Sunday, March 20, 2011

Harold W. Attridge on Melchizedek in Hebrews

Harold W. Attridge

I reported briefly on Melchizedek in the New Testament book of Hebrews back in October, and since my Bible study group is looking into this mysterious figure later this morning, I thought that I'd post what Harold Attridge has to say in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, starting first with his translation of Hebrews 7:1-3:
(1) Now this "Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of God Most High," he "who met Abraham when he returned from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, (2) to whom Abraham apportioned a tithe of all things," who is interpreted first as "king of righteousness," then also "king of Salem," that is 'king of peace," (3) being without father, mother, or lineage, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but likened to the Son of God, he remains a priest perpetually. (Attridge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989, page 186a)
Attridge then offers a five-page commentary that I won't quote, but I will quote an excursus of his that's not quite as lengthy, though it's also long:
Excursus: Melchizedek

The mysterious figure of Melchizedek generated considerable interest, beginning in Jewish apocalyptic circles and continuing, partly on the basis of Hebrews's brief remarks, throughout the patristic period. While for historians such as the anonymous Samaritan known as Pseudo-Eupolemus and for Josephus Melchizedek remained a human priest-king, for other Jewish authors he became something more.

Philo typically finds in Melchizedek an allegorical symbol. In interpreting Gen 14 he begins, as does Hebrews, with etymology and an argumentum e silentio [i.e., argument from silence]. His allegory then becomes complex, uncovering a variety of referents in the many scriptural symbols in the passage. In two respects his handling of Melchizedek parallels the moves he makes in allegorizing other scriptural priests. A political interpretation of Melchizedek in terms of a good king leads into a psychological interpretation in terms of the human mind (νοῦς [i.e., nous]). Finally, as with other priests, Melchizedek becomes a symbol of the divine Logos, although in a revelatory rather than creative function. There are no traces of any particular Melchizedek myth and there is no warrant for the view that Melchizedek is understood to be a heavenly figure. Whether, as in the case of his notion of priestly angels, speculation on a heavenly being ultimately underlies Philo's allegory is unclear.

More solid evidence of speculation on a heavenly Melchizedek has been found at Qumran in a fragmentary document, 11QMelch. The text, which forms part of an eschatological midrash on Lev 5:9-13, is paleographically datable to the early first century CE [i.e., =AD], or, more likely, to the late first century BCE [i.e., =BC]. In the fragment, the Jubilee year of Leviticus is interpreted as the eschatological release of the captives of Belial, the name of the angelic leader of the forces of darkness common at Qumran. The agent of this release is Melchizedek, whose function is primarily judgmental. As part of the eschatological redemption that he provides, iniquities are removed and expiation effected. These are clearly priestly functions, although Melchizedek is not explicitly called a priest. As a judge he is identified with the אלהים [i.e., 'elohiym] of Ps 82:1, who "stands in the assembly of El and judges in the midst of the Elohim." He is thus a heavenly being, probably modeled after or even identical with the angel Michael, Belial's regular adversary. This image of Melchizedek indicates one strand of speculation on his heavenly status, but, like the notion of a priestly messiah to which it may be related, this speculation is hardly the direct source of Hebrews's image of the priest-king.

Further evidence of possibly relevant speculation on Melchizedek as a heavenly being is found in 2 Enoch and among the Nag Hammadi texts. Dating the first work, which survives only in Old Slavonic, is problematic and its manuscript tradition complex. The work was probably composed in the first century CE, and the basic Melchizedek legend, found more fully in witnesses to a longer recension, is certainly not a Christian interpolation and is probably an original component of the work. According to this legend, the great-grandson of Enoch and the brother of Noah, the priest Nir, has a son, miraculously conceived and born from the corpse of his mother. This child, Melchizedek, is chosen to be saved from the flood to continue the line of priests that began with Seth. How the succession is to occur is not clear, since the child is taken by Michael [i.e., Michael the angel] to paradise where he is to remain forever. The Melchizedek whom Abraham is to meet is another individual, possibly a reincarnation, and at least a copy of the original, now heavenly, Melchizedek. From the Abrahamic Melchizedek a succession of priests will culminate in an eschatological High Priest, the "word and power of God." He too will be a Melchizedek, whose precise functions are unclear, apart from performing great miracles. While there are probably Christian interpolations in this account, the basic scheme of successive Melchizedeks, modeled on the original and exalted one, is hardly Christian.

A very similar notion seems to underlies the fragmentary Nag Hammadi tractate Melchizedek (NHC 9, 1 [i.e., = Nag Hammadi Codex 9, 1]), dated between the second and fourth centuries. Although the text has undergone Christian and Gnostic revision, the framework of the story and its conception of Melchizedek are earlier. According to this account, Melchizedek, a human figure modeled on the heavenly Christ, has a vision of the eschatological tole he is destined to play, in which he is equated with Jesus. This Melchizedek story has interesting formal similarities to the legend in 2 Enoch and could have been adapted from such a source where a heavenly and eschatological Melchizedek of the sort found at Qumran was identified with Christ.

The inspiration for Hebrews' treatment of Melchizedek probably derives from one or another of these speculative trends, one that saw Melchizedek as an angelic defender of Israel (Qumran) or as an exalted, possibly angelic, heavenly priest (Philo?, 2 Enoch, 3 Enoch, Nag Hammadi). In neither case are the parallels exact and exhaustive, but they do indicate contexts in which the "eternal life" of Melchizedek would be more than a literary conceit.

Subsequent reflections on Melchizedek in Jewish circles occasionally portray him as an eschatological figure and he is sometimes identified with Michael [i.e., Michael the angel]. More commonly, possibly for apologetic purposes, Melchizedek is domesticated by being identified with Shem. In other contexts, his significance is diminished, since he loses his office because he has blessed Abraham before God. Accordingly Ps 110 is construed unfavorably for Melchizedek.

More fanciful speculation develops in Christian circles, some of which may be based on Jewish traditions of Melchizedek as a heavenly being. Particularly interesting are reports of the so-called Melchizedekians. In Rome of the late second century, certain Monarchians, led by one Theodotus the banker, maintained the view that Christ, who came upon Jesus at baptism, was inferior to Melchizedek, the name of a major "heavenly power." This mythic structure parallels that of 2 Enoch and the Nag Hammadi tractate Melchizedek, while the language of a heavenly "power" is found frequently in early Gnostic sources. The earliest witness to this movement, Hippolytus, does not give any indication of the use of Hebrews or Ps 110 in the development of the theory about Melchizedek, and this theory probably derived directly from Jewish models.

The image of Melchizedek as an angelic priestly intercessor, found particularly in Ps.-Tertullian may suggest the sort of Jewish Melcizedek speculation that was involved. That speculation bears a striking resemblance to the tradition of Jesus as a heavenly priest that probably underlies the christological portrait of Hebrews. Perhaps the heavenly Melchizedek known to our author was such a figure. If so, it is at most implicit in his title (7:1). Further intimations of the speculation on Melchizedek as heavenly intercessor may be found in Origen's opinion that Melchizedek was an angel and in the Gnostic Pistis Sophia and Books of Jeu. There, Melchizedek, the "paralemptor [i.e., "light-bringer"?]," periodically descends from the world of light into the archontic spheres, gathers up light particles or souls, and brings them on high. The older function of angelic intermediaries who bring human prayers to God has here been transformed into a specifically Gnostic scheme.

Later speculation, much of it catalogued by Epiphanius, proposed a variety of further identifications of Melchizedek in Hebrews, as a pre-incarnation of the Son, a manifestation or incarnation of the Holy Spirit, or even of the Father. These patristic opinions indicate the suggestive ambiguity of the figure of Melchizedek in Hebrews, although they contribute little to the question of "Melchizedek's" origin and function. (Attridge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989, pages 192a-195a)
Thus ends Professor Attridge's excursus and my extensive typing. This is what I'll offer to read aloud in this morning's study of Hebrews, adding my own clarifying expansions on what Attridge might sometimes have only referred to.

I've twice met Professor Attridge, incidentally, once in 1999 at an AAR-SBL conference in Boston when he showed up at Professor Michael Stone's 'Jerusalem Seminar' reunion during that same conference and a second time in 2005 at an SBL international conference in Singapore when he showed up for a talk that I gave on gift-giving in John's Gospel. I liked the man and wish that we could have had more contact.

But here I am, rather far these days from religious studies . . .

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At 6:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is also the possibility that Melchizedek was simply a priest of the Most High God, whose parentage isn't recorded. He met and blessed Abraham, and was given tithes by him. He is a type of Christ, who is called a priest after the order of Melchizedek.
It's amazing what one can do if he lets his imagination run wild.
That is a lot more fun, anyway.


At 6:40 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Possibly, Uncle Cran, but if one looks very carefully at Hebrews, the metaphysical reading looks plausible.

That was the conclusion that our Hebrews study group reached yesterday. Not a firm conclusion, mind you. But we all agreed that the author of Hebrews, whoever he was, might have intended to imply that Melchizedek was the pre-incarnate Son in a Christophanic appearance.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have heard preachers posit that view occasionally. Others disagree.
It is an interesting possibility.
There are some pre-incarnate appearences in the Old Testament.
I like the story of the polition whose supporters were violently split over a controversial situation.
When asked where he stood, the man replied, "Some of my friends are opposed to this bill. Others of my friends and in favor. Today I declare unto you, that I stand with my friends."

And I am happy to say that I stand with my friends.


At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Make that politition.


At 1:53 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That's the politic thing to say . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just so happens we are also studying Hebrews in our Sunday School class, and just last weekend came upon the name of Melchizedek. While a few of us wondered who this man was, no one gave a very good analysis of him. I think I will use this blog in next weeks class.


At 9:27 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If it proves of any use for you, then I'm glad I took the time to type it into a blog post.

Jeffery Hodges

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