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Understanding the centrality of temple rites

Last Monday the recently formed Academy of Temple Studies, along with the Religious Studies program at Utah State University, hosted a conference in Logan on "Mormonism and the Temple: Examining an Ancient Religious Tradition."

The keynote speaker was English scholar and Methodist lay preacher Margaret Barker, past president of the Society for Old Testament Study. Barker is cofounder of the Temple Studies Group based in England, which hosts an annual symposium on temple studies in the Temple Church, London. The Academy of Temple Studies was recently founded in part as a U.S. partner for the English Temple Studies Group.

Barker, the author of 14 books, has focused her scholarly career on the study of the centrality of the biblical temple in understanding both the Bible and earliest Christianity. She calls this "temple theology."

Her basic interpretation is that there were different sects or movements within ancient Israelite religion. One of these sects is known as the Deuteronomists, a term used by biblical scholars to describe the authors, editors and redactors of the biblical books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.

The Deuteronomists seem to have come to predominance in Israelite religious life during the reign of Josiah, with the discovery of the "Book of the Law" (probably Deuteronomy) in the temple, and the subsequent reforms by Josiah of the Israelite religion and temple cult at Jerusalem (2 Kings 22-23; 2 Chronicles 34-35).

According to Barker, these Deuteronomists systematically downplayed, obscured and even suppressed many elements of the original ancient Israelite temple cult and theology, such as visions, angelic manifestations, heavenly ascent, prophecy, revelation of divine wisdom, esoteric teachings and rituals, and theophany.

These ancient temple beliefs and practices, however, survived among other Israelite religious groups and movements, and they are reflected in the non-canonical Israelite books of the pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Jesus and the earliest New Testament Christians emerged from these temple-oriented movements.

Earliest Christianity includes all of these suppressed or hidden temple beliefs, rituals and practices, such Jesus as the cosmic king and high priest (Hebrews) and visionary ascent to heaven for a theophany of God in his celestial temple (Revelation).

For Barker, the temple, with its complex theology and ritual, was absolutely fundamental in the world view of both the New Testament writers and the earliest Christians.

Indeed, you cannot accurately understand early Christianity without understanding the centrality of the temple.

Over the centuries, the significance of the temple has slowly been obscured and lost, to the point that most modern Christians find ancient temple theology and ritual incomprehensible and foreign at best, and often barbarically distasteful.

For Barker, this widespread incomprehension among modern Christians is simply a manifestation of how far they have drifted from their sacred roots in the temple.

Those parts of the Bible that seem most opaque to modern Christians are often precisely the parts most associated with temple theology, ritual and mysticism. Thus, for Barker, Christianity does not represent a radical transformation of Judaism, but instead a restoration of the original temple-centered Israelite religion.

This religion included many esoteric teachings, such as the mysteries of creation, the secrets of the veil of the temple, the centrality of the eternal covenant, the great atonement, learning the name of God, the importance of the Melchizedek high priest and king Jesus as the incarnation of Yahweh/Jehovah.

The best introduction to Margaret Barker's thought is her short book "Temple Theology: An Introduction," (SPCK, 2004). Barker's web page includes a bibliography of all her publications at .

The web page of the Academy of Temple Studies will eventually include videos and audios of most the presentations from the conference at . The Temple Studies Group of England maintains a web page with links to many of the papers that have been presented at their annual conferences at .

The web page of the Religious Studies program at Utah State University, cohost of the conference, can be found at .