Who Was the Mysterious Melchizedek in the Bible?

By: Dave Roos  | 

"The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek," Rubens
This painting by Peter Paul Rubens is titled "The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek," c. 1626. Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

The mysterious biblical figure of Melchizedek has intrigued (and puzzled) religious thinkers and scholars for centuries. He makes a brief but significant appearance in Genesis — the first book of the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament) — when he blesses the patriarch Abram and is introduced as the "priest of the Most High God."

From that single mention, various Jewish sects and early Christians developed their own disparate interpretations of who Melchizedek was and what he represented. Some apocalyptic Jewish writers cast Melchizedek as a heaven-sent high priest who existed before the flood and would return to usher in the messiah. Meanwhile, early Christians saw Melchizedek as a "type" or precursor of Jesus Christ, in that they both derived authority from an eternal and higher priesthood. Some have wondered if Melchizedek was even Jesus Christ himself in another form.

Who was the real Melchizedek? Unlike nearly everyone mentioned in Genesis and other books, Melchizedek has no recorded father, no genealogy. He is not the "son of" anyone. If a man by that name ever existed, he's been long lost to time. But exploring how the meaning of Melchizedek has been interpreted and reinterpreted over time is equally fascinating and instructive. Let's start with the account in Genesis, which appears straightforward at first, but is as problematic as they come.

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Melchizedek Makes His Only Appearance

Genesis 14 starts off as a chronicle of war. A group of cities, including Sodom and Gomorrah, were under the thumb of King Kedorlaomer of Elam. After 12 years of servitude, there was an uprising, which Kedorlaomer quashed with a vengeance, seizing captives and booty from the rebelling cities.

Among those captured, Genesis 14 tells us, was Lot, the nephew of "Abram the Hebrew." At this point in the story, Abram was not yet Abraham because he had yet to make a covenant with God. But Abram was a wealthy and powerful landowner, so he decided to go save his nephew. Abram took 318 well-trained servants and attacked Kedorlaomer at night, chasing the enemy to Damascus and retrieving the stolen goods and people, including Lot.

Here's where things get interesting. Lot and his family lived in Sodom. When Abram makes his triumphant return, he's first greeted by the king of Sodom (identified earlier in the chapter as Bera). But before the king of Sodom has a chance to talk, Genesis introduces a new character not previously mentioned in the long lists of warring kings. In verses 18-20, it says:

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying:

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And praise be to God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

As we'll see, a lot has been made of those short verses. Here was a priest of "God Most High," — understood as the one true God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — blessing Abram, who would soon become the patriarch of God's chosen people. And here was Abram paying a tithe to this high priest, whose elevated position and authority predates all of the ancient prophets.

Yet right after this momentous occasion in the history of monotheism, Melchizedek disappears. In the very next verse, we're back to the king of Sodom, who offers Abram a share of the spoils, which Abram, being a righteous man, refuses.

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The King of Sodom Becomes the King of Salem

So how do we explain this rather awkward insertion of Melchizedek, priest-king of Salem, into the war narrative of Genesis 14? Robert Cargill, a professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa, has some interesting theories.

In his latest book, "Melchizedek, King of Sodom: How Scribes Invented the Biblical Priest-King," Cargill provides textual evidence from the earliest Hebrew and Greek versions of Genesis 14 that Melchizedek was originally introduced as the king of Sodom. According to Cargill, early editors of the Hebrew Bible chose to distance Abram from any positive encounters with a king of Sodom, since Sodom and Gomorrah came to be equated with vile wickedness and sin.

That would explain why Melchizedek is so abruptly inserted into the narrative after the king of Sodom greets Abram. In the original version, they were the same person. Cargill asserts that the scribes switched out Sodom for Shalem, a known city in Samaria.

But how, then, did we get from Shalem to Salem (translated as "peace"), a city believed to be a precursor to Jerusalem? That's the result of yet another, later textual "tampering," writes Cargill.

Starting around 300 B.C.E., there was a rivalry between the Levite priests in Jerusalem (who had sole authority to sacrifice at the Jewish temple) and the Samaritans. The Samaritans worshipped the same God as the Jews but had their own priests and their own temple on Mount Gerizim in Samaria.

Cargill believes that the Levite priests were the ones who changed Shalem to Salem as part of a centuries-long campaign to centralize all priesthood authority in Jerusalem and write Samaria out of the picture. And by depicting Abram as making tithes to the priest-king of Salem, it strengthened the authority of the Jerusalem priests to also demand tithes from the faithful.

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Early Christians Take the Ball and Run With It

While Melchizedek only appears once in the Bible, his name is invoked in two other places. The first is in Psalm 110, traditionally attributed to King David. In Psalm 110, God makes a series of promises to "my lord," a figure that could be King David himself or, in later Christian interpretations, Jesus Christ.

Hidden among various pledges to crush the lord's enemies, Psalm 110 says: "You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek."

This one mention of Melchizedek in Psalm 110, together with the heavily edited episode in Genesis, provided theological framework for early Christian apologists like Paul, who were tasked with defending the divinity and authority of Jesus after his death.

In the book of Hebrews, which is a letter to a young Christian community struggling to part ways with its Jewish beliefs and traditions, Paul (or someone else — the authorship of this book is unclear) makes the case that Jesus Christ's power and authority supersede all of Israel's prophets and high priests. In Chapter 7 of Hebrews, an explicit connection is made between Melchizedek and Jesus.

Melchizedek, Paul explains, was "king of Salem and priest of God Most High." He was both a king and a high priest, something that Jews of that time believed wasn't possible. Only Levites could be priests and only non-Levites could be king. (When King Uzziah tried to light incense in the temple, God struck him with leprosy.) Paul interpreted Psalm 110 as referring to Jesus as a "priest forever in the order of Melchizedek," which gave Jesus the same type of overriding authority as Melchizedek.

For Jews who didn't believe that Jesus, a non-Levite, could perform a sacrifice (in this case, of himself) for their sins, Paul explained that Jesus's priesthood authority was eternal and everlasting. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, was a king and priest "forever" in the same way that Melchizedek was a priest-king in his day.

In an ironic twist, Paul notes that Melchizedek, which means "king of righteousness," was also the king of Salem or the "king of peace." The Levite priests, by changing Shalem to Salem, inadvertently strengthened the connection between Melchizedek, the "king of peace," and Jesus, the "Prince of Peace."

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The Apocryphal Adventures of Melchizedek

The figure of Melchizedek clearly fascinated many readers of the Hebrew Bible. During the Second Temple period, there was a blossoming of pseudepigraphical texts, books that claimed to be written by ancient prophets and biblical figures like Moses, Adam and Eve, Enoch and others, but had much more modern authorship.

The text known as 2 Enoch was probably written in the first century C.E. in Egypt, and it proposed a wild backstory for our friend Melchizedek. According to 2 Enoch, Melchizedek was born back before the great flood. Noah had a younger brother, Nir, whose aged wife became pregnant with a divinely implanted baby. Nir accused her of cheating on him and she died of grief. Nir, afraid he'd be accused of killing her, plotted with Noah to bury her secretly.

But as they were digging the grave, the infant emerged from his dead mother's womb as a walking, talking 3-year-old!

Nir and Noah, completely freaked out, named the baby Melchizedek and noticed that he bore the "badge of priesthood," which they took as a sign of God delivering the priestly bloodline to the Earth. The angel Michael then came down to rescue the child from the flood and hide him away in Eden. Later, Michael explained, Melchizedek would return as the priest-king of the city of Salem and begin a priestly line that would end with the messiah.

Another pseudepigraphical text about Melchizedek was found among the Nag Hammadi codices. Although only a fragment, it seems to imply that Melchizedek was to be reincarnated as Jesus Christ, which is a step farther than just being a "type" for Jesus.

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