An altar (Hebrew mizbe'ah, from a word meaning "to slay") is any structure on which sacrifices are offered for religious purposes.
Altars in the Hebrew Bible
Altars in the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) were typically made of
earth (Ex. 20:24) or unwrought stone (20:25). Altars were generally erected in conspicuous
places (Genesis 22:9; Ezekiel 6:3; 2 Kings 23:12; 16:4; 23:8; Acts
14:13). The word is used in Hebrews 13:10 for the sacrifice offered
upon it--the sacrifice Christ offered.
Paul found among the many altars erected in Athens one bearing the inscription, "To the unknown God" (Acts 17:23), or rather "to an [i.e., some] unknown God." The reason for this inscription cannot now be accurately determined. It afforded the apostle the occasion of proclaiming the gospel to the "men of Athens."
The first altar recorded in the Hebrew Bible is that erected by Noah (Genesis 8:20). Altars were erected by Abraham (Genesis 12:7; 13:4; 22:9), by Isaac (Genesis 26:25), by Jacob (33:20; 35:1, 3), and by Moses (Exodus 17:15, "Jehovah-nissi").
In the tabernacle, and afterwards in the temple, two altars were erected.
(1.) The altar of burnt offering (Ex. 30:28), called also the "brasen altar" (Ex. 39:39) and "the table of the Lord" (Mal. 1:7).
This altar, as erected in the tabernacle, is described in Ex. 27:1-8. It was a hollow square, 5 cubits in length and in breadth, and 3 cubits in height. It was made of shittim wood, and was overlaid with plates of brass. Its corners were ornamented with "horns" (Ex. 29:12; Lev. 4:18).
In Ex. 27:3 the various utensils appertaining to the altar are enumerated. They were made of brass. (Comp. 1 Sam. 2:13, 14; Lev. 16:12; Num. 16:6, 7.)
In Solomon's temple the altar was of larger dimensions (2 Chr. 4:1. Comp. 1 Kings 8:22, 64; 9:25), and was made wholly of brass, covering a structure of stone or earth. This altar was renewed by Asa (2 Chr. 15:8). It was removed by Ahaz (2 Kings 16:14), and "cleansed" by Hezekiah, in the latter part of whose reign it was rebuilt. It was finally broken up and carried away by the Babylonians (Jer. 52:17).
After the return from captivity it was re-erected (Ezra 3:3, 6) on the same place where it had formerly stood. (Comp. 1 Macc. 4:47.) When Antiochus Epiphanes pillaged Jerusalem the altar of burnt offering was taken away.
Again the altar was erected by Herod, and remained in its place till the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (70 A.D.).
The fire on the altar was not permitted to go out (Lev. 6:9).
In the Mosque of Omar, immediately underneath the great dome, which occupies the site of the old temple, there is a rough projection of the natural rock, of about 60 feet in its extreme length, and 50 in its greatest breadth, and in its highest part about 4 feet above the general pavement. This rock seems to have been left intact when Solomon's temple was built. It was in all probability the site of the altar of burnt offering. Underneath this rock is a cave, which may probably have been the granary of Araunah's threshing-floor (1 Chr. 21:22).
(2.) The altar of incense (Ex. 30:1-10), called also "the golden altar" (39:38; Num. 4:11), stood in the holy place "before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony." On this altar sweet spices were continually burned with fire taken from the brazen altar. The morning and the evening services were commenced by the high priest offering incense on this altar. The burning of the incense was a type of prayer (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8; 8:3, 4).
This altar was a small movable table, made of acacia wood overlaid with gold (Ex. 37:25, 26). It was 1 cubit in length and breadth, and 2 cubits in height.
In Solomon's temple the altar was similar in size, but was made of cedar-wood (1 Kings 6:20; 7:48) overlaid with gold. In Ezek. 41:22 it is called "the altar of wood." (Comp. Ex. 30:1-6.)
In the temple built after the Exile the altar was restored. Antiochus Epiphanes took it away, but it was afterwards restored by Judas Maccabaeus (1 Macc. 1:23; 4:49). Among the trophies carried away by Titus on the destruction of Jerusalem the altar of incense is not found, nor is any mention made of it in Hebrews 9. It was at this altar Zacharias ministered when an angel appeared to him (Luke 1:11). It is the only altar which appears in the heavenly temple (Isaiah 6:6; Revelation 8:3,4).
Altars in Christian churches
Altars occupy a prominent place in the sanctuary of many churches, especially in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, Episcopal, and other highly liturgical denominations. In some churches, it may be surrounded by altar rails. In Eastern Orthodox churches, there is usually some form of iconostasis or "icon wall" in front of it. It is used primarily to hold and, in some cases, to prepare the bread and wine used in the Eucharist.
Some Catholic and Orthodox altars are built with a reliquary to hold relics of saints. This practice began in the early centuries of Christianity, when many Christians were forced to hide and worship in catacombs. In these places, the altar was often a coffin holding the body of a Christian, out of simple necessity. Also, some Catholic churches are built with the altar made integral with the foundation, so as to make it near impossible to remove. This is done to make it more likely that that church building would always be used for a church building and not converted to some other usage. The typical dimensions of an Orthodox altar are 39" x 39" x 39".