Altar or Censor?
Chapter 9:4
Cecil N. Wright

The American Standard Version of Hebrews 9:4 speaks of the Holy of Holies as "having a golden altar of incense" along with the ark of the covenant" and other objects, but in the margin it reads, "Or, censer." And the King James Version and a few others read "the golden censer." But the majority of the newer translations read as does the text of the American Standard Version, including The New King James Bible. And this indicates a textual and/or translation problem that it is well for us to recognize, whether we think we or others have the solution for it or not.

  The Problem Stated

(1) There is no mention of the "altar of incense" in the Holy Place, as distinguished from the Holy of Holies, in the accepted Greek text of Hebrews in the New Testament scriptures, whereas it is a prominent feature in the Old Testament text. (2) There is likewise no mention in the Old Testament text of a "golden censer" in either the Holy Place or the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle, as in the Hebrews text of the King James Version -- though a censer was used for the burning of incense by the high priest "within the veil" (Leviticus 16:12-13) -- that is, inside the Most holy place, where he entered once a year.

  As Macknight, in his Apostolical Epistles, comments: "The apostle may [emphasis added, because likewise he may not] have learned from the priests, that the censer used by the high-priest on the day of atonement was of gold, and that it was left by him in the inward tabernacle, so near the vail, that, when he was about to officiate next year, by putting his hand under the veil he could draw it out to fill it with burning coals, before he entered the most holy place to burn incense, agreeably to the direction, Levit.16:12,13."

  But, if so (even if there is no proof of it in scripture), there is yet the glaring fact that no "altar of incense" is mentioned in Hebrews as being in the Holy Place, as in the Old Testament text, and no mention in the Old Testament text of such an altar being within the Most Holy Place. And we are still left to search for the simplest explanation that explains the most in the most satisfactory manner. So we begin with the relevant Old Testament texts, and then work our way from there.

  Relevant Old Testament Texts

1. Exodus 25-27; 30:1-21 (supplementary), Instructions for Making and Use of the Tabernacle and Its Furniture and Court: (a) Sanctuary or Tabernacle (25:1-9); (b) Ark, with testimony placed in it (25:10-16); (c) Mercy-seat with cherubim above it, placed upon the ark (25:17-22); (d) Table of showbread (25:23-30); (e) Candlestick, with its lamps (25:31-40); (f) Curtains, for covering of tabernacle (26:1-14); (g) Boards, overlaid with gold, for walls (26:15-30); (h) Veil, to separate the Holy Place and Most Holy Place, with ark and its mercy-seat in MOST HOLY PLACE, and with table and candlestick "without the veil" on the south and north sides respectively of HOLY PLACE (26:31-35); SCREEN for door of Tent (26:36-37) -- by which the Tent was entered; Altar of burnt offering, overlaid with brass (27:1-8), to be placed in Court of the Tabernacle before the door of the Tent; Court of Tabernacle (27:9-19).

SUPPLEMENTARY: (a) Altar of incense, overlaid with gold, and placed "before the veil [NIV, "in front of the curtain"] that is by [NIV, "before"] the ark of the testimony, before the mercy-seat that is over the testimony" (30:1-10), which may mean it was centered in the Holy Place as the ark and mercy-seat likely were centered in the Most Holy Place -- hence, in the fore part of the tabernacle, which was analogous to that part of the "temple of the Lord" where Zacharias, a priest (but not high priest) and father of John the Baptist, burned incense, and where the "altar of incense" was located (Luke 1:8-11) -- that is, in the HOLY PLACE, not the Most Holy Place, where only the high priest could enter; (b) Laver, made of brass, placed outside the Tent of meeting and between it and the altar (of burnt offering), for Aaron and his sons (high priest and priests) to wash their hands and feet before ministering either inside the Tent or at the altar on the outside (30:17-21).

2. Exodus 40:1-8, Instructions for Rearing of Tabernacle and Placement of Furniture: (a) Rear TABERNACLE of the Tent of meeting (vs.1-2); (b) Place ark of the testimony in the Tabernacle, and screen it with the VEIL (vs.3) -- which would put it within the veil and thus in the Most Holy Place; (c) Bring in table and candlestick (vs.4); (d) Place the golden altar for incense before the ark of the testimony (which would be next to the veil and likely centered rather than being on either side of the Holy Place, just as the ark was likely centered in the Most Holy Place), and put the screen of the DOOR to the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting (vs.5) -- which would put the table, candlestick, and altar of incense between the two screens, or inside the Holy Place; (e) Set the altar of burnt offering before the door of the Tabernacle (vs.6) -- which would be outside the Tabernacle; (f) Set the laver between the Tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it (vs.7); (g) Set up the COURT round about, and hang up the SCREEN of the gate (that is, the gateway) of the court (vs.8).

3. Exodus 40:17-33, Account of Rearing Up of Tabernacle and Placing Its Furniture: (a) TABERNACLE itself reared up (vs.17-19); (b) "Testimony" put into ark, mercy-seat placed above it, and they were put in the Tabernacle and screened with the VEIL (vs.20-21) -- thus separating them from what is mentioned next; (c) Table (for showbread) placed in Tabernacle on north side "without the veil" (vs.22-23) -- that is, in the Holy Place, separated from the Most Holy Place by the veil; (d) Candlestick placed on south side of Tabernacle opposite the table of showbread on the north side (vs.24-25); (e) Golden altar for incense placed in tent of meeting "before the veil" (vs.26027) -- that is, "in front of the curtain" (NIV) that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place; (f) SCREEN of the door (doorway) to the Tabernacle was placed (vs.28) -- separating the Holy Place and its furniture from the court outside; (g) Altar of burnt-offering set at the door of the Tabernacle (vs.29) -- but outside of it; (h) Laver placed between the Tent of meeting and altar, where Aaron and his sons (high Priest and priests) washed their hands and feet when they went into the tent of meeting and when they came near the altar (of burnt offering) (vs.30-31); (i) COURT round about the Tabernacle and altar reared up, and SCREEN of the gate of the court set up (vs.33).

The Greek Text of Hebrews 9:4

The Greek word translated in the older versions as "censer" and in most newer versions as "altar," is thumiaterion, from thumiao, to burn incense. It occurs in the New Testament in this passage only, and in the LXX (Greek translation of the Old Testament) only twice, in 2 Chronicles 26:19 and Ezekiel 8:1, and in both places it is spoken of as being held in the hand, and in all Old Testament versions of which I am aware the translation in these passages is "censer." Moreover, "In the inscriptions, papyri,, and classical Greek the meaning of thumiaterion seems to be censer" (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [1960] on Hebrews 9:4).

The usual word in the LXX for "altar," and in the New Testament also, is thusiasterion, which makes a strong case for translating the other word as "censer" in Hebrews as well as in 2 Chronicles and Ezekiel, as the older versions do. And, since the writer of Hebrews makes use mostly of the LXX in his references to and quotations from the Old Testament, the case for translating thumiaterion as "censer" is made stronger still. In fact, Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (New One-Volume Edition, 1952), a reputable and widely used work, under "CENSER" makes no mention of any other meaning for the latter Greek word.

Yet, over against such considerations, is the fact that Philo (dying about A.D, 50) and Josephus (dying about A.D. 95), both partially contemporary with the writer of Hebrews and both noted Jewish writers using Greek, employed thumiaterion when speaking of the golden altar along with the candlestick and the table in the Holy Place. And later, two other writers, Clement of Alexandria (dying A.D. 215) and Origen (A.D. 185?-245?), did likewise. That would indicate the possibility that the word simply meant, or had at least come to mean, an instrument or a place connected with the offering of incense, and so could mean either a "censer" or an "altar" used for burning incense, and that the writer of Hebrews uses it in the latter sense -- a viewpoint reflected in the majority of modern translations.

Moreover, according to Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, both Philo and Josephus, mentioned above, used thumiaterion and thusiasterion interchangeably for the golden altar of incense -- at times one, and at other times the other. Also that, according to The Expositor's Greek Testament, two Greek translations of the Hebrew Old Testament -- by Theodotion, about the middle of 2nd century A.D. (before 160), and by Symmachus, about the beginning of the 3rd century (the 200s A.D.) --- both employ thumiaterion for "altar of incense" in Exodus 31. (The chapter citation, however, is obviously a typographical error, and should be corrected to read Exodus 30 -- verses 1-10 being the part that is applicable).

Agreeably with what we conceded above as a possibility, is need now to be noted that Thayer says thumiaterion properly refers to "a utensil for fumigating or burning incense. Arndt & Gingrich, in their Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, likewise say that the word means "properly a place or vessel for the burning of incense," and "usually a censer." But they add: "However, Hb 9:4 altar of incense (as Hdt.2,162; Aelian, V.H.12,51; esp. Of the altar of incense in the Jewish temple: Philo, Rer. Div. Her.220, Mos.2,94; Jos., Bell.5,218, Ant 3,147; 198." Also, Moulton and Milligan, in their Vocabulary of the Greek Testament Illustrated from the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources, cite several 2nd century sources of its use, in some of which it refers to a censer "obviously," and "in many contexts we cannot say whether the censer was fixed or movable" -- that is, whether it would be thought of as an altar or as a censer in terms of the foregoing definitions.

The sum and substance, then, of the foregoing is that the writer of Hebrews most assuredly could have used the Greek word that he did in the sense of "altar of incense," but falls short of proving that he did. If he did, however, that only solves one problem by creating another: (1) It relieves us of having to wonder why he would omit the mention of a piece of tabernacle furniture referred to as prominently as it is in the Old Testament, and substitute "golden censer" not mentioned at all in the Old Testament scriptures as a furnishing of the tabernacle; but (2) it associates the "golden altar of incense" with the Most Holy Place, whereas the Old Testament scriptures give its location as the Holy Place.

So, unless there can be such an association in some sense without its being physically "in" the Most Holy Place, we still have a contradiction between the text of Hebrews and the Old Testament texts. For the text of Hebrews 9:4 speaks of the Holy of Holies as "having" a "golden altar of incense" (if that translation is correct), whereas the Old Testament evidence is overwhelming that the altar of incense was located in the Holy Place, next to the veil separation it from the Most Holy Place, but not "in" the Most Holy Place itself.

Therefore, we are faced with the question as to whether the expression "having (echousa) a golden altar of incense" is sufficiently comprehensive or flexible to admit of the meaning of belonging in some sense without necessarily having it within? Or does it require us to understand the writer as meaning beyond any doubt that the "altar of incense" was indeed within the Most Holy Place? The answer to that question is crucial to any satisfactory solution to the problem posed at the outset of this review.

Upon a little reflection, it seems necessary to admit of the possibility regardless of whether the probability is conceded or not. Each of us has a heart, liver, and lungs within the cavity of the body, and likewise arms and legs as appendages outside the body. And in the same sense the "golden altar of incense" surely could have been considered an appendage of the Holy of Holies, although not spatially within it. And we shall be noticing that later.

But, as of now, we still have the question, What is the simplest explanation that explains the most in the most satisfactory manner? And the answer, so far as each is concerned, will depend somewhat on one's attitude toward the scriptures and their human authors. There are two main types of approach we wish to consider on the part of those who believe "altar of incense" instead of "censer" to be the correct translation in the passage under consideration, besides two others that have never gained much currency. We shall begin with the latter.

 Efforts at Explaining Apparent Contradiction

1. Possible Reference to Solomon's Temple Instead of Tabernacle (1 Kings 7:48-50; 2 Chronicles 4:19-22): It is true that "censers" ("firepans," American Standard Version) are mentioned as being in Solomon's Temple, but as part of the lavish furnishings of the Holy Place (unless they were stored elsewhere in "the house of God" but used in the Holy Place and possibly elsewhere also) -- not as being in the Most Holy Place, called "the oracle." The latter is not described till the 8th chapter of 1 Kings and 5th chapter of 2 Chronicles, respectively, and is there not referred to as having any furniture except the ark of the covenant and the cherubim covering it. (See vs.6-8 and vs. 7-8, respectively, in the above chapters.)

  The items of stationary furniture for the Holy Place are stated as (1) the golden altar, (2) table of showbread, and (3) candlesticks (ten of them instead of one as in the Tabernacle, and situated "before the oracle" instead of located on the south side as in the Tabernacle). And accessories are listed as flowers and lamps (parts or else spare parts of the lampstands or "candlesticks"), and tongs, cups, snuffers, basins, spoons, and firepans ("censers," King James Version, "ash pans" in margin) -- all of gold. Most of the accessories are thought to have been for use in connection with servicing the lamps and the altar of incense, and possibly the table of showbread.

  Incidentally, the Hebrew word (machtah) used in the foregoing passages and translated either "censer"/"ash pan" (KJV or "firepan" (ASV), in not the one that occurs in 2 Chronicles 26:19 and Ezekiel 8:11, namely, miqtereth, translated thumiaterion in the LXX and "censer" in the English versions. And in the foregoing passages referred to, there is neither a golden miqtereth nor a golden machtah referred to as being in the "oracle" or Most Holy Place of Solomon's Temple. So those passages offer no assistance whatever in dealing with the problem of Hebrews 9:2-4.

  2. Wilson's Emphatic Diaglott (1864): This is a work based upon Griesbach"s recension of the Greek text and various readings of the Vatican Manuscript, so called on account of having been in the Vatican Library since at least 1481. In reference to Hebrews 9:2, Wilson explains in a footnote as follows: "The reading of the Vatican MS. Has been adopted as giving a solution of an acknowledged difficulty, and as perfectly harmonizing with the Mosaic account." And he renders it thus: "For a tabernacle was prepared -- the first -- in which were both the lamp-stand, and the table, and the loaves of the presence, AND THE GOLDEN ALTAR OF INCENSE [capitals added]; this is named the Holy Place." And he omits reference in v.4 to the Most Holy Place "having a golden censer."

  This does indeed harmonize with the Mosaic account. But it seems as if this is the only such reading in all the abundance of manuscripts extant; and Westcott and Hort, who prized the Vatican Manuscript very highly (much too highly, some have thought), in their New Testament in Greek, include it in their "List of Noteworthy Rejected Readings" instead of in their Greek text. They testify though to its using the Greek word thumiaterion" in 9:2 and omitting it in 9:4. So that does put Wilson's Emphatic Diaglott on the side of those who would translate the word "altar of incense" as well as "censer," according to context. But it has such infinitesimal support that it is exceedingly precarious to rest a case upon it.

  (NOTE: Though there are multiple sources for the next two approaches to resolving the apparent contradiction between the text of Hebrews 9:4 as it occurs in generally accepted Greek readings and the Old Testament texts on the subject, we shall select only one as representative of the rest in their respective categories.)

  3. The Cambridge Commentary on the New English Bible (1967): "Exod.30:6 say it [the altar of incense] stands ‘before the veil . . . before the mercy seat; and Exod.40:26 shows that this means outside the veil. Our writer seems to have followed Exod.30:6 and to have thought that the golden altar was inside the veil."

  That is equivalent to saying "our writer" did indeed use "having" in the sense of having the "altar of incense" in the Most Holy Place, but misunderstood the Old Testament scripture he followed and therefore was mistaken. That, however, gives him no credit for being either (a) divinely inspired (which likely the commentator, being a liberal, did not intend to do), or (b) the astute student of the Old Testament scriptures that his epistle otherwise shows him to be (if not inspired). It is equivalent to saying he either (1) did not know that the Old Testament scriptures represent the altar of incense as having been located in the Holy Place instead of in the Most Holy Place, or else knowing some of them do, (2) thought them to be in error -- either of which is surely unthinkable if there is any solution otherwise -- which we are convinced there is. Surely, then, the explanation given above is to be categorically rejected.

  (NOTE: The next quotation is an excerpt from one long paragraph in the original, but will here be divided into several sub-paragraphs for greater eases of separating and comprehending its succession of thoughts. While it, too, favors the translation of "altar of incense" instead of "censor," it presents an altogether different rationale, that does not have the objectionable qualities of that presented above, whether entirely accurate in all details or not. It argues its case vigorously, from various angles, and is recommended for serious consideration before either accepting or rejecting its major thrust and thesis.

  4. The Pulpit Commentary (1950) reprint): "Between them [the table of showbread and the golden candlestick], close to the veil stood the golden altar of incense; which, nevertheless, is not mentioned here as part of the furniture of the ‘first tabernacle,' being associated with the ‘second,' for reasons which will be seen. The ‘second veil' was that between the holy place and holy of holies (Ex.26:35), the curtain at the entrance of the holy place (Ex.36:37) being regarded as the first. The inner sanctuary behind the veil is spoken of as having (echousa) in the first place ‘a golden censer,' as the word thumiaterion is translated in the A.V. (so also in the Vulgate, thuribulum).

  "But it assuredly means, ‘golden altar of incense,' though it stands locally outside the veil. For (1) otherwise there would be no mention at all of this altar, which was so important in the symbolism of the tabernacle, and so prominent in the Penteteuch, from which the whole description is taken.

"(2) The alternate view of its being a censer reserved for the use of the high priest, when he entered behind the veil on the Day of Atonement, has no support from the Pentateuch, in which no such censer is mentioned as a part of the standing furniture of the tabernacle, and none of gold is spoken of at all; nor, had it been so, would it have been placed, any more than the altar of incense, within the veil, since the high priest required it before he entered.

  "(3) Though the word itself, thumiaterion, certainly means ‘censer,' and not ‘altar of incense,' in the LXX., yet in the Hellenistic writers it is otherwise. Philo and Josephus, and also Clemens Alexandrinus and Origen, always call the altar of incense thumiaterion chrusoun; and the language of the Epistle is Hellenistic.

  "(4) The wording does not of necessity imply that what is spoken of was locally within the veil: it is not said (as where the actual contents of the ‘first tabernacle' and the ark are spoken of) wherein (en he), but having (exousa), which need only mean having as belonging to it), as connected with its symbolism. It was an appendage to the holy of holies, though not actually inside it, in the same way (to use a homely illustration given by Delitzsch) as the sign-board of a shop belongs to the shop and not to the street.

  "It is, indeed, so regarded in the Old Testament. See Ex.40:5, ‘Thou shalt set the altar of gold for the incense before the ark of the testimony'; also Ex.30:6, ‘Before the mercy-seat that is over the testimony'; and 1 Kings 6:22, ‘The altar which was by the oracle,' or belonging to the oracle'; cf. Also Isa.6:6 and Rev.8:3, where, in the visions of the heavenly temple based upon the symbolism of the earthly, the altar of incense is associated with the Divine throne.

  "And it was also so associated in the ceremonial of the tabernacle. The smoke of the incense daily offered on it was supposed to penetrate the veil to the holy of holies, representing the sweet savour of intercession before the mercy-seat itself; and on the Day of Atonement, not only was its incense taken by the high priest within the veil, but also it, as well as the mercy-seat, was sprinkled with the atoning blood."

  Observations on Foregoing from Pulpit Commentary

1. Why selected to Represent Its Class. The foregoing has been presented because its main thrust, not necessarily all its details, is one of the most thoroughly and convincingly argued presentations in its category examined for this study, and its basic thesis is presented by a number of highly respectable commentaries as practically self-evident. We mention two.

(1) The Expositor's Bible: "To it [the Most Holy Place] belonged the altar of incense (for so we must read in the fourth verse, instead of ‘golden censer'), although its actual place was in the outer sanctuary [the Holy Place]. It stood in front of the veil that the high-priest might take the incense from it, without which he was not permitted to enter the holiest; and when he came out, he sprinkled it with blood as he had sprinkled the holiest place itself."

(2) The Epistle to the Hebrews, by Charles R. Erdman: "The author mentions the ‘golden altar of incense' as belonging to the Holy of Holies because of its close association with this most holy place in the ancient ritual. The altar represented worship; the Holy of Holies symbolized the manifestation of God. Thus the two are placed in immediate connection."

It is only fair to say, however, that there are a number of translations that do not lend support to the foregoing position, but rather to that of the The Cambridge Commentary on the New English Bible, which is presented above before quoting from The Pulpit Commentary. Instead of translating the Greek word echousa ("having"), they substitute an interpretative word or phrase, as Goodspeed (the altar of incense "stood" in the Most Holy Place), Moffatt (the Holy Place ‘containing" it), Good News Bible (it was "in" the Most Holy Place, New English Bible ("here" was the altar of incense "beyond the second curtain") -- a list that could be extended.

But among those rendering echousa literally, and thus as "having" (or "had"), as construed by The Pulpit Commentary and others of its class, are, in alphabetical order, the Amplified New Testament, American Standard Version, Berry's Interlinear, Emphatic Diaglott (though omitting either "golden altar of incense" or "golden censer" from the list the Most Holy Place is said to have), Jerusalem Bible, King James Version, Living Oracles, Marshall's Interlinear, New American Standard Bible, New International Version, New King James Bible, Revised Standard Version, Rotherham, Weymouth -- likewise a list that could be extended.

2. Statements Subject to Challenge. A few statements of the above quotation from The Pulpit Commentary, though not of the essence of its main thrust, nevertheless invite question if not challenge. And it is only fair to call attention to them on the basis of the biblical principle, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

(1) In argument (2) it is stated that if a golden censer had been reserved for use of the high priest behind the veil on the Day of Atonement, it would not "have been placed, any more than the altar of incense, within the veil, since the high priest required it before he entered."

At the outset, we quoted Macknight as saying the writer of Hebrews "may have learned from the priests that the censer used by the high-priest on the day of atonement was of gold, and that it was left by him in the inward tabernacle, so near to the veil, that, when he was about to officiate next year, by putting his hand under the veil he could draw it out to fill with burning coals, before he entered into the most holy place to burn incense." And we underscored his word "may," saying we were doing so because likewise he may not have so learned.

Now by the same token, we have to say that, while the censer may not have been stored in the Most Holy Place near the veil so as to have been drawn out by the high priest putting his hand under the veil and reaching it, it is surely too much to say it would not have been stored there "since the high priest required it before he entered." For he might have obtained it in the way mentioned by Macknight, before going in and burning incense upon it, in case it was thus stored.

(3) In argument (3) it is suggested that since the language of the Epistle to the Hebrews is "Hellenistic," and the Hellenistic writers as Philo and Josephus, and also Clemens Alexandrinus and Origen, "always call the altar of incense thumiaterion chrusoun," the writer of Hebrew s would do likewise instead of using thumiaterion in the sense of "censer" as done by the LXX, as if the LXX itself was not Hellenistic, which it was.

The word "Hellenistic" derives from Hellen, the mythological ancestor of the Hellenes, or Greeks, who originally lived in Greece, or Hellas (the Greek word for Greece). And another word having the same derivation is Hellenic." These two terms as applied to language, culture, and the like, have reference to such in two historical periods separated by the conquest of Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C. -- the one prior referred to as Hellenic or classical, and the latter spoken of as Hellenistic. The LXX postdated Alexander the Great by more than a century, and was a Hellenistic translation in the sense just mentioned.

But "Hellenistic" may have been used by The Pulpit Commentary in contrast with "Hebraistic," pertaining to "Hellenists," or Grecians, in contrast to "Hebraists," or Hebrews. In Acts 6:1 we have mention of "Hellenists" (Grecians) as distinguished from "Hebrews" -- the former being Jews of the Dispersion and of Greek culture and language, and the latter being Jews of Palestine, whose culture was basically Hebraic and Hebrew (Aramaic) their native language. The LXX was itself a translation by Hellenists, to put the Hebrew thought of the Old Testament scriptures into Helleistic or Greek language.

The Hellenists who translated the LXX were closer to the Hellenic period than the writer of Hebrew and his contemporaries, and may have had a closer affinity to classical Greek than to the Koine Greek of the New Testament period. Yet the LXX was nevertheless the Old Testament of the Jewish as well as Gentile Christians of the first century A.D., and they were so familiar with it that the writer of Hebrews made use of it predominantly. So there does not seem to be lot at stake in whether he was Hellenistic in contrast with being either "Hellenic" or "Hebraic."

Moreover, remember that under the caption of "The Greek Text of Hebrews 9:4, "we called attention to the fact that the Hellenistic writer Josephus is cited by Thayer as using thumiaterion, the word in Hebrews 9:4, for both "censer" and altar of incense." That completely nullifies the argument of The Pulpit Commentary cited above against understanding thumiaterion in the sense of "censer" because Hebrews is a Hellenistic Epistle. It rather means that other considerations have to indicate which is meant, not simply the word itself.

4. At first it may seem that argument (4) above is itself also a little far-fetched. But the more one thinks about the word "having," the more it becomes apparent that it may indeed be used of "belonging to" without at all indicating physical location. As remarked earlier, each of us has a heart, liver, and stomach, which are within the cavity of the physical body, but also legs and arms, which are appendages of the body but not located inside of it with the organs just named. Most people also "have" possessions that are not even appendages -- such as houses or lands or automobiles, or whatever. So the "homely illustration of Delitzsch" of a shop "having" a sign-board that belongs to the shop rather than the street though it is outside the shop, becomes a quite apt illustration of how the "golden altar of incense" could belong to the Most Holy Place though not in it -- that is, because of the close relation between them, that is explained in the scriptures.

And that seems to make both irrefutable and compelling, the conclusion and emphasis of The Expositor's Greek Testament, that the change form "wherein" in Hebrews 9:2 to "having" in 9:4, is not incidental but purposeful and meaningful, as follows:

"As has been frequently urged it is incredible that in describing the furniture of the tabernacle there should be no mention of the altar of incense. Difficulty has been felt regarding the position here assigned to it, for in fact it stood outside the veil; and the author has been charged with error. But the change from en he [wherein], to echousa [having] is significant, and indicates that it was not precisely its local relations he had in view, but rather its ritual associations, ‘its close connection with the ministry of the Holy of Holies on the day of atonement, of which he is speaking' (Davidson). They altar was indeed so strictly connected with the Sancta Sanctorum that in the directions originally given for its construction this was brought out (Exod.30:1-6). ‘Thou shalt set it before the veil (apenanti t. katapetasmatos) that is over the ark of the testimony, and in ver.10, ‘it is most holy (hagion ton hagion) to the Lord.'"

It needs also to be remarked with reference to v.10, that in its entirety it reads: "And Aaron shall make atonement upon the horns of it [the altar of incense] once in the year; with the blood of the sin-offering of atonement once in the year shall he make atonement for [margin, Or, upon] it throughout your generations: it is most holy to Jehovah." This was similar to what was done in the Most Holy Place itself in connection with the mercy-seat, where incense was also burned (Leviticus 16:11-14,15-16).

Moreover, in Leviticus 4 it is stated that for sins unwittingly committed by high priest or congregation (obviously during the year between annual days of atonement, when the Most Holy Place could not be entered), the blood of the animal offered for sin was to be brought inside the tent of meeting by the anointed priest, sprinkled before the veil (separating the Holy and Most Holy places), and put "upon the horns of the altar of sweet incense before Jehovah, which is in the tent of meeting" (vs.1-12, 13-26). This again was similar to what was done in the Most Holy Place itself in connection with the mercy-seat, where incense was also burned (Leviticus 16:11-14, 15-16).

Moreover, in Leviticus 4 it is stated that for sins unwittingly committed by high priest or congregation (obviously during the year between annual days of atonement, when the Most Holy Place could not be entered), the blood of the animal offered for sin was brought inside the tent of meeting by the anointed priest, sprinkled before the veil (separating the Holy and Most Holy places), and put "upon the horns of the altar of sweet incense before Jehovah, which is in the tent of meeting" (vs.1-12, 13-26). This again was similar to what was done in the Most Holy Place itself in connection with the mercy-seat, where incense was also burned (Leviticus 16:11-14, 15-16).

No other article of furniture in the Holy Place is spoken of as having so much affinity, so much in common, with the Most Holy Place.

Conclusion and Explanation

  As a result of the cumulative impact of factors found to have a bearing on the subject in hand, the writer of this review has had to reverse the conviction with which he began. He started out with the persuasion that in Hebrews 9:4 the rendering of "the golden censer" (King James Version) is preferable to that of "a golden altar of incense" (American Standard Version). (By the way, there is no "the" in the Greek text, so that "a) is perfectly permissible.) He recognized the possibility of thumiaterion being translated as either "censer" or "altar of incense," depending on context. But he considered the fact that the writer of Hebrews used the LXX predominantly in his quotations from and allusions to the Old Testament writings, and that the only use in the LXX of thumiaterion was for "censer," made it probable that such was also the use made of it in Hebrews 9:4. That he thought to be the simplest explanation that explains the most, in the most satisfactory manner.

  And Robert Milligan, who had had a part in shaping my previous interpretation, in his commentary on Hebrews published in 1875, which is still one of the finest available, at which time our topic was highly controversial and he endeavored to represent all major viewpoints fairly, concluded by saying: "On the whole I agree with Alford, and I might say with the majority of commentators both ancient and modern, that the ‘balance inclines toward the censer interpretation; though I do not feel by any means that the difficulty is wholly removed; and I would hail with pleasure any new solution which might clear it still further.'"

  It is my conviction that in my research this time, which is far more extensive than any I had ever made or could take time for before or even expected for now, and finding data not mentioned by Milligan, I may have discovered details that had not come to his attention -- details that would tip the balance the other way for him as they have for me. These make me more comfortable now with the "altar" interpretation -- yet not so wedded to it that further information to the contrary could not tip the balance back to the "censer" interpretation. And I have shared said data in this review for the consideration and evaluation of the reader for himself, not to try to impose my newly-arrived-at persuasion on him or her. Moreover, instead of simply giving my conclusions, I have written out something of the process of my own investigation and reasoning for whatever it may be worth.

  To do so, however, has taken far more space than anticipated at the outset, for then I had only charted somewhat the route I would take, not the details I would include as I discovered what to me were significant ones for evaluation. Furthermore, parts of it may be too detailed and/or technical for the interests of some. But such is included for my own record as well as for the benefit of any others who may be interested in it.

  It might also be mentioned that frequently I found material that would have been useful in sections already written, and went back and made use of it there. That means that some thoughts are reflected earlier in the review than they occurred in the process of research and original writing. In case some items appear to be tacked on somewhere rather than integrated with the rest, what has just been mentioned may be the reason for it.

  With these explanations, it is hoped that the serious student will read and ponder the foregoing several times -- because it may be too much to be digested at one reading.

ADDENDUM

Synopsis and Comparison of Interpretation Options

This is to give a summary presentation of viewpoints already discussed and documented, in order to bring them to a focus for easier comparison and evaluation -- two involving "golden censer" interpretation, and three involving "golden altar of incense" interpretation.

1. "Golden Censer" Interpretation, in Reference to the Tabernacle: (a) Would have been favored linguistically in Hellenic or classical Greek, but not in Hellenistic Greek as previously supposed by some -- including myself before the present extensive research; (b) omits any mention at all of the "golden altar of incense" anywhere in the tabernacle, whereas it is prominently featured in Old Testament texts (c) no censer mentioned in either Old Testament texts or other historical records I have seen cited as being furniture "in" the Most Holy Place, and none of gold mentioned as being used in it. Unless and until historical evidence is produced in its favor, this interpretation has now to be regarded as conjectural and therefore as less than satisfactory.

2. "Golden Censer" interpretation, in Possible Reference to Solomon's Temple Instead of Tabernacle: But (a) the writer of Hebrews makes no obvious reference to the temple structure, but to the tabernacle "pitched" by man (8:2) and "made" by Moses (8:5); and (b) and no mention is made in the scriptures of the temple "oracle" (Most Holy Place) as having any furniture but the ark of the covenant and the cherubim covering it. So the scriptures describing Solomon's temple offer no assistance toward resolving the problem of Hebrews 9:2-4.

3. "Altar of Incense" Interpretation, but Placing the Altar in the Holy Place; This occurred in the version of Benjamin Wilson's Emphatic Diaglott (1864). His explanation was: "The reading of the Vatican MS. Has been adopted as giving a solution of an acknowledged difficulty, and as perfectly harmonizing with the Mosaic account." That it does, but is a reading that seems to have no support from any other of the abundant manuscripts extant, and among textual scholars is considered spurious. Even Westcott and Hort, who prized the Vatican Manuscript as a whole quite highly (too highly, some have thought), instead of including it in their recension of The New Testament in Greek, placed it in their "List of Noteworthy Rejected Readings." So, Wilson's version at this point has such infinitesimal support that it is precarious to adopt it.

4. "Altar of Incense" Interpretation, but Believing the Writer of Hebrews to Have Mistakenly Thought the Golden Altar Was Inside the Veil" -- that is, inside the Most Holy Place. Such is set forth in The Cambridge Commentary on the New English Bible (1967. It reflects, however, against (a) not only the inspiration of the writer of Hebrews, but against (b) his Old Testament understanding, which seems otherwise too great for him to have made a blunder like that, had he been inspired. Therefore, it cannot be accepted as a satisfactory solution.

  Much more acceptable would be A.E. Harvey's comment in his Companion to the New Testament (of the New English Bible), saying: "It is strange that this writer seems to think of this altar in the inner room -- unless he is speaking of it as a necessary adjunct of the inner room, though not actually inside it" (emphasis added) -- which comment we failed to include in our initial observations on the above-mentioned interpretation, but which is a fit introduction to the next and final interpretation to be presented.

  5. "Altar of Incense" Interpretation, but as Belonging to the Most Holy Place in a Significant Sense Without Being Located ‘In' it" -- supported by the change from "wherein" in 9:2 in reference to the Holy Place, to "having" in 9:4 on the part of the Most Holy Place, which neither precludes nor necessitates being in it. Each of us has a heart, liver, and stomach within the cavity of the physical body but also arms and legs which are appendages of the body but not located inside of it with the organs just named. So the Most Holy Place could have both the "ark of the covenant" with its mercy-seat and cherubim located inside it and the "golden altar of incense" located just outside it in the Holy Place -- where it sustained a relationship to the Most Holy Place that the rest of the furniture of the Holy Place did not, both as to location and function, as heretofore described.

  This seems both irrefutable and compelling, and surely the simplest explanation that explains the most, without any of the objectionable features associated with the other options.




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