Who's Who in the Bible: Melchizedek, King of Salem, Part Two
By Dr. Josef Ben Levi
Presented by Omni-U Virtual University
"What became of the Black people of Sumer, the traveler asked the old man, for the records show that the people of Sumer were Black. What happened to them?
"Ah," the old man sighed. They lost their history, so they died."
"The Destruction of Black Civilization" by Ancestor Dr. Chancellor Williams
The association or identification of Melchizedek with the Messiah predates Christianity, developing in the messianism of the Second Temple period. The Nag Hammadi Library, (NHL) discovered in Upper Egypt, is a collection of fifty-two spiritual books, a few found still in their leather bindings, copied on papyrus sheets around A.D. 350–400, though the originals may have been written as early as the second century. Many of the works claim to offer secret traditions about Jesus which were hidden from the masses. Often early followers of Christ were condemned by other Christians as heretics. Certainly, those being condemned did not think of themselves as heretics, but probably regarded their texts to be as sacred and true as any of the Gospels which were circulating at about the same time. Much of the writing of the apostolic fathers was directed against such groups.Thus, we understand a possible reason for hiding the library found at Nag Hammadi . The NHL books had been banned.
It is appropriate to provide a preliminary explanation concerning two of the words often used to describe this library: Coptic and Gnostic. Coptic is the language of the texts and is most simply described as Egyptian written in Greek letters. Coptic is the last phase of the ancient Egyptian language. Gnostic is the label we now give the early Christians who claimed hidden knowledge. The groups that wrote the gnostic texts did not call themselves “gnostic”. (14) That is a modern scholarly term to describe them. Elaine Pagels describes gnosis in a way that may sound familiar to Mormons:
As the Gnostics use the term [Gnosis], we could translate it as “insight,” for “gnosis” involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself. . .. According to the gnostic teacher Theodotus, writing in Asia Minor (c. A.D. 140–160), the gnostic is one who has come to understand “who we are, and what we have become; where we were . . . whither we are hastening; from what we are being released; what birth is, and what is rebirth.” Yet to know oneself, at the deepest level, is simultaneously to know God; this is the secret of “gnosis.” (15)
Until this discovery near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, knowledge of the Gnostics was limited to the polemics of the early church fathers who sought to discredit them. These small Gnostic groups were convinced that they possessed a secret knowledge which was not available to the uninitiated. It was not based, they claimed, on scientific inquiry or philosophy, but came to them through revelation. The Nag Hammadi Library (NHL) is of great importance, since scholars were previously dependent on secondary sources, namely, the critical writings of the fathers. Now from Nag Hammadi the original documents of the Gnostics speak for themselves. Apparently, these secret writings were originally open only to a few initiates. (16)
The discovery of these documents is causing a reappraisal of the beginnings or formative years of Christianity. We now know Gnosticism was more complex than had formerly been assumed. For years, the Gnostics were considered- en masse- as a heretical movement and were dismissed as anti-Christian. But some of the findings in the Coptic Gnostic library at Nag Hammadi (e.g., the Gospels of Thomas and Philip) open the possibility that some strands of the Gnostic movement may have been at the very center of original Christianity and cannot be so easily dismissed.
Josephus refers to Melchizedek as a "Canaanite chief" in "War of the Jews", but as a priest in "Antiquities of the Jews".
Philo identifies Melchizedek with the Logos as priest of God and honored as an untutored priesthood. (17)
Hebrew-language Torah commentarians of the Rishonim era (11th to 15th centuries-Rishonim comes from the Hebrew word “Rosh” or “Head".The Rishonim have explained the (seemingly) abrupt intrusion of Melchizedek into the narration in various ways. Hezekiah ben Manoah (c. 1250) points out that the following verses has Abraham refusing any of the king of Sodom's possessions which, if not for the insertion of Melchizedek's hospitality, would prompt the question of the source from whence Abraham and his weary men got their refreshments . (18)
There is, however, disagreement amongst Rishonim as to whether Shalem was Melchizedek's allocated residence or whether he was a foreigner in Shalem . The Ramban is of the opinion that the land was rightfully owned and governed by the offspring of Ham, and explains that Melchizedek left his home country and came to Salem as a foreigner wishing to serve God as a Kohen. The term Kohen (כהנ) means “to minister”. In the Hebrew scriptures, this is the term used for the “priest”. The term Rabbi, for a minister; is never used since the people who invented the Rabbinate did not exist at that time.
The Order of Melchizedek
Contrary to what might be expected, the first priest mentioned in the Bible is not from the Tribe of Levi. In fact, the first priest is described before Levi is even born. In Genesis 14, we are introduced to Melchizedek, who is described as “Priest of God Most High.” Identified in Psalm 110 and extensively reflected upon in the Letter to the Hebrews, Melchizedek remains an elusive figure in the Scripture. (19)
Even so, he appears in the Roman Canon at Mass; today’s priests are ordained to “the Order of Melchizedek,” and his appearance in Genesis forms the basis of some of our theology of the priesthood.
The first question that arises is regarding Melchizedek’s very identity: who is he? His appearance in Genesis 14 is quite minimal and set at a point very early in Abram’s faith journey, as Abram defeats several war lords in the land of Canaan. Identified in the Scripture as “King of Shalem,” ancient Jewish sources see him as the leader of the entire area, a wise sage of a man whom the rest must respect. But, this does not answer the question of his identity. We must look back even further.
As Abram presents Melchizedek with a tithe, Melchizedek gives him a blessing in return. The last person to receive a blessing was the oldest son of Noah: Shem. Adding up the dates of Shem’s life, we learn that he was actually still alive during Abram’s time and, in fact, outlived Abram! Blessings at this time in history were not things that could be easily exchanged. Once they were given, they could not be taken back. (See Jacob’s stealing of Isaac’s paternal blessing from his older brother Esau.)
All of these identities have priestly functions, but it is taken to an even greater degree when we see what Melchizedek offers as a priest, for priests offer sacrifices and Melchizedek offers a sacrifice of bread and wine. This sets off signal flares in the eyes of a Catholic, for our priests also offer sacrifices of bread and wine, now fulfilled in Christ to be His very Body and Blood.
What becomes important ,for today, is that the priesthood in which Catholic Priests share and -by extension- in which all the baptized share, as well, goes back not just to the Sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple, but back to the very foundations of creation by God. Melchizedek is identified as “a priest forever” in Psalm 110, his priesthood continues on into the ages. The Catholic Priest, in the place of Christ mi the Head, also shares in this eternal priesthood, continually offering a sacrifice of bread and wine before God in Heaven.
Uniting all of this into one, we see God’s divine plan in the scope of Salvation History. That Jesus came when He did is not some type of accidental occurrence but, had been planned from before by our Loving Father. God wants to give us the tools to return to His presence in Heaven. Let us therefore rejoice that Christ left us with the great gift of the priesthood, that He continues to choose men to serve Him in this way, so that we might all come to worship Him forever around His altar in heaven.
Finally, we get the longest description of Melchizedek in Hebrews 7:1[Jewish Publication Society/Tanakh]. which describes him as the “king of righteousness” and the “king of peace”, but he does not have a genealogy, which is in contrast to the other Old Testament kings and priests. In other words, why aren’t his father, mother and children listed in the Old Testament?
Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, 2 to whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all, first being translated “king of righteousness,” and then also king of Salem, meaning “king of peace,”
Hebrews 7:3 KJV Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like unto the Son of God; abiding a priest continually. (20)
To answer the question of whether or not Melchizedek is a theophany, we need to first define the term. Theophany (from Ancient Greek (ἡ) θεοφάνεια theophaneia, meaning ("appearance of a deity") is a personal encounter with a deity, that is an event where the manifestation of a deity occurs in an observable way. Specifically, it "refers to the temporal and spatial manifestation of God in some tangible form."
Where the deity does not take tangible form (outward manifestation), the broader term used for inward manifestation is divine revelation or divine inspiration. Where the spirit of God is manifest in a person the term used is divine incarnation, avatar or personification of the deity.
Traditionally the term "theophany" was used to refer to appearances of the gods in ancient Greek and in Near Eastern religions. While the Iliad is the earliest source for descriptions of theophanies in classical antiquity (which occur throughout Greek mythology), probably the earliest description appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
In the specific usage for Christians and Hebrews, with respect to the Bible, theophany refers to an event where the Abrahamic God reveals his presence to a person.
Nonetheless, we can note a few things. 1. Melchizedek spoke God’s blessings or proclamations; 2. Melchizedek is not just a man per se, because his genealogy seems to be hidden from us or possibly it does not exist at all; 3. He is a priest forever which is similar to an angel who has no known human like lifespan (although angels are not priests). The association or identification of Melchizedek with the Messiah predates Christianity, developing in the messianism of the Second Temple period. (21)
However, when Abraham met Melchizedek, it did not seem to be a supernatural event, like the burning bush, for instance. Abraham met the king and high priest of Shalem. That seems like a normal person, on the surface at least. So, it is now left up to the reader to consider what is going on here. Who do you say he is?
14. Elaine Pagels (1981), The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage Books, 1981.
15. Birger A. Pearson. (2004). Gnosticism and Christianity in Roman and Coptic Egypt. New York: T & T Clark International.
16. William Whiston (1900/1988). Josephus Complete works. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publishing.
17. Yosef Eisen. (2002). Who were the Rishonim? New York: Chabad.org.
18. The Coming of Melchizedek, Gnostic Society Library, http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/melchiz.html
19. Fr. Kyle Schnippel, The Order of Melchizedek, https://catholicexchange.com/the-order-of-melchizedek/
20. Harvey, Van Austin (1964). "Theophany". A Handbook of Theological Terms. New York: Macmillan
1. F. Brown, S. Driver, & C. Briggs, (1906/2000). The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers.
2. Robert C, Cargill, First Person: From Shalem to Jerusalem, Biblical Archaeology Review, 45(6), November/December 2019.
3. Yigal Levin, (2012). Did Pharaoh Sheshonq attack Jerusalem? Biblical Archaeology Review, 38(4), July/August 2012.
4. JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh 2003. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
5. The Melchizedek Tractate. References throughout this section of our text are to numbering in Birger A. Pearson’s translation of Nag Hammadi Codices IX and X, ed. Birger A. Pearson (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981).
6. Rev. Walter A, McCray, (1990). The Black presence in the Bible: Discovering the Black and African identity of Biblical persons and nations. Chicago: Black Light Fellowship.
7. James C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Early Christianity: Part One. Bible Review, 7(6), 1991.