A Priest Forever: Christ and Melchizedek Compared
This paper examines what the author of Hebrews means when he says, referring to Psalm 110, that Jesus is a priest, “forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:6; 6:20; 7:17).
After surveying the scriptural evidence and attempting to gain a clear picture of first century Judaism’s understanding of Melchizedek, this paper will show that the best explanation for the comparisons between Christ and Melchizedek is simply that, like Melchizedek—and quite unlike the Levitical, or “Aaronic” priests—Christ’s priesthood was eternal and independent of lineage. The ultimate intent of the author of Hebrews is not to make a statement about Melchizedek. Rather, the author aims to put forth a solid Christology with which his audience, probably comprised of Jewish converts deeply familiar with Hellenistic culture, would acutely identify.
The enigmatic nature of Melchizedek has given rise to
numerous competing, and perhaps more interesting, theories surrounding the
references to Melchizedek in the book of Hebrews (and, by extension, his
original appearance in Genesis). These include Melchizedek as an angelic
figure, a type of Christ, or even as an Old Testament “Christophany”—a
pre-incarnate appearance of Christ in Genesis 14. After examining the
biblical witness and extra-biblical Jewish literature, this paper will show
that these theories are found wanting of evidence.
MELCHIZEDEK TRADITIONS IN LITERATURE
The Old Testament briefly mentions Melchizedek only twice—first in Genesis 14, then again in Psalm 110. Scripture’s short witness to Melchizedek makes it challenging to determine much about him. Yet, it’s possible that a considerable amount of legend may have grown up around Melchizedek by the time of Second Temple Judaism. As Granerød astutely observes, “We do not have access to the library which the author of Hebrews had at his disposal. And— we do not know precisely what oral traditions he was familiar with.”  Still, it should be reasonable to assume that extra-biblical legends or traditions may have influenced the way both the author and original audience of the book of Hebrews viewed Melchizedek.
Melchizedek in the Old Testament
The Old Testament first mentions Melchizedek, king of Salem(peace) and “priest of God most high,” in Genesis 14:17-24. Along with the king of Sodom, Melchizedek meets Abram upon the latter’s return from rescuing his nephew, Lott, and defeating the Elamite king, Chedorlaomer. Melchizedek brings bread and wine blesses Abram. In turn, Abram tithes a tenth of his belongings to Melchizedek. To Kroeger, this is a powerful image that the God who called Abram out of Ur of the Chaldeas is present in Palestine, as well.  Still, while Melchizedek is both a king and a priest, this is not a pattern followed in the later monarchies of Israel and Judah.
Psalm 110, the next Old Testament mention of Melchizedek, appears unusual in light of the day’s understanding of priestly and kingly lineage. Citing Psalm 110 five times, the author of Hebrews relies upon this passage, as Merrill notes, far more foundationally than upon the narrative of Genesis 14.  According to Paul, the enthronement of an Israelite king—perhaps even David himself—probably occasioned the writing of Psalm110. Even before the dawning of Christianity, the Jews regarded Psalm 110 as having messianic implications. A reflection of their understanding of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah, the New Testament authors refer to this psalm fifteen times in describing the risen Christ. 
In Psalm 110, the Lord (Yahweh) speaks to “my lord” (ladoni), promising that the He has made the king, “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4). Psalm 110, then, celebrates the enthronement of a king who is also a priest of the highest order. As Paul observes, it was not uncommon in the cultic practices of Israel’s neighbors (including the Egyptians, Assyrians, and the Phoenicians) for the king to be a central, even priestly, figure in the religion.  Certainly, even many kings of Israel and Judah were active participants in the religious life of the nation. Indeed, 2 Samuel 24, among other instances, shows David as building an altar and offering burnt offerings and peace offerings. Such kingly participation incorporate worship, even in a leading role, appears far different, however, from priestly service in the tabernacle and, later, the temple.  In these holiest of places, priestly service was limited to members of the tribe of Levi. For a king of Israel, never a Levite, to simultaneously serve as a priest was impossible.
Throughout the Old Testament, the Messiah is certainly a kingly figure. While the kingly motif is the most common, the idea of a future priest-king sees Old Testament support beyond Psalm 110. However, Zachariah 6:9-15, in a way reminiscent of Isaiah 11 and Jeremiah 23, speaks of a “Branch”—a righteous ruler. Just as in Isaiah and Jeremiah, the Branch of Zachariah is most often considered a messianic leader. Yet, the Branch of Zachariah 6 is not only a king, but also a priest who sits enthroned in the temple.  A careful study of the Old Testament shows that the Messiah is not only a ruler, descended from the line of David, but that he is also a central figure in the worship practices of the nation—he is a greater priest, even, than the high priests of the day.
Melchizedek in Extra-Canonical Jewish Literature
It is possible that a substantial legend grew up around Melchizedek in the Jewish literature of antiquity. A badly fragmented manuscript (“11QMelch”), found in Qumran Cave 11, speaks extensively of him. Though not definitively ascertained, it is conceivable that 11QMelch could provide insight into the Jewish tradition surrounding Melchizedek. Such ideas might have shaped the views of the original audience of Hebrews. According to Rainbow, the manuscript dates to around 120 BCE, roughly two centuries before the authoring of Hebrews.  Certainly this is a date close enough to the original composition of Hebrews that the author and his audience might be familiar with the same legends.
According to Fitzmeyer, 11QMelch does provide a Jewish understanding of Melchizedek that is contemporary with the author and audience. Melchizedek, says Fitzmeyer,“is associated with the deliverance of divine judgment, with a day of atonement, with a year of jubilee, and with a role that exalts him high above the assembly of heavenly beings.” These associations, contends Fitzmeyer, “make the comparison in Hebrews between Jesus the high priest and Melchizedek all the more intelligible.” Many scholars believe that the Melchizedek of the Qumran fragment is to be associated with the archangel Michael, a position the Babylonian Talmud appears to support.  At the very least, the Melchizedek of 11QMelch is an eschatological figure. Rainbow takes a position contrary to more widely held views. He argues that, in 11QMelch, Melchizedek is a messianic figure, perhaps even the Davidic Messiah himself. 
Certainly, there looks to be a paucity of evidence, outside of the Qumran fragment, that Melchizedek was a major eschatological, angelic,or messianic figure in Second Temple Judaism. The biblical witness to an extensive Melchizedek tradition is not strong. It is reasonable to expect that, given the wealth of eschatological material the Old Testament prophets wrote, Melchizedek might receive mention if he were truly an eschatological figure. Of the New Testament writers, all of whom were Jews, only the author of Hebrews even mentions Melchizedek. This omission certainly does nothing to bolster the case that first century Judaism understood Melchizedek as a messianic figure, though it does not decisively eliminate the possibility, either.
MELCHIZEDEK IN HEBREWS: WHO WAS THAT ENIGMATIC MAN?
The author of Hebrews provides the most extensive exposé of Melchizedek to be found anywhere in the pages of the Bible. The mention of Melchizedek in the book of Hebrews has caused much speculation about just who Melchizedek was. Some scholars have identified Melchizedek as a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ—a Christophany—or other sort of theophany. Others have referred to him as a type of Christ. The heterodox theology of Mormonism even promotes the idea that there were two types of priesthood in ancient Israel, the Aaronic and the Melchizedekian. While well outside of Christian orthodoxy, this view receives mention here to show that a wide range of opinion, lore, and legend surrounds Melchizedek.
Melchizedek as Christophany
Still, according to Thompson, the description of Melchizedek as “without father or mother,” is not really an argument from silence, but one that Hellenistic culture would have immediately recognized as speaking of deity. The author of Hebrews is not borrowing from the Greek pantheon to formulate his theology. Rather, he is using a practice not unlike Paul’s own apologetic arguments in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), borrowing concepts that would have been familiar to the hearers. Athena, daughter of Zeus, had no mother, while Hephaistos was said to have a mother, but not a father. However, this relegates these figures, and others, to a “demi-god” status; a true god, according to Hellenistic mythology, would have neither father, nor mother.  Cockerill agrees that this was ancient practice but tempers the argument by noting the phrase was also used of orphans, the illegitimate, or those whose genealogy was lost.
 The author of Hebrews, a master rhetorician, likely would have understood this dual use of such phrases. It is plausible that he may have used the phrase intentionally, first to describe the unknown parentage of Melchizedek, transferring the phrase over to portray Christ as divine.
Many scholars have argued that, in saying Melchizedek is without father or mother, and that he is one “resembling the Son of God” (v. 3), the author of Hebrews can only mean that the appearance of Melchizedek in Genesis 14 is a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ to Abraham. Genesis14 itself appears not to lend any credibility to this notion. Longman certainly rejects the view of Melchizedek as a Christophany, opining that the author of Hebrews exploited the mystery and enigma surrounding the King of Salem to make a theological point. 
Melchizedek as Type of Christ
Granerød rejects any notion that Melchizedek was some how divine, even if as a theophany or Christophany. Rather, he submits, the author of Hebrews skillfully used a wide variety of hermeneutical techniques that were common in first century Judaism.  Among these techniques is typology, which,says Granerød, is a scheme the author of Hebrews uses extensively throughout the entire work. In Hebrews 7, says Granerød,“the sacerdotal Christology (throughout Hebrews) is thoroughly accounted for by means of Christology. Melchizedek is presented as the antitype of Christ.” 
Melchizedek is a priest-king to whom Abraham, the progenitor of all the Levitical priests, himself renders a tithe, and from whom Abraham receives a blessing. Since, the author of Hebrews clearly uses typology throughout his work, reasons Granerød, it is reasonable to expect that the author sees the Abraham-Melchizedek encounter of Genesis 14 as typological. That event foreshadows the arrival, with a greater covenant, of a greater priesthood than the Levitical priesthood.  For his part, Merrill sees Melchizedek as a type of Christ’s high priesthood, with David as a type of Christ’s kingship. The linkage of these two types occurs in Psalm 110. 
To see Melchizedek as a typological representation of the high priesthood of Christ looks far more justifiable based upon the text. However, to view Melchizedek, in his entire person, as a typological representation of Christ, appears to go further than author of Hebrews would have desired. For his part, the author of Hebrews was intent upon presenting a Christology of the highest order throughout his work. The author’s use Melchizedek, just like his use of other Old Testament characters, particularly Moses, is simply part of his continuous effort to make lesser to greater comparisons with Christ.
THE NATURE OF PRIESTHOODS COMPARED
According to Guthrie, the author of Hebrews argues from the silence of Genesis 14 concerning any background information for Melchizedek, including his ancestry, birth, death, or priestly qualifications. By contrast, the Old Testament extensively elucidates the criteria placed upon the Levitical priesthood, including lineage and its termination at death. The author of Hebrews makes clear that Jesus serves as a heavenly high priest, noting that, with a change in the law comes the need for a new priesthood (Heb 7:12). There are many similarities in Christ’s high priesthood, including the apparent exercise of sacerdotal functions.  Scripture bears extensive witness to the functions of the earthly, Levitical high priests. However, the author of Hebrews is clear that there are extensive differences between Christ’s priesthood and that of the Aaronic priests.
Through his appeal to Melchizedek, the author intends to accentuate the differences between the new priesthood of Christ and the old Levitical priesthood. Yet, nearly two millennia later, the author’s precise meaning remains a matter of debate. Certainly, Melchizedek’s priesthood is not inexact correspondence to that of the ascended Christ, but rather, the author uses the example of Melchizedek to argue from lesser to greater. If the audience can see that Melchizedek is a superior priest to the Levites, then they should be able to take the further logical step to the even greater priesthood of Christ. Melchizedek demonstrates several key attributes of the priesthood of Christ. These are the direct calling, the durability, the lineage, and the superiority of the Christ’s priesthood as compared to the priesthood exercised by the Aaronic priests.
The Divine Priestly Calling
The high priests of the Levitical priesthood were called from among men, an appointment from God, made via other men (Heb 5:1-4). Melchizedek, implies the author of Hebrews, received his priesthood calling directly from God. Likewise, in the case of Christ, the author of Hebrews is explicit; Jesus’ call to the high priesthood is directly from God. Chosen from among men—more specifically, God become man—Christ is able to sympathize with humanity, as is the case with the earthly high priests (Heb 5:2), yet He is without the same weaknesses as the earthly high priests. These weaknesses, says Allen, are most likely the susceptibility to sin and temptation. 
Like the earthly high priests, Christ has not undertaken his priesthood to exalt himself, but rather for the glory of the Father (Heb 5:5). Unlike the earthly high priests, however, Christ is deserving of such honor, for He is the Son of God and, also unlike earthly priests, He is the source of eternal salvation (Heb 5:5-10). What’s more, unlike the earthly priests who assume office without an oath, Christ is a priest by an oath of God (Heb7:20-21).
The Durability of the Priesthood
Certainly,the eternal nature of Melchizedek’s priesthood is difficult to justify, based on the text of Genesis 14 alone. Based on a straightforward reading, the everlasting priesthood of “my Lord,” in Psalm110 is readily discerned. Less clear,however, is whether that eternal nature describes Melchizedek’s priesthood, as well. The author of Hebrews, however, is unequivocal;Melchizedek “continues a priest forever” (7:3). Melchizedek is not part of an eternal order of priests, but rather, he himself holds an eternal priesthood. The author of Hebrews continues with a strong justification for the eternality of Melchizedek’s priesthood. By its silence, Genesis 14 does not bound the priesthood of Melchizedek. The author of Hebrews, then, is free to positively affirm the eternal priesthood of Melchizedek, of which Psalm 110appears to speak, without doing damage to Genesis 14.
Hagner observes that, “Because there is no record of Melchizedek’s death, nor therefore of the termination of his priesthood (or of any succession to it),the conclusion can be drawn that he remains a priest forever.”  While Guthrie does see the author of Hebrews as arguing from the points where Genesis 14 is silent, the author is not claiming Melchizedek’s eternal priesthood means that Melchizedek did not die or is otherwise supernatural.  Rather, the eternal nature of Melchizedek’s priesthood is seen more clearly in Hebrews 7:4-10. Because Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek,by extension, the Levitical priests—all of whom are Abraham’s progeny—continue to render a tithe to Melchizedek through their common ancestor. 
By contrast, the temporary nature of the Aaronic priests needs little explanation. Death prevents a Levitical priest from continuing in office (7:23). Christ, on the other hand, continues forever in office because He has conquered death (7:24) and continues to exercise his high priesthood in the heavenly tabernacle.
The Lineage of the Priesthood
In Hebrews5:5-10, the author of Hebrews says that God has appointed Christ a heavenly high priest. Christ is “a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” Like every high priest, including Melchizedek, Christ is appointed from among men to intercede for his people. Like every Levitical high priest, Jesus is Jewish and male, but his earthly pedigree would disqualify him from the priesthood of Aaron. Likewise, Melchizedek has no genealogical claim to the priesthood, and, like Christ, he does not need such lineage.  God anointed the Levitical high priests, but other men served as the instruments in that selection. Like Melchizedek, Christ has received his high priesthood directly from God, with no intermediary required. 
To Kroger, Melchizedek’s lack of dependence on lineage
foreshadows a priesthood whose scope is far greater than the Levitical
priesthood. With absolutely no connection to the Aaronic priests, “(T)he
gentile Melchizedek bespoke a wider understanding of the priesthood as he
blessed Abram, through whom God had promised to bless all the nations of the
The Superiority of the Priesthood
As Guthrie notes, the name Melchizedek alludes to the Hebrew words melek (king) and sedeq (righteousness). Melchizedek is the “king of Salem,” or “king of peace,” as the author of Hebrews explains (Heb 7:2) in a clear association with the Hebrew salom or shalom. Guthrie sees righteousness and peace as appropriate concepts “for one who prefigures the Messiah, who would make righteousness and peace possible for the people of God.”
In Hebrews 6:19-20, the author tells the audience that Jesus has gone into the heavenly holy place, “the inner place behind the curtain,” as their forerunner, as “high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” The author of Hebrews makes clear the Melchizedek’s priesthood is not only durable in nature and independent of lineage, but he also expounds on its superiority to the Levitical priesthood in Hebrews7:4-10. As the author of Hebrews explains, Abraham’s tithing to Melchizedek shows the superiority of his priesthood because, as part of Abraham’s posterity, the Levites have, in effect, offered tithes to Melchizedek through their ancestor (7:4-10).
In the same way, Jesus Christ, as pre-existent, incarnate logos, predates the Levitical high priests. Whether or not the Aaronic priests choose to accept the reality, Christ is (or should be) the true object of their worship. Moreover,Melchizedek blessed Abraham (Heb 7:6), a clear demonstration of the superiority of the former (Heb 7:7). In the context of priestly blessing, Cockerill finds it appropriate that Hebrews depicts Melchizedek as Abraham’s superior.
At this point, the author has nothing new to add by way of describing the priesthood of Melchizedek. He has shifted his attention entirely to the priesthood of Christ. The Levitical priesthood, which mediated the Law, cannot bring about perfection. Clearly, a new priesthood,after the order of Melchizedek, is needed (Heb 7:11-12). Christ’s priesthood finds its legitimacy not in heredity, but in his own “indestructible life” (Heb 7:14-17). Christ—who needs to offer no sacrifice for himself—is mediator of a superior covenant, one He guarantees with his “once for all sacrifice.” (Heb 7:27). It is this this finished work that makes Christa “priest forever,” always interceding in the heavenly holy-of-holies, forever interceding for believers (Heb 7:24-28). Indeed, Christ has completely abolished the sacrificial system of the Levitical priesthood, forever replacing it with the better covenant He mediated with his own perfect sacrifice. 
The author of Hebrews intends to develop a high Christology throughout the book, and uses a variety of rhetorical, philosophical, typological, and hermeneutical methods to do so. His goal in writing the book of Hebrews was not to shed further light on the character of Melchizedek. In focusing on what the author of Hebrews has to say about Melchizedek, rather than what Melchizedek’s example says about Christ, readers miss the point entirely. Indeed, from Hebrews 8 onward, the author continues to describe the priesthood of Christ without ever mentioning Melchizedek again. Melchizedek is hardly a central character,even in Hebrews 7, where he receives more mention than anywhere else in Scripture.
Melchizedek was not a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ nor did he hold tremendous significance as a type of Christ. Rather, the author’s reference to the enigmatic Melchizedek was yet another tool, used in this instance to explain the superior nature of Christ’s high priesthood as mediator of a new and better covenant. The original audience would have understood the motif of high priestly intercession, mediated through the Levitical priesthood. The author of Hebrews uses Melchizedek to remind his audience that there is a superior priesthood, older than the Levitical priesthood, and more powerful, more efficacious, and broader in scope. The author of Hebrews masterfully uses this Melchizedek as part of a lesser to greater argument to help his audience both understand the limitations of the old, Levitical system in contrast to the power and finality of the high priestly system of Christ. Like Melchizedek, Christ holds a priesthood unbound by mortality and holds qualifications far greater than simple lineage. Jesus’ priesthood is also far more powerful than the Aaronic system. In vividly describing Christ’s superior priesthood,the author of Hebrews intended to encourage steadfastness in an audience considering a return to Judaism in the face of persecution.
 All Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
 Gard Granerød,“Melchizedek in Hebrews 7,” Biblica 90, no. 2 (2009): 201, accessed September 17, 2014, http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rvh&AN=NTA0000064191&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
 Catherine Clark Kroeger, “Melchizedek and the Universality of the Gospel,” Priscilla Papers 17, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 4, accessed September 17, 2014, http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=33h&AN=33h-71AEBA30-87A78500&site=ehost-live&scope=site
 Eugene H. Merrill, “Royal Priesthood: An Old Testament Messianic Motif,” Bibliotheca Sacra 150, no. 597 (January 1993): 52, accessed September 17, 2014, http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rvh&AN=NTA0000012647&site=ehost-live&scope=site
 Kroeger, 3.
M.J. Paul, “The Order of Melchizedek (Ps 110:4 and Heb 7:3),” Westminster Theological Journal 49, no. 1 (1987): 196, accessed September 17, 2014, http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login.aspx? direct=true&db=rvh&AN=NTA0000004159&site=ehost-live&scope=site
 Merrill, 58.
 Paul, 199.
 Paul Rainbow, “Melchizedek as Messiah at Qumran,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 7, no. 1 (1997): 180, accessed September 25, 2014, http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=oah&AN=OTA0000021956&site=ehost-live&scope=site
 Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, “Further Light on Melchizedek from Qumran Cave 11,” Journal of Biblical Literature 86, no. 1 (March 1967): 31, accessed September 24, 2014, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3263241.
 Ibid., 32.
 Rainbow, 181.
 Gareth L. Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans,2012), 304.
 James W. Thompson, Hebrews. Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 3984,Kindle.
 Cockerill, 300.
 Tremper Longman, How to Read Genesis (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2005), 172.
 Ibid., 192.
 Ibid., 190.
 Merrill, 57.
 George H. Guthrie, Hebrews, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1998): 254.
 David L. Allen, Hebrews, New American Commentary, Vol. 35 (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2010), 304, Kindle.
 Donald A. Hagner,Hebrews, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2011), 2472, Kindle.
 Guthrie, 254.
 Ibid., 254.
 Peter T. O’Brian, The Letter to the Hebrews, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010): 4836,Kindle.
 Ibid., 3763, Kindle.
 Kroeger, 4.
 For his part, Mason disagrees with this assertion, arguing that this is mostlikely something the author of Hebrews gleaned from a mistranslation in the Septuagint. Mason says that a carefulreading of the Masoretic text renders the word as “Schechem.” Eric F. Mason, “Hebrews 7:3 and the Relationship Between Melchizedek andJesus,” Biblical Research 50 (January2005): 43, accessed September 25, 2014, http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rvh&AN=NTA0000056807&site=ehost-live&scope=site
 Guthrie, 253.
 Cockerill, 311.
 Ibid., 326.
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