Who was Melchizedek?

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Melchizedek was a person who was mentioned briefly in the Old Testament (Genesis 14:17-20; Psalm 100:4) and in one book from the New Testament (Hebrews 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:1-2, 5, 10-11, 15, 17), but gained iconic status in the historical church.  There are several views concerning the identity of Melchizedek, but the consensus falls generally into four categories.  Either he was Shem, Noah’s son, a theophany, or albeit, the pre-incarnate Second Person of the Godhead, Jesus Christ, he was a Canaanite priest, or he was simply a historical figure, in which the early church typified him as Jesus Christ, and theologically revered him in an iconic way.

There are several sources in Rabbinic literature that refer to Melchizedek is the son of Noah, Shem, and this is largely believed because “of the life-span assigned to Shem in Gen 11.”[1]  In the “Targum of l Chronicles 1,24, where the person of Melchizedek is implicitly referred to (“Shem the high priest”)”[2] to the point that “the identification of Melchisedek with Shem has been so thoroughly made that he has lost his identity and name.”[3]  Partly the reason why Jewish literature refers to Melchizedek as Shem is based on Jewish scholars being embarrassed, although not shared by all, that a patriarchal figure like Abraham would pay homage to a pagan king, and was paying respects to his ancestor.[4]  However, this could be a polemic target against the early church interpretation’s mentioning of him in Hebrews and the iconic status he was receiving in the early church,[5] however Rabbi Ishmael believes he is the son of Noah, Shem and claims it “appears to be an old tradition, probably before the Christian era.  Its origins do not appear to have been polemic.”[6]

Several exegetes believe the content surrounding Melchizedek is that he was a Canaanite priest from a Canaanite cult.[7]  They predominantly base this on the text in the Hebrew Bible whereby Melchizedek is the priest of ‘El Elyon,’ who is identified in Jewish monotheism as Yahweh.[8]  “The fact that Melchizedek was a Canaanite priest is corroborated by the very nature of its god El Elyon.”[9]  Essentially the emphasis on the name El Elyon as a reference to a Canaanite god, or even Baal,  and  the area was the “center of a pre-Davidic cult of El Elyon, but there is ample indication in extra-biblical texts that the appellation was widely used in Canaanite religion.”[10]  Much of this view is also presumed based on extra-Biblical material coupled with the Hebrew text, and the likelihood of this interpretation is possible.

As a theophany, Melchizedek is considered a pre-incarnate Christ.  Scholars like Manzi have even attributed the name Melchizedek to be another divine title for God Himself.[11]  Yet Van De Water argues for his identity as that of an intermediary, like Jesus Christ by reconciling Manzi’s conclusion into “Melchizedek as Yhwh and at the same time as God’s intermediary.”[12]  This would allow the identification of him as a theophany, by not only being divine in nature, but also a mediator between God and man, in which Jesus Christ fulfilled every role (1 Timothy 2:5).  However, both scholars do so by evaluating many of the Qumran findings and early rabbinic literature that denotes a “two powers in Heaven” philosophy that was eventually deemed heresy in the 2nd century by Rabbinical Judaism.

Melchizedek likewise could simply be a historical figure, who typified Jesus Christ and theologically was implied as such by the early church.  Drawing from Psalm 110:4, Hebrews 7:5 declares Jesus a “priest according to the prophecy of the psalm,”[13] and “it becomes clear upon scriptural warrant that Melchizedek is a type of Christ.”[14]    This is generally interpreted as “proving the eternity of the priesthood of Christ and its superiority to the Levitical priesthood, based on the argument that Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek through Abraham his forefather (cf. Heb. 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:12, 21).”[15]  Jesus appealed to Psalm 110 in Mark 12:35-37, and it can be asserted that Christ theologically implied He was after the order of Melchizedek, and His “self-referential citation of Psalm 110 in combination with Daniel 7 at his trial explains his death for his own version of that theology.”[16]

The most likely interpretation that follows the data is Melchizedek was a type-Christ, a historical figure in ancient Palestine to whom Abraham paid tithes to.  Whoever Melchizedek was, he eventually became a typological messiah-priest type who the people of God revered and felt warranted to theologically place him within the New Testament’s epistle to the Hebrews.  Although briefly covered, all views concerning Melchizedek have some validity to it, just as much as he was a mysterious character in the Bible.  The extra-Biblical references of him cause some tension with the theological assertions some exegetes have regarding him, yet there can be some harmony found in both the theological, typified Messiah and the historical Canaanite Priest views, which would give a richer and deeper understanding of Melchizedek.

[1] McNamara, Martin. “Melchizedek: Gen 14,17-20 in the Targums, in Rabbinic and Early Christian Literature.” Biblica, vol. 81, no. 1, 2000, p. 31. Accessed June, 30, 2017.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Ibid., 15.

[5] Ibid., 16.

[6] Ibid., 29.

[7] Delcor, M. “Melchizedek from Genesis to the Qumran Texts and the Epistle to the Hebrews.” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period 2 (1971): 117, Accessed Jun 29, 2017.

[8] Ibid., 116.

[9] Ibid., 117.

[10] Smith, Robert Houston. “Abram and Melchizedek (Gen 1418-20).” Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 36, no. 2 (1965): 148, Accessed June 30, 2017.

[11] F. Manzi, Melchisedek e l’angelologia nell’epistola agli Ebrei e a Qumran (AnBib, 136; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1997), p. 64.

[12]Rick Van De Water, “Michael or Yhwh? Toward Identifying Melchizedek in 11Q13,” Journal for the study of the Pseudepigrapha, Vol 16.1 (2006): 85. Published July 31, 2016.  Accessed June 30, 2107.

[13] John F. Walvoord, Jesus Christ is Our Lord, (Chicago, Moody Publsihers, 1969), 68.

[14] Ibid., 68.

[15] Ibid., 68.

[16] Fletcher-Louis, Crispin H. T. “JESUS AS THE HIGH PRIESTLY MESSIAH: PART 2.” Journal For The Study Of The Historical Jesus 5, no. 1 (January 2007): 79. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed July 1, 2017).