Published: 8 November 2021

Who Was Melchizedek?

Melchizedek

Melchizedek is a very mysterious person in the Bible with a name that is equally mysterious to pronounce (mel-KIZ-uh-dek). He appears in Gen 14:18 with no introduction and he is mentioned only one other time in the Old Testament (Psa 110:4). The mystery surrounding him has led to a good deal of speculation. Some say he was the pre-incarnate Jesus due to passages in the book of Hebrews. Among the Jews there is a tradition that Melchizedek was Noah’s son, Shem.

His name is formed from two Hebrew words (malki-sedeq). This translates as “King of Righteousness.” The author of Hebrews makes this plain for us by giving the translation in Hebrews 7:2. Since his name means “King of Righteousness,” the Bible may be giving us his title and not his proper name.[1]Michael C. Astour, Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, s.v. “MELCHIZEDEK(PERSON),” 4:684. The mystery deepens.

He was the first priest ever mentioned in the Bible. He was also the king of Salem (Gen 14:18); a city later known as “Jerusalem.” The fact that he was both a priest and king should cause us to take note because these are two roles that were kept separate in Israel. Was Melchizedek the pre-incarnate Christ, Shem, or someone else altogether?

“Without father or mother”

Perhaps the main reason some Christians consider Melchizedek to be Jesus is because of this verse in Hebrews:

He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever. (Heb. 7:3 ESV)

In addition, Hebrews quotes a Messianic psalm several times which connects Jesus with Melchizedek (Heb 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:11, 17). 

The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (Psa. 110:4 ESV)

These passages seem to make Melchizedek out to be something other than a normal human, but is this what the author of Hebrews meant to convey? Does Hebrews portray Melchizedek as Divine? Not necessarily. 

The comments about Melchizedek’s lack of genealogy probably derive from an ancient Jewish interpretive principle: “that which is not specifically mentioned in the biblical writings does not exist.”[2]Mason, Eric Farrel. “Hebrews 7:3 and the Relationship between Melchizedek and Jesus.” Biblical Research 50 (2005): 47. The author of Hebrews isn’t saying Melchizedek had no parents. Instead he is saying Genesis tells us nothing about his ancestors. As was their custom, the Jews of this time period would express this as the Hebrew writer did in Hebrews 7:3. Since Genesis doesn’t tell us about Melchizedek’s parents, his birth, nor his death, these things “didn’t happen” in an interpretive sense. 

Lack of priestly genealogy

The Hebrew author is underscoring a lack of priestly genealogy, not a lack of human ancestry. Hebrews emphasizes that Jesus’s priesthood is not like the Aaronic priesthood which could only be filled by Aaron’s descendants. A priest in the “order of Aaron” had to be descended from Aaron.

In contrast, a priest of the order of Melchizedek did not depend upon his genealogy or a family line to qualify. A priest of the order of Melchizedek was granted the role directly by God. This is the difference in the nature of the two priesthoods. Jesus was not descended from Aaron and was not even of the tribe of Levi. The author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 110:4 to make the point that Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek because His priesthood does not rely upon succession.

It should also be noted that Hebrews 7:3 does not say that Melchizedek was Christ, but that he resembled Christ or was like Christ. This is an important distinction. They were not the same person, but they were both priests and they were both kings. 

Was Melchizedek Shem?

Jewish rabbinical literature and oral traditions makes the claim that Melchizedek was Shem, the son of Noah. There is nothing whatsoever in the Bible which makes this connection. Therefore, this view is based on nothing more than tradition. 

When did this tradition originate? It is alleged that in the 2nd century AD, Jewish rabbis who were opposed to Christianity wanted to build a case to show that Jesus could not be a priest after the order of Melchizedek. If the rabbis gave Melchizedek a genealogy they reckoned they could undermine Jesus’s priesthood. 

This theory says the rabbis claimed that the Jewish priesthood was passed down from Noah to Shem and from Shem all the way down to Aaron. We know who Shem’s parents were, and if they could make Melchizedek out to be Shem it would counter the statement found in Hebrews 7:3. 

Tinkering with the text?

For this to work Shem needed to be alive during Abraham’s time since Abraham and Melchizedek met each other. To achieve this, it is claimed the rabbis tinkered with the genealogies in Genesis 11 reducing the age at which these men had their firstborn sons. This had the effect of causing Shem to appear to have lived long enough to meet Abram. 

Image taken from https://youtu.be/VI1yRTC6kGE
Begetting ages in the MT.
(image from https://youtu.be/VI1yRTC6kGE)

Whether the above theory is true or not is a matter of debate. However, we know for certain that the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) which our modern Old Testaments are translated from differs from other ancient versions of the Hebrew Bible. 

Ancient textual witnesses

For example, two ancient translations of the Hebrew Old Testament, both of which predate the MT by about 1000 years, have an additional 100 years attached to the begetting ages in the genealogies of Genesis 11. 

Note in the verse below that the begetting ages in the Septuagint (LXX) and the Samaritan Pentateuch differ from the MT.

When Shelah had lived 30 years, he fathered Eber. (Gen. 11:14 ESV)

And Sala lived one hundred thirty years and became the father of Eber. (Gen. 11:14 NETS [English translation of the LXX]) 

And lived Salah thirty years and one hundred years, and begat Eber: (Gen. 11:14, Samaritan Pentateuch)

Most of the men listed in the Genesis 11 genealogy have had 100 years removed from the begetting ages in the Hebrew MT. All modern English Old Testament Bible translations derive from the Hebrew MT therefore our Bibles have lower begetting ages. Clearly the more ancient copies of the Scriptures are not in agreement with the newer MT. 

We can’t say for certain when or why this change was made, but a number of Christian scholars agree “that the LXX fundamentally preserves the original figures and the MT’s primeval chronology is the result of a deliberate post–AD 70 corruption.”[3]Smith, Henry. “The Case for the Septuagint’s Chronology in Genesis 5 and 11.” Proceedings of the International Conference on Creationism 8, no. 1 (July 27, 2018), 119.

Image taken from https://youtu.be/VI1yRTC6kGE
Begetting ages in the LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch.
(image from https://youtu.be/VI1yRTC6kGE)

Removing 100 years from the begetting ages gives the appearance that Shem lived long enough to meet Abraham. We don’t know if this deliberate change in the MT was perpetrated by rabbis to undermine the priesthood of Jesus, but the theory does fit the facts.

Conclusion

Shem most likely died 500 years before Abraham was born. There is not a shred of scriptural evidence that Shem was Melchizedek. We can confidently bust the myth that Shem and Melchizedek were the same person. Likewise, the Hebrew writer never said that Jesus and Melchizedek were the same person. The author of Hebrews only says that they were similar to each other in certain limited respects.

Melchizedek was a priest of God Most High (Gen 14:18). He had the honor of being the first person in the Bible to claim this title. Nevertheless, the evidence indicates that he was nothing more than a normal human being.

References

References
1 Michael C. Astour, Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, s.v. “MELCHIZEDEK(PERSON),” 4:684.
2 Mason, Eric Farrel. “Hebrews 7:3 and the Relationship between Melchizedek and Jesus.” Biblical Research 50 (2005): 47.
3 Smith, Henry. “The Case for the Septuagint’s Chronology in Genesis 5 and 11.” Proceedings of the International Conference on Creationism 8, no. 1 (July 27, 2018), 119.