‘Temple in Antiquity’ Studied
May 1981

“‘Temple in Antiquity’ Studied,” Ensign, May 1981, 102–4

“Temple in Antiquity” Studied

Possibly few subjects are as interesting to contemporary Latter-day Saints as the subject of the temple—and few subjects are less likely to be examined in a scholarly symposium. But in March, a symposium sponsored by BYU’s Religious Studies Center focused on views of temples, held by other cultures in other ages. The scholars who spoke at the symposium represented a variety of Judaic and Christian beliefs. Some of their remarks are here summarized for the benefit of interested Latter-day Saints.

The symposium, titled “The Temple in Antiquity,” began with a discussion of the religious structures (dating to about 2500 B.C.) in northern Syria’s Ebla. Mitchell J. Dahood, professor of Ugaritic and Phoenician Languages and Literatures at Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, and a leading authority on the some 15,000 Eblaite cuneiform tablets and fragments unearthed at Tell Mardikh in Syria in 1974–75, thinks that the language of Ebla is Canaanite—“early Hebrew”—related to and influencing the language of the peoples who inhabited the land of Canaan over a thousand years later when the children of Israel took possession of it.

He also suggests that the religious ties may have been even closer. For example, one record describes “seven sheep” offered to a local goddess as “a tax” by a ropemaker. This goddess’s name is Qura, related to a word meaning “to twist” and likely an important deity in Ebla where textiles were one of the chief industries. Professor Dahood feels that this passage clarifies a puzzling passage in Habakkuk 1:16, which talks of those who “sacrifice unto their net, and burn incense unto their drag [net].” [Hab. 1:16] “Of course the fishermen and ropemakers and weavers would make such sacrifices,” he observes, “if they felt that Qura controlled their livelihood.” This is one of several examples he cited where “Hebrew and Ugaritic clarify Eblaite and where Eblaite clarifies Hebrew and Ugaritic.”

The Ebla texts also talk about “robes for the dead,” indicating that offerings of clothing were put in the tombs of the dead in preparation for an afterlife. Ebla had four gates with a guardian deity at each and, presumably, a major temple in each quarter of the city.

The next lecturer, Richard J. Clifford, associate professor of Old Testament at Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, took the audience a thousand years closer to the present in his discussion of Israel’s relationship to two mountains, both of them fulfilling important temple functions. The history of Israel as a nation began, in one sense, at the first mountain, Sinai, where the law was given; then in a “great procession,” the children of Israel proceeded to the second mountain, Mount Zion, now in the city of Jerusalem. He explained that Israel, like other peoples, felt that “mountains were places of divine residences and disclosures.”

Psalm 48:12–13 reminds the Israelites to “walk about Zion [where, significantly, the temple is located], and … tell the towers thereof: Mark ye well her bulwards, consider her palaces” [Ps. 48:12–13] as if to note “the stability of the buildings,” says Professor Clifford. This temple, represented for Israel the “real palace in heaven” in which God dwells. By coming to the temple at holy festivals and reciting there the “founding events” of Israel and “the great deeds of Yahweh [Jehovah] in solemn liturgical modes, the words somehow copy the deed and render it present, the Lord making with the Israelites of each generation the covenant that he originally made with them at Sinai.”

Frank Moore Cross, Jr., Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages at Harvard University, added other insights to the subject of Israel’s tabernacle. One of the most interesting aspects of the detailed instructions for this shrine is the injunction to build the outermost curtains of a kind of skin that baffled translators for years, since it seemed to say “dolphin.” But where would a desert people get dolphin skins? And why? As a deeper understanding of God’s powers emerged from recent studies, it seemed to be very important to ancient Israel that God rule over the waters since they represented the forces of primeval chaos.

John L. McKenzie, professor emeritus at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, examined the establishment of Solomon’s temple in great detail, putting it in a Near East context where “the temple was the center of the city, a complex of buildings with surrounding courts.” In Egypt and Mesopotamia, the temple was seen as literally the dwelling place of God and the king as “the viceroy of God.”

In time, the temple in Jerusalem came to occupy a place so central in the life of Israel that its destruction was a tragedy in Israel’s national life. Jacob Milgrom, professor of Near East Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, examined one way a small community at Qumran near the Dead Sea tried to cope with that loss emotionally and theologically in the period shortly before and after the birth of Christ.

The longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls is the Temple Scroll, twenty-eight feet long and originally containing about 15,000 words, but so badly deteriorated by being stored under an Arab merchant’s floor in Jerusalem for ten years that only half of it is still there.

The Temple Scroll, Professor Milgrom feels, was “the constitution” of the Qumran community. It contains a floor plan of the temple, consisting of three square courts with twelve gates spaced around the outer wall and four stories of compartments built into the wall for the Levites’ living quarters. The scale of the temple is enormous. “Superimposed on the plan of Jerusalem, it would practically cover all of the Old City.” The walls are almost half a mile long and twenty-five yards high. Each gate is thirty-five yards high. The interior of the temple with its courts, altars, and facilities for slaughtering and preparing the sacrifices, follows the model of the Temple of Solomon.

In this temple would take place “all of the sacrifices ordained in the scriptures” but also six completely new festivals, some of which are mentioned in the scriptures but without provision given for their celebration. These include a yearly celebration consecrating the priests, festivals of new barley, new wheat, new wine, new oil; and a festival so each tribe could bring wood for the burning of the offerings.

“The entire community was involved in these festivals,” Professor Milgrom said, no doubt one reason why the temple courtyard was so enormous. In the festival for new wine, for instance, everyone would receive cups of wine and “all would lift their cups and recite a prayer of thanksgiving and a prayer for abundant harvest.” Similarly, in the festival of new oil, everyone, not just the priests, would be anointed with the new oil. All of the tribes, not just certain rich families, would have the privilege of offering wood for the altars. Qumran saw “all Israel, not just the priests, as holy,” he said.

Solomon’s temple was the first of Israel’s temples, but it was not the last. Next came Nehemiah and Ezra’s temple, and last came Herod’s temple, destroyed in A.D. 587. To date, no other temple has replaced it. Shaye D. Cohen, associate professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, examined the relationship between the lost temple and the synagogue, which became the dominant institution in Jewish community life after the Jews were sent into exile.

The temple was seen as “the center of the cosmos.” And the temple building itself—even its site—was holy and irreplaceable when lost. In contrast, the synagogue could be built anywhere, “and even a private home could be used as a synagogue.” The main activities in the synagogue were the study of the Torah, or Law, and prayer, leaving scholarship “open to all, including women.” Even though “the hope of a restored temple is part of Judaism’s future,” Professor Cohen said, the substitution of study and prayer—or in some cases, pious deeds, charity, good works, etc.—as a replacement for blood sacrifice was apparently so complete that “the future temple may not need a cult of sacrifice.”

Another view of the temple was seen among the Christian Gnostic Copts of Egypt in the fourth century A.D., according to George W. MacRae, Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School. For this group of unconventional Christians, the temple was “a locus of revelation” and had important “symbolic” functions. According to Professor MacRae, one branch of Jews and Christians believed in a “literal temple in heaven,” while another branch saw the temple in which God symbolically dwelt as the individual or as the community. Both of these views are represented in the apocryphal works of this library.

A particularly important work on the temple in this collection is the Gospel of Philip. This document specifies: “There were three buildings specifically for sacrifice in Jerusalem,” one for baptism, one for redemption, and one known as “the bridal chamber. Baptism includes the resurrection and the redemption; the redemption takes place in the bridal chamber.” In this document, explained Professor MacRae, Old and New Testament passages are woven together, but it is obvious that “words are imperfect images of divine things” and that somehow the initiate “passes into the presence of God by the ritual of the bridal chamber.” He added that he did not know to what extent this ritual resembled the marriage of a man and a woman.

In summarizing his impressions of the conference, BYU’s professor emeritus of ancient scriptures, Hugh Nibley, reiterated the remarks of several symposium participants that “everything in the temple echoes everything else” and observed that in the temple “time and space come together to coordinate, to harmonize, to organize. Without a temple there is no Israel. And it goes further. Without a temple, there is no civilization,” for if every aspect of life from marriage to business is not vivified by the concept of holiness, “it is an empty shell.”

After the scholarly lectures describing hypotheses about the role of the temple in antiquity, Dr. Nibley’s remarks vividly reminded listeners that Latter-day Saints are a people who worship in temples and claim temple understanding. He concluded, “The temple is a place of manifestation. Brothers and sisters, go to the temple, and you will find that it is so.”

The papers delivered at the symposium will be published by the BYU Religious Studies Center under the title, The Temple in Antiquity, according to Truman G. Madsen, director of the Judaeo-Christian sector of the Center and organizer of the symposium. For publication information, write 165 JSB, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah 84602.


“Solomon Dedicates the Temple,” by William Hole. (Providence Lithograph).