Melchizedek returns


John Hunwicke alerts us to an important trend in New Testament scholarship, which sets aside the Historical Jesus and instead presents us with an exposition of Jesus that shows his awareness of his divinity and priesthood


This is a good time to throw out a lot of old rubbish. For clergy (and anybody else who has studied New Testament in universities and colleges) you can fill your dustbins up with lecture notes. All that stuff you took down about Q and the Synoptic Problem. Remember Form Criticism? That, too, can go out for the Refuse Operatives. And, above all, the Historical Jesus; the HJ of so many learned scholars. You know it makes sense: you never liked it all anyway. You couldn't see (and none of your lecturers bothered to tell you) what this had to do with priestly ministry, and, still less, with preaching the Word.

You felt uncomfortable about it all, too. Should you explain to your congregations how Modern Scholarship demonstrates that we know pretty well nothing about what Jesus said or did? Or should you talk about 'what Jesus said', while knowing in your heart of hearts that it is all unhistorical? And, deepest down of all, you felt that the Jesus revealed by the scholars could not really be the Incarnate Word, the fully divine Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

Academic censorship

This was a sound gut feeling: many of those scholars were people who had lost their faith and whose scholarship, for all its erudition, was little other than the production of elaborate pretexts for not believing. You instinctively suspected that nearly everything you were taught not only bore no relationship to your priesthood but was in fact profoundly subversive of it.

How right you were. And you were not only right, you were ahead of the scholars! At long last, the facts are all spilling out. For years, an entrenched academic elite exercised a de facto censorship upon anything which strayed beyond narrow limits which they defined. Occasionally somebody came along whose academic standing was too distinguished for him to be kept out of print (Austin Farrer, Eric Mascall, John Robinson), but they dealt with this by sniffing disdainfully down their donnish noses and saying, Ah, yes, clever man, but not a New Testament expert.' Among the scholars who are now out in the open is Jacob Neus-ner, a Jewish scholar who has done some revealing work on Christian origins. You probably met him in the Pope's book on Jesus of Nazareth, in the chapter on the Sermon on the Mount. If you didn't, buy it and meet him now!


Barker's argument

But it is not the German Pope or the American Jew that I have in mind, but the English Methodist (can any good thing come out of Nazareth? yes!). Margaret Barker [Temple Themes in Christian Worship] argues that Melchizedek is crucial to the Lord's understanding of himself as Messiah. Melchizedek, you will remember, appears in Genesis 14.18-20 as the King of Salem who brought out bread and wine 'and he was priest of God Most High'. He blessed Abraham, and 'he gave him a tithe of everything.' The author of Hebrews takes up this last phrase, pointing out that since the lesser pays tithes to the greater, this clearly shows that Melchizedek was greater than Abraham (if you spot a bit of a problem in this exegesis, congratulations; and Dr Barker will help to solve it for you). And so Jesus is the priestly, messianic Melchizedek, and the roots of his sacrifice, the Eucharist, are to be found in the First Temple with its vegetarian sacrifices. And...

If you are lost by this point, don't despair; this is all a trifle intricate. But read Barker's book. I am not here concerned to give you a potted summary of everything Barker has said, so much as to tell you why all this is good news. It is so liberating because, unlike the manufacturers of all the old Historical Jesuses, Barker offers us a Jesus who does see himself as Messiah, does see himself as Priest. This is an exposition of Jesus which does not destroy our faith in the divine and anointed Lord who redeems us by his sacrifice and whose sacrifice we offer in our daily Mass; on the contrary, it supports just such a faith. And in doing so, it subverts those old Jesuses who had no idea that they were Messiah, Priest, or God. It destroys the liberal scarecrows which were designed to replace the figure of the divine Priest reigning from the Tree and adored upon our altars.


Hemming's criticisms

Another writer in whom I urge you to take an interest is a traditionalist Roman Catholic. Laurence Hemming [Worship as a Revelation] observed that he is unwilling nowadays to attend a Eucharist in which Melchizedek is not mentioned in the Eucharistic Prayer! This is a little extreme; after all, generations of popes have accepted the adequacy of Byzantine - and other oriental - Eucharistic Prayers, in which Melchizedek is not mentioned. But Hemming's exaggeration makes a real point which we forget at our peril.

The old Roman Eucharistic Prayer, the Canon Romanus, does mention Melchizedek, and Dom Gregory Dix reminded us that the Roman Liturgy is a 'rich tradition unbroken since the Apostles, and beyond - beyond even Calvary and Sion and the synagogues of Capernaum and Nazareth, back to the heights of Ararat - and beyond that again. '...Abel...Abraham...Melchizedech...' is the Church's quiet, insistent daily proclamation of this in the Canon.' Hemming reminds us that recent theology, such as that of the post-Vatican II guru Schille-beeckx, has no place for a Jesus who saw himself as offering his death for our sins.

I conclude by quoting the words in which another of our great Catholic Anglican theologians defended (in a late, unpublished book of the Eighties) the organization which Joseph Ratzinger headed before he became Pope: 'Many have shown little respect for authority or tradition of any kind. Sympathy has been widely expressed, in liberal academic circles, for Hans Kung and Eduard Schillebeckx in their difficulties with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but anyone who remembers the attitude and the methods of the Holy Office before its recent rebaptism may well be wondering at the patience it has shown in its dealings with these two provocative Teutons.'

Three cheers for Ratzinger, Neusner, Mascall, Dix, Hemming and Barker. |jyp|

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