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Gnostic Secrets of Melchizedek

 
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11/13/2012 06:58 AM
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Gnostic Secrets of Melchizedek
Gnostic Secrets of Melchizedek

(Revised)

By James M. West.
November 11, 2008; revised Feb. 23, 2009

Who is the mysterious figure of Melchizedek? In the Old Testament he is the priest-king of the ancient pre-Israelite city of Salem. He is described in Genesis 14:18 as the “king of Salem” and “priest of the Most High God.” There are some theological paradoxes involving this figure which will be addressed in this article. These issues may be summarized in two basic questions: does Melchizedek really fit into the “orthodox” scheme of Bible theology? Or is he really a prime example of the Bible’s inherent contradictions or paradoxes?

Before we move along to the issues in question, we must briefly touch on the historic place of Melchizedek in early Gnostic tradition. The fact that early Gnostics assigned importance to this figure may be seen in the treatise named after Melchizedek which is part of the Nag Hammadi Library. Unfortunately this text has succumbed to the ravages of time and is in very poor condition. Large sections of the text have been reduced to fragments; and many sentences in the restored text are little more than theoretical reconstructions. For this reason it is difficult to determine exactly what is said in the text aside from a few key themes, which will be summarized here in brief:

In this treatise Melchizedek is placed within the Gnostic scheme of salvation history; and spiritual secrets are unveiled regarding him. The main theme is where a certain angel named “Gamaliel” appears to Melchizedek and reveals the mysteries of the Godhead. This angel also reveals future events regarding the Savior Jesus and the crucifixion. Actual evidence of a link to Gnostic tradition may be seen in the mention of certain familiar “aions” such as Barbelo, and the four luminaries Harmozel, Oroiael, Daveithe and Eleleth, as mentioned in the Apocryphon of John [1]. It seems that this text is meant to portray the initiation of Melchizedek into the mysteries of the Most High. If my reading is correct then Melchizedek is the archetypal Gnostic priest. In Bible history he is the first of the Gnostics—not in the literal sense, but in the sense that Melchizedek is a symbol of the Truth in the Old Testament which transcends the Law of Moses and the Archons/Angels (see below).

But again, because of the poor condition of this Gnostic text, there is little more that can be said with any certainty. In this present article I want to draw my readers’ attention to the many paradoxes involving Melchizedek which are preserved in the Bible itself—paradoxes which allow Melchizedek to be a potent symbol of Gnostic truth even today. I believe the Bible itself contains the best evidence for a link between this figure and the Gnostic revelation of the God above god. Get ready for some surprises.

Let us begin this discussion by acknowledging the simple problem with the Old Testament which is at the foundation of Gnostic theology. I refer to the simple truth in that the Old Testament lacks a single, uniform system of theology [2]. Gnostic theology and its multiple theological principles are a direct reflection of this truth. As opposed to the “orthodox” creed of one God, or one Trinity of God, the Gnostics saw various elements which they identified with Sophia, the Demiurge, and numerous angelic powers (e.g. Ireanaeus, Against Heresies, 1.30.11; see my article Gnostics and the Old Testament). Thus when Proverbs 9:1 says that “Wisdom built her house upon seven pillars” this meant that Sophia was above the seven heavenly powers—including Jehovah. And when David wrote in Psalms 40:6 that the Lord “neither required, nor desired burnt offerings” this referred to another God than the Demiurge who instructed Moses “This is the law of the burnt offering, the meat offering, and of the sin offering…which the Lord commanded on Mt. Sinai…” (Leviticus 7:37–38 cf. Numbers 28)

Certainly these passages show that the Old Testament does not contain one simple theology or tradition. Numerous theologies are preserved in the Bible and do not reflect the simple dogma of one God. Thus where Deuteronomy 4:35 says that “the Lord is God: there is none else besides him” Psalms 82 says that “God stands in the company of the gods” and judges among them; and that “God” shall inherit all nations (v. 8).

Next there is the problem in that some manuscripts don’t always affirm the dogma that Jehovah (YHWH) is the one supreme Being. An example may be seen in the highly enigmatic passage in Deuteronomy 32:8–9, as preserved in both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint (LXX):

“When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds according to the number of the angels of God. For the Lord’s portion is his people. Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.” (LXX)

In the passage above an obvious distinction is made between Jehovah and the Most High [3]. Clearly this passage says that the “Most High” grants the inheritance and that “Jehovah” (YHWH) has received “Jacob” (read: Israel) as his “lot.” Even in the books of Moses there is some reference to that other God who is above the Lawgiver. Many Jews and Christians today remain ignorant of this paradox because the traditional King James and Catholic translations rely on the later Masoretic Text (MT), which reads as follows:

“When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds according to the number of the sons of Israel. For YHWH’s portion is his people. Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.” (MT)

The words “sons of Israel” in italics mask the reference to the “sons” or “angels of God” that appears in the older manuscripts and thereby blunts the true theological import of the passage (cf. Ps. 82:6). It blunts the real distinction between the Most High and YHWH. It’s quite fascinating to see the way these translations contradict each other; and it shows that this passage was a source of controversy among early Jewish theologians. Thus by the Medieval period, the extant Hebrew manuscript reads “sons of Israel” rather than the sons or angels of God. [4]

Ancient Hellenistic Jews like Paul and Philo, and the later Gnostics, would have read the Greek translation, which says that the nations were divided among the “angels of God” and that Jacob was the “Lord’s inheritance.” The Dead Sea Scrolls translation says “sons of God” which was also deemed theologically incorrect and has been modified in the later the Masoretic text. Both of the latter manuscripts agree that the Lord is “YHWH” and which the LXX translates as “Lord” (Kurios).

When we read these passages in their earlier forms, whether in Hebrew or Greek, we can see that a different theological paradigm emerges in comparison with the later Rabbinical and Christian “orthodox” traditions. In both Philo and Paul we can see examples of that other Judaism and the theology that these men construed from the scriptures. As I have pointed out repeatedly in my articles, Paul actually believed that the Law was given by angels, not God. Philo believed that the visible “Lord” God of the Old Testament was a lesser god, which he described as a chief angel or logos, which was a lower manifestation of the supreme Being (e.g. Philo, On the Confusion of Tongues, 146; see my articles On God and Justice; Gnostics and the OT).

In Paul’s case it becomes understandable how it was that he construed the scriptures to mean that the Law of Moses was commanded by angels and not God. In the Greek translation of Dt. 32:8–9 the Lawgiver is referred to as an angel who receives Israel as his lot from the Most High. In rejecting the Law Paul could appeal to that God that David referred to in Psalms 40:6–8, “Sacrifice and sin offering you did not desire; my ears you have opened: burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then said I, Lo, in the scroll of the book it is written of me: ‘I delight to do your will, O my God; yes, your law is written in my heart’.”

The passage above raises many issues which were reflected later in Paul and in Gnostic tradition. First, the writer above (supposedly David) refers to a God that did not demand the sacrifices as mandated in the books of Moses. Moreover, this writer quotes a passage from a “scroll” which cannot be found in the Old Testament. The historical solution to this paradox is that Psalms and most other OT books actually existed before the books of Moses, and this is why “Moses” is never quoted in the Psalms, in Proverbs, or in the Prophets. Psalms and Proverbs actually reflect a Hebrew culture which existed before the Law of Moses; and scholars agree that the books of Moses reflect a later reformation which has been imposed on an older tradition. Thus in the books of Moses we find the “ten commandments” and an elaborate system of sacrificial rituals; but none of this is mentioned in the Psalms, or in the Proverbs, or even in Isaiah. None of these writers have studied the “Law of Moses.” They neither mention it by name nor quote it. Again, none of these books quote “Genesis” or “Exodus” or “Deuteronomy” —because these books didn’t exist [5]. Whatever it was that was quoted in Psalms 40:8, it is not found in any known biblical text.

The consequences for Paul is that he recognized a duality of themes between the Law which Moses commanded, and the Law which “David” says is written in his heart, and does not require sacrifices. Nor is there any reference in Psalms to circumcision. For Paul this is the source of the idea that the “law” is written in one’s heart as opposed to the Law that was given by angels to Moses, and which Paul refers to as “written in stone” and as the “ministry of death” (2 Cor. 3:7, cf. Rom. 2:15, 3:20, Gal. 3:19). In Romans 3:20 Paul states that no salvation can come though the Law; and in Romans 7:22–23 Paul makes a distinction between the law of his mind and the law of his body (cf. Rom. 2:15). One law is the Law of the Most High, and the other is the Law of the flesh, the external law commanded by Moses, which brings only condemnation and death. Paul warns his disciples against keeping the Law: “Christ has become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the Law, ye are fallen from grace.” (Gal. 5:4)

Clearly Paul believed that the Law of Moses had no role in the divine plan for salvation. And it is clear that Paul recognized more than one theological element in the Old Testament (see my article Gnostics and the Old Testament). This duality of themes is reflected in a most intriguing way in another New Testament book, known as the Epistle to Hebrews. This letter is an address from the Paulinist (or Hellenist) wing of the early church to the Hebrew Christians [6]. This letter is a warning to Hebrew Christians who place emphasis on Moses and the Law over and above grace (cf. Mt. 19:16–17). The writer of Hebrews sets forth his conviction that the Law of Moses is the “word spoken by angels” and he makes a distinction between the Law and the plan for salvation which was revealed by the Lord with God bearing witness “with signs and wonders” (Heb. 2:2–4). Most intriguing however is the dichotomy that the writer draws between the priesthood established through Moses, and another priesthood, that was established through one “Melchizedek”, who was known as the “priest of the Most High God.” In the Letter to Hebrews we learn that Jesus is a High Priest after the order of Melchizedek, and not after the order of Aaron, which was established by Moses—according to the Law. This dichotomy is based in turn on the notion of a distinction between the Most High and Lawgiver. Hence, Melchizedek represents the Most High, whereas Moses and Aaron represent the Lawgiver, Jehovah.

Most important is that the biblical figure of Melchizedek is intertwined with the notion of a foreign theology that does not fall within the bounds of Rabbinical or Christian orthodoxy. In the secular realm of thought the reason for this is that Melchizedek, the priest of the Most High God, is really a part of the ancient Semitic history that predates the nation of Israel. This is already obvious in the story in Genesis 14, which is one of two OT passages where “Melchizedek” is mentioned. In Genesis 14 Melchizedek is portrayed as the priest-king of the pre-Israelite city of Jerusalem, which at that time was a city of the Canaanite/Jebusite tribe, and the city was called “Salem” (Gen. 14:18). Again, Melchizedek is described as a “Priest of the Most High God.” But this can be understood as reference to the highest God of a pantheon of gods—and undoubtedly the Jebusite tribe was a pagan tribe. In scripture the tribes of Judah and Benjamin are said to have conquered Jerusalem, but that they were not able to drive the Jebusites out; and the Jebusites and Israelites are said to dwell together in Jerusalem “unto this day” (Joshua 15:63, Judges 1:21). The presence of Melchizedek in Hebrew tradition is surely a result of the presence of this other culture in Israelite history; that of the pagan Jebusites.

The other Bible passage where Melchizedek is mentioned is in Psalms 110:1–4. This is surely the older of the two passages. In Judeo-Christian tradition this passage is regarded as a prophecy written by David, in which Jehovah places Jesus’s enemies under his feet, and that Jesus will be made a priest after the “order of Melchizedek.” In Jewish tradition this passage reflects a coronation rite for a king. Among secular historians, this passage is regarded as a piece of “syncretism” that dates back to the Jebusites, and is a fragment that is preserved, in a sanitized form, in Israelite literature (James Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible, “Melchizedek”). The clue in this case is the name Melchizedek itself. This name derives from Canaanite culture and refers to the name of a Canaanite god “Zedek” (Hastings, ibid.; G. Buttrick, Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 3, pg. 343; see also [link to www.varchive.org] ). The other part of this name “Melchi” is said to mean “king” but even this name can be shown to be connected to ancient Canaanite deities; and the prefix “Melchi” has the same root as the names for the gods Melkart, Milcom and Moloch—which were also worshipped in the region (cf. Strong’s Hebrew-Chaldee Dictionary #s 4428–4432, 4442–4445, 6664). The reality behind the scripture is that the name Melchizedek is an artifact from a pagan culture that occupied Jerusalem before the Israelites showed up.

It must also be understood, even from biblical evidence, that ancient Israelite society was a polytheistic society. This is evident throughout scripture where the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are the fanatical devotees of YHWH, whereas the Israelite religious establishment is polytheistic. King Solomon himself is blamed for having brought foreign gods to Jerusalem (1 Kings 11:4–9); but in reality there probably never was a time when “one God” was worshipped at Jerusalem during the first temple period. And this is why “Melchizedek” remains embedded in biblical tradition, just as Psalms 82 does, which makes open reference to a pantheon of gods, with one Most High God judging among them [7]. Clearly there is an older pagan tradition underneath these OT passages.

Recall now that the Psalms make no actual reference to the Law of Moses. And in the Septuagint these texts don’t even make a specific reference to YHWH. In the Septuagint “YHWH” has been replaced by the Greek word “Kurios” meaning Lord. Add to this that Psalms and the books of Moses lack consistent theological elements as we have seen above. It is from this very situation that the heretical currents began to spring out of Hellenistic Judaism and into Philo and Paul, and on into later Gnosticism—which also lays claim to Melchizedek (NHL). These heretical currents are further compounded by the problem in that there is no functioning order of Melchizedek in ancient Israel. The only priesthood that was ever established by YHWH, through Moses, is the Levitical priesthood. The “order of Melchizedek” mentioned in Psalms 110 never had any functioning existence (except, perhaps, under some secret order of mystics).

For the Gnostic all these issues point to a sublime allegorical meaning that is symbolized in the figure Melchizedek. Melchizedek is a symbol of the theological paradoxes that underlay the “orthodox” monotheistic concept of the Bible, and the false god that “orthodoxy” attempts to erect as the supreme Being. Indeed Melchizedek is a symbol of that other God and that other Law which can be found in scripture. This dichotomy is laid out in the Letter to Hebrews, where we inevitably learn once again that the Law of Moses comes from angels, but that salvation comes through the “Son.” And, accordingly, this dichotomy is laid out in the form of two priest-hoods: there is the order of Melchizedek, and there is the order of Aaron. One is spiritual and eternal; the other is fleshly and temporal (see below).

The author of Hebrews has made some intriguing statements about the Law under Moses/Aaron that demonstrates that this writer was not a worshipper of YHWH, and that he did not believe that the Law came from the supreme Being. Let me begin this presentation by quoting a series of passages from the text which shows the development of this theme.

Hebrews 1:1–4, (OT quotations in passage below are marked in italics)

“God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by [a] Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds (in Greek: “Aions”);

Who being the brightness of [his] glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.

Continue to read:
[link to www.thegodabovegod.com]

hf

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