How We Know Shem Wasn’t Melchizedek, Part II, and What it Means for Christianity

Image result for scribes with biblical scrolls

By Scott S. Mitchell

In a previous essay, I laid out the evidence demonstrating why Shem and the ancient high priest Melchizedek couldn’t have been the same person, contrary to popular Mormon belief.  See Why Melchizedek wasn’t Shem, and Why it Does and Doesn’t Matter, elsewhere on this website.  By reading further information on this subject, which was brought to my attention by a reader of this website, I have found what I consider to be another forbiddingly strong argument that further solidifies the case against Shem and Melchizedek sharing the same identity.  At the end of this essay, I’ll explain why I think this new piece of evidence has important ramifications for our study and understanding of not only the Bible, but all other books that Mormons accept as scriptural.

The “new” (to me, at least) piece of evidence is that Shem had been dead for 570 years when Abraham was born, so he couldn’t have been present when Melchizedek later encountered Abraham as the latter returned from the slaughter of the kings.  Mormons don’t know this because they are unaware of strong evidence that the post-Flood chronology of the patriarchs, found in Genesis 11 in their Bible, is about 650 years in error and has been altered by Jewish writers.  (The reasons why Jewish writer might have been strongly motivated to alter the Genesis 11 chronology, and other parts of the Old Testament, will be discussed below.)

The Septuagint

As I will attempt to demonstrate, the correct chronology of the ancient patriarchs is not found in the King James Version (hereafter “KJV”) of the Bible.  (The Joseph Smith Translation, hereafter “JST,” doesn’t contain any correction of the Genesis verses discussed in this essay.)  The correct timeline is found in the Septuagint.  The Septuagint is a translation of the Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament into Greek, conducted by Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt in the early 3rd Century B.C.  The translation was done to allow Jews living outside of Israel who couldn’t read Hebrew to have their own scriptures in the language they spoke which then prevailed in the Mediterranean world–Greek.  The Septuagint scholars who translated the Pentateuch were not the same group as the other groups of scholars who translated the rest of the Septuagint’s Old Testament books, but the entire project was complete by the end of the 2nd Century B.C.  Virtually all scholars of ancient scripture have concluded that even as early as three centuries before Christ, there were already multiple versions of the Hebrew scriptures, though the differences between them were considered relatively few and minor.  Not surprisingly, the Septuagint quickly became much more prevalent and famous than the manuscripts in Aramaic or Hebrew read only in Israel.  As described in an online Encyclopedia Britannica article,

 The Septuagint became the instrument whereby the basic teachings of Judaism were mediated to the pagan world, and it became an indispensable factor in the spread of Christianity.

The adoption of the Septuagint as the Bible of the Christians naturally engendered suspicion on the part of Jews. In addition, the emergence of a single authoritative text type after the destruction of the Temple [and the multiple Old Testament texts it is supposed to have contained] made the great differences between it and the Septuagint increasingly intolerable, and the need was felt for a Greek translation based upon the current [2nd Century A.D.] Hebrew text in circulation.

An excellent Wikipedia article on why the Septuagint eventually lost its position of primacy in the western Christian world (from which I have omitted hyperlinks and footnotes), explains:

Pre-Christian Jews Philo and Josephus considered the Septuagint on equal standing with the Hebrew text.  Manuscripts of the Septuagint [along with many more manuscripts in Hebrew and some in Aramaic] have been found among the Qumran Scrolls in the Dead Sea, and [along with their Hebrew and Aramaic counterparts] were thought to have been in use among Jews at the time.

Starting approximately in the 2nd century CE, several factors led most Jews to abandon use of the Septuagint. The earliest gentile Christians of necessity used the Septuagint, as it was at the time the only Greek version of the Bible, and most, if not all, of these early non-Jewish Christians could not read Hebrew. The association of the Septuagint with a rival religion may have rendered it suspect in the eyes of the newer generation of Jews and Jewish scholars.  Instead, Jews used Hebrew/Aramaic Targum manuscripts later compiled by the Masoretes and authoritative Aramaic translations, such as those of Onkelos and Rabbi Yonathan ben Uziel.

What was perhaps most significant for the Septuagint, as distinct from other Greek versions, was that the Septuagint began to lose Jewish sanction after differences between it and contemporary [i.e., 2nd Century A.D.] Hebrew scriptures were discovered. Even Greek-speaking Jews tended less to the Septuagint, preferring other Jewish versions in Greek, such as that of the 2nd-century Aquila translation, which seemed to be more concordant with contemporary Hebrew texts.

. . .The New Testament writers, when citing the Jewish scriptures, or when quoting Jesus doing so, freely used the Greek translation, implying that Jesus, his Apostles and their followers considered it reliable.

In the Early Christian Church, the presumption that the Septuagint was translated by Jews before the era of Christ, and that the Septuagint at certain places gives itself more to a christological [sic] interpretation than 2nd-century Hebrew texts was taken as evidence that “Jews” had changed the Hebrew text in a way that made them less christological. For example, Irenaeus concerning Isaiah 7:14: The Septuagint clearly writes of a virgin (Greek παρθένος, bethulah in Hebrew) that shall conceive, while the word almah in the Hebrew text was, according to Irenaeus, at that time interpreted by Theodotion and Aquila (both proselytes [converts] of the Jewish faith) as a young woman that shall conceive. According to Irenaeus, the Ebionites used this to claim that Joseph was the (biological) father of Jesus. From Irenaeus’ point of view that was pure heresy, facilitated by (late) anti-Christian alterations of the scripture in Hebrew, as evident by the older, pre-Christian, Septuagint.

When [4th Century A.D. Christian scholar] Jerome undertook the revision of the Old Latin translations of the Septuagint [under the direction of the Roman pope], he checked the Septuagint against the Hebrew texts that were then available. He broke with church tradition and translated most of the Old Testament of his Vulgate from Hebrew rather than Greek. His choice was severely criticized by Augustine, his contemporary; a flood of still less moderate criticism came from those who regarded Jerome as a forger. While on the one hand he argued for the superiority of the Hebrew texts in correcting the Septuagint on both philological and theological grounds, on the other, in the context of accusations of heresy against him, Jerome would acknowledge the Septuagint texts as well.With the passage of time, acceptance of Jerome’s version gradually increased until it displaced the Old Latin translations of the Septuagint.

(Emphasis added.)

In addressing material word changes to biblical verses in Isaiah, we should also observe that the Septuagint’s rendering of Isaiah 61:1-2 reads as follows:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me; he has sent me to preach glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken in heart, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind; to declare the acceptable year of the Lord.

The underlined phrase regarding restoring sight to the blind is not found in our King James Version of Isaiah.  But Luke reports that Jesus quoted it thusly when he began his ministry and read that same scripture in the synagogue.  From Luke 4:18-19:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.”

The version of this scripture being read in the Jewish synagogue that day, which Jesus proclaimed was fulfilled in him, included the phrase about restoring sight to the blind.  Why would the rabbis later edit it out?  Because Jesus eventually restored sight to the blind, as recorded in Mark 8:22-26 and John 9:1-12.  To leave that phrase in the messianic prophecy of Isaiah was to give unique credibility to the claim that Jesus was indeed the Messiah about whom Isaiah was speaking.  Thus the removal of the prophecy after Jesus had fulfilled it.

The Masoretic Text of the Bible and the King James Version

 

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints use the KJV, which is an English translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, or Tanakh.  As mentioned above, history shows the Hebrew Tanakh underwent various material changes beginning in the 2nd Century A.D., spurred to no small extent by the desire of Jewish religious leaders to stem the rising tide of conversions to Christianity occurring throughout the Mediterranean world.  This effort, begun by Aquila, a Roman convert to Judaism who studied theology under the famous Rabbi Akiva, produced, circa 140 A.D., a new Jewish canon in Greek, but translated from manuscripts in Hebrew to compete with the Septuagint and discredit its authoritativeness.3  No copies of Aquila’s translation exist today, but he had a begun a process of Jewish scriptural interpretations which continued for centuries and increasingly altered the wording of the Jewish Tanakh.  The final product, now known as the Masoretic Text (hereafter “MT”), did not appear until the 10th Century A.D.  Today, no manuscripts of this final version exist from earlier than 950 A.D.

The ramifications of Jerome’s decision to rely mostly on the new version of the Jewish Tanakh instead of the Septuagint as the proof text for the Latin Old Testament translation, which would eventually become part of the Roman Catholic Vulgate Bible, continue today.  At the time, the decision likely didn’t likely seem particularly important, because Christianity perceived itself as drawing its lifeblood from the New Testament, not the Old.  Moreover, only the most careful scholars were aware of which changes had been made in the Jewish canon to discredit Christianity, said alterations being relatively few and subtle.  Overall,  Septuagint and the newly minted Tanakh still corroborated each others’ versions in most respects.  Indeed, I must emphasize here that I do not necessarily believe the Septuagint to be the most authoritative scriptural source on all biblical questions.  Sometimes the MT/KJV could be a better source.  But if we take a look at how the KJV/MT used by Mormons today differs from the Septuagint in Genesis 11, we might realize how important changes to scripture can be to Christians, and to God.  However, before delving into how we know which version is correct, we will identify the specifics of the error.  At first glance, it’s obvious that the chronology in the Septuagint covers a much longer time than that chronicled by the MT.

 The MT/KJV Chronology Versus the Septuagint

Here is the relevant chronology from Genesis 11 in the Masoretic Text/King James Version, with comparative time periods in boldface:

10 These are the generations of Shem: Shem was an hundred years old, and begat Arphaxad two years after the flood:

11 And Shem lived after he begat Arphaxad five hundred years, and begat sons and daughters.

12 And Arphaxad lived five and thirty years, and begat Salah:

13 And Arphaxad lived after he begat Salah four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters.

14 And Salah lived thirty years, and begat Eber:

15 And Salah lived after he begat Eber four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters.

16 And Eber lived four and thirty years, and begat Peleg:

17 And Eber lived after he begat Peleg four hundred and thirty years, and begat sons and daughters.

18 And Peleg lived thirty years, and begat Reu:

19 And Peleg lived after he begat Reu two hundred and nine years, and begat sons and daughters.

20 And Reu lived two and thirty years, and begat Serug:

21 And Reu lived after he begat Serug two hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters.

22 And Serug lived thirty years, and begat Nahor:

23 And Serug lived after he begat Nahor two hundred years, and begat sons and daughters.

24 And Nahor lived nine and twenty years, and begat Terah:

25 And Nahor lived after he begat Terah an hundred and nineteen years, and begat sons and daughters.

26 And Terah lived seventy years, and begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran.

 

Now notice the differing timeline in the Septuagint:

 

10 And these are the generations of Sem [Shem]: Sem was a son of one hundred years when he became the father of Arphaxad, in the second year after the flood.

11 And Sem lived after he became the father of Arphaxad five hundred years and had sons and daughters and died.

12 And Arphaxad lived one hundred thirty-five years and became the father of Kainan [Cainan].

13 And Arphaxad lived after he became the father of Kainan four hundred thirty years and had sons and daughters and died.  And Kainan lived one hundred thirty years and became the father of Sala [Salah]. And Kainan lived after he became the father of Sala three hundred thirty years and had sons and daughters and died.

14 And Sala lived one hundred thirty years and became the father of Eber.

15 And Sala lived after he became the father of Eber three hundred thirty years and had sons and daughters and died.

16 And Eber lived one hundred thirty-four years and became the father of Phalek [Peleg].

17 And Eber lived after he became the father of Phalek three hundred seventy years and had sons and daughters and died.

18 And Phalek lived one hundred thirty years and became the father of Ragau [Reu].

19 And Phalek lived after he became the father of Ragau two hundred nine years and had sons and daughters and died.

20 And Ragau lived one hundred thirty-two years and became the father of Serouch [Serug].

21 And Ragau lived after he became the father of Serouch two hundred seven years and had sons and daughters and died.

22 And Serouch lived one hundred thirty years and became the father of Nachor [Nahor].

23 And Serouch lived after he became the father of Nachor two hundred years and had sons and daughters and died.

24 And Nachor lived seventy-nine years and became the father of Thara [Terah].

25 And Nachor lived after he became the father of Thara one hundred twenty-nine years and had sons and daughters and died.

26 And Thara lived seventy years and became the father of Abram and Nachor and Harran.

 

By comparing the bold-faced numbers from the MT/KJV with their Septuagint counterparts, we see that the Septuagint adds 100 years to the chronology of the patriarchs in verse 12, 130 years in verse 13, 100 years in verse 14, 100 years in verse 16, 100 years in verse 18, 100 years in verse 20, 100 years in verse 22, and 50 years in verse 24.  The Septuagint thus adds a total of 780 years to the post-flood history of the Old Testament. (It also adds ten additional years to Nahor’s life after Terah’s birth, and  hundreds of years to the antediluvian patriarchal chronology in its version of Genesis 5. Both of these facts are outside the purview of this essay, however.)

We also see that verse 13 adds a whole other patriarch to the chronology, Cainan, whom the MT/KJV omits altogether from its post-Flood genealogy.   The Septuagint thus contains two Cainans in the ancient patriarchal line–one who is the son of Enos and the father of Mahalaleel, see Genesis 5:9-14, and one who is the son of Arphaxad and father of Salah in Genesis 11:12-13. The MT/KJV chronology only contains the former of these two men; he is missing from its Genesis 11 timeline.5  It is noteworthy that Luke included the second Cainan in his patriarchal chronology in Luke 3:36.  That fact doesn’t prove the Septuagint was correct, but it does indicate that Luke accepted its chronology as reliable.  Even if some critics might argue that Luke’s chronology was likely altered later by Christian scholars seeking to corroborate the pro-Christian Septuagint and maintain its high canonical stature (an argument which I reject, for reasons I’ll provide later, that contention itself, even if true, still testifies to the high esteem with which the earliest Christian scholars regarded it.Jesus and his apostles and earliest disciples quoted it (though they occasionally quoted other Hebrew manuscripts as well), so it was thought to have earned a good reputation.

Strikingly, then, if the Septuagint is correct, we see from its chronology that Shem died during the life of Eber, 24 years before Peleg was born.  And when Abraham was born, Shem  had been dead for approximately 570 years.  Since the biblical account of Abraham’s life indicates he was approximately 80-85 years old when he met Melchizedek, this shows Shem had been dead approximately 650-55 years when Abraham paid tithes to the great high priest.  If the Septuagint is correct, it lays to rest, once and for all (if the matter isn’t already laid to rest in the mind of the reader) that Shem wasn’t Melchizedek.

Implications of an Altered Timeline

The reader of this essay should certainly be forgiven if he or she doesn’t see any immediate implications of these chronological disparities beyond the Shem/Melchizedek question.  But the implications are actually enormous.  Why? Because the altered timelines served other important but less obvious ends for those who altered them.  The obvious purpose is to create a way to link Melchizedek’s high priesthood to Israelite lineage from Shem and avert the embarrassing notion that a high priest existed outside Abraham’s lineage who was greater than Abraham.  But the more consequential purposes of shrinking the timeline were these:  First, to argue that Jesus had come too soon to match scriptural interpretations predicting the Messiah would come around 5000 years after Adam.  The Septuagint’s chronology corroborated that 5,000 year timeline.  Second, if it could be argued that Melchizedek/Shem passed his priesthood to Abraham, this meant that the priesthood was always thereafter controlled by Israelites.  And, since Jesus wasn’t of the tribe of Levi, who Israelites believed to be the only priesthood holders on earth in the First Century A.D., Jesus couldn’t be a high priest after Melchizedek’s holy order.   With these questions in mind, determining the Septuagint’s accuracy and reliability assumes greater Christological importance.  It also affects how we might interpret key prophecies in the Book of Mormon, as will be shown later.

Evidence that the Septuagint Chronology is Correct and the MT/KJV in Error

In a thoroughly researched and well-reasoned paper, biblical scholar Henry B. Smith presents many strong arguments favoring the Septuagint’s Genesis 11 timeline as more reliable than its MT/KJV counterpart.6  I will draw heavily from his already heavily corroborated and footnoted paper here.

Smith first argues that no credible rationale has been offered by Septuagint (for which refers to using the common “LXX” abbreviation) critics for why the Jewish scholars translating their own Hebrew texts into Greek for use by the rest of the world would have reason to elongate their already-long patriarchal timelines. The suggestion that they might have been attempting to make it as long as the chronology of the Egyptians among whom they lived, which was first proffered by critics in the 19th century after 2000 years of silence on this issue, is grossly illogical for a multitude of reasons.  There aren’t any ancient testimonies to support this hypothesis, for one thing.  Septuagint and Old Testament (hereafter”OT”) textual scholars maintain that the numbers in LXX Genesis 5 and 11 should be attributed to the LXX’s Hebrew Vorlage (its original manuscript), not the translators. Thus, the LXX implies the pre-existence of an early 3rd century B.C. Hebrew text of Genesis with the longer chronology, upon which the LXX was based.  Ultimately, the timeline the Jewish scholars in Alexandria produced fell thousands of years short of Egyptian chronologies of Egypt’s own beginnings.  If they had really wanted to compete with Egypt, they could have expanded Genesis 5 by at least 2000 years, and Genesis 11 by several centuries.  In fact, Smith writes, “LXX Genesis bears no evidence of significant conformity to Egyptian world view claims, making it dubious that the translators would have corrupted the sacred text to conform solely with Egyptian chronology.” Furthermore, “[i]t would have been impossible for the LXX translators (or anyone else) to get away with such a fraud due to the subsequent dissemination of the LXX throughout the Diaspora. Jewish communities embraced and used the LXX for several centuries before the advent of the Church. A falsely inflated primeval chronology would have been quickly exposed as fraudulent.”7  Thus, the LXX implies the pre-existence of an early 3rd century B.C. Hebrew text of Genesis with the longer chronology, upon which the LXX was based

Two other facts also weigh heavily against the LXX inflation hypothesis.  The Samaritan Pentateuch (hereafter “SP,”), which is universally accepted as an authentic ancient version of the Torah and was written in Samaria (in Israel) in the Samaritan language, agrees with the LXX Gen. 11 chronology, though like the MT, omits mention of the second Cainan.  It is thus only 130 years different from the LXX in Gen. 11, but widely divergent elsewhere.  Even without including Cainan’s life, it still adds about 520 years not existing in the MT.  The SP arose separately from and independently of the LXX, and is more different from the LXX on other matters than it is from the MT, so one cannot reasonably be argued to have originated with the other.  SP texts were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, as were LXX and MT texts (though no MT, LXX or SP Genesis texts were found there), so its version of OT history was obviously accorded some weight by Jewish scholars before the time of Christ.

A final strike against the LXX expansion idea is that external evidence exists of Hebrew Genesis texts that contained the longer primeval chronology in the 1st Century A.D. and earlier, which don’t appear to be derived from the Septuagint.  More on this below.

 

The Rabbis’ Motivation to Shrink the Ancient Patriarchal Chronology

 

Henry B. Smith goes into great detail about why Judaism’s first and second century A.D. rabbis were motivated to shrink the ancient chronology of their patriarchs, and how they went about it:

Eusebius (AD 310) was the first historian to explain that the proto– MT chronology was deliberately deflated by the rabbis (Chronicle 23; 25; Karst pp. 39–40). Julian of Toledo (AD 642–690), Jacob of Edessa (AD 640–708), Byzantine chronologist George Syncellus (d. AD 810), and Armenian annalist Bar Hebraeus (AD 1226– 1286) also made this claim (Smith Jr. 2017, p. 171, n. 14).

Why would the rabbis deflate the primeval chronology by 1250 years? Chronological speculations and calculations pertaining to the time of the messiah’s arrival (messianic chronology) were widespread in Second Temple Judaism (Beckwith 1981; 1996, p. 217; Wacholder 1975). Messianic chronologies were connected to the prophecy of Daniel 9:24–27 and closely associated with the days of Creation, with each day symbolizing 1000 years of world history. In some schemes, the messiah would arrive in the 6th millennium from creation (AM 5000–5999 AM), and usher in the kingdom in the 7th millennium (AM 6000; Wallra , et. al 2007,pp. XXIII, 291). Other schemes held that the Messiah would arrive in/around the year AM 4000 (Beckwith 1981; Silver, pp. 6, 16), an idea later repeated in the rabbinic Babylonian Talmud (Abodah Zarah 9a; Sanhedrin 97b).

The rabbinic world chronology in the Seder Olam Rabbah (ca. AD 140–160; Guggenheimer 1998), based on the MT, dates Creation to 3761 BC, placing the arrival of the Messiah to around AD 240 (Beckwith 1981) in the AM 4000 messianic scheme. The Seder Olam was developed and written by the very same rabbis who deflated the MT’s numbers in Gen 5/11 to discredit Jesus and the ascending Church. Simply stated, the rabbinic date of Creation derived from the authoritative Seder Olam places Jesus’ life too soon for him to be the Messiah.

The Seder Olam’s massive chronological deflation scheme is also exhibited in its erroneous post–Exilic chronology, which the rabbis significantly reduced by about 185 years (Hughes, p. 257). This reduction was done in conjunction with their reinterpretation of Daniel 9, which they associated with the Temple’s destruction instead of the Messiah (Beckwith 1981, p. 536). Reinterpreting Daniel 9, adopting the Seder Olam as authoritative, and reducing the primeval chronology in their Hebrew texts worked together as rationales for rejecting Jesus as the Christ.

Silver explains further:

The collapse of the Bar Kochba [revolt, ca. AD 135] movement at the close of the putative fifth millennium prompted the Rabbis not only to project the Messianic date to a more distant future, but also to revise their notion of the Creation calendar. They were living not at the close fifth millennium [ca. 4999 AM] [“AM” stands for the Latin term anno mundi, or “year of the world,” beginning with Adam’s first measured year of life] but at the close of the fourth [ca. 3999 AM] millennium. The people need not despair of the Messiah. He is still to come… Christian polemics may also have been responsible for this 1000–year revision in the Creation calendar, which took place before the third century. Christian propagandists from the first century on maintained that Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy, and that he was born at the close of the fifth [4999 AM], or in the first part of the sixth millennium…The Rabbis found it necessary to counter this by asserting that this claim is false, inasmuch as the sixth millennium is still far off (p. 18–19, emphases added).

 

In an ideological and historical context rife with apocalyptic expectation expressed in various forms of chrono–messianism, Pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism was facing a cataclysmic crisis. The Gospel was spreading like wild-fire, while the Romans had razed the Temple to the ground, set Jerusalem ablaze and ravaged Israel twice in 65 years. Barely clinging to life was the rabbinic community, desperate to preserve its heritage and intensely threatened by the expanding Jesus movement. Their circumstances were dire, and their intense hatred of Jesus and His Church has undeniable NT theological support.

The small core of Judaism that arose from the ashes had autonomous control over the few surviving Hebrew MSS [manuscripts] from the Temple. Judaism was no longer variegated, but dominated and controlled by the “scribes and Pharisees” (Mark 2:16). The powerful Rabbi Akiba (40–137 AD) was a fierce enemy of the Gospel. Akiba could decree certain Hebrew texts in the Temple Court to be unfit for public reading, and have them removed from use (Nodet 1997, pp. 193–194). Akiba and his fellow rabbis possessed the necessary authority and opportunity to introduce wholesale chronological changes into the biblical text while also purging the higher numbers from the textual stream (Sexton 2015, pp. 210–218). In the aftermath of 70 AD, it became possible for the rabbis to amend their Hebrew MSS and hide the trail of evidence. Akiba’s disciple Aquila, along with the later Jewish recensions of the LXX, also deflated the numbers in their Greek translations to match the MT (Wevers 1974b, pp. 102–105). “In short, after the destruction of Jerusalem it was possible to introduce a corrupted Biblical chronology” (Seyffarth, p. 125).

The rabbis possessed adequate motive, authoritative means, and unique opportunity to systematically revise the sacred text, introduce the shorter chronology in the Seder Olam and proto–MT as authoritative, and remove evidence of the longer chronology. They are the only group who could have made this kind of radical chronological alteration permanent in future manuscripts.

 

Evidence of Rabbinical Chronological Deflation

Despite the rabbis’ efforts, evidence of their textual alteration remained discernible in the MT.  Smith explains that only certain chronologies could have been altered without requiring completely new ages for everyone listed.  They could only reduce Nahor’s age at the birth of Terah to 29 without throwing off the MT’s other numbers from Arphaxad to Serug.  So that’s what they did, changing the number 79, attested to in the LXX and SP, to 29.  (Conversely, if the LXX translators had read the age of Nahor as 29 when Terah was born, and had wanted to lengthen their chronology, they could have added 100 years to that number the same as had been done to the MT’s numbers in verses 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 and 22 of Gen. 11 without creating any internal inconsistencies.  The fact that they didn’t negates any inference of intent to artificially elongate the patriarchal timeline.)

Moreover, the rabbis were obviously careful in choosing which patriarchs’ fathering ages to change, and which not to change.  Tampering with the Gen. 5 and 11 figures for Methuselah, Lamech, Noah, Shem and Terah would have resulted in internal chronological errors affecting other biblical passages, so they only reduced begetting ages by 100 years each for Arphaxad, Salah, Eber, Peleg, Reu and Serug.  Smith writes: “Their goal was not only to deflate the chronology, but to limit the changes to prevent them from being discovered. . . The careful selection of the begetting ages that were altered, as well as the amount that each age was adjusted, confirms that the original chronology was deflated.”

Smith lists four other evidences of rabbinical tampering:

[T]he MT’s post–Flood chronology creates four genuine and irreconcilable errors when compared to Gen 25:8. The verse indicates that the 175–year–old Abraham“died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years…” (ESV). In the MT: 1. Eber was still alive at age 464 when Abraham died at 175. 2. Similarly, Shem’s death at age 600 occurs in the MT only 25 years before Abraham’s death, thrice Abraham’s age. 3. Most remarkably, Noah’s death at 950 occurs only two years before Abraham was born.  Gen 11:10–25. . . repeatedly indicates that the named patriarchs had “[other] sons and daughters.” Thus, thousands of post–Flood descendants would have lived to ages similar to Arpachshad (438), Eber (464) and Shelah (433), making Abraham’s death premature when compared to other unnamed contemporaries. Using the MT, Abraham would have been neither “an old man,” nor “full of years” compared to the world around him. This would be analogous to applying similar statements to a modern man who died at the age of 30 or 35.

In the LXX, however, Noah had been deceased for nearly 1000 years, Shem for about eight centuries, and Eber for about four,when Abraham died. Only in the longer chronology of the LXX/ SP had lifespans dropped to the point where Abraham’s epitaph could be considered accurate and coherent. The MT’s post–Flood chronology creates an insurmountable problem for MT advocates, for it yields genuine and irreconcilable errors within the sacred text.10 

 External Evidence Showing the Septuagint’s Chronology is Original

 

If the rabbis purposely deflated the patriarchal chronologies from Gen. 5 and 11 by 1250 years after Christianity began to spread, as Smith and other scholars contend, we should expect to see the higher numbers contained in the LXX reflected in other historical or scriptural texts circulating during the 1st century A.D.  And indeed, that’s what we see.

Demetrius the Chronographer was a Jewish historian writing in Alexandria during the latter part of the third century B.C. He is the earliest known witness to the patriarchal chronology external to the Hebrew, Samaritan and Septuagint texts themselves.  He wrote that from Adam to the time Joseph’s brothers entered Egypt were 3,624 years, and the time between the Deluge and Jacob coming to Egypt were 1,360 years.  While his figures aren’t perfectly identical to the LXX timeline, they are only consistent with its longer chronology, and wholly inconsistent with the MT.  Moreover, his writings predated the MT by several centuries.11 

Smith says this about a second Jewish historian, Eupolemus:

Eupolemus was a Jewish historian of the 2nd century BC (Wacholder 1974, p. 3). His Greek work is entitled, “On the Kings in Judea.” Fragment 5 appears in Clement’s Stromata (Fallon 1983). In it, Eupolemus calculates 5149 years from Adam to the 5th year of the reign of Demetrius I (ca. 158 BC; Wacholder 1974, p. 7), yielding the same Creation date as Demetrius the Chronographer (5307 BC; Finegan, p. 145).

Eupolemus used the LXX, and since he was a high–ranking Jerusalem official, this indicates both the LXX and the longer chronology were embraced in Israel proper. Because of his status, he also had access to and used Hebrew texts, writing in a “koine-Judaeo-Greek” with a “strong Hebrew avor” (Wacholder 1974,pp. 12–13, 246–248, 256–257; Holladay, p. 95, 99, nn. 2–3).  Fallon adds: “… Eupolemus has also used the Hebrew text, as his rendering of the name Hiram indicates… use of the Hebrew text is further indicated by his translation of terms that the Septuagint has merely transliterated” (pp. 862–863; Holladay, p. 101 n. 15). Josephus’ praise of Eupolemus’ work (Against Apion 1:23) also supports the accuracy of his chronology.

Eupolemus’ writing and chronological statements would have been under intense scrutiny in Jerusalem. He was an official delegate sent to Rome by Judas Maccabeus in 161 BC (Holladay 99, n.6). Since he “belonged to one of the leading priestly families of Jerusalem” (Holladay, p. 93), he would have had access to Hebrew scrolls in the Temple library. Eupolemus would never have used the LXX’s primeval chronology unless it closely matched the Hebrew text(s)of Genesis available to him. His choice of an erroneously inflated LXX chronology would have embarrassed the priesthood, his family, and the nation. His writing, chronology, place of residence and status strongly indicate there were Hebrew texts in Jerusalem with the longer chronology in the 2nd century BC.12 

Two other very important sources corroborate the LXX.  The first is the unknown author of the Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, or Book of Biblical Antiquities.  Though the identity of this author is unknown, it is known that he wrote during the first century A.D. in Hebrew while living in Israel, and wrote from the religious perspective and in the style of a Pharisee.  It is also known that he used extant Hebrew texts as the basis for his writings, not the Septuagint.  His antediluvian chronology [he produced no post-Deluge timeline] from Gen. 5 totals 2256 years, which is 600 years longer than the MT’s, but only 14 years longer than the LXX’s.  And it is the same figure produced by Josephus.  This strongly suggests that rabbis writing after this author altered and compressed the chronology from their own texts.13 

And then there is the famous late first century A.D. Jewish historian Josephus, author of Antiquities of the Jews. Josephus specifically said that he wrote his history using Hebrew manuscripts.14  Scholars have concluded that those manuscripts agreed closely enough with the LXX history that it’s apparent they originated from the same Hebrew records from which the LXX was eventually composed.  However, the differences between Josephus’ chronology and the LXX’s are numerous and substantial enough (e.g., Josephus excludes the second Cainan and the 130 years his begetting age adds to the timeline) to prove he didn’t rely on the latter for his record.  Due to his societal status as a Jewish priest and scholar, as well as a Roman official, he very likely used the best Temple library scrolls, which, pre-alteration, were probably old enough to pre-date Jesus’s birth.15  Josephus specifically said twice in his book that his writings covered 5000 years of history (from Adam to his own time), 1250 years longer than what the Hebrew MT and our current KJV covers.16  And this figure is only Josephus’ rough, rounded-down-to-the-nearest-thousand-years figure. His actual history adds up to about 5, 471 years from Adam to the birth of Christ.  And, specifically, his history adds 650 years to the MT’s post-Flood period to the birth of Abraham.

Therefore, the Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, Josephus and other prominent pre-Christian Jewish historians all attest to the impossibility of Shem being a contemporary of Abraham, and being one and the same with Melchizedek.  The MT and KJV are wrong, and if LDS Church leaders believe otherwise, they are wrong too.

 

Applications to Mormons’ Attitudes Toward the Scriptures

Members of the LDS Church can learn much from The story of how the Septuagint became separated from the main body of Christianity, and how it was replaced with scriptures which contained both false information and in some cases, modified doctrines.  (For example, it’s not uncommon these days to have atheists or agnostics point out that the word “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 is a deliberately fraudulent translation inserted by Christians to corroborate Jesus’ birth from a virgin, since the “correct” Hebrew version contains the Hebrew word for “young woman.”  In this case, it’s nice for Mormons to know that the Septuagint’s version was corroborated by Nephi’s vision, wherein he saw Christ being born of a virgin.  But it’s also nice to know enough about biblical history to know the Septuagint is much older than the Hebrew Masoretic text.)  Church members of all denominations should ask ourselves whether they know where they got their history and their doctrine, and how reliable it is.  They should ask themselves tough questions, to make sure their beliefs are scripturally well-founded, or in the alternative, whether they are willing to accept inherited ascriptural traditions.

When members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints watch the temple film during the endowment session, they should ask themselves whether Eve’s dilemma regarding which commandment to obey is supported by actual scripture.  (It isn’t.)  They should ask whether any of the endowment ceremony, or the doctrines of vicarious work for the dead, are attested to in the book called the “fulness of the gospel,” i.e., the Book of Mormon.  And if not, why not?  Did Jesus ever once talk about them?  (He didn’t.)  Why didn’t he, if they’re so vital?  They should further ask whether the Bible or Book of Mormon recorded Jesus giving “Melchizedek Priesthood” to his apostles in Israel or his disciples in the Americas, or declaring that his church required it.  They might also ask if the practice of polygamy in the 19th century was consistent with the unequivocal Book of Mormon teachings of Jacob 2.   And, since the story of the Septuagint and the MT/KJV is one of allowing canonical alterations or additions to become accepted without sufficiently thorough analysis, they should also ask themselves, how did Joseph Smith produce the Book of Abraham without the Urim and Thummim-like interpreters which were required to produce the Book of Mormon, since he had no facility with ancient languages?  Did his claimed “translation” turn out to be at all accurate?  Was the document he purported to translate actually written by Abraham, or did carbon dating show otherwise?  Are the doctrines taught in the Book of Abraham consistent with those taught in the Book of Mormon?

There are many, many more questions like these that should be asked, if for no other reason than to be able to know why one believes what one believes, and to be able to defend it, or to discard it if it doesn’t withstand intellectual and spiritual scrutiny. We have written essays on all these topics, and many more, on this website.  But we’ve done so mainly because most Mormons don’t think about these things themselves, and those that do don’t dare discuss them at church.  Sadly, the prevailing view among active members of the LDS Church is that if they should study something, the Church will tell them what to study, and it will be something officially endorsed and written by the Church in its manuals or on its website.  They almost seem comfortable with the notion that their church leaders can justifiably say, “If we want you to have an opinion, we’ll tell you your opinion.”

Nephi said in 1 Nephi 13:24-25 that he saw in vision the Bible going from the Jews “in purity” to the Gentiles, and when it did so, it contained the “fullness of the gospel of the Lamb.”  Only when it went through the hands of a “great and abominable church” within Christianity did the formerly pure content of that Bible’s gospel become ignored and suppressed, so that Christians were being taught to rely on priests and rituals to attain salvation.  The powerful, supposedly Christian church for many centuries didn’t teach that biblical literacy or even an understanding of Jesus’ teachings were necessary, or even important.  Indeed, Nephi saw in his prophetic vision, 600 years before Christ, that the monolithic Christian church in Europe had “taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and precious and also many covenants have they taken away,” and as a result, “a great many do stumble.”  (See 1 Nephi 13:26-29.)  And indeed, as Nephi foresaw, and as William Tyndale’s fate demonstrated, the powerful (and yes, abominable) church of that era considered it rebellious apostasy to translate the Bible into English for English-speaking people to read.  Tyndale was burned at the stake for doing so in 1536.  Lay church members were not entitled to read the Bible!  Instead, English-speaking Christians were supposed to be content to listen to their priests chant Bible verses in unintelligible Latin, and allow the church to tell them what they religiously believed.  And so, although Christianity’s scriptures had originally come to it in purity from the Jews, the writings and philosophies contained within those scriptures had been removed from their position of primacy and replaced with a new religion bearing no resemblance to the teachings of Christ.  Only when enough scholars became discontent enough with Catholicism’s departure from holy writ, and its suppression of it, and determined enough to defy church leaders, did they join forces to declare the actual biblical gospel to the world.  The resulting Reformation represented the inspiring and courageous breaking of the  church’s stranglehold on scriptural knowledge.  Suddenly, with the mass printing of bibles, anyone who wanted to could read what prophets, apostles and Jesus actually taught, and could figure out for themselves what God really desired of them.  (For more discussion on this glorious era of history, see How History Shows the Great and Abominable Church was Overcome by the Church of the Lamb , elsewhere on this website.)

Nephi also saw that after the Reformation, the Lord would restore to the earth the fulness of his gospel, including the “plain and precious” things which had been held back by the great and abominable church that had previously ruled Christianity.  “And,” as we read he was told in 1 Nephi 13:40-41, “the words of  the Lamb shall be made known in  the records of they seed [the Book of Mormon], as well as in the records of the twelve apostles of the Lamb [the New Testament and the parts of the Old Testament that Jesus and his apostles referred to, at the very least].” All who read this prophecy should notice which books it includes, and which it doesn’t.  Not all books of LDS scripture are contemplated by it; two are missing.  I believe readers should also ask, “Are my religious beliefs founded on the Book of Mormon and the Christian teachings of the Bible, or have I also unquestioningly accepted many other conflicting beliefs passed down to me, but which possess no basis in Book of Mormon or biblical scripture?  Have I even noticed where my beliefs come from?  Do the Book of Mormon prophecies concerning our time contemplate a need to supplement the Book of Mormon and Bible with new and contradictory teachings?  Do I care whether my beliefs are well-founded?

Do we perhaps need a Reformation of sorts today without the violence, contention and name-calling that accompanied it? To be sure, no Christian in the western world is now forced to accept traditional beliefs or practices under penalty of death.  We are free to believe whatever we want to believe.  We can use the tools of technology to do incredibly fast and thorough scriptural and historical research and find answers to our questions.  We can communicate with others who share interest in the same quests.  Or, we can content ourselves by accepting that our inherited beliefs are true because we’ve been taught by well-meaning people that they’re true, regardless of how they compare to Christ’s actual plain and precious precepts of his gospel.  Who was it who said, “Search the scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life; and they are they which testify of me,” anyway?

FOOTNOTES

1. More from the article can be read here.

2. See Wikipedia article “Septuagint.”

3. See online Encyclopedia Brittanica article on Aquila here.

4.  The English translation of the Septuagint quoted below is the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) version of the book of Genesis, which is  based on the standard critical edition prepared by John William Wevers (Septuaginta: Vetus Testamentum Graecum Auctoritate Academiae Scientiarum Gottingensis editum 1: Genesis [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1974]).  It was reproduced with added Introduction, commentary and notes as A New English Translation of the Septuagint, ©2007 by the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, Inc., and published by Oxford University Press, Inc. 198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016 http://www.oup.com.  It is available online here.

5. For a discussion of why the second Cainan should or shouldn’t be accepted as part of the earliest Hebrew patriarchal chronology, see footnote 6 below.

6. Smith, H.B., Jr.  “The Case for the Septuagint’s Chronology in Genesis 5 and 11.” In Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Creationism, ed. J.H. Whitmore, (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Creation Science Fellowship), 2018, pp.117-132, available online here.  For arguments for or against the second Cainan, see footnote 11 of said paper.

7. Ibid., p. 121.

8. Ibid., p. 122.

9. Ibid., p. 123.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., p. 125

14. Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 1:5, 9:208, 10:218; Against Apion 1:1, 54

15. Smith, Ibid., p. 125

16. Josephus, Antiquities, Preface 1:13; Against Apion 1:1.

 

 

 

 

Why Melchizedek wasn’t Shem, and Why it Does and Doesn’t Matter

The following essay was written by Scott S. Mitchell, a principal contributor to this website.

 

Image result for Melchizedek and Abraham

Many members of the LDS church believe Shem, the son of Noah and the father of all the Semitic races, and Melchizedek, the famous high priest to whom Abraham paid tithes, to be the same person.  Indeed, a short essay  on the LDS Church’s own website by Alma E. Gygi, a Salt Lake City businessman, entitled “Is it Possible that Shem and Melchizedek are the Same Person?” provides arguments in support of this conclusion, see here.   This essay will attempt to demonstrate why Melchizedek was not Shem, but will also use this issue as a case study in how careless we can be in adopting religious beliefs.  The Melchizedek-Shem issue is relatively trivial, but too often, the same failure to require solid foundations for our beliefs leads to other mistaken conclusions on far more consequential doctrinal matters.

The first major piece of evidence that Shem wasn’t Melchizedek is one that Mormons too often ignore–neither the biblical writers nor the more accurate Book of Mormon writers, though they were writing on the very subject of the greatness of Melchizedek, mentioned anything about him being Shem, or being the son of Noah.  If a proponent of the Shem=Melchizedek theory is willing to ignore this point, she should first show that Bible and Book of Mormon writers commonly referred to one person using two different names without informing the reader that both names referred to the same person.  But such a showing can’t be made; indeed, the opposite is true.

Relevant Biblical Verses Regarding Shem

In the Bible, writers paid great attention to names, and took care to inform the reader when one person was known by more than one name.  Some obvious examples might be Sarai-Sarah, Abram-Abraham, Jacob-Israel, Esau-Edom, Saul-Paul, Simon-Cephas-Peter and Joses-Barnabas, but there are many more.   Joseph-Zaphenath Paneah, Reuel-Jethro, Gideon-Jerubbaal, Daniel-Belteshazzar, Hananiah-Shadrach, Mishael-Meshach, Azariah-Abednego, Hadassah-Esther, and Levi-Matthew are others, and still more could be listed.  The Hebrews and Jews took care to identify the person about whom they were writing.  Presumably, they would be even more inclined to do so if a person’s two names were both famous in their own right, such as would be the case if Melchizedek were Shem.

But a reading of the Bible shows that both Shem and Melchizedek are described separately, and are never suggested to have been in the same place at the same time,  to have known each other, to have had common acquaintances, or to have even lived in the same area of the Middle East.  Shem is famous for being one of three sons of Noah.   Shem was one of the eight people on Noah’s ark who lived through the flood.  He became the father of the Semitic race, from which Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sprang.  His sons and grandsons, and the lands where they settled, are all named.  (More about that later.)  We know when he was born and when he died.  But his significance in the Bible story is limited to his place in the genealogical line of patriarchs between Adam and Abraham, and as such, he became an ancestor of Jesus Christ.  (See Luke 3:36)  The only act of his that we know of, other than that he married, was on the ark, had children, and died when 602 years old, is that on one occasion, he, along with his brother Japheth, saw  his father drunken and naked in his tent.  The two sons then placed a blanket over their father while looking away from him so as not to see his nakedness.  Other than that, nothing of particular significance is said about him.  In the Bible, he is not described as being a high priest, king, or even a religious leader.  Nothing is even said about him being righteous.  No words of his are quoted.  See Genesis 6:10-11:10.

According to the book of Genesis, Shem’s descendants became famous fathers of nations.  According to Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, “[a]fter the Flood he became the father of Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud, and Aram (usually identified by scholars as Persia, Assyria, Chaldea, Lydia, and Syria, respectively).”1  Two things are noteworthy about this information.  First of all, none of the sons of Shem became fathers of nations in the area of Salem, which city, if we are correct in believing it to be the city that later became Jerusalem, was in the land of Canaan.  We do know that Abraham, after he had migrated southward to Canaan from his ancestral homeland in Haran (modern Syria), lived in the southern portion of what would later become Judea.  Therefore, because he returned to that area after the slaughter of the kings and met Melchizedek, we can infer that Melchizedek was king over a city in this same area where Jerusalem now is.  Shem’s descendents did not live in this area, and that is why Abraham, himself a descendant of Shem, was characterized as a stranger in the land of the Canaanites, see Gen. 15:13 and 17:8.  If Melchizedek was Shem, why was he living in an area where neither Shem nor his above-named sons had settled?

Second, since the Bible tells us that Noah’s ark came to rest on the slopes of Mount Ararat (see Gen. 8:4), and contains no record of Shem himself ever leaving this area, the reader shouldn’t infer that Shem traveled from Ararat to Jerusalem thereafter.  The distance between the two points is over 750 miles, and it would be a journey Shem would have no reason to make.  The area of Mount Ararat is a central location from which Shem’s sons spread out to the west and southeast.  For Shem to migrate a long distance to Canaan would take him further away from the lands which his sons began to settle.  And, it would take him away from his father Noah, for whom he was still caring after the Flood, as the incident with Noah’s nakedness demonstrates.

Finally, as argued above, if the Bible makes much about Abraham leaving Haran to come to Canaan, wouldn’t it have told us if Shem made an even more impressive migration after the Flood to become the king of a city in a land where he had never lived before?

Relevant Biblical Verses Regarding Melchizedek

By contrast, more important things are written in the Bible about Melchizedek.  Famously, he brought bread and wine to Abraham and pronounced a blessing upon him, after Abraham returned from rescuing Lot and defeating four eastern kings in battle.  On that occasion, Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, whom the biblical writer describes as “king of Salem” and “the priest of the most high God.” (See Gen. 14:18-20.)  Later, in New Testament times, Paul expounded on the greatness of Melchizedek (spelled “Melchisedec” in the New Testament), saying that his priesthood was of a higher order than that possessed by high priests descended from the sons of Levi, and that Christ, belonging to this higher order, would, like Melchizedek, remain a high priest forever.  In fact, it is apparent that Paul, according  to what he had been taught by the Hebrew scriptures in his education as a Pharisee, believed that Melchizedek had not died, but lived forever, and had no descendants.  (See Hebrews 7:1-3, 5-8.)  Clearly, Paul, himself a Jewish scriptorian, didn’t believe Melchizedek was Shem, since Shem was known to have died, and to have had famous descendants.2

Conclusions We May Draw from the Bible

Based on the above analysis, I assert that the silence in the Bible about Melchizedek being Shem means something.  Why would the Bible go into great detail about Shem’s father, Noah, and say virtually nothing about Shem, if Shem had migrated 750+ miles to become king of what became the Bible’s most important city, and a great high priest to whom even Abraham showed deference?  Why indeed, when biblical writers reflexively went out of their way to elevate their genealogical progenitors in the eyes of the reader?  Why would the biblical scholars of Jesus’ day affirmatively teach that Melchizedek lived forever and had no children, and shroud him in mystery as a  previously unmentioned king and priest who appears out of nowhere in Genesis, if he was one of their own revered ancestors?

Another example of this similarly perplexing abandonment of logic occurs with Mormons who argue that Christ was married during mortality.  In so doing, they are willing to ignore the enormously important fact that the Bible doesn’t say that Christ was married, though it speaks at length about the marriages of far less important biblical figures.  But the Christ-was-married advocates gloss over the biblical non-corroboration on that issue as if secrecy on such matters were the Bible’s default setting.   If such Mormons could show that biblical writers routinely ignored the marital status of other religious leaders about whom they wrote, the biblical silence on Christ’s marriage would have far less significance.  But such a showing not only can’t be made, the opposite showing is easily made.  Even when the Bible doesn’t mention the name of a spouse, it reveals their marriage by chronicling who their children (and often their grandchildren) were.  Biblical narrators wrote all about Jesus’s relationships and conversations with his mother (including his concern for her care as he looked down from the cross), his brothers, his apostles, other disciples and friends, Pharisees, publicans, John the Baptist, and the occasional woman encountered at the well, or brought before him for stoning, or seeking to anoint him with spikenard.  If he’d have been married, that’s exactly the type of thing the biblical writers would have written about.  The fact that the Bible doesn’t mention Jesus marrying, and doesn’t mention any physical posterity descending from him, when the New Testament writers all recognized him as the most important man in the history of the world, thus becomes an enormously persuasive argument that he wasn’t married when he walked the earth.    (There are many other strong arguments that Jesus wasn’t married, and these derive from what the Bible affirmatively does say, but that is a topic of another essay to be written later this year on this website.

Relevant Book of Mormon Verses Concerning Melchizedek

The Book of Mormon contains no references to anyone who was known by dual names, nor does it mention Shem the son of Noah.  However, Book of Mormon writers possessed Old Testament scriptures far superior to what we currently have in our Bibles (see 1 Nephi 13:23). Because of this fact, when they discussed Old Testament history in their writings, they usually provided more information on relevant points than that available in our current Bible.  If a Book of Mormon writer were to speak on the story of Melchizedek, as Alma did to the people of Ammonihah, one would certainly expect him to not leave out important details highly relevant to the story being told.  Nor would we expect him to add details about Melchizedek that further eroded the case for him being Shem, if those details were mere unsubstantiated legends that Alma deemed unreliable.

In his sermon to the people of Ammonihah, the Book of Mormon prophet Alma expounded on how God had called high priests in the ages before Christ’s birth to teach the people “in what manner to look forward to his Son for redemption.” In so doing, Alma included much information regarding ancient high priests that is not found in the Bible.  Concerning Melchizedek specifically, Alma stated:

Now this Melchizedek was a king over the land of Salem; and his people had waxed strong in iniquity and abomination; yea, they had all gone astray; they were full of all manner of wickedness;

But Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did preach repentance unto his people. And behold, they did repent; and Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days; therefore he was called the prince of peace, for he was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father.

Now, there were many before him, and also there were many afterwards, but none were greater; therefore, of him they have more particularly made mention.

(See Alma 13:17-19.)  These verses, if they conveyed accurate information, as Mormons  believe, leave no doubt that Melchizedek wasn’t Shem.  Melchizedek was a king who had reigned under his father, who had also been a king but whose name Alma didn’t find worth mentioning.  Melchizedek  became more famous and revered than his father because he had preached repentance to the people of the land of Salem, who had all gone astray, and successfully caused them to repent.

But Shem’s father Noah was never a king, and was far more famous and spoken of than Shem.  Neither Noah or Shem had successfully brought the city of Salem, nor  or any other known people, to repentance through their preaching. Neither man was even recorded as having preached, having instead isolated themselves from the wickedness around them before the Flood.  Noah never came anywhere near Salem in his lifetime, and would have had no reason to move over 750 miles to that land after he’d just spent 100 years of his life preparing for the Lord to take him to Mount Ararat. We know that after he left the ark, God blessed Noah to be agriculturally fruitful, and he planted a vineyard and drank the wine therefrom. (See Gen. 9:7-20.)  It appears there was nothing wrong with the place God had led him to, and it wouldn’t make sense that there would be something wrong with it. Moreover, when Abraham was later led south from Haran to Canaan (and farther away from the Ararat area), it was to a land he was unfamiliar with, which wouldn’t have been the case if the famous Noah had moved there. In fact, the Bible says when Abraham got to present day Israel, “the Canaanite was in the land.” If Noah and Shem were nearby ruling over Salem, wouldn’t the Bible or Book of Mormon have mentioned more than just the presence of the nondescript Canaanites, who were descended from Ham?

The Point of this Essay

In other words, if a Mormon is taught that Melchizedek was actually Shem, and he conscientiously thinks to re-familiarize himself with the Book of Mormon’s teachings about Melchizedek, he would immediately see that the weight of evidence was strongly against such a conclusion.  This should happen even if some former church president or general authority is quoted as saying Melchizedek was Shem.  But somehow, this doesn’t seem to happen much in Mormonism.  If it did happen, we wouldn’t find essays on the church’s own website like the one referenced at the beginning of this essay.  That essay, like so many others on the Church’s website, not only ignores much biblical evidence, but also, precisely relevant verses from the Book of Mormon, the book which Latter-day Saints tout as the cornerstone of their religion.

This essay is only superficially about whether Shem and Melchizedek were two names used to describe the same person.  That issue, in and of itself, is a relatively trivial question of no particular consequence for Christians, and is the part of this essay that doesn’t really matter.  However, when studying LDS church doctrine or history, it is impossible to over-emphasize the need we should feel to determine if our most important religious beliefs are actually corroborated by our own historical records or foundational scriptures.  We should realize how careless it can be to adopt improperly corroborated beliefs merely because they were taught to us by generally righteous parents or teachers, and the damage that such adoptions can cause if what we accepted as truth turns out to be false.  As argued repeatedly in other essays on this website, if beliefs or practices enjoy no scriptural basis in the Bible, or in the book that we aver contains the fulness of the gospel (i.e., the Book of Mormon), that should be taken as strong evidence that that belief is not well-established enough to be accepted as true.

I believe God wants us to employ rigorous standards in determining whether our important beliefs are true.  He wants us to look for corroborative evidence in the Bible and Book of Mormon, and in history.  He doesn’t want us to be satisfied something is true just because it’s been commonly taught in church for many years.  The Lord created mountains of intrinsic and extrinsic evidence to appeal to the intellect and show that the Book of Mormon was what it purported to be.  He didn’t want us to believe it just because someone else who believed it had inculcated us with that belief.  He wanted us to evaluate the evidence on our own.  Mormons will devote many years of their lives engaged in vicarious work for the dead, for example, and never be troubled that not a word about such beliefs or practices was ever taught by Jesus to the Jews or the Nephites, even while he was busy teaching them about every other subject which he deemed important for them to hear or read.  (In the case of vicarious ordinances for the dead, the omissions are particularly glaring; not even Joseph Smith, let alone Jesus, ever taught about vicarious endowments or marriages for the dead.)

Why Mormons Might Overlook their Own Scriptures

Knowledgeable orthodox Mormons may argue that John Taylor, a former church president, taught the Melchizedek=Shem doctrine.  And this is true; he did, although he did so long before he became president of the church.  He wrote of “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. . .”3  But in order for this statement from John Taylor to persuade us Mormons that he’s right,  should not those who accept it as authoritative need to show that Taylor studied this issue more than we have, and that his combination of intelligence, knowledge and inspiration was superior to our own? Can anyone make this showing? So far, no one has ever attempted to do so.  And even if they could, wouldn’t it be extremely important to know what sources, exactly, he studied, and not just assume that he studied some unidentified writings? Just as importantly, do those who accept John Taylor’s statement not need to know what those who disagree with him have studied?  If Taylor had said he reached his conclusion on Shem and Melchizedek because he heard Joseph Smith express the same conclusion in some conversation (though in actuality, he is not reported to have done so), would that obviate the need to read what others who disagree have written about the subject?  Wouldn’t we still have to know how much Joseph Smith had studied this particular issue, or is Joseph presumed infallible in such pronouncements?

When we study the actual scriptures themselves, does it make reading them less necessary if we know Joseph Smith has already stated his interpretation of those particular verses?  If so, why should we study anything, if some former church president or general authority has already spoken on the matter? Where do we get the idea that the scriptural understanding of high-level church leaders are automatically authoritative? Is this idea scriptural, or does it matter?

In bolstering the authoritativeness of the John Taylor statement, those who accept it are inhibited by the fact that our own church has, more than once, publicly disavowed statements made by past presidents of the church. Brigham Young’s from-the-pulpit pronouncements on blacks and the priesthood, for example, and the related doctrines and practices that were then perpetuated by John Taylor and the eight succeeding presidents of the church, are now declared on the church’s own website to be uninspired and influenced by then-common racist notions.  In the October, 1976 LDS Church general conference, Spencer W. Kimball also denounced Brigham’s Young’s Adam-God teachings from the pulpit as false doctrine.

The Melchizedek=Shem proponents might also argue that in Doctrine and Covenants 138:41, President Joseph F. Smith is quoted as having seen, in a vision of the spirit world, “Shem, the great high priest…”  D&C 138 is taken from Joseph Fielding Smith’s transcript of a vision which he said his father had dictated to him two weeks after having received it, which was soon thereafter printed in the Church-owned newspaper Deseret News.  To be precise, we’re not discussing whether Shem was a great high priest or not, but whether he was Melchizedek. Nevertheless, assuming the transcript provided to the Deseret News contained no supplementation by his son, might we validly ask ourselves whether Joseph F. Smith’s account was influenced by the teachings of his predecessor, John Taylor, whose counselor he had been in the First Presidency, and whom he says he also saw in this same vision?

On a deeper level, should we not notice that Joseph F. Smith’s vision teaches the need for ordinances to be performed vicariously for dead people who died without baptism, which directly contradicts what Joseph Smith, his uncle, claims to have learned in a vision of his own? According to Joseph Smith, it was unnecessary to be concerned that good people had died without baptism, if they were good enough people that they would have accepted the gospel had they heard it during mortality.  No ordinances for them were necessary; they were going to the celestial kingdom regardless.  This statement of Joseph Smith, amazingly, is solid, canonized, LDS scripture, despite its obvious conflict with the LDS practice of baptizing for the dead in temples.  See Doctrine and Covenants 137:5-9.  (See also, Moroni 8:22, 23, for confirmation that Joseph Smith’s doctrine is correct.)  But if we do notice this conflict, how free do we feel to decide who’s right and who’s wrong, and to announce our own conclusions, if it identifies some LDS doctrine as erroneous?

The atmosphere in the LDS Church is not one of encouraging such free and in-depth scrutiny of Mormon doctrine and history, if the scrutiny produces disagreement with what the Church teaches.  We don’t want to learn that we teach untrue doctrine any more than we desire to learn that Paul H. Dunn fabricated his most famous experiences.  Disagreements over doctrine and history can lead, not only to loss of a temple recommend and a church position, but to the imposition of church discipline, including excommunication.  In many cases, orthodoxy is valued more than truth.  To question church beliefs on a particular point is to suggest the LDS Church isn’t the “only true church,” despite the faith’s insistence that it is.  No idea is perceived as more threatening than that.

The Shem-Melchizedek issue isn’t solely a Mormon teaching. It is taught by some Jewish scholars and rabbis, and some Christian scholars who study those writings.  It is true that the Jewish Midrashic writings of a few rabbis in the centuries after Christ claimed that Shem was Melchizedek. The Shem idea resulted from the teachings of some scribes and rabbis who could point to no written authority for their assertions, and were, more than two thousand years after the fact, claiming said beliefs to be part of the old oral traditions of the Hebrews.  Since the Talmud containing these writing consists of the writings of Jewish rabbis expressing their interpretations of the Torah and Tanakh, and expounding on what they claim to be oral traditions, these writings have become accepted by some. They gain acceptance the same way that Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith come to be accepted by many as actual Mormon doctrine, without God’s actual manifested endorsement.

If a Mormon, or any Christian, is inclined to accept the teachings of a few (out of many hundreds) rabbis on this subject, she should ask herself, How familiar am I with the other things that these same rabbis teach? Is she aware that the practice of rabbinic interpretation was started by the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, and continued for the next 300+ years, and as Jesus repeatedly pointed out, their interpretations were often very wrong? Identifying “who was who” was their particular weakness, and they weren’t able to discern that Jesus was the Messiah, or that any of the Christians were on to anything. Does she know that these rabbis also taught , for example, that Elijah was the reincarnation of Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron? The Shem idea is first seen in the era of the Dead Sea scrolls, and it’s written in the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. In fact, Dead Sea scroll fragments 11Q13 expound on the Shem-Melchizedek correlation, and appear to be the first to address this issue. Some scholars believe Paul’s lecture on Melchizedek in the book of Hebrews to be a response to Pharisaic teachings about Melchizedek which were gaining currency during his time. But the other Dead Sea scrolls,  and later rabbinic writings also show that the writers were all over the map on the question of Melchizedek. Some believed he was the Messiah. Others believed him to be Michael the archangel; others, a very high angel or almost-God figure. The Dead Sea scroll writer referenced above even substituted Melchizedek’s name into the text of Isaiah 61:1,2 for the term “the Lord”, and did the same in Psalms 82:1.

It seemed to have been a tendency in Jesus’ time to link a great person to some other great person. Hence, various Jews thought Jesus was Jeremiah, or Elijah, or one of the prophets, or even John the Baptist (See Matt. 16: 13,14), and they questioned John the Baptist about this former identity as well (see John 1: 19-24). Jesus didn’t hide the link of John the Baptist to the prophecy of Elijah, or that he himself would come more than once, but the Jews seemed to want to establish all kinds of links between men unlinked by written scripture. Some Jewish scholars have explained that the desire to link Melchizedek to Shem is born of the Jewish need to explain why their forefather Abraham should show deference to anyone who appeared at first glance to be outside the chosen lineage.

Some credible evidence seems to indicate that Joseph Smith, and later such prominent Mormons as John Taylor, appear to have believed the Book of Jasher, a purportedly ancient work translated and published in English in 1840, to be authentic.  The LDS Church today takes no position on the book and whether or not it is authentic.  The Book of Jasher suggests Shem and Melchizedek to be the same person.  (Perhaps significantly, Mormonism’s Book of Abraham, which Joseph Smith published in 1842, also contains some information about Abraham very similar to information about Abraham found only in the 1840 Book of Jasher.)  I don’t believe the 1840 version of the Book of Jasher to be the authentic book mentioned by the same name in the Bible. Most scholars agree that it isn’t.  But those Mormons who have written about it tend to defend it because it contains some assertions now believed by Mormons, not because they can marshal strong evidence of its authenticity. Because of some improbable stories in it, and some anachronisms, and some borrowing from the post-Christian Talmud, I believe it to be a forgery, though it contains much true history taken from the Bible along with several legends. Regardless, all agree that the original Book of Jasher wasn’t considered divinely inspired scripture by the Hebrews in the first place, and it wasn’t included in the Septuagint books provided by the Jews for translation into Greek.  Therefore, there seems to be no good reason to accept it as a reliable source of history or doctrine on Melchizedek or any other point.

I think too often in the church we begin our belief synthesis with skin in the game, just like a lazy detective who wants to declare someone’s death the result of suicide instead of the more complicated matter of murder, so as not to have to perform a lengthy investigation. He therefore looks for clues that support his preferred conclusion. When we do this, we tend to ignore the biggest, most obvious clues leading to the opposite conclusion, because we’re not looking for them.

Conclusion

When we favor a belief because of its familiarity, or because it happens to appeal to us, but not because we’ve subjected it to thorough intellectual and spiritual scrutiny (though this specific Melchizedek-Shem question has no spiritual ramifications that I can see), we run the risk of disillusioning those who ask us to explain our beliefs. For example, if someone questions whether the Garden of Eden was really in Missouri, and our only support for that belief is that Joseph Smith said so, regardless of the geographical requirements for Eden set forth in the Bible, that person will likely eventually tire of hearing that type of answer to other questions, and will start doubting far more important things which are much more defensible. Right now, there are droves of people leaving, or losing interest in, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  And the overwhelming majority of them are not bothering to investigate whether some of the things they’ve been taught are actually still true, though those things actually are true and very important. Instead, they’ve come to believe that their questions about church beliefs are likely to be met with improbable, illogical or far-fetched explanations, and that that’s just part of accepting Mormon beliefs.

Yes, I could be wrong on the Melchizedek-Shem question. But if I’m going to be wrong, I want it to be because, despite my having studied the issue with due diligence, the Lord hasn’t revealed enough information on that subject for my views to be fully informed. I don’t want to be wrong because my analysis was slanted toward only considering one side, or because no one proved my view to be impossible.

Footnotes

1. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Ronald F. Youngblood, ed., (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), 1162.

2. Whether Melchizedek didn’t actually die, as with John the Beloved and the “three Nephites” whom Jesus blessed to live on without tasting death until after his second coming, and whether or not he had descendants, the scriptures in the Bible and Book of Mormon don’t say.  But it appears that some of Paul’s scriptural understanding of Melchizedek, to the extent that it contemplated the man himself having neither father nor mother or beginning of days, was in error.  The Book of Mormon prophet Alma clarified this issue, explaining in Alma 13:7-9 that the phrase “without beginning of days” pertained to the priesthood itself, not Melchizedek:

This high priesthood being after the order of [God’s] Son, which order was from the foundation of the world; or in other words, being without beginning of days or end of years, being prepared from eternity to all eternity, according to his foreknowledge of all things—

Now they were ordained after this manner—being called with a holy calling, and ordained with a holy ordinance, and taking upon them the high priesthood of the holy order, which calling, and ordinance, and high priesthood, is without beginning or end—

Thus they become high priests forever, after the order of the Son, the Only Begotten of the Father, who is without beginning of days or end of years, who is full of grace, equity, and truth. And thus it is. Amen.

3.  John Taylor, “Ancient Ruins,” Times and Seasons 5:23 (Dec. 15, 1844), 746.