by Tim Barker
"...According to Jewish traditions, Melchizedek is Shem, the son of Noah, whom God consecrated to be a priest for ever, and who set up a kingdom on Salem."1 Included in his book on the Legends of Old Testament Characters, the Reverend Sabing Baring-Gould includes a quotation from the Targumim, stating, "Melchizedek, who was Shem, son of Noah, king of Jerusalem."2 Louis Ginzberg continues this tradition, in his Legends of the Bible (a condensed version of the 7-volume Legends of the Jews), stating that "when Abraham returned from the war, Shem, or, as he is sometimes called, Melchizedek, the king of righteousness, priest of God Most High, and king of Jerusalem, came forth to meet him with bread and wine."3 More recently, scholars Raphael Patai and Robert Graves note that, "others again say that Melchizedek (also known as Adoni-Zedek), was Abram's ancestor Shem, and that he now taught Abram the duties of priesthood..."4 Numerous other historical Jewish sources confirm this same teaching.
In 1842, Elder John Taylor, then editor of the Times and Seasons, published the following:
Other Latter-day Apostles have discussed this issue as well. Elder John A. Witdsoe stated:From this definite account of driving the "nations apart, when the ancient hills did bow," all reflecting minds may judge that man was scattered over the whole face of the earth. And with the superior knowledge of men like Noah, Shem (who was Melchizedek) and Abraham, the father of the faithful, three contemporaries, holding the keys of the highest order of the priesthood...5
Additionally, Elder Alvin R. Dyer stated:There is an old Hebrew tradition that Melchizedek was none other than Shem, the son of Noah. As far as the age of Shem is concerned, that is possible. Shem lived five hundred two years after the flood, and Abraham was born two hundred ninety-two years after the flood. Abraham, therefore, must have known Shem.6
Abraham, who was born of the chosen lineage of patriarchs, received the priesthood from Shem, or Melchizedek, who received it from Noah unto whom it had come through the lineage of the fathers from Enoch, unto whom it had come from Adam the first man through his son, Abel.7
More recently and readily available, is the CES Institute Manual on the first half of the Old Testament. This manual outlines, amongst other things, 7 points for consideration relating to the identity of Shem and Melchizedek and commonalities between the two. The comments on this issue are based on an Ensign article, by Alma E. Gygi, entitled, "Is it possible that Shem and Melchizedek are the same person?"8
- Shem's inheritance included the land of Salem, and Melchizedek was the king of Salem.
- Shem "reigned in righteousness" and Melchizedek's name means "king of righteousness."
- Shem was the great high priest of his day. Abraham honored the high priest Melchizedek by paying him tithes and seeking blessings at his hand.
- Abraham stands next to Shem in the patriarchal order of the priesthood and would likely have received the priesthood from him, but according to D&C 84:5-7, Abraham received the priesthood from Melchizedek.
- Jewish tradition identifies Shem as Melchizedek.
- President Joseph F. Smith's vision of the Redemption of the Dead (D&C 138), names Shem among the great patriarchs, but there is no mention of Melchizedek.
- Times and Seasons (official church periodical at this time), indicates that Shem was Melchizedek.9
On the contrary, some Latter-day Saints, including Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, believes that the two are definitely separate individuals:
There is an unsupported tradition to the effect that Melchizedek was the same person as Shem the son of Noah. That this could hardly have been the case is seen from the revelation which says: "Abraham received the priesthood from Melchizedek, who received it through the lineage of his fathers, even till Noah." (D. & C. 84:14.) In other words, there seem to have been at least two generations between Melchizedek and Shem.10
Also for consideration, E. Douglas Clark commented on the matter in his book, The Blessings of Abraham: Becoming a Zion People:
Genesis 11:10-11 tells Shem's life span in the same manner as it tells the life spans of the subsequent patriarchs, implying that Shem died (a passage left unchanged in the Joseph Smith Translation), while the JST Genesis 14 tells that Melchizedek was translated. Second, a latter-day revelation in Doctrine and Covenants 84:14 states that "Abraham received the [Melchizedek] Priesthood from Melchizedek, who received it through the lineage of his fathers, even till Noah, and from Noah till Enoch," which seems to require at least two generations between Melchizedek and Noah. And third, in Joseph F. Smith's vision of the redemption of the dead, he saw among the host of righteous post-mortal spirits Shem (D&C 138:41), who would not have been there had he been translated. The revelation does not mention seeing Elijah or Enoch or Moses, who, like Melchizedek, had been translated.11
It is clear that with the diversity of opinion on the matter, that no definitive revelation has yet been received. As such, the scriptures are sought for further understanding, and where helpful, supplemental sources provide unique insights.
The Catholic Encyclopedia seems to indicate that the connection was developed by the Rabbi's to suit their own purposes:
The Rabbins [Rabbi's] identified Melchisedech with Sem, son of Noe, rather for polemic than historic reasons, since they wished to set themselves against what is said of him as a type of Christ "without father, without mother, without genealogy" (He., vii, 3).
In the Epistle to the Hebrews the typical character of Melchisedech and its Messianic import are fully explained. Christ is "a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech" (Heb,. vii, 6; Ps., cix, 4); "a high priest forever", etc. (Heb., vi, 20), ...i.e. order or manner (Gesenius), not after the manner of Aaron. The Apostle develops his teaching in Heb., vii: Melchisedech was a type by reason (a) of his twofold dignity as priest and king, (b) by reason of his name, "king of justice", (c) by reason of the city over which he ruled, "King of Salem, that is, king of peace" (v.2), and also (d) because he "without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but likened unto the Son of God, continueth a priest forever" (v.3). The silence of Scripture about the facts of Melchisedech's birth and death was a part of the divine plan to make him prefigure more strikingly the mysteries of Christ's generation, the eternity of His priesthood."12
Interestingly, an early Jewish source, Flavius Josephus is completely silent regarding any connection between Shem and Melchizedek.
James L. Kugel indicates that "some scholars have suggested that this was first done in the context of later Jewish-Christian polemics: if Melchizedek was actually Shem, then he was the ancestor of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the idea of a priesthood extending back through him was less disturbing to Jews than the notion of a "priest of God Most High" who lacked any connection to the Jewish people or the later levitical priesthood." He goes on to say that:
It seems likely, however, that Melchizedek's identification with Shem actually came about before any Christian arguments existed (and certainly before the time when Christian arguments seemed to Jews to require refutation). After all, who was Melchizedek to early interpreters? Why was the genealogy of such an important person--the "priest of God Most High," no less--not mentioned? Identifying him as Shem, whose genealogy was known, provided an answer, and an easily accepted one.13
It is interesting to note that Kugel alludes to the idea that Melchizedek, "could be understood as an honorific title given to Shem..."14
Whatever the connection is, it remains a mystery. As stated by Alma Gygi, "all of this provokes some questions and calls for answers. Were there two high priests presiding at the same time? Why is the record silent concerning Shem's ministry? Why is nothing known concerning Melchizedek's ancestry? Because of this state of knowledge on our part, many Saints and gospel scholars have wondered if these men were the same person. The truth is, we do not know the answer."15 When the answer comes, it should satisfy the arguments on either side of the matter.
1 Rev. S. Baring-Gould, Legends of Old Testament Characters, From the Talmud and Other Sources (New York: MacMillan and Co., 1871), 2:1; see also Rev. S. Baring-Gould, Legends of the Patriarchs and Prophets, and Other Old Testament Characters From Various Sources (New York: James B. Millar & Co., 1884), 140-141
2 Baring-Gould, Legends of Old Testament Characters, 2:1
3 Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1956), 106
4 Robert Graves and Raphael Patai, Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), 147
5 John Taylor, "Ancient Ruins," Times and Seasons 5/23 (Dec 15, 1844):746
6 John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, 3 Vols., ed. G. Homer Durham (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960), 232
7 Alvin R. Dyer, Who Am I? (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1968), 400; also see Alvin R. Dyer, The Lord Speaketh (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1964), 284-291
8 Alma E. Gygi, "Is it possible that Shem and Melchizedek are the same person?," Ensign (November 1973), 15-16
9 Old Testament Student Manual: Genesis-2 Samuel (Religion 301), Church Educational System (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), 67-68
10 Bruce R. McConkie Mormon Doctrine, 2nd Ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 475
11 E. Douglas Clark, The Blessings of Abraham: Becoming A Zion People (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2005), 267 fn 36
12 John J. Tierney, "Melchisedech" The Catholic Encyclopedia, 15 Vols., eds. Charles G. Herbermann, et al (New York: The Encyclopedia Press, 1913), 10:157
13 James L. Kugel, Tradtions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible as it was at the Start of the Common Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 289-290
14 Ibid, 290
15 Old Testament Student Manual: Genesis-2 Samuel, 68