How could Melchizedek have had no father or mother?

Q.  How can the book of Hebrews say that Melchizedek, the priest who blessed Abraham, was “without father or mother” and “without beginning of days or end of life”?  Wasn’t he human?

Byzantine icon of Melchizedek

Here’s what I say about this in my study guide to Deuteronomy and Hebrews, where I note that the author of Hebrews talks about Melchizedek in the third of the four messages or sermons that make up the book:

* * * * *

This message is based primarily on Psalm 110, but in it the author characteristically draws on other Scriptures for support, in this case the story in Genesis that describes who Melchizedek was.

The author first translates the word Melchizedek, explaining that it means “King of Righteousness.” Melchizedek was most likely not a given name, but an honorary title of the Jebusite kings who formerly ruled in Jerusalem, including the one in the Genesis story who greeted Abraham. (A similar example of an honorary title is the name Pharaoh that was given to all the rulers of Egypt.)

After the Israelites conquered Jerusalem, their own kings took over the title Melchizedek. Since the Jebusite kings had been priests, the Israelite kings also assumed an honorary role as priests and interceded for the nation in prayer. But they were not allowed to offer sacrifices; this was reserved for the descendants of Aaron under the law of Moses.

The author next explains that King of Salem (that is, of Jerusalem) means “King of Peace.” By translating these two terms, the author identifies Jesus, who is a priest in the order of Melchizedek by virtue of being the Messianic king of Jerusalem, as someone who helps people become righteous before God and so find peace with God.

Now come some more significant details—or rather, a significant lack of them. The Hebrew Scriptures usually introduce a new figure into their narratives by describing the person’s parentage and ancestry. They usually also report when a figure dies. But the book of Genesis doesn’t do either of these things in the case of Melchizedek.

This allows the author of Hebrews to observe that, when considered only in light of what the Scriptures say about him, Melchizedek seems to have no origin or ending. He appears to “remain a priest forever.” In this way he “resembles the Son of God,” and this allows him to serve as an earthly representation of the Messiah. This is why the Lord chose to name him as the head of the order of priests to which the Messiah (represented in Psalm 110 by the Davidic king) would belong.

This is a classic example of the author’s typological method, which is based on the understanding that transcendent spiritual realities are reflected in earthly replicas. A little later in this message the author makes the basis of this method explicit, noting how the earthly tabernacle had to be modeled after the heavenly pattern Moses was shown. The Greek word is typos, the source of the English word type, and so this interpretive method is known as typology.

* * * * *

To summarize what I say in the guide, the author of Hebrews is able to establish a connection between Melchizedek and Jesus by considering Melchizedek in light of what the Scriptures say about him (that his title means “king of righteousness” and that he was king of Salem = “peace“), but only in light of what the Scriptures say about him, not what they don’t say.  Since the details of his parentage, birth, and death aren’t reported, this allows an even stronger typological connection to Jesus, who has a permanent priesthood “on the basis of an indestructible life.”

In other words, the key to understanding how the Bible could say that Melchizedek was “without father and mother” and “without beginning of days or end of life” lies in appreciating the distinctive typological method of the book of Hebrews.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

16 thoughts on “How could Melchizedek have had no father or mother?”

  1. Since it is concluded that Melchizedek has no parents and his birth and dead are also unspecified. Is he not suppose to be a bigger God? Since Jesus who has a mother is a God!

    1. As I say in this post, “The author of Hebrews observes that, when considered only in light of what the Scriptures say about him, Melchizedek seems to have no origin or ending. This allows the author to draw typological connections between Jesus and Melchizedek. But Melchizedek actually did have a father and mother, a birth and a death. They just aren’t recorded in Scripture, as is characteristic when a new person is introduced. So he is an ordinary human being, but he provides an advance picture of some important things about Jesus, who is both the “Son of God” and the “Son of Man.”

      1. Was the author of the book of Hebrews not inspired by God? If he was, is God delimited in history?

      2. I think what you’re asking here is whether we don’t have to take what the author of Hebrews says at simple face value, because he’s an inspired biblical author, and therefore conclude that Melchizedek was literally and unconditionally “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life.” Otherwise, I think you’re suggesting, this might be a case where a biblical author is limited in his knowledge (all he knows about Melchizedek is what he has read about him in Scripture), and how can that be consistent with his being inspired by an omniscient God? Or alternatively, how could the God who inspired the authors be constrained by their human limitations?

        In response, I’d say first that the author of Hebrews knows that his statement about Melchizedek is not literally true. (How could it be? Everybody who has ever lived on this earth has had a father and mother, a birth and a death.) His readers also know the statement isn’t literally true, but they all understand the rules of typology and appreciate how this allows the author to draw a parallel between Jesus and Melchizedek on his way to demonstrating that the Melchizedek priesthood, to which Jesus belongs, is greater than the priesthood of Aaron. So this is not really a case where a biblical author’s knowledge is limited.

        However, I also think there are such cases in the Bible, and to hear my reflections on them, please read this post: How could a divinely inspired book be written from a limited human perspective?

      3. Does that means that the Bible’s authors were not fully inspired? And yes, how can you convince me that, the Bible is a word of God and not that of the authors? Because an author of a mere textbook can be partially inspired by God in their writings.

      4. From the bible’s view about its author, should we refer to it a fully inspired scripture of God? or can God provide confusion in His scripture?

      5. I find it helpful to think of the Bible by analogy to what Christians believe about Jesus, according to one of our oldest creeds: He was “fully divine and fully human, without separation and without confusion.” In the same way, the Bible is “fully divine and fully human, without separation and without confusion.” We can’t say, “Well, this is the divine part, and that is the human part.” Or, “God really wanted the human author to say this, but he got confused.” If we take seriously the Bible’s claim to be inspired, then we also need to take seriously its character as an indication of what an inspired book looks like. And given the character of the Bible, apparently God works through human limitations rather than supernaturally removing them.

        But I think much of the issue here is that you still want to take literally the claim made in Hebrews that Melchizedek was “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life.” If we recognize that this claim is to be taken typologically instead, not literally, I think much of the concern will be resolved.

      6. Any book must be followed in the mannar it is because it cannot and will never contain scientific, logical and textual errors of any kind. I therefore want to know if the bible is an inspired book or a mere textbook of several authors.

      7. There are two understandings of the Bible’s inerrancy. One holds that in order for it to be the word of God, it must contain no scientific or historical errors (that is, what would be considered “errors” from the perspective of later cultures that have more complete information than was available to the biblical writers). I think this is the position you are arguing for. But another understanding says that the Bible has no doctrinal or practical errors, that is, it tells us accurately who God is and how we are to live the life that God desires. But its inspiration by God is not affected by the way its authors had historical and cultural limitations on their knowledge. That’s the view I hold.

  2. Christopher you answered eloquently and imo correctly , but i wonder if Melchizedek was not so much a type but Rather Jesus himself ? An earlier appearance ?
    As i believe it was Jesus who was walking in the garden as God , just stumbled across Melchizedek really enough for it to side track my thinking as to ” who exactly was he ” Some do say Christ , the second book of Enoch although not cannon say’s Sopanim was Melchizedek’s mother and that he was born just after she died but was born older than a new born , no one saw the birth but :-

    “a child came out from the dead Sopanim and sat on the bed at her side. Noah and Nir came in to bury Sopanim and they saw the child sitting beside the dead Sopanim, wiping his clothing. Noah and Nir were very terrified with a great fear, because the child was fully developed physically, he spoke with his lips and blessed The Lord.”

    Sopanims husband was Nir , brother of Noah son of Methuselah and Nir (according to 2 Enoch) Kept himself “pure” while he took the office of Priest . And Sopanim doesnt mention infidelity but she seems rather surprised .:-

    ” Sopanim spoke to her husband, Nir, saying, “O my lord! Behold, it is the time of my old age, the day of my death has arrived. I do not understand how my menopause and the barrenness of my womb have been reversed.”

    “The archangel Gabriel appeared to Nir and said to him, “Do not think that your wife Sopanim has died because of your error, but this child, which is to be born of her is a righteous fruit, and one whom I shall receive into paradise, so that you will not be the father of a gift of God.”

    “Noah hurried to the room of his brother. The appearance of his brother’s wife was in death and her womb was at the time of giving birth.”

    Noah and Nir went of to prepare to bury Sopanim and then they came back to see the child clothed and older .

    “They dug a grave in secret.
    When they had gone out toward the grave, a child came out from the dead Sopanim and sat on the bed at her side. ”

    Just your thoughts , was it a type of was it a visit ? Interesting .

  3. missed this bit :-
    ” Noah and Nir looked at him closely, saying, “This is from The Lord, my brother.” And behold the badge of priesthood was on his chest, and it was glorious in appearance. Noah said to Nir, “Behold, God is renewing the priesthood from blood related to us, just as He pleases..”

    I am a bible believing Christian , dont hold up Enoch as canon .

  4. Here is the link if you would like to take a glance.
    http://sonnen.tripod.com/enoch8.html

    ” in a short while, will send My archangel Gabriel. And he will take the child and put him in the paradise of Edem.”
    He will not perish along with those who must perish. As I have revealed it, Melchizedek will be My priest to all holy priests, I will sanctify him and I will establish him so that he will be the head of the priests of the future.”

    then it go’s onto say that Nir knew he would perish but that his brother Noah would go into the ark .

    Interesting , but Enoch supposedly wrote 366 books that were supposed to be preserved through the flood , and only fragments remain , what do the other 363 books say ? Some things Enoch was told not tow write down . So this is interesting but it imo has to be taken as separate to scripture and not adding to either .
    Because you just can trust those pesky nostics either 🙂

    1. To answer your basic question, I believe that Melchizedek in the Old Testament was a type of Christ, rather than an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ (a “theophany”), because he seems to have been a real person, one of the Jebusite kings of Jerusalem who held the title (not the name) Melchizedek, i.e. “King of Righteousness.” (The way that Pharaoh was a title rather than a name for Egyptian kings.) When David conquered Jerusalem, he took over the hereditary title and the non-Aaronic priesthood that came with it. That’s why it says of David (and his heirs) in Psalm 110, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek”; this allows the author of Hebrews to apply the typology to Jesus as the Son of David. That’s what I think is going on here. As for the interesting discussion in the book of Enoch, which is not in the apocrypha that Catholics and Anglicans accept, though it is in the Coptic Bible, as you say, this would not generally be considered to have the same authority as the other Scriptures, but it does give us an insight into the way the figure of Melchizedek was viewed in at least one branch of later Judaism.

      1. Thankyou for that Christoper , amazing how the bible reveals ‘itself’ in layers to those willing to ‘wait and see’ God will show you ‘ hey you know who authored this text ‘ 🙂
        Shalom

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