A history of interpretation of Hebrews 7, 1–10 from the Reformation to the present

Written by Bruce A. Demarest Reviewed By Ralph P. Martin

The exegetical problems that are found in such a passage as Hebrews 7 are well known to all serious students of this enigmatic biblical text. To approach the task of exegesis today in such a passage as this, students may well feel that it would be helpful to have in summary form a history of the interpretation of such a difficult text before them, not least because then they would be in a position to learn from the false trails that have been followed by their predecessors. It is therefore a great service that Bruce Demarest has rendered in this revised edition of his doctoral dissertation to set before the present-day student a conspectus of interpretations of the passage as they have been offered in published form over the past 450 years.

The terminal points of his survey which has been restricted for publication to the first ten verses of the chapter are set by the work of Erasmus on the one hand, and on the other the most recent studies of the figure of Melchizedek that have emerged in the wake of discussion of this figure in the documents from cave 11 at Qumran. To have taken within his purview the great mass of material extending over these centuries is no mean achievement and I am bound to salute gratefully the immense amount of labour that has been put into a piece of Auslegungsgeschichte that is represented in this work.

The history of interpretation follows the conventional divisions in the history of the church, beginning with the age of the Reformation in its humanistic, Protestant, and Socinian phases. The seventeenth century embraces both Lutheran and Reformed interpretations, but there are welcome references to Roman Catholic, Arminian, and Puritan works. The eighteenth century produced something of a reaction in terms of the onset of rationalism that came to full flower in the nineteenth century. It is no disparagement of Dr Demarest’s survey of these centuries to observe that he really warms to his subject when at p. 95 he confronts the twentieth century in the light of the previous pages which introduce the work of critical commentaries. His sentence (p. 71) is worth quoting: ‘In short, the rejection of the subjectivity and frivolity of the former age in favour of the more certain ground of objective scientific exegesis yielded some of the most illuminating commentaries on Hebrews ever prepared.’ With this new start made, he turns our attention to the work of continental, British and American interpreters who have written commentaries on the Epistle and draws out their conclusions relative to chapter 7 and the figure of Melchizedek.

With the twentieth century we are invited to consider the new phase that began with the history-of-religions interpretation, and to show the independence of Dr Demarest’s study as well as its objectivity, the reader may be not all together prepared for a generous assessment of Religionsgeschichte when applied to this Epistle as he pays tribute to it as having ‘substantially enriched our understanding of motifs related to our Epistle’ (p. 95). However, when he comes to his final summary, that generous assessment of the history-of-religions approach is somewhat lessened, and we are informed that the examples of Melchizedek speculation that rests on mythological premises are not as soundly based as their proponents were confidently ready to claim. It is therefore somewhat surprising that he does not attack Religionsgeschichte more frontally, but is content simply to find support in an early dating of the letter to the Hebrews in the seventh decade and so to bring in the argument from chronology by insisting that the history-of-religions and gnostic parallels are too late to have influenced in any decisive way the writer’s presentation (p. 130). If this dating of Hebrews in the 60’s could be shown to be too early by twenty or thirty years or so—and this is by no means impossible—one is left to wonder whether after all the influence of gnostic teaching as suggested by scholars such as Käsemann and Bornkamm may not be arguable.

The treatment is prefaced by a useful setting forth of the main exegetical issues on pp. 7–9 and this will alert the reader as to what are the chief problems emerging from the text. In particular the question is how we are to understand the author’s representation of Melchizedek in terms of the alpha-privative triad, ‘without father, without mother, and without genealogy’ (v. 3). This verse seems to have held a strange fascination for exegetes in every age and it makes for interesting, if at times difficult, reading to learn of some of the flights of fancy and bizarre speculation that have been invoked by this single verse. At the end of his historical survey, Dr Demarest returns to consider some of the answers that he regards as least unsatisfactory and suggests in the closing section that the great exegetical conundrum of verse 3 is best solved (in so far as it can be solved) in terms of the author’s purpose to emphasize Melchizedek’s complete disassociation from the legal, priestly regime.

There is the suggestion made of a hypothetical hymnic fragment of which verse 3 is a part and this certainly would be an aid to exegesis if it had been exploited. Dr Demarest does not consider this in any detail, which is perhaps a pity. The conclusion is, therefore, that the use of the character of Melchizedek in a christological sense is well justified and chimes in with the author’s purpose to demonstrate the uniqueness of our Lord’s priesthood. But in the strictly dogmatic sense where verse 3 is held to foreshadow Christ in respect of his humanity and divinity, this, he concludes, is not within the intention of the author.

This book will take its place as containing information not easily obtained regarding commentators and commentaries over the past centuries. If we could have wished for more it would have been for greater interaction with the authors whom Dr Demarest at times simply catalogues in a reportorial form. He has restricted comment to a minimum and, while this admirably serves the purposes of objective reporting, it would have made for easier reading and more illuminating understanding if he had given us the benefit of his comments on the various interpretations and integrated them into his text. At one point (p. 43) he remarks, with a dictum of E. G. Robinson: ‘It is ordained of Almighty God that the man who dips into everything never gets to the bottom of anything.’ We might match this with another bon mot which says of certain scholars that they dive deeper and come up muddier. The history of interpretation of Hebrews 7 certainly has produced some very unattractive interpretations and to that extent this study serves a salutary purpose of warning us off the mistakes and aberrations of the past. But it equally recalls our indebtedness to the past when we realize how much scholarly enterprise has been put in to this section of the Scripture and challenges us to pursue the exegetical task with greater fervency and devotion in our day.


Ralph P. Martin

Department of Biblical Studies, The University of Sheffield