Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Melchisedech

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[Gr. Melchisedek, from the Hebrew meaning "King of righteousness (Gesenius)] was King of Salem (Gen. xiv, 18-20) who, on Abraham's return with the booty taken from the four kings, "bringing forth bread and wine, for he was the priest of the most high God, blessed him", and received from him "the tithes of all" (v. 20). Josephus, with many others, identifies Salem with Jerusalem, and adds that Melchisedech "supplied Abram's army in a hospitable manner, and gave them provisions in abundance. . .and when Abram gave him the tenth part of his prey, he accepted the gift" (Ant., I, x, 2). Cheyne says "it is a plausible conjecture that he is a purely fictitious personage" (Encyc. Bib., s.v.), which "plausible conjecture" Kaufmann, however, rightly condemns (Jew. Encyc., s.v.). The Rabbins identified Melchisedech with Sem, son of Noe, rather for polemic than historic reasons, since they wished to set themselves against what is said of him as a type of Christ "without father, without mother, without genealogy" (Heb., vii, 3). In the Epistle to the Hebrews the typical character of Melchisedech and its Messianic import are fully explained. Christ is "a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech" (Heb., vii, 6; Ps., cix, 4); "a high priest forever", etc (Heb., vi, 20), i.e. order or manner (Gesenius), not after the manner of Aaron. The Apostle develops his teaching in Heb., vii: Melchisedech was a type by reason


  • of his twofold dignity as priest and king,
  • by reason of his name, "king of justice",
  • by reason of the city over which he ruled, "King of Salem, that is, king of peace" (v. 2), and also
  • because he "without father without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but likened unto the Son of God, continueth a priest forever." (v. 3).

The silence of Scripture about the facts of Melchisedech's birth and death was part of the divine plan to make him prefigure more strikingly the mysteries of Christ's generation, the eternity of His priesthood. Abraham, patriarch and father of nations, paid tithes to Melchisedech and received his blessing. This was all the more remarkable since the priest-king was a stranger, to whom he was not bound to pay tithes, as were the children of Israel to the priests of the Aaronic line. Abraham, therefore, and Levi "in the loins of his father" (Heb. vii, 9), by acknowledging his superiority as a type of Christ (for personally he was not greater than Abraham), thereby confessed the excellence of Christ's priesthood. Neither can it be fairly objected that Christ was in the loins of Abraham as Levi was, and paid tithes to Melchisedech; for, though descended from Abraham, he had no human father, but was conceived by the Holy Ghost. In the history of Melchisedech St. Paul says nothing about the bread and wine which the "priest of the most High" offered, and on account of which his name is placed in the Canon of the Mass. The scope of the Apostle accounts for this; for he wishes to show that the priesthood of Christ was in dignity and duration superior to that of Aaron, and therefore, since it is not what Melchisedech offered, but rather the other circumstances of his priesthood which belonged to the theme, they alone are mentioned. MCEVILLY, An Expos. Of the Eps. Of St. Paul (Heb., vii); PICONIO, Triplex Expositio (Heb., vii); HOONAKER, Le Sacerdoce Levitique (1899), 281-287; HASTINGS, Dict. Of the Bible, s.v.; Rabibinic references in Jew. Ency., s.v.; St. Thomas, III, Q. xxii, a. 6; HOMMEL, The ancient Heb. Tradition (tr. From the Ger., 1897), 146.

JOHN J. TIERNEY