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The Genesis account of Abraham's encounter with Melchizedek leaves us with powerful few details about his life, yet later on the author of Hebrews clearly uses his priestly work as a type of Christ, going so far as to compare their origins and rolls as priest. Genesis at least tells us that the man was a king and priest:

Genesis 14:17-18 (ESV)
17  After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley). 18  And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.)

Hence the introduction in Hebrews doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. In fact in seems fairly obvious at first that the author's source is in fact the Genesis account.

Hebrews 7:1-2 (ESV)
7 For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace.

However when we get to verse 3, it seems like we get an extra fragment of information about the life of Melchizedek than cannot be plainly derived from the Genesis account.

Hebrews 7:3 (ESV)
He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.

True, he kind of just shows up on the stage and walks off again when his scene is over, but I wouldn't normally assume that because a narrative leaves off the genealogy of a character that that character didn't have parents or eventually a tombstone somewhere. Yet that seems to be the conclusion drawn by Auctor.

Besides one brief mention in Psalms I don't know of any other Scriptural sources for information on Melchizedek. Are there other sources predating Hebrews that share this understanding of the narrative? Would Auctor have had other sources (either textual or traditional) for his/her understanding of Melchizedek's nature1?

In other words, was this a doctrinal understanding shared by others of his time, or, if one is to believe the text to be authoritative, does this need to be understood as an instance of divine revelation that made this detail available to those who received the book? Asked yet another way, was this text the first instance of Melchizedek being identified as specifically not having a beginning or end and for being an 'eternal priest'2?

1 I am aware that some believe this to be a pre-Christ theophany. I am less interested in the interpretation of the Hebrews passage as I am in knowing what sources Auctor may have had on this subject when it was written.

2 ...as opposed to your 'garden variety priest' that will one day find a home six feet under some church garden.

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3 Answers 3

An important piece of evidence that provides a partial answer for this question comes from the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS).

11Q13

Qumran Cave 11

A large number of fragments were found in Cave 11, among them a text known as 11Q13 or 11QMelchizedek. In brief (and quoting the "About" text from the DeadSeaScrolls.org.il site),1 it is a short text which

focuses on Melchizedek, an enigmatic figure who is mentioned only twice in the Hebrew Bible: in Genesis 14:18–20 and in Psalm 110:4. Whereas the Bible describes him as a priest and a king, this text portrays him as a heavenly savior figure who will rescue the righteous at the final judgment.

It is, apparently, difficult to date, but is thought to originate in the Hasmonean period, and probably dates to the first century BCE (=BC). This, then, provides evidence of interest in the figure of Melchizedek from a period before the New Testament.

Like all the DSS, this puzzling text has been much discussed. (A few of the more significant and/or web-accessible examples are noted below.)

11Q13 and Hebrews

There is a point of connection for this question about Hebrews. It provides evidence in the Hellenistic period (and up) for the growing "exegetical" interest in biblical figures that moderns would otherwise find "peripheral" or enigmatic. (The "angels" of Genesis 6:1-4 are another example of this phenomenon.) In the Qumran text, Melchizedek appears to be associated with Elohim. In Hebrews, as the OP makes clear, Melchizedek is a pointer to, precursor of, type of Jesus Christ.2

This is not to suggest that 11Q13 was a "source" for the author of Hebrews. Rather, it points to a situation of lively and even speculative intepretation in which the "deeper" significance of a figure like Melchizedek was being explored. This later use is rooted in the "hermeneutics" of the Hasmonean period. It was a mode of interpretation which could extrapolate details from the text and make new, even inspired, connections.


Notes

  1. See also the description and translation on the 11Q13 Wikipedia page.
  2. For a careful and illuminating unpacking of this scenario, see William Horbury, "Josephus and 11Q13 on Melchizedek", in Studies on the Text and Versions of the Hebrew Bible in Honour of Robert Gordon, ed. by Geoffrey Khan, Diana Lipton (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 239-252.

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This statement is without source in the Hebrew Bible or in Jewish traditions.

In the Midrash, using a “closed-canon”¹ approach, Melchizedek is identified as Shem son of Noah. The author of Hebrews seems to be using the same sort of closed-canon approach, but attaching Melchizedek to Jesus.

¹ By “closed-canon” I mean the identification of one person, whose name is given but with no other background, with another person. This is very common in Midrashic literature, though it’s hard to tell whether the identification is meant historically or homiletically, i.e., that A is a “type” for B. Familiar examples in the Midrash are the identification of Abraham’s wife Sarah with Iscah his niece, and Phinehas grandson of Aaron with the prophet Elijah.

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There is nothing in the Hebrew Bible that says that Abraham was "to inherit the world," but that is exactly what the Christian New Testament states (Romans 4:13). Thus since the world will be blessed through Abraham, he is therefore by implication greater than those blessed, and therefore he (Abraham) will inherit the world.

In like manner, Melchizedek blessed Abraham (Gen 14:17-19) and therefore he (Melchizedek) was greater than Abraham. In other words, the one who blesses is greater than the those blessed, and the same principle found in Romans regarding Abraham again resurfaces in the Christian New Testament with regard to Melchizedek and Abraham (Heb 7:6-7).

The inference then is that if Abraham would inherit the world, then Melchizedek (who blessed Abraham) was greater than Abraham. That is, Melchizedek was someone greater than Abraham because Melchizedek blessed him (and accordingly received the ten-percent tithe from Abraham).

So if the promised son of David is to be made a priest in accordance with the order of Melchizedek (Ps 110:4), then the implication in this particular messianic psalm is that he (son of David) will be greater than Abraham and, by implication, will be greater than David as well. In fact, Jesus stumped the Pharisees by referring to this psalm and asked why David was referring to his son (Psalm 110:1) as "my Lord," suggesting that this son had to be greater than David, since David was speaking by the Spirit of the Lord and therefore could not have mistaken his words (Matt 22:42-44).

So the "extra information" in the Christian New Testament about Melchizedek may have stemmed in part from the inference and generalization that the one who blesses is (by definition) greater than those who are blessed.

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There is reference in Scripture to people blessing God, which would seem to negate your logic. –  J. C. Salomon Jan 1 at 19:34
    
@J.C.Salomon - Good point - but does the Lord pay tithes? Abraham paid tithes to the one who blessed him; we pay tithes to the Lord - that is, the Lord does not pay tithes to anyone. So the paying of tithes is what affirmed that Melchizedek was greater than Abraham. Please note that Abraham paid a tenth of the crème of his spoils, which implies that the value of his tithe (while numerically ten percent) was greater than 10% of the aggregate value of the spoils. The tithing is what points to who is greater. –  Joseph Jan 1 at 22:04
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