John Gayford explores the importance of Melchizedek
Melchizedek can be translated from ‘melek,’ meaning ‘king,’ and ‘sedeq,’ meaning ‘righteousness’: thus ‘king of righteousness.’ He was King of Salem (Jerusalem) and priest of God the Most High. He appears twice in the Old Testament (Genesis 14:18–20 and Psalm 110:4), then in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament. He has caught the imagination of various religious groups both Jewish and Christian, also of heretical sects such as Gnosticism; and Melchizedekians add to this in more recent times within Mormons, Freemasons and New Age Religions.
‘Melchizedek king of Sodom brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High). And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave a tenth of everything.’ (Genesis 14:18–20).
‘Sodom’ was changed in Jewish and Christian tradition to ‘Salem’ as the city where Melchizedek was king, identified with Jerusalem or Zion.
‘The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek”’ (Psalms 110:4).
St. Augustine said this psalm was brief but weighty (‘brevis numero verborum, magnus pondere sententiarum’). David is king by divine appointment and also priest, not of the hereditary line of Aaron but again by special divine appointment. Priesthood and kingship are united in Melchizedek. First century Christians built on Jewish tradition regarding the Messiah.
The discovery of scroll fragments in 1956 in Cave 11 at Qumran (11QMelch) in which the chief character is Melchizedek, has been called the Melchizedek Scroll, written in the first century BC. Melchizedek appears as an eschatological judge who will descend from heaven in the last times to destroy the devil, called Belial; on the Day of Atonement on the tenth Jubilee. Melchizedek can be equated with St Michael the leader of the heavenly hosts against the powers of evil or even as a messianic figure who comes to save his people. It is thought to have influenced the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament. The Qumran community liked to elevate early biblical characters to heavenly properties, including Melchizedek who sits with God in his divine council as a divine eschatological priest who rules over the judgement of the good and evil. The Qumran texts give new insight into worship in Palestine in the first centuries BC & AD. The roles of priest and temple are now seen in some senses more clearly but perhaps idealistically (glorification of temple worship). This theme is alluded to in the Epistle to the Hebrews (the High Priest is named as Jesus) and continues in the Book of Revelation.
Both Philo and Josephus are contemporary with the Qumran community but are not Essenes and saw Melchizedek as a worthy man but only human. Philo develops both literal and allegorical concepts of Melchizedek, who is referred to as ‘the great priest of the greatest God.’ Jewish opinions (except Qumran) disagree with the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews that Melchizedek was greater that the Levitical priesthood. After the exile to Babylon, to have Melchizedek as King of Sodom was not theologically acceptable. No longer could a Jewish patriarch pay tithes to a Canaanite. So Sodom was changed to Salem, Jerusalem, making Melchizedek an acceptable priest of God. The Second Temple Period was a flourishing time for extra-biblical traditions which extended into the early Christian world. Melchizedek’s role as a priest-king allowed his character to become highly adaptable. With the demise of the Levitical priesthood at the fall of the Temple Melchizedek became an attractive alternative. Melchizedek is mentioned in Hellenistic synagogue prayers.
The Epistle to the Hebrews (written 60–90 AD) was addressed to a group of Judeo-Christians of an Essene background to avert lingering attachment to the Levitical priesthood. They were encouraged to see Jesus as high priest in spite of his non-Levitical ancestry. Both the texts of Genesis 14 and Psalm 110 were available to the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews and the author made an inspired connection between Melchizedek and Our Lord Jesus Christ. Melchizedek is first mentioned in the Epistle to the Hebrews (5:5; 5:10) stating that Christ is our high priest designated by God as after the order of Melchizedek. The text of Chapter 7 deserves close study as it tells us important facts about Melchizedek in a closely constructed argument. It may be helpful to read this chapter in more than one English version or if scholarship allows in Greek/Latin.
The Rabbis discussed Melchizedek under two headings: Melchizedek and the priesthood, and Melchizedek as an eschatological figure. In the 1st and 2nd centuries AD there was debate between Jews and Christians about Melchizedek but by the end of the 2nd century AD the Jews were losing interest and left Melchizedek to Christian speculation.
St Clement of Alexandria (c.150–215) was the first to suggest that the bread and the wine Melchizedek offered to Abraham was some type of communion. Both St. Augustine and St. Jerome agreed with this view which was to dominate the middle ages. Thus the prevailing view at the time was that Melchizedek was an archetype of Our Blessed Lord. This continued until the Reformation when neither Luther nor Calvin supported this view and saw the kingship and priesthood of Melchizedek as being separate, demonstrating humanity rather than divinity. His offering of bread and wine is seen as hospitality and his blessing as being priestly, acting as God’s mouthpiece.
The Epistle to the Hebrews had been written before Gnosticism was having an effect on Christianity and the Gnostic redeemer myth was not current in Jewish Hellenistic Gnosticism. Gnosticism is made up of elaborate mythology that involves Melchizedek and is not easy to understand. Quasi-philosophical terms are used which claim to lead the select-enlightened to salvation. The best source of information about Gnostic views on Melchizedek comes from the Pistis Sophia (a compendium of Gnostic material). There is a discussion on the purification of souls where Melchizedek receives the light and carries it into the Treasury of Light. By this process matter was left as dross and separated from the purified soul.
Pope Gelasius (492–496) drew attention to the fact that before Our Lord Jesus Christ, Melchizedek was both priest and king, but after Christ emperors or kings could not assume the title of priest nor did a priest assume royal dignity. The concept was that secular and spiritual authority were to remain separate. This did not stop Emperor Constantine II trying to settle a dispute over the Arian controversy with an imperial edict at the Council of Nicaea in 325, even though not yet baptised. He later took it upon himself to banish Bishop Athanasius in 336. Subsequently Pope Innocent III at the beginning of the 13th century became one of the most powerful popes with claims of temporal power over kings and emperors.
A Jewish fellowship meal, of which the Last Supper was an example, has both historical and typological context. The eucharist may be reflected upon as a fulfilment of the Old Testament typology and this was how the concept of Melchizedek found its way into the Eucharistic Prayer. The beginnings of the Latin Mass are in almost total darkness. We should note that Melchizedek does not appear in the Anaphora of Hippolytus in the third century. It was during this period that liturgy was changing from Greek to Latin and also from improvization based on a structure, to a fixed form of liturgical words during the pontificate of Pope Damasus (366–384). Melchizedek certainly had a place in the Ambrosian Rite by the end of the fourth century with the words ‘summus sacerdos tuus Melchisedech’ (‘your high priest Melchizedek’). There is further testimony from the Liber Pontificalis that Pope Leo the Great (440–461) added the words ‘sanctum sacrificium, immaculatam hostiam’ (‘a holy sacrifice and spotless victim’). The name of Melchizedek was added to that of Abel and Abraham to emphasize the sacrificial nature of the Canon of the Mass. The old Roman Canon has been retained as Canon I of the Roman Rite along with the mention of Melchizedek. His name does not appear in other Roman Rite Canons but they still use sacrificial language.
St Thomas Aquinas is said to be responsible for the liturgical music for the feast of Corpus Christi, which he wrote at the request of Pope Urban IV. It appears he made an evaluation of the role of Melchizedek in the context of the feast. The Christian view of Melchizedek as an Old Testament archetype of Christ is developed for the Feast of Corpus Christi. Celebration of the feast starts with First Vespers the day before the feast. At the time of Aquinas this started with an antiphon to the psalm Dixit Dominus, ‘Sacerdos in aeternum Christus Dominus secundum ordinem Melchisedech panem et vinum obtulit’ (‘Christ the Lord, priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek offered bread and wine’). So Melchizedek liturgically leads the procession into the feast. It can be suggested that Melchizedek was not far from the mind of Aquinas when he write the sequence Lauda Sion Salvatorum and possibly his other eucharistic hymns. At Catholic ordinations to the priesthood there is investment with stole and chasuble followed by the anointing of the new priest’s hands. During this the Veni, Creator Spiritus is usually sung but an alternative is the singing of the psalm Dixit Dominus with the antiphon ‘Christ the Lord, priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek, offered bread and wine’ sung every two verses. At the mass of ordination (In Conferendis Sacris Ordinibus) there is a choice of Latin Propers.
Some Eastern Orthodox Churches make saints of Old Testament heroes. There are icons of Melchizedek which can be on the inside (altar side) of the Royal Doors. Melchizedek can be commemorated on 22 May (26 July in the Armenian Church) and the Sunday of the Forefathers, which is two Sundays before Christmas.
Hippolytus (c.170–235) in Refutations of All Heresies and Epiphanius of Salamis (at the end of the fourth century) in Panarion suggest there was an early sect of Malchizedekians in Egyptian Christian circles at the end of the second and the beginning of the third centuries. They were led by Theodotus the Byzantine and Theodotus the Banker who taught that Melchizedek was superior to Christ. Both were condemned as heretical.
Interest in Melchizedek is not a catholic monopoly. Evangelical Pastors can wax lyrical in their preaching on the subject of Melchizedek, encouraging their followers to enter the ‘ministerial order of Melchizedek.’
The concept of Melchizedek priesthood among Mormons (The Church of Christ of Latter-Day Saints) has changed over time, modified to be more inclusive. It may be granted to any worthy male over the age of 18 by the laying on of hands. There is no rule on how long he must be a member and does not need any specific training but it is granted as soon as the local leaders feel he is prepared. Certain officers within the church must be holders of the Melchizedek priesthood.
From time to time in the last 200 years there have been masonic lodges that claim to have an association with a Grand High Order of Melchizedek with admission rites and regalia to be worn by the officer.
In the 20th century some New Age religions have embraced a variety of ethics and philosophies having their roots in Christianity or in other established religions. Melchizedek has a fascination for some, even those developing psychic elements. There is also an online educational facility calling itself The University of Melchizedek which runs seven courses (the Seven Seals) with a special book produced for each. At the end of each course the candidate submits a 500-word assessment of what they have learned and an online certificate is sent. On completion of the whole course the candidate is admitted to the Melchizedek priesthood.
Biblical scholarship and imagination meet in artistic depictions of Melchizedek of which there are many. Visual arts are capable of arousing interest and conveying information more quickly than the written script. This is especially so in the case of Melchizedek where the text is obscure and not in a familiar language. Some of the oldest depictions of Melchizedek are in the form of mosaics. There are illuminations in the margins of psalters especially related to Psalm 110. In both Greek and Russian Orthodox churches there are a number of icons depicting Melchizedek. Flemish artists from the 16th and 17th centuries have painted famous pictures of Melchizedek. There are a number of stained glass windows from the 19th and 20th centuries in churches in the United Kingdom and on the Continent that depict Melchizedek.
Thus, Melchizedek has been subject to a long history of careful study and has fascinated diverse people. There has been a variety of conclusions or even no final deduction. From a Christian perspective our main source of information about Melchizedek must be from the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews but most of us need some help with interpretation. Early liturgical history reveals his introduction into the Canon of the Latin Mass. Melchizedek becomes the mystic icon of catholic priesthood and tries to emulate Our Lord Jesus Christ, our perfect priest, who carries humanity to the heavenly kingdom for all time. This represents our eternal hope, achieved by Our Lord Jesus Christ in his great work at his incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension: Jesus, the Most High Son of God is the ultimate High Priest, upon whom all believers stake their hope.
Fr John Gayford SSC is Honorary Assistant Priest of
St Mary’s, East Grinstead.
Suggested further reading:
Horton, F.J., The Melchizedek Tradition, Cambridge University Press, London, 1976.
Mazza, E., The Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite, tr. O’Connell, M.J. Pueblo Publishing Company, New York, 1973.
Mitchell, A.C., Hebrews in the Sacra Pagina Series, A Michael Glazier Book Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 2007.
Vermes, G., The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (revised edition), Penguin Books, 2011