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The Hebrew text translated as "Melchizedek" actually forms a phrase in Hebrew meaning "my king is righteous" or perhaps "my righteous king." Why is it not translated this way instead of as a name?

וּמַלְכִּי־צֶ֨דֶק֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ שָׁלֵ֔ם הֹוצִ֖יא לֶ֣חֶם וָיָ֑יִן וְה֥וּא כֹהֵ֖ן לְאֵ֥ל עֶלְיֹֽון׃ (Genesis 14:18, Hebrew)

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. (Genesis 14:18, KJV)

"Salem," too, has a meaning, coming from the same root letters as "shalom." So the text might read, if the grammar allows--as it seems it does to me:

"My righteous king, king of peace, brought out bread and wine, and he was the priest of the most high God."

Why are the words converted to names, and how might the translator consistently identify when something should be transliterated as a name rather than translated? (I'm hoping to find an objective, rather than subjective, basis/principle for translation of names--such as grammatical indications.)

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  • biblehub.com/hebrews/7-17.htm Same question is probably pertinent here, so it could sound like “You are a priest forever by the rank of a righteous king”.
    – grammaplow
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 3:00

2 Answers 2

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In the MT, the first sign that a group of letters is a name is the orthography.

If a group of letters that is not obviously a noun is written without spacing and functions as a subject or object of a sentence then it is likely a name.

The second sign of a name is syntactic. If splitting a group of letters into component words, or reading a name as a noun results in incongruous syntax, as would

ומלכי צדק מלך שלם

which would read "And my king was correct, the king of wholeness [peace]", then it is likely a proper name.

The third sign is semantic. If interpreting a string of letters like שלם as a noun results in incongruous semantics then the letters are probably a name. In this case the incongruity is use of an abstract concept, wholeness, peace, with "king", not something that the MT does.

The fourth sign of a name is the translation tradition. If the group of letters is traditionally considered a name then there is no reason to translate the components of the name.

A reason not to translate Hebrew names, which are often complete sentences in and of themselves, is the confusion that this would create for the reader. The reader would not be able to distinguish between a name sentence and the rest of a verse without special punctuation.

The reason for not translating Hebrew names, as opposed to names like "Red Cloud" that we do translate, is that Hebrew names are generally complete sentences in an of themselves, rather than noun phrases that are easy to distinguish as probable names.

A final reason is that Hebrew names that are sentences, or have special meaning, are thought of as people or places when speaking the language, rather than as the meaning of the names. My children are:

  1. Yair (Arabic: Munir) "He will shine"
  2. Emanuel "God is with us"
  3. Naomi ?
  4. Shifra ?
  5. Yeshurun "Straight"
  6. Benayah "Son of God"
  7. Yedidyah "Friend of God"
  8. Elisha "My God listens"
  9. Emunah "Faith"
  10. Mevasseret "Gospel"

These are normal names for normal kids in Hebrew throughout the ages. No need to translate them. None of their friends even think about the meaning of the name when talking with them.

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There are probably several reasons Melchizedek's name is transliterated rather than translated:

  1. Virtually all Hebrew names form a phrase, such as, Michael = "One who is like God"; Samuel = "My God hears"; Elijah = "Jehovah is God"; etc. So, why make an exception for Melchizedek = "King of righteousness"? (Heb 7:2). The same is true of place-names such as Salem and Jerusalem.

  2. What else would we call the person to whom Abraham paid tithe?

  3. The inspired NT writer of Hebrews uses this as a proper noun/name in Heb 5:6, 10, 6:20, 7:1, 10, 11, 15, 17.

  4. The Hebrew grammar in many places where his name occurs, demands a proper name, eg, Gen 14:18, 19, 20, Ps 110:4.

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  • Actually, the Hebrew does not have the definite article on "righteous" which would ordinarily be required to maintain definiteness with the preceding noun when the noun is proper (which it is because of its pronominal "my" suffix). This inequality in definiteness is what would lead some to declare it a nominal sentence. Also, there was no case distinction in Biblical Greek, so your point #3 seems a bit hollow. I agree with your first point--heartily. All Hebrew names are meaningful.
    – Biblasia
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 7:16
  • Michael ="Who is like El?", Samuel="On loan from El" or "El's name is on him", or possibly "El has heard [my prayer]", Elijah="Yah is my god". The question is, why is the proper name "Red Cloud" translated, but these Hebrew names not? What is the difference? Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 7:57
  • @AbuMunirIbnIbrahimalYahud - OK but the point is that names all have meaning. However, the NT does this, so the practice has continued.
    – Dottard
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 7:58
  • @Biblasia "the Hebrew does not have the definite article on "righteous" which would ordinarily be required to maintain definiteness with the preceding noun ". What does this mean? Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 7:59
  • @AbuMunirIbnIbrahimalYahud In Hebrew, an adjective must agree with its noun in definiteness. This means if the noun is proper, the article comes before its adjective also. In this case, there is no article. Because there isn't an article, they have unequal definiteness, which, in Hebrew grammar, means the "to be" verb is implied, i.e instead of "righteous king" we have a nominal sentence "king is righteous". A Hebrew noun is made definite by having the definite article ("the"), by being a proper name, or by having a pronominal suffix. It gets complicated as even these aren't all equal.
    – Biblasia
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 8:35

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