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I'm really trying find out more about how the early Church understood Communion, or the Eucharist, or the Lord's Table.

One of the crucial aspects (for me) is whether they saw the Eucharist as a sacrifice/oblation (as the Catholic or Eastern-Orthodox do).

If the Eucharist truly was a sacrifice, then it follows that the sacrifice takes place on an altar.

So the question is does the Bible or any of the early Church writings call the Lord's Table an "altar"?

And if not, when/how did the practice emerge?

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  • The early church used many languages - but english wasn’t one of them Commented Jun 16 at 20:38
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    @RyanPierceWilliams that goes without saying; it's also effectively irrelevant to the question. In Greek, Hebrew and Latin, altar and table are different words.
    – eques
    Commented Jun 16 at 22:14
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    @eques good point, but the language used is relevant at times. Different languages divide meanings differently. For example, English differentiates the verbs "do" and "make" while Hebrew does not, while Hebrew has different verbs for wearing a shirt vs wearing a hat. English has a single adjective "sharp" that refers to edge sharpness, piercing sharpness, and sharp flavors, while Spanish uses "afilado" for the first two and "picante" for the third. Commented Jun 17 at 0:06
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    @Ray Pierce Williams, that's totally not the point, my idea was if they used table or altar equivalent in latin/greek/syriac/whatever
    – Dan
    Commented Jun 17 at 4:24
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    @RobertColumbia I'm aware that different languages do distinguish concepts differently from each other. My point was the question as phrased didn't hinge on something unique to English nor likely uncommon among languages.
    – eques
    Commented Jun 17 at 15:19

2 Answers 2

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Did the Early Church use the term "altar" or "table"?

While it is true that the Early Church originally used wooden tables for the celebration of the Eucharist, one must remember that the Early Church was a Church very much persecuted until the early fourth century, thus both churches and altars in stone never existed! That is not an impossible situation to comprehend!!!

Regardless of this the Early Church employed the usage of different terms to designate the “table of the Lord”. Terms such as table, Altar, as well as other terminology. The Latin word altare was the word most commonly used for altar, and was equivalent to the Greek trapeza.

The Christian altar consists of an elevated surface, tabular in form, on which the Sacrifice of the Mass is offered. The earliest Scripture reference to the altar is in St. Paul (1 Corinthians 10:21); the Apostle contrasts the "table of the Lord" (trapeza Kyriou) on which the Eucharist is offered, with the "table of devils", or pagan altars. Trapeza continued to be the favourite term for altar among the Greek Fathers and in Greek liturgies, either used alone or with the addition of such reverential qualifying terms as iera, mystike, The Epistle to the Hebrews (13:10) refers to the Christian altar as thysiasterion, the word by which the Septuagint alludes to Noah's altar. This term occurs in several of the Epistles of St. Ignatius (Ad Eph. v; Magnes. iv, 7; Philad. 4), as well as in the writings of a number of fourth and fifth century Fathers and historians; Eusebius employs it to describe the altar of the great church at Tyre (Church History X.4.44). Trapeza, however, was the term most frequently in use. The word bomos to designate an altar. was carefully avoided by the Christians of the first age, because of its pagan associations; it is first used by Synesius, Bishop of Cyrene, a writer of the early fifth century. The terms altare, mensa, ara, altarium, with or without a genitive addition (as mensa Domini), are employed by the Latin fathers to designate an altar. Ara, however, is more commonly applied to pagan altars, though Tertullian speaks of the Christian altar as ara Dei. But St. Cyprian makes a sharp distinction between ara and altare, pagan altars being aras diaboli, while the Christian altar is altare Dei [quasi post aras diaboli accedere ad altare Dei fas sit (Ep. lxv, ed. Hartel, II, 722; P.L., Ep. lxiv, IV, 389)]. Altare was the word most commonly used for altar, and was equivalent to the Greek trapeza.

Material and form

The earliest Christian altars were of wood, and identical in form with the ordinary house tables. The tables represented in the Eucharistic frescoes of the catacombs enable us to obtain an idea of their appearance. The most ancient, as well as the most remarkable, of these frescoes, that of the Fractio Panis found in the Capella Greca, which dates from the first decades of the second century, shows seven persons seated on a semi-circular divan before a table of the same form. Tabular-shaped altars of wood continued in use till well on in the Middle Ages. St. Athanasius speaks of a wooden altar which was burned by the Count Heraclius (Athan. ad Mon., lvi), and St. Augustine relates that the Donatists tore apart a wooden altar under which the orthodox Bishop Maximianus had taken refuge (Ep. clxxxv, ch. vii, P.L., XXXIII, 805). The first legislation against such altars dates from the year 517, when the Council of Epaon, in Gaul, forbade the consecration of any but stone Altars (Mansi, Coll. Conc., VIII, 562). But this prohibition concerned only a small part of the Christian world, and for several centuries afterwards altars of wood were used, until the growing preference for altars of more durable material finally supplanted them. The two table altars preserved in the churches of St. John Lateran and St. Pudentiana are the only ancient altars of wood that have been preserved. According to a local tradition, St. Peter offered the Holy Sacrifice on each, but the evidence for this is not convincing. The earliest stone altars were the tombs of the martyrs interred in the Roman Catacombs. The practice of celebrating Mass on the tombs of martyrs can be traced with a large degree of probability to the first quarter of the second century. The Fractio Panis fresco of the Capella Greca, which belongs to this period is located in the apse directly above a small cavity which Wilpert supposes (Fractio Panis, 18) to have contained the relics of a martyr, and it is highly probable that the stone covering this tomb served as an altar. But the celebration of the Eucharist on the tombs of martyrs in the Catacombs was, even in the first age, the exception rather than the rule. The regular Sunday services were held in the private houses which were the churches of the period. Nevertheless. the idea of the stone altar, the use of which afterwards became universal in the West, is evidently derived from the custom of celebrating the anniversaries and other feasts in honour of those who died for the Faith. Probably, the custom itself was suggested by the message in the Apocalypse (vi, 9) "I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God." With the age of peace, and especially under the pontificate of Pope Damasus (366-384), basilicas and chapels were erected in Rome and elsewhere in honour of the most famous martyrs, and the altars, when at all possible, were located directly above their tombs. The "Liber Pontificalis" attributes to Pope Felix I (269-274) a decree to the effect that Mass should be celebrated on the tombs of the martyrs (constituit supra memorias martyrum missas celebrare, "Lib. Pont.", ed. Duchesne, I, 158). However this may be, it is clear from the testimony of this authority that the custom alluded to was regarded at the beginning of the sixth century as very ancient (op. cit., loc. cit., note 2). For the fourth century we have abundant testimony, literary and monumental. The altars of the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul, erected by Constantine, were directly above the Apostles' tombs. Speaking of St. Hippolytus, the poet Prudentius refers to the altar above his tomb as follows:

Talibus Hippolyei corpus mandatur opertis Propter ubi apposita est ara dicata Deo.

History of the Christian Altar

Prior to the Early Church gaining her freedom in 313 AD, the Eucharist was held in houses of the faithful, which became to be known as church homes. Thus wooden altars or tables were seen as normal. When the Church gained her freedom proper churches started to be constructed and even consecrated along with its altar by the the local bishop.

In the early church, Christian fellowship, prayer, and service took place mainly in private homes, as described in the book of Acts of the Apostles. The Latin term often used is domus ecclesiae.

Several passages in the New Testament specifically mention churches meeting in houses. The first house church is recorded in Acts 1:13, where the disciples of Jesus met together in the "Upper Room" of a house, traditionally believed to be where the Cenacle is today. "The churches of Asia greet you, especially Aquila and Prisca greet you much in the Lord, along with the church that is in their house." I Corinthians 16:19.[5] The church meeting in the house of Priscilla and Aquila is again mentioned in Romans 16:3, 5. The church that meets in the house of Nymphas is also cited in the Bible: "Greet the brethren in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in her house." Colossians 4:15. There is another reference to the church meeting in Philemon's home ("To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker—also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:…." Philemon 1:2), but scholars recognize this as simply the meeting place of the Corinthian church—not a separately-meeting house church. For the first 300 years of Early Christianity, until Constantine legalized Christianity and churches moved into larger buildings, Christians typically met in homes, if only because intermittent persecution (before the Edict of Milan in 313) did not allow the erection of public church buildings. Clement of Alexandria, an early church father, wrote of worshipping in a house. The Dura-Europos church, a private house in Dura-Europos in Syria, was excavated in the 1930s and was found to have been used as a Christian meeting place in AD 232, with one small room serving as a baptistry creating the current style church seen today.

House Church

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OP: So the question is does the Bible or any of the early Church writings call the Lord's Table an "altar"?

Let’s start with the Bible.

The Bible refers to an altar as a table in three places. Applying the physical description, we will see that the spiritual concept is that the altar and table are related, but not identical.

The first reference is in Ezekiel 41:22.

The altar of wood was three cubits high, and the length thereof two cubits; and the corners thereof, and the length thereof, and the walls thereof, were of wood: and he [the man] said unto me, This is the table that is before the LORD.

The two Hebrew words for altar and table are different here and in next reference.

The second reference is at Malachi 1:7.

Ye offer polluted bread upon mine altar; and ye say, Wherein have we polluted thee? In that ye say, The table of the LORD is contemptible.

The third reference is in 1st Corinthians 10:18, 21.

Behold Israel after the flesh: are not they which eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar? … Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord's table, and of the table of devils.

The word “table” is “trapeza”. It means table.

The Greek word for altar is “thysiasterion”. It means altar.

Why does Paul use two different words to mean two different things within the space of four verses? It is the same idea found in the other two references noted above. A sacrifice is made on an altar and you partake from a table. This is clearly seen with the Passover.

OP: And if not, when/how did the practice emerge?

So, we see that the identification of an altar and table is made in the Bible, although the specific terminology of “Lord’s Table and alter” is not made.

This next reference appears to be the first connection.

Altar (in LITURGY). —In the New Law the altar is the table on which the Eucharistic Sacrifice is offered. Mass may sometimes be celebrated outside a sacred place, but never without an altar, or at least an altar-stone. In ecclesiastical history we find only two exceptions: St. Lucian (312) is said to have celebrated Mass on his breast whilst in prison, and Theodore, Bishop of Tyre on the hands of his deacons (Mabillon, Praef. in 3 saec., n. 79). According to Radulphus of Oxford (Prop. 25), St. Sixtus II (257-259) was the first to prescribe that Mass should be celebrated on an altar, and the rubric of the missal (XX) is merely a new promulgation of this law. https://www.catholic.com/encyclopedia/altar-in-liturgy

This appears to be the first reference in 257-259 to what would be the Last Supper Table as the altar.

Now, let’s back up to the OP observation about whether or not the Eucharist eaten at the Lord’s table is a sacrifice on an altar.

OP: One of the crucial aspects (for me) is whether they [early Church] saw the Eucharist as a sacrifice/oblation (as the Catholic or Eastern-Orthodox do).

To be clear, the Catholic view of Mass is this.

The Mass is a participation in this one heavenly offering. The risen Christ becomes present on the altar and offers himself to God as a living sacrifice. https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/is-the-mass-a-sacrifice

What did the early Church believe during those first couple hundred years? This issue has strong arguments on both sides. Let me just say a couple of things.

The passion of Christ at Acts 1:7 is a noun, it is the whole sequence from the Passover, betrayal, death, burial, to resurrection. This means the Last Supper on the table to the cross as altar is in view, but as noted, they are two separate pieces; they are not the same. Paul shows us this also in his usage of two words. He also shows the difference here.

For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come. 1 Cor 11:26

From the table to the altar, they are two different things. But the Last Supper at the table was showing Christ’s death at the altar cross. Paul encourages the Eucharist, the thanksgiving at the table. He does not go into the cross sacrifice to be repeated. That thanksgiving at the table shows the Lord’s death till He comes. The thanksgiving is repeated, but the death, the sacrifice at the cross is never to be repeated.

Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others; For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation. Heb 9:25-28

We all know this verse that clearly tells us Christ offered Himself once. No one offers Him; in fact, we don’t want to offer blood of others.

We also know that our High Priest has sat down after the offering for sin. This means there is no more efficacious offering.

So, to answer the OP, the Bible and early church understood the connection between the table and the altar. After Christ fulfilled it all, the only remembrance for believers is the Eucharist, the thanksgiving at the table that shows His death, but is not a death again.

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  • While referencing Scripture is a good start as is identifying that an altar is a type of table (that is, the terms are not entirely distinct), you offer no early Church writings to justify your conclusion, which is explicitly contrary to Catholicism (not that that isn't permissible here, but you in effect assume a conclusion rather than demonstrate it from the type of sources requested)
    – eques
    Commented Jun 24 at 15:34

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