In the worldview of ancient Near Eastern cultures, the temple, whether fixed or moveable, served as the earthly residence of the divinity or divinities worshipped by the attendant community. It functioned for the community as an axis mundi, a place of intersection and interaction between heaven and earth. For this reason, temples were often built on mountaintops, where earth and sky met, though they could be constructed at any location where a human–divine encounter was believed to have occurred.

Although built by human hands, temples were considered the property of the resident divinity and assigned a higher status than estates that remained in human possession. Movement from the profane realm of common humanity to the sacred domain of the divine often required purity rituals and sacrificial offerings. Human conduct within the temple precincts was highly regulated, to prevent offending the deity. Special castes of human attendants enforced temple laws, overseeing prescribed rituals; violators typically faced severe punishment.

The benefits emanating from these sacred structures were perceived as paramount. Within the temple precincts, all persons, items, and lawful proceedings were considered protected by the deity. This belief promoted a sense of stability and security within the community. In turn, the temple precincts became a venue where official deliberations took place, public and private monies were secured, and community records were kept. The temple often functioned as a place of refuge for those fleeing creditors or other litigants and even as a center of commerce, especially for sacrificial goods associated with the temple.

Though important, such public benefits were ancillary to the temple’s principal function: to serve as a place where both the individual worshipper and the reverent community could receive the deity’s blessings. In this human–divine interaction, the community or its individual members offered worship through a combination of prayers and sacrificial rituals in the hopes of receiving divine favor, particularly in the granting of various petitions for protection from enemies, prayers for a bountiful harvest, and entreaties for forgiveness of sins. At the temple, heavenly powers were invoked to effect changes within the earthly realm that were deemed beyond human ability to enact.

In addition to a principal temple, deities of the ancient Near East were commonly worshipped in secondary estates, either along the periphery of the immediate community or near the center of distant colonies. These shrines functioned similarly to the central sanctuary, though usually on a smaller, more limited scale. They provided more immediate access to the deity for those not dwelling near the main temple. In addition, they expanded spatially the deity’s power. The main sanctuary thus served as the central pillar supporting the sacred canopy over the community; distant shrines extended that canopy outward.

While the foregoing traits were common to all temples of the ancient Near East, those of the Israelites were distinguished by adherence to monotheism and prohibition against idolatry. Most ancient Near Eastern cultures erected temples to individual gods from a larger pantheon, each shrine replete with graven images of the resident deity. Israelite sanctuaries, by contrast, were dedicated to the one God of Jewish monotheism, who was never directly depicted. Over time, and not without controversy, Jewish monotheism became equated with worship of the one God at a single, central temple located in Jerusalem. By the Greco-Roman period, most Jews believed that only there could sacrificial rituals be lawfully conducted.

Proto-Temples in the Patriarchal Narratives.

In the Old Testament’s narrative world, temples initially play a minor role because of the nomadic origins of the patriarchs and their clans. The Genesis accounts refer mostly to temporary altars (mizbēaḥ) or pillars (maṣṣēbāh) such as those constructed by Noah (Gen 8:20), Abram/Abraham (12:7–8; 13:4, 18; 22:9), Isaac (26:25), and Jacob (28:18–22; 31:45–51; 33:20; 35:1–20). These structures were built upon places where the patriarchs had experienced an encounter with God and had rendered sacrifices as an act of worship.

Despite their infrequent appearance in the early biblical narrative, these ad hoc altars or pillars embodied one of the defining elements of a temple: they formed a nexus connecting the earthly and heavenly realms, as illustrated in Jacob’s dream of a ladder between heaven and earth upon which the angels of God ascended and descended (Gen 28:12). Because of their association with patriarchal encounters of the divine, several of these sites—including those at Jerusalem (equated with Mt. Moriah, Gen 22:2, 9; 2 Chr 3:1; cf. Josephus, Ant. 1.226) and Bethel (Gen 28:19; Judg 20:26; 1 Kgs 12:2913:5)—would later become major cultic centers.

Exodus and the Appearance of the Tabernacle.

While altars and pillars play a limited but important role in the patriarchal accounts, the notion of a more permanent sacred sanctuary makes a sudden and prominent appearance in the Exodus narratives. When first appearing to Moses at the base of Mt. Horeb (Sinai), God orders him to lead the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt to that same mountain to worship him (Exod 3:1–12). After this has been accomplished, God again appears to Moses on Mt. Sinai, commanding him to construct a sanctuary so that God might dwell among the people after their departure from the holy mountain (25:8). Specifically, Moses is instructed to build an ark to contain the covenant tablets received on the mountain (25:10–22), as well as a golden incense altar and table for bread offerings (25:23–30; 30:1–6) and a lampstand containing seven lamps (25:31–37). These are to be placed inside a tabernacle (miškān)—also known as a “tent of meeting” (ʾōhel mȏʿēd, e.g., 227:21)—fashioned from various fabrics and animal skins, then draped upon detachable frames (chs. 26–27). Subsequently, the Israelites constructed these items from their donations (chs. 35–36). The tabernacle and its furnishings were erected and consecrated at a ceremony featuring burnt offerings on an altar in front of the shrine’s entrance, all enclosed by a surrounding screen (40:1–33). During this consecration, God’s glory (kābȏd) settled upon the tabernacle in the form of a cloud (40:34). Henceforth, the tabernacle would serve as a portable temple, essentially allowing the Israelites to extend the human–divine interaction beyond the initial covenant encounter at Mt. Sinai.

Following the departure from Horeb, the tabernacle served as the place where God and Moses would thereafter communicate (Exod 33:8–11; Lev 1:1). Yet it was Moses’s brother Aaron and his sons who were consecrated as priests of the tabernacle (Exod 28:41; 40:13). Assisting them were fellow clansmen from the tribe of Levi, who were also consecrated for more restrictive service in the tabernacle (Num 8:5–26). Together, these appointed castes and their male descendents were charged with overseeing and enacting all sacrifices. Leviticus and Numbers enumerate ritual specifics, detailing daily (Num 28:1–8), weekly (Lev 23:3; Num 28:9–10), monthly (Num 28:11–15), and annual (Lev 23:4–44; Num 28:1629:40) sacrifices, as well as special-purpose offerings (Lev 1–7, 12–15, 21). The latter, including sin and guilt offerings, were mostly associated with purity strictures, some of which were required only of tabernacle functionaries (Lev 21) but others for all Israelites (Lev 4–7, 11–15). Some purity regulations, such as the kosher laws (Lev 11), were mandated for all times and places; others were prescribed only for lawful entry into the tabernacle (thus, the requirement to bathe beforehand: Exod 30:18–21; Num 19:13).

The Tabernacle in the Promised Land.

At the end of Deuteronomy, just prior to his death, Moses takes Joshua inside the tabernacle to commission him as his successor (31:14). Following the Israelites’ initial conquests in Canaan, Joshua built an altar on Mt. Ebal and held a covenant renewal ceremony there and on nearby Mt. Gerizim (Deut 11:29; Josh 8:30–35; cf. Josh 24). Although these sites would eventually become a unified cultic center for the Samaritans (2 Macc 6:2; Josephus, Ant. 11.310, 12.257–261), in the conquest narratives the tabernacle is finally placed at Shiloh (Josh 18:1; 19:51), which is proclaimed as the only legitimate place for sacrificial worship (Josh 22:19, 29). Nevertheless, during the period of the judges and early monarchy, several other sacrificial sites (Judg 6:24; 13:20; 21:2–4; 1 Sam 7:17; 14:35) are approvingly mentioned as functioning alongside the main cultic center at Shiloh (1 Sam 1–4).

Following his capture of Jerusalem, David moved the ark to the conquered city, placing it in a new tent (2 Sam 6:17–19; 1 Chr 16:1–6). During his reign sacrifice was offered separately before the ark in Jerusalem and at the tabernacle in Gibeah (1 Chr 16:39–40). Under Solomon, the two sacred artifacts were briefly reunited at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kgs 8:4; 2 Chr 5:5). The ark was placed in the new inner sanctuary; presumably, the tabernacle was broken down and stored inside the sacred structure that superseded it.

Solomon’s Temple.

Solomon constructed his Temple (hȇkāl), “the house of Yahweh” (bȇt Yahweh), on the hill overlooking Jerusalem. Soon known as “Mount Zion,” the site recalled the original meeting between God and Israel at Mt. Sinai (cf. Ps 48:1–2; Isa 4:5). The construction of this grand edifice was said to have taken seven years (1 Kgs 6:37–38). To judge from detailed descriptions, the Temple preserved the tabernacle’s general contours, with an inner “holy of holies” for the ark; an outer sanctuary for the incense altar, shewbread table, and menorahs; and an outside porch overlooking the main altar (1 Kgs 6; 7:15–51; 2 Chr 3–4).

Despite these similarities to its moveable predecessor, Solomon’s Temple was more extravagantly embellished with gold and contained several new, distinctive features. Within the Temple itself, a pair of towering golden cherubim flanked the ark in the holy of holies (1 Kgs 6:23–28); walls and doors were carved with images of “cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers” (1 Kgs 6:29; cf. 6:32); 10 menorahs illuminated the whole (2 Chr 4:7). Outside, two huge bronze pillars (cryptically named “Jachin” and “Boaz”), detailed with pomegranates, supported the porch’s canopy (1 Kgs 7:15–22; 2 Chr 3:15–17). These overlooked the large main altar, made of bronze (2 Chr 4:1), as well as an enormous bronze “sea” (water reservoir) supported by a dozen oxen figurines (1 Kgs 7:23–26; 2 Chr 4:2–5). The artistic motifs of palm trees, cherubim, and other flora recall the Garden of Eden, the place where God first communed with Adam and Eve (Gen 2) and where sacrifice had first been offered because of sin (Gen 3:21). Solomon’s desire to portray the Temple as a “portal to Eden” (cf. Isa 51:3; Lam 2:6), overcame the biblical prohibition against graven images a breach that would not be reopened in future iterations of the Temple.

At its completion, Solomon assembled all the people for the structure’s dedication. After overseeing extensive animal sacrifices, the king offered a lengthy prayer, inviting the Almighty to be present from heaven in his newly constructed house (1 Kgs 8:22–29). Solomon prayed that the Temple would become a meeting place between God and his people; that God would thereafter accept the worship and sacrifices offered in its precincts; and that the Almighty would always consider favorably petitioners’ pleas for such things as the forgiveness of sins, protection from enemies, and relief from pestilence and plague (8:30–40). Solomon also asked that these blessings be extended to reverent foreigners (8:41–43) and to distant worshippers who prayed in the direction of the new Temple (8:44–53; cf. Dan 6:10), thus extending outward the Temple’s power and sanctity.

The people reportedly left this ceremony with hearts filled with joy over the Almighty’s presence in the new Temple (1 Kgs 8:66). Such delight is conveyed in many of the psalms, some of which may have originated during this period, later to be sung regularly in the Temple courts by the Levitical choir (Josephus, Ant. 11.80). Some psalms reveal that petitioners drew comfort and strength from communing with the Almighty in the Temple: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD” (Ps 84:1–2A; cf. 18:6; 42:1–4). Still other psalms portray supplicants as offering gratitude to God in the Temple for his granting of their requests (e.g., 66:13–16; 116:1, 18–19). Elsewhere the Psalmist “bow[s] down toward your holy temple in awe of you” (5:7), asking only “to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple” (27:4; cf. 26:8; 42:4; 122:1). These poetic utterances reveal how the Temple served as a place where worshippers encountered God in a deeply personal and spiritual manner.

Despite the esteem with which Solomon’s Temple was held, with the division of the monarchy, rival cultic sites in the northern kingdom emerged at Bethel and Dan (1 Kgs 12:29–33). During this period, “high places” (bāmȃ) also proliferated in both the northern and southern kingdoms. While these local centers of sacrifice had existed prior to the construction of the Jerusalem Temple (1 Kgs 3:2), they appear to have increased in number with the growth of the population. After the Temple’s establishment, however, they are no longer regarded as benign entities in the biblical narrative. Deemed as idolatrous, these sites become targets for the Deuteronomist, who assesses each monarch by his success or failure in destroying them (e.g., 1 Kgs 15:14; 22:43). Their presence, as well as general idolatry and apostasy, were later cited as reasons for the First Temple’s demise (Ezek 6) at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C.E.

Temples and Synagogues in the Postexilic Period.

With the return of the exiles under Cyrus, Zerubbabel led the drive to rebuild Solomon’s Temple between 520 and 516 B.C.E. (Ezra 3–6; cf. Hag 1–2; Zech 4). The Samaritans offered to help in the effort but were rebuffed. This led to their opposition to the enterprise: evidently, they saw a reconstructed Jerusalem Temple as a rival to their own cultic site on Mt. Gerizim (Ezra 4). During the fourth century B.C.E. the Samaritans built their own temple on that mountain (cf. Josh 8:30–35) under the leadership of Manasses, a former high priest of the Jerusalem Temple (Josephus, Ant. 11.310). The Jewish high priest John Hyrcanus destroyed the Samaritan temple in 128 B.C.E., resulting in intensified enmity between the two groups (Josephus, Ant. 13:254–256).

In the early second century B.C.E., another former high priest, Onias IV, constructed a rival temple in the Egyptian region of Leontopolis (Josephus, Ant. 13:65–71, B.J. 7.423). This temple existed until 74 C.E., when the Romans demolished it. Even earlier, in the fifth century B.C.E., a Jewish colony erected a sacrificial temple to “Yaho” farther south in Elephantine. After an Egyptian force destroyed the complex in 410 B.C.E. (ANET, 491–492), it was never rebuilt.

Despite the existence of these rival temples, during the postexilic period a majority of Jews increasingly viewed sacrificial worship outside the Jerusalem Temple as unlawful: overwhelmingly, they participated in the regular Temple festivals at Jerusalem (Sir 50:14–21, Philo, Spec. 1.70) and fought boldly against Antiochus IV (r. ca. 175–164 B.C.E.) when he outlawed Jewish worship and desecrated the Temple. Subsequently, it was cleansed, and the sacrifices were reinstituted (1 Macc 1:104:61).

During this same period an acceptable ancillary emerged: assemblies of sabbath worshippers, gathered at peripheral locations, whose members did not offer sacrifice, aside from a figurative “sacrifice of the lips” (Philo, Spec. 1.272). The model for such assemblies was likely Ezra and Nehemiah’s rededication of the Jerusalem Temple, where the reading and explication of the Torah took place, not on the Temple Mount but in the square before the distant Water Gate (Neh 8:1–8; cf. 1 Esd 9:38; Josephus, Ant. 11.154–158). In subsequent years, similar assemblies proliferated among the public squares in other locales (Philo, Legat. 315; Josephus, Ant. 16.167–168, 172–173). Many of these eventually moved into purpose-built structures that became known as “prayer halls” (proseuchē), “synagogues” (synagōgē), and even “temples” (heiron), all of which are attested in literary and epigraphic evidence as early as the third century B.C.E. While there is ample evidence that these structures were classified as sacred (i.e., in divine possession) and that religious rituals took place inside of them, the exercise of actual sacrificial worship appears to have been excluded from them—even those of the separatist Essenes, who built their own synagogues (Philo, Prob. 80–83; Josephus, B.J. 2.128–132). By the first century C.E., scores of synagogues were scattered throughout the Jewish homeland and Diaspora (Philo, Mos. 2.216; Legat. 311–313; Acts 15:21), with all but the sectarian branches coexisting harmoniously with the Jerusalem Temple and its priestly hierarchy (Philo, Legat. 191).

The Temple of Herod.

When Zerubbabel first rebuilt the Temple, some of those present for the laying of the foundations, remembering the grandeur of Solomon’s Temple, wept in sorrow over the meager appearance of the new structure (Ezra 3:12–13). Five centuries later, Herod the Great (r. 37–4 B.C.E.) may have felt likewise, for he embarked on an ambitious project to totally reconstruct the Temple shrine and its surrounding courts (Josephus, Ant. 15.380–425). Beginning in 20 B.C.E. 1,000 priests labored to rebuild the central shrine, a task that was completed within 18 months. Out of respect for tradition, the new shrine retained its predecessor’s modest size; nevertheless, it was constructed with even larger quantities of gold than in Solomon’s Temple. Unlike Solomon’s version, the holy of holies was kept empty: neither the lost ark nor the pair of cherubim was replicated. Moreover, only one menorah—not Solomon’s 10—lit the holy place containing the incense altar and shewbread table. In strict conformity to the second commandment (Exod 20:4; Deut 5:8), absent also were the bronze pillars and oxen figurines.

In contrast to the relatively conservative design of the central shrine, the surrounding courts were dramatically expanded to encompass a massive 35 acres—a size unparalleled among temple precincts in the Greco-Roman world. These courts were arranged according to gradations of purity: only priests were allowed in the area closest to the altar and shrine, male Israelites in the first portico, all Israelites in the second, and persons of any nation in the enormous outer courts, which were ringed by towering colonnades. Their construction continued well past Herod’s lifetime; final features were not completed until just prior to the outbreak of the Jewish Revolt in 66 C.E. (Josephus, Ant. 20.219).

As during the earlier Greco-Roman period, all sacrificial ritual for the nation took place within the Temple precincts. In time, however, many other public functions took place in the Second Temple. Some were more overtly religious in nature, such as the reading and explication of scripture (Josephus, Ant. 4.209–210) and the offering of prayers (Luke 18:10; Acts 3:1). Others were what might anachronistically be labeled as “secular,” such as the Temple’s function as a public archive and treasury (1 Macc 14:27–45; Josephus, C. Ap. 1.30–36; B.J. 6.282), the central council hall (Josephus, B.J. 5.144, 6.354), and supreme judicial court (Josephus, B.J. 4.336; Acts 6:14–16). With the exception of sacrificial ritual, all these functions are attested for the coexisting synagogues (e.g., Josephus, Ant. 14.260, 16.43–44, 16.164, Vita 276–303; Philo, Legat. 133). Thus, when Titus demolished the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., much of Jewish religious and public life was able to continue within these ancillary sacred structures. Even sacrifice could be figuratively enacted within the synagogues, through the offering of prayers and the scholarly study of Temple ritual. The latter eventually resulted in the production of the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and the Talmuds.

Christian Relations with the Temple and the Synagogues.

Within the New Testament, the Temple is sometimes portrayed in a positive light. In Luke’s infancy narrative (1:5–23), the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah inside the Temple’s holy place as the priest offered incense and the people worshipped outside. Joseph and Mary render the customary purification sacrifices inside the Temple, where Simeon and Anna greet them kindly (2:22–38). The young Jesus carries on lengthy religious discussion inside the Temple, which he calls his “father’s house” (2:42–50).

Although the adult Jesus continued to worship and teach in the Temple and in synagogues (e.g., Matt 21:23; Luke 4:16; John 7:37), his relationship with the leaders of these institutions seems to have become largely oppositional (e.g., Matt 21:12–13; Luke 13:14–16). A similar observation could be made vis-à-vis the earliest Christians (e.g., Acts 3:14:21; 13:43–45; Rev 2:9; 3:9). When early attempts at persuading the religious hierarchy of Jesus’s messianic identity failed and as the new faith attracted Gentile converts, Christians broke their ties with Jewish institutions and began to meet exclusively in their own religious assemblies or “churches” (ekklēsia; e.g., Gal 1:2; 1 Cor 1:2; Acts 8:1; 18:4–7; cf. Prov 5:14, LXX).

While moving away from the Temple and its cult, Christians increasingly understood the purpose of these institutions as fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some Christian writers regarded Titus’s destruction of the Jerusalem Temple as vindicating this view: the future Roman emperor had been an instrument of God’s judgment upon the Temple (cf. Matt 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), from whose inner sanctuary the Almighty had already departed (Mark 15:38; cf. Josephus, B.J. 6.299). Despite this negative assessment, many New Testament authors did not abandon the language or imagery of the Temple and its cult; instead, they reinterpreted them, with Christ absorbing the role of the Temple (John 1:15; 2:21), the high priesthood (Heb 5:5–6), the feasts (John 7:37–38; 1 Cor 5:7–8), and the sacrificial offerings (Rom 3:24–25; Rev 13:8). Although the earthly Temple had been destroyed, the true Temple of Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek 40–48; cf. Philo, Spec. 1.66–68) remained in the heavenly dwellings, where Christ reigned victoriously (Rev 7:15–17; cf. Heb 8:5; 9:24).

During the period when Christ’s second coming was believed imminent (1 Thess 4:14–17), Christian assemblies met in domestic residences (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Phlm 1:2). The construction of standing worship centers may have been regarded as counter to Jesus’s great commission to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth (Matt 28:16–20; Acts 1:8), especially if the present earth and heaven were soon passing away (Rev 21:1). In addition, there emerged a utopian understanding of God’s presence as not confined to a particular place but present within the bodies of individual believers (themselves viewed as temples: 1 Cor 3:16–17; 6:19; 1 Pet 2:4–5) and especially within the community of believers, wherever they gathered (Rom 12:5; 1 Cor 12:12–27).

This utopian view was predominant for the first three centuries C.E. (Barn. 16.1–10; Origen, Cels. 8.19). The imperial patronage of monumental church construction under Constantine (r. 306–337) recalled the return of the Jewish exiles under Cyrus and marked, for Christians, the reassertion of a locative understanding of divine presence. Thus, at the dedication of a church at Tyre, Eusebius of Caesarea likened the endeavor to Zerubbabel’s reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple (Hist. eccl. 10.4.2–6, 69–72). Henceforth, the architects and builders of the Constantinian period drew inspiration from the Old Testament accounts of the tabernacle and Temple, constructing within their churches new altars, not for the sacrifice of animals but for the celebration of the Eucharist, the holy rite recalling Christ’s sacrifice and victory over death (1 Cor 11:23–26). With the construction of these sacred buildings, the axis mundi had returned, providing worshippers once more with a fixed passageway between heaven and earth.

Contemporary Relevance.

Within both Judaism and Christianity, there remains a tension between a locative and a utopian understanding of divine presence. Although both traditions discern God’s presence within the gathering of its worshippers in any location, certain buildings or monuments retain a heightened sense of sacredness. For Jews, the Western Wall of the destroyed Jerusalem Temple remains the most sacred spot for worship. Likewise, many Christians consider the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the rock of Calvary and the empty tomb, to be the holiest place in all of Christendom. To a lesser degree, synagogues and churches associated with other sacred events and holy persons are viewed similarly, as are any structures built to serve as a “temple” or “house of God.” These contrasting viewpoints, holding in tension human perceptions of God’s immanence and transcendence, continue to influence contemporary theology.




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Donald D. Binder