December 19, 2015

December 25th as the Actual Date of the Birth of Christ (2 of 4)

1. The Altar of Incense

According to the information and preconditions mentioned above, Chrysostom places the altar of incense in the untrodden, innermost and most sacred part of the Temple of Herod, in the Holy of Holies, apparently based on the Epistle to the Hebrews: "He did not say the altar of sacrifice, but the altar of incense. The altar of sacrifice and burnt offerings was outside, while that of incense was inside."5 Indeed, the Epistle to the Hebrews, which would not make an error in its description since it was directed to the Jews, says: "Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant" (Heb. 9:3-4).

According to Professor Panagiotis Trembelas, this reference in the Epistle to the Hebrews regarding the altar of incense in the Holy of Holies "needs interpretation", because this altar was in the Holy Place and not in the Most Holy Place, or Holy of Holies, according to the Old Testament (Ex. 30:6; 2 Chron. 4:19-20; 1 Maccab. 1:21). Continuing his analysis that it was not possible for a second altar of incense to exist, and taking into account the testimony of the apocryphal Apocalypse of Baruch that this altar of incense was in the Holy of Holies, Professor Trembelas ends up with a probable interpretation - that the altar of incense (according to the Old Testament), or the golden altar of incense (according to the Epistle to the Hebrews), or the altar of incense mentioned by Luke the Evangelist, even though it spatially belonged to the Holy Place, which was an "antechamber" of the Holy of Holies, nonetheless "on the Day of Atonement... it appears that it was within the Holy of Holies."6 This finding may help identify what took place in the Holy of Holies.

2. The Distance Between Zechariah and the People

According to Chrysostom, the physical proximity of the people praying from Zechariah who burnt incense, is another indication that Zechariah was in the Holy of Holies. It is said that the people were ignorant of what happened with Zechariah. "Perhaps he was within the veil? There he received the announcement."7 Here the following question arises: Is it not possible that Zechariah was segregated or hidden from the people in the Holy Place and not necessarily the Holy of Holies? It is known however that the veil to the Holy Place remained opened. The modern Jewish "Temple Institute", which is an institution that deals with research towards the restoration of the Jewish Temple in order to rebuild this Temple, accepts the view that the daily offerings and all the sacrifices of the priests, were done in the Holy Place with the veil (or doors) open, in the morning.8 According to the biblical text, the Holy Place, in which was the altar of incense, was separated from the inner courtyard (of the priests), where the altar of sacrifice was. Beyond this was the outer courtyard, where the people stood and watched behind a low wall.10 This communication through the open veil also served the following practical needs: coal from the altar of sacrifice was used for the offering of incense in the Holy Place.11 This interpretation of the open veil is based on Leviticus 3:2, where it states that the offering of sacrifice takes place near the Tabernacle of Meeting, as an offering to the Lord: "You are to lay your hand on the head of your offering and slaughter it at the entrance to the Tabernacle of Meeting."12 (The elevated difference between the Temple and the outer courtyard, where the people stood, warrants a partial view of what took place in the Holy Place).

Therefore, in the case of Zechariah where he could not be seen by the people, it seems that he was not in the Holy Place, with its open veil, but in the Holy of Holies, where the veil was shut and he could not be seen, as Oecumenius of Trikka notes: "And the Jews waited for the veil to open."13

Given that service within the Holy Place took place on a daily basis, the closing of the veil according to Holy Scripture, namely that of the Holy Place, would indicate Israel's apostasy from God, where offerings and sacrifices ceased. "For our fathers have trespassed and done evil in the eyes of the Lord our God; they have forsaken Him, have turned their faces away from the dwelling place of the Lord, and turned their backs on Him. They have also shut up the doors of the Temple, put out the lamps, and have not burned incense or offered burnt offerings in the Holy Place to the God of Israel."14

3. Zechariah Was Alone in the Temple

That Zechariah was alone in the Temple, is for Chrysostom a third indication that places Zechariah in the Holy of Holies where he received his announcement. Indeed, the service of the priests and Levites in the Temple of Jerusalem is not clearly and thoroughly profiled in the Old Testament, but it appears that the daily service of offering incense and other sacrifices in the Temple took place by more than one priest.

According to Exodus 27:21, the daily lighting of the lamp of the Tabernacle of Meeting took place by the High Priest Aaron and other priests: "In the Tabernacle of Meeting, outside the veil that shields the ark, Aaron and his sons are to keep the lamps burning before the Lord from evening till morning." Together with this ritual, incense was supposed to be offered by the High Priest Aaron apparently in company with his sons: "Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the Lord for the generations to come" (Ex. 30:7-8). 1 Chronicles is still clearer: "But Aaron and his sons made offerings on the altar of burnt offering and on the altar of incense for all the work of the Most Holy Place, making atonement for Israel, in accordance with all that Moses the servant of God had commanded" (6:49).15

The joint priestly service of the priests in contrast to that of the High Priest alone in the interior, is suggested in the Epistle to the Hebrews: "When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance" (9:6-7). This distinction is evident in patristic interpretations, such as that of Theodoret: "Priests ... could not enter the Holy of Holies, but only the High Priest, as a type of the fulfillment of the Master Christ."16

That the High Priest was accompanied by priests in the offering of incense, is consistent with modern Jewish research. The Jewish online encyclopedia ( says: "In case the high priest desired to offer the incense he was assisted by the officer and two attendants."17 The Temple Institute also mentions a joint offering of incense by four priests when the High Priest was not present. "At this point, these two priests now continue up the twelve steps that lead to the Sanctuary building. They are preceded by two other priests - those who received the tasks of removing the residue ashes from both the inner (incense) altar, and the menorah. He whose job was the altar's ashes enters first. Using the edges of the shovel, he arranges the coals upon the altar evenly, so that the incense will burn well. He then takes up the basket which he left there earlier, prostrates himself and exits, having concluded his task."18

It thus turns out, according to all the evidence, that when the daily offering of incense took place in the Holy Place by a lawful priest, as well as by a lawful High Priest, it was not done by a single priest or by the High Priest alone. Hence, the priestly service of Zechariah in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, was not part of the daily service, but the annual entrance of the High Priest by himself in the Holy of Holies, and this is vindicated in the interpretation of Saint John Chrysostom.


5. Ibid. 5, PG 49, 357.

6. Π.Ν. ΤΡΕΜΠΕΛΑΣ, Ὑπόμνημα εἰς τάς Ἐπιστολάς τῆς Κ. Διαθήκης, τόμ Γ΄, ἐκδ. «Ζωή», Ἀθῆναι 1956, σελ. 120.

7. PG 49, 357.

8. "A Day in the Life of the Holy Temple. The Daily Sacrifice Cannot Begin Until the Gates are Open." ( "The act of opening the Sanctuary gates has great significance, for the morning tamid sacrifice cannot be slaughtered and prepared for offering upon the altar until the gates have been opened. In fact, the priest who has been assigned to this task will not commence until he actually hears the sound of the great gates opening. For with regard to the peace offerings, the verse indicates (Lev. 3:2) "... and he shall slaughter it opposite the door of the Tent of Meeting," and the sages have derived that the same applies to every sacrifice: it must take place while the doors are open, and not while they are closed, in order to fulfill the requirement of 'opposite the door'."

9. 1 Kings 6:32-36 (the doors of verse 32 are that of the Holy of Holies).

10. "Ἡ Παλαιά Διαθήκη μετά συντόμου ἑρμηνείας", τόμ. 6 (Βασιλειῶν Γ΄ - Δ΄), ὑπό Ν.Π.Βασιλειάδη, ἐκδ. «Ὁ Σωτήρ», Ἀθῆναι 1988, σελ. 88.

11. "A Day in the Life of the Holy Temple. The Shovel" ( "It is also the turn of he who received the task of 'the shovel' to now bring the shovel of coals to the inner altar within the Sanctuary for the burning of the incense. First he must take up a silver shovel and ascend to the top of the outer altar, where he will stir the coals to and fro, and take some of the burning coals into the shovel."

12. 1 Kings 6:32-36.

13. "On the Epistle to the Hebrews" 11, PG 119, 372B.

14. 2 Chron. 29:6-7. See also 2 Chron. 28:24: "Ahaz gathered together the furnishings from the temple of God and cut them in pieces. He shut the doors of the Lord's temple and set up altars at every street corner in Jerusalem."

15. 2 Chron. 13:11: "Every morning and evening they present burnt offerings and fragrant incense to the Lord. They set out the bread on the ceremonially clean table and light the lamps on the gold lampstand every evening. We are observing the requirements of the Lord our God. But you have forsaken him."

16. "Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews" 9, 9.10, PG 82, 741Α.

17. "Τemple, administration and service of" Jewish Encyclopedia 

18. "A Day in the Life of the Holy Temple. Throwing the Magrepha" 

Translated by John Sanidopoulos.