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The restoration of the ancient temple

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Shortly before the dedication of the London England Temple, Hugh Nibley wrote a path-breaking article for the “Millennial Star” titled “The Idea of the Temple in History.” It’s been republished a number of times since, often under the title of “What is a Temple?” (it is online at rsc.byu.edu/archived/selected-articles/what-temple).

As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout Utah prepare to mark the rededication of the massively renovated Ogden Utah Temple later this month, it seems appropriate to call attention, once again, to that now classic 1958 article, and to some of the temple-related scholarship that Nibley and other Latter-day Saint researchers have produced since its original appearance.

Nibley first sketches Christian ambivalence toward Jerusalem’s ancient temple. Mainstream Christians have found it difficult to decide whether they should be glad at its destruction or lament its tragic loss. Should it be imitated, or condemned and ignored?

He then turns his attention to explaining the nature of ancient temple ideology, which, as he sees it, extended well beyond Jerusalem and Israel, and even beyond the Middle East.

Temples were typically oriented to the four cardinal directions, he says, and to the three principal levels of reality — the underworld, earth and heaven or the celestial world. Indeed, they were places of contact with God or the gods, the knot that connected and bound earth with the worlds “above” and “below.” Moreover, they were terrestrial representations of their heavenly and underworld archetypes.

In them, rites of initiation were performed that represented death and rebirth or resurrection. In fact, a ritual drama re-enacted the creation of the world, including also the temporary defeat but ultimate triumph of a great hero — another symbol of resurrection and victory over death.

These temple-related ideas and practices, Nibley says, were diffused around the world, but, to a substantial degree, were also corrupted and eventually lost.

However, he declares, “In the fourth decade of the 19th century the idea of the Temple suddenly emerged full-blown in its perfection, not as a theory alone, but as a program of intense and absorbing activity which rewarded the faithful by showing them the full scope and meaning of the Plan of Salvation."

This reborn complex of temple architecture, symbolism and ritual, Nibley argues, was inaccessible to Joseph Smith by natural means; it was unavailable from his environment. On the contrary, its best parallels lie in antiquity. But how can this be explained? Nibley plainly regards the temple as powerful evidence for Joseph Smith’s claim of divine revelation.

And he’s not alone in that belief. His own many publications on ancient temples — including, but not limited to, “Temple and Cosmos" (Deseret Book, 1992) and “The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment” (Deseret Book, 2005) — have been supplemented by the work of other Latter-day Saint scholars who explicitly describe themselves as continuing his research. In the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, scholars at Brigham Young University and elsewhere produced three multi-author volumes on “The Temple in Antiquity” (BYU Religious Studies Center, 1984), “Temples of the Ancient World” (Deseret Book, 1994) and “The Temple in Time and Eternity” (Maxwell Institute, 1999).

Some of this scholarship — John Lundquist’s “The Temple: Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth" (Thames and Hudson, London, 1993) and “The Temple of Jerusalem: Past, Present and Future” (Praeger, New York, 2007), for example, and William Hamblin and David Seely’s “Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History” (Thames and Hudson, London, 2007) — has been published for non-Mormon audiences. (Significantly, the latter two books are dedicated to Nibley.)

And the work continues.

On Oct. 25, for example, the 2014 “Temple on Mount Zion Conference” will be on the Brigham Young University campus in Provo (see mormoninterpreter.com/events/2014-temple-on-mount-zion-conference). In it, a number of scholars will apply their specialist training to ancient temple-related concepts not only out of antiquarian interest but also with modern temple-going Latter-day Saints in mind.

In her alleged biography of Joseph Smith, the late Fawn Brodie mocked the grandiosity of his ideas. With the temple in Nauvoo, Illinois, she remarked, he was attempting to make that sleepy Mississippi River town the center of the universe. But her jibe is truer than she understood. For the temple, as the point of contact between earth, heaven and the realm of the dead, is in very fact the center of the cosmos. Indeed, as Nibley explained, “It is a grandiose concept. Here for the first time in many centuries men may behold a genuine Temple, functioning as a Temple should — a Temple in the fullest and purest sense of the word.”

In Ogden, no less than in Nauvoo.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.