The New Testament and other early Christian writings say that the earliest disciples worshipped in Jewish synagogues, the Jerusalem temple and in what scholars call “house churches.”

Christian worship at the temple — including, most prominently, Jesus himself — is described throughout the New Testament. However, that temple was destroyed by the Romans during the first Jewish revolt (A.D. 66-73) and was ultimately replaced by a Roman temple of Jupiter.

Further, as described in Acts, Christians were eventually expelled from Jewish synagogues for heresy (Luke 4:28-29; Acts 22:19). Furthermore, gentile Christians didn’t fully understand and couldn’t participate in synagogue or temple worship. As Christians increasingly came from gentile backgrounds, the connection to synagogue and temple became ever more tenuous.

Thus, what remained were “house churches,” private homes used for Christian meetings — as still happens in the contemporary Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in places with few members. The most prominent New Testament example is the “upper room” where Jesus and the disciples met for the Last Supper (Luke 22:12), and where Jesus appeared to them after his resurrection (Acts 1:13). Paul taught in a similar room at Troas (Acts 20:8).

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of several early Christian house churches. The most elaborate is from third-century Dura-Europos in modern Syria, which features some of the earliest surviving Christian art. The modern Church of St. Peter at Capernaum is built over the fragmentary remains of a first-century house church (see "The House of Peter: The Home of Jesus in Capernaum?" on

As pagan Roman persecution decreased and Christian numbers increased in the late third century, Christians began to build large magnificent churches to accommodate thousands of worshippers. Architecturally these churches were based on the pagan Roman “basilica” or “royal hall.” In decoration and function, however, they were significantly different.

The temple symbolism of the early basilicas was described by Eusebius in A.D. 315, in connection with the basilica in Tyre (“Ecclesiastical History” 10.4). The long columned hall of the basilica (called a “nave”) allowed large audiences to gather for sermons and public reading of scripture. Most importantly, they contained a raised platform at one end of the hall that permitted the audience to observe the Christian commemoration of the Last Supper called the eucharist (“thanksgiving,” which the LDS Church calls the “sacrament”).

Paradoxically, however, in some of the earliest Christian rituals, the eucharist was supposed to be performed and viewed only by the priests, who then distributed it to the congregation. To accomplish this, the sanctuary and high altar of the church were hidden from the congregation behind a veil, beyond which only priests were permitted. In this regard, the sanctuary of a basilica functioned as the Holy of Holies in the Jewish temple did — as the most holy place, accessible only to priests (Exodus 26:31-33). Indeed, in this, the priests were seen as acting for the “great High Priest,” Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4:14).

The earliest churches restricted access at appropriate times via a simple veil or curtain suspended by a rope — an arrangement that can still be seen in the Syriac Church of St. Mark in Jerusalem.

Some of the earliest Christian veils were decorated with gammadia — abstract triangular symbols that generally appear only on priestly and angelic robes, veils or altar cloths in early Christian art.

As architecture developed, Christians built small marble chancel barriers marking off the holy section of the church in front of the veil.

Eventually, icons — sacred images — were painted, carved or hung on this chancel railing, turning it into a complex ornate wall called the iconostasis; the veil was thus reduced to a small curtain covering only the door through the iconostasis into the “Holy of Holies.”

The biblical temple veil was made “of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined (white) linen … with cherubim skillfully embroidered into it” (Exodus 26:31). Likewise, Christian veils covering the “Holy of Holies” are sometimes ornamented with angels.

This archaic veil tradition is seldom seen in Catholicism and Protestantism, but sometimes still occurs in Orthodox and other Eastern Christian denominations.

Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.