Posts Tagged ‘Ancient Interpretation’

Ancient Jewish and Christian writings were rife with speculation about Melchizedek, the enigmatic king who makes cameo appearances in Genesis 14 and Psalm 110.  Philo saw him as a symbol of the divine lo,goj (Leg. All. 3:79-82).   Some Gnostic Christians thought he was an angel (Hippolytus, Haer. 7:26; Pistis Sophia 1:25-26).  Some later rabbis took him to be the archangel Michael himself (‘Abot. R. Nat. [A] 34).

Ancient interpreters loved to fill in the gaps in our narratives and the narratives involving Melchizedek were just too enticingly gapped to pass up.  Hence all of the varied and (to us) wild speculation.  It seems likely that part of what fuelled this speculation was apparently the lack of any explanation of where Melchizedek came from, nor any narrative of when, how or if he expired.  For the ancient interpreter, these gaps leave open all sorts of enticing imaginative possibilities.

Maybe he didn’t come from anywhere.  So 2 Enoch 71:2 says Melchizedek was born to the wife of Noah’s (mythical) brother Nir without any prior act of sexual intercourse.  This tradition is probably based on the Old Greek version of the LXX Psalm 110.5 (109.3) which reads,

  evk gastro.j pro. e`wsfo,rou evxege,nnhsa, se 

 I have begotten thee from the womb before the morning star.  

  The writer of 2 Enoch seems to have taken this verse to imply that Melchizedek was the product of a divine begetting, something analogous to a virginal conception  Which raises the question: Did the writer of 2 Enoch believe that Melchizedek existed prior to his conception?  It would seem that at least the traditions that understand Melchizedek to be some sort of angel would hold to his pre-existence.

And perhaps, similarly, Melchizedek never died.  So 2 Enoch also narrates Melchizedek’s rescue from the flood by the angel Gabriel and being granted entry to the Garden of Eden where he would live and be “a priest to all priests” (71.27-29).  Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls see Melchizedek as an angelic judge who will punish the guilty and rescue the righteous on the Last Day (11Q13/Melch; 4Q401.11.1-3; 22.1-3).  Presumably these and the other Melchizedek-as-angel traditions understand him to be presently alive.

Why is any of this important?  I would suggest that it is precisely in this context of Ancient Jewish and Christian Melchizedek-speculation that we must understand the comparison of Jesus to Melchizedek found in Hebrews 7.  The key verses are verses 3 and 8:

Hebrews 7:3 He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life (mh,te avrch.n h`merw/n mh,te zwh/j te,loj e;cwn), but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever (me,nei i`ereu.j eivj to. dihneke,j).  

 Hebrews 7:8 In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives (zh/|).

 Both of these verses refer not to Jesus but to Melchizedek as being still alive and verse 3 refers to him as literally lacking in origin (not merely an account of his origin, as some conservative commentators would like to say!). 

With respect to verse 3, as in 2 Enoch, Melchizedek is here understood to occupy some sort of perpetual priestly office.  Furthermore, verse 3 also precludes the possibility that the author of Hebrews might have understood Melchizedek to be a christophany, an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ.  He “resembles” (avfwmoiwme,noj) the Son of God but is not identical with Him.

 Anyways, it seems very clear to me that 1) the author of Hebrews is here engaged in the same sort of Melchizedek speculation as were some of his contemporaries and 2) that it is precisely his belief that Melchizedek never died that drives his comparison of Melchizedek to Jesus.  According to the author of Hebrews, Jesus is “another priest” who “arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life.” (7:15-16)
 So, what I want to hear from you is this: What are we to make of this text exegetically?  What are the hermeneutical and theological challenges here, and how are we to navigate them?  What say you?

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