"Messianic" Texts at Qumran
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For centuries people have wondered who Melchizedek was.
Some Jews used to think he was the Ur-Mensch (the Original Man), in whose image Adam was created; some that he was Noah's son Shem reincarnated. Others that he was an archangel, perhaps Michael. Early church fathers taught that he was the pre-incarnation of Jesus. Some Christians today teach that he was the Son of God, even though the New Testament never makes this connection.
Growing numbers of non-Christians want mysterious Melchizedek to be an alternative to the ubiquitous Jesus of Western culture. They enshroud him with all kinds of gnostic magical powers, like medieval Merlin. New Age mystics see Melchizedek as an avatar, prophet or mediator of esoteric treasures. For them, he has become a mythical savior being.
All this for someone mentioned only twice in Hebrew Scripture and eight times in the book of Hebrews in the New Testament.
To be clear: based on the Bible, Melchizedek was:
Melchizedek was human, not divine; he was an historical person, not an angel.
["Melchizedek" occurs in: Gen 14:18; Ps 110:4; Heb 5:6,10; 6:20; 7:1,10,11,15,17.]
However, in the era after the return from Babylonian exile in 538 BC[E], when Jews were looking for signs of messianic redemption, speculation about ancient Bible figures returning to save the nation became rampant in priestly circles.
One person of interest was Melchizedek, the obscure king and priest of Shalem at the time of Abraham, fifteen centuries before. Shalem, of course, was where the Temple later stood. Some Jews believed Melchizedek was divine, on par with the angels, or was even a manifestation of God himself.
The following article looks at Melchizedek through the lens of a fragmentary scroll from the Qumran library of the Dead Sea Scrolls (11QMelchizedek or formally 11Q13). This document opens an important window into Bible interpretations and spiritual contemplations of breakaway Jewish priests from Jerusalem, living before the time of Yeshua of Nazareth.
Their speculative doctrines about Melchizedek may be the target of criticism in the book of Hebrews in the New Testament.
(The English text of 11Q13 follows the introduction.)
This first century BCE work is composed of thirteen small fragments from Qumran Cave 11. It takes the form of an eschatological midrash, or interpretation, on parts of Isaiah. It sees Isaiah's proclamation of liberty to the captives at the end of days (Isa 61:1) as part of a general “year of jubilee” (shenat ha-yovel).
In the Torah, every seventh year was a sabbath year (Lev 25:3-4), in which the land was given rest from being planted or pruned. There was also a jubilee year, actually the 50th year following a succession of seven sabbatical years (7x7), in which all property was restored to its original owner and all debts were cancelled (Lev 25:13; Deut 15:2). All Hebrew slaves were also to be set free.
The Jubilee or Yovel began on the Day of Atonement and was announced by the blowing of trumpets throughout the land. Yovel was thus a marvelous picture of ultimate redemption and freedom from every bondage.
In the author’s citation of Isaiah 61:2 (which speaks of “the year of the YHVH’s favor”) the name Melchizedek is substituted for YHVH, the name of Israel’s God. In addition, Melchizedek is said to atone for the sins of the righteous and to execute judgment upon the wicked — actions usually associated with God himself. The author also quotes Psalm 82:1 (“Elohim stands in the council of El”) but inserts “Melchizedek” in place of “Elohim” (God).
It is clear this Melchizedek isn’t merely human. Just how divine he is, how close he is to God himself, is ambiguous. Other Jewish works of this era reflect a common belief that Someone operated in close proximity to God and shared his authority and even name, though he was not fully God himself. (See the article Visions of the Heavenly Council in the Hebrew Bible.)
Melchizedek (whose name means “king of righteousness” or “righteous king”) also presides over the final judgment and condemnation of his demonic counterpart: Belial, Satan, the Prince of Darkness. In other documents from Qumran this being is called “Melchiresha.”
Melchi-resha (“king of wickedness/wicked king”) darkly mirrors Melchi-zedek (4Q280 “Curses of Melchiresha”; 4Q544 “Testament of Amram”). (The spelling Melchi- comes from the Septuagint Greek Bible, which has influenced English Bibles.)
The Chief Angelic Priest?
But what is certain is that the “Songs” depict a hierarchy of angelic priests who serve in the heavenly temple. They are surrounded by other divine beings known as elim or elohim (gods, divine beings) or holy ones, spirits, princes, and ministers. And Melchizedek seems to be a leader of this assembly of servants.
In the so-called “War Scroll” (1QM 13:10; 16:6-8; 17:7), Melchizedek appears to be the archangel Michael, who is “the prince of light” (1QM 13:10-11; cf. 1QS 2:20-22; CD 5:17-19) and “the angel of [God's] truth” (1QS 3:24). Scrolls scholar Carol Newsom says, “it would seem most plausible that Melchizedek is to be identified with the seventh and highest of the chief princes, as Michael is customarily identified with the highest of the archangels.”
The preceding notes were adapted from: Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1997), 500; Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, Edward Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), 455; and Carol Newsom, Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice: A Critical Edition (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985), 37.
Hebrew Bible Background
He was also a “priest of God Most High” (kohen l'el elyon) (or “ priest to the Most High God”; Gen 14:18-20). “God Most High” is a synonym for the God of Israel, whose personal name is YHVH (Ps 7:17; 21:7; 46:4). Thus, Melchizedek, king-priest of Shalem, believed in and served the God of Abraham, prior to the patriarch’s arrival in the promised land.
But there is nothing in the biblical text to suggest that Melchizedek is more than human.
In Psalm 110
In Psalm 110the “Lord” (Heb, Adon) who shares God’s throne (v. 1) is also a priest. He’s not from the tribe of Levi (the tribe of priests), but operates “according to the order [al divrati] of Melchizedek” (v. 4). He’s in a special category, under divine appointment.
The Judean kings in Jerusalem who sat on the throne of David represented a more ancient order of reality. (This is why Yeshua, a grandson of David, applied Psalm 110 to himself; Matt 22:42-45; 26:64.)
Melchizedek in the New Testament
[God] has fixed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom he has appointed (Acts 17:31).
This reference to “Son of Man” is an apparent link to the vision in Daniel 7:13-14. There, a “Son of Man” (Aramaic, bar enash) is given authority by the Ancient of Days to rule “all peoples, nations, and languages” (v. 14). It does not explicitly say he will judge the earth. But in biblical thought, a king embodies all of government, including the judicial functions. A king is always the judge.
So too, Yeshua is called “God” and God’s “Son” — automatically granting him kingly status (“On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written: King of kings, and Lord of lords”; Rev. 19:16). Like Melchizedek, Yeshua is a “great high priest,” “a merciful and faithful high priest” (Heb 5:14; 2:17).
And he too was not from Levi's tribe, but from David’s tribe Judah (“our Lord rose from Judah”; Heb 7:14). He also descended, by divine appointment, from Melchizedek’s mysterious order (Heb 7:17 quotes Ps 110:3).
Yeshua is a judge-king-priest. But the similarities with Melchizedek break down in the specifics, especially when compared with 11QMelch from Qumran.
Yeshua is Not Melchizedek Reincarnated.
Some disciples of Yeshua apparently believed he was Melchizedek reincarnated — or in later Christian terms, Melchizedek was “the preincarnate manifestation” of the Messiah. (As noted above, this view is found in some Church Fathers and among certain Christian groups today.)
But the author of Hebrews adamantly distinguishes the two priests. Yeshua — not Melchizedek — is the one and only High Priest who “abides forever” and “holds his priesthood permanently” (Heb 7:24). Though the author sees parallels between them, he nowhere suggests they are one in the same person.
Melchizedek was “made like the Son of God” (7:3). Hebrews does not say he was the Son of God.
One time in the Babylonian Talmud, he is pictured as the judge of the last days (Sukkah 52b). But in other places, it is Abraham not Melchizedek who is “the priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4; cf. Sanhedrin 108b: “The Holy One, blessed be He, took Abraham and placed him at His right hand.”).
The Palestinian Targum (Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel) on Genesis 14:18 says Melchizedek was “Shem the son of Noah, the king of Yerushalem.” Whether this means he was a reincarnation of Shem or the original Shem resurrected is unclear (the length of his given life would overlap that of Abraham). But the Shem/Melchizedek identification is common (BT Nedarim 32b; Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer 8 and 27, 3; Midrash Numbers Rabbah 4, 8).
Even Martin Luther preferred the “Shem” identification. The New Testament, however, does not support this idea.
For more on this, see Harold Attridge, Hebrews (Hermeneia series; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), 192-95.
2nd Century BCE
The following English text was adapted from Florentino García-Martínez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated (The Qumran Texts in English) (2nd edition; Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill and Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996), 139-40.
Transliterated Hebrew words were inserted by Paul Sumner, based on the transcription of 11QMelch by Paul J. Kobelski, Melchizedek and Melchiresha (CBS Monographs 10; Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Assn., 1981), 5-6.
Note: The ellipses in brackets [...] indicate breaks in the original scroll fragments. All Bible references were added by García-Martínez. The line (not verse) numbers follow the original scroll fragments.
1 [... ] your God [...]
2 [...] And as for what he said: Lev 25:13 "In this year of jubilee, [you shall return, each one, to his respective property," as is written: Dt 15:2 "This is]
3 the manner (of effecting) the [release: every creditor shall release what he lent [to his neighbor. He shall not coerce his neighbour or his brother when] the release for God [has been proclaimed]."
4 [Its inter]pretation for the last days refers to the captives, about whom he said: Isa 61:1 "To proclaim liberty to the captives." And he will make
5 their rebels prisoners [...] and of the inheritance of Melchizedek, for [...] and they are the inheri[tance of Melchi]zedek, who
6 will make them return. He will proclaim liberty for them, to free them from [the debt] of all their iniquities. And this will [happen]
7 in the first week of the jubilee which follows the ni[ne] jubilees. And the day [of atonem]ent is the end of the tenth jubilee
8 in which atonement will be made for all the sons of [God] and for the men of the lot of Melchizedek. [And on the heights] he will decla[re in their] favour according to their lots; for
9 it is the time of the "year of grace" for Melchizedek, to exa[lt in the tri]al the holy ones of God through the rule of judgment, as is written
10 about him in the songs of David, who said: Ps 82:1 "Elohim will stand up in the assem[bly of El,] in the midst of the gods he judges." And about him he said: Ps 7:8-9 "Above it
11 return to the heights, God will judge the peoples." As for what he sa[id: Ps 82:2 "How long will yo]u judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah."
12 Its interpretation concerns Belial and the spirits of his lot, who were rebels [all of them] turning aside from the commandments of God [to commit evil].
13 But, Melchizedek will carry out the vengeance of God's judgements [on this day, and they shall be freed from the hands] of Belial and from the hands of all the sp[irits of his lot].
14 To his aid (shall come) all "the gods of [justice"; he] is the one [who will prevail on this day over] all the sons of God, and he pre[side over] this [assembly].
15 This is the day of [peace about which God] spoke [of old through the words of Isa]iah the prophet, who said: Isa 52:7 "How beautiful
16 upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, of the mess[enger of good who announces salvation], saying to Zion: 'your God [reigns']."
17 Its interpetation: The mountains are the pro[phets ...]
18 And the messenger is [the ano]inted of the spirit [mashiach haruach] about whom Dan[iel] spoke ["...until the time of (the/an) Anointed Prince [mashiach nagid] there will be seven weeks . . . after sixty-two weeks, (the/an) Anointed shall be cut off" Dan 9:25, 26 ]. [... and the messenger of]
19 good who announces salv[ation] is the one about whom it is written that [he will send him Isa 61:2-3 "to comfo[rt the afflicted, to watch over the afflicted ones of Zion"].
20 "To comfo[rt the afflicted," its interpretation:] to instruct them in all the ages of the worl[d...]
21 in truth. [...]
22 [...] it has been turned away from Belial and it [...]
23 [...] in the judgments of God, as is written about him: Isa 52:7 "Saying to Zion: 'your God rules'." ["Zi]on" is
24 [the congregation of all the sons of justice, those] who establish the covenant, those who avoid walking [on the pa]th of the people. "Your God" is
25 [Melchizedek, who will fr]ee [them] from the hand of Belial. And as for what he said: Lev 25:9 "You shall blow the hor[n in every] land."
Column 3 (only small pieces)
1 [Its interpretation ...]
10-20 [minute traces]
"Messianic" Texts at Qumran
The Scrolls & the NT [PDF] | The NAME at Qumran [PDF]