New American Bible Commentary Falls Short
Can I trust the New American Bible's commentary on Heb 13:10? It states "We have an altar" does not refer to the Eucharist but to Christ's sacrifice. Does this mean we shouldn't use this verse as an allusion to the Eucharist that is offered at Mass?
There is no reason to be skeptical of the commentary. This is accepted as a legitimate interpretation among Catholic scholars. Even St. Thomas Aquinas interpreted the altar as the cross in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. This is no surprise, since the context is all about the difference between the Jewish atoning sacrifices that took place outside the walls of Jerusalem and Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross that took place outside of Jerusalem (v.11-12).
However, this doesn’t preclude an allusion to the Eucharist. It’s possible that the author had the Eucharist in mind, especially in light of his mention of how those “who serve the tent” (Jewish priests) have no right to “eat” from the altar that is the cross. Given the Christian tradition of Jesus’ words to eat his body (Matt. 26:26) and Paul’s teaching about how our partaking of the table of the Lord (1 Cor. 10:16) parallels the Israelites partaking of their sacrificial altar, it’s not outside the realm of reason that the author has the Eucharist in mind.
But as to the apologetical value of this passage and whether it establishes the Real Presence and the real sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, some doubt its probative force. A Protestant could acknowledge that this is a reference to the Christian celebration of the Eucharist but still hold to his understanding that the celebration of the Last Supper is a symbolic partaking of the Cross. There doesn’t seem to be anything in the text that would preclude or undermine the Protestant’s purely symbolic understanding of the Eucharist. And since it falls short on this front, many think it doesn’t have strong apologetical value.