9. Of the Altar
Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER IX. Of Churches and Sacred Places
9. Of the Altar
Pagan nations were wont to erect altars in their sacred groves, on their high places, in their houses, by the way-side, and in public places. Towards such altars the primitive Christians entertained an irreconcilable aversion. When reproached with the charge of having no altars, no temples, no images, they simply replied, "Shrines and altars we have none:. Delubra et aras non hahemusy. The very name of an altar they discarded as profane, and carefully denominated the sacramental board not an altar, but a table, to which they applied a great variety of epithets, such as holy, sacred, divine, princely, royal, immortal, awful, venerable, spiritual, emblematical, mystical, etc.
In the second and third centuries it became customary to erect tables over the graves of martyrs; but whether it was merely an appropriate memorial of the deceased, or whether it had an allegorical meaning, is still a disputed question. Augustine, in his eulogy upon Cyprian of Carthage, says, that "a table was erected to God on the spot where his body was buried, which was called Cyprian's table; that Christians there might bring their offerings in prayer where he himself was made an offering to God, and drink the blood of Christ with solemn interest where the sainted martyr so freely shed his own blood;" and much more to the same effect. From this and other passages from the fathers, it would seem that they were wont to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord's supper over the graves of martyrs. From this circumstance they were unjustly accused of paying divine honors to their saints.
But the veneration thus felt for them led to the erection of monuments to their memory within the sanctuary of the church. These monuments moreover were, in process of time, loaded with relics of saints, and became the occasions of such superstitions that it required the intervention of ecclesiastical councils to suppress them. These decrees, however, only directed the overthrow of such altars as were erected to the memory of saints, whilst such as actually covered their remains were suffered to stand, and were still the occasion of much superstition. Religious pilgrimages were often made to visit these sacred relics.
Such altars as stood in the open air, exposed to the action of the elements, and the depredations of men, were constructed of the most enduring materials, stone, metals, etc. and were devoid of covering. Those, on the other hand, which were overspread with ornamental coverings, were more variable in their form, materials, and workmanship, and gradually received the name of altars. In the Greek church, but one altar was admitted. This had a fixed position, and was consecrated to one religious use. Whenever they had occasion to use an altar without the church, any convenient table was selected and spread with the consecrated covering, called *.
Godofr. Voigt, Thysiasteriologia, s. de altaribus vet Christian. Ed. J. A. Fabricii, Hamb. 1709. 8: Jo. Fabricii, D. de aris vet. chr. Helm. 1698. 4: J. F. Treiber, De situ altarium versus Orientem. Jen. 1668. 4: S. Th. Schoenland, Histor. Nachricht von Altaren. Lips. 1716. 8: J. Ge. Geret, De vet. Christian, altaribus. Onold. 1755. 4.
Arnobii. Disput. adv. gent. lib. vi. c. 1: Lactam, instit. div. lib. ii. c. 2: Origen, contr. Cel. lib. viii. p. 389.
(No tag #2 appears in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)
Opp. tom. V. p. 12, 50: Serm. 310: Hieron. contr. Vigilant.
Concil. Carthag. 4. al. 5. c. 14 in Justelli Bibl. jur. Can. vet. T. i. p. 370.
(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)