Priest According to the Order of Melchisedech
"Priest According to the Order of Melchisedech"
McGARRY, S.J., Ph.D., S.T.D., Lic.S.S.
About the year 2000 B.C. an invading army of Eastern kings defeated the petty monarchs of Sodom and Gomorrah, and retreated, booty-laden, northwards out of Palestine. Lot, the nephew of Abraham, was in the train of captives, with all his family, slaves and goods. The news of this misfortune reached his uncle; so Abraham organized his retainers, pursued the retiring armies, and by a night attack rescued his kinsman, Lot. An incident which occurred on the return of the victor is related in Genesis, xiv, 18-20: "But Melchisedech, the king of Salem, bringing forth bread and wine, for he was a priest of the most High God, blessed him [Abraham] and said: 'Blessed be Abram by the most High God, who created heaven and earth."' This story is mentioned hundreds of times in Catholic Tradition, and in the first seven chapters of St. Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews a lengthy discussion centers about Melchisedech. The purpose of the present inquiry is to discuss how Christ is a "priest according to the order of Melchisedech," and in particular, the meaning of this phrase in the Letter to the Hebrews.
The story in the Book of Genesis is a mere recital of facts: the narrative is a history, not, as far as we know from the text itself, a prophecy. In God's mind, the events may signify little or much. We do not know from the perusal of the verses. The simple fact is that a priest of the true God, whose offering is bread and wine, blessed the Patriarch Abraham. Melchisedech blessed the fountainhead and source from whom all the nation of Israel, the Chosen of God, came, both its priests and its people. In the fourth generation, the family of Abraham consisted of the twelve sons of Jacob, from whom all the nation is derived. But while this race progressed and increased from century to century, it had no Divinely appointed priesthood until more than 500 years after Abraham, its progenitor. It was at Mt. Sinai, in the middle of the fifteenth century, that God appointed the one tribe of Levi to care for the nation's worship. From one family of that tribe, that of Aaron, all priests of Israel were to come. In fact, by the very title of blood and birth, every male Levite was a servant of the sanctuary, and every male son of Aaron was blessed with the higher dignity of the priesthood. Now, during the 500 years before the institution of this priesthood of Aaron, there is not one word that any other priesthood is held in honor in the nation. On the contrary, the Books of Exodus and Leviticus devote long sections to the laws, rights and effects of the Aaronitic priesthood.
This priesthood of Israel, established at Sinai, served in the nation's sanctuary for fourteen centuries. Joseph Caiphas, instigator of the death of Christ, and scoundrel though he was on other counts, could exhibit the honorable tablets of a genealogy which led back to Aaron. No other priesthood was legitimate in the nation; no other was permitted to serve at its altars. Melchisedech was unheard of and unmentioned, except once, in all the long 2,000 years from Abraham to St. Paul.
The voice which broke at the midpoint of the stillness of two millenia is that of David, the royal Psalmist of Israel. In a single verse of all his songs, Melchisedech's name is spoken. And it is on first thought strange enough that the king, whose court and nation are guided by an Aaronitic priesthood, should suddenly lift his voice and speak of another, an eternal priesthood: "The Lord hath sworn and will not repent: Thou art a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech." (Psalm cix, 4.) Now the topic of this Psalm is the Messias, the Anointed One or the Christ, who was promised to the nation in a hundred prophecies.
The Messias, then, is to be a priest, but not of the order of Aaron, not of the established national priesthood of Israel. He is to be of another manner and of another order. Different constitution and by-laws govern his priesthood. It is to have other conditions, other requisites, properties and, especially, effects. Moreover, other prophecies inform us that the Christ is not to be of the blood of Aaron or Levi; he is to arise from the tribe of Juda and from the line of David. In the Psalm, therefore, the suggestion lies open that, with the Christ, the Aaronitic line will cease to be God's appointed priesthood. At some point in the Messias' career, when some act or effect has been achieved, the new priesthood will displace the old. And this new priesthood of Christ is to be "according to the order of Melchisedech." Thus far, the suggestion of the Psalm.
In the ten centuries between David and St. Paul, several prophecies, notably that of Malachi, iii, 10, convey further revelations concerning the person or the sacrifice or the effects of the priest, Christ. But while Revelation thus expands and progresses, the priest Melchisedech is not mentioned, nor his relation to Christ further explained. Even when the institution of the Blessed Sacrament is described in the Gospels, when Christ took bread and wine and pronounced the words which made them His Body and Blood, there is not a word of the priest-king of the then dim and distant past. Thus so far, in Revelation, we know of three priesthoods: Melchisedech's, Aaron's and Christ's. Each has its essential constituents, its conditions, its properties, qualities and effects. In a word, each is an order of priesthood. But, except for the suggestion of the Psalm, the interrelations of these orders are not explained.
We know the constitution of the priesthood of Christ. He was Man, a quality he shares with all priests; for all "are taken from among men and are ordained for men in the things which appertain to God." (Heb. v, 1.) But the priest Christ is God as well as Man; and so He is eternal and timeless. He has a sacrifice, as every priesthood must have; but His Victim is of singular and outstanding value; It is offered but once, and gains by Its single oblation an inexhaustible treasure of redemptive graces. Uniquely, He is the Priest and Victim of His own sacrifice: "Victima sacerdotii sui et sacerdos suae victimae," as St. Paulinus so beautifully says. Other priests who follow Him can offer no other acceptable Victim than His Victim, Himself. And since this only available Victim is so intimately His own, all others offer It only in His name and person. Hundreds of priests daily offer Him in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. But it is the one Victim, Jesus Christ, who is offered; and the human consecrant whom God deigns to empower to pronounce the holy words of consecration stands at the altar and acts ministerially for Jesus Christ Himself.
But what, of all these essentials, properties or effects of the priesthood of Christ, are those which constitute Him a priest of the order of Melchisedech? Not, surely, the fact that He is Man. For all priests are men, whether they be false or true to a given standard, whether they are Divinely appointed or chosen by men to fulfil the religious needs of unguided nature. Not, again, in His having a sacrifice; for every priesthood has had a sacrifice, it being another contradiction of modern thought that it can speak of a priesthood without a sacrifice. (Far more logical the theology of some Protestants who, having rejected a sacrifice, rejected a priesthood.) To find the answer to our question, we must turn to Revelation. In Catholic Tradition we find one reason why Christ is a priest according to the order of Melchisedech; in the Epistle to the Hebrews, another. Both sources of information accept the priest-king Melchisedech as the type of Christ. Each enlarges upon a principal feature of the type which is found in Christ, the antitype.
It will be necessary in the discussion to recall to our minds the essentials of a scriptural type. A type is a person or thing, mentioned by the human author of Scripture, which is intended by God, the Divine author, to signify some other person or thing. Thus, Moses raised the brazen serpent in the desert; it healed those who looked thereon. But besides the miraculous effects then produced, God intended that this event foreshadow the raising of Christ on the Cross, the glorious elevation of the Resurrection and the cure of spiritual ills which follows from Redemption. That God intended to signify such events in Christ's life is made known to us from the revelation of the fact in the Gospel of St. John. It is to be noticed that the type, as a person or thing, has a reality and truth all its own; over and above this, it foreshadows, in God's intention, some other person or thing.
It is obvious that the words "intended by God to signify some other person or thing" are of paramount importance in the definition of a type. This Divine intention is a fact of the supernatural order. It is known, therefore, only from supernatural sources of information. These are two: Holy Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. The verisimilitude or the aptness of a type may appeal to human tastes and understanding, or it may be so subtle as to escape human perception.
Thus the manna, God-given for forty years in the desert, is a type of the Holy Eucharist, obviously congruous according to human reckoning. So, too, the Paschal Lamb is a type of Christ's salvific death. On the other hand, some types are more subtle, and perceptible only after consideration. In either case, our standards of congruity are not the norm by which to judge whether a typical sense is expressed or not. This depends on the Divine intention, and we know the intention only when it is revealed to us.
In the case of Melchisedech, there are features whose likeness to certain qualities of the priesthood of Christ are obvious, and others which are not so. That the offering of the bread and wine, which was the oblation of Melchisedech, aptly though inadequately, typifies the Unbloody Sacrifice of Calvary, is well known. That God intended that the sacrifice of the priest-king should pre-signify that of Christ is a unanimous assertion of the Fathers. Fr. de la Taille, S. J., in the , rightly lays great emphasis on this feature of the type, which is developed in Catholic Tradition. But I do not think that it is the only principal feature of the type. Rather, it appears to me that several features belong to Melchisedech and Christ, of which two are principal. One of these, the offering, is spoken of in Tradition. The other principal feature, as well as several minor ones, are developed by St. Paul. To him we now turn.
After several references to Christ, as the priest according to the order of Melchisedech, St. Paul begins the explanation of the type in Chap. vii, 1-3:
1. For this Melchisedech was king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him:
2. To whom also Abraham divided the tithes of all; who, first indeed, by interpretation, is King of Justice: and then, also, King of Salem, that is, King of Peace:
3. Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but likened to the Son of God, continueth a priest for ever.
We have here a brief resume of the facts as they are narrated in Genesis. The detail concerning the oblation of the priest-king, bread and wine, is omitted. Something will be said of this later.
The second verse considers two minor features of the type. The meaning of the name Melchisedech is King of Justice. Christ is the true King of Justice. In the present instance, St. Paul does not dwell on this feature. For the Apostle's theology on the matter of justification (for the word translated justice here is the same which is translated justification elsewhere), we must turn to the Epistle to the Romans. Again, the name of the city of the priest-king means Peace. St. Paul writes at length concerning the Peace of Christ in the Letter to the Ephesians. Since this peace is touched upon briefly in the Letter to the Hebrews, though not in this section, we explain it summarily. Fundamentally, the peace of Christ is twofold: it includes the reconciliation of sinners with God; secondly, it restores the equality of all men before God, destroying the "middle wall of partition" (Eph. ii, 14), between a privileged Israel and the unprivileged Gentile nations. There is no longer any race exclusively elect, as was Israel before the coming of Christ. This new peace of Christ is the absolute harmony and the impartial equality of privilege which all men share, through union in the Mystic Body of Christ.
The third verse explains the second principal feature of the type, Melchisedech, and introduces the theme of the seventh chapter. The verse emphasizes by repetition two points. First, Melchisedech is without father or mother or tablets of descent. Secondly, no date of his birth is given, nor mention of his death. In these respects, St. Paul says, he is likened to the Son of God, and continues as a priest forever. These apparently strange assertions need some explanation.
The very few exegetes who thought that the text meant that Melchisedech actually had no parents, found no followers. He had father and mother, and doubtless, since he was both priest and king, he could have exhibited very honorable tablets of lineage. But, as a matter of fact, father, mother and genealogy are not mentioned in the sacred text. , he is without them. Now reflection shows that there is something remarkable in this omission. For the genealogical tablets of eminent men are usual in the sacred histories; and this priest is of such dignity that, in God's designs, he blesses the very father and patriarch of the Chosen People. Abraham kneels before Melchisedech, and pays him tithes of all he has conquered. Moreover, priesthood in the ancient East commonly came by blood-descent. Here is a priest of the Most High, about whose lineage and title to succession there is not one word. But while the omission is remarkable, absolutely nothing is to be made of it, unless it be the Divine intention that the omission signify something. The inspiration of the Letter to the Hebrews, and the use of the type there, are the absolute security that God did intend to signify something through the omission of the narrative.
Now the Aaronitic priesthood proved its whole right to its sacred office by the specific title of lineage. On the contrary, the priesthood of Christ is in fact that which Melchisedech's is in portrayal, a priesthood without lineage. Christ did not inherit His priestly office by the title of blood-descent, nor is His priesthood multiplied that way. Lineage and hereditary succession mean multiplicity; the posterity which succeeds has powers equal to those of the progenitor. But where lineage and hereditary title are absent there is but one priest, Christ; there is no multiplied posterity with powers equal to His. Caiphas, in Aaron's line had the same powers as Aaron; he was equally a priest with the ancestor from whom he sprang. But no priest of Christ is a priest equally with Christ. The Catholic priest is the minister of Christ; to whom Christ imparts certain powers. But Caiphas was not the minister of Aaron.
We do not need, in view of the present scope, to do more than allude to the fuller development of the unicity of the priesthood of Christ, which is presignified in the fact that we read of but one priest in the line of Melchisedech. A reading of Chap. vii shows how St. Paul sees in this unicity a mark of the superiority of Christ's priesthood over that of Aaron and the multiplied hosts of Israel's priests. We point out, therefore, that priesthood according to the order of Melchisedech means this essential mark of the priesthood of Christ: its total consummation and perfection in a single priest, Christ. What Melchisedech is in portrayal, Christ is in fact: the unique priest of all mankind.
But the idea of uniqueness leaves something to be desired, if the notion of perpetuity is not added. What price a priesthood, whose powers and effects die with the single member. St. Paul continues in v. 3: "having neither beginning of days nor end of life." Again, this does not mean that Melchisedech was not born and did not die. He was truly born and died. Now birth and death are the boundaries of life; they set us fast within the framework of the centuries; they mark our time; they bracket the years of our stay. But Melchisedech, as he is described, is without these bounds and marks of time. By omission, he is timeless. This portrayed timelessness of the type signified, by the Divine intention, the actual eternity of Christ, the antitype. How emphatically in the present context St. Paul expresses the eternity of Christ the Priest! No less than fifteen times in twenty-eight verses he recurs to it, abundantly repeating and explaining the "for ever" of David.
This same point is very delicately expressed in the last words of our text, "likened to the Son of God, he continueth a priest for ever." We might expect some epithet here which would directly denote the human nature of Christ; for Christ is priest because He is Man. Instead, St. Paul uses the epithet, "Son of God." And, while it is obvious that the one Person who is both God and Man may be named by epithets denoting one or the other nature, the author uses the name which denotes the Divine Nature. Why, in this context? Precisely, because he has in mind the eternity of the priesthood. Christ is priest because He is Man; but Christ is eternal priest only because he is Son of God and God.
To be priest, then, according to the order of Melchisedech means that Christ is the One, Eternal Priest of all men. The type is unique and timeless, as Holy Scripture presents him to us; the antitype, Christ, is singular and eternal in fact. Thus in St. Paul we find the complete explanation of the "for ever" expressed a millennium before by David: "Thou art a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchisedech." We do not follow out here the full development of these headings, so magnificently unfolded in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Let me briefly summarize the profound thoughts which the Apostle proposes. Christ, the unique priest, offers a single sacrifice; but this has a perennial efficacy, not only in redeeming men long dead before its completion on Calvary, but in remitting all sins to the end of time. The power of this sacrifice is limitless; it streches from end to end mightily, lifting up fallen man at creation's dawn, and available to the last repentant heart at sound of doom. Christ, sprinkled with the blood of His own Victim, enters and sanctifies the celestial sanctuary, Heaven. There, He is our forerunner and our perennial intercessor. He is the secure anchor of our hopes, to whose throne of grace and mercy we are bidden come in confidence. For Christ, the effulgence of the Father's glory and the very stamp of His substance, who sustaineth all things by His word of power, having seen to it that sin was purged, hath taken seat at the right hand of Majesty on high. Thus, in the first words of the Letter, are revealed the source of the eternity of Christ's priesthood, the tremendous work it accomplished, and the perennial exercise of it, which continues incessantly at the throne of God.
In St. Paul we find the eternity of Christ's priesthood explained, as it is portrayed in the type, Melchisedech. In Tradition, the oblation of the ancient priest is emphasized. Thus, both in his person and in his oblation, Melchisedech prefigures Christ. St. Paul does not mention the oblation; in fact, the omission of the detail is somewhat pointed. Now this omission has been made the support of a sinister interpretation of the Letter. We are told that in an Epistle where so much space is devoted to the sacrifice of Christ it is incredible that the author omit to mention the bread and wine if these have anything to do with the sacrifice of Christ. The Letter is alleged to present, and purposely so, Melchisedech as priest, "not in sacrificing, but in blessing," and the continuous tradition of the Church "makes the silence of the Apostle more significant."
In concluding from the silence of an author, one is very apt to outstep the bounds of legitimate logic. It is wrong to conclude or suggest that St. Paul thought the bread and wine of Melchisedech was a mere hospitable offering, because he did not choose to treat this feature in the Letter. We subjoin two reasons why it is wrong to force the Letter into an opposition to the unanimous Tradition of the Church, apart from the general truth that each of these sources, deriving from Eternal Truth, must harmonize.
First, the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist was known at the time and in the Church of the addressees. I take it as certain historically that St. Paul is the author of the Letter; hence it was written before 67 A. D. The best date is probably 64. This statement offends in two ways the pet theories of certain adverse critics. In their view, the Letter is not St. Paul's composition; and it belongs to the last two decades of the first century. But neither of these opinions is historically sustainable.
Now, by the year 64 two of the Synoptic Gospels, i.e., those of Sts. Matthew and Mark (and very probably also, that of St. Luke), had been written. These Gospels relate the institution of the Holy Eucharist on Holy Thursday night. They all contain the command: "Do this in commemoration of Me." Ten years before this date, St. Paul himself wrote of the Blessed Sacrament to the Corinthians. H. is letter sums up the entire history of the institution of the Eucharist, and supplies numerous details about the supper called the Agape. The reception of Holy Communion by the Faithful is distinctly mentioned in the passage. It is obvious, therefore, that ignorance of, or hostility to, the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist cannot be the cause of the silence of the writer.
Our second answer is the true answer to an argument from silence; it must lie in investigating the writer's purpose. The Letter itself suggests the reason for the silence concerning the bread and wine. We may say, though this is a matter of opinion, that in the particular context of the seventh chapter this feature of the type, Melchisedech, could not be used in the argument of the writer. To make this clear, we must follow the thread of the argumentation. We have spoken above of the beauty and profundity of the Letter; we shall find that no less praise must be given to its close and subtle argumentation.
The "Hebrews" to whom St. Paul addresses the Epistle are the members of a Judaeo- Christian church. This church is already long-established compared to the new communities at Ephesus or Philippi or Corinth. In that day, "long established" meant, at most, thirty years. These Christians have suffered many minor persecutions for the Faith, such as ridicule and scorn, and even imprisonment and the confiscation of their goods. But now they are in danger of losing their faith, even of apostatizing from it, through their own negligence and want of fortitude. To meet this crisis, St. Paul holds to two purposes: to warn his readers of the danger of temptations against faith and of the utter hopelessness of the apostate who rejects Christ; and to encourage and revivify a persevering faith which will sustain them unto the end.
Now, the apostate Judaeo-Christian would not relapse into a paganism which he abhorred almost as much before his conversion to Christ as after. He would return to his own people and to his old religion. St. Paul knew this, and it was far more true of his day than of ours. Hence, to prevent relapses, his entire argument proves the futility of the Jewish priesthood and sacrifice, to which the apostate would return. This priesthood is absolutely worthless and ineffectual compared to the wholly sufficient priesthood and sacrifice of Christ. The man who leaves Christ, "treading under foot," as St. Paul says, "the Son of God," is without a victim able to redeem his sins; he will seek in vain for an effective sacrifice in the outworn and discredited sanctuary of Aaron.
This assertion of the uselessness of the Aaronitic sacrifice is a thesis incessantly repeated in the first ten chapters of the Letter. The pre-excellence of the priesthood of Christ is set constantly in contrast to it. The author gathers several proofs, nearly all from the Old Testament, to show the superiority of Christ. One of these proofs is drawn from the typical feature, found in Melchisedech, which we have explained above. Why St. Paul used this feature, the eternity, and not the other, the oblation, is answered by the fact that the type is being used in a very particular context, as part of a very particular bit of argumentation.
For he applies only that feature of the type Melchisedech which proves a superiority of the priesthood of Melchisedech over that of Aaron. The type Melchisedech is timeless; and the antitype, Christ, is eternal. But the priesthood of Aaron is ephemeral, temporal and mortal. Again, the type, Melchisedech, is unique in his order, and Christ is the one priest of his line. But the priesthood of Aaron is a matter of death and succession, of multiplied priests through fourteen centuries of the generations of men. These are the features in the type which at once presignify the greater realities in Christ, and at the same time, prove a superiority over the Aaronitic priesthood. Hence, only these features are developed, since these only are demanded for the argumentation of the thesis.
If the argument is to be solid, St. Paul must select those features of the type, Melchisedech, which are not typified by Aaron. For we must remember that the sacrifices of Aaron's priesthood also presignify that of Christ; and that feature in Aaron is fully analyzed and developed in the following section of the Letter. If St. Paul argued for superiority from the oblation of the bread and wine, he is inconclusive and open to the retort: "Aaron's sacrifices, too-of bulls, sheep, goats, incense, bread, wine, salt- foreshadow the sacrifice of Christ! How, then, in the matter of oblation, is Melchisedech superior to Aaron?" Now this retort could have been answered; but only after a very subtle and lengthy explanation, on which the writer does not enter. Melchisedech is clearly superior in what his person presignified; he is not so clearly superior in what his oblation prefigured. For the sake, therefore, of clarity and strength of argument, St. Paul does not mention the oblation of Melchisedech. And it is noteworthy in this connection that from the beginning of Chap viii, where the sacrifice of Christ is explained, and not any longer the person of Christ the priest, the name of Melchisedech does not appear once.
We owe it to St. Paul that we know the Divine intention to reveal something of the meaning of the eternity of Christ's priesthood in the story of Melchisedech. He likewise intended that the oblation of the ancient priest should foreshadow the elements of the sacrifice of the Mass. Of these two features, the portrayed timelessness also serves as the basis of an argument, which exhibits the superiority of Christ over Aaron. For what is of time dies, and what is of eternity continueth forever.
As Christ Himself is a priest according to the order of Melchisedech, so, too, are those among men whom God deigns to grant the power to consecrate the Sacred Species in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. They offer an eternally efficacious Victim, since God permits them to offer the Victim of infinite price. They partake of that perennially intercessory priesthood, inasmuch as they stand in the place of Christ and offer up sacrifice in His name and person. And as they grow in grace, they learn the unutterable depths of the beauty of being one with the great High Priest of all men; surely, only in their human, fumbling way, and with thoughts scarce finding expression. For, as St. Paul says: "Christ is called a high priest according to the order of Melchisedech. Of whom we have much to say, and hard to be intelligibly uttered, because you are become too weak to hear."
1. The date here assigned merely signifies that the author prefers the opinion which places the Exodus from Egypt about 1450, and not almost two centuries later.
2 Epist. XI, ad Severum, Migne, P.L. 61, 196.
3 The Fathers did not restrict "lifted up" to the Crucifixion, but saw in the phrase a twofold elevation: a physical one on Calvary, a moral one in the triumphant mysteries. Cf. Commentaries on Jo. iii, 14-15: xii, 32.
4 Protestant commentators even very conservative scholars such as Westcott (Ep. to Heb. p. 200) and Franz Delitzsch (, p. 270), agree that the bread and wine are restoratives offered to Abraham and his wearied followers.
Interested readers will find their arguments refuted in such Catholic commentaries as Heinisch , p. 222; Murillo, , p. 519; and in the Latin commentaries of Hetzenauer and Hummelauer. (These references show how sorely we need a commentary in English by a Catholic exegete.)
5 The difference of spelling (Abram, Abraham) of the Patriarch's name is accounted for in Gen. xvii, 5. Gen. xiv occurs before the change; hence the spelling "Abram" on the first page of this article: St. Paul used the name as it was commonly known after the change.
6 Westcott, l. c., p. 200.
7 Cf. I Cor. xi. 17-34.
8 Heb. v, 10-11.
This article was taken from "Thought", a quarterly of the Sciences and Letters, September 1933.