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Meanings and Functions of Temples

by Hugh W. Nibley

The temple is the primal central holy place dedicated to the worship of God and the perfecting of his covenant people. In the temple his faithful may enter into covenants with the Lord and call upon his holy name after the manner that he has ordained and in the pure and pristine manner restored and set apart from the world. The temple is built so as to represent the organizing principles of the universe. It is the school where mortals learn about these things. The temple is a model, a presentation in figurative terms, of the pattern and journey of life on earth. It is a stable model, which makes its comparison with other forms and traditions, including the more ancient ones, valid and instructive.

THE COSMIC PLAN. From earliest times, temples have been built as scale models of the universe. The first known mention of the Latin word templum is by Varro (116-27 B.C.), for whom it designated a building specially designed for interpreting signs in the heavens—a sort of observatory where one gets one's bearings on the universe. The root tem- in Greek and Latin denotes a "cutting," or intersection of two lines at right angles and hence the place where the four regions of the world come together, ancient temples being carefully oriented to express "the idea of pre-established harmony between a celestial and a terrestrial image" (Jeremias, cited in CWHN 4:358). According to Varro, there are three temples: one in heaven, one on earth, and one beneath the earth (De Lingua Latina 7.8). In the universal temple concept, these three are identical, one being built exactly over the other, with the earth temple in the middle of everything, representing "the Pole of the heavens, around which all heavenly motions revolve, the knot that ties earth and heaven together, the seat of universal dominion" (Jeremias, cited in CWHN 4:358). Here the four cardinal directions meet, and here the three worlds make contact. Whether in the Old World or the New, the idea of the three vertical levels and four horizontal regions dominated the whole economy of such temples and of the societies they formed and guided.

The essentials of Solomon's temple were not of pagan origin but a point of contact with the other world, presenting "rich cosmic symbolism which was largely lost in later Israelite and Jewish tradition" (Albright, cited in CWHN 4:361). The twelve oxen (1 Kgs. 7:23-26) represent the circle of the year, and the three stages of the great altar represent the three worlds. According to the Talmud, the temple at Jerusalem, like God's throne and the law itself, existed before the foundations of the world (Pesahim 54a-b). Its measurements were all sacred and prescribed, with strict rules about it facing the east.

Its nature as a cosmic center is vividly recalled in many passages of the Old Testament and in medieval representations of the city of Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulcher. These show the temple as the exact center, or navel, of the earth. It was in conscious imitation of both Jewish and Christian ideas that the Muslims conceived of the Kaaba in Mecca as "not only the centre of the earth, [but] the centre of the universe…. Every heaven and every earth has its centre marked by a sanctuary as its navel" (von Grunebaum, cited in CWHN 4:359). What is bound on earth is bound in heaven. From the temple at Jerusalem went forth ideas and traditions that are found all over the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worlds.

THE PLACE OF CONTACT. As the ritual center of the universe, the temple was anciently viewed as the one point on earth at which men and women could establish contact with higher spheres. The earliest temples were not, as once supposed, permanent dwelling places of divinity but were places at which humans at specific times attempted to make contact with the powers above. The temple was a building "which the gods transversed to pass from their celestial habitation to their earthly residence…. The ziggurat is thus nothing but a support for the edifice on top of it, and the stairway that leads between the upper and lower worlds"; it resembled a mountain, for "the mountain itself was originally a place of contact between this and the upper world" (Parrot, cited in CWHN 4:360).

Investigation of the oldest temples represented on prehistoric seals concludes that these structures were also "gigantic altars," built both to attract the attention of the powers above (the burnt offering being a sort of smoke signal) and to provide "the stairways which the God, in answer to prayers, used in order to descend to the earth,…bringing a renewal of life in all its forms" (Amiet, cited in CWHN 4:360). From the first, it would seem, towers and steps for altars were built in the hope of establishing contact with heaven (Gen. 11:4).

At the same time, the temple is the place of meeting with the lower world and the one point at which passage between the two is possible. In the earliest Christian records, the gates and the keys are closely connected with the temple. Some scholars have noted that the keys of Peter (Matt. 16:19) can only be the keys of the temple, and many studies have demonstrated the identity of tomb, temple, and palace as the place where the powers of the other world are exercised for the eternal benefit of the human race (cf. CWHN 4:361). The gates of hell do not prevail against the one who holds these keys, however much the church on earth may suffer. Invariably temple rites are those of the ancestors, and the chief characters are the first parents of the race (see, for example, Huth, cited in CWHN 4:361, n. 37).

THE RITUAL DRAMA. The pristine and original temple rites are dramatic repetitions of the events that marked the beginning of the world. This creation drama was not a simple one, for an indispensable part of the story is the ritual death and resurrection of the king, who represents the founder and first parent of the race, and his ultimate triumph over death as priest and king, followed by some form of hieros gamos, or ritual marriage, for the purpose of begetting the race. This now familiar "year-drama" is widely attested—in the Memphite theology of Egypt, in the Babylonian New Year's rites, in the great secular celebration of the Romans, in the panagyris and beginnings of Greek drama, in the temple texts of Ras Shamra, and in the Celtic mythological cycles. These rites were performed "because the Divinity—the First Father of the Race—did so once in the beginning, and commanded us to do the same" (Mowinckel, cited in CWHN 4:362).

The temple drama is essentially a problem play, featuring a central combat, which may take various mimetic forms—games, races, sham battles, mummings, dances, or plays. The hero is temporarily beaten by the powers of darkness and overcome by death, but calling from the depths upon God, "he rises again and puts the false king, the false Messiah, to death" (Weinsinck, cited in CWHN 4:363). This resurrection motif is essential to these rites, whose purpose is ultimate victory over death. These rites are repeated annually because the problem of evil and death persists for the human race.

INITIATION. The individuals who toiled as pilgrims to reach the waters of life that flowed from the temple were not passive spectators. They came to obtain knowledge and regeneration, the personal attainment of eternal life and glory. This goal the individual attempted to achieve through purification (washing), initiation, and rejuvenation, which symbolize death, rebirth, and resurrection.

In Solomon's temple, a large bronze font was used for ritual washings, and in the Second Temple period, people at Jerusalem spent much of their time in immersions and ablutions. Baptism is one specific ordinance always mentioned in connection with the temple. "When one is baptized one becomes a Christian," writes Cyril, "exactly as in Egypt by the same rite one becomes an Osiris" (Patrologiae Latinae 12:1031), that is, by initiation into immortality. The baptism in question is a washing rather than a baptism, since it is not by immersion. According to Cyril, this is followed by an anointing, making every candidate, as it were, a messiah. The anointing of the brow, face, ears, nose, breast, etc., represents "the clothing of the candidate in the protective panoply of the Holy Spirit," which however does not hinder the initiate from receiving a real garment on the occasion (CWHN 4:364). Furthermore, according to Cyril, the candidate was reminded that the whole ordinance is "in imitation of the sufferings of Christ," in which "we suffer without pain by mere imitation his receiving of the nails in his hands and feet: the antitype of Christ's sufferings" (Patrologiae Graecae 33:1081). The Jews once taught that Michael and Gabriel will lead all the sinners up out of the lower world: "they will wash and anoint them, healing them of their wounds of hell, and clothe them with beautiful pure garments and bring them into the presence of God" (R. Akiba, cited in CWHN 4:364).

LOSS OF THE TEMPLE ORDINANCES. The understanding of the temple and its ancient rites was eventually corrupted and lost for several reasons.

Both Jews and Christians suffered greatly at the hands of their enemies because of the secrecy of their rites, which they steadfastly refused to discuss or divulge because of their sanctity. This caused misunderstanding and opened the door to unbridled fraud: Gnostic sects claimed to have the lost rites and ordinances of the apostles and Patriarchs of old. Splinter groups and factions arose. A common cause of schism, among both Jews and Christians, was the claim of a particular group that it alone still possessed the mysteries of God.

The rites became the object of various schools of interpretation. Indeed, mythology is largely an attempt to explain the origin and meaning of rituals that people no longer understand. For example, the Talmud tells of a pious Jew who left Jerusalem in disgust wondering, "What answer will the Israelites give to Elijah when he comes?" since the scholars did not agree on the rites of the temple (Pesahim 70b; on the role of Elijah, see A. Wiener, The Prophet Elijah in the Development of Judaism [London, 1978], pp. 68-69).

Ritual elements were widely copied and usurped. The early Christian fathers claimed that pagan counterparts had been stolen from older legitimate sources, and virtually every major mythology tells of a great usurper who rules the world.

Comparative studies have discovered a common pattern in all ancient religions and have traced processes of diffusion that spread ideas throughout the world. The task of reconstructing the original prototype from the scattered fragments has been a long and laborious one, and it is far from complete, but an unmistakable pattern emerges (CWHN 4:367).

Reconstructions of great gatherings of people at imposing ceremonial complexes for rites dedicated to the renewal of life on earth are surprisingly uniform. First, there is tangible evidence, the scenery and properties of the drama: megaliths; artificial giant mounds or pyramids amounting to artificial mountains; stone and ditch alignments of mathematical sophistication correlating time and space; passage graves and great tholoi, or domed tombs; sacred roads; remains of booths, grandstands, processional ways, and gates—these still survive in awesome combination, with all their cosmic symbolism.

Second is the less tangible evidence of customs, legends, folk festivals, and ancient writings, which together conjure up memories of dramatic and choral celebrations of the Creation, culminating in the great Creation Hymn; ritual contests between life and death, good and evil, and light and darkness, followed by the triumphant coronation of the king to rule for the new age, the progenitor of the race by a sacred marriage; covenants; initiations (including washing and clothing); sacrifices and scapegoats to rid the people of a year of guilt and pollution; and various types of divination and oracular consultation for the new life cycle.

OTHER FUNCTIONS OF THE TEMPLE. Many things surrounding the temple were not essential to its form and function, but were the inevitable products of its existence. The words "hotel," "hospital," and "Templar" go back to those charitable organizations that took care of sick and weary pilgrims traveling to the holy places. Banking functions arose at the temple, since pilgrims brought offerings and needed to exchange their money for animals to be sacrificed, and thus the word "money" comes from the temple of Juno Moneta, the holy center of the Roman world. Along with that, lively barter and exchange of goods at the great year rites led to the yearly fair, when all contracts had to be renewed and where merchants, artisans, performers, and mountebanks displayed their wares.

Actors, poets, singers, dancers, and athletes were also part of temple life, the competitive element (the agonal) being essential to the struggle with evil and providing the most popular and exciting aspects of the festivals. The temple's main drama, the actio, was played by priestly temple actors and royalty. Creation was celebrated with a creation hymn, or poema—the word "poem" meaning "creation"—sung by a chorus that, as the Greek word shows, formed a circle and danced as they sang (CWHN 4:380).

The temple was also the center of learning, beginning with the heavenly instructions received there. It was the Museon, or home of the Muses, representing every branch of study: astronomy, mathematics, architecture, and fine arts. People would travel from shrine to shrine exchanging wisdom with the wise, as Abraham did in Egypt. Since the Garden of Eden, or "golden age" motif, was essential to this ritual paradise, temple grounds contained trees and animals, often collected from distant places. Central to the temple school was the library, containing sacred records, including the "Books of Life," the names of all the living and the dead, as well as liturgical and scientific works.

The temple rites acknowledged the rule of God on earth through his agent and offspring, the king, who represented both the first man and every man as he sat in judgment, making the temple the ultimate seat and sanction of law and government. People met at the holy place for contracts and covenants and to settle disputes.

THE TEMPLE AND CIVILIZATION. All this indicates that the temple is the source, and not a derivative, of the civilizing process. If there is no temple, there is no true Israel; and where there is no true temple, civilization itself is but an empty shell—a material structure of expediency and tradition alone, bereft of the living organism at its center that once gave it life and made it flourish.

Many secular institutions today occupy structures faithfully copied from ancient temples. The temple economy has been perverted along with the rest: feasts of joy and abundance became orgies; sacred rites of marriage were perverted; teachers of wisdom became haughty and self-righteous, demonstrating that anything can be corrupted in this world, and as Aristotle notes, the better the original, the more vicious the corrupted version.

THE RESTORATION AND THE TEMPLE. Latter-day Saint temples fully embody the uncorrupted functions and meanings of the temple. Did the Prophet Joseph Smith reinvent all this by reassembling the fragments—Jewish, Orthodox, Masonic, Gnostic, Hindu, Egyptian, and so forth? In fact, few of the fragments were available in his day, and those poor fragments do not come together of themselves to make a whole. Latter-day Saints see in the completeness and perfection of Joseph Smith's teachings regarding the temple a sure indication of divine revelation. This is also seen in the design of the Salt Lake Temple. One can note its three levels; eastward orientation; central location in Zion; brazen sea on the back of twelve oxen holding the waters through which the dead, by proxy, pass to eternal life; rooms appointed for ceremonies rehearsing the creation of the world; and many other symbolic features.

The actual work done within the temple exemplifies the temple idea, with thousands of men and women serving with no ulterior motive. Here time and space come together; barriers vanish between this world and the next, between past, present, and future. Solemn prayers are offered in the name of Jesus Christ to the Almighty. What is bound here is bound beyond, and only here can the gates be opened to release the dead who are awaiting the saving ordinances. Here the whole human family meets in a common enterprise; the records of the race are assembled as far back in time as research has taken them, for a work performed by the present generation to assure that they and their kindred dead shall spend the eternities together in the future. Here, for the first time in many centuries, one may behold a genuine temple, functioning as a temple in the fullest and purest sense of the word.

(See Basic Beliefs home page; Teachings About Temples home page)


Nibley, Hugh W. "Christian Envy of the Temple." In CWHN 4:391-434.

Nibley, Hugh W. "What Is a Temple?" In CWHN 4:355-87.

Nibley, Hugh W. "The Hierocentric State." Western Political Quarterly 4 (June 1951):226-53.

Nibley, Hugh W. Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri. Salt Lake City, 1975.

Packer, Boyd K. The Holy Temple. Salt Lake City, 1980.

Talmage, James E. The House of the Lord. Salt Lake City, 1962.

For a lengthy bibliography on temples, see Donald W. Parry, Stephen D. Ricks, and John W. Welch, Temple Bibliography, Lewiston, N.Y., 1991.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 4, Temples

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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