Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Habemus altare! - We have an Altar!

[UPDATED: See the quote at the end.]

Most people are aware of the slogan "Habemus Papam!" when a new Pope is elected; it means "We have a Pope!" In the case of this post, I'm going to be taking a look at Hebrews 13:10, in which "Habemus altare" appears in the Latin Vulgate translation of the first few words of that verse:
We have an altar whereof they have no power to eat who serve the tabernacle.
While Catholics have pointed out this verse various times in history, particularly against Protestants who reject the Mass is a Sacrifice, I felt it necessary to comment upon it myself since I've not seen a detailed examination of it, only casual references.

I believe the most important place to start is taking a look at the Greek. The Greek word ἔχομεν for "we have" (one word) is a verb in the present-tense. This is important because St Paul, writing years after the Crucifixion, speaks of us Christians having an Altar 'here-and-now' (i.e. presently). Next, the Greek term for "altar" is thysiastērion, which comes from the Greek root-word thysia meaning "sacrifice". This term for "altar" is used about 23 times in the New Testament, and in every case it refers to an actual altar, nothing symbolic. (While I have not surveyed all 437 occurrences of in the Greek Old Testament, a cursory look seems to indicate the same thing.) Thus, the plain reading of the text is explicitly saying Christians presently have a (literal) altar.

But that is not all, the second half of the verse - from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat - reveals more important information. Using the principle of "let Scripture interpret Scripture," and thus compare similar passages, leads to a very interesting set of verses elsewhere in St Paul's writing (particularly where the term "altar" also appears):
Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? (1 Cor 9:13)
Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? (1 Cor 10:18)

Clearly, these are saying the Jews (especially Levitical Priests) are the ones who serve at and partake in the sacrificial food of the Levitical altars. Thus, it's clear that the people in Hebrews 13:10b that "have no right to eat" at the Christian altar are the Jews. This leads to the second important conclusion: Hebrews 13:10 is saying there is a Christian counterpart or version of the Jewish sacrifical food at the Levitical altar.

Lastly, consider the context in which Paul spoke:
9 Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. 10 We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat. 11 The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. 15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
The parts highlighted in red could be used in objection to what's already been presented, so these should be addressed first.

Starting with verse 9b, the contrast is between 'grace' and 'ceremonial foods' - the former "strengthens," the latter "is of no benefit." If St Paul is speaking of the Eucharist, it would be an abomination to say it's of the category that "is of no benefit"! Further, 9b cannot be speaking symbolically or metaphorically, for it's clearly speaking of the literal Levitical sacrifices which are literally eaten - there is no spiritual/symbolic way to read that. And the phraseology of being "strengthened by grace" indicates grace is something real and truly changes us, so it does not make sense to read it as "hearts strengthened by unmerited favor". So the grace in question must be in reference to real transforming power of God, and this is precisely what the Sacraments are channels of. Even the most anti-sacramental Protestants will agree that grace is received by partaking in their purely symbolic, literal bread and wine, in celebrating the Lord's Supper.

The only alternative is to say St Paul is not speaking about the Eucharist in this passage, but as was just noted, the contrast to the literal Levitical sacrificial food is destroyed. The contrast becomes a gnostic 'spirit' versus 'matter' distinction, which has no place in Christianity or this context. And this only makes interpreting verse 10 more difficult, for what is this 'spiritual' altar and 'spiritual' eating that the non-Christians don't partake in? As was mentioned earlier, the term "altar" is never used in a symbolic/spiritual sense (at least that I could find). Interestingly, the Protestant sources I've consulted state this altar is a symbolic reference to Jesus Himself. While I could see someone saying the altar is the Cross in another context ("we presently have a cross" doesn't make much sense), I cannot see any good basis for saying Jesus is the altar. My thesis is that Protestants are forced to say this because conceding the Catholic interpretation spells doom. Throughout Hebrews, Jesus is portrayed as the sacrificial animal and the high priest, but never the altar. Of course even if the altar was simply a synonym for sacrificial animal, it would still entail a very Eucharistic meaning and not do much damage to the Catholic argument. As for the 'spiritual' eating, what are the options? If the meaning is 'spiritually partake in', I don't think that undermines the Catholic interpretation, but more importantly what does it really mean? If it means 'accepting Jesus by faith', then that runs into the problem of verse 9b saying 'the Jews have no right to accept Jesus by faith', which is obviously nonsense. So from an exegetical standpoint, and considering the "alternatives," a literal altar and literal eating make the most sense, which means Paul is speaking of the Eucharist as a Sacrifice.

And that's not all, to buttress the Catholic argument I believe an appeal back to 1 Corinthians 10:18-21 seals the deal:
18 Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? 19 Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.
This is a very famous passage which Catholics have frequently pointed to in regards to proving the Mass is a sacrifice. Clearly, Paul is speaking of the Lord's Supper right in the context of Jewish sacrifices and eating and Pagan sacrifices and eating. There is nothing spiritual or metaphorical here, and such a reading would lead to equivocation. Simply stated: What is the "table of demons" but the pagan altar? Thus the "Lord's table" is the Christian altar. On top of that, texts like Malachi 1:7 show "Lord's Table" is synonymous with "Altar." So not only do we have justification elsewhere in Scripture for reading Hebrews 13:10 the way we do, but the similarity of language (esp v18) almost requires us to see that in Hebrews 13:10.

The final point to address is Hebrews 13:15-16, specifically the talk of "offering a sacrifice of praise" and Christian's good works being considered sacrifices pleasing to God. The question is: do these mentions of "sacrifice" direct how verse 10 is to be understood? The first point I'd make is that Hebrews 13:11-14 must be considered, for it rests between the two texts in consideration. It is clearly speaking of the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:27), and says there is a direct parallel to Christ modeling that ritual. Interestingly, the Day of Atonement didn't involve eating, so this could suggest it's not the same context as verse 10, and instead the start of a new thought terminating with 13:15f. If so, then that question is answered in the negative. If there is a connection, then the next question is: are the "sacrifices" of 13:5f the same as that of 13:10, or even mutually exclusive even if different? There certainly isn't anything mutually exclusive about saying the Eucharist is a sacrifice of praise, as even the Levites had a "sacrifice of thanksgiving" that was still an actual animal sacrifice (Lev 7:12-15), and indeed the very Greek term "Eucharist" comes from 1 Corinthians 11:24 and means "thanksgiving" to God at Communion time. So clearly it can be said they are one in the same, without any contradiction; or if different, there is nothing mutually exclusive about them. This leaves 13:16, which if talking about the Eucharist requires man to be in 'communion' and brotherly love with another, as the Haydock Commentary beautifully notes, and this agrees with St Paul's requirement that Christians be in one mind with one another at Communion time (1 Cor 11). If 13:16 is an appendage, a separate and distinct sacrifice, then obviously there is no direct impact to 13:10.

In conclusion, I believe that in examining the terms, the context, and cross-references, I have strongly proven that Hebrews 13:10 not only fits the Catholic interpretation, which is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass - speaking of altar and eating in the context of liturgy - but that no other Protestant alternatives are plausible. Any attempts to 'spiritualize' the text or make it purely symbolic causes severe violence to the text and are little more than special pleading in order to save Protestantism from being refuted (yet again) by Scripture.


UPDATE: I came across this quote in a well respected Protestant commentary: the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary (talking about the very verse in question, Hebrews 13:10):
The Lord's table represents this altar, the cross; as the bread and wine represent the sacrifice offered on it. Our meat, which we by faith spiritually eat, is the flesh of Christ, in contrast to the typical ceremonial meats. The two cannot be combined (Ga 5:2). That not a literal eating of the sacrifice of Christ is meant in the Lord's Supper, but a spiritual is meant, appears from comparing Heb 13:9 with Heb 13:10
In typical Protestant fashion, these Protestant Scholars reject Transubstantiation and opt for a purely spiritual "eating" at the Lord's Table, but what is key here is that they interpret "We have an altar" as the "Lord's Table"! This is in stark contrast to the numerous other Protestant commentators I've consulted that refuse to concede any ground in that direction (for fear of where it will lead, no doubt).


chuckinlouisiana said...

Couldn't he have been speaking of the literal alter that was still entact in Jeruselem? The temple was destroyed around 70AD and Hebrews was written around 63-64.

Nick said...

Hi Chuck,

I don't think that could work for various reasons, particularly because Paul is speaking to Christians in_contrast_to Jews. The Jews certainly had a literal altar intact in Jerusalem from which they could eat from, so Paul clearly couldn't have been talking about the same altar being used by Christians.

chuckinlouisiana said...

This is a letter to the Hebrew people. The New Testiment Jewish Christians did not reject the tabernacle, the feasts, and many other of the Old Testiment traditions. He could have easily been refering to the fact that he was still a Hebrew and a Christian at the same time. Refering to the Hebrew alter and levitical priestly duties and comparing them to our High Priest, Jesus Christ and his Priestly act of offering His own blood v.12

scotju said...

Chuck, Hebrews was written to warn the Hebrew Christians that the Old Covenant was was finished. Many of them never understood that the Church declared the Mosaic Law null and void at the first church council. As a result, many of them were still teaching the Law was still binding on everybody. Paul knew that the Old Covenant was fading fast, so he had to write Hebrews to warn these people to shuck off the old dying covenant, and embrace the new living one.

Nick said...

Chuck, see the update I made to the article from a major Protestant Bible Commentary.

John Thomson said...

Hi Nick,

It is clear, whatever the precise interpretation, that the Hebrew writer does not envisage a literal earthly altar. This would militate against the central theseis of the book that what Christians have is by faith and 'invisible'. It is 'in heaven' and not 'on earth'. The constant contention of the book is that the earthly, physical and tangible of Judaism to which these jewish Christians were tempted to return was inferior to the intangible and invisible of Christian faith. His paradox is that the tangible is shadow and the intangible is substantial. Thus the altar in Ch 13 like the city in the same chapter is 'heavenly'.

The animals the priest ate and found nourishment from were those killed on the altar. The simple theological point he is making is that a crucified Christ, who is now in heaven is our spiritual food. There is perhaps a play on 'no right to eat'. Firstly he is pointing out that those who stick to Judaism have no rights of access to Christ. Secondly, and even more significantly he is saying that the sacrifice that lay at the very heart of judaism, the day of atonement, was one that even in Judaism was not available to the priests for food - it was burned outside the camp. God was signalling that the redundancy of Judaism; he was not in it. Thus too jesus dies outside the city. Judaism with all its sacrifices in which God found no pleasure was finished.

Indeed Hebrews is signalling the point I make in my post, that all the externality of religion that belongs to Judaism God is finished with. The only reality that pleases him is Christ, who died and is in heaven, the object of the believers hope and trust. He is the 'food' that even in the OT could not be eaten but was burned outside the camp. Thus as believers we 'feed upon his flesh and drink his blood'.

I have no problem with the fact that we do this symbolically in the Lord's supper. But the intention in Hebrews and in John's gospel is much wider. There is no reason whatsoever to limit them to that 'meal'.

Further, you write,

'Even the most anti-sacramental Protestants will agree that grace is received by partaking in their purely symbolic, literal bread and wine, in celebrating the Lord's Supper.'

I do not agree this is the case UNLESS the meal is eaten in faith. As by 'faith' we eat and discern the significance of what we are doing our hearts are strengthened by grace.

I am surprised Nick that you cannot see the radically 'invisible' and spiritual nature of the faith that Hebrews teaches.

Nick said...

Hi John,

Glad you stopped by. I actually don't see the "visible" versus "invisible" dichotomy you see under the headings of Judaism versus Christianity in Hebrews - thus I don't accept your thesis. There is certainly a fulfillment that surpasses the Jewish rites, but that's not to say everything is 'spiritualized' or 'invisible'. If such were indeed the outlook, then even the Sacraments of Baptism and Lord's Supper are nonsense.

The Priesthood which Hebrews says Christ lived out is not an invisible one, but a tangible 'real life' manifestation. And the connection of Jesus to Melchizedek (who offered the Bread and Wine) is no small thing either considering that corresponds directly to Christ's institution.

Exegetically, I don't think you've made a case either, especially considering 1 Corinthians 10:18-21 appeals to the same Jewish eating of the sacrifices contrasted to the Lord's Supper. The term "altar" is used 23 times in the NT (including 1 Cor 10:18) and never in a spiritual/invisible manner, nor an indication this altar is Jesus.

John Thomson said...


I don't think your point that the other references to altar are all to a literal altar has any real weight since almost all these references are to literal/physical Jewish altars and the others to literal/physical pagan altars. The one reference to a Christian altar must be understood for what it is. Since Christianity habitually takes what is literal and makes it spiritual, what is earthly and makes it heavenly, what is a type and makes it Christ (rest, land, sanctuary, temple, mercy seat,sacrifice and so on)we must ask how the literal altar is mogrified in Christianity. No, this statistical appeal is not valid in this case.

Nick said...

Your claim that all other references are to the Jewish or Pagan altars ignores the fact 1 Cor 10:18-21 mentions these right along with the Lord's Supper. This is significant.