You are here

TitleAncient Temples and Their Functions
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1972
AuthorsSperry, Sidney B.
Issue Number1
Date PublishedJanuary 1972
KeywordsAncient Near East; Endowment; Tabernacle; Temple Worship

Show Full Text

Ancient Temples and Their Functions

By Dr. Sidney B. Sperry

Professor of Old Testament Languages and Literature, Brigham Young University

One has only to read the scriptures carefully, particularly the modern scriptures, to discover that temples must have been built and used in antiquity, even in the days of the antediluvian patriarchs. In Doctrine and Covenants 124:39, the Lord speaks of his holy house “… which my people are always commanded to build unto my holy name.” [D&C 124:39] (Italics added.) And why should not temples be as necessary for the giving of holy endowments to the living in the days of the ancient patriarchs as now? Surely the Lord’s requirements for the exaltation of men in antiquity would be essentially the same.

When one thinks of Enoch and his people who walked with God and were received into his bosom (Moses 7:69), it seems incredible that they should be so received without the endowments usually given to men in holy temples only. Much is said in Doctrine and Covenants 132:29–37 [D&C 132:29–37] about the blessings Abraham received as a result of his faith in God. The Lord says that he “hath entered into his exaltation and sitteth upon his throne.” (D&C 132:39.) The same may be said of Isaac and Jacob. (D&C 132:37.) Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must have had sealed upon them all of the blessings of the gospel, including all of the holy endowments given to the faithful in mortality.

Some may ask where the temples were in which they could receive their endowments. It is true that scripture says little directly about temples in the days of the ancient patriarchs, but that does not prove they did not exist. The church existed in Abraham’s day; in fact, the great Melchizedek seems to have been the head of it, and it was to him that the father of the faithful paid tithes. (Gen. 14:20.) Abraham also received his priesthood from Melchizedek. (D&C 84:14.) The fact that tithes were paid in Abraham’s time would lead us to believe that such income would be used in part for erecting houses of worship and for building or maintaining a temple “which my people are always commanded to build unto my holy name.”

The explanations given to certain figures contained in Facsimile No. 2 in the Book of Abraham must convince the thoughtful Latter-day Saint reader that Abraham was acquainted with the sacred endowments and hence a temple or its equivalent in which they would be administered. The further fact that the gospel was extensively preached in Palestine prior to the advent of the Israelites under Joshua must open our minds to the possibility of a fully manned church organization in the Holy Land in ancient times. (1 Ne. 17:35.) Such a church would doubtless have the spiritual benefits of a temple.

When Moses brought Israel out of Egypt, one of the first things that he did was to try to get the people to accept the higher priesthood and receive the ordinance wherein “the power of godliness is manifest.” (D&C 84:19–20.)

“And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh;

“For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live.

“Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God.” (D&C 84:21–23.)

Such a program as Moses envisaged required the holy endowments; and, although the great lawgiver could not build a temple in the wilderness, he could fashion an acceptable tabernacle wherein they could be administered.

“And again, verily I say unto you, how shall your washings be acceptable unto me, except ye perform them in a house which you have built to my name?

“For, for this cause I commanded Moses that he should build a tabernacle, that they should bear it with them in the wilderness, and to build a house in the land of promise, that those ordinances might be revealed which had been hid from before the world was.” (D&C 124:37–38.)

We do not know the extent to which ordinances pertaining to the Melchizedek Priesthood were performed in the tabernacle while in the wilderness and in Palestine up to the time of the building of Solomon’s Temple, but that such ordinances were performed seems certain in the light of such statements as this:

“David’s wives and concubines were given unto him of me, by the hand of Nathan, my servant, and others of the prophets who had the keys of this power. …” (D&C 132:39.)

It seems more reasonable to believe that Nathan and the other prophets would seal David’s wives and concubines to him in a holy place such as the tabernacle than in any other structure.

There may have been long periods during the days of the Judges when the ordinances pertaining to the Melchizedek Priesthood would not be performed in the tabernacle, considering the history found in chapters 17–21 of the book of Judges. In those days, “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judg. 17: 6; Judg. 21:25.) The ordinances pertaining to the Aaronic Priesthood may have been more extensively performed during this period, but even on this score we have little information.

Within chapters 25–40 of the book of Exodus one will find accounts of the building of the tabernacle and the various restrictions concerning it. First of all we notice that the Lord said to his people, “And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them.” (Ex. 25:8.) Hence the structure was to be commonly known as the “house of the Lord.” (Ex. 34:26; Josh. 6:24.) The tabernacle was constructed of the finest materials that the people had or could obtain while in the wilderness. There were the hair and skins of the flocks, the acacia wood of the wilderness, and the skin of the tachash, possibly a porpoise or similar creature from the Red Sea. The people gave liberally of their ornaments and gold, silver, brass, and linen in abundance to go into this movable sanctuary in the form of a tent.

The tabernacle proper was in the form of a rectangle, thirty cubits long by ten broad, with the entrance at the east end. It was also ten cubits high. Translated into modern units, the dimensions were forty-five feet by fifteen feet by fifteen feet. The interior of the structure was divided into two main parts: the one on the extreme west, which was fifteen feet square, was known as the Holy of Holies; and the other on the east, which was known as the sanctuary or holy place, was thirty feet long and fifteen feet wide. A kind of vestibule was on the extreme eastern end of the holy place where the entrance to the structure was located.

The tabernacle was located in the west end of an outer court that was about seventy-five feet wide and one hundred fifty feet long. The white linen curtain about the outer court was held in position by sixty posts with silver caps and brass sockets. In the eastern half of the outer court, in front of the tabernacle, was located the laver (Ex. 30:17–21) for washing feet and hands, and the altar of burnt offering, which was made of acacia or shittim wood overlaid with brass. The altar was hollow to facilitate its removal during the journeys of the Israelites; whenever they pitched it, it was filled with earth, and sacrifices were burned thereon. (See cuts of Dr. Schick’s reconstructions of the tabernacle and court.)

Just how endowment ceremonies were arranged for in the tabernacle as described we can only conjecture. But within the Holy of Holies, where the ark of the covenant was located, the Lord made provision to commune with the leaders of his people. The Lord said to Moses:

“… I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.” (Ex. 25:22.)

We know that the dedication of the tabernacle took place on the first day of the second year after the departure of the Israelites from Egypt. (Ex. 40:17.) A cloud rested upon the sacred structure by day and a pillar of fire by night during all the period of wandering. Whenever the camp moved, the Levites took the tabernacle to pieces and put it together again at the new camping place. (Ex. 40:34–38.)

When the Israelites were settled in Canaan, Joshua stationed the tabernacle in Shiloh, where it remained during the period of the judges. (Josh. 18:1.) During Saul’s reign, it was at Nob. (Compare 1 Sam. 21:1; Mark 2:26.) During most of David’s reign and that of Solomon until the building of the temple, the tabernacle was set up at the high place of Gibeon. (1 Chr. 16:39; 1 Chr. 21:29.) Eventually Solomon laid it up in the temple (1 Kgs. 8:4; 2 Chr. 5:5), which was constructed on the same model but was in every part at least twice as large.

The materials for the permanent house of the Lord, known as Solomon’s Temple, were accumulated mostly by David. (2 Sam. 7; 1 Chr. 28:11; 1 Chr. 29:9.) It is estimated that he gathered a total of 108,000 talents of gold, 10,000 darics of gold, and 1,017,000 talents of silver for the prospective structure and its furnishings. With these metals and other materials for which Solomon made arrangements, the king built a most lavish temple to the Lord. It was completed in seven and one-half years.

As to the ordinances conducted in this and succeeding temples in Israel, we need say little. They would probably be the same as those performed in the tabernacle.

The appearance of the temple of Solomon may be approximately that of the Stevens’s reconstruction shown in the cut accompanying this article.

A word should be said about the “moulten sea” or font supported by twelve oxen which some have mistakenly supposed was beneath Solomon’s temple, symbolizing baptism for the dead. In 2 Chronicles we find this said about it:

“… the sea was for the priests to wash in … and he [Solomon] set the sea on the right side of the east end, over against the south [i.e. southeast of the temple].” (2 Chr. 4:6; 2 Chr. 10; compare 1 Kgs. 7:39.)

In the reign of Ahaz (736–721 B.C.), that ruler took down the sea from off the brazen oxen and stood it upon a stone pavement. (2 Kgs. 16:17.) When Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem in 590 B.C. (Book of Mormon chronology), he broke the font into pieces. (2 Kgs. 25:13; Jer. 27:19–22.)

It is of considerable interest to us that scholars affirm the fact that seas were built for Babylonian temples.1

Following the Babylonian captivity, Cyrus the Persian king authorized the Jews to build a temple 60 cubits (90 feet) in height and breadth (Ezra 6:3; Josephus, Antiquities XI. 4, 6; cf. XV. 11, 1), in place of the one destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 500 B.C. The temple was probably begun about the second year after their return from captivity (537 B.C.?), but the Jews met difficulties, including much opposition from the Samaritans, and discontinued building. But in the second year of Darius the king (520 B.C.), the Lord gave word to the Jews to finish the sacred structure. The whole prophecy of Haggai is in relation to this project. The plan of Solomon’s temple was followed in general, but due to the poverty of the people, not on such a lavish scale. Many of the vessels used in the former temple were restored. (Ezra 1:7–11.) The Holy of Holies was empty, for the Ark of the Covenant disappeared when Nebuchadnezzar’s forces invaded Palestine.

This temple, called after Zerubbabel, and sometimes known as the Second Temple, was completed in the sixth year of Darius, 515 B.C. (Ezra 3:8; Ezra 6:15.)

Not too many years after the dedication of the Second Temple, the Jews grew worldly and unworthy of administering sacred rites therein. The book of Malachi (Mal. 1:2; Mal. 2:17; Mal. 3:5–18) is the protest of a great prophet against the corruption and unworthiness of the people. We are in no position to say how long the Lord was willing to accept the ordinances performed in this temple following its dedication, but it cannot have been many years. It would be interesting to know the details concerning the administration of the temple following the disappearance of prophets from Israel, a period of about four hundred years.

It is of interest to know that certain groups of Jews built a temple on the island of Yeb, later Elephantine, on the Nile River. These Jews, originally mercenaries, spoke and wrote Aramaic. Papyri found on the island show that they retained their own customs and enjoyed self-government. In apparent disobedience to the law and to the practice of other Jews of the dispersion, they maintained a temple dedicated to Yahu. At this temple they offered food, incense, and burnt offerings. The papyri make reference also to the feasts of the Passover and Unleavened Bread. When Cambyses the Persian conquered Egypt in 525 B.C., he destroyed the Egyptian temples but spared the temple of Yahu.

Much later, during the absence of the Persian governor in 411 B.C., the enraged Egyptians, instigated by priests serving the ram-headed Chnum, destroyed the Jewish temple. We possess papyri that indicate that the Jews immediately petitioned Bagoas, the governor of Judea, the high priest Johanan, and other Judeans to come to their assistance. No answer was forthcoming. In 408 B.C. the colony again petitioned their Judean brethren, accompanying their letter with gifts. This time permission was granted to rebuild the temple and to offer food and incense sacrifices. Until recently it was considered doubtful that the temple was actually rebuilt. Now the Brooklyn Aramaic Papyri, edited by Dr. Emil G. Kraeling, indicate that it was.2

Latter-day Saints will be sufficiently apprised of the spiritual condition of these temple builders on Yeb when they are informed that they not only worshiped Yahu but other divinities of Canaan, e.g., Ashim-bethel, Anath-bethel, and Cherem. At Elephantine, Anath was Yahu’s consort under the name of Anath-Yahu. The spiritual condition of the Judean Jews who wrote the letter to Yeb may also be deduced from these facts.

Zerubbabel’s temple was finally superseded by that of Herod. We are indebted to the Jewish historian Josephus for rather full descriptions of the sanctuary,3 and also to the Mishnah. The older temple was not taken down until much of the material for the new had been assembled.

Work on the new temple began in the eighteenth year of Herod’s reign, 20–19 B.C. And the great complex of courts and buildings associated with Herod’s temple was not completed until the procuratorship of Albinus, A.D. 62–64.4 The old temple area was enlarged to twice its former dimensions. The temple proper was constructed of great blocks of white stone; its interior had the length and breadth of Solomon’s Temple, but its height was 40 cubits (60 feet), not counting an upper chamber, instead of 30 cubits (45 feet). The Temple of Herod was divided into the Holy of Holies and the sanctuary or holy place as in the earlier temples, but the appointments were much more lavish. The Holy of Holies was empty and was separated from the holy place by means of a veil. The reader is referred to Josephus for a more detailed description of the great temple structure.

The Book of Mormon makes clear that the Nephites, another branch of Hebrew people, knew the uses of temples and built a number of them upon this continent. Apparently the first temple was that constructed by Nephi after he and his followers had separated themselves from their unrighteous brethren. It was built after the plan of Solomon’s Temple, the details of which could be learned from the brass plates. Here are Nephi’s words:

“And I, Nephi, did build a temple; and I did construct it after the manner of the temple of Solomon save it were not built of so many precious things; for they were not to be found upon the land, wherefore, it could not be built like unto Solomon’s temple. But the manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon; and the workmanship thereof was exceeding fine.” (2 Ne. 5:16.)

It is very unlikely that Nephi would build a temple without an express revelation from the Lord authorizing it. Furthermore, all the ordinances pertaining to the temple would have to be revealed. The Nephites kept the Law of Moses, but it does not follow that ordinance work for the living within the limits of the Aaronic Priesthood only would be permitted within the sacred structure. Nephi and his followers kept the law of the gospel and it is probable that all of the ordinances for the living according to the Melchizedek Priesthood would be performed. Nephi seems to have had certain sealing powers of the priesthood, as did another Nephi mentioned in the book of Helaman. (2 Ne. 33:15; Hel. 10:7.) As long as prophets like these were around, a full endowment could be given the righteous; otherwise a limited endowment within the Aaronic Priesthood would probably be administered.

It is probable that Nephi’s brother Jacob taught within this identical temple, but King Benjamin’s sermon must have been delivered in another temple located in the land of Zarahemla. (Mosiah 1:1, 18.)

The people of Zeniff may well have repaired the old temple of Nephi when they returned to the land of their father’s inheritance or may have built a new one. (Mosiah 7:17.) Some interesting questions arise as to the use of a temple by Zeniff’s people. Did they have proper authority to administer the ordinances therein or did they use it simply as a meeting place? The question of proper authority arises especially during the wicked reign of King Noah.

An interesting reference to an incident that took place in a Nephite temple—where or when we are not told—is related by Amulek:

“I am Amulek; I am the son of Giddonah, who was the son of Ishmael, who was a descendant of Aminadi; and it was the same Aminadi who interpreted the writing which was upon the wall of the temple, which was written by the finger of God.

“And Aminadi was a descendant of Nephi, who was the son of Lehi. …” (Alma 10:2–3.)

When the risen, glorified Savior appeared to the Nephites for three successive days, he did so “round about the temple which was in the land Bountiful. …” (3 Ne. 11:1.) Before the resurrection of our Lord, ordinance work for the dead could not be carried out either in the temples in Palestine or on this continent. But after his resurrection, he fully explained such work to the Nephites. This is shown by the fact that he quoted in full chapters 3 and 4 of Malachi and “expounded them unto the multitude.” (3 Ne. 24:1; 3 Ne. 26:1.) Thus, the sealing powers of Elijah as applied to ordinance work for the dead became known to the Nephites. We may presume that such work was carried out in their temples during the period of their righteousness, for four generations. Mormon was not permitted to quote the Savior’s explanations of Malachi’s references to Elijah because the keys of such knowledge in our dispensation were to come to Joseph Smith, who would explain their proper functions.

Following the Savior’s resurrection, ordinance work for the dead must have been carried on in sacred structures erected in the Mediterranean world. Paul’s reference to baptism for the dead (1 Cor. 15:29) seems proof of that fact. At any rate the Corinthians seem to have had access to a temple acceptable for such work. It was probably very small, and we have no information concerning it. The same is true of any other similar structure erected by the early saints to the Lord during the first century A.D.


  1. J. A. Montgomery in International Critical Commentary, “Kings,” p. 173.
  2. Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 15, No. 3, p. 66.
  3. Antiq. XV. 11; War V. 5.
  4. Josephus, Antiq. XV. 15, 5 and 6; XX. 9, 7; cf. John 2:20.