Hebrews 7:1-3 – Who Was Melchizedek?

In chapter 5:1-10 the writer of Hebrews was discussing the high priesthood of Christ.  Jesus is the superior High Priest because he was a human, like us, yet he was also God.  Because of this unique combination, Jesus is able to be the perfect high priest forever, a priest that is not like the line of earthly priests descended from Aaron and the tribe of Levi, but a priest in the order of Melchizedek, the mysterious priest from Genesis 14.  But because this was a difficult concept, the writer digresses into a warning to his readers not to be lazy in their spiritual development.  They ought to be interested in the difficult “meat” of the Word of God.

11Q Melchizedek

In chapter 7, the writer of Hebrews shows that Jesus is the Perfect High Priest, in the order of Melchizedek, who serves as a “type” of Jesus Christ.  Because Jesus is the Perfect High Priest, he is able to meet our needs in a way that no human priest ever could.

Melchizedek is identified by the writer of Hebrews as both a priest and a king.  While he is mentioned in Genesis 14 and Psalm 110, there is a great deal of interest in him in the Second Temple period.  Genesis 14 describes Abram’s rescue of Lot from the hands of invaders from the east. Lot was living in Sodom when it was captured by five kings from the east. Abram rallies a small army and pursues the invaders, and routs their army.  While returning from the battle, Abram is met by Melchizedek, who greets him and blesses him.  Genesis 14:18-20 describes Abram worshiping the most High God with Melchizedek and offering a tithe to God through this mysterious priest.

Psalm 110 also refers to  Melchizedek.  This psalm is perhaps the most cited messianic Psalm in the New Testament.  The author of Hebrews used it in chapter 1 and it appears in Acts and Paul as well.  What is important for our reading of Heb 7 is that the Psalm connects the davidic ruler to “the priesthood of Melchizedek.”

There were a number of interpretations of Melchizedek current in the first century, perhaps explaining why the author of Hebrews used this rather obscure character as an analogy for Jesus.

  • The Dead Sea scrolls make Melchizedek into a paradigm for the righteous remnant, awaiting the return of the Messiah.  He functions very much like Michael in Daniel 12.  He is a defender of Israel who will return to punish those who opposed the righteous remnant.
  • The Targum Jonathan argued that Melchizedek was Shem, the son of Noah.  In the genealogies of Genesis, Shem would outlived Abraham by 35 years.  The Jews sought to find a way to explain the great Abraham giving honor to Melchizedek, they did this by making him one of Abraham’s great ancestors.
  • The philosopher Philo described Melchizedek as the “divine logos,” not God but God’s representative in this world

The reason for all this speculation is that there is not much said in Gen 14 about who Melchizedek.  That he worships the God Most High and was the king of Salem (presumably Jerusalem) is remarkable indeed.  Perhaps the motivation is that Melchizedek was the king of Jerusalem in the age prior to the Davidic Kingdom.  Since David captured Jerusalem as his capitol, he became a king in the line of Melchizedek.  As the son of David, Jesus is both a king (in the line of David) and a priest (in the line of Melchizedek).

Hebrews 5:1-10 – The Great High Priesthood

In my last post on Hebrews I looked at Hebrews 4 as a part of the author’s argument that Jesus is superior to Moses and the priesthood of the Hebrew Bible.  This is the theme which will continue through chapter 10.  In fact the book of Hebrews is interested in Jesus as a priest more than any other book in the New Testament.  Jesus is called a priest and high priest only in this letter.  Since the argument of the next few chapters is based on the idea that Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, it is critically important to understand what these offices meant in the first century.

Two words of caution here.  First, the high priesthood of Jesus is based on the ideal forms found in the Bible, not in the high priesthood as it actually functioned in the first century.  By way of analogy, we could study the office of president of the United States as it is described in the constitution, or by the way various presidents have functioned as president over the more than two centuries.  James Buchanan, for example, usually is ranked at the bottom of the list of presidents by historians, mostly for his handling of the issues which erupted into the Civil War.

We would not, therefore, want to describe the office of president using Buchanan as our example!  In the same way, the high priests who held office in the first century were politically motivated and not particularly good examples of the way a priest ought to behave in his office. What is remarkable is that the book of Hebrews does not condemn the current High Priest as corrupt, nor does he say anything negative about the worship of the Temple other than it has been completed in Jesus.

Secondly, the word “priest” has connotations in English which are not present in the function of a Jewish priest.  We are not describing a Catholic or Orthodox priest, but rather the Jewish priest.  This modern sense of the word is not particularly helpful in understanding the priesthood in the Hebrew Bible.  The priest in the Jewish Temple was the mediator between God and man. As such, the office of priest foreshadowed the ministry of Jesus who was provides access to the throne of God for those who have entered into new life through him.

The original intention of a priest in the Hebrew Bible was to be an intermediary between God and Man.  The High Priest chosen to enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement.  He represented the nation and did his duty on that Day on behalf of the nation.  If the High Priest performed his function right, then the sin of the nation was covered.  Since he was a fallible human, there was always the possibility that the atonement was imperfect.

Not so with Jesus as the ultimate High Priest.  He is the perfect intermediary between God and man because (Hebrews argues) he was true human – untainted by sin.  Therefore he preformed his duties in the real sanctuary properly, providing real atonement to the whole world, once and for all!

Hebrews 4:14-16 – Jesus as High Priest

The book of Hebrews emphasizes the priesthood of Jesus more than any other book in the New Testament. In fact, much of the argument of Hebrews 5-10 is based on Jesus as the High Priest. Two words of caution before discussing Jesus as a High Priest.

high priestFirst, the “high priesthood of Jesus” is based on the ideal form of priest found in the Hebrew Bible, not in the high priesthood as it actually functioned in the first century.  By the first century, the High Priest more a political figure that a religious leader.  Control of the temple and the priesthood gave the office a great deal of power, and this power usually led to great wealth. It is unlikely, however, that the writer of Hebrews has this sort of power in mind.  He consistently looks to the idea image (“the shadow”) from the Hebrew Bible in order to describe the “substance” of Jesus.

By way of analogy, we could study the office of president of the United States as it is described in the constitution, or by the way various presidents have functioned as president over the more than two centuries.  James Buchanan, for example, usually is ranked at the bottom of the list of presidents by historians, mostly for his handling of the issues which erupted into the Civil War. We would not, therefore, want to describe the office of president using Buchanan as our example!

In the same way, the high priests who held office in the first century were politically motivated and not particularly good examples of the way a priest ought to behave in his office. What is remarkable is that the book of Hebrews does not condemn the current High Priest as corrupt, nor does he say anything negative about the worship of the Temple other than it has been completed in Jesus.

Second, the word “priest” has connotations in English which are not present in the function of a Jewish priest.  We are not describing a Catholic or Orthodox priest, but rather the Jewish priest.  This modern sense of the word is not particularly helpful in understanding the priesthood in the Hebrew Bible.  The priest in the Jewish Temple was the mediator between God and man. As such, the office of priest foreshadowed the ministry of Jesus who was provides access to the throne of God for those who have entered into new life through him.

But Jesus is not just the High Priest, but the “great High Priest.” This was a title give to the High Priest Simon in 1 Maccabees (13:42, 14:27). This Simon was one of the founders of the Hasmonean dynasty and the first to take the title of both King and Great High Priest. His first year in power was “the yoke of the Gentiles was removed from Israel” (c. 142 B.C., 1 Macc 13:41). This combination of priest and king was an attempt to consolidate power into the one “office” in Maccabean revival of the kingdom in Judah.

How does the author of Hebrews distinguish Jesus as a high priest from the politically powerful priests of the first century?

Hebrews 7 – Melchizedek and Typology

In Hebrews 7, a character from the Hebrew Bible is used by the writer as a way to talk about Jesus in the present age. This method of interpretation is sometimes called “typology.” As Karen Jobes states in Letters to the Church, this method attempts to understand earlier persons, events, and institutions drawn from the Hebrew Bible as anticipations of later persons, events, and institutions (48). Some events in the Old Testament are described in the New Testament as having anticipated the events of the New Testament. For example, the Passover Lamb is clearly an anticipation of the sacrifice of Christ, the lamb of the Passover can be called a “type” of Christ.   In the case of Melchizedek in Hebrews 7, the priest-king of Salem is described as a “type” of Christ.

San Vitale basilica, Ravenna, MelchizedekWhat is “typological” in Melchizedek’s story, and what is not?  Two elements are highlighted by the writer of Hebrews – his name and his lack of genealogy. Not everything in Gen 14 is significant for the writer of Hebrews.  Noticeably absent from this “typology” is Melchizedek bringing food and wine to Abram.  Some in the early church took this as Communion and taught that Abram celebrated the communion with Melchizedek. The food and wine were simply part of the sacrifice and the blessing that followed and not a foreshadowing of the Eucharist.

The first point drawn from the Genesis story is the name Melchizedek, “King of Righteousness” and his title, “King of Salem,” meaning “King of Peace.” The name can mean “King of righteousness,” or “my king is righteous.”  Either way the emphasis is on righteousness. The city of Salem may be the city of Jerusalem, which probably means “foundation of peace.”  The combination of righteousness and peace is the element of the story that is significant to our writer, Jesus is the combination of righteousness and peace, and is able to bring both to the world in his death.

It was expected that the Messiah would be both a righteous ruler and a bringer of peace (Isa 9:6, Isa 32:17, Jer 23:5-6, 33:15)  Thus Melchizedek is a fit analogy for Jesus because Melchizedek combines both the king and priest into one person, and is called both the Righteous King and the Peaceful King, as is Jesus as the Messiah.

The second element drawn from Gen 14 is the fact that Melchizedek has no genealogy. The Genesis story introduces Melchizedek without any hint as to who he is, as it we are supposed to know who he is.  That there is no genealogy may be simply because there is no reason in the flow of Gen 14 to give the genealogy of Melchizedek.   There are quite a few characters who are introduced without genealogy, but since Melchizedek is a priest it is more significant.  The Law is quite clear that a priest must be from the tribe of Levi, later Ezra was quite careful to ensure that all of the priests who were serving could prove their genealogy.

The significance for the writer of Hebrews is not that his genealogy is not mentioned at all.  Reading this from the perspective of first century Hellenism, this would be understood as a claim of divinity. The gods are sometimes described as “without mother or father.”  The idea that the Messiah would be “without descendants” or ancestors may have been suggested by Isaiah 53:8a “By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants?” Because of this fact he is a worthy analogy of Christ, a priest from an order other than Aaron’s Levitical priesthood.  Jesus was a priest, but not in the line of Aaron, he was from this independent line of priests, like Melchizedek.

The danger of a “type” is in taking the analogy too far and creating an allegory out of the original text.  Types are analogies, and as such they have some parallels, but the analogy breaks down if you press it too far. The early church loved typological interpretation, pressing details for hard that they were allegorizing every minor element of an Old Testament story into a spiritual meaning for the New Testament era.  In an effort to get behind the text and find the hidden meaning, the obvious meaning of the text was lost. There is no basis for most of the interpretations, for example, any four colors represent the four gospels, etc.

I find it troublesome to interpret stories from the Hebrew Bible as “types” today because I am not a prophet (nor the son of a prophet). Part of the problem is my Western “fear of allegory” as an interpretive method. Frankly, the writer of Hebrews would not score very high on a paper for my class using this sort of typological method. And that raises a question – what do we make of his argument about Jesus based on Melchizedek? His method was sound in the first century, but it is not really going to convince a modern skeptic.

Is there any way to use Hebrews 7 as a “guide” for interpreting scripture in a modern context?

Hebrews 7:1-3 – The Priesthood of Melchizedek

One of the more tantalizing problems in Hebrews is the identification of Jesus as a priest in the order of Melchizedek. Since the author of Hebrews is making the argument that Jesus is the ideal High Priest, someone might object that Jesus cannot be the High Priest since he is not from the tribe of Levi. No one from Judah could be selected as a priest, let alone a high priest. In order to solve this problem, Hebrews will identify Jesus as a priest in a different line, one that is superior to the tribe of Levi or the lines of Aaron and Zadok.

melchizedek2In the Hebrew Bible, Melchizedek is identified as both a priest and king of the city of Salem (Gen 14). After Abram rescues Lot from Mesopotamian invaders he is met by Melchizedek. He is simply identified as a “priest of God Most High” (כֹהֵ֖ן לְאֵ֥ל עֶלְיֽוֹן). He brings both bread and wine and blesses Abram, who gives the priest a tithe from the plunder.

He is mentioned a second time in Psalm 110, perhaps the most cited messianic Psalm in the New Testament. What is important for our reading of Heb 7 is that the Psalm connects the Davidic ruler to “the priesthood of Melchizedek.” Melchizedek was the priest-king of Jerusalem years before David captured the city and established it as his capitol. It is possible that David took over the title of “priest-king” of Jerusalem when he captured the Jebusite city. The kings of Judah could therefore be considered priests “in the order of Melchizedek.”

There were a number of interpretations of Melchizedek current in the first century, perhaps explaining why the author of Hebrews used this rather obscure character as an analogy for Jesus.  The Dead Sea scrolls make Melchizedek into a paradigm for the righteous remnant, awaiting the return of the Messiah.  He functions very much like Michael in Dan 12.  He is a defender of Israel who will return to punish those who opposed the righteous remnant. The Targum Jonathan argued that Melchizedek was Shem, the son of Noah.  In the genealogies of Genesis, Shem would outlived Abraham by 35 years.  The Jews sought to find a way to explain the great Abraham giving honor to Melchizedek, they did this by making him one of Abraham’s great ancestors. The philosopher Philo described Melchizedek as the “divine logos,” not God but God’s representative in this world

The reason for all this speculation is that there is not much said in Gen 14 about who Melchizedek.  That he worships the God Most High and was the king of Salem, presumably Jerusalem is remarkable. But how can the “line of Melchizedek” superior to Levitical priesthood?

The tithe that Abram gave to Melchizedek is used as a “proof” that Melchizedek is greater than the Levitical priesthood. In the Genesis 14 story it is unusual that Abram would tithe any of the plunder, although it was common for a portion of plunder to be given to the priesthood in ancient near eastern cultures. The writer of Hebrews draws out a further point from of the story:  since the Levitical priests are present in Abram, their ancestor, the Levitical Priests paid the tithe to Melchizedek themselves.

This is a fascinating albeit odd interpretation drawn from the Hebrew Bible. Reading only Genesis 14, one would never imagine that there was an “order of Melchizedek,” nor that the Messiah would be a priest like Melchizedek. But this is not Western, modern exegesis, but a style of reading the Hebrew Bible that would have “worked” in synagogues in the first century.  How “literally” should we take this “line of Melchizedek”?  Or is the writer using exegetical techniques that modern readers have (rightly) left behind?

Acts 4 – Peter Speaks to the High Priest

In Acts 4, Peter and John are arrested and brought before the high priest and some of his associates.  In the previous two chapters Luke has described the ministry of Peter in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and just after that time.  He and the twelve seem to have gone regularly to the temple for prayer and worship.  While they were there, they had opportunity to preach Jesus as the messiah and the gospel of the risen and ascended Jesus to groups of religiously minded Jews who were also in the Temple for prayer and worship.  In both cases God does a miracle which demonstrates that the messianic age has begun (the descent of the Holy Spirit and the healing of a lame man), and in both cases Peter’s sermon is based solidly on messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible.  Both sermons show that Jesus was the messiah, and that while he was crucified in ignorance, that ignorance will no longer be overlooked, judgment is coming. In each case they have great success with thousands of people believing that Jesus is the messiah and that he will return soon to establish his kingdom.  As Ben Witherington comments, it is in this chapter that we “see the beginnings of the power struggle for the hearts of the Jewish people.” (Acts, 189).

Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit as he addressed the meeting.  That Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit is an indication that Luke sees this speech in the tradition of the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible.  Luke is presenting Peter as giving a prophetic speech like Isaiah or Jeremiah, directly to the leadership of the Jewish people, calling even the High Priest to repent of the sin of killing the Messiah.

The words which follow are therefore a prophetic speech of condemnation, which amazes the listeners.  But it is not Peter’s skills as an orator which is important, but that the words come through the Holy Spirit.   In fact, Luke uses this phrase in a number of places in his gospel and in Acts before a prophetic speech.*  In each case, the target of the speech is Jewish; 9:17 refers to Paul receiving the Spirit, 11:24 refers to Barnabas as a man “full of the Spirit.”

Peter asks if the healing of a lame man is a good deed or not.  If this is an act of kindness, then it must come from God.  The obvious answer seems to be yes, it is a good deed from God.  If they agree it is a good deed from God, then they have a problem:  Peter states the man was healed by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, the one put to death by this very council only two months before!

The last line of his defense is a classic statement of the gospel: “There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”  This is a strong statement of total dedication to Jesus Christ.  There is no possibility of religious pluralism, Jesus is in fact the only way, truth and life.  If humans (these people before Peter or any human) expect to be right with God, they can only do it through the name of Jesus. This is really an outgrowth of the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him on his right hand (Marshall, Acts, 100). The name of Jesus is now the highest authority possible, so that Paul can say in Phil 2 that at the name of Jesus every knew will bow.

There is a remarkable boldness in this statement, but from the modern perspective of religious pluralism.  The boldness is that Peter is saying this to a group of highly religious Jews who thought that they were the ones who held the right way to salvation.   If you wanted to be right with God, you had to come to them and hear their interpretation of the Law and participate in worship only in the Temple, which they control.

Peter is saying that salvation now comes through Jesus, not the Temple.  Little wonder why these men were shocked at Peter’s boldness!

*See Luke 1:15, 1:41, 1:67; 4:1, Acts 2:4, 4:31, 6:3-5, 7:55, 9:17, 11:24, and 13:9.