The culture of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world can be better understood through examining one of its primary religious symbols—the temple—which played a prominent role in the religious as well as in the historic, cultural, economic, political, social, and artistic arenas of society.
The importance of the temple to the religious community can scarcely be exaggerated; its significance to the modern reader may be seen by reviewing several statements regarding the Temple of Herod made by those who lived near the time of its destruction around AD 70. The historian Josephus wrote much about his own high regard for Herod’s Temple. In a polemic against Apion, Josephus endeavored to legitimize the business of the temple by writing that it was a “temple of world-wide fame and commanding sanctity.”1 On another occasion, and for another purpose, Josephus explained that the temple was “the most marvellous edifice which we have ever seen or heard of, whether we consider its structure, its magnitude, the richness of its every detail, or the reputation of its Holy Places.”2 He also wrote, “as for the various buildings which we have erected in our country and in the cities of our land,” the Temple of Herod “is the most pious and beautiful.”3
The Jewish sages shared the sentiments of Josephus with respect to the primacy of the temple in the community. In a host of expressions, the rabbis demonstrated their feelings toward the temple. To cite only a few examples, a midrash concerning Abraham explains that God offered the entire world to Abraham, but the patriarch responded by saying, “Unless you give to me a temple . . . , you have given me nothing” (Exodus Rabbah 15:8). Three separate witnesses, although perhaps derived from a common source, gave authority to the concept of the temple by recording the relative urgency with which God commanded the house of Israel to build a temple soon after the tribes conquered Canaan under the direction of Joshua (see Sifre on Deuteronomy Pisqa 67, TB Pesahim 5a, TB Sanhedrin 20b).4
The rabbis bestowed extraordinary praise on the temple, itself an expression of the singular regard in which it was held. One well-known statement tells of the temple’s extreme beauty: “He who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building” (TB Baba Bathra 4a), while another warns humanity not to pattern the family residence, courtyard, or porch on the temple complex to maintain the temple’s unique quality (see TB Avoda Zara 43a; compare TB Menahot 28b). A statement attributed to Rabbi Joshua ben Levi declares that if the nations of the world had known that the temple was a blessing to them, they would have built fortifications around it for protection against destruction. Why? Because the temple was a boon for all nations and not intended for Israel alone (see Numbers Rabbah 1:3).
One ancient source maintains that the temple’s windows were not constructed to let the light of the sun into the building but to permit the divine light within the temple to go out into the world (see Pesikta de-Rav Kahana Pisqa 21:5; Exodus Rabbah 36:1). This accords with an old Jewish belief that during the creation, light was created from the place of the temple (see Genesis Rabbah 3:4). Another source explains that the Jewish sages strengthened their oaths by swearing “by the temple,” meaning that the temple with its authority and sanctity would add legitimacy to one’s oath (TB Yevamot 32b).
The Jewish community’s regard for the Temple of Herod may serve as a parallel to the veneration shown by other religious groups of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world for the temple.
The Latter-day Saints have likewise held their temples in great esteem. It may be significant that the first church buildings constructed in our era, subsequent to the restoration of the gospel, were not ward chapels or stake centers, but temples. In connection with this, Joseph Smith taught that “the Church is not fully organized, in its proper order, and cannot be, until the Temple is completed, where places will be provided for the administration of the ordinances of the Priesthood.”5 It is still evident more than a century and a half after the first temple was built in this dispensation that church leaders and lay members alike continue to revere their temples—church leaders continue to build temples and church members continue to worship within these sacred edifices. And in recent years the church has developed a temple-building program that blesses and reaches out to more of the earth’s inhabitants than ever before.
In 1994, Deseret Book and FARMS published a volume entitled Temples of the Ancient World (edited by Donald W. Parry) that contained twenty-four essays on temples past and present. Interest in the volume by many—including nonspecialists, students, and scholars alike—exceeded expectations. The success of this first volume prompted FARMS to begin a series of volumes on ancient temples entitled Temples through the Ages. This volume, The Temple in Time and Eternity, represents the second in this series. It is comprised of eleven articles that are divided topically into three sections—Temples and Ritual, Temples in the Israelite Tradition, and Temples in the Non-Israelite Tradition.
As editors of this volume, we have profited greatly from many individuals who have assisted in its preparation. We are greatful to Josi J. Brewer, Rebecca S. Call, Wendy H. Christian, Alison V. P. Coutts, Melissa E. Garcia, and Robyn Patterson for source checking and proofreading the volume in its various stages; we extend special thanks to Shirley S. Ricks and Jessica Taylor for seeing the volume through to completion. Michael P. Lyon has assisted in the preparation of the illustrations for the volume.
- Josephus, Against Apion 2.79. All Josephus’s citations are taken from H. St. J. Thackeray et al., Josephus (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926–65).
- Josephus, Wars 6.267.
- Josephus, Antiquities 15.384.
- See the Hebrew-English Edition of the Babylonian Talmud, trans. H. Freedman, ed. I. Epstein (London: Soncino, 1967) for references in the Babylonian Talmud.
- History of the Church, 4:603.