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 the following question: 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 in brief below:
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. Evidence of an actual 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 . 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 Rule of Jehovah and his Angels (see below).
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 and myth. I refer to the simple truth in that the Old Testament lacks a single, uniform system of theology . 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 . 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. 
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 . 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 . 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 http://www.varchive.org/itb/zedek.htm#f ). 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 . 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.
For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? (Ps. 2:7) And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son? (2 Sam. 7:14) And again, when he bringeth in the firstborn into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him. (?) And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire?” (Ps. 104:4)
First let us note the unorthodox rhetoric that appears at the very beginning of this treatise. Here the “Son” is the agent by which “God” (ho Theos) created the “worlds.” What the Greek text literally says is that the Son (or a Son) is the agent by which God created the “Aions.” In the King James the word “Aions” has been translated as “worlds.” But in Genesis there is no statement that God created “worlds” or even “ages.” In the ancient Hellenistic world the word aion was also another name for a god; and Chronos (Saturn) was often referred to by the name “Aion.” In Gnostic tradition the word “aion” was used to identify “Sophia” and other primeval beings that existed prior to the physical universe. This theme involving the aions is developed accordingly in the Nag Hammadi treatise Melchizedek.
Also, in an unorthodox manner, this writer denies that the Son spoke to the prophets, but that “God” spoke to them in “divers manners.” It is only later, in the “last days”, that the Son spoke to the church. This is actually consistent with Gnostic doctrine which also denies that Jesus spoke in the Old Testament; and that He spoke to the Apostles only, and revealed the Gospel through them. In Gnostic tradition, God is revealed to the prophets only through Sophia. The Catholic Father Irenaeus informs his readers that the Valentinians referred to Sophia as the spiritual “Lord” of the Old Testament (Against Heresies, 1.5.3; see my article Gnostics and the OT).
It seems to me that the Letter to Hebrews displays an unorthodox statement of theology right at the beginning. But this is just the beginning; and the author continues his line of thought by developing a dichotomy between the Son and the “angels.” Most interesting is that this writer begins to appeal to the Old Testament in order to validate this dichotomy for his Hebrew readers. As we read through the relevant passages it will become obvious that the end purpose of quoting the Old Testament, in this case, is to persuade the “Hebrews” that the Law was given by “angels” and not God, and that the Hebrews should look to the Son, not the angels.
The plain statement by the writer that the Law was given by angels and not God appears in Hebrews 2:2f. Here the writer confronts his readers with an unusual question:
“For if the word spoken by angels was stedfast, and every transgression received a just penalty, how shall we escape, if we neglect the great salvation which was first spoken by the Lord…[with] God bearing witness both with signs and wonders?”
Here it is stated that the Law is the “word spoken by angels” and that it is the angels who punish mankind; whereas the Lord Jesus is the one sent by God for salvation.
In the balance of Hebrews 2 the author goes on to explain that “Jesus” is not one of the angels, and that the “angels” will not rule in the “world to come” (Heb. 2:5). The angels rule in this world and they judge everyone by the Law. The writer tells his readers, quoting Psalms 8:4–6, that Jesus was made “a little lower than the angels” and that his purpose is to taste death for every man.
“For truly he did not give aid to angels but he took on the seed of Abraham…that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil. And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” (Hebrews 2:14–16)
In the passage above we can see that a connection has been drawn between the angels, the Law, bondage, death, and the devil. According to Hebrews Jesus has not come to assist the angels who imparted and enforce the Law. Jesus comes to assist man in order to save man from the angels, the Law, and from him who has the “power of death, that is, the devil” (diabolon). This is really an amazing passage; especially when we compare this to what Paul wrote regarding the Law. Again, we know from Galatians 3:19 that Paul said that the Law of Moses was “ordained by angels” and that obeying the Law will lead one away from Christ (Gal. 5:4). And in 2 Corinthians 3:6–7 Paul referred to the Law of Moses “written in stone” as the “ministry of death.” Paul believed that the Law was an instrument of death and that no grace or salvation could be gained through it. Let us now note that in the Law of Moses we learn that death began with Jehovah. In Genesis 3:19 we read the judgment of the Lord against Adam and Eve and their descendents: “For out of the dust you were taken: for dust you are, and unto dust you shall return.”
Indeed in the Old Testament it is Jehovah and no one else who slays with death all those who transgress the Law (see my article On God and Justice). In 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:4 Paul draws a clear connection between the Lawgiver and the so-called “god of this world” (see my article St. Paul and the god of this world).
Next we move on to our writer’s inevitable subversion of the Mosaic tradition. He begins by elevating Jesus to a position above Moses:
“Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus: Who was faithful to the one that appointed him, as Moses was faithful in all his house. For [Jesus] was counted worthy of more glory than Moses, in as much as he who built the house has more honor than the house. For every house is built by some man; but he that built all things is God.” (Hebrews 3:1–4)
At first glance this passage seems to say something “orthodox.” But how can this follow on the unorthodox themes we have noticed in chapter 2? Let us examine the language carefully. The passage seems to say that Moses was faithful in the house of the same God that appointed Jesus. Yet in chapter 2 we learn that the Law was spoken by angels; which is an idea that is affirmed by both St. Stephen and St. Paul (Acts 7:48, 53; Gal. 3:19). The key to unraveling this passage is in verse 4, as quoted above. Here we learn that “every house is built by some man; but he that built all things is God.” Note that God built “all things” whereas men build “houses.” This logic follows in verses 5–6, “And Moses truly was faithful in all his house, as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken later; but Christ is the son of his own house…” and not Moses’ house.
In the literal Greek Moses is described in verse 5 as a witness to things that were spoken in the future, of Christ. But let us consider the real meaning of this in light of statements which have already been made. Again, Hebrews denies that the Law was spoken by God as the OT says. (And again, the actual theology of the OT is inconsistent. Some passages say YHWH is the supreme God; other passages imply he is subordinate, an angel.) In other articles I have documented where Paul inverts the meaning of Old Testament scripture in order to extract a different, antithetical meaning. Example: in Romans 10:1–4, Paul quotes Dt. 30:12–14 as an appeal to the grace that comes through Christ, whereas the passage is in fact an injunction to keep the Law. Another example is where Paul says that Abraham was justified by faith; but Genesis 17 says that Abraham accepted circumcision as a sign of his faith. Paul uses Abraham to argue against the practice of circumcision whereas Genesis 17 says the diametric opposite. In a similar way, the author of Hebrews says that Moses was a witness to Christ, but this can only be accepted in a subversive sense: in the sense that Jesus represents the divine antithesis to everything that Moses established. Thus we read in Hebrews 10:1 that the Law of Moses is a “shadow of good things to come.” But in reality the Law is not those good things, as Paul said. The Law brings death; it is the ministry of death. It is the darkness and the void that Jesus comes to fill with Light. It is because of the Law, and the angelic rulers, that we need Jesus, the Savior.
Because the Law is a “shadow of good things to come” Jesus is not a high-priest of the Law like Moses and Aaron. For this reason Jesus is declared to be a “priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. … Called of God a high-priest after the order of Melchizedek.” (Heb. 5:6, 10)
But with the above words our author reveals his criticism toward the Hebrews, which in turn reveals the Gnostic paradigm of this treatise:
“…of Melchizedek. Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing.
For when at this time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again those things which are the first oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk and not solid food. For everyone who needs milk is unskillful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe.
But strong food belongs to them that are mature (teleion: initiated); even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” (Hebrews 5:10–14; E. Pagels, Gnostic Paul, pg. 148)
Here our writer gets to the deeper esoteric truth that is behind this treatise, and is symbolized by Melchizedek. Those who are part of the priest-hood of Melchizedek, and are initiated into its Mysteries (i.e. secrets), have the knowledge to discern both good and evil, and to understand that the God of Moses, and of the Law, is not really the true God; and that God is really something much higher which has been revealed in Christ, and is symbolized in Melchizedek. This has absolutely nothing to do with Mosaic tradition, or circumcision or sacrifices. This all pertains to that other God that is also alluded to in the Old Testament, and which later Gnostic tradition identified with Sophia. (The historic precedent for Sophia begins with the Hellenistic text in the Septuagint: The Wisdom of Solomon; see my article Gnostics and the Old Testament.)
Stated simply, Melchizedek is the priest of another God than the God that Moses has erected over the Israelites. Melchizedek is a symbol of the higher God, and the higher mysticism, and the higher piety which has been lost in the organized religion of the Mosaic tradition. We also learn that the elementary gospel teachings regarding Jesus are themselves an exoteric teaching, and not the whole truth. Here we continue with our writer’s thoughts:
“Therefore leaving the elementary principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us move unto perfection (teleioteta: initiation); not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works (the Law), and of faith toward God; of the doctrine of baptisms, and laying on of hands, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment…” (Hebrews 6:1f., Pagels, ibid. pg. 148)
Let us note here that “repentance from dead works” meaning the Law, and “faith toward God”, are actually elementary principles. These are the teachings for beginners. But the end is the initiation, where one achieves the spiritual realization, and where the deeper esoteric teachings are imparted. This leads to knowledge, or as Paul says, “gnosis.” The initiates in the order of Melchizedek possess a knowledge of God which transcends faith, and has the wisdom to distinguish good from evil in opposition to the angelic powers. Like Paul, the initiates have the power to reject the Law, and to expose the angels for what they are. The good Father is known, and the god of this world is exposed; and the initiates triumph over the power of the devil. These are the high mysteries of the Gospel which have been suppressed in “orthodox” tradition for centuries. And certainly this does not involve a rejection of the Old Testament, but a renewed understanding of the complex theological and spiritual truths that are concealed in these books. For the Gnostic, both the false god and the true God will be revealed.
For the author of Hebrews, these truths are signified in the notion that the Law has become obsolete through the Gospel, and that no initiation can be achieved through the Law; which is to say that God cannot be known through the Law (cf. Paul, Gal. 4:8–10). Thus our writer says,
“If therefore perfection (teleiosis) were through the Levitical priest-hood (for under it the people received the Law) what further need was there that another priest should arise after the order of Melchizedek, and not after the order of Aaron?
… for after the similitude of Melchizedek their arises another priest, who is made not after the Law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life (Ps. 110:4).
… For there is a disannulling of the commandment going before the weakness of the unprofitableness thereof. For the Law made nothing perfect, but the bringing of a better hope did, by which we draw close to God.” (Hebrews 7:11, 15–19)
Here our author exposes the ineffectiveness of the Law. No one can achieve initiation through it. The commandment is weak and unprofitable. One cannot draw close to God through the Law. In turn we can compare these statements to what “Jesus” said about the Law—according to Matthew. Here a young noble asked Jesus: “Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” Jesus answers that he must “keep the commandments” (Mt. 19:16–17). If the young noble keeps the commandments then he will be justified before God, and will enter the Kingdom. But this is not the message in Hebrews (or in Paul’s letters). This in turn points to the back-ground behind the Letter to Hebrews. Like Galatians, Hebrews is a letter that addresses conflicting beliefs between Hebrew and Hellenist Christians. The Letter to Hebrews is an open letter written by a Hellenist and addressed to the HebrewChurch. The position of the HebrewChurch is represented in Matthew 19 and in 5:17–19; and in Acts 2:46–47; and in the Clementine Homilies and Recognitions. These texts and passages portray the HebrewChurch as a Jewish sect which remained steadfast in keeping the Law of Moses. The Letter to Hebrews is an attempt to talk the Hebrews away from the Law; and the author actually accuses the Hebrews of backsliding, as we noted above.
Here again is more from our writer regarding the inferior nature of the Law—which in Matthew “Jesus” says came from God (Mt. 15:4). Our writer goes on to tell us that an oath has been sworn to Jesus for a better covenant which is symbolized by the order of Melchizedek: “By so much was Jesus made the surety of a better covenant” (Hebrews 7:21–22, Psalms 110:1–4).
We are also told that Jesus’s priest-hood, on the order of Melchizedek, is an office at the right hand of God in the heavens; and that the earthly priest-hood is really a material copy of the order in heaven: “who serve as an example and shadow of heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5; cf. 9:23–24). This in turn resembles the Platonic, dualistic rhetoric of Paul as found in 2 Cor. 4:18, “We look not to the things which are seen; but the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal; but that which is not seen is eternal.” In both of these passages we see the Hellenistic thought of the Hellenist church. And for the Hellenists this dualism represents the mystical realization of better promises: “But now he (Jesus) has obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises” (Heb. 8:6).
Our author continues in verse 7, “For if that first covenant had been faultless, should no place have been found for the second.” (Emphasis added)
Let us consider the weight of these words. Our author has stated in the above passages that the “commandments” were weak and unprofitable; and he now adds that the “first covenant” was at fault. After reading these words we must ask the question: Does this man really believe that this covenant was given by God as we learn in the books of Moses? The answer is no. This writer believed something radically different. Inevitably he appeals to Jeremiah 31:31–34, where the concept of a “new covenant” is mentioned. But in Jeremiah there is no mention of the notion that the covenant given by God was flawed. The reason given in Jeremiah is that Israel disobeyed; but our writer says instead, in opposition to scripture, that the Law itself was at fault, and that there is a “disannulling of the commandment going before the weakness of the unprofitableness thereof. For the Law made nothing perfect…” (Heb. 7:15–19)
In saying that the “Law made nothing perfect” our writer is saying that God cannot be known or served through the Law. Nowhere in Jeremiah or anywhere else in the OT are these statements made about the Law. What we do learn—as Gnostics—is that there is another God mentioned in scripture who never gave a law or required rituals as that described of YHWH in the books of Moses. It is in this paradox that our blessed writer finds the truth. Melchizedek is the symbol of that truth. —jw
1] J. Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library, HarperCollins (1990), pp. 440–1, 108f.; NHC: IX, I, 5–6; II, I, 7–8. Note also that “Melchizedek” contains a reference to the “children of Seth” which probably refers to Gnostic/Sethian tradition.
2] A. Harnack, Marcion, pg. 10. A. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, pg. x. R. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, pg. 56ff. See also my article Gnostics and the Old Testament.
3] Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God, pg. 5f. See also #4 below (link)
4] The conservative theologian Michael Heiser offers a scholarly discussion of the “text critical problems” in the variant readings of Dt. 32:8 and why some manuscripts read “sons of God” or “angels of God” rather than “sons of Israel.” See link
5] The Law of Moses is mentioned in the OT books of Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel and Malachi. In this case the books of Joshua through Nehemiah are an expansion on the history of Israel that begins with the books of Moses. Daniel and Malachi are later prophetic books. But the earlier writings Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel; none of these older sources mention any “Law of Moses” nor quote from it. (See Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance for an easily accessible spread of the evidence.)
6] There have been widespread disagreements among clerics and scholars as to who wrote the Epistle to Hebrews. It is generally agreed that Paul can be ruled out. Some scholars have suggested that the writer was Barnabas or Apollos (cf. Gal. 2:11–13, 1 Cor. 3:5–6) but the evidence is inconclusive. The best evidence showing that this letter came from the Pauline/Hellenist circle is in the unorthodox, Hellenistic language in the text, and also the mention of Paul’s close friend “Timotheos” in Hebrews 13:23. This passage shows that the text was written by someone who was close to Timothy and hence, Paul.
7] Even in the books of Moses these older polytheistic elements are found. The Hebrew of Genesis 1:1 reads literally that the “gods” created the heavens and the earth and said “let us create man in our image.” Genesis 2:4f. contains the monotheistic version of the creation with the one God “YHWH.” The books of Moses are themselves a hodge-podge of different elements. These books do not wholly originate from a monotheistic/Yahwist culture, but were adopted by a monotheist group at a later time. To this day “orthodox” Christians and Jews read one God into these books: but the books themselves are a patchwork of both monotheist and polytheist elements. Thus Genesis 1 is a poorly disguised pagan creation story that probably originated from Babylon; and the seven days are actually a reference to the seven celestial gods of pagan tradition—for which our seven day week is named to this day.
By Jim West. Copyright © 2008, 2012. All Rights Reserved.