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13th November, 2006

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The myth of the Melchizedek order of priests

This blogspot has spoken of the responsibility that lies with “someone” to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem so that God may taken pleasure in it and be glorified by it (Haggai 1:8). “But”, many will say, “how can you talk about building a temple? The book of Hebrews shows that Jesus instituted a new order of priests that has superseded the Levitical system. If the Levitical system of priests has been replaced by the Christian priesthood, you cannot have a physical temple”. The “Christian priesthood” that has supposedly superseded the Levitical is represented in Catholic thinking by ordained priests, while Protestants view the supposed new priesthood as being stocked by Christians at large — “the royal priesthood of all believers”.

This view is so deeply-ingrained it seems almost presumptuous to seek to undo it. However, truth is truth. An open-minded study of the verses in question will show that the popular concept has no foundation.

Six times the epistle to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus Christ as “… a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek ” (5:6), or similar (see also 5:10, 6:20, 7:11; 17; 21). Armed with this translation we could be forgiven for interpreting the passages as suggesting that Jesus Christ has inaugurated a new order of “priests” over which He presides as High Priest. The plain truth, however, is that the text says no such thing. The Greek word translated “order”, taxis , simply does not mean an “order” of priests or monks. The word is used only three places outside Hebrews (Lk. 1:8, 1 Co. 14:40, Col. 2:5), in none of which does it refer to a religious “order” (its use in Luke 1:8 could give that impression, but read it carefully). In analyzing its usage in other intertestamental literature, Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich's lexicon says the word can mean 1. fixed succession or order, verbatim, 2. position, post, 3. good order, and 4. nature, quality, manner, condition, appearance. Nowhere is it used in reference to a religious or monastic order.

More significantly, the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek uses the word only six times — 1 Ki. 7:23, Ps. 110:4, Prov 31:25, Job 28:3, Job 36:28, 38:12 — in none of which is it in any way linked with the Levitical priesthood. Taxis has nothing whatever to do with a religious order!

So what is Hebrews all about? Well, the

passage from Hebrews quoted above is a direct quote from one of the six Old Testament passages just mentioned where the word taxis appears in the Greek Septuagint translation — Psalm 110:4. This psalm speaks of the promised Messiah: he will not be just a king (vss. 1-2) but also a priest. The point of this psalm is patently not to foretell the raising up of a new priestly order to overthrow the Levitical — please read it yourself. It merely prophesies that the Messiah Himself will be a priest in the same way that Melchizedek was a priest (Genesis 14:18-20). Melchizedek was not a Levite, yet he was a bona fide priest of God. The future Messiah would be a priest of the same “nature, manner, quality” as Melchizedek was. (The Hebrew word used in the original text, dibbrah, though rather obscure in its usage and appearing only six times in the entire Old Testament, certainly has nothing to do with religious orders either.)

Let's go back to the Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich lexicon's interpretation of taxis as it is used in the letter to the Hebrews. It says that the Author of Hebrews interprets Psalm 110, “to mean that Jesus was a high priest… according to the nature of = just like Melchizedek ”. Contrary to the opinion of some, the Epistle to the Hebrews says nothing whatever about an entire new order of priests. Please read 7:11, which speaks of the arising of “another priest”, not “a new order of priests”. The whole point of the book is that the Levitical priesthood was not given for the purpose of perfecting its practitioners, or “saving them to the uttermost” (7:25). Only the ever-living priest, Jesus Christ, can accomplish that. But the epistle to the Hebrews in no way suggests that the Levitical priesthood therefore has no valuable role to play. Rather, it assumes the ongoing validity of the Levitical priesthood in performing the limited functions assigned to it in the beginning. Hebrews 7:5 speaks in the present tense about the “sons of Levi” who “receive the priesthood” and therefore “have a commandment to receive tithes…”. Hebrews 8:4 even says that if Jesus were alive in the flesh, “He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law”. What could be plainer?

Of course, the New Testament speaks about a ministry within the church, but we should not view it as superseding the Levitical priesthood. The two have different purposes.

The topic covered in this blog is dealt with in more detail in the Dawn to Dusk book, "Hebrews: a Fresh Look at an Old Book". A chapter from this book on the role of Jesus Christ as our high priest is published on this site. Click here.


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