Melchizedek Prefiguring Christ


On the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, the Orthodox Church honors the memory of the Ancestors of Christ and reads the Genealogy of Christ from Matthew 1:1-25. The Sunday commemorates all the Old Testament saints who were significant in being faithful to God or preparing the Jewish people for the coming of the Messiah, including the non-Jewish priest Melchizedek. At Vespers on the Eve of this feast one portion of the three Old Testament lessons read is Genesis 14:18-20 –

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said: “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” And he gave him a tithe of all.


The author of the New Testament’s book, Hebrews, offers an interpretation of the Melchizedek narrative, adding some details and information not in the Old Testament text:

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him; and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest for ever. See how great he is!  (Hebrews 7:12-17)


St Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444AD) comments on the Hebrews’ interpretation (with its comments not found in the Genesis text). Though the Hebrews text does not list an author, by the time of Cyril, many Patristic writers assumed St Paul was the author of Hebrews. Modern scholarship has accepted the older tradition that the author of Hebrews is anonymous rather than a work of St Paul. Cyril writes:

From the interpretation of the names, then, Paul takes hold of what serves to prefigure Christ. He makes it clear also that the manner of priesthood itself shows the same thing, for Melchizedek brought out bread and wine. That Melchizedek, however, was without father and without mother, that is, without a genealogy, and that he had no beginning of days or end of days, the sacred scripture nowhere expressly indicates. One might perhaps then say that the divine Paul has uttered a lie. This is not what we say, not at all, for he is speaking the truth. Rather, the skilled instructor in mysteries holds to a spiritual interpretation, taking this as a figure of the glory of Emmanuel and as an account relating to the very matters of the divine economy. For the inspired scripture reveals to us only the fact that Melchizedek was a priest. It does not identify his descent or the origins of his father or mother. Yet neither does it set a limit to how many years he lived, nor do we find that the kind of succession accompanying his priestly office is revealed. Consequently, the narrative of such things as outlined in figures for us, and this in a way resembles the perpetual nature of Christ that was without beginning, when he is considered as God. (GLAPHYRA ON THE PENTATEUCH Vol 1, p 127)


St Paul uses the Genesis text to glean information which is not explicitly stated in the text. Whether the ideas were original with Paul (fit his theology and point he wanted to make) or whether Paul was using a tradition he was familiar with, I do not know. But Paul takes the fact that the Genesis text gives no genealogy for Melchizedek as a prefiguration of the eternal nature of the Messiah. Paul draws a conclusion from the silence in the text.  It was a very common way of reading the Scriptures (some would say reading into it) but Paul is looking to the Old Testament for signs of the Messiah and sees the Melchizedek narrative as being a bit of a puzzle that lends itself to being a prophecy of Christ.  The genealogy of the main characters in the Old Testament’s is usually given. The fact that no genealogy is offered for Melchizedek gives Paul a door to open for interpretation.  Paul’s method of reading the Old Testament will be common among the early Christian and Patristic writers who are always plumbing the depths of Scripture to see Christ. They saw the Torah as not being so much history and Law as prophecy, preparing the Jewish people for the coming of the Messiah.


If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. (John 5:46)

And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)