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Who Is Melchizedek in the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The lofty depiction of Melchizedek in this manuscript stands at a considerable distance from the scant information provided in the Hebrew Bible.

Melchizedek is a fragmentary exegetical work from the Dead Sea Scrolls collection (11QMelch) that may be classified as a thematic pesher.1 The author quotes or alludes to biblical passages2 and reveals their true hidden meaning in connection with his main theme: the eschatological victory of good over evil.


This is an excerpt from Outside the Bible: Ancient Writings Related to Jewish Scripture, Volume 2. Read the book to learn more.

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Table of Contents


Background

The best preserved and most important of the three extant columns (column 2) portrays Melchizedek—a figure known from only two passages in the Hebrew Bible—as a celestial high priest, judge, and savior aided by a heavenly retinue. On the Day of Atonement at the time of God’s final judgment, he will rescue God’s people, the Sons of Light, from Belial, the demonic leader of the forces of darkness. Column 1 contains barely any legible material. The sparse remains of column 3 speak of the final extermination of Belial and perhaps allude to the structures of a new Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the original length of the document is unknown, as is the position of the preserved columns in relation to the rest of the work.


Authorship and History

Melchizedek is a product of the Qumran community. This conclusion is virtually guaranteed by the text’s particular mode of exegesis, its use of the term pesher, and the appearance of the common sectarian themes of the battle between good and evil, the end-time salvation of the Sons of Light (a frequent designation in sectarian texts for the members of the Qumran community), and the punishment of Belial.

Paleographic analysis dates the single manuscript of Melchizedek to the middle of the 1st century bce or slightly later. A likely reference to the book of Daniel (11QMelch 2:18) sets the composition of the work after 164 bce. The text is written in Hebrew with the full orthography characteristic of many other Qumran scrolls. With the exception of spelling and a couple of variants, biblical citations follow the Masoretic Text (MT).


Significance

The lofty depiction of Melchizedek in this manuscript stands at a considerable distance from the scant information provided by the two allusions to this figure in the Hebrew Bible.

According to Gen. 14:18–20, Melchizedek is the king of Salem and “a priest of God Most High,” who blesses Abram after his military victory over Chedorlaomer.

In Ps. 110, an exalted king of Israel vanquishes and judges his enemies and is promised by God: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (v. 4).

While both passages refer to Melchizedek’s priestly credentials, neither alludes to his heavenly or eschatological status. Moreover, neither passage is explicitly referred to in Melchizedek, and their influence on the composition is not entirely clear.

The scroll’s portrait of Melchizedek as cosmic redeemer stands in a line of speculation with broader roots than the Qumran movement that influenced later Jewish, Christian, and gnostic tradition. Already in the pre-Qumran Aramaic text Visions of Amramb (4Q544; early 2nd century bce or earlier), Melchizedek likely appeared as one of the three names of the righteous angel embroiled in conflict with the wicked angel Melchiresha.3

Davila suggests that Melchizedek may appear as a chief angelic priest, perhaps prosecuting the eschatological battle, in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, which may or may not have originated at Qumran.4 Further evidence of Jewish speculation on Melchizedek as a heavenly being appears (with Christian interpolations) in 2 Enoch.

In one instance, New Testament tradition appears to have been influenced by related speculation. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus is pictured as the eternal cosmic high priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6; 6:20; 7:1, 10–11, 17), who redeemed mankind from the power of sin through his service in the celestial sanctuary (see Heb. 9–10).5

A further connection in New Testament tradition with 11QMelch may appear in Luke 4:16–21, where Jesus reads Isa. 61:1–2 publicly, and declares that “today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”6

As will be seen in the commentary below, the association of this passage from Isaiah with Melchizedek is integral to 11QMelch’s portrait of Melchizedek as cosmic redeemer of the end-time.

The Melchizedek legend also influenced gnostic thought, which identifies Melchizedek as eschatological redeemer, carrier of light particles (i.e., souls) to heaven, and identical with Jesus.7 Interestingly, Epiphanius (Pan. 55) reports on a heretical group called the Melchizedekians. Hippolytus (Haer. 7.36) relates that a group led by one Theodotus the banker (Rome, 2nd century ce) revered Melchizedek as a heavenly power superior to Christ.

Rabbinic tradition identifies Melchizedek with Noah’s son Shem (Targum Pseudo Jonathan; Gen. 14:18; B. Ned. 32b) and claims that his priesthood was taken away from him and given to Abraham because he did not bless God before Abraham (Lev. Rab. 25; B. Ned. 32b).

The archangel Michael, not Melchizedek, appears as celestial high priest (B. Hag. 12b; B. Zev. 62a; B. Men. 110a). This may reflect a reaction against Christian association of the superior priesthood of Jesus with that of Melchizedek.

Nevertheless, a positive portrayal of Melchizedek as an eschatological savior does occur in Song of Sol. Rab. 2.13 §4 (cf. B. Suk. 52b). Moreover, vestiges of his celestial high priestly status are preserved in medieval Jewish literature, which identifies Melchizedek with Michael.8


Melchizedek Translation

Column 2 (Fragments 1, 2i, 3i, 4)

2:1“[ ] [“ 2[ ] and as for what he said: “In [this] year of jubilee [each of you shall return to his ancestral land holding,” concerning it he said: “And th]is is 3[the manner of the remission:] every creditor shall remit what he has lent [his neighbor or his brother for it has been proclaimed] a remission 4of Go[d.” Its interpretation] for the final days concerns the captives, who [ ] and whose 5teachers have been hidden and kept secret, and from the inheritance of Melchizedek, fo[r ] and they are the inheritan[ce of Melchize]dek who 6will make them return. And liberty shall be proclaimed to them, to free them from [the debt of] all their iniquities. And this [wil]l [happen] 7in the first week of the jubilee (that occurs) after [the] ni[ne] jubilees. And the D[ay of Atone]ment i[s] the e[nd of] the tenth [ju]bilee, 8in which atonement shall be made for all the Sons of [Light and for] the men [of] the lot of Mel[chi]zedek [ ] over [th]em [ ] accor[ding to] a[ll] their [doing]s, for 9it is the time for the year of grace of Melchizedek and of [his] arm[ies, the nati]on [of] the holy ones of God, of the administration of justice, as is written 10about him in the songs of David, who said: “Elohim shall [st]and in the ass[embly of God]; in the midst of the gods he shall judge.” And about him he sa[id: “And] above [it,] 11to the heights, return: God shall judge the nations.” And as for what he s[aid: “How long will you] judge unjustly, and be par[tial] to the wick[e]d. [Se]lah,” 12the interpretation of it concerns Belial and the spirits of his lot wh[o ], in [the]ir tur[ning] away from God’s commandments to [commit evil]. 13And Melchizedek will carry out the vengeance of Go[d]’s judgments [and on that day he will f]r[ee them from the hand of] Belial and from the hand of all the s[pirits of his lot.] 14And all the gods [of justice] are in his assistance; [and h]e is (the one) wh[o ] all the sons of God, and he will [ 15This [ ] is the day of the [peace ab]out which he said [ through Isa]iah the prophet who said: [“How] beautiful 16upon (the) mountains are the feet [of] the messen[ger who an]nounces peace, the mes[senger of good who announces salvati]on, [sa]ying to Zion: your God [is king”]. 17Its interpretation: “the mountains” [are] the prophet[s]; they [ ] every [ ] 18And “the messenger” i[s] the anointed of the spir[it], as Dan[iel] said [about him: “Until an anointed, a prince, it is seven weeks.” And “the messenger of] 19good who announ[ces salvation]” is the one about whom it is written [20“To comfo[rt] the [afflicted,” its interpretation]: to [in]struct them in all the ages of the w[orld 21in truth [ ] [ 22[ ] has turned away from Belial and shall retu[rn to ] [ 23[ ] in the judgment[s of] God, as is written about him: “[saying to Zi]on: your God is king.” [“Zi]on” i[s] 24[the congregation of all the sons of justice, who] establish the covenant, who avoid walking [on the p]ath of the people. And “your G[o]d” is 25[ Melchizedek who will fr]ee [them from the han]d of Belial. And as for what he said: “And you shall blow the ho[rn in] all the [l]and (of)

Commentary

2:1 The damaged state of the scroll makes it difficult to decipher the words on this line.

2:2 as for what he said A common formula used to introduce biblical citations in sectarian exegesis. See, for example, Pesher Habakkuk (1QpHab 6:2; 7:3; 12:2). It appears again in 11QMelch 2:11, 25.

In [this] year of jubilee [each . . . to his land holding] Quoting Lev. 25:13, which mandates the re turn of ancestral land holdings to their original possessors every 50th year (yovel, or “jubilee”).

2:2–4. And th]is is . . . a remission of Go[d A citation of Deut. 15:2, which decrees the release of borrowers from their debts every seventh year (shemitah). Apparently, the sabbatical release is equated here with that of the jubilee year mentioned in Lev. 25.9

2:4. Go[d Hebrew El. Here, Melchizedek deviates from the MT, which has the Tetragrammaton. This variant reflects a desire on the part of the Qumranites to avoid using the divine name, and is part of a larger trend in Second Temple literature toward an increased veneration of the divine name.

Its interpretation] for the final days Similar to other pesher interpretations, the biblical verses are brought to bear on the final days of history.10 The Qumran community viewed itself as living in this period, which would witness the great turning point of God’s judgment of the wicked and the beginning of the eternal salvation of the Sons of Light.

captives Considering the frequent allusions to Isa. 61 in the rest of the column,11 this is likely a reference to the captives mentioned in Isa. 61:1. There, the messenger of good is sent by God to “proclaim release” (cf. Lev. 25:10) to the captives, that is, the exiles from Judah who have been banished from their land holdings and brought to Babylonia. In the present context, the captives are those held under the power of evil until the eschatological redemption.

2:4–5. whose teachers have been hidden and kept secret This reading is poorly preserved and uncertain.

2:5. the inheritan[ce of Melchize]dek Referring to the group to be saved by Melchizedek in the final judgment, that is, the Sons of Light (cf. 11QMelch 2:8). Perhaps the phrase is an adaptation of the biblical notion of Israel as the inheritance of God.12 This would jibe with the later substitution of God with Melchizedek (line 9; cf. line 13) and underscore his supernatural status.

Melchizedek According to popular Second Temple period etymology, the name means “king of righteousness.” This explanation is reflected in Philo (Alleg. Interp. 3.79), Josephus (Ant. 1.180), and Heb. 7:2. Josephus explains that on account of his righteousness, Melchizedek was made priest of God.

2:5–6. who will make them return The subject is likely Melchizedek, who will make the captives return. The verbal root for “return” (sh-w-b) appears also in Lev. 25:13 (quoted above in line 2), according to which “each of you shall return to his holding” (cf. Lev. 25:10). In light of the concern for freedom from “all their iniquities” in 2:6, it is notable that the root sh-w-b can also mean “repent.”

2:6. liberty shall be proclaimed Cf. Lev. 25:10 and Isa. 61:1.

free them from . . . their iniquities The economic release mandated for the jubilee and sabbatical years is understood as a metaphor for spiritual liberation from sin at the end-time.

2:7. the first week That is, the first week of years, or seven years. The division of a jubilee into seven Sabbaths (i.e., weeks) of years goes back to Lev. 25:8. Weeks of years also appear in the apoca lyptic periodization of history in texts such as Dan. 9:24–27.13

D[ay of Atone]ment According to Lev. 25:9–10, the release of the jubilee year is declared on this day. This strengthens the text’s association of economic release with liberation from sin. See also the comment on 2:6, free them from . . . their iniquities.

tenth [ju]bilee Redemption will be achieved at the end of the 10th jubilee. The division of history into a set number of jubilees, during which the power of sin will dominate, appears in Jubilees (see esp. 50:5), T. Levi 17:2–9 and 4Q387 2:3–4. The last text shares a chronological scheme very similar to Melchizedek, according to which the divine wrath will be directed against Israel for 10 jubilees, or 490 (49 x 10) years. This figure matches that announced in Dan. 9:24–26 as the amount of time determined for bringing Israel’s sin to completion.14

2:8. Sons of [Light A common designation for Qumran community members. See, for example, Rule of the Community (1QS 1:9; 3:13). See also the comments above on 11QMelch 2:4, Its interpretation] for the final days, and on 2:5, the inheritance of Melchizedek.

the lot of Mel[chi]zedek The human and angelic followers of Melchizedek. In Qumran theology, the cosmos is divided into two predestined groups (including both humans and supernatural beings) representing the spirits of good and evil (see especially 1QS 3:17–4:26). The former be long to God while the latter belong to Belial. Melchizedek’s possession of the lot of good here underscores his divine status, and puts him on par with other exalted angelic figures mentioned in sectarian literature, such as the “Great Hand of God” (4Q177 4:14), the “Prince of Light” (1QS 3:20), the “angel of His truth” (1QS 3:24), and Michael (1QM 17:6–8).

2:9. the year of grace of Melchizedek Citing Isa. 61:2, but with the very striking substitution of Melchizedek for the name of the LORD.

the nati]on [of ] the holy ones of God This may refer to angelic beings, humans, or both.15 In War Scroll, angels and humans fight together against the demonic powers in the eschatological struggle.

2:10. songs of David According to Psalms Scrolla found at Qumran (11Q5 25:10), David wrote a total of 4050 poetic compositions, including psalms (tehillim) and songs (shirim). Although songs are referred to here, the following citations derive from the canonical Psalms 82 and 7.

Elohim . . . shall judge Quoting Ps. 82:1, where God (= Elohim) pronounces judgment in the divine assembly. This image of God is likely transferred here to Melchizedek, who is to act as eschatological judge. See also the comment on 11QMelch 2:9.

An AI-generated image of Elohim judging among the gods as depicted in Psalm 82.
An artificially-generated image of Elohim pronouncing judgment in the divine assembly. Joseph L. Angel explained that “Elohim” refers here to Melchizedek in 11QMelch of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

2:10–11. And] above . . . God shall judge the nations Citing Ps. 7:8–9, which refers to God’s judgment of the nations. Again, “God” is to be understood as referring to Melchizedek. See also the previous comment.

2:11. God See comment to line 4.

[“How long will you] . . . [Se]lah” A reference to Ps. 82:2, which accuses the divine council of perverting justice.16

2:12. it concerns Belial and the spirits of his lot Belial and his minions are identified with the divine beings of Ps. 82:2, who allow wickedness to flourish.

tur[ning] away from God’s commandments Evil is viewed in terms of disobedience to divine law.

2:13. carry out the vengeance of Go[d]’s judgments An allusion to Isa. 61:2, according to which Melchizedek is pictured as an agent of divine vengeance. Cf. the role of Michael in War Scroll (1QM 17:5–8).17

2:14. all the gods . . . are in his assistance That is, the angelic beings of the lot of Melchizedek help their leader subdue Belial and his lot.18

2:15. the day of the [peace Reconstruction based on Isa. 52:7, which is quoted at the end of this line and into the following one. That verse refers to the peace that will reign at the time of redemption.

How lovely on the mountains
the steps of the bearer of good tidings,
announcing peace, heralding good things,
announcing triumph,
saying to Zion: Your God reigns.

Robert Alter translation of Isaiah 52:7

2:15–16. [“How] beautiful . . . your God [is king”] Citing Isa. 52:7. In the present context, the “messenger” is likely to be understood as an eschatological prophet, and not Melchizedek.19

2:17. “the mountains” [are] the prophet[s] The interpretation does not seem to have the biblical prophets in view. Perhaps it speaks of multiple eschatological prophets.

2:18. “the messenger” i[s] the anointed of the spir[it] An allusion to Isa. 61:1. The Damascus Document refers to the prophets as those “anointed in his holy spirit” (CD 2:12). The present figure is to be identified as a prophet distinguished from those mentioned in the previous line. He is the chief eschatological prophet, perhaps engaged in the work of publicizing the coming reign of Melchizedek.20 Cf. Luke 4:16–21, where Jesus reads Isa. 61:1–2 in the synagogue at Nazareth, and afterward declares that “today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

as Dan[iel] said [ . . . The earliest known citation of the book of Daniel. Daniel 9:25 has been restored here due to its appropriate content and length.

2:20. To comfo[rt] the [afflicted An allusion to Isa. 61:2.

to [in]struct them in all the ages of the w[orld The prophet’s revelation of the periods of history and the coming redemption would serve as a comfort to the righteous that their suffering was part of the divine plan and almost finished.

2:22. has turned away from Belial The subject of this line is unclear. Since the verbs are feminine, it may be Zion, which is personified in Isa. 52:7.

2:23. about him Likely Melchizedek.

2:23–25. [“Zi]on” i[s] [the congregation . . . “your G[o]d” is [Melchizedek Further interpretation of Isa. 52:7. It appears that Zion is equated with the elect redeemed community, and Melchizedek with God.

2:24. who] establish the covenant A fundamental responsibility for the members of the Qumran community. See Rule of the Community (1QS 5:21–22; 8:10); cf. the Rule of the Blessings (1QSb 5:23).

who avoid . . . the people Cf. Isa. 8:11. Similar phrases are found in Florilegium (4Q174 1–3 i 14–18) and the Damascus Document (CD 8:16; 19:29).

2:25. And you shall blow the ho[rn Possibly an allusion to Lev. 25:9.


Column 3 (Fragments 2ii, 3ii)

3:1”[ ] [“2and know [ 3God [ 4and the multitude [ 5[ ] 6the law [u]pon them [ 7[they] shall devour Belial with fire [ 8with plots in their hearts [ 9the ramparts of Judah, and [ 10a wall, and to lift up a column and [ . . . 16two hundred [ 17the week [ 18[the di]visions

Commentary

3:7. with fire The judgment of the chief demon and his wicked followers by fire is a common image in pseudepigraphic literature.21

3:9. ramparts of Judah Cf. the phrase “gates of Judah” (sha‘arei yehudah) in the recently published text known as Gabriel’s Vision (A.27).

3:10. a wall . . . a column This line may refer to the structures of a new Jerusalem.


Excerpt from Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture edited by Louis H. Feldman, James L. Kugel, and Lawrence H. Schiffman by permission of The Jewish Publication Society. © 2013 by The Jewish Publication Society. For more information, visit jps.org.


About the author

Joseph L. Angel is an Associate Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University. He holds a PhD in Hebrew and Judaic Studies from New York University, and studied under the co-editor of Outside the Bible, Lawrence H. Schiffman. He is the author of two books related to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and over a dozen articles about topics like Jewish Law in Josephus’s writings, a newly-discovered interpretation of Isaiah 40:12–13 in the Songs of the Sage, and Enoch and Jesus in priestly tradition.


Further reading

Melchizedek and the Dead Sea Scrolls resources

Notes

1. For other examples of pesher, see Pesher Habakkuk and Pesher Nahum, also in these volumes.

2. Lev. 25; Deut. 15; Isa. 52:7, 61:1–3, Ps. 7:8–9, 82:1–2; and probably Dan. 9:25.

3. According to this text, two opposing supernatural figures quarrel for control over a dying individual (1 10–15; 2; 3; cf. Jude 9). One of them, Melchiresha, is said to “rule over all darkness” (2 3–5), while the oth er, whose name is lost, “rules over all that is bright” (2 6) and perhaps also “[over all the Sons of Li]ght” (3 1). Given the intensely dualistic tone of the document and the fact that Melchiresha (“king of wicked ness”) is a grammatically perfect counterpart for Melchizedek (“king or righteousness”), it is likely that Melchizedek originally appeared as one of the names for the righteous angel. See further, P. Kobelski, Melchizedek and Melchireša’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 10 (Washington D.C.: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1981), 55.

4. For this suggestion, see J. Davila, “Melchizedek, Michael, and War in Heaven,” Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 35 (1996): 259–72.

5. Cf. Luke 20:41–44, where the messiah is identified with the figure referred to in Ps. 110:1 who sits at the Lord’s right hand (and is, hence, also of the order of Melchizedek).

6. Translation is drawn from NRSV.

7. See, e.g., Pistis Sophia, the Books of Jeu, and the tractate Melchizedek from Nag Hammadi (NHC 9, 1).

8. Yalkut Hadash f. 115, col. 3, no. 19: “Michael is called Melchizedek . . . the priest of El Elyon who is the priest on high” (cited in W. Lueken, Der Erzengel Michael in der Überlieferung des Judentums [Göttingen: E.A. Huth, 1898], 31). See also Zohar Hadash f. 22, 4; 41, 3.

9. Cf. the Septuagint (LXX) at each of these chapters, where the Hebrew words shemitah and yovel are rendered by the same Greek word (aphesis).

10. See, e.g., 4QpIsab (4Q162 1 ii 1); 4QpIsac (4Q163 23 10); Pesher Habakkuk (1QpHab 7:5–14).

11. See lines 4, 6, 9, 13, 14, 19, 20.

12. See, e.g., Deut. 32:9; 1 Sam. 10:1; Isa. 19:25; Ps. 78:71. J. Fitzmyer (“Further Light on Melchizedek from Qumran Cave 11,” in Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament [London: G. Chapman, 1971], 257–58) suggests that the reference is to the priestly inheritance of the Levites referred to in Josh. 18:7, “the priesthood of the LORD is their portion” (cf. Deut 10:9; 18:2).

13. See also 1 En. 93, 91:11–19; T. Levi 16:1–18:4; 4Q181 2 3; 4Q390 2 i 4.

14. However, the figure is calculated in a different way. Daniel interprets Jeremiah’s prophecy about 70 years ( Jer. 25:11–12; 29:10) as referring to 70 weeks of years = 70 x 7 = 490 years. For further references to 70 weeks or periods of history, see 1 En. 10:11–12, 89:59; 4Q181 2 3; T. Levi 16:1.

15. For the term “nation” applied to angels, see War Scroll (1QM 12:8). See further J.J. Collins, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 313–17.

16. According to the medieval Jewish commentators Rashi and Radak, Ps. 82:2 accuses human judges, not di vine beings, of perverting justice. This interpretation is based on an understanding of the phrase be-qerev Elohim in Ps 82:1 as meaning, “among the judges.” The understanding of the word Elohim as referring to “judges” is possible in other biblical passages as well (see, e.g., Exod. 21:6 and 22:8).

17. See also 1 En. 10:11–16; As. Mos. 10:1–3; Rev. 12:7–9. Cf. 3 Bar. 11:4.

18. Cf. the “help” offered by the divine beings to the Sons of Light in battling the forces of Belial in War Scroll (1QM 12:7; 13:10; 17:6) and Catenaa (4Q177 12–13 i 7).

19. This interpretation is supported by the messenger’s statement, “Your God is king,” which clearly distinguishes him from God. As we have seen, Melchizedek is identified with God in 11QMelch 2:9–10.

20. Cf. 1QS 9:11; Testimonia (4Q175 5–8). See also the eschatological mission assigned to Elijah in Mal. 3:23– 24, as well as the fulfillment of the role of messianic herald by John the Baptist as Elijah redivivus in the New Testament (Matt. 11:7–15; 17:10–13; Mark 6:14–16). Cf. the Rabbinic notion that the prophet Elijah will return in the end-time in order to decide difficult legal cases (B. Ber. 35b; B. Shab. 108a).

21. See 1 En. 10:4–6,13; T. Jud. 25:3; T. Zeb. 10:3; 2 Bar. 44:15; 48:43; Pss. Sol. 15:4.

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