Dear Catholic Exchange:
I’m just beginning to learn more about the Bible, and I'm interested in knowing, who is Melchizedek and where is he from? Is he an angel, or does he symbolize something?
Thank you and God Bless.
Greetings in Christ. Regarding the identity of Melchizedek, the short answer is that we don’t definitively know. The Catholic Church does rule out that Melchizedek was a non-human person, e.g., an angel or manifestation of the Holy Spirit. However, the Biblical text does not provide clarity on Melchizedek’s identity, and the Church does not provide a definitive pronouncement otherwise. There is, however, much scholarly opinion on the matter, some of which is presented below.
In addition, we don’t know the name of this Biblical person because “Melchizedek” is not a name but a title, meaning “king of righteousness.” In the Bible, he is only identified as a high priest of God and by his royal title. In examining the issue of Melchizedek’s identity, we will first look at the Biblical background of Melchizedek, and then we will consider different theories on his identity. As part of this consideration, we will examine the much analyzed passage of Hebrews 7:1-3, the passage that distinguishes Melchizedek’s priesthood from that of the Levites.
Background on Melchizedek
In the Old Testament, the mysterious Melchizedek makes a brief appearance in Genesis 14:18-20, providing an offering of bread and wine and receiving tithes from Abram, later renamed “Abraham.”
Melchizedek receives more attention in Psalm 110, which speaks about how David’s “lord”—and therefore ultimately Jesus—is a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. Because Solomon had ascended to the throne during his father David’s lifetime (1 Kings 1:43) and thereby became the “Lord King” (1 Kings 1:37), David could speak of his son as “his lord,” whom “the Lord [God],” in turn, designated as a priest forever according to Melchizedek (Ps. 110:4). In the New Testament, Jesus is a “high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:20), an order that superseded the Levitical priesthood and law (Heb. 7:10-12) and included Old Covenant sacrifices like the Passover and the Day of Atonement.
Identifying the High Priest: Various Theories
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Catechism) mentions Melchizedek in three paragraphs (nos. 58, 1333, 1544). Melchizedek is listed as a “Gentile” in paragraph number 58. Before Abraham—the Hebrew patriarch (cf. Gen. 14:13) from whom the nation of Israel ultimately descends—everyone is considered a Gentile, as opposed to later periods in history when only non-Hebrews/Israelites were designated as Gentiles (cf. Gal. 2:14-15). In this later sense, the Gentiles (“the nations”) are distinguished from God’s chosen nation of Israel. In the earlier usage of “Gentile,” Abram’s forefathers, Abel and Noah, are listed as Gentiles (Catechism, no. 58). It’s possible, then, that another ancestor of Abram’s could be Melchizedek and still be described as a Gentile. One argument is that Shem, the righteous firstborn son of Noah, or one of Shem’s descendants, is Melchizedek.
What makes Shem special? Melchizedek blesses Abram and therefore must have been someone who possessed the power to bless in God’s name; such a person would command the recognition and respect that Abram provided Melchizedek. Abram, it also turns out, was a descendant of Shem (cf. Gen. 11:10-27), so he was in line to receive the blessing that Shem originally received (Gen. 9:26). In this case, a blessing invoked a father’s prayer of peace and prosperity upon his son. In addition, Abram’s deference to Melchizedek, despite having just gained a major triumph on the battlefield, indicates the kind of homage one would expect to be given to a revered forefather like Shem.
Scholars debate whether Abram’s genealogy in Genesis 11 is precise or just mentions certain figures among a longer list of ancestors. Shem lived for 600 years (Gen. 11:10-11), while Abram lived 175 years (Gen. 25:7) (Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1997, 28).
If the Bible’s genealogical list of Abram’s descendants was intended to be precise, a very elderly Shem could have walked the earth with Abram and blessed him, preceding him in death by only 25 years. But if the author of Genesis intended to provide only the highlights of Abram’s ancestry in Genesis 11, as many scholars believe, Melchizedek would likely have been a descendant of Shem (Ibid. Merrill argues that Shem’s being a contemporary of Abram’s seems difficult to reconcile with the Biblical data.) Shem lived 600 years, significantly less than his father Noah’s 950, and yet Gen. 25:8 describes Abraham, who lived until age 175, as a man who “died in a good old age, an old man and full of years” (Gen. 25:8). In other words, the argument is that 175 must have been a later era’s standard of old age.
But why a descendant of Shem? Because the Bible never says that the “blessing” departed from Shem’s line. And Abram, one of Shem’s direct descendants, dramatically received the blessing as recorded in Genesis 14.
On the other hand, some scholars believe that Melchizedek was a priest-king, but not in Abraham’s line. While this is possible, it would seem unusual that such a person would not otherwise be described in the Bible. The author of Genesis makes a point of emphasizing people’s ancestral pedigree, how the descendants of those who honored God were blessed and how those who did not honor Him did not fair as well (cf. Ex. 20:5-6). Compare, for example, the descendants of Shem, who became God’s covenant nation of Israel, versus the descendants of Shem’s wicked brother Ham (Gen. 9:20-27), who were born outside of God’s covenant nation. It would seem unusual, therefore, though not impossible, that God would notably incorporate such a prominent Gentile into salvation history without making clear the reason for His exception. Others have argued that Melchizedek was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit or the pre-Incarnate Jesus, since he reportedly had neither mother or father and his priesthood was without “beginning of days nor end of life” (Heb. 7:3; W. Leonard, D.S.S., “The Epistle to the Hebrews,” Dom Bernard Orchard, et al., eds., A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Thomas Nelson & Sons, New York, 1953, 1165 [no. 938e-f]; see also Merrill, 264). This view is based on a misreading of Hebrews, as will we make clear in the next section.
What’s Your Name, Who’s Your Daddy?
As part of the task of identifying Melchizedek, there is the matter of making sense of the strange description that the Book of Hebrews provides about the ancient priest-king. While the idea of royal priesthood was not uncommon in the ancient Near Eastern world (Merrill, 265), no one had a priestly pedigree like Melchizedek:
For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of 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 king of Salem, that is king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever” (Heb. 7:1-3, emphasis added).
The mysterious words of Hebrews 7:3 have baffled many scholars. Knowing that he “resembled the Son of God,” had “neither beginning of days nor end of life” and continues as a priest “forever,” we can better appreciate why some have erroneously argued that Melchizedek was the Holy Spirit or the pre-Incarnate Jesus.
Hebrews 7:1-3 becomes less mysterious when seen in light of the overall purpose of the whole chapter: to illustrate that Melchizedek’s priesthood, particularly as fulfilled in Jesus, supersedes the temporary Levitical law and priesthood (Heb. 7:11-14).
David came after Moses and Aaron in history, but he did not appeal to the Mosaic covenant and the Levitical priesthood to legitimize his kingdom. Rather, as Psalm 110 conveys, David links his royal line with the priest-kingship of Melchizedek. In addition, the author of Hebrews notes that even Levi, one of the 12 tribes of Israel and therefore a descendant of Abraham and Isaac, recognized the superiority of Melchizedek. While Levitical priests received tithes from the Israelites beginning with Aaron (cf. Ex 4:14), the superior nature of Melchizedek’ priesthood is illustrated by Levi’s “paying tithes” to the priest-king while still in the loins of Abraham the great patriarch (Heb. 7:9-10). In other words, when Abraham the great patriarch paid tithes to Melchizedek, he symbolically did so on behalf of all of his descendants, including Levi and his priestly descendants, beginning with Aaron.
In addition, Levitical priestly service had a distinct “beginning of days and end of life” (cf. Heb. 7:3). Recall that God fulfilled his promise to Abram in Genesis 12 by establishing the nation of Israel via a covenant with Moses, who was of the tribe of Levi (Ex. 2:1-10). Under the Mosaic Covenant, God chose the tribe of Levi to offer the sacrifices of the wilderness tabernacle (Ex. 32:29), and eventually the Temple, and be responsible for all of their furnishings (Num. 1:47-54; 2:5-10). Those Levites who were sons of Aaron were appointed priests (Num. 3:10) and received assistance from their brother Levites (Num. 3:9-10; Ex. 40:12-15). But all Levites, whether priest or not, had a distinct beginning and ending of their service in the tabernacle or Temple, beginning at age 30 and finishing at 50 (cf. Num. 4:1-3, 23).
Furthermore, all Levites who served in the desert tabernacle, and later the Temple, had to certify their genealogy, i.e., have credible proof of the identity of their mother and father and other ancestors (cf. Heb. 7:3). We know this because after the Babylonian exile when the Israelites returned to Jerusalem in the early fifth century B.C., some alleged Levites were not allowed to serve in the Temple because “they could not prove their fathers’ houses nor their descent” (Neh. 7:61, 64-65).
In contrast, Melchizedek possessed his priesthood not by virtue of his earthly mother or father, i.e., his ancestral heritage, but because of a mysterious, special relationship with God. In addition, whereas the sacrificial service of Levitical priests had “beginning of days” and “end of life,” i.e., from age 30 to 50, Melchizedek possessed his priesthood by nature, not appointed for a limited time. Thus, his priesthood was “forever,” which, in his case, meant his whole life. Jesus follows in the royal priestly line of Melchizedek and David (Mt. 1:1; 22:41-46), not Aaron’s Levitical priesthood. Jesus, too, possesses His priesthood by nature, by virtue of His special relationship with the Father. Through His death and Resurrection, Jesus becomes “the source of eternal salvation,” redeeming us from sin and perfecting our human nature (Heb. 5:9). He is thereby designated as a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:10).
For your further reading on how Christ’s Melchizedekan priesthood is exercised in the Sacrifice of the Mass, I encourage you to read our FAITH FACT on the Biblical origins of the Mass. I also recommend Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, which can be purchased via Benedictus Books at 1-888-316-2640.
If you have further questions on this or would like more information about Catholics United for the Faith, please contact us at 1-800-MY-FAITH (693-2484). Please keep us in your prayers as we endeavor to “support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.”
United in the Faith,
Thomas J. Nash
Senior Information Specialist
Catholics United for the Faith
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