Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews sees Melchizedek as an archetype of a priest. This one of the most mysterious characters in the Bible is made here even more mysterious. There are a few features which author accentuates: Melchizedek does not have lineage – he is beyond time, he is beyond nationalities and his name is symbolic. That makes him nothing less than a Platonic idea!
I. Short introduction
- Two major philosophical systems that impacted the Epistle to the Hebrews
Most Hebrews in the first century are believed to have been familiar with Hellenistic culture, language and motives. In fact, reading in Hebrew receded in favor of Greek. The Jewish Bible was read in the LXX version and it was not extraordinary to know Greek philosophy. Platonism was the philosophy which had the biggest impact on its surroundings and the Hebrews were no exception to this. It has a specific epistemology, cosmology, idea of god and hierarchy of values. Its allegory of cave and shadows, everlasting being of ideas, constant and unchanging god and depreciation of flesh was and still is well known. Resemblances between Platonism and the Epistle to the Hebrews are striking especially when it comes to the concept of foreshadows and language. The author seems to presents Plato’s philosophy and we are forced to think so because of further linguistic similarities. Connecting the Epistle to the Hebrews in this way has a long tradition that goes back as far as Eusebius though it has almost disappeared. I will demonstrate that Plato’s system excludes biblical concepts and that when the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews seems to be smuggling in Plato’s philosophy he only uses his language (for specific reason) but remains faithful to the core of Bible’s thought in general.
Some further observations and similarities with Gnosticism can be pointed out. It was a religious stream of significant size. It derives from biblical cosmology, angelology and view on the cosmos’ construction as its core. Nevertheless, its popularity was a threat to infant Christianity because it distorted Christian views. Its members were keeping infiltrating the early Church, proof of which can be found in Galatians 1: 6-9. After a close examination it turns out that themes common to Gnosticism presented in the Epistle are carrying non-gnostic content.
- Two lesser factors
Due to Qumran’s popularity it seems like an obligation to examine if this source made any impression on the author of the Epistle. Both transmit the idea of changing the status quo in a particular technique. The incentive which keeps the flame of interest burning, the Messiah, the Teacher of Righteousness seems to fit the same category as the mythical Melchizedek.
b) Stephen’s tradition
The Epistle to the Hebrews can also be compared with Acts chapter 7, as pointed out by William Manson in 1951. Stephen’s speech and the Epistle to Hebrews bear marks of the same tradition regarding Israel. Both also see angels as mediators of the Law and the Temple as not able to confine God’s presence. Indirect dependence on Acts 7 does not show us how the author reacted to the wider non-christian environment but places him in proper tradition.
- Important questions to be asked
a) should readers of the Epistle to the Hebrews have been aware of Platonic language in order to understand the Epistle?
b) should readers of the Epistle to the Hebrews have been aware of Platonic/Gnostic concepts in order to understand the Epistle?
c) were readers aware that the author used only Platonic language but not its philosophy?
d) did the author’s construct do any harm to the Christian concepts or were they left pure?
- Hebrews and Plato
2. Striking similarities
a) discourses of foreshadows (as seen in the example of Heavenly Sanctuary)
In the process of platonizing the Epistle to the Hebrews a greek wordὑπόδειγμα played a major role. As L. D. Hurst proves ὑπόδειγμα should not been rendered as ‘a copy’. Instead we should read ‘a pattern’, something to be copied, not the copy itself. Its opposite translation – according to Hurst (as far as I understand him) comes from traditional platonizing the Epistle and from a willingness to see in 8:5 a platonic concept. An errant impression that our author uses Platonic concept is further fortified by linking ὑπόδειγμα with σκιά from the same verse. From some reason scholars tend to think that σκιά from 8:5 and 10:1 have different meanings. While in 10:1 it is out of a discussion that ‘shadow’ bears the apocalyptic sense the same word from 8:5 has a Platonic nuance.
T. F. Torrance makes a very interesting observation while comparing the Epistle to the Hebrews with the Septuagint from which the author cites. The Hebrew word for pattern is תבנית, which is later rendered by Septuagint with the word εἶδος which was common to Plato. Whereas author, using the Septuagint, corrects εἶδος to ὑπόδειγμα (taken from Ez 42: 15), something that is remarkable. The correction seems to be highly conscious and intentional so there can be no doubt what ὑπόδειγμα means – definitely not εἶδος. It was to not to confuse Platonic terms with author’s concepts. Williamson points that the striking resemblance is merely verbal.
Dąbrowski observes that the resemblance to Plato is only indirect and is caused by thought formation parallel to Philo’s. Both of them quote and argue in a comparable manner. For example, they derive clues from suppressions and the etymologies of names.
One last thing – if author really applied Platonic language to his Epistle, did he also apply Platonic philosophy itself? Do we really feel, reading this Epistle, that author wishes us to think of Platonic eikons and that none of what we see really exists? That would be really surprising given the whole realistic language used and the lack of any single notion that this world is only a shadow. We should not be so quick to see Plato in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
According to Plato the shock caused by the incarnation in the body erased all knowledge that soul had before. One is free as soon as he manages to recollect everything from before his or her incarnation. Lack of knowledge is caused by decline. The way to fix this is to summon everything up. The Epistle to the Hebrews however stands on the position that knowledge comes from revelation, obeying the Word of God and walking in the Spirit (6:4, 10:26). Salvation in Platonism is when a soul finally recollects everything and goes back to the ideal world. Knowledge of truth is the key and the goal at the same time. In the Epistle to the Hebrews knowledge is given by grace and its role ends with making one aware of sin. Salvation is only the work of Jesus Christ. Epistemological blindness is a cause of sin in the Epistle (10:26)
c) negative views on matter
In Plato’s system matter is just a poor reflection of perfect ideals and therefore subordinary to them. Consequently, everything that binds the soul in the physical world is regarded as negative in nature. Some chapters of the Epistle to the Hebrews seem to echo that understanding. For example, Heb. 9 is written in a peculiar manner that makes one think that there is a border that divides things into two categories of substitutes and completeness. This border is thought to be of time (9:10) and of death (9:17). So far it fits well with the Platonic model, where the soul is freed from bondage of the body at the moment of death. But the similarities end here as we notice that the whole chapter is built on the motif of Christ’s sacrifice as the high priest (9:11). We also should not miss the author’s conviction that this order is meant to be sustained until the new order. He does not regard it as negative. Does not he admit that sacrifices truly cleanse and sanctify (9:13)? The most Platonic verse (9:23) does not seem to be Platonic at all if we look closer. The author affirms that this order is suitable for the time being. Moreover, if this verse would be read by a Platonic believer he would be completely shocked to know that the heavenly things need cleansing! But a reader familiar with the Jewish scriptures would take it as granted because he already knows that “the heavens are not pure in His eyes” (Job 15:15).
3. Significant differences
a) linear perspective of Hebrews and parallel universes of Plato
For Plato our world is just a shadow, a poor reflection of the ideal world – the pattern. In his model, history does not play any role, the world is constantly going in cycles; everything is starting all over again. It can be described as two parallel worlds – the first ideal, the second a poor reflection, both existing in the same time.
Our author assumes two worlds: one that is present at the moment, with its history and the second which remains unknown but is to come. The following verses testify that author proceeded with the linear perspective: 1:2 ‘in these last days’, 2:5 ‘the world to come’, 9:26 ‘at the end of the age’. The interest in the eschatological future corresponds with the eschatological belief of the primitive church; both are important determinants of the whole Epistle.
b) the ontological status of Plato’s ideal world and the concept used by the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews
“The world of ideas” in Plato’s thought is marked with terms like uncreated, perfect, constant and ideal. The only things that exist for real are ideas that no one has ever seen. In contrast the world of living in a cave, the human body, is not real, is not perfect, and is full of the reflection of the ideas from above. Those reflections are not constant, they may vanish and nothing will be left of them, while the idea will remain the same. Ideas or forms exist above their reflections, illusions and are superior. Ideas were not created by anyone, they simply are. The Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews clearly speaks of shadows and reflections but considered the world he was living in as real and most importantly, created by God (1:2). The Platonic world of reflections does not need to be sustained, it is a mere mirror image caused by the shining of the light from above. Our author declares in faith that the mechanisms in his world are being constantly maintained by the Son of God. The lack of linear perspective and two parallel worlds in Plato’s thought enables him to speak of metempsychosis which is nothing less than reincarnation. Humans then continue to be reborn until the final and full recollection of all the information that has been lost by them. It does not sound like precise polemic thought when the author writes: “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (9:27)? No ambiguity appears in 10:26 where we read about “receiving the knowledge of the truth” for the author refers here to knowledge of the Law and awareness of sin (10:28), not to lost knowledge from before out incarnation.
c) the typological treatment of the past by the author of Hebrews and no interest in the past in Plato’s thought
Linear perspective involves serious treatment of past things. Although they have passed, they still bear meaning. The author constantly refers to the history of Israel as to something which has put a birth-mark upon Israel. In contrast to our author, Plato did not make any use of the past. His system was founded on speculations which mean that he did not seek validation of it in the past nor did he wait for some culminating moment in the future. The fact that the author is interested in the past allows him to treat specific past events and persons as archetypes. That means something or someone from the past is regarded as a model but not in the general sense. For example Exodus, which was a real event, is now considered as a model of breaking free from the bondage of sin. The Israelites’ Exodus was a precedence and it is not similar to Platonic ideas. Ideas last forever, have no beginning and the relation between them and reflections is different than precedence to its following events.
d) archetypes and ideas
Here I have ambivalent impressions, like I noted above Plato did not have any particular interest in the past, as opposed to our author who looks back in past in search of archetypes. He sees Melchizedek as an archetype of a priest. This one of the most mysterious characters in the Bible is made here even more mysterious. There are a few features which author accentuates: Melchizedek does not have lineage – he is beyond time, he is beyond nationalities and his name is symbolic. That makes him nothing less than a Platonic idea – that is what Philo writes (Philo, Legum Allegoriae). We have here sample of rabbinic (and Philo’s) exegesis, where the lack of information is being seen as an occasion to extract conclusions. But it does not look like an abuse when we remember that Genesis with delight provides us with detailed genealogies and the fact that Melchizedek was not provided one must mean something. However we must not be so quick to follow Philo in seeing Melchizedek as an allegory, idea, because the author considers him as real person located in real events in time. He sees him not as an allegory but as an archetype, which corresponds with the broader scheme in his Epistle.
e) The references of the author of the Epistle to Hebrews to revelation and Plato’s relying on his speculations
Another strong argument supporting the thesis that the Epistle to the Hebrews is Platonic in its character comes from the method of drawing near to the absolute truth. Both our author and Plato speak of truth. Plato’s desire is to recollect all lost data about the ideal world while the author treats truth only as an indirect method of understanding that one is under sin and needs a saviour. Anamnesis is founded purely on speculation; Plato did not even need to leave his desk to recap everything, to be pungent. He could simply sit and think. The only reason he got up from his desk and went to talk with others was that he was like the Buddhist bodhisattva.
Our author refers to revelation numerous times, each time connecting it to God. The first two verses settle the matter of the source of his thoughts. “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). Several times he mentions certain texts from the OT when he wishes to validate his message (1:5-14, 2:5-18, 3:12-19, etc.). Penetrating the Epistle for examples of Platonic speculations would end fruitless.
- Hebrews and Gnosticism
a) a motif of wandering
Käsemann turned attention to the motif of pilgrimage in the Epistle. In his opinion verses 3:7 to 4:13 contribute the most to the idea of wandering through that world. But as others have noticed, Israel’s pilgrimage leads out of apostasy and sin, not from this particular world. Grässer in turn also detected the gnostic motif of soul migration, ascending to heaven, in 10:19-26. It seems an exaggerated when he writes that in 10:20 Jesus’ earthly body is regarded as evil, as a blockade, which when destroyed, enabled him to enter heaven. Nevertheless, the author encourages his readers to enjoy the future benefits of entering the heavenly Sanctuary now. The Gnostic soul migration motif seems to be visible only if we completely fail to notice the main concern of the Epistle.
b) Gnostic contrasts between earthly and heavenly things, dualisms
One of the distinctive features of Gnosticism is its ubiquitous dualism. Despite the fact that we can find some gnostic-like dualisms in the Epistle to the Hebrews, after closer examination evidence appears to counter with the thesis that it bears dualism itself. One of the main Gnostic dualisms is the juxtaposition of flesh and soul. The Epistle to the Hebrews devotes some attention to σάρξ and one can be easily convinced that the author borrows the Gnostic motif. For example, in Heb. 5:7 we are presented with the term ‘the days of his flash’ which sounds like a Gnostic note. However it can basically mean ‘while he was alive on the Earth’ so it can not be regarded as a substance opposite to soul. σάρξ in Heb. 9:10 appears in a negative context but it does not lead us to think that flesh is evil in its essence, rather it is dirty and needs cleansing from sin – this is confirmed by Heb. 9:13.
In Heb.10:20 Jesus’ body is deemed by Grässer as evil because it hindered the way to the Sanctuary. Only the biggest curtain of blindness could make him not see the evident sense of this verse. Jesus’ body has been killed on the Cross and in that way our guilt has vanished from God’s eyes, this opened to us a way to enter the Sanctuary. The surrounding context verifies this interpretation. Firstly, in Heb. 10:19-20 we are told about the blood and body of Christ – symbols of sacrifice. Secondly, Heb. 10:14 states that Jesus “by one sacrifice has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” – which means nothing less than His sacrifice (of His body, blood, and flesh) made us holy and therefore enabled us to enter the Sanctuary (The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this Heb. 10:15). Thirdly, if we are given this information and “if we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left” (Heb. 10:26). There is no assertion in the Epistle that σάρξ is evil.
Angels are given special interest and dignity in Gnosticism. In the Epistle to the Hebrews only one notion suggests that the world is ruled by some hostile powers such as demons and satan (Heb. 2:14). Instead we have the clear suggestions that angelic beings are servants of people, not Gnostic emanations.
Gnosticism assumes that there are two gods, one demiurge – the god of OT, and a good god – the god of NT. The first of them is evil and created the world. The second one is good but he does not do much in our world. This nuance of two hostile gods seems to be derived from oriental mythology and the yin yang concept, but has no links to our Epistle. We hardly can find some suggestions that our world is evil or that it has been created by a demiurge. Our author evidently believes that Jesus did this (Heb. 1:2).
6. The Last speech of Stephen and the Epistle to the Hebrews
Stephen’s speech from Acts 7 seems to reflect the same tradition that put its mark on the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Any direct influences had already been criticized and excluded and the thesis of participating in the same tradition remains. Nevertheless, it is interesting to observe how the same tradition is faithfully rendered in those two sources. William Manson in 1951 proposed some links between Acts 7 and our Epistle. For example both see the past of Israel as the source of its disobedience to God (Act. 7:39; Heb. 4:11). Both see earthly the sanctuary as temporary (Acts 7:44-50; Heb. 9:11-14), made using the divine pattern (Acts 7:44; Heb 8:5) and reject the idea that God can reside in it. Others are listed by Pfitzner. It is very interesting to me that our author held the same tradition as the one who represents Hellenistic Jewish Christian, Stephen. To me, it reinforces the impression that author of the Epistle to the Hebrews came out of the Hellenistic milieu and sees world through Hellenistic lenses.
7. Qumran’s and Hebrews’ messianism
Some scholars used think that the Epistle may have been written to members of the Qumran sect, but this thesis was abonded because the author did not exhort to convert to Christianity, only to remain faithful (3:6, 5:12, 6:9-12). We can find one thread which is probably a polemic with the Qumran belief that angels can mediate salvation (War Rule 17:6). Jesus is presented in 1:4 as higher than the angels, and He sits on the right hand of the Majesty and therefore only He mediates salvation. But there is still one more feature of special interest.
Members of the Qumran sect were expecting the return of the Teacher of Righteousness and in one ancient Qumran text this messiah is identified with Melchizedek. That is 11QMelchizedek – it is a Qumran apocryphon. 11Q contains Is 61:1 which Luke applies to Jesus – here it is Melchizedek who speaks those words. Only in this writing is Melchizedek given so special dignity, in rest of the Qumran writings he is only mentioned. An interesting clue appears if we compare how Genesis and 11Q presents Melchizedek. In the former, he is ‘only’ the extraordinary king-priest of Salem whom Abraham was supposed to give tithe to. In the latter, Melchizedek is a superior celestial being with references to a Messiah-like figure. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews surely drew his notions by means of Jewish exegesis from Genesis, but how can we be sure that 11Q did not help him to do so? In fact, 11Q is closer to the author’s intention of presenting Melchizedek as a prefiguration of Jesus. But does it mean that we should read Heb. 7 in the light of 11Q as some would prefer? It does not seem to be probable when we have in mind chapters 1 and 2 in which the author argues against Gnostic beliefs (angels superior to men). If Melchizedek would be an angel then the argumentation in chapter 7 would make no sense. To confirm this Hurst list numerous differences between both Melchizedeks.
The author integrates concepts from the intellectual milieu in which his readers lived with the Christian message so that they could understand his message in context of their world thought. I think this assumption is correct because it was desirable to strenghen believers in the perspective of the massive attack of Platonic and Gnostic thought that had so much in common with Christian thought and seemed to support each other. The author helped them to defend Christian core by putting his own stresses upon untried thoughts. He showed how his readers’ minds might be permeated with alien terms and thoughts and remains loyal to the essential truths of the Torah. Despite using vocabulary that resembles Platonic and Gnostic systems and motives which revert to Plato our author remained an OT Jew. He succeeded in controling alien thoughts and preserved traditional Jewish faith.
1. Conford F. M., Plato’s Cosmology. The Timaeus Translated With a Running Commentary, (The Library of Liberal Arts, 1957).
2. Delcor M., Melchizedek from Genesis to the Qumran and the Epistle to the Hebrews, Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Roman and Hellenistic Period 2 (1971).
- Docherty S., The Text Form of OT Citations in Hebrews Chapter 1 and the Implications for the Study of Septuagint, New Test. Stud. 55, Cambridge University Press, UK (2009).
- Gleason R., Angels and Eschatology in Heb 1-2, New Test. Stud. 49, Cambridge University Press, UK (2003).
- Hengel M., Judaism and Hellenism, (London: XPRESS REPRINTS, 1996).
- Hurst L. D., Epistle to the Hebrews: Its background of thought, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
- Hurst L. D., How ‘Platonic’ are Heb. viii. 5 and ix. 23 f?, Journal of Theological Studies 34 (1983), p. 160.
- Holmes S. R., Winner Takes Nothing. The Christian Doctrine of Soteriology, in: The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Christian Theology, Richard Bauckham, (ed.), (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2009).
- Horton F. L., The Melchizedek Tradition. A Critical Examination of Sources to the Fifth Century A.D. and the Epistle to the Hebrews, (Cambridge 1976).
- List do Hebrajczyków. Wstęp. Przekład z Oryginału. Ekskursy, Eugeniusz Dąbrowski (ed.), (Warszawa: Pallatinum 1959).
- Lunemann G., The Epistle to the Hebrews, trans. from the 4th German edition by M. Evans. By: David L. Allen, The New American Commentary: Hebrews, (B & H Publishing Group, 2010).
- Pfitzner V., Hebrews, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997).
- Rowland Ch., Christian Origins, The Setting Character of the Most Important Messianic Sect of Judaism, (Wiltshire: The Cromwell Press, 2002).
- Ken Schenck, God Has Spoken. Hebrews’ Theology of the Scriptures.
- Smillie G., Contrast or Continuity in Heb 1.1-2?, New Test. Stud. 51, Cambridge University Press, UK (2005).
- Szymanek E., Wykład Pisma Świętego, (Warszawa: Pallatinum 1977).
- The New Testament Background, C.K. Barret (ed.), (Trowbridge: Redwood Books, 1996).
- The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology, R. Bauckham (ed.), (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2009).
- Torrance T. F., Royal Priesthood, (London, 1955).
- Williamson R., Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews, ALGHJ 4; Leiden: Brill, (1970).
 L. D. Hurst, How ‘Platonic’ are Heb. viii. 5 and ix. 23 f?, Journal of Theological Studies 34 (1983), p. 160.
 Ronald Williamson, Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews, (ALGHJ 4; Leiden: Brill, 1970), p. 576.
 Victor C. Pfitzner, Hebrews, (Abingdon Press: Nashville 1997), p. 36.
 Hurst, How ‘Platonic’ are Heb. viii. 5 and ix. 23 f?, p. 156.
 Hurst, How ‘Platonic’ are Heb. viii. 5 and ix. 23 f?, p. 159.
 Hurst, How ‘Platonic’ are Heb. viii. 5 and ix. 23 f?, p. 163.
καὶσυνετελέσθηἡδιαμέτρησιςτοῦοἴκουἔσωθενκαὶἐξήγαγένμεκαθ᾽ὁδὸντῆςπύληςτῆςβλεπούσηςπρὸςἀνατολὰςκαὶδιεμέτρησεντὸὑπόδειγματοῦοἴκουκυκλόθενἐνδιατάξει (LXX) – a fragment about measuring the prospect (KJV) of heavenly sanctuary.
 T. F. Torrance, Royal Priesthood, (London, 1955), p 20.
 Ronald Williamson, Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews, (ALGHJ 4; Leiden: Brill, 1970), p. 143.
 List do Hebrajczyków. Wstęp – Przekład z Oryginału – Ekskursy, Eugeniusz Dąbrowski (ed.), (Warszawa: Pallatinum 1959), p. 27.
 Heb 7:1-3 and Philo, Leg. alleg. 3, 79.
 I avoid using the word past, as it preasumes thinking in the category of time.
 Stephen R. Holmes, Winner Takes Nothing. The Christian Doctrine of Soteriology, in: The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Christian Theology, Richard Bauckham, (ed.), (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2009), p. 232.
 Ronald Williamson, Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews, (ALGHJ 4; Leiden: Brill, 1970), p. 142.
 Francis M. Conford, Plato’s Cosmology. The Timaeus Translated With a Running Commentary, (The Library of Liberal Arts, 1957), p. 22.
 Edward Szymanek, Wykład Pisma Świętego, p. 433.
List do Hebrajczyków, p. 352.
 Was Paul a Boddhisatva too? „I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” Phl. 1:23.
 Ken Schenck, God Has Spoken. Hebrews Theology of the Scriptures, p. 321.
 Hurst, How ‘Platonic’ are Heb. viii. 5 and ix. 23 f?, p. 47.
 Hurst, How ‘Platonic’ are Heb. viii. 5 and ix. 23 f?, p. 46.
 Pfitzner V., Hebrews, p. 36.
 Hurst, How‘Platonic’ are Heb. viii. 5 and ix. 23 f?, p. 73.
 Victor Pfitzner, Hebrews, p. 36.
 Edward Szymanek, Wykład Pisma Świętego, p. 421.
 Author writes in Jewish fashion of replacing God’s name with a substitute.
 Edward Szymanek, Wykład Pisma Świętego, p. 427.
 M. Delcor, Melchizedek from Genesis to the Qumran and the Epistle to the Hebrews, Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Roman and Hellenistic Period 2 (1971), p. 124.
 Fred L. Horton, The Melchizedek Tradition. A Critical Examination of Sources to the Fifth Century A.D. and the Epistle to the Hebrews, (Cambridge 1976) , p. 80.
 Hurst, How ‘Platonic’ are Heb. viii. 5 and ix. 23 f?, p. 58.
 Hurst, How ‘Platonic’ are Heb. viii. 5 and ix. 23 f?, p. 58.
 Hurst, How ‘Platonic’ are Heb. viii. 5 and ix. 23 f?, p. 59.
 Hurst, How ‘Platonic’ are Heb. viii. 5 and ix. 23 f?, p. 59.