their publication.

Simon J. Kistemaker’s 1984 commentary on Hebrews is a significant study, renewing academic and ecclesiastical interest in the epistle. Kistemaker acknowledges that contemporary readers know little of Melchizedek since he is only mentioned twice in the OT, so he explains that “the author of Hebrews reasons from the silence of Scripture and constructs his argument on the significance of the king-priest Melchizedek.”[1] In fact, “[the author] reasons like a rabbi of the first century.”[2]

This expositor is also helpful regarding the lofty descriptions of Melchizedek in Heb. 7:3. Kistemaker makes the point, “A prerequisite for holding the office of priest, therefore, was a proven genealogy. . . Melchizedek, therefore, is unique. He does not fit into the genealogies recorded in Genesis. He seems to belong to a different class.”[3]

Harold W. Attridge published a commentary in 1989 in the Hermeneia series. His commentary details Heb. 7 and the question of Melchizedek further than Kistemaker’s. He begins by describing the passage as “a playful exegesis of the Genesis story.”[4] Specifically, he names the author of Hebrews’ method as a gezera shawa kind of midrash.[5]

Gezera shawa is more popularly known in Christian circles are “verbal analogy.”[6] Gezera shawa is defined by Strack and Stemberger, “strictly speaking this is only to be used if two given Torah statements make use of identical (and possibly unique) expressions.”[7] It is also somewhat flexible, however, as it closely related to “the so-called heqqesh, i.e. the (less strictly regulated) topical analogy.”[8]

In Attridge’s eyes, the author of Hebrews utilizes a popular form of midrash in the late first century[9] to draw an analogy between Melchizedek and Jesus Christ in order to demonstrate the better priesthood of Christ. Attridge presents two options for understanding the nature or status of Melchizedek, which would allow the figure to stand as a useful type for Christ. First, he presents the claim that Melchizedek is “simply a scriptural symbol.”[10] That is, the comparison rests primarily (if not exclusively) on a literary comparison. “[The author of Hebrews] would appear, like Philo, to be uninterested in the person of Melchizedek himself and only concerned with what he represents.”[11] Second, Attridge describes how some readers think Melchizedek is treated as a heavenly being of some sort. He points especially to Heb. 7:8 and Melchizedek’s ‘life.’ “His argument there makes little sense if the Melchizedek whom Abraham encountered were not greater than the patriarch precisely because of the unlimited life attributed to him.”[12] Attridge ultimately rests his case with the latter perspective, citing the material from Qumran as justification for then-contemporary speculation regarding Melchizedek.[13]

Attridge demonstrates the author of Hebrews’ midrashic method, and explains, based on then-contemporary speculation as evidenced in the Qumran scrolls and the difficulty of Melchizedek’s ‘life’ in Heb. 7:8, that Melchizedek was a kind of heavenly being. An interesting rebuttal to the idea of Melchizedek as a kind of heavenly being is discussed in the section on Luke Timothy Johnson’s commentary, below.

2001 saw the publishing of Craig R. Koester’s commentary on Hebrews. Koester demonstrates a thorough knowledge of the ancient literature relevant to Melchizedek. One significant contribution is his analysis regarding an eventual genealogy for Melchizedek. “Because extant sources that identify Melchizedek with Shem are later than Hebrews, interpreters more commonly propose that Jewish sources gave Melchizedek a genealogy in order to counter Christian claims.”[14]

Koester, like the other Christian theologians surveyed, understands the author of Hebrews’ methodology as an argument from the silence of Genesis regarding Melchizedek’s father, mother, etc. In contrast to Attridge, Koester does not claim the author of Hebrews’ perspective to include Melchizedek as a kind of heavenly being. The nature of Melchizedek does not rise to the same importance for Koester as it did Attridge. The point of Hebrews’ comment on Melchizedek’s genealogy is not to describe Melchizedek as a heavenly being. Koester puts it this way, “Hebrews, however, takes silence to mean that genealogy cannot be the defining trait of a priest. If the lack of genealogy did not bar Melchizedek from priesthood, then it should not disqualify Jesus.”[15] For Koester, then, the lack of genealogy is an opportunity for the author of Hebrews to demonstrate Christ’s qualifications for priesthood outside of the Levitical line. This seems more naturally in line with the concerns of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Luke Timothy Johnson’s dense monograph from 2006 is a tightly-argued exposition on the epistle. The earliest contribution of his book relevant to the present study is in regard to the analogy employed by the author of Hebrews between Melchizedek and Christ.[16] Johnson tells his readers, “as in all analogy, two elements are required: an element of similarity (or continuity) and an element of dissimilarity (or discontinuity).”[17] With this in mind, Attridge’s argument that the author of Hebrews viewed Melchizedek as a heavenly being becomes much weaker. The reader of Hebrews finds several elements presented in continuity between Melchizedek and Christ. However, the author of Hebrews refers to him as “this man” several times. What the author of Hebrews does not do is declare a positive assertion that Melchizedek is a heavenly being of some kind. With these elements of continuity having been presented, where is the element of discontinuity? Christ is the God-man, the divine human. Melchizedek is not identified as a heavenly being anywhere in Hebrews. While this does not completely prove the author of Hebrews’ perspective on Melchizedek as a scriptural symbol, it demonstrates that Attridge’s conclusion is weak.[18] Since the author of Hebrews’ perspective on Melchizedek as scriptural symbol of heavenly being is so difficult to locate, it seems prudent for exegetes to tread lightly in this area.

Regarding the grand descriptions of Melchizedek in Heb. 7, Johnson illuminates that “our author follows the interpretive principle that has been called non in tora non in mundo. The silence of Scripture on a given point can be taken as evidence that something did not exist in the extratextual world, either.”[19] It is also worth noting that Johnson comes to the same conclusion as Attridge, that the author of Hebrews views Melchizedek as a kind of heavenly being.[20]

John Paul Heil’s 2010 monograph contains a brief introduction explaining his view of Hebrews as an epistolary homily intended for a public performance.[21] This book breaks the entire epistle into chiastic units, from start to finish. Heb. 7:1-10 is one of those chiastic units.[22] Heil follows the understanding of previous scholars regarding the grounds for Melchizedek’s lofty descriptors in 7:1-3.[23]

David L. Allen is the scholar who produced the New American Commentary on Hebrews in 2010. It is a significant contribution to the field, clocking in at over six hundred pages. Allen identifies the Melchizedek/Christ comparison as the Hellenistic rhetorical device “synkrisis” and homiletical midrash.[24] “Synkrisis” compares two subjects of similar quality.[25] One can see the similarity between “synkrisis” and gezera shawa, as they function as comparative devices.[26] Allen, therefore, also supports reading Heb. 7’s laudatory descriptions of Melchizedek as stemming out of the silence of Scripture, as well as the typological understanding of the Melchizedek/Christ comparison.[27]

Gareth Lee Cockerill has been thinking on the epistle to the Hebrews for years. His 2012 commentary in the NICNT series is an excellent resource for Hebrews studies. Unlike many other scholars, Cockerill does not consider the Melchizedek/Christ comparison as typology.[28] To the contrary, Cockerill asserts that the typology with regards to Christ’s priesthood is between Aaron (type) and Christ (antitype). Melchizedek is described merely as a foreshadow and anticipation of Jesus Christ.[29] His argument primarily rests on the fact that Melchizedek is outside the “old order” of the tabernacle, priesthood, and the Law.[30]

Cockerill does not consider Melchizedek as a kind of heavenly being or as a pre-incarnate Christophany. Melchizedek is simply a human being who is given a significant role to play.[31]

[The author’s] commitment to a literal encounter between Abraham and Melchizedek and his concomitant assumption of Melchizedek’s humanity frees him to use Melchizedek without fear that Melchizedek might become the Son’s rival. Thus we have a Melchizedek adequate to foreshadow but unable to compete with the Son.[32]

For Cockerill, a type/antitype comparison between Melchizedek and Jesus puts Melchizedek in competition with Jesus.

Cockerill’s commentary is a significant contribution to the study of Hebrews, but his use of the terms of typology is too rigid. It creates and imposes a problem on the text that the author of Hebrews did not create, himself. For the purposes of this study, a simple definition of typology suffices. “Typology…deals with the principle of analogous fulfillment.”[33] The imposition of modern literary categories on ancient literature is difficult at best. Rather, this study seeks to peek over the author’s shoulder, as it were, to illuminate and understand what is already there. It is problematic to sharply define the categories of “foreshadow/anticipation” and “typology,” as Cockerill does here. The author of Hebrews clearly portrays Melchizedek as someone who embodies some features of the Christ; specifically, Melchizedek foreshadows the nature of the Christ’s priesthood. This is typology.

This concludes the survey of contemporary thinkers on the topic at hand. Next week, I plan to present Melchizedek’s two Old Testament appearances. It will be fairly brief, since he appears in less than half a dozen verses of the OT altogether. They are, however, necessary to get at the meaning likely intended by the author of Hebrews.

***

To go straight to part 3, click HERE.

Want to see part 4? Click HERE.

[1] Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, New Testament Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 184f.

[2] Ibid., 189.

[3] Ibid., 185. It is also interesting to note an observation Kistemaker made that would have assuaged Martin Luther’s concerns about the Melchizedek/Christ comparison. On page 186, he states that Melchizedek is compared with the Son of God, not the Son of God with Melchizedek. Kistemaker, himself, was reliant on John Albert Bengel’s Gnomon of the New Testament, vol. 4, ed. Andrew R. Fausset, 7th ed., Edinburgh: Clark, 1877 for that observation.

[4] Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia, ed. Helmut Koester (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), 187.

[5] Ibid., 128f, 186.

[6] H.L. Strack and G. Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, trans. Markus Bockmuehl (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1991), 21. For an incredible list of sources discussing NT use of the OT, see Martin Pickup, “New Testament Interpretation of the Old Testament: The Theological Rationale of Midrashic Exegesis,” JETS 51 (2008): 353-82.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. To clarify further, midrashic exegesis is not limited to gezera shawa. See esp. Pickup, 357.

[9] Ibid., 24.

[10] Attridge, 191.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 191-92. For example, he says the author of Hebrews got the high descriptions of Melchizedek from a hymn to Melchizedek as a source.

[14] Craig R. Koester, Hebrews: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Vol. 36, The Anchor Bible, eds. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 339. See also John Bowker, The Targums and Rabbinic Literature: An Introduction to Jewish Interpretations of Scripture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 196-99.

[15] Ibid., 343.

[16] Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary, The New Testament Library, eds. C. Clifton Black and John T. Carroll (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 175. He also identifies this as gezera shawa.

[17] Ibid., 31.

[18] In addition, if the author of Hebrews viewed Melchizedek as a kind of heavenly being, like an angel, would he not present an argument for why Jesus is better than Melchizedek, like he did regarding the angels in chapter 1?

[19] Ibid., 177.

[20] Ibid., 177-78.

[21] John Paul Heil, Hebrews: Chiastic Structures and Audience Response, vol. 46, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series, ed. Mark S. Smith (Washington, DC: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2010), 24-25. Heil seems strongly influenced by the rabbinic practice of verbal analogy. This is not to denigrate Heil’s structure. It is actually somewhat compelling. For another scholar who sees a chiastic structure to the epistle, see also Linda Lloyd Neeley, “A Discourse Analysis of Hebrews,” Occasional Papers in Translation and Textlinguistics 3-4 (1987): 1-146.

[22] While it is an interesting argument, it is not especially relevant to the present study on Melchizedek in Hebrews.

[23] Ibid., 163.

[24] David L. Allen, 408, 410.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Since these two terms function very similarly, they are treated synonymously for the purposes of this study.

[27] Ibid., 412ff.

[28] Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 46, 51, 54, 304.

[29] Ibid., 302.

[30] Ibid., 304.

[31] Ibid., 305f.

[32] Ibid., 306.

[33] Grant R. Osborne, “Type, Typology,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 1222.

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