May 19, 2008

The Identity of Melchizedek: Four Theories

There are a number of different theories concerning the identity of Melchizedek. However we will only focus on the “four basic proposals” outlined by Davis.[1] Each of these four proposals will be briefly explained and examined.

One theory proposes that Melchizedek is none other than the preincarnate Christ (i.e., a Christophany). Although this theory does not seem to enjoy much popularity today, it does have its proponents.[2] In favor of this view is the exalted place of Melchizedek (particularly in Hebrews), the parallels of the bread and wine to the Lord’s Supper, the absence of a genealogy, and his supposed eternality (Heb. 7:3). However, as discussed previously, all these “proofs” can be explained in other and probably better ways. Furthermore, if this view were correct, it would seem illogical for the author of Hebrews to be saying that Christ is of the order of Melchizedek, if the order of Melchizedek was in reality the order of Christ.

A second theory proposes that Melchizedek was Noah’s son Shem. This theory was “introduced by rabbinical scholars before the end of the first century with the purpose it would seem, of counteracting the superior importance assigned by Christians to Melchizedek as a type of Christ on the basis the doctrine of The Epistle to the Hebrews.”[3] This view was also adopted by early Christians and even Luther.[4] The main appeal of this view seems to be that it eases the tension concerning the patriarch Abram’s submission to Melchizedek. However, while Shem may very well have been alive at this time, there is not scriptural justification for this theory.[5]

A third theory proposes that Melchizedek was a pagan Canaanite priest.[6] The proponents of this view generally argue that El Elyon is a Canaanite deity and therefore Melchizedek must be a Canaanite priest. Against this view is the fact that El Elyon does not truly correspond to any know Canaanite deities. Furthermore, if Melchizedek were a pagan priest, it would be difficult to see how Abram’s reverent actions could possibly be appropriate. Not only this, but one would also have to explain why later inspired biblical authors of Psalm 110 and Hebrews would associate the Messiah with a pagan idolater.

The fourth common view is to see Melchizedek as a human, historical king-priest who worshipped Yahweh.[7] This final view has much to commend it. This theory not only harmonizes well with the reverent actions of Abram in Genesis fourteen, but is also avoids the textual presumptions which characterize the first two views. Furthermore, this view also seems to harmonize well with the Messianic overtones of Psalm 110 and the typology of Hebrews 5–7. This theory is particularly attractive because it allows for the uniqueness of Melchizedek (i.e., his order) while avoiding the unacceptable option of having an idolatrous priest being held in such high regard.

[1] John J. Davis, Paradise to Prison: Studies in Genesis, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), 181.

[2] A.T. Hanson, “Christ in the Old Testament According to Hebrews,” Studia Evangelica, Vol. II, part 1 (1964): 398.

[3] Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 244.

[4] Ibid.

[5] H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1942), 1:464.

[6] Ronald F. Youngblood, The Book of Genesis: An Introductory Commentary, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Beker, 1991), 156.

[7] Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New Jps Translation, The JPS Torah Commentary, ed. Nahum M. Sarna (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 109.

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