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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Is Melchizedek "a true Deity"? Hebrews 7:3 — part 3

This is the third post in a critical reading  of J. H. Neyrey's[1] article on Hebrews 7:3 which will make better sense if you read part one and part two.

Heb. 7:3 ἀπάτωρ ἀμήτωρ ἀγενεαλόγητος, μήτε ἀρχὴν ἡμερῶν μήτε ζωῆς τέλος ἔχων, ἀφωμοιωμένος δὲ τῷ υἱῷ τοῦ θεοῦ, μένει ἱερεὺς εἰς τὸ διηνεκές.

Heb. 7:3 Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.

A common reading of Heb 7:13a  understands the alpha privatives ἀπάτωρ ἀμήτωρ ἀγενεαλόγητος "without father, without mother, without genealogy" on the principle that "nothing must be regarded as as having existed before the time of its first biblical mention" F. F. Bruce 1964:196, n.18[2]. In other words, the father and mother of Melchizedek are not mentioned in Genesis so an argument from silence  draws an inference that he had no father or mother. The purpose of the author in Hebrews 7 is to exalt Jesus Christ. Pointing out that Melchizedek has no father, no mother, no genealogy recorded in the OT does not exalt Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, if  "without father, without mother, without genealogy" is a Hellenistic formula for "true Deity" as J. H. Neyrey's[1] article demonstrates from numerous Hellenistic sources,  how can we avoid the conclusion that Hebrews builds the argument for Jesus Christ's eternal priesthood on Melchizedek's true deity and eternal priesthood? In other words, without Melchizedek's true deity and eternal priesthood the argument falls apart. Neyrey[1] does not solve this problem. The second paragraph on the first page of his article states:

I. Focus and Hypothesis
{ ... }
This study focuses on the Graeco-Roman background to the language and concepts in Heb 7:3. Paraphrased in terms of Greek philosophy, the author states three things of Melchizedek: he is (1) ungenerated, (2) uncreated in the past and imperishable in the future, and (3) eternal or immortal. According to my hypothesis, these three things are topoi from Hellenistic philosophy on what constitutes a true god.(3) In light of the topoi, the figure in 7:3 should be acclaimed a true deity. That predication, however, is directed not to Melchizedek, but to Jesus. The author of Hebrews inflated the character of Melchizedek in 7:3 beyond anything found in Scripture or midrash, so as to make comparable statements about Jesus, who is unquestionably acclaimed a divine figure in Hebrews. Thus the author supplies specific content to his acclamation of Jesus as a deity, for like true gods he is fully eternal.
— J. H. Neyrey 1991:1 [1] 
The statement "That predication, however, is directed not to Melchizedek, but to Jesus." is an assumption not a conclusion based on evidence. The fact that we can find extravagant portrayals of the patriarchs in Second Temple Judaism does not in and of itself prove that Hebrews is presenting Melchizedek's priesthood as a extravagant fictional fantasy about a shadowy historical person in the manner of the Enoch literature. At the end of section II[1]. The Shape of Hellenistic God-Talk we read a paragraph that compares Hebrews treatment of Moses to Melchizedek.

Although the remarks in Heb 7:3 are predicated of Melchizedek, this is not to say that the author is necessarily drawing on targumic or midrashic traditions about this figure. Writing about the way Moses was exalted in Hebrews beyond anything found in Jewish traditions, Mary Rose D'Angelo argued that such an overdevelopment of Moses only serves to promote Jesus all the more.(35) So it is with Melchizedek. If he is presented in terms used to describe a deity, the point is not to exalt Melchizedek for his own sake, but to promote Jesus: ". . . resembling the Son of God" (7:3). All of this discussion of eternity, then, should be seen in function of the author's clear and nuanced acclamation of Jesus as a true deity.
 — J. H. Neyrey
Hebrews provides details about Moses which are not found in the Hebrew canon, but nowhere in Hebrews is Moses described in the terminology of "true deity". Moses birth γεννηθεὶς and parents τῶν πατέρων αὐτοῦ are mentioned.

Heb. 11:23 Πίστει Μωϋσῆς γεννηθεὶς ἐκρύβη τρίμηνον ὑπὸ τῶν πατέρων αὐτοῦ,
Heb. 11:23 By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid for three months by his parents RSV.  

Having human parents and a record of his birth disqualifies Moses according to the Hellenistic God-Talk test for "true deity". This line of reasoning about Moses leads to similar questions about Jesus Christ. If the qualifications for "true deity" included having no father, no mother and no genealogy, Jesus Christ fails the test for "true deity" because he had a well documented human mother and genealogy. If the "true deity" qualifications require no death, then Jesus fails because Jesus died. So the Hellenistic God-Talk test for "true deity" when applied to the NT teaching on Jesus Christ comes up negative. Never the less, the author of Hebrews applies all these statements to Melchizedek:  Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life and then turns around and makes the equally baffling statement that Melchizedek was made to resemble (ἀφωμοιωμένος passive participle) the Son of God ... In what sense does Melchizedek resemble the Son of God?

So now we have not one but two big problems raised by J. H. Neyre's proposal. We have a deity on our hands named Melchizedek and criteria for "true deity" which do not fit the NT teaching on Jesus Christ.  Koester 2001:348[3] takes note of these "tensions" in the argument at Heb 7:3 "The author is apparently not comparing Melchizedek to the earthly Jesus, but to the exalted Son of God, who existed before the world was created and who will endure after it has it has ended ([Heb.] 1:2, 10-12)."

[1] Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J. "Without Beginning of Days or End of Life" (Heb 7:3): Topos for a True Deity" CBQ 53 (1991) 439-55.

[2] F. F. Bruce, Epistle to the Hebrews, NICNT 1964.

[3] Craig R. Koester. Hebrews: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 36. New York: Doubleday, 2001


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