"For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light..."

Melchizedek Priesthood Origins

by Briger A. Pearson

Genesis 14:17-24 reports that Abram ("the Hebrew," 14:3), upon his victorious return from a battle, was met by the king of Sodom ("Bera," 14:2), who was eager to reward Abram for coming to his and his allies' aid. The narrative is interrupted by an enigmatic insertion (14:18-20) featuring "Melchizedek king of Salem," "priest of God Most High" (RSV). Melchizedek "brought out bread and wine" and blessed Abram in the name of God Most High (Hebrew 'el "elyôn). Abram then gave Melchizedek a tithe of his booty. This priest-king of Salem has enjoyed a wide range of interpretation among Jewish, Christian, and Gnostic writings, some that brought him up to the heights of heaven, and others—of developing Christian and Jewish orthodoxy—that brought him down to earth again.

This mosaic shows Melchizedek standing behind an altar symbolically receiving the sacrifices of Abel and Abraham. Saint Apollonaire in Classe, Ravenna, Italy (sixth century A.D.)

The story of Genesis 14 has raised numerous questions. Most modern scholars entertain a possible connection of this Melchizedek with a pre-Israelite kingship and/or priesthood in the Jebusite city of Jerusalem ("Salem") before its conquest by King David (2 Sam. 5:6-10). The incorporation of the story into Judean traditions reflects the interests of the Jerusalem royal ideology.

The only other Old Testament occurrence of the name Melchizedek is found in a royal Jerusalemite psalm, Psalm 110:4. There God ("the Lord") addresses the king thus: "You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek."

Melchizedek occurs in the New Testament only in the Epistle to the Hebrews (5:6-10; 6:20; 7:1-17), where the Old Testament figure is interpreted as a type of the "high priest" of the New Covenant, Jesus Christ. The key passage is Hebrews 7:3, where it is said that Melchizedek "resembles the Son of God." Melchizedek's priesthood, superior to that of the "descendants of Levi" (Heb. 7:5), is a foreshadowing of the priesthood of the Son of God. Hebrews 7:3 becomes the basis for most Christian interpretation of the figure of Melchizedek (Horton, pp. 111, 152, 161-64).

An important witness to pre-Christian Jewish speculation on Melchizedek has surfaced among the Dead Sea Scrolls: 11QMelch. The fragmentary Hebrew text, usually dated to the first century B.C., features Melchizedek as a heavenly end-time redeemer, with attributes of the archangel Michael. He appears in the tenth and final jubilee of world history to rescue the elect, the "men of the lot of Melchizedek" (ii.8), doing battle with Belial and his fellow evil spirits. Melchizedek's triumph is described as a high-priestly act of "expiation" (ii.8; cf. Kobelski, pp. 5-23).

Melchizedek is mentioned by Philo, a first-century Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, in three writings (Legum Allegoriae 3.79-82; De Congressu 89; De Abrahamo 235). Philo interprets the text of Genesis in a Platonic-allegorical fashion, seeing in Melchizedek a reference to the divine Logos, the thought of God in which the pattern of all existing things is conceived and the "image" of God according to which man was created.

Another important text, 2 Enoch, attests to early Jewish interest in the figure of Melchizedek. The date and place of this document are controversial, but recent scholarship places its original Greek version in the first century A.D. in Alexandria (cf. F. I. Andersen's introduction and translation in Charlesworth, Vol. 1, pp. 91-213). In this text (chaps. 71-72), a child is born miraculously to Noah's recently deceased sister-in-law, and the child, marked on his chest with a priestly seal, speaks and praises God. The boy is named Melchizedek by Noah and his brother Nir, whose wife had been posthumously delivered. In a night vision Nir is told of the impending flood; he is also informed that the archangel Michael will bring Melchizedek to paradise, thus enabling him to escape the flood waters. Melchizedek will eventually become the chief of priests among the people, and in the end of days he will be revealed yet another time as the chief priest. In this text, Melchizedek has three different earthly manifestations: born before the Flood, serving in the postdiluvian age as a great priest, and functioning in the end-time as a messianic priest (cf. Gruenewald, pp. 90-92; Delcor, pp. 127-30).

Some of these Jewish interpretations were taken over by Gnostics and are now reflected in some Christian Gnostic texts preserved in Coptic manuscripts of the fourth and fifth centuries (Pearson, 1990). In one fragmentary manuscript, the disciple John asks Jesus to explain what is said about Melchizedek in Hebrews 7:3. Unfortunately, the text breaks off before Jesus' interpretation is given.

A fragmentary text from Nag Hammadi (IX.1: Melchizedek; cf. Pearson, 1981, pp. 19-85) contains an apocalypse given by angels to Melchizedek, "priest of God Most High." It is revealed to Melchizedek that he will ultimately reappear as Jesus Christ, Son of God, to do battle with the cosmic forces of darkness. Here one can see influence not only from the Epistle to the Hebrews but also from non-Christian lore.

In the Second Book of Jeu, "Zorokothora Melchizedek" is a heavenly priest who presides over a heavenly baptism. No trace of influence from Hebrews is found in this text.

The most developed levels of speculation on Melchizedek, also lacking any influence from Hebrews, are found in Pistis Sophia, Book 4, in which Melchizedek plays a key role in the process of purifying human souls for entry into the "Treasury of Light" and transferring them from the domain of the archons, or earthly rulers, to that heavenly region. The younger material in books 1-3 of Pistis Sophia develops these ideas further: Melchizedek is a heavenly being who seals the saved souls upon their entry into the realm of light.

The church fathers attest to several heterodox ideas associated with Melchizedek. Hippolytus of Rome (Refutatio 7.35-36) and Epiphanius of Salamis (Panarion 55) are the most important witnesses to a group of heretics called Melchizedekians. They had a low Christology and exalted Melchizedek as a heavenly power superior to Christ. Others equated Melchizedek with the Holy Spirit (Panarion 67), and some "even in the true church" (i.e., not "heretics") naively regarded Melchizedek as the Son of God (Panarion 55.7.3). The later view seems also to have been present among the monasteries of Egypt (Apophthegmata Patrum, in Patrologia Graeca 65.160) and was even defended in a treatise on Melchizedek by a fifth-century resident of the Judean desert, Mark the Hermit (PG 65.1117-40). Such views were eventually overcome by teacher-bishops such as Cyril of Alexandria (PG 65.160).

On the Jewish side, while early rabbis continued to speculate on Melchizedek's role in scripture (e.g., equating him with Shem, son of Noah; cf. b. Nedarim 32b; Midrash Gen. R. 44.7; Targum Ps.-J. Gen. 14:18), a major stream of rabbinic tradition viewed Melchizedek negatively, a fact that indicates some Jewish sensitivity to the use of Melchizedek traditions by Christians (Gianotto, pp. 172-85).



Charlesworth, James H. Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Garden City, N.Y., 1983.

Delcor, M. "Melchizedek from Genesis to the Qumran Texts and the Epistle to the Hebrews." Journal of Jewish Studies 2 (1971):115-35.

Gianotto, Claudio. Melchisedek e la sua tipologia. Supplementi alla Rivista Biblica 12. Brescia, 1984.

Gruenewald, Ithamar. "The Messianic Image of Melchizedek" (in Hebrew). Mahanayim 124 (1970):88-98.

Horton, Fred L., Jr. The Melchizedek Tradition. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 30. Cambridge, 1976.

Kobelski, Paul J. Melchizedek and Melchiresva". Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 10. Washington, D.C., 1981.

Pearson, Birger A. "The Figure of Melchizedek in Gnostic Literature." In Pearson, Gnosticism, Judaism, and Egyptian Christianity. Studies in Antiquity and Christianity 5. Minneapolis, 1990.

Pearson, Birger A., ed. Nag Hammadi Codices IX and X. Leiden, 1981.


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