In the NT, as in the LXX, the usual term for ‘altar’ is θυσιαστήριον—a word otherwise confined to Philo, Josephus, and ecclesiastical writers—while βωμός, as contrasted with a Jewish place of sacrifice, is a heathen altar. The most striking example of the antithesis is found in 1 Mac 1:54–59. Antiochus Epiphanes erected a small altar to Jupiter—‘the abomination of desolation’ (v. 54)—upon the θυσιαστήριον of the temple, and ‘on the twenty-fifth day of the month they sacrificed upon the idol-altar (βωμός) which was upon the altar of God (θυσιαστήριον).’ The NT contains only a single distinct reference to a pagan altar—the βωμός which St. Paul observed in Athena bearing the inscription Ἀγνώστῳ Θεῷ (Ac 17:23).
- The altar on which sacrifices were presented to God was indispensable to OT religion. Alike in the simple cultus of patriarchal times and the elaborate ritual of fully developed Judaism, its position was central. The altar was the place of meeting between God and man, and the ritual of blood—the supposed seat of life—was the essence of the offering. Whatever details might be added, the rite of sprinkling or dashing the blood against the altar, or allowing it to flow on the ground at its base, could never be omitted. The Levitical cultus was continued in Jerusalem till the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in a.d. 70, and the attitude and practice of the early Jewish-Christian Church in reference to it form an interesting and difficult problem. It has been generally assumed that, when our Lord instituted the New Covenant in His own blood (Mk 14:24, Lk 22:20), He implicitly abrogated the Levitical law, and that, when His sacrifice was completed, the disciples must at once have perceived that it made every altar obsolete. But there is not wanting evidence that enlightenment came slowly; that the practice of the Jewish-Christian Church was not altered suddenly, but gradually and with not a little misgiving. Hort observes that ‘respecting the continued adherence to Jewish observances, nothing is said which implies either its presence or its absence’ (Judaistic Christianity, 42). But there are many clear indications that the first Christians remained Jews—McGiffert (Apostol. Age, 65) even suggests that they were ‘more devout and earnest Jews than they had ever been’—continuing to worship God at the altar in the Temple like all their countrymen. ‘They had no desire to be renegades, nor was it possible to regard them as such. Even if they did not maintain and observe the whole cultus, yet this did not endanger their allegiance.… The Christians did not lay themselves open to the charge of violating the law’ (Weizsäcker, Apostol. Age, i. 46), They went up to the Temple at the hour of prayer (Ac 3:1), which was the hour of sacrifice; they took upon themselves vows, and offered sacrifices for release (21:20, 21); and even St. Paul, the champion of spiritual freedom, brought sacrifices (προσφοράς) to lay on the altar in the Holy City (24:17). The inference that the New Covenant left no place for any altar or Mosaic sacrifice is first explicitly drawn by the writer of Hebrews (see Temple).
- Apart from a passing allusion to the altars which were thrown down in Elijah’s time (Ro 11:3), St. Paul makes two uses of the θυσιαστήριον in the Temple. (1) In vindicating the right of ministers of the gospel to live at the charge of the Christian community, he instances the well-known Levitical practice: ‘those who wait upon the altar have their portion with (συμμερίζονται) the altar’ (1 Co 9:13), part of the offering being burnt in the altar fire, and part reserved for the priests, to whom the law gives the privilege ‘altaris esse socios in dividenda victima’ (Beza). Schmiedel (in loc.) thinks that the reference may be to priests who serve ‘am Tempel der Heiden wie der Juden,’ but probably for St. Paul the only θυσιαστήριον was the altar on which sacrifice was offered to the God of Israel. (2) In arguing against the possibility of partaking of the Eucharist and joining in idolatrous festivals, St. Paul appeals to the ethical significance of sacrifice, regarded not as an atonement but as a sacred meal between God and man. The altar being His table and the sacrifice His feast, the hospitality of table-communion is the pledge of friendship between Him and His worshippers. All who join in the sacrifice are partakers with the altar (κοινωνοὶ τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου), one might almost say commensals with God. ‘According to antique ideas, those who eat and drink together are by the very act tied to one another by a bond of friendship and mutual obligation’ (W. R. Smith, Rel. Sem.2, 247). How revolting it is, then, to pass from the altar of God or, by parity of reasoning, from the τρὰπεζα τοῦ Κυρίου, to the orgies of pagan gods, the τρὰπεζα δαιμονίων.
- The writer of Hebrews refers to the old Jewish altar and to a new Christian one. (1) Reasoning somewhat in the manner of Philo, he notes the emergence of a mysterious priest from a tribe which has given none of its sons to minister at the altar, and on this circumstance bases an ingenious argument for the imperfection of the Levitical priesthood, and so of the whole Mosaic system (He 7:13). (2) Against those Christians who occupy themselves with (sacrificial) meats the writer says: ‘We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat who serve the tabernacle’ (13:10). Few sentences have given rise to so much misunderstanding, ‘Ἔχομεν can only denote Christians, and what is said of them must be allegorically intended, for they have no τῇ σκηνῇ λατρεύοντες, and no θυσιαστήριον in the proper sense of the word’ (von Soden). The point which the writer seeks to make is that in connexion with the great Christian sacrifice there is nothing corresponding to the feasts of ordinary Jewish (or of heathen) sacrifices. Its τύπος is the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement, no part of which was eaten by priest or worshipper, the mind alone receiving the benefit of the offering. So we Christians serve an altar from which we obtain a purely spiritual advantage. Whether the writer actually visualized the Cross of Christ as the altar at which all His followers minister, like λειτουργοί in the Tabernacle,—as many have supposed—is doubtful. Figurative language must not be unduly pressed,
The writer of Rev., whose heaven is a replica of the earthly Temple and its solemn ritual, sees underneath the altar the souls of martyrs—the blood poured out as an oblation (cf. Ph 2:17, 2 Ti 4:6) representing the life or ψυχή—and hears them crying, like the blood of Abel, for vengeance (Rev 6:9, 10; cf. En. 22.5). In 8:3 and 9:13 the θυσιαστήριον is not the altar of burnt-offering but that of incense (see Incense). In 14:18 the prophet sees an angel come out from the altar, the spirit or genius of fire, an Iranian conception; and in 16:7 he personifies the altar itself and makes it proclaim the truth and justice of God.
Literature.—I. Benzinger, Heb. Arch., Freiburg, 1894, p. 378f.; W. Nowack, Heb. Arch., Freiburg, 1894, ii. 17f.; A. Edersheim, The Temple, its Ministry and Services, London, 1874; Schürer, HJP, ii. i. 207f.; W. R. Smith, Rel. Sem.2, London, 1894; J. Wellhausen, Reste arab. Heidenthums, Berlin, 1887, p. 101f.; A. C. McGiffert, Apostol. Age, Edinb. 1897, p. 36f.; C. v. Weizsäcker, Apostol. Age, 2 vols., London, 1894–95, i. 43ff.