ALTAR (Heb. mizbēah, place of slaughter, Gr. bomos, in Acts only, and thysiastērion). In OT times altars were many and varied, their importance seen in the fact that the Hebrew and Greek words appear some 360 times.
With the erection of the tabernacle, altars were constructed by the Hebrews for two chief purposes: the offering of sacrifices and the burning of incense. Moses was commanded to make the altar of burnt offering for the tabernacle exactly as God had commanded him (
Certain bronze utensils were made in connection with the altar. There were pans to hold the ashes, shovels for removing the ashes, basins to receive the blood and to convey it to the varied places for sprinkling, three-pronged flesh hooks with which to remove the flesh, and censers for carrying coals from the altar (
The altar of burnt offering was also in Solomon’s temple, the second temple, and in the temple built by Herod. Its form was altered to fit into the varying sizes of these structures. Solomon made his altar of bronze twenty cubits square and twenty cubits high (
In Zerubbabel’s temple the altar was built first (
Moses was also commanded by God to make “an altar...for burning incense” (
There are no altars recognized in the NT church. While
There is good reason to believe that the need for altars was revealed to man very early as basic in approaching God. The altar played a leading role in all OT worship of the true God, as well as a prominent part in most pagan religions. A careful study of the use of this article of furniture in Israel’s worship furnishes us with many spiritual lessons today. It was the place of sacrifice where God was propitiated and where man was pardoned and sanctified. It looked to the great sacrifice that the
Bibliography: G. B. Gray, Sacrifice in the, 1925; W. F. Albright, Archeology and the , 2d ed., 1946; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, 1961, pp. 406-14; F. F. Bruce, IDB (Supp. Vol.), 1976, pp. 19ff.——HZC
(Lat. altus, “high”). A place where sacrifice is offered. There is frequent mention in the early period of the OT of altars at which various animals were ritually killed. In later years sacrifice was centered on the altar in the Temple at Jerusalem. The death of Christ, being “for all time one sacrifice for sins” (Heb. 10:12 NEB), put an end to sacrificial worship and hence any need for altars. The reference to an altar in Hebrews 13:10 is a reference to the death of Christ. Although both Greek and Latin writers in the early church used the term “table” for the place where the Eucharist was celebrated, the word gradually became replaced by “altar.” This was a consequence of the Eucharist itself being regarded as sacrifice, which partly arose from patristic exegesis of Malachi 1:11, partly from the habit of signs being called by the names of that which they represented.
Altars were originally made of wood, but while the material varied in the East, in the West stone became increasingly the rule. As the material changed, so did the shape from a table to that of a tomb, possibly because the Eucharist was often celebrated at the tomb of a martyr. This latter practice is reflected in the way in which later altars were consecrated by having relics of martyrs placed within them, a practice supported by an interpretation of Revelation 6:9. As altars became fixed they acquired greater architectural importance; churches were built so that the altar was the focal point. In the beginning there was only one altar in each church, but gradually, perhaps under the influence of private masses, altars were multiplied. In Easternthere is only one altar, and only one Eucharist may be celebrated at it during any one day.
At the Reformation, change from the sacrifice of the Mass to the Lord's Supper meant that the altar was replaced both in name and fact by tables usually of wood. The rubrics of therefer only to tables, and these have to be movable. The word “altar,” however, is often popularly used to refer to the Communion table. Where reference is made to a high altar this means the principal altar of the church.
ALTAR (מִזְבֵּחַ, H4640; Gr. θυσιαστήριον, G2603, place of sacrifice; βωμός, G1117, elevated platform).
The common Lat. word for altar was ara. Altare or altarium, from which the Eng. word derives, was late and ecclesiastical. It was a noun formed from the adjective altus, which meant “high,” and implied any raised structure with a flat top, on which offerings to a deity were placed or sacrifice made.
The common Gr. term was bomós which derives, apparently, from baino, “to come” or “go.” The basic meaning would thus appear to be an “approach,” since it was applied originally to any raised platform on which to place something, e.g., a raised parking place for chariots (Iliad 8.441) or the base of a statue (Odyssey 7.100). The early Gr. apparently felt the need of adding the adjective hieros (“holy”) when bomos was used to denote an altar proper. In the NT this Gr. term is used only once, significantly enough in reference to the Athenian altar to the unknown god. The term marks Paul’s characteristic adaptation to his non-Christian audience (
The other twenty-one instances of the word altar in the NT (H. Cremer lists them in his Biblico-Theological Lexicon of
The altar, therefore, in all ancient religious practice took shape from the idea of a raised table of stone or turf (Horace, Odes 1.19.3) on which an offering of blood, and later burned flesh, or even the products of agriculture (
The altar was a feature of universal worship taken over by the worship of the OT and developed as an object of ritual and sanctity. It was the centerpiece of every sanctuary and the place of sacrifice: “An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen....And if you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones; for if you wield your tool upon it you profane it” (
A curious feature of the altar, not adequately explained, is the pointed elevation at the four corners known as the “horns” (
The Heb. altar was constructed without steps, though Canaanitish structures had no such prohibition. The regulation (
All types of altars have been discovered in Canaanitish Pal. They range from the small Early Bronze Age structure of plastered stones, set against a wall in a small temple at Ai, to the mud brick and lime-plastered stone rectangular altars of Middle and Late Bronze Age construction, discovered at Megiddo, Lachish, Bethshan, Hazor, and other places. A large structure of rubble and unhewn stone at Megiddo, an elevation twenty-six ft. in diameter and over four ft. high, is perhaps rather to be called a “high place” than an altar. Such an objection may beg the question if altars generally are, in fact, miniature “high places,” and find at least one root of their origin in a symbolic rendering of the common habit of hilltop sacrifice. Such speculation is inconclusive, and the proliferation of all types of altars in pre-Heb. Pal. is of interest to the Bible student from this major standpoint only. They demonstrate the manner in which the Mosaic code took over, purified, and adapted to its symbolic ritual and monotheistic purposes the forms and practices of alien religion. It is notable, here and elsewhere, how carefully the Pentateuch regulates the construction and use of the altar.
It would appear that the special regulations by which the two altars of the Tabernacle were set up did not preclude the construction and use of the altars authorized in
The altars of the Tabernacle.
The more farfetched speculations of typological teaching need not be accepted along with the ready admission that the Tabernacle was a great object lesson and a demonstration of spiritual truth. Its presence in the midst of the marching or encamped host, and the entire pattern of its worship and ritual, were of prime educative importance for a people which was being molded and instructed for a great historic purpose. With meticulous care every detail of construction and furniture was recorded in the account.
Two altars were specified. One, which stood in the eastern half of the courtyard, was of “brass,” prob. bronze, laid over acacia wood (
The second altar was a smaller piece, one by one by two cubits, made of acacia wood plated with gold (
The placing of the two altars is significant. The altar of burnt offering stood in the eastern part of the court and would thus be the first major feature visible to one who approached the Tabernacle, setting forth symbolically the truth that the shedding of blood provided access and forgiveness for the rebel, a truth spiritualized and consummated in the NT (
The Temple altars.
In the “upper court” (
Early in his reign Ahaz (735-715 b.c.) sought the assistance of Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria against his northern neighbors and won some dearly bought political success. It confirmed him in his apostasy (
It was in the course of this same apostasy that Ahaz removed the bronze altar of Solomon from its place in front of the Temple porch. He coveted this position of honor for his own altar. Solomon’s ancient altar was removed to the N side. Ahaz called his altar “the great altar,” and ordered that all sacrifices should henceforth be made upon it. The old altar, he said, “shall be for me to inquire by.” Does the Heb. mean, “I can wait until I consider what to do with it”? The whole passage in
It is not clear what happened upon Ahaz’ death. In
Perhaps it was this fact, or even the known and visible presence of the piece of sacred furniture in Babylon, which inspired the vision of Ezekiel’s ideal Temple. Through the three gateways which led to the inner court, right in the middle so that it should be in full view, a great altar of burnt offering was projected, a huge stone structure rising in three terraces to a height of eighteen ft., having a breadth and length of twenty-six or twenty-seven ft. at the base. The altar thus placed was to be the center of the sanctuary, for the consciousness was growing that the altar was the one indispensable adjunct to the sacrificial worship and the one vast lack for those in exile. When the first exiles returned to the ruins of Jerusalem, and before they were able to rebuild the Temple, Jeshua erected an altar on the site and instituted the daily ritual (
The second Temple no doubt had its altars, and it is unlikely that the tradition of two altars, established with the Tabernacle, was fundamentally broken. b.c. (
It may be noted, in conclusion, that the growing consciousness of the centrality and importance of the altar in the Temple worship led to the doctrine that the great altar in Jerusalem was the one valid place of sacrifice. Hezekiah seems to have been the first to enforce this, and to have incurred some popular resentment in so doing, if the propagandist taunt of Sennacherib’s envoy be read aright (
The altar in the NT.
In the worship of the Church, as envisaged in its beginnings in the NT, no altar is prescribed. The furniture of Judaistic religion is set aside and all the symbolism of the altar has found fulfillment. This fact, of course, does not preclude a new Christian symbolism which makes use of a formal altar, provided that no practice associated with it conflicts with central theological doctrine.
In all these cases, the NT writers use the LXX coinage, thusiastērion, which literally renders the Heb. word mizbēah (see section 1 above).
The altar of the Areopagus address.
The only NT writer to use the pagan word bomós is Paul, who employs it properly in the context of his address to the Court of the Areopagus to refer to a special feature of the Athenian city scene, the altars to “unknown gods,” of which epigraphical evidence survives. The matter merits a paragraph because of the importance of the address. Paul’s approach was conciliatory and courteous, but perhaps just touched with that irony which was the common fashion of Athenian speech. “Athenians,” said Paul, “I observe that in every way you are uncommonly religious. As I have moved about your city looking at the objects of your worship, I came upon an altar inscribed TO THE UNKNOWN GOD” (
What did the inscr. mean? Plato preserves a tradition that Epimenides, the Cretan religious teacher and miracle worker, was in Athens about 500 b.c. Some said it was 600 b.c., but dates are unimportant in a half-legendary situation. The story was that to combat an epidemic, Epimenides directed the Athenians to loose sheep from Areopagus, and wherever they lay down, they were to build an altar “to the unknown god” of the place and to make sacrifice. Perhaps the story is an etiological myth, a tale invented to explain a visible phenomenon. Perhaps the altars merely represented a scrupulosity which, in a city full of deities from all the Eastern Mediterranean, sought to avoid offense to any in this slightly naive fashion. It is impossible to say more.
The altar of Pergamum.
In the imagery of Revelation is a reference to one of the most famous altars of the ancient world. It stood on the crag of the hill above the Asian city of Pergamum and was described by the Gr. traveler Pausanias. It was discovered in 1871 and taken to Germany, where it stands reconstructed today in the E Berlin Museum, something like a small version of Italy’s elaborate Victor Emmanuel monument in Rome. The structure, a perron of steps leading to a huge altar, commemorated the defeat of a Gallic invasion two centuries before. The roving Celts, who also reached Rome and Delphi in this era of their folk wanderings, infiltrated Asia Minor where they gave their name to Galatia. Pergamum was a royal city and strong enough to drive them off. It celebrated the deliverance with the altar to Zeus. Its frieze represents the gods of Olympus battling with the giants, shown in the sculpture as a brood of muscular warriors with snake-like tails. The Zeus to whom the altar was dedicated was called “Zeus the Savior,” a blasphemous offense to Christian minds. The altar must be the “Satan’s seat” of the letter’s imagery.
There is a curious footnote. One of the recent archeological curiosities was the discovery of the battered marble figure of a giant in the junkyard of the Worksop Town Council, England. Experts from the British Museum have pronounced it to be part of the frieze from Pergamum’s altar, brought to England by the Earl of Arundel two centuries ago, and fallen on evil days when Worksop Manor was demolished. See High Place.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
(mizbeach, literally, "place of slaughter or sacrifice," from zabhach, which is found in both senses; bomos, (only in
I. CLASSIFICATION OF HEBREW ALTARS Importance of the Distinction
II. LAY ALTARS 1. Pre-Mosaic
2. In the Mosaic Age
3. Dangers of the Custom
4. The Mosaic Provisions
III. HORNED ALTARS OF BURNT OFFERING 1. The Tabernacle Altar
2. The Altar of
3. The Altar till Solomon
4. The Horned Altar in Use
5. The Temple of Solomon
6. The Altar of Ahaz
8. The Post-exilic Altar
9. Idolatrous and Unlawful Altars
10. The Horns
IV. ALTARS OF INCENSE V. RECENT ARCHAEOLOGICAL MATERIALS 1. A Gezer Altar
2. The Taanach
LITERATURE A. CRITICAL
I. Classification of Hebrew Altars.
Before considering the Biblical texts attention must be drawn to the fact that these texts know of at least two kinds of altars which were so different in appearance that no contemporary could possibly confuse them. The first was an altar consisting of earth or unhewn stones. It had no fixed shape, but varied with the materials. It might consist of a rock (
Importance of the Distinction:
Both these might be and were called altars, but it is so evident that this common designation could not have caused any eye-witness to confuse the two that in reading the Bible we must carefully examine each text in turn and see to which kind the author is referring. Endless confusion has been caused, even in our own time, by the failure to note this distinction, and the reader can hope to make sense of the Biblical laws and narratives only if he be very careful to picture to himself in every case the exact object to which his text refers. For the sake of clearness different terms will be adopted in this article to denote the two kinds of altars. The first will be termed "lay altars" since, as will be seen, the Law permitted any layman to offer certain sacrifices at an altar of earth or unhewn stone without the assistance of a priest, while the second while be styled "horned altars," owing to their possession of horns which, as already pointed out, could not exist in a lay altar that conformed with the provisions of the law.
II. Lay Altars. 1. Pre-Mosaic:
In Genesis we often read of the erection of altars, e.g.
2. In the Mosaic Age:
Thus Moses found a custom by which the Israelite threw up rude altars of the materials most easily obtained in the field and offered sacrificial worship to God on sundry occasions. That the custom was not peculiar to the Israelites is shown by such instances as that of Balaam (
3. Dangers of the Custom:
But a custom of erecting altars might easily lend itself to abuses. Thus archaeology has shown us one altar--though of a much later date--which is adorned with faces, a practice that was quite contrary to the Mosaic ideas of preserving a perfectly imageless worship. Other possible abuses were suggested by the current practices of the Canaanites or are explained by the terms of the laws.
See HIGH PLACE .
4. The Mosaic Provisions:
Accordingly Moses regulated these lay altars. Leaving the occasion of their erection and use to be determined by custom he promulgated the following laws: "An altar of earth mayest thou make unto me, and mayest sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen; in all the place where I record my name I will come unto thee and I will bless thee. And if thou make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stones; for if thou lift thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Neither mayest thou go up by steps unto mine altar," etc. (
It is a law for laymen, not priests. This is proved by the second person singular and also by the reason given for the prohibition of steps--since the priests were differently garbed. It applies "in all the place where I record my name," not, as the ordinary rendering has it, "in every place." This latter is quite unintelligible: it is usually explained as meaning places hallowed by theophanies, but there are plenty of instances in the history of lay sacrifices where no theophany can be postulated; see e.g.
III. Horned Altars of. 1. The Tabernacle Altar:
2. The Altar of
We read in
3. The Altar till Solomon:
In the subsequent history till the erection of Solomon’s Temple attention need only be directed to the fact that a horned altar existed while the Ark was still housed in a tent. This is important for two reasons. It shows a historical period in which a horned altar existed at the religious capital side by side with a number of lay altars all over the country, and it negatives the suggestion of G. A. Smith (Jerusalem, II, 64) that the bare rock ec-Cakhra was used by Solomon as the altar, since the unhewn rock obviously could not provide a horned altar such as we find as early as
4. The Horned Altar in Use:
Note too that we read here of bringing down from the altar, and this expression implies elevation. Further in
5. The Temple of Solomon:
For the reasons just given it is certain that Solomon used an altar of the horned type, but we have no account of the construction in Kings. According to a note preserved in the Septuagint but not in the Hebrew, Solomon enlarged the altar erected by David on Araunah’s threshing-floor (
6. The Altar of Ahaz:
This king saw an altar in Damascus of a different pattern and had a great altar made for the temple on its model. As the text contrasts the great altar with the altar of bronze, we may refer that the altar of Ahaz was not made of bronze. Whether either or both of these altars had steps (compare
Ezekiel also gives a description of an altar (
8. The Post-exilic Altar:
9. Idolatrous and Unlawful Altars:
It is clear from the historical and prophetical books that in both kingdoms a number of unlawful altars were in use. The distinction which has been drawn between lay altars and horned altars helps to make these passages easy to understand. Thus when Amos in speaking of Bethel writes, "The horns of the altar shall be cut off," we see that he is not thinking of lay altars which could have no horns (
10. The Horns:
The origin of the horns is unknown, though there are many theories. Fugitives caught hold of them (
IV. Altars of Incense.
Solomon also constructed an altar of incense (
V. Recent Archaeological Materials. Recently several altars have been revealed by excavations. They throw light on the Bible chiefly by showing what is forbidden. See especially HIGH PLACE.
1. A Gezer Altar:
Fig. 3 represents an altar found at Gezer built into the foundation of a wall dating about 600 BC. Mr. Macalister describes it in the following words: "It is a four-sided block of limestone, 1 ft. 3 inches high. The top and bottom are approximately 10 1/2 and 9 inches square respectively; but these are only the average dimensions of the sides, which are not regularly cut. The angles are prolonged upward for an additional 1 1/2 inches as rounded knobs--no doubt the `horns’ of the altar. The top is very slightly concave so as to hold perhaps an eighth of a pint of liquid" (PEFS (July, 1907), 196 f). The size suggests an altar of incense rather than an altar of burnt offering, but in view of the general resemblance between the Tabernacle altars of burnt offering and incense, this is a fact of minor importance. On the other hand, the shape, pattern and material are of great interest. That the altar violates in principle the law of
2. The Taanach Altar of Incense:
Importance attaches to a terra cotta altar of incense found by Sellin at Taanach, because its height and dimensions at the base recall the altar of Ex. "It was just 3 ft. high, and in shape roughly like a truncated pyramid, the four sides at the bottom being each 18 inches long, and the whole ending at the top in a bowl a foot in diameter. .... The altar is hollow. .... Professor Sellin places the date of the altar at about 700 BC. .... An incense-altar of exactly the same shape .... but of much smaller size .... has been found quite recently at Gezer in debris of about 1000-600 BC" (Driver, Modern Research, etc., 85). These discoveries supply a grim comment on theories of those critics who maintain that incense was not used by the Hebrews before the time of Jeremiah. The form of the altar itself is as contrary to the principles of the Pentateuch law as any thing could be.
LITERATURE. R. Kittel, Studien zur hebraischen Archaologie und Religions-Geschichte, I and II; Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics; Murray, Illustrated Bible Dictionary; EB, under the word "Altar"; EPC, chapter 6. The discussions in the ordinary works of reference must be used with caution for the reason given in I above.
Harold M. Wiener
I. IN WORSHIP: TABERNACLE AND TEMPLES 1. Patriarchal Altars
2. Sacred Sites
3. Pre-Tabernacle Altars II. THE ALTAR OF BURNT OFFERING; BRAZEN ALTAR 1. Altar before the Tabernacle
2. Its History
3. Altar of Solomon’s Temple
4. Altar of Ezekiel’s Temple
5. Altar of Second Temple
6. Altar of
III. THE ALTAR OF INCENSE (GOLDEN ALTAR) 1. In the Tabernacle
2. Mode of Burning Incense
3. In Solomon’s Temple and Later
4. In Herod’s Temple
5. Symbolism of Incense Burning
B. IN WORSHIP I. In Worship: Tabernacle and Temples.
In the literature of the Bible, sacrifices are prior to altars, and altars prior to sacred buildings. Their first mention is in the case of the altar built by Noah after the Flood (
1. Patriarchal Altars:
The next is the altar built at the place of Shechem, by which Abraham formally took possession, on behalf of his descendants, of the whole land of Canaan (
2. Sacred Sites:
Each of these four spots was the scene of some special revelation of Yahweh; possibly to the third of them (Hebron) we may attribute the memorable vision and covenant of
3. Pre-Tabernacle Altars:
The earliest provision for an altar as a portion of a fixed establishment of religion is found in
II. The Altar of Burnt Offering (The Brazen Altar) (mizbach ha-`olah), (mizbach ha-nechosheth).--(By "brass" throughout understand "bronze.")
1. Altar before the Tabernacle:
The altar which stood before the tabernacle was a portable box constructed of acacia wood and covered on the outside with plates of brass (
2. Its History:
The history of the altar before the tabernacle was that of the tabernacle itself, as the two were not parted during its continuance (see Tabernacle). Their abolition did not take place till Solomon’s temple was ready for use, when the great high place at Gibeon (
3. Altar of Solomon’s Temple:
4. Altar of Ezekiel’s Temple:
5. Altar of Second Temple:
Of the altar of the second temple no measurements are given. It is told only that it was built prior to the temple, and was set upon its base (
6. Altar of Herod’s Temple:
In Herod’s temple a difficulty is found in harmonizing the accounts of the Mishna and Josephus as to the size of the altar. The latter gives it as a square of fifty cubits (BJ, V, v, 6). The key to the solution probably lies in distinguishing between the structure of the altar proper (thirty-two cubits square), and a platform of larger area (fifty cubits square = 75 ft.) on which it stood. When it is remembered that the Cakhra stone is 56 ft in length and 42 ft. in width, it is easy to see that it might form a portion of a platform built up above and around it to a level of this size. The altar, like that of Ezekiel’s plan, was built in diminishing stages; in the Mishna, one of one cubit, and three of five cubits in height, the topmost stage measuring twenty-six cubits square, or, with deduction of a cubit for the officiating priests, twenty-four cubits. Josephus, on the other hand, gives the height at fifteen cubits. The altar, as before, had four horns. Both Josephus and the Mishna state that the altar was built of unhewn stones. The ascent, thirty-two cubits long and sixteen broad, likewise of unhewn stone, was on the south side. See further, TEMPLE, HEROD’s. It is of this altar that the words were spoken, "Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" (
III. The Altar of Incense (Golden Altar) (mizbach ha-qeToreth), (mizbach ha-zahabh).
1. In the Tabernacle:
For other uses of the altar of incense see Horns of the Altar, where it is shown that at the time of the offerings of special sin offerings and on the day of the annual fast its horns were sprinkled with blood. This, with the offering of incense upon it, were its only uses, as neither meal offerings might be laid upon it, nor libations of drink offerings poured thereon (
2. Mode of Burning Incense:
It is probable that the censers in use at the time of the construction of this altar and after were in shape like a spoon or ladle (see Table of Shewbread), which, when filled with live coals from the great altar, were carried within the sanctuary and laid upon the altar of incense (
3. In Solomon’s Temple and Later:
The original small altar made by Moses was superseded by one made by Solomon. This was made of cedar wood, overlaid with gold (
4. In Herod’s Temple:
That the Herodian temple also had its altar of incense we know from the incident of Zacharias having a vision there of "an angel .... standing on the right side of the altar of incense" when he went into the temple of the Lord to burn incense (
5. Symbolism of Incense Burning:
In the apocalypse of John, no temple was in the restored heaven and earth (
W. Shaw Caldecott