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Altar of Incense in the Holy of Holies?

Altar of Incense in the Holy of Holies?

Not long ago I received a curious question from a man who was struggling reading through the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. His question had to do with the temple and with tabernacle arrangement, which was originally described in the book of Exodus. In Exodus the מִזְבַּ֥ח הַקְּטֹ֖רֶת (mizbeach haketoret) the altar of incense was stationed in the Holy Place. In Hebrews 9:4, however, it says that it was in the Holy of Holies. How can this be?

3 Behind the second curtain was a tent called the Holy of Holies. 4 In it stood the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which there were a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant (NRSV – Hebrews 9:3-4).

The Holy Place and Holy of Holies were two separate rooms sectioned off by a curtain in the wilderness. According to Flavius Josephus, the Herod’s Temple had not only a curtain, but also the doors. The Holy of Holies was visited only once a year and was supposed to contain only the Ark of the Covenant with its contents. The מִזְבַּ֥ח הַקְּטֹ֖רֶת (mizbeach haketoret)  – altar of incense” was supposed to be on the other side of the separation in the Holy place and not in the Holy of Holies as Hebrews 9:3-4 describes.

26 He put the golden altar in the tent of meeting before the curtain, 27 and offered fragrant incense on it; as the Lord had commanded Moses. (NRSV – Exodus 40:26-27)

Was the writer of Hebrews not familiar with this? Did he not know Torah? Did he make a mistake concerning the arrangement of holy articles in the mishkan (tabernacle)? There certainly appears to be a gross discrepancy of some sort. The book of Hebrews was written in Greek in the first century C.E. and the Torah was written in Hebrew and naturally much earlier. But a couple of centuries before the Common Era Torah was already translated into Greek in Alexandria, Egypt. It is called Septuagint today (abbreviated as LXX) and many Greek-speaking Jews utilized this translation. In the Greek translation of Exodus 40:1 the altar of incense was rendered as θυσιαστήριον θυμιάματος (thusiasterion thmiamatos). It is a straightforward translation of Hebrew where θυσιαστήριον (thusiasterion) is “an altar”. In Greek θυσία (thusia) is “an offering” and θυμιάματος (thumiamatos) is the word for “incense”.

When one takes a close look at Hebrews 9:4 in Greek, one would expect to find θυσιαστήριον (thusiasterion) in the text, since that is the word that means “altar” and that is the equivalent in the Koine Greek version to the Hebrew term in the Torah. But instead, one will find only θυμιατήριον (thumiaterion) which does not mean “an altar”. The words look a little bit alike, but the root is not θυσία (thusia) but θυμίαμα (thumiama) which actually means “incense”. This word, in fact, is a description of “something that holds incense”, but not an altar of incense. The word θυσιαστήριον (thusiasterion) – “altar” does not appear in Hebrews 9:3-4 in Greek text at all, and apparently was supplied there by the translators in English. In the same manner the verb “stood” is also not in the original text. In its place, actually is the verb “to have”. So how can the incense be present in the Holy of Holies without the altar? The answer may be found in the Hebrew Bible, or more precisely in the Greek translation of Ezekiel 8:11.

11 Before them stood seventy of the elders of the house of Israel, with Jaazaniah son of Shaphan standing among them. Each had his censer in his hand, and the fragrant cloud of incense was ascending (NRSV- Ezekiel 8:11).

The word θυμιατήριον (thuimaterion) appears in second part of verse 11 and is translated as “a censer”. In Hebrew “censer” is מִקְטֶ֫רֶת (mikteret). It is a vessel that holds the incense. It is portable and hard to confuse with the altar, which is usually stationary. In Ezekiel’s text, each man held this item in one’s hands. And Hebrews 9 clearly describes the priestly service in the Holy of Holies. It is not a secret that according to Lev. 16:13 the High Priest was instructed to take incense with him into the Most Holy place in order that the smoke would obscure the view of the ark. This was done by taking with him a portable device, a censer full of incense.

Such intimate understanding of the priestly ritual would explain why the writer of Hebrews shows the presence of a censer in the Holy of Holies in Hebrews 9:4. Thus the Greek text of Hebrews 9:3-4 reveals that behind the curtain in the Holy of Holies was a censer and not an altar of incense. It appears that the author of Hebrews was not mistaken after all, and an unfortunate translation is really to blame for the confusion. The answer to many confusing questions in the Bible often can be found by examining the original texts.


I am an educator, researcher, a faculty member and an avid believer in online education. My specialties are Sacred Texts and Cultures (Second Temple period, early Judaism and nascent Christianity). I am passionate about meaning, context, and cultural transmission of ancient texts. My preoccupations with history, ancient languages and contextual interpretation often find expression in my blog posts. Every human has a pretext, every message has a context. Context changes everything! Enjoy reading.

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