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Temples Through the Ages

The center of the community in ancient Israel and in other parts of the ancient Near East was the temple, an institution of the highest antiquity. Its construction regularly represented the crowning achievement in a king's reign. Thus, it was the central event in the reign of king Solomon, far overshadowing any of his other accomplishments (1 Kgs. 6- 8), and it was a crucial event in the establishment of the Nephite monarchy (2 Ne. 5:16-18). The presence of the temple represented stability and cohesiveness in the community, and its rites and ceremonies were viewed as essential to the proper functioning of the society. Conversely, the destruction of a temple and the cessation of its rites presaged and symbolized the dissolution of its community and the withdrawal of God's favor. The fall of Jerusalem and its temple (586 B.C.), along with the rifling of its sacred treasures, symbolized, like no other event, the catastrophe that befell Judah. Following the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon (c. 500 B.C.), the prophets Haggai and Zechariah persistently reminded their people that no other achievement would compensate for their failure to reconstruct a temple. Temples were so important that, when distance or other circumstances made worship at the Jerusalem temple impractical, others were built. Thus, Israelite temples were built at Arad near Beersheba, at Elephantine and Leontopolis in Egypt, and a Nephite temple was erected in the land of Nephi.

Several studies have shown that certain characteristics regularly recur in the temples of the ancient Near East. Among the features that have been identified that distinguish the temple from the meetinghouse type of sacred structure such as synagogue or church are: (1) the temple is built on separate, sacral, set-apart space; (2) the temple and its rituals are enshrouded in secrecy; (3) the temple is oriented toward the four world regions or cardinal directions; (4) the temple expresses architecturally the idea of ascent toward heaven; (5) the plans for the temple are revealed by God to a king or prophet; and (6) the temple is a place of sacrifice (Lundquist, pp. 57-59).

Latter-day Saints recognize among these features several that are characteristic of ancient Israelite temples as well as their own. For example, the sites of ancient Israelite and modern Latter-day Saint temples are viewed as holy, with access restricted to certain individuals who are expected to have "clean hands and a pure heart" (Ps. 24:3-6; cf. Ps. 15; Isa. 33:14-16; see Temple Recommends). Like the tabernacle and temple in ancient Israel, many Latter-day Saint temples are directionally oriented, with the ceremonial main entrance (indicated by the inscription "HOLINESS TO THE LORD" on modern temples) facing east. Ancient Israelite temples were divided into three sections, each representing a progressively higher stage, reaching from the netherworld to heaven; similar symbolism can be recognized in the LDS temples as well. The plans for the temple of Solomon were revealed to King Solomon. Likewise, plans for many Latter-day Saint temples were received through revelation.

What occurred within temples of antiquity? The temple is a place of sacrifice, a practice that is well attested in ancient Israel. Animal sacrifice is not to be found in temples of the Latter-day Saints because blood sacrifice had its fulfillment in the death of Jesus (3 Ne. 9:19). Still, Latter-day Saints learn in their temples to observe the eternal principles of sacrifice of a broken heart and contrite spirit (3 Ne. 12:19). In addition, inside the temples of the ancient Near East, kings, temple priests, and worshippers received a washing and anointing and were clothed, enthroned, and symbolically initiated into the presence of deity, and thus into eternal life. In ancient Israel—as elsewhere—these details are best seen in the consecration of the priest and the coronation of the king. LDS temple ordinances are performed in a Christian context of eternal kingship, queenship, and priesthood.

The features of temple worship described above are also found among many other cultures from ancient to modern times. Several explanations of this can be offered. According to President Joseph F. Smith, some of these similarities are best understood as having spread by diffusion from a common ancient source:

Undoubtedly the knowledge of this law [of sacrifice] and of the other rites and ceremonies was carried by the posterity of Adam into all lands, and continued with them, more or less pure, to the flood, and through Noah, who was a "preacher of righteousness," to those who succeeded him, spreading out into all nations and countries…. If the heathen have doctrines and ceremonies resembling…those…in the Scriptures, it only proves…that these are the traditions of the fathers handed down,…and that they will cleave to the children to the latest generation, though they may wander into darkness and perversion, until but a slight resemblance to their origin, which was divine, can be seen [JD 15:325-26].

When Jesus drove the moneychangers from the temple—which he referred to as "my Father's house" (John 2:16)—it reflected his insistence on holiness for the sanctuaries in ancient Israel. Neither Stephen's nor Paul's statements that "the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands" (Acts 7:48; 17:24; cf. Isa. 66:1-2) imply a rejection of the temple, but rather an argument against the notion that God can be confined to a structure. Solomon, at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, said similarly, "The heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?" (1 Kgs. 8:27; 2 Chr. 6:18). As late as the fourth century A.D., Christians were able to point to the spot on the Mount of Olives "where they say the sanctuary of the Lord, that is, the Temple, is to be built, and where it will stand forever…when, as they say, the Lord comes with the heavenly Jerusalem at the end of the world" (Nibley, p. 393).

While the idea of the temple was somewhat submerged in the later Jewish-Christian consciousness, it was never completely forgotten. As Hugh Nibley points out, the Christian church sensed that it possessed no adequate substitute for the temple. Jerusalem remained at the center of medieval maps of the world, and the site of the temple was sometimes indicated on such maps as well. When the Crusaders liberated the holy places in Jerusalem, the site of the temple was visited immediately after that of the Holy Sepulcher, even though no temple had been there for over 1,000 years (Nibley, pp. 392, 399-409).

Jews and Christians who take the vision of the reconstruction of the temple in Ezekiel seriously—and literally—anticipate the place in God's plan of rebuilding a future temple, as well as the reConstitution of distinct tribes of Israel (Ricks, pp. 279-80). While Jewish life proceeded without the temple following its destruction by the Romans in A.D. 70, it retained a significant role in their thought and study. In the modern period, the temple remains important to some Jews, who continue to study their sacred texts relating to it.


Lundquist, John M. "The Common Temple Ideology in the Ancient Near East." In The Temple in Antiquity, ed. T. Madsen, pp. 53-74. Provo, Utah, 1984.

Nibley, Hugh W. "Christian Envy of the Temple." In CWHN 4:391-433.

Ricks, Stephen D. "The Prophetic Literality of Tribal Reconstruction." In Israel's Apostasy and Restoration: Essays in Honor of Roland K. Harrison, ed. A. Gileadi, pp. 273-81. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1988.


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by Stephen D. Ricks

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 4, Temples

Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company