After the Order of Melchizedek: Royal Themes and Melchizedek Traditions Applied to Jesus by the Author of Hebrews.
David J. Larsen
University of St Andrews
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews presents Jesus as a high priest analogous (to an extent) to the Aaronid high priests who traditionally officiated at the temple, offering sacrifices and entering the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement.However, he explains that the Aaronid priests were only an “example and shadow of heavenly things” (Heb 8:5); their ordinances were “patterns of heavenly things” (Heb 9:23), but were “carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation” (Heb 9:10), and could not help believers obtain “perfection” (Heb 7:11). The author dedicates much space (most of chapters 5-10) to demonstrating how Jesus’ priesthood is superior to that of the Aaronid/Levitical priesthood. While the contemporary Jews traced their priesthood back to Aaron, whom they saw as the first high priest, Hebrews presents Jesus as a priest after the order of the more ancient Melchizedek (Heb 7:21).
Jesus’ Melchizedek-type priesthood involved, for example, some of the following aspects: ascending to heaven to appear in the presence of God (Heb 9:24), performing priestly duties in heaven (Heb 7-9), having the power of an endless life (Heb 7:16), holding an unchangeable priesthood for ever (Heb 7:24), being Son of God (Heb 5:5), and being enthroned at His right hand (Heb 1:13). Although Jesus is compared positively to the ancient figure of Melchizedek, we still get the sense that Jesus is not equal to, but superior to Melchizedek. In chapter 7, the text expounds on the figure of Melchizedek, who the author sees as an historical figure who was “made like unto the Son of God” (Heb 7:3). This can be interpreted to mean that Melchizedek both prefigures but also is modeled after Jesus Christ, the Son of God, “the true celestial high priest.”
From where does the author of Hebrews derive his notions of the priesthood of Jesus? Why does he compare Jesus to the mysterious figure of Melchizedek, whose name appears only twice in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 14:18-20; Ps 110:4)? The author must have been familiar with the significance in Jesus being a high priest “after the order of” Melchizedek instead of Aaron. The early Christians must have known of traditions that allowed them to connect Jesus to Melchizedek. In the past few years, the topic of Jesus as high priest and the traditions that allowed the author of Hebrews to create the relationship between Jesus and Melchizedek that he does, have been given increased attention. This topic was, for example, treated extensively at a conference on Hebrews held at the University of St Andrews in 2006.
At the conference, convened by Richard Bauckham, Trevor Hart, and Nathan McDonald, one of the papers relevant to my topic was presented by Eric Mason of Judson University, who argued that the closest parallels to the view of Jesus’ role and priesthood as depicted in Hebrews are to be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls’ traditions regarding Melchizedek. A more complete exposition of Mason’s views was published as a monograph on the topic by Brill in 2008.
Although I am convinced that Mason is correct in many of his arguments, and that his overall emphasis on the shared views between Hebrews and the Qumran texts is certainly appropriate, he also spends a good section of his monograph downplaying (although not necessarily dismissing) the connections that previous scholars have made between Hebrews and other texts and traditions, such as those of Jewish thinkers like Philo, the Gnostics, or pseudepigraphal texts like 2 Enoch. While many of his assertions against these are surely justified, there remain many important trends of Jewish and Christian thinking that can be seen to parallel some of the ideas in Hebrews and that should not be obscured. As Mason himself states, “Admittedly no textual dependence of Hebrews on a Qumran document can be produced. What can be considered, though, are hints of shared views in the Qumran texts and Hebrews.” While there are clearly many instances where ideas in these Qumran texts are comparable to the traditions espoused in Hebrews, there are other ancient texts where “hints of shared views” can be identified and should be explored. It is the purpose of this paper to expound on some of the many traditions that may have contributed to the author’s bold view of Jesus and his priesthood and mysterious connections to Melchizedek that are employed by the author of Hebrews.
The only real quotations from or allusions to specific texts that we can identify in the Epistle to the Hebrews are of passages from the texts of the Hebrew Bible. Hebrews quotes, alludes to, or interprets from the Psalms, Proverbs, 2 Samuel, Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Haggai. There is a special interest in the Psalms, including some of those which are termed, in modern scholarship, the Royal and Enthronement Psalms.
While Hebrews’ use of Psalm 110:4 to describe Christ’s priesthood has certainly not gone unnoticed, a detailed analysis of that text’s reception history in Jewish and Christian circles is often lacking in the commentaries. There is something of a gap in our current understanding of how the early Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Psalms developed. The development of the understanding of the figure of Melchizedek is related to the reception history of Psalm 110. As noted previously, the only mentions of Melchizedek that we have in the texts of the Hebrew Bible are the story of Abraham paying tithes to Melchizedek, king of Salem, in Genesis 14 and the mysterious ordination of the royal figure in Psalm 110 to the priesthood “after the order of Melchizedek.” Mason does a fine job of describing how these passages were interpreted by different parties in the Second Temple Period.
Mason notes that interpretations of Genesis 14 tend to see Melchizedek as a mortal man, albeit an exceptional one. According to James Davila, “Melchizedek is mentioned fairly frequently in Second Temple literature as a human royal figure (Josephus, Ant. 1.180-81; 1QapGen xxii:13-17; Pseudo-Eupolemos [Praep. Evan. 9.17.6] ; Apos. Con. 7.39.3; 8.5.3; 8.12.23)…” Following the biblical text, he was seen not only as a king, but also as a priest of God Most High (Gen 14:8; cf. Heb 7:1).
The author of Hebrews emphasizes his superiority to Abraham, in that he blessed Abraham and received tithes from him. By extension, Melchizedek is also superior to Levi, the patriarch of the Aaronid priesthood line. However, he goes further to declare that Melchizedek was: “Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually” (Heb 7:3). In contrast to the later Aaronid priests who traced their genealogy and priesthood back to Aaron, who were subject to death, and thereupon lost their priesthood, the author of Hebrews makes the human figure of Melchizedek similar to Jesus, with divine/immortal attributes and an eternal priesthood.
Genesis mentions nothing of Melchizedek’s background (he is not listed in any genealogies), but later Jewish and Christian speculations include him in the line of the Biblical patriarchs, either as a descendent of Noah or of Noah’s brother, Nir (2 Enoch 71:32-33). In the Nag Hammadi texts, he is placed in the line “of Adam, [Abel], Enoch, [Noah] you, Melchizedek, [the Priest] of God [Most High].” In the Targumic and Rabbinic materials, Melchizedek is often specifically named as Shem, the great high priest–the eldest son of Noah. The Rabbis understood that Shem/Melchizedek had received his priesthood from his fathers, the Patriarchs, and had passed that priesthood on to Abraham, from whom the Levites would claim to have eventually received it.
The placement of Melchizedek in the genealogies of the biblical patriarchs, among other purposes, may have served to counter the claims of those Jewish and Christian parties who interpreted the lack of any given genealogy as suggesting that he was an eternal, heavenly figure. Fred Horton, Jr., in The Melchizedek Tradition, argues that the references to a lack of parentage in Hebrews 7:3 have nothing to do with Melchizedek’s mortal lineage, but has reference to his lack of Levitical priestly genealogy.
Josephus emphasizes the interpretation of his name as “Righteous King.” He goes further to assert that “he was the first to officiate as priest of God.” Not only was he the first priest of God (before Levi or Aaron), but he also, according to Josephus, named the sacred city of Jerusalem and was the first to build a temple there. As with most interpretations of Genesis 14, Josephus describes Melchizedek as a great priest/king, with no mention of Psalm 110 or any attribution of angelic or heavenly status to him.
Philo generally shares similar views in his interpretations of Gen. 14, but in On the Embassy to Gaius (3.79-82), Philo equates Melchizedek with Reason, or the Logos, the divine mediator between God and humans. Philo’s view can be seen as bridging the gap, in much the way that Hebrews does, between the view of Melchizedek as a human king and the descriptions, like some of those found at Qumran, that see him as a heavenly being.
At Qumran, 11QMelchizedek (11Q13) depicts Melchizedek as an eschatological warrior angel and other texts, such as the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, arguably present him as an angelic priest serving God in the heavenly sanctuary. Although this reading has been the focus of debate, both the relevant DJD volume and Jim Davila have found a reference to Melchizedek in Song VIII that is reconstructed as mentioning “the chiefs of the princes of the wonderful priesthoods of Melchizedek.” Put another way, we could say that this passage indicates that the organization of the angelic priesthood ranks in heaven is “after the order of Melchizedek” and that Melchizedek is the leader of the angelic priesthood. The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, also known as the “Angelic Liturgy”, is understood to depict the worship of angelic beings in the heavenly temple. The weekly Sabbath liturgy guides its participants on a virtual tour of heaven, culminating in a vision of God’s throne. According to Davila:
We must presumably think in terms of a weekly cultic drama, perhaps supplemented with the angelic songs that the text mentions without giving them to us, which led its participants into and through the macrocosmic temple (or guided them in its liturgical building)…The macrocosmic cult was understood to be staffed by angels, but the participants in this weekly cultic drama must necessarily have taken on the roles of these angelic priests and so have undergone a process of temporary transformation or angelification on some level.
Crispin Fletcher-Louis further argues that the angelic priesthood depicted in the Songs should be interpreted as the exalted human community. The human participants “perform” a ritualized, communal heavenly ascent and imagine themselves participating in the liturgy of the heavenly temple. The earthly priesthood ritually becomes the heavenly priesthood.
The “chief priesthood” of the community “is identified with the Glory of God of Ezekiel’s throne vision (Ezekiel 1:26-28).” If Melchizedek can be interpreted to be the leader of the heavenly priesthood in this Angelic Liturgy, as mentioned previously, then it is not unreasonable, in light of the above statements, to suggest that the maskil, or leader of the exalted Qumran priesthood, could have been seen as playing the role of Melchizedek, the celestial high priest.
Another related aspect attributed to the earthly priesthood in the Songs, according to Fletcher-Louis, is that during this ritual journey through heaven, they become known not only as “exalted ones,” but also as “gods” (elohim and elim). This notion of deification parallels references in 11Q13 to Melchizedek as elohim. The scroll depicts Melchizedek as the ‘elohim mentioned in Psalm 82:1 who stands in the divine council and passes judgment. Although the author seems to call Melchizedek a god, he differentiates between him and the Most High by referring to the latter as ‘El. In any case, besides rewritten bible texts like the Genesis Apocryphon, all of the documents that are understood to make reference to Melchizedek at Qumran see him as this angelic or divine figure who is often a heavenly priest. They generally seem to have no interest in the Genesis 14 story of Melchizedek as an earthly king. Why the gap?
Davila outlines the “flow of the Melchizedek tradition as preserved in our sources.”
He begins as a king and priest of pre-Davidic Jerusalem and then, some centuries later, is described also as a divine heavenly being, a god (elohim or theos) who defeats and destroys the forces of evil at the last judgment and delivers souls from the underworld.
Davila continues by asking, “How do we get from Melchizedek the priest-king to Melchizedek
My proposal is this: his divinity was not invented in the Second Temple period; rather it was suppressed in the Hebrew Bible. In other words, the apparent change from man to god is a matter of suppression of older traditions that were excluded from the biblical canon, not of innovation in the Second Temple literature.
This is a bold statement, for sure, but one that I suggest we can find support for in the Psalms and royal traditions in the Bible. Although perhaps not for the figure of Melchizedek specifically, there is evidence in the Hebrew Bible that Israel’s kings were, in some cases, understood to be both priests and angelic or divine beings.
I will first look at some of the examples of sacral, angelic, and divine kingship that are to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Psalms are one of the principal sources that the author of Hebrews is drawing on; he cites: Psalms 2, 22, 27, 45, 95, 102, 104, 110, and 118. A number of these have been designated by modern scholars as “royal psalms” which arguably had their life setting in the royal cult of the Jerusalem Temple during the time of the Monarchy.
The author of Hebrews applies psalms attributed to King David to the person of Jesus Christ.
Psalm 2 refers to the Davidic king as the LORD’s “anointed” and has Yahweh declare to the king: “Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.” Then, in Psalm 110, the king is permitted to sit down at God’s right hand, and is promised by God the eternal priesthood “after the order of Melchizedek.” Psalm 45:6-7 may be controversial for modern exegetes, but would have been a perfect example for what the author of Hebrews was looking for. After describing the glory of the Davidic king in elaborate language, the Psalmist declares:
Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity; you love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;
The most straightforward interpretation of this passage, in light of its likely Sitz im Leben, is that it is referring to the Davidic king as elohim in a fashion similar to what we saw in 11QMelchizedek. Collectively, these biblical psalms depict, arguably in the pre-exilic period, the Israelite king as a figure who is the Son of God, the messiah, a priest after the order of Melchizedek, enthroned at the right hand of God, and worthy of being called a god. Passages like Isaiah 9:6, where the royal figure is named “The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” can be added to this picture. In the LXX (Isa. 9:5), this royal figure becomes “the angel of great counsel.” Although I am not arguing that all Second Temple parties were interpreting these texts in this way, we can see that these ideas were already potentially present in the biblical text itself and should not be surprised that later exegetes picked up on this. In the case of Psalm 110, for example, David Mitchell suggests that the author of 11QMelch may have drawn on Psalm 110 for his description of Melchizedek as the angelic warrior who descends from heaven in judgment. Mitchell comments:
Such a figure appears to have been influenced by this psalm [Psalm 110], the interpreter apparently understanding על־דברתי (v. 4) as on my account or according to my promise,59 and Melchizedek as vocative: that is, You are a priest forever according to my promise, Melchizedek60… 11QMelch therefore seems to reflect an early understanding that the central figure of this psalm was to appear from the heavenly realms to wage cosmic war.
There are a number of other biblical texts that seem to perpetuate these royal motifs. In the book of 1 Chronicles 29:23, we are presented with Solomon sitting on “the Lord’s throne.” In 1 Samuel 29:9 and 2 Samuel 14:17, 20, we see the king being compared to an angel of God. Zechariah 12:8 is especially relevant:
On that day the LORD will put a shield about the inhabitants of Jerusalem so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the LORD, at their head.
Not only was the king seen as angelic or divine, but in the Second Temple period, at least, the high priest was also seen in this light. We read in Malachi 2:7 that “the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the angel of the LORD of hosts.” As noted by Crispin Fletcher-Louis, this idea is picked up and developed by the author of Jubilees, where, in chapter 31, Isaac blesses Levi and his posterity that they will “serve in [God’s] sanctuary as the angels of the presence and the holy ones.” It is apparent that the notion of earthly priests serving in the heavenly sanctuary was not limited to a small group of Qumran sectarians.
Margaret Barker describes a Second Temple ritual in which the high priest, Simon, emerges from the temple and is treated as if he were Yahweh. She notes, speaking of the situation depicted in ben Sira 50:17:
When he emerged from the holy of holies he was like the morning star, like the sun shining on the temple; his very presence made the court of the temple glorious. When he had poured the libation, the trumpet sounded and “all the people together…fell to the ground upon their faces to worship (proskunein) their LORD…” (ben Sira 50:17). The most natural way to read this is that they were worshipping the high priest, or rather, Yahweh whom he represented.
To state this in other words, ben Sira records a Second Temple ritual in which the high priest plays the role of Yahweh, the divine warrior, emerging from the heavenly temple in great glory. While we may note the similarity of these ideas to those described in 11QMelch, the significance of the existence of this description in ben Sira is that it indicates that these themes were not preserved by the Qumran sectarians alone.
Arguments for the superiority of the Melchizedek over the Aaronid priesthood are central to the Epistle to the Hebrews. At Qumran, on the other hand, as Mason notes: “Interestingly, there is no hint…of tensions between this angelic priesthood and that of the Levites.” However, once again we see that outside writings preserve a tradition in which, similar to that of Hebrews, the one priesthood is superior to the other.
Philo saw a difference between the Mosaic and Aaronic priesthoods, which he refers to respectively as the “Mystery of Moses” (the Higher Mystery or Way of Sophia) and the “Mystery of Aaron” (the Lesser Mystery or Way of the Law). Both mysteries were part of a single mystery, but one way was a preparation for the other. The difference between the two lay in the ability of the higher to allow the initiate to approach God, while the lesser was only able to apprehend the “Powers” (angels).
Philo saw Moses in much the same light as we have been discussing for Melchizedek and other royal and priestly figures. For Philo, Moses is highly exalted — he even sees fit to call Moses “the god and king of his people.” It is Moses who, acting as a representative of God, anoints Aaron as high priest and inaugurates the Levitical/Aaronid priesthood. The Aaronid high priest, however, never held the same position as Moses. Moses was the priest par excellence and taught Aaron what he had learned from God. Aaron did not participate with Moses in the theophany and revelation on Mt. Sinai; he did not receive the covenant, and was not transfigured as was Moses. Goodenough explains Philo’s view of the limitations of the Aaron order.
For high as the Mystery of Aaron could lift men, even up to cosmic proportions, it still left them material creatures, shut off, as was Aaron himself, from sharing in the realm of the incorporeal. The Aaronic initiate knew that the immaterial world was there beyond, but he was always shut in by material incense from any mystical union…the Mystery of Aaron was a part of literal Judaism, quite distinct from the higher worship offered men by Moses.
Although these were categories applied by Philo to contemporaneous students of Judaism, he drew on historical traditions. Philo understood that the “endowment” of Moses was “the cosmic priesthood and perfection” (cf. Heb. 7:11). Although he passed on some priestly prerogatives to Aaron and his sons, and “initiated” them into the priestly office, Moses remained God’s representative and continued to be the true intercessor for the people. Moses’ mediation was far superior, his sacrifices more acceptable, and the Aaronid priests were secondary in position.
Many similarities can be identified between Philo’s ideas on the superiority of the one order over the other and the parallel discussion in Hebrews. I am not arguing that the author of Hebrews was a student of, or in any way directly dependent on, Philo, as some scholars have done in the past, but it seems clear that they both draw on some of the same general traditions – traditions which can be traced back to the theology and practices of the royal cult of the Israelite monarchy. While some Jewish groups went to great lengths to tie Melchizedek to a purely mortal identity by making him the son of Noah and so forth, there were many Jews, and not only those who contributed to the Qumran library, who preferred to see an exalted, heavenly Melchizedek, perhaps following the pattern of the ancient kings and priests who were angelified or deified and given a throne at the right hand of God. Indeed, their reading of the biblical texts placed Melchizedek, the king of ancient Salem, as the predecessor of the Davidic kings, and greater than Aaron, Levi, or even Abraham.
In light of these ancient traditions, it would seem natural for Christians to make a connection between Jesus and Melchizedek. The ancient priest-kings “after the order of Melchizedek” were messiahs, or “anointed ones.” The Christians understood them to be types of the long-awaited Messiah who would come down from Heaven to restore and renew. Jesus the Messiah was raised up, crowned with glory, and given a throne at the right hand of the Father. He was the Firstborn, the Son of God, and the High Priest of the Presence. He was the LORD, without beginning of days or end of years. The priesthood of Melchizedek was the eternal, unchangeable priesthood he possessed. Jesus was after the order of Melchizedek, and Melchizedek was after the order of Jesus.
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