Who Was Melchizedek?

Abraham Meets Melchizedek – Basilica di San Marco

Wednesday’s first reading spoke of the mysterious Melchizedek:

This Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High, met Abraham as he returned from his defeat of the kings and blessed him. And Abraham apportioned to him a tenth of everything.

His name first means righteous king, and he was also “king of Salem,” that is, king of peace. Without father, mother, or ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life, thus made to resemble the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. See how great he is to whom the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of his spoils (Heb 7:1-4).

Who was Melchizedek? Abraham paid tithes to him—something that rightly belongs to God—so he must have been pretty important!

From a worldly point of view, Melchizedek was the king of Salem (later called Jerusalem). Not only was he a king, but he was a priest who worshiped “The Most High God” (EL-ELYON). Although some claim that this likely was a Canaanite God, at this point early in revelation the later textual distinctions and names for God were not yet as clear.

From a secular point of view, we see that Melchizedek, even if he was a Canaanite Priest-King, honored Abraham for his conquests. (Because Abram had just defeated ten kings, many other local kings would seek to ingratiate themselves to him.)

The Scriptures say this of the mysterious priest-king:

  • Psalm 110 indicates that when the Messiah comes, he will have a priesthood derived from Melchizedek’s (not from the Levitical priesthood): You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4b).
  • Hebrews 7, as quoted above, sees Melchizedek as a foreshadowing of Jesus. Note that Melchizedek is described as without ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life.

Was Melchizedek in fact a vision of Christ pre-incarnate? He was said to be without earthly father, mother, or ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life. This could only be the Lord! (That would help to explain Abraham’s unusual behavior of paying a tithe to him.) Yet this is probably not the proper conclusion because the text says that he was made to resemble Christ. So, Melchizedek is more of a type or prefigurement of Christ.

The main point is that Hebrews clearly states the basis for the priesthood of Jesus Christ as rooted in the priesthood of Melchizedek. It is also declared in Psalm 110.

The author of Hebrews declares this priesthood to be far superior to the Levitical priesthood. Why? First, Melchizedek was superior to any Levite because he received tithes from Abraham and because he lives forever. To the Jewish world, no one was greater than Abraham, their father in faith, yet Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, indicating that Melchizedek was even greater.

Second, the Levitical priesthood was inaugurated due to sin. As such, it was a poor replacement for priesthood in the Order of Melchizedek. We read in Scripture of the origin of the Levitical priesthood in the aftermath of the golden calf incident:

And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to their shame among their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. And he said to them, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘Put every man his sword on his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.’” And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. And Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, that he may bestow a blessing upon you this day” (Ex 32:25-31).

Hence, the superior and more ancient priesthood of Melchizedek led to the lesser, limited priesthood of the Levites. Hebrews continues,

The descendants of Levi who receive the office of priesthood have a commandment according to the law to exact tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, although they also have come from the loins of Abraham. But he who was not of their ancestry received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had received the promises. Unquestionably, a lesser person is blessed by a greater. In the one case, mortal men receive tithes; in the other, a man of whom it is testified that he lives on. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, was tithed through Abraham, for he was still in his father’s loins when Melchizedek met him. If, then, perfection came through the Levitical priesthood, on the basis of which the people received the law, what need would there still have been for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not reckoned according to the order of Aaron? (Heb 7:5-11)

So, the Letter to the Hebrews states that Melchizedek and his priesthood are superior to the Levitical priesthood using this logic:

  • Because a lesser person is blessed by a greater—and Melchizedek blessed Abraham—Melchizedek must be greater than Abraham.
  • The Levites are lesser than Abraham, and Abraham is lesser than Melchizedek. Therefore, the Levites and their priesthood are beneath the priesthood of Melchizedek.
  • Because Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, even the Levites owe tithes to Melchizedek.
  • The Levitical priesthood could not bring perfection; if it could, why would the order of priesthood in Melchizedek have needed to be re-established when the Messiah came?

To anyone who would deny that Jesus could be a priest because He was not of the tribe of Levi, point to the Letter to the Hebrews, which says that Jesus is a priest. He is not a lesser Levitical priest; He is a priest in the higher and original order of Melchizedek. Indeed, Psalm 110 (a Messianic psalm) calls Him Lord and priest:

The LORD said to my Lord:
“Sit at My right hand
until I make Your enemies
a footstool for Your feet.”

The LORD has sworn
and will not change His mind:
“You are a priest forever
in the order of Melchizedek”
(Psalm 110:1, 4).

This also explains Jesus’ use of bread and wine in the Eucharist, for as Genesis 14:17-19 recounts, this was the offering of Melchizedek:

After Abram returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the kings allied with him…. Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine—since he was priest of God Most High—and he blessed Abram … (Genesis 14:17-19).

So, who was this Melchizedek? He was an historical figure, but also one who prefigured Jesus Christ, our High Priest and Lord. Although not of the tribe of Levi, Jesus has a superior and more ancient priesthood than theirs—a priesthood in the order of Melchizedek.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Who Was Melchizedek?

13 Replies to “Who Was Melchizedek?”

  1. I thought you were going to address the question of whether Melchizedek might have been Shem.

  2. Yes, there’s a Jewish tradition that Melchizedek was actually Shem, son of Noah. As Abraham’s ancestor, he would be greater than him; and he certainly would have been in contact with ancient modes of sacrifice!

    1. To my knowledge, that’s a post-Christian “tradition”. If indeed pre-Christian tradition believed Melchizedek was Shem, the author of Hebrews would not have described Melchizedek as without ancestry.

  3. This is just hypothetical, but I have a question as comment: when did “Jesus” start to exist?
    Of course… We have no proper answer. Jesus is eternal. Because he is God – at least that’s our belief.
    Yet Jesus was born, in Bethlehem, from Mary, and grew up in Egypt, then in Nazareth. So he obviously could not be there, talking to Abram… Or could he? Or could He?

    God is outside Time.

    The “human logic” of causality cannot restrict God.

    Yet God can restrict Himself by causality.
    Yet he does not need to.

    So, who was Melchizedek?
    It can’t be Jesus… Because Jesus (man) is restricted by Time and cannot exist before he was born?

    I actually wonder…

    But in no way would I say to “worship Melchizedek”. That’s not the point.

    The invitation, rather, is to think of the nature of Jesus as more than the born baby in the manger.

    God was born in a manger.

    Our minds would never be able to fully grasp that Mystery.

    1. When speaking of Jesus Christ in these kinds of situations we have to make distinction between the uncreated eternal divine nature (the deity), the uncreated eternal divine person (the Word or the the Son), and the human nature (what we might call “the man” Jesus. The human nature of Christ was created at a definite point in time by the Holy Ghost and suffered action. The Damascene goes into this in great detail in “The Fount of Knowledge”, specifically Book III of the “Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”.

      Here’s a good print copy of it.

      1. I must refer to scripture itself. In John’s gospel we have a group of Jews interrogating Jesus and I quote part of that interrogation. This comes from John 8 vss57, 58:-
        “The Jews therefore said to him ‘Thou art not yet fifty years old and hast thou seen Abraham’
        Jesus said to them: Amen amen, I say to you, before Abraham was made, I am’

  4. Japeth shall dwell in the tents of Shem. Shem the one with genealogy and Japeth the one without genealogy ,just as Levi would not have land of his own Japeth served Shem,.The covenant goes through Shems genealogy. Melchizedek genealogy goes through Japeth the one without genealogy

  5. The priesthood of Christ is without genealogy.It is no longer attached to Levi .The Lords genealogy ran through Juda .So his priesthood is also without genealogy. And so the priesthood of Christ comes from every nation on earth through his One Holy Catholic and Apostolic church.

  6. Significantly, there is also Christ’s own reference to Psalm 110 in explaining His own greatness. I do not have the passage handy, but it is recounted in more than one Gospel. I think maybe all three synoptics? Could be wrong on that, but He does make a significant point of it.

  7. The following article has a good synopsis on the varying views and opinions of who Melchizedek is. Some of the Fathers of the Church, like St. Jerome (mirroring some Jewish traditions), thought he was Shem (Noah’s firstborn son). This would line up with the theological point of the priesthood of the firstborn being given back through Christ/Melchizedek (Ps 110). The article also points to the very interesting Qumran tradition, which makes him both a historical and divine/human type figure, like the Teacher of Righteousness (11Q Melch). https://instituteofcatholicculture.org/who-is-melchizedek/

    In his commentary on Hebrews 7, Aquinas, the greatest synthesizer of the Patristic Tradition, does not say that Melchizedek is Christ incarnate or the Son of God [in fact, Aquinas notes that this was a condemned heresy] , but a type, like St Paul says in Hebrews, because of his mysterious genealogy and his offering of the elements of the Eucharistic sacrifice, bread and wine: https://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/SSHebrews.htm#71

    It is interesting though, that Aquinas, later in his commentary on John 8:56 does say that Abraham did see Christ in a vision, “face to face”, but, that Abraham’s knowledge of Him came through degrees of faith (cf. Gen 15, 17, and 22), that “was accredited to him as righteousness”: https://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/John8.htm

  8. Very interesting, Msgr. Thank you.

    I’ve been doing some digging regarding the “precise” meaning of “made to resemble” in Heb 7:3 in Strong’s concordance and didn’t turn up anything I considered definitive. Which only, I guess, holds out hope for my suspicion that that’s a sort of “awkward” or “clunky” English way of saying, “Without father, mother, or ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life, thus bearing a very suspicious resemblance to ‘you know Who’ (so suspicious, in fact, that that’s actually a gentle way of hinting at the fact that the two are and the same), he remains a priest forever.”

    I suspect it was Christ indeed, just in “spirit form.”

  9. Another theory has Melchesidek as an angel who appears in bodily form, such as the putative angel that wrestled with Jacob, the three (cf. Trinity) who appeared to Abraham, Raphael who walked with Tobias, etc. This would explain Melchesidek’s lack of genealogy and even the reference, “without beginning of days or end of life,” if one were to understand the phrase to refer to historical time since angels first existed outside of time and are eternal.

    Anne Catherine Emmerich has some wild theories in this regard. For example, she writes that she witnessed him forge the Jordan River with a spear he thrust into the ground, long before Shem, et al.

    If one sees the three men who appeared to Abraham as really angels prefiguring the Trinity, one could see how Melchesidek as an angel could prefigure Christ.

Comments are closed.