Evidence #165 | March 15, 2021

Temples Outside Jerusalem

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Nephi’s construction of a temple like the one built by Solomon is consistent with known examples of Israelite temples and shrines built outside of Jerusalem and even outside of Israel.

Nephi Builds a Temple “After the Manner … of Solomon”

Sometime after their arrival in the New World, Nephi and his followers separated themselves from the Lamanites and established a small community of believers (2 Nephi 5:5–15). The Book of Mormon reports that at that time, Nephi constructed a temple:

And I, Nephi, did build a temple; and I did construct it after the manner of the temple of Solomon save it were not built of so many precious things; for they were not to be found upon the land, wherefore, it could not be built like unto Solomon’s Temple. But the manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon; and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine.” (2 Nephi 5:16)1

Additional Temples and Shrines in Israel

Archaeological work has now revealed that ancient Israelites did, in fact, construct temples “after the manner ... of Solomon” at locales outside of Jerusalem and even outside the land of Israel. According to William J. Hamblin and David Rolph Seely, “Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of at least four Israelite temples not mentioned in the Bible that flourished during [the time before Lehi].” These temples have been found at Megiddo, Arad, Lachish, and Beersheba.2

Aerial View of Upper Tel Arad.

Concerning the temple at Arad, Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager wrote, “The temple [is] dedicated to the God of Israel” and consists of a tripartite structure with “a forecourt, main hall, and Holy of Holies,” the same as Solomon’s Temple. While the temple at Arad is not entirely like Solomon’s Temple, it shared enough similarities in architecture and function to be unmistakable as an authentic Israelite temple, complete with its own force of administrative priests.3

In 2020 archaeologists at Tel Aviv University in Israel published an article describing the discovery and excavation of an additional temple at Tel Moẓa, just 4 miles northwest of Jerusalem. “It apparently stood, operated, and welcomed worshipers throughout most of the Iron Age II, from its establishment around 900 B.C.E. until its demise sometime toward the end of the Iron Age (early sixth century B.C.E.).”4 Among other reasons, its proximity to Jerusalem and its architectural parallel with the structure of Solomon’s temple are indications that the temple at Tel Moẓa was indeed a sanctioned Israelite temple.5

Aerial view of Tel Motza and drawing of Nephi's temple by Jody Livingston.

The archaeological remains of such structures should not be completely unexpected. The Bible itself “describes at least eleven buildings that can be identified as shrines dedicated to the worship of Yahweh,” as Hamblin and Seely clearly demonstrate. Their list includes holy places at “Shiloh, Dan, Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah, Hebron, Bethlehem, Nob, Ephraim, Ophrah, and Gibeah.”6 Thus, in addition to actual temples, ancient Israelites were evidently not hesitant to construct smaller places outside of Jerusalem for worshipping the Lord. 

The Jewish Temple at Elephantine

Perhaps the most famous—and in relation to the Book of Mormon, the most important—example of an ancient Israelite temple being built outside of Jerusalem was the temple constructed by Jewish refugees on the island of Elephantine in Egypt.7 The origins of this Jewish community are believed to date to around 650–550 BC.8 Archaeological excavation and a corpus of documents written by the Jews living on the island indicate that they had built a temple sometime before 525 BC.9

Elephantine Island in Aswan. Image via egypttrippers.com.

The basic design and layout of the Elephantine temple was similar to that of Solomon’s, although it was smaller and had a simpler design reminiscent of the tabernacle in the wilderness.10 This structure demonstrates that, around the time of Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem, at least some ancient Jews were not unwilling to construct a temple outside of Israel.

Conclusion

During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, at least three different critics assumed that the Book of Mormon contravened biblical law on this point, which they insisted forbade building any temples outside of Jerusalem.11 While it may have seemed safe at that time to assume that Nephi’s temple would have been unacceptable to ancient Jews, no such thing can be confidently concluded today.

The unfolding archaeological and textual record demonstrates that multiple Israelite temples and shrines were built outside of Jerusalem, and even outside of Israel. Rather than opposing some universally established law or custom, Nephi’s group did what might now be expected of a devout colony of Jews who were forced to flee their homeland around 600 BC. They built a temple, which was central to Israelite worship at the time.

Hugh Nibley

The Elephantine temple, in particular, supports this detail in the Book of Mormon. As Hugh Nibley explained, “The discovery of the Elephantine documents in 1925 showed that colonies of Jews actually did flee into the desert in the manner of Lehi, during his lifetime, and for the same reasons; arriving in their new home far up the Nile, they proceeded to build a replica of Solomon’s Temple, exactly as Lehi did upon landing in the New World.”12 Speaking of the Nephites, Nibley summarized elsewhere, “In all these things they were simply following in the established line without any break from the past.”13

William J. Hamblin and David Rolph Seely, Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History (London: Thames and Hudson, 2007), 33–36.

Jared W. Ludlow, “A Tale of Three Communities: Jerusalem, Elephantine, and Lehi-Nephi,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16, no. 2 (2007): 28-41, 95.

David Rolph Seely, “Lehi’s Altar and Sacrifice in the Wilderness,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10, no. 1 (2001): 62–69, 80.

  • 1 Some have wondered if it would have been logistically possible for a small band of Nephites to build a temple “after the manner ... of Solomon,” which took years of intensive, large-scale labor to construct. See for instance the argument along these lines entertained by B. H. Roberts, Studies in the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed., ed. Brigham D. Madsen (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1992), 259–261. Brant Gardner and Mark Wright have responded to this concern by noting that Nephi’s temple could conceivably have been “after the manner of Solomon’s” in cosmic, ritual function and perhaps basic architectural layout, but not necessarily in scale and grandeur, which they acknowledge would have been practically impossible for the small Nephite colony to replicate. See Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 2:101–104; Mark Alan Wright, “Axes Mundi: Ritual Complexes in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 12 (2014): 81–82.
  • 2 William J. Hamblin and David Rolph Seely, Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History (London: Thames and Hudson, 2007), 33.
  • 3 Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 338; William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know And When Did They Know It? (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2001), 181. “Several priestly families at Arad, with names identical to such families in the Bible, are, in fact, known from the ostraca, or inscribed potsherds, one of which also mentions the ‘house/temple of Yahweh’.”
  • 4 Shua Kisilevitz and Oded Lipschits, “Another Temple in Judah!” Biblical Archaeology Review (2020): 40–49, quote at 40.
  • 5 See Book of Mormon Central, “New Archaeological Discovery Sheds Light on Nephi’s Temple,” BMC Blog (February 4, 2020). 
  • 6 Hamblin and Seely, Solomon’s Temple, 33.
  • 7 In later times, there was also a temple built at Leontopolis.
  • 8 According to Karel van der Toorn, Becoming Diaspora Jews: Behind the Story of Elephantine (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 61, “Most scholars date the beginnings of the Jewish diaspora in Egypt to between the mid-seventh and mid-sixth centuries BCE.”
  • 9 See Van der Toorn, Becoming Diaspora Jews, 61; Stephen G. Rosenberg, “The Jewish Temple at Elephantine,” Near Eastern Archaeology 67, no. 1 (2004): 6–7; Bezalel Porten, Archives from Elephantine: The Life of an Ancient Jewish Military Colony (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1968), 110.
  • 10 Porten, Archives from Elephantine, 110; Rosenberg, “Jewish Temple at Elephantine,” 10.
  • 11 “[The Book of Mormon] represents the temple worship as continued in his new land of promise contrary to every precept of the Law, and so happy are the people of Nephi as never to shed a tear on account of excision, nor to turn an eye toward Jerusalem or God’s temple.” Alexander Campbell, “Delusions,” Millennial Harbinger 2, no. 2 (7 February 1831): 92. “[The Book of Mormon] represents the temple service continuing in this land, contrary to every precept of the divine law to the Jews in the Bible.” “Mormonism,” New York Weekly Messenger and Young Men’s Advocate (29 April 1835). “[The Book of Mormon] finds the North American Indians … building temples five thousand miles from Jerusalem, where alone the Jews were to worship, but [also] offering sacrifice, and performing all the functions of the priesthood acceptably to the Lord, and still exhorting each other to keep the law of Moses.” James H. Hunt, Mormonism: Embracing the Origin, Rise and Progress of the Sect, with an Examination of the Book of Mormon; Also, Their Troubles in Missouri, and Final Expulsion from the State (St. Louis: Ustick & Davies, 1844), 86.
  • 12 Hugh Nibley, “Two Shots in the Dark,” in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1982), 108.
  • 13 Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 6 (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1988), 160. See also Hugh Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon: Semester 1 (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1993), 285–286.
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