Melchizedek as a Divine Mediator


(Summary of a lecture by J. Davila on 10 February, 1998)

(1) MELCHIZEDEK IN THE HEBREW BIBLE. This non-Israelite priest-king appears in two places in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis 14:18-20 and Psalm 110:4. My own reading of the texts is that Genesis is drawing on traditional material from the Judean royal cult (or perhaps even from pre-Israelite traditions) to tie the more recently introduced figure Abram to Jerusalem (Salem) and its temple cult. Psalm 110 seems to indicate that there was a priesthood of Melchizedek tied to the Davidic king in the temple cult. I argue for some of this in my article “Melchizedek: King, Priest, and God” (see annotated bibliography), but my views have developed considerably since I wrote that article several years ago. I still do think that he was a tutelary deity of the Davidic house along the lines of ancestral deification in West Semitic royal cults.

Others take both texts to be much later, designed to justify the Hasmonean priest-kingship. My understanding of the ritual background of the the royal psalms leads me to date most of them before the exile, but I don’t want to get side tracked on this question, since it doesn’t really matter for most of the rest of what I have to say in this lecture.

(2) MELCHIZEDEK AS A QUASI-HISTORICAL FIGURE. He is mentioned fairly frequently in Second Temple literature, but often in what could be called “historical” rather than mediatorial contexts. Josephus (Ant. 1.10.2) and the Genesis Apocryphon (col. 22) paraphrase the passage in Genesis and explicitly identify Salem with Jerusalem. Pseudo-Eupolemos (Praep. Evan. 9.17.6) refers to him briefly as the ruler of a city (which one is not clear) and a priest of God who gave gifts to Abraham. He is also mentioned in the Hellenistic Synagogal Prayers (from books 7-8 of the Apostolic Constitutions), prayers that are Christian in their current form, but that seem to draw on Jewish Greek material from the early centuries C.E. But he doesn’t function as a divine mediator in any of these texts.

JUBILEES 13:22-27. The story of the assault of the four kings on the cities of the plain appears in Jubilees, but the section involving Abrams defeat of the invaders and his encounter with Melchizedek are missing. The fragment of v. 25 and its continuation in 26 lead me to think that the Melchizedek story once stood here but was lost or suppressed. I have discussed this problem in more detail in my first online lecture on Jubilees (see the otpseud web page) so I won’t repeat my analysis here. Suffice to say that the next text may give us an idea of what the passage might have contained which was disturbing enough to a later tradent (perhaps a Christian working with the Greek translation?) that the passage was suppressed.

11QMELCHIZEDEK. I won’t rehash the details of my analysis of this passage in “Melchizedek, Michael, and War in Heaven.” Suffice to say that the biblical figure Melchizedek has been almost entirely swallowed up by the heavenly figure (who I think is just as original as the earthly one–but that’s another paper). In 11QMlechizedek the hero is an Exalted Patriarch in the strong sense, almost a Principal Angel without reference to any earthly origin. He is also a Future Ideal Figure, namely the Divine Warrior (originally Baal or Marduk in ancient Near Eastern myth, but also Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible). He is not explicitly a priest in the fragments we have, although the tantalizing assertion that the lot of Melchizedek is the Day of Atonement in the tenth Jubilee in which to atone for all the sons of El may refer indirectly to his function as Celestial High Priest (and may also be the only echo of the two biblical passages).

SONGS OF THE SABBATH SACRIFICE. This is a very difficult text, not least because it’s not entirely certain that Melchizedek was mentioned in it at all. But if Newsom’s reconstructions of frags. 11 and 22 of 4Q401 are correct, we can say that Melchizedek functions as a Celestial High Priest, although it is unclear if this is in an Intervention or Consummation mode. If my full reconstruction of song five is right, Melchizedek is a Future Ideal Figure (Eschatological High Priest and perhaps Divine Warrior too) acting in the Consummation Pattern. There are no direct citations or allusions to the biblical passages about Melchizedek in our (admittedly scanty) fragments of song five, apart from the reference to him as a priest.

PHILO OF ALEXANDRIA (Leg. All. III 79-82; cf. Congr. 99 and Abr. 235). Melchizedek is treated allegorically by Philo (as is his wont) but his discussion is of some interest for our focus on divine mediation. Philo tells us that Melchizedek as high priest represents Reason (Greek LOGOS), that he is a peacable king (a pun on the place name Salem in Genesis 14) who rules as a “righteous king” (a pun on Melchizedek) over the human organism. He is opposed to the tyrant Mind (Greek NOUS), ruler of war (Greek )ARXWN POLEMOU), which leads the organism into wickedness and excessive indulgence of the passions. (Perhaps NOUS here means something like the imagination? I can’t fit that in with the little I know about Philo’s philosophy and Middle Platonism, but it seems to fit the context.) Philo’s focus isn’t on mediation here, but a couple of observations arise from his treatment.

First, the business about Mind as ruler of war sounds like an echo of the Melchizedek we saw in 11QMelchizedek. I wonder if Philo isn’t presenting a subtle polemic against the view of Melchizedek as warrior angel and trying to replace it with a Melchizedek who embodies divine Reason. Second, the application of the term Logos to Melchizedek is striking; it raises interesting potential connections with Philo’s demiurgic Logos (to be covered later in this course), but, alas, these connections are never followed up. So perhaps he hints at knowledge of Melchizedek as an Exalted Patriarch as Divine Warrior, and even as a Personified Divine Attribute, along with aspects of the Legacy and Intervention Patterns, but, again, his interests are elsewhere and all he gives us is a couple of places where we can try to read between the lines.

HEBREWS 7. Hebrews is the only work in the New Testament that mentions Melchizedek directly (although see below on Psalm 110 in general) and it is a tantalizingly enigmatic passage. The description of Melchizedek in 7:1-3 include puns on the names Salem and Melchizedek similar to those made by Josephus and Philo, but v. 3 goes far beyond what they say. The key word is resembling” (Greek )AFWMOIWME/NOS); Melchizedek resembles the Son of God, but it’s unclear in what sense this is meant, and the meaning of the word bears very much on the rest of the verse. Is ch. 7 just an allegorical comparison between Melchizedek and Jesus, or is it asserted that Melchizedek actually is a divine mediator–an immortal and preexistent Celestial High Priest? Minimally, I think we can say that the writer is aware of such a tradition and is playing off it, but I find it hard to read the passage as merely allegorical. Both v. 3 and v. 8 seem to assert that Melchizedek lives eternally as a priest. The point of the chapter, of course, is that Jesus is the true Celestial High Priest, which does make it difficult to understand just where the celestial Melchizedek might fit into the writer’s theology. Overall it appears that Melchizedek is an Exalted Patriarch (it’s unclear whether in the weak or strong sense) who embodies the ideal figure of the Celestial High Priest which is in turn embodied by Jesus. He enacts the Legacy Pattern in the sense that he is of typological significance for the author’s understanding of Jesus, and he may also enact the Intervention Pattern. The author shows no interest in eschatological applications of the Melchizedek tradition.

MELCHIZEDEK TRACTATE (NHC IX 1). This document was found in the Coptic Gnostic Library of Nag Hammadi, but its Gnosticism is less pronounced than other texts in the corpus. It explicitly rejects a docetic interpretation of Jesus (IX 1, 5.1-10) and focuses on apocalyptic, rather than realized eschatology (IX 1, 26). Melchizedek is an Exalted Patriarch as Principal Angel and Future Ideal Figure (both Divine Warrior and Eschatological High Priest) and enacts the Consummation Pattern. In other words, the portrayal is strikingly similar to that of the Qumran texts, with one extremely significant difference: Melchizedek and Jesus Christ are identified–they are one and the same being. I’ve already discussed the reasons why the author made this identification (in my online article), so I won’t repeat myself here. I will add that Birger Pearson, in his _editio princeps_ of the text, argued that it is dependent on the epistle to the Hebrews and he produced a list of parallels between the two works. I have to say that I find his argument unconvincing. His parallels consist of single words or general ideas, but I don’t see any clear literary connections between the two works, so I’m inclined to think that Hebrews and NHX IX 1 are drawing independently on Jewish traditions like those found at Qumran.

SECOND BOOK OF JEU. This is a Coptic Gnostic Text written roughly in late antiquity (and not part of the Nag Hammadi corpus). In it, Jesus prays to the Father for “Zorokothora Melchizedek” to “bring the water of the baptism of fire of the Virgin of Light” (presumably heavenly waters of baptism) to the disciples and Melchizedek does so. He is a heavenly being with a priestly function, enacting the Legacy Pattern, inasmuch as there seem to be a couple of echoes of Genesis 14, but with a focus on the Intervention Pattern with him as Exalted Patriarch and Celestial Priest (but with no eschatological content). His title Zorokothora seems to be connected with magical nomina barbara.

PISTIS SOPHIA. Another Coptic Gnostic Text written roughly in late antiquity and preserved outside Nag Hammadi, this document is a compendium of Gnostic traditions that can be divided into at least two separate works (Books 1-3 and Book 4, respectively). In both, he is a heavenly being whose job is to gather the purified light motes from the universe and deposit them in the Treasury of Light. In Book 4, in addition, Zorokothora Melchizedek has conflicts with the archons, who destroy as many souls as they can, and with the underworld goddess Hekate, who holds souls prisoner in her realm. In this compendium, all traces of the biblical Melchizedek and all eschatological elements have disappeared. He is now a Principal Angel enacting the Intervention Pattern, perhaps with traces of the ideal figures Celestial High Priest and Divine Warrior. (I should note that I have found the article on Melchizedek in Gnostic literature by Pearson [see annotated bibliography] very helpful in preparing section II.1 of this lecture.)

2 ENOCH. Professor VanderKam has already outlined the problems with using 2 Enoch for reconstruction of beliefs in antiquity. We find two versions of a strange story of Melchizedek in the manuscripts of this work. He is born posthumously of Sophanim, wife of the priest Nir, and his mother conceived him in her dotage without intercourse. The precocious infant looks like a three-year-old child and begins to speak immediately. He is made a priest by his family and is later taken to the Garden of Eden (“Edem”) by the archangel Michael. His main function as mediator seems to be as an Ideal Future Figure, the Eschatological High Priest, enacting th Consummation Pattern, but the picture is very obscure and I note the text only in passing.

Although Melchizedek is mentioned only in Hebrews in the New Testament, the frequent used of Psalm 110 (e.g. Mark 14:62; 1 Cor 15:20-25) to describe the postresurrection exaltation of Jesus confirms that the early Christian writers were aware of the Melchizedek tradition at least to some degree. Whether the Melchizedek tradition influenced early christology is open to debate; at least two papers in the upcoming conference on Jesus at St. Andrews will argue that it did. But in any case, there are significant parallels between Melchizedek as divine mediator and Jesus as divine mediator, especially as Future Ideal Figures enacting the Consummation Pattern. Like Melchizedek, Jesus is the Eschatological Divine Warrior (e.g., in Revelation 19 and the Synoptic Apocalypse [Mark 13 // Matthew 24 // Luke 21]). The Gnostic text NHX IX 1, which identified Melchizedek with Jesus, presents him as Divine Warrior and Eschatological High Priest enacting the Consummation Pattern. In addition, in Hebrews, Jesus is the Celestial High Priest enacting the Intervention Pattern. An eschatological hope is present in the epistle (e.g., 2:5; 10:25) but is never tied directly to Jesus’ high priestly office.

Finally, like Jesus and Enoch, Melchizedek is called a “god” (Elohim, in his case). There is no certain evidence that he received worship in the Second Temple period, although I have argued for this in the preexilic cult and the presence of devotees of Melchizedek (called “Melchizedekians” by Jerome and Epiphanius) leaves the possibility open.

The Melchizedek tradition holds much promise for illuminating the early worship of Jesus, which no doubt is why three of the papers (by Aschim, Barker, and Hannah) in the upcoming Jesus conference have Melchizedek as a central or major focus.

(c) 1998
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

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