There has been a lot of confusion over the meaning of the seventh chapter of Hebrews. The recent position of most of the Churches of God has been that the Logos was Melchizedek before his human incarnation as Jesus (Yeshua) in the 1st century CE. A close examination of this Scripture is necessary to understand what the author of Hebrews was really trying to say.
The overall purpose of Hebrews 7 is to explain that for Jewish Christians, the Levitical priesthood had been superceded. To illustrate the transition of the priesthood from the Levites to Yeshua the Messiah, the writer uses Melchizedek, priest of God in the Old Testament, to typify Christ's new position as High Priest.
The first biblical reference we find to Melchizedek is in Genesis 14:18-20.
GENESIS 14:18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. 19 And he blessed him and said: "Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth; 20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand." And he gave him a tithe of all. (NKJV)
Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Dictionary says the following about Melchizedek:
A king of Salem (Jerusalem) and priest of the Most High God (Gen. 14:18-20; Ps. 110:4; Heb. 5:6-11; 6:20-7:28). Melchizedek's appearance and disappearance in the Book of Genesis are somewhat mysterious. Melchizedek and Abraham first met after Abraham's defeat of Chedorlaomer and his three allies. Melchizedek presented bread and wine to Abraham and his weary men, demonstrating friendship and religious kinship. He bestowed a blessing on Abraham in the name of El Elyon ("God Most High"), and praised God for giving Abraham a victory in battle (Gen. 14:18-20).
Abraham presented Melchizedek with a tithe (a tenth) of all the booty he had gathered. By this act Abraham indicated that he recognized Melchizedek as a fellow-worshiper of the one true God as well as a priest who ranked higher spiritually than himself. Melchizedek's existence shows that there were people other than Abraham and his family who served the true God.
In Psalm 110, a messianic psalm written by David (Matt. 22:43), Melchizedek is seen as a type of Christ. This theme is repeated in the Book of Hebrews, where both Melchizedek and Jesus are considered kings of righteousness and peace. By citing Melchizedek and his unique priesthood as a type, the writer shows that Christ's new priesthood is superior to the old Levitical order and the priesthood of Aaron (Heb. 7:1-10; Melchisedec, KJV).
Attempts have been made to identify Melchizedek as . . . an angel, the Holy Spirit, Christ, and others. All are the products of speculation, not historical fact; and it is impossible to reconcile them with the theological argument of Hebrews. Melchizedek was a real, historical king-priest who served as a type for the greater King-Priest who was to come, Jesus Christ. (p. 819, "Melchizedek")
The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary gives this interpretation of the seventh chapter of Hebrews:
Within the interpretation of Ps. 110 that occupies much of the epistle to the Hebrews, Heb. 7 builds on Gen. 14:18-20. Abraham's acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Melchizedek's priesthood becomes an argument for the priority of that priesthood over the "descendants of Levi" (vv. 4-10). The messianic ruler of Ps. 110 is, therefore, a priest of a line prior to the levitical priesthood ("after the order of Melchizedek"; Heb. 7:11-19; KJV "Melchisedec"; cf. 5:6, 10; 6:20). That the narrative of the king-priest Melchizedek is introduced so abruptly into Genesis becomes an argument for Melchizedek's being "without father or mother or genealogy," i.e., beginning or end (7:3), and so not only a predecessor but also a type of Christ as "a priest for ever" (cf. Ps. 110:4). The legitimacy of the levitical priesthood depends on its descent from Levi; as it has a beginning, so it has an end in the understanding of the author of Hebrews. (p. 707, "Melchizedek")
The caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found yielded a series of thirteen fragments on Melchizedek. From these, it appears the belief that Melchizedek was the Messiah was a strongly held conviction among the Qumran community, as well as among some other Jewish and Gnostic sects in the 1st century CE.
Some branches of the sabbatarian Church of God have also held this view. They have used the depiction of Melchizedek in Hebrews 7 not only to connect him to Christ but also as support for the co-eternality of Christ with God the Father in the Binitarian model of the Godhead.
In Hebrews 6:20 we find the premise of chapter 7 established, which is that Jesus Christ is now our High Priest in heaven. As such, he is of the order of Melchizedek, which is contrasted with the Levitical priesthood.
HEBREWS 6:20 Where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to [kata] the order of Melchizedek. (NKJV)
The New Analytical Greek Lexicon says that kata means "after the fashion or likeness of."
HEBREWS 7:1 For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, 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," 3 without father, without mother, without genealogy [agenealogetos]1, having neither beginning of days nor end of life2, but made like [aphomoiomenos] the Son of God, remains a priest continually3. (NKJV)
The belief that Melchizedek was Christ rests on three erroneous assumptions about Hebrews 7:3, shown by the superscripted numbers in the passage above.
The first is the argument that since Melchizedek is said to be without father, mother, and genealogy, he has to be eternal and therefore the Son of God. However, many have failed to see that the author does not use the terms "without father" (apatoor), "without mother" (ametoor), and "without genealogy" (agenealogetos) literally in this passage.
The concept presented by the author is not that Melchizedek lacked an actual father, mother, or family tree, but that there is no record of his parents and lineage. The Mosaic law required that all priests be descendants of the tribe of Levi. Those who were not Levites could not be priests under the law. Melchizedek is introduced in Genesis 14:18-20 as priest of the Most High God, but no details about his lineage are given. Under the law, he was not qualified to be a priest.
Nehemiah 7:61-64 shows that priests had to be able to trace their lineage when the priesthood was reestablished after the Babylonian captivity. Those who were unable to do so were disqualified from the priesthood.
NEHEMIAH 7:61 And these were the ones who came up from Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Cherub, Addon, and Immer, but they could not identify their father's house nor their lineage, whether they were of Israel: 62 the sons of Delaiah, the sons of Tobiah, the sons of Nekoda, six hundred and forty-two; 63 and of the priests: the sons of Habaiah, the sons of Koz, the sons of Barzillai, who took a wife of the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and was called by their name. 64 These sought their listing among those who were registered by genealogy, but it was not found; therefore they were excluded from the priesthood as defiled. (NKJV)
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) comments about this statement in the seventh chapter of Hebrews:
The argument of He. 7 is similar to the rabbinic argument from silence, which assumed that nothing exists unless Scripture mentions it. Since Genesis says nothing of Melchizedek's parents, genealogy, birth, or death, he serves as a type representing the eternal Son of God (v. 3). (p. 313, vol. 3,"Melchizedek")
In Jewish rabbinic logic and reasoning, conclusions could be drawn and supported by an "argument from silence." If the Bible didn't specifically say something about a person, place, or incident, various determinations based on the silence of Scripture could be reached to support the claim being made. The author of Hebrews (probably Paul) was clearly well-versed in the Law, the Temple service, and forms of rabbinic discourse. He uses the rabbinic method of arguing from the silence of Scripture in verse 3.
Harper's Bible Commentary says of this passage:
Formally, the chapter [Hebrews 7] constitutes an exegetical discussion of Ps. 110:4 based upon the only other OT text that mentions Melchizedek, Gen. 14:17-20. This exegesis, emphasizing the heavenly character of Christ's priesthood, may have been inspired by the abundant contemporary speculation on Melchizedek as a heavenly figure, examples of which are found in the Alexandrian Jewish writer Philo, at Qumran, and in Gnostic sources. Whatever the inspiration, Hebrews is quite restrained in its comments on Melchizedek, utilizing only what is necessary to make the Christological point (p. 1265).
Harper's goes on to say that "from the pregnant silence of Scripture is deduced Melchizedek's status as 'fatherless, motherless, without genealogy' (v. 3)" (p. 1265). Thus, Melchizedek could be said to be "without father, without mother, and without genealogy" because the Scriptures didn't identify his lineage. While this argument might seem unconvincing to the modern mind, it would certainly have been understandable and reasonable to a religious Jew in the 1st century CE.
The second mistaken assumption is that Melchizedek had no beginning or end, and therefore must be the immortal Son of God. The term "beginning of days and end of life" refers to the lack of information in the Scriptures regarding his origin or demise.
The Abingdon Bible Commentary says that in Hebrews 7:3, the author:
. . . Makes a very remarkable use of the argument from silence. Nothing is said in Genesis about the parentage of Melchizedek. We are not told anything about his father or his mother. There is no reference to the beginning of his life or to its end - to his birth or to his death . . . In view of the writer the silences of Scripture are as significant as its statements . . ." (p. 1310)
About Hebrews 7:3, Halley's Bible Handbook says:
What is the meaning of 'without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life'? Not that it was actually so, but that it appeared so in the Old Testament Records. Levitical Priests were Priests Because of their Genealogy. But Melchizedek, Without Genealogy, was the Recognized Priest of the Human Race at that time. Hebrew tradition is that Shem, who was still alive in the days of Abraham, and, as far is as known, Oldest Living Man at the time, was Melchizedek. A mysterious, solitary picture and type, in the dim past, of the Coming Eternal Priest-King. (p. 652)
The third erroneous assumption is that Melchizedek continues as a priest to this day. One might conclude from the statement – "Melchizedek remains a priest continually" – that he is still alive and holding the office of priest. Again, this is not the point the author of Hebrews is trying to make. In effect, he is using the argument from silence to say that "since the Bible is silent about the death of Melchizedek, we can figuratively contend that he is alive and remains in the office of priest." In this way he is an appropriate type of the priesthood of the Yeshua the Messiah.
Now let's look at some of the Greek words used in this verse to corroborate the above explanations. The first is agenealogetos. Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words says this word "denotes 'without recorded pedigree' . . ." Vine's goes on to say that " the narrative in Gen. 14 is so framed in facts and omissions as to foreshadow the person of Christ" (p. 262, "NT").
The abridged Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) says agenealogetos "occurs only in Heb. 7:3, where Melchizedek is said to be 'without genealogy.' Unlike the Aaronic priests, he has no traceable descent" (p. 114).
Word Meanings in the New Testament states that this word " is compounded of alpha-negative and the verb genealogeo (found in NT only in v. 6), 'to trace ancestry.' So it clearly means 'without genealogy' (NASB, NIV) that is, without a recorded pedigree. We should not assume, as some have wrongly done, that Melchizedek was without human ancestry" (p. 424).
In their book The Life and Epistles of St. Paul, Conybeare and Howson write that this word means "without table of descent." They go on to explain, "The priesthood of Melchisedec was not, like the Levitical priesthood, dependent on his descent, through his parents, from a particular family, but was a personal office" (p. 800).
Next let's look at the word aphomoiomenos. TDNT says that "this verb [the root aphomoioo] means 'to copy,' rarely 'to compare,' and in the passive 'to be or become like' or 'make oneself out to be like'" (p. 686).
Regarding the usage of aphomoiomenos in this passage, ISBE states:
Some have thought that Melchizedek was a Christophany rather than a historical character and thus understood vv. 2b-3 literally rather than typologically. A major objection to such an interpretation is the statement that Melchizedek resembled (Gk. aphomoiomenos) the Son of God (v. 3). The verb aphomoioo always assumes two distinct and separate identities, one which is a copy of the other. Thus Melchizedek and the Son of God are represented as two separate persons, the first of which resembled the second." (p. 313, vol. 3, "Melchizedek")
So, as you can see, the underlying Greek in verse 3 supports the assertion that Melchizedek was not Christ before his incarnation. The meaning of the Greek verb utilized to describe the comparison made between them demonstrates that they cannot be the same being. To claim that they are contradicts the specific meaning of aphomoiomenos.
HEBREWS 7:4 Now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils. 5 And indeed those who are of the sons of Levi, who receive the priesthood, have a commandment to receive tithes from the people according to the law, that is, from their brethren, though they have come from the loins of Abraham; 6 but he whose genealogy is not derived [genealogoumenos] from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. 7 Now beyond all contradiction the lesser is blessed by the better. 8 Here mortal men receive tithes, but there he receives them, of whom it is witnessed that he lives. 9 Even Levi, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, so to speak, 10 for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him. (NKJV)
In these verses the author seeks to demonstrate the superiority of Melchizedek (and by implication Christ) to the Levitical priesthood. His assertion is based on the fact that God designated that the Levites would receive all the tithes of the people under the old covenant. However, because Melchizedek received tithes from Abraham, the progenitor of the Levites, his priesthood is declared to be greater than theirs.
The use of genealogoumenos in verse 6 shows that Melchizedek has lineage, but it is not through Levi. Let's examine the Greek word genealogoumenos in verse 6 closely.
Vine's says that this word means 'to reckon or trace a genealogy' (from genea, 'a race,' and lego, 'to choose, pick out'), is used, in the passive voice, of Melchizedek in Heb. 7:6, RV, 'whose genealogy (KJV, 'descent') is not counted" (p. 262, "NT").
TDNT says "this derives from genealogos, 'one who draws up a genealogy.' It occurs in the LXX only in 1 Chr. 5:1 and in the NT only in Heb. 7:6: Melchizedek does not 'derive his descent' from the descendants of Levi" (p. 114).
The Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (EDNT) says this word means to "trace one's descent. In Heb. 7:6 of Melchizedek, who 'does not trace his descent' (NEB) to the sons of Levi" (p. 242, vol. 1).
Verse 8 also causes some to relate this chapter to Yeshua. It says that the tithes were received by mortal Levites, but when Melchizedek received them they were obtained by one who lives. The author's use of the phrase "it is witnessed that he lives" here clearly shows that he is employing the argument from silence as the basis for his claims. Genesis 14:18-20 does not state that Melchizedek remains alive to the writer's time; therefore, the witness is one derived from silence. Hebrews 7:11 and 15 (shown below) both specifically say that Christ arose as another priest.
HEBREWS 7:11 Therefore, if perfection were through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another [heteros] priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called according to the order of Aaron? 12 For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law. 13 For He of whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no man has officiated at the altar. 14 For it is evident that our Lord arose from Judah, of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood. 15 And it is yet far more evident if, in the likeness of Melchizedek, there arises another [heteros] priest 16 who has come, not according to the law of a fleshly commandment, but according to the power of an endless life. (NKJV)
Verses 11 and 15 clearly state that Yeshua is another, different priest of the order originated by Melchizedek. There is no suggestion here that Melchizedek and Christ are the same entity. If they were, the writer of Hebrews surely would have stressed that point. But the use of heteros plainly indicates that Yeshua, although he came in the likeness of Melchizedek, was not Melchizedek.
Let's analyze the word heteros, found in verses 11 and 15. TDNT says: "In the NT heteros is used in much the same way as allos . . . It denotes the new member in a series that either continues (Lk. 14:18ff.) or concludes it (Acts 15:35). It may denote others either of the same kind (Acts 17:34; Lk. 4:34) or of another kind (Lk. 23:32) . . . " (p. 265).
Vine's says that allos and heteros "have a different meaning, which despite a tendency to be lost, is to be observed in numerous passages. Allos expresses a numerical difference and denotes 'another of the same sort'; heteros expresses a qualitative difference and denotes 'another of a different sort'" (p. 29, "NT").
EDNT says of this word that "approximately half of the occurrences have the connotation of something additional: a further or additional instances of a type. . . . Passages that speak of another as a replacement or successor also have an adversative association (Acts 1:20; 7:18; Rom 7:4; Heb 7:11, 13, 15)" (p. 66, vol. 2).
In the rest of chapter 7, the author makes his primary point: the Levitical priesthood has been superseded by our eternal High Priest, the risen Jesus Christ. Even though he traced his lineage through the tribe of Judah, he was the King-Priest God had promised in Psalm 110. For believers, he began a new covenant, one that will eventually cover all the House of Israel and the House of Judah. The reason for the argument from silence begun in verse 3 is to substantiate the author's assertion in this passage.
It's plain from the original Greek text, from an understanding of rabbinic forms of argument, and from what the Bible reveals elsewhere, that Melchizedek was not Yeshua before his human birth. Melchizedek was a historical figure, the priest of Almighty God who lived in the days of Abraham. Very little is known about him other than the fact he was the priest-king of Salem (Jerusalem). Obviously he was named to the office of priest by God and not by the requirements of the law. Therefore, he is a fitting type of the spiritual priesthood of Messiah.
Bryan T. Huie
April 2, 1997