Before Aaron the high priest, and his sons the Cohanim, the priests in Israel were the eldest sons of each family – they served as priests, doing the spiritual work before G-d on behalf of their families. But before there were Jews, before there was Abraham, there was Melchizedek.
Melchizedek, whose name means righteous king, is mentioned two times in the Tanach. The first time he is mentioned, which is the only time he actually appears in the bible is in Bereshit 14:18. Here, Abraham (who is still called Abram) had just returned from doing battle against Chedorlaomer, King of Elam, who had joined forces with 3 other “Kings of the North” and waged war against Sodom and Gomorrah, taking Lot, Abraham’s nephew, captive. Abraham was victorious and upon his return from battle encounters Melchizedek, Priest of Salem.
Melchzedek offers Abraham bread and wine and gives him a blessing. The Tanach specifies that Melchizedek was a priest of “God Most High”. The Ramban tells us that this was “stated to inform us that Abraham would not give a tithe to the priest of other gods, but since he knew that he was a priest of G-d the Most High, he gave him the tithe as an honor to G-d.”
This is all we know about Melchizedek. He was a priest to G-d Most High, before there was a nation of Israel to serve as a kingdom of priests.
Melchizedek is also mentioned in Tehillim 110. According to the Ibn Ezra and the Radak, Tehillim 110 is not a Psalm of (by) David, but one that was composed by an unnamed psalmist, possibly one of his soldiers, about his king. This makes sense when reading the psalm, but Tehillim 110 also has the dubious distinction of being considered one of the most “messianic” psalms in the bible by Christians. Is it any wonder then that verse 4 is believed by Christians to be referring to Jesus?
Verse 4 reads: “The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
Read in context, it is clear that the Psalmist here is writing a letter of encouragement to his king. He describes how, despite his many enemies; King David is favored by G-d and will rule even in the midst of those enemies. So beloved is he by his citizens that they will all volunteer to come to his assistance. What is the reference here to Melchizedek? The Stone translation of Tehillim 110 translates the word literally, rendering the verse to read as follows: “You shall be a priest forever, because you are a king of righteousness.” And an equally valid translation, based on the use of the word דברתי(dibarti), is that of the New JPS version, “You are a priest forever, a rightful king by My decree”. Regardless of the translation chosen, the concept is that Melchizedek was someone who served the Most High God as a righteous person, unique, in a world of pagans. Think about it – Abraham was one of the very few people in his generation – until Melchizedek, we are under the impression that he is the only one in his generation – who forsakes the idols of his family and chooses to serve the One True God.
The Psalmist here is saying that David, like Melchizedek, recognizes and serves the One True God, in his righteousness, and he will be responsible for setting events into motion which will ultimately bring all people closer to God – the role of a priest.
So, what is the significance of Melchizedek to Christians?
The name Melchizedek is referenced eight times in the New Testament. All eight references are found in the book of Hebrews, chapters 5, 6 and 7.
Hebrews 5:6 quotes Tehillim 110, saying, “just as He says also in another passage, ‘YOU ARE A PRIEST FOREVER ACCORDING TO THE ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK.’”
Why quote this passage about a relatively obscure character who appears only once in the Hebrew bible? The author of the book of Hebrews (who is unknown, but dated at approximately 70 years after the death of Jesus) opens chapter 5 with the goal of establishing Jesus as not only the King-Messiah, but as the High Priest, capable of offering a sacrifice on behalf of the people.
Putting aside the obvious difficulties caused by the idea that he was both the Priest who offered the sacrifice and the sacrifice itself, the author has the even more complicated task of establishing the priesthood of a person for whom the New Testament has gone to great lengths to prove qualifies to be the messiah through his Davidic lineage. Since we know that one cannot have two tribal lineages and a King (from the tribe of Judah) cannot be a Priest (a descendant of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi), the author of Hebrews makes a grasping-at-straws attempt to show that one can be a priest another way – a superior way.
According to the author of Hebrews, Jesus, a priest “according to the order of Melchizedek”, is chosen by G-d, rather than by men. At this point, the author then runs away with the concept, using the translation of his name – “King of Righteousness” and his title – “King of Salem (Peace)” to establish Melchizedek as a “type” or model for Jesus. Taking great license, the author of Hebrews continues on, saying, “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, he remains a priest perpetually.”
This verse has been interpreted in a variety of ways by different Christian groups over the last two millennia. While some say that Melchizedek was a “type” serving to show that one can be a priest and not be a descendant of Aaron, most Christians understand Melchizedek to be a Christophany.
A Christophany is a supposed appearance of the pre-incarnate Jesus in the “Old Testament.” Most Evangelical Christians believe that anywhere in the Tanach were an “angel of the Lord” appears, it is not actually an angel, but a Christophany – Jesus. For this reason, and because Christians cannot believe that anyone other than Jesus was without lineage (in his divine form) and a truly righteous king, it is largely accepted that Melchizedek was Jesus.
In the end, the author of Hebrews uses the idea of the superiority of this Priesthood of Melchizedek to bolster his argument that Jesus was not only a superior Priest, who offered a superior sacrifice, but who also enacted a superior Law. In the concept of Melchizedek, Christianity establishes the ultimate authority for their claims for Jesus. However, like most proofs used to support the messiahship of Jesus, it relies entirely on circular reasoning and fabricating information that cannot be found in the Hebrew passage in order to make its case. In most courts in the world, this would be grounds for dismissal.