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Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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xcvii. βωμός, θυσιαστήριον.

There was occasion to note, in dealing with the words προφητεύω and μαντεύομαι (§ 6), the accuracy with which in several instances the lines of demarcation between the sacred and profane, between the true religion and the false, are maintained in the words which, reserved for the one, are not permitted to be used for the other, each retaining its proper and peculiar term. We have another example of this same precision here, in the fact of the constant use in the N. T. of θυσιαστήριον, occurring as it does more than twenty times, for the altar of the true God, while, on the one occasion when a heathen altar needs to be named (Acts 17:23), βωμός is substituted in its stead.

But, indeed, there was but a following here of the good example which the Septuagint Translators had shown, the maintenance of a distinction which these had drawn. So resolute were they to mark the difference between the altars of the true God and those on which abominable things were offered, that there is every reason to suppose they invented the word θυσιαστήριον for the purpose of maintaining this distinction; being indeed herein more nice than the inspired Hebrew Scriptures themselves; for these, while they have a word which they use for heathen altars, and never for the altars of the true God, namely בָּמָה (Isai. 15:2; Amos 7:9), make no scruple in using מִזְבֵּהַ now for the one (Lev. 1:9), and now for the other (Isai. 17:8). I need hardly observe that θυσιαστήριον, properly the neuter of θυσιαστήριος, as ἱλαστήριον (Exod. 25:17; Heb. 9:5) of ἱλαστήριος, nowhere occurs in classical Greek; and it is this coining of it on the part of the Septuagint Translators which Philo must have had in mind when he implied that Moses invented the word (De Vit. Mos. iii. 10). With all tiffs the Greek of the O. T. does not invariably observe this distinction. I cannot indeed accept Num. 23:1, 2 as instances of a failure so to do; for what altars could be more truly heathen than those which Balaam reared? Still there are three occasions, one in Second Maccabees (13:8), and two in Ecclesiasticus (50:12, 14), where βωμός designates an altar of the true God; these two Books however, it must be remembered, hellenize very much. So too there are occasions on which θυσιαστήριον is used to designate an idol altar; for example, Judg. 2:2; 6:25; 2 Kin. 16:10. Still these are rarest exceptions, and sometimes the antagonism between the words comes out with the most marked emphasis. It does so, for example, at 2 Macc. 10:2, 3; but more remarkably still at 1 Macc. 1:59, where the historian recounts how the servants of Antiochus offered sacrifices to Olympian Jove on an altar which had been built over the altar of the God of Israel (θυσιάζοντες ἐπὶ τὸν βωμόν, ὃς ἦν ἐπὶ τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου). Our Translators are here put to their shifts, and are obliged to render βωμόςidol altar,’ and θυσιαστήριον ‘altar.’ We may compare Josephus, Antt. xii. 5. 4, where relating these same events he says, ἐποικοδομήσας καὶ τῷ θυσιαστηρίῳ βωμόν, συὰς ἐπ᾽ αὐτοῦ κατέσφξε. Still more notable, as marking how strong the feeling on this matter was, is the fact of the refusal of the Septuagint Translators to give the title of θυσιαστήριον, (Josh. xxii.) to the altar which the Transjordanic tribes had reared—being as it was a piece of will-worship upon their parts, and no altar reared according to the will, or by the express command, of God. Throughout the chapter this altar is βωμός (ver. 10, 11, 16, 19, 23, 26, 34), the legitimate divinely ordained altar θυσιαστήριον (ver. 19, 28, 29), and this while the Hebrew text knows no such distinction, but indiscriminately employs מִזְבֵּהַ for both.

I mentioned just now an embarrassment, in which on one occasion our Translators found themselves. In the Latin there is no such difficulty; for at a very early day the Church adopted ‘altare’ to designate her altar, and assigned ‘ara’ exclusively to heathen uses. Thus see the Vulgate at Judg. 6:28; 1 Macc. 1:59; 2 Macc. 10:2, 3; Acts 17:23. Cyprian in like manner expresses his wonder at the profane boldness of one of the ‘turificati, ’—those, that is, who in time of persecution had consented to save their lives by burning incense before a heathen idol,—that he should afterwards have dared, without obtaining first the Church’s absolution, to continue his ministry—‘quasi post aras diaboli accedere ad altare Dei fas sit’ (Ep. 63). In profane Latin ‘ara’ is the genus, ‘altare’ the specific kind of altar on which the victims were offered (Virgil, Ecl. v. 65, 66; cf. Tacitus, Annal. xvi. 31, and Orelli thereupon). The distinction between βωμός and θυσιαστήριον, first established in the Septuagint, and recognized in the N. T., was afterwards maintained in ecclesiastical Greek; for the Church has still her θυσία αἰνέσεως (Heb. 13:15), and that which is at once her θυσία ἀναμνήσως and ἀνάμνησις θυσίας, and therefore her θυσιαστήριον still. We have clear testimony to this in the following passage of Chrysostom (in 1 Cor. Hom. 24), in which Christ is supposed to be speaking: ὥστε εἰ αἵματος ἐπιθυμεῖς, μὴ τὸν τῶν εἰδώλων βωμὸν τῷ τῶν ἀλόγων φόνῳ, ἀλλὰ τὸ θυσιαστήριον τὸ ἐμὸν τῷ ἐμῷ φοίνισσε αἵματι (compare Mede, Works, 1672, p. 391; Augusti, Christl. Archäol. vol. i. p. 412; and Smith, Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, s. v. ‘Altar’).

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G1041,G2379.]

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