Temples and holy places were integral to ancient society. Where the temple of Jerusalem differed from others was in the belief that God had chosen to dwell there and was in no way dependent upon it. He could forsake it and even destroy it

e.g., Jer. 7). In others words, the temple in the biblical tradition is part of the order of revelation and grace. The temple of Solomon (1 Kings 6-7) was built by Phoenician workmen, and its design had much in common with the temples of Egypt and Mesopotamia. But it soon inherited the theological traditions which had grown around the ancient tent of meeting, particularly when the ark was installed in it, and it did more than anything else to unite the tribes of Israel into a nation (cf. Deut. 12). Thus, in the exilic period the restoration and reunification of the scattered nation was symbolized in the hope of a new and glorious temple (Ezek. 40-48; cf. Isa. 54:11f; 60:13f. The temple which was built after the Exile seems to have had a rather pedestrian beginning, at least in the minds of contemporaries (Ezra 3:12). At any rate, the desire for the glorification of the temple continued and grew in intensity (Mal. 3:1-4; cf. Tobit. 14:5; 2 Macc. 2:18). In apocalyptic thought, and subsequently in the rabbinic writings, the new temple is sometimes described in terms of a heavenly or supernatural temple descended to earth (Enoch 90:28f., etc.). Simultaneously another development, equally interesting, was taking place in the spiritualizing of the temple among the Jews of Qumran; here the company of believers is the “true temple.”

The temple of Herod the Great was the third and last temple of Jerusalem. Herod had the existing temple considerably enlarged and magnificently embellished, but this temple met a sorry end in the war of a.d. 66-70. However, its destruction appears to have been less of a catastrophe than the destruction of its predecessor in 586 b.c. By this time the law and the synagogues, i.e., a nonsacrificial form of worship, had come to occupy a central place, with the result that Judaism could and did exist without a temple.

In the NT the Christian community is described as God's “new temple” (1 Cor. 3:16f.; 2 Cor. 6:16,17; Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:5; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19f.). Clearly our Lord's cleansing of the temple of Jerusalem was interpreted as more than an attempted reform of the cult. This is most apparent in the fourth gospel (John 2:19-22), where the saying of Jesus about the destruction of the temple is connected with the cleansing of the temple; but it is also present in the synoptic gospels (Mark 15:38; cf. 14:58). Whether the temple image is used to convey the unity and holiness of the church (1 and 2 Corinthians) or its inclusive character (Ephesians), the temple is always the temple of God and not (as in the image of the body) of Christ. Where Christ is mentioned, He is thought of as a part of the building (Eph. 2:19; 1 Pet. 2:4ff.; cf. 1 Cor. 3:11). The connection in 1 Peter 2:4ff. of the temple image with the image of Christ as the stone (cf. Mark 12:10; Acts 4:11) also points to the fact that the conception of the church as the “new temple” belongs to a very early tradition.

In Hebrews the concept of the heavenly temple is used, on the one hand, in a Platonic sense, to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over Judaism (Heb. 8:5; 9:14), and, on the other hand, to depict the ongoing ministry of Christ (6:20; 8:1f; 10:21). In Revelation the heavenly temple forms the stage for the outworking of the divine drama in chapters 3-20 and is not in itself important. It is in chapter 21 that one finds the author's creative reinterpretation. There we read that the New Jerusalem has no temple (21:22). This bold thought can be taken to mean either that in the place where one would normally expect to find the sanctuary one finds God Himself (God and the Lamb), immediately accessible to all, or that the New Jerusalem is all temple. In any event, the meaning is the same.

See A. Parrot, The Temple of Jerusalem (1957), and R.J. McKelvey, The New Temple (1969).

The Meaning and Function of Temples in the Ancient World

The concept of the temple in the ancient Near E grew out of a very simple idea. It was that the deity was attached to a place, a sacred locus which was either the domicile or the favorite haunt of the god, or which formed the chosen locale for the manifestation of the divine presence. Since this was so, the notion developed by logical extension that men could properly construct a residence for the god in the vicinity of that place and that the deity would find it acceptable.

Essentially, the temple was a house for the god. Its site was chosen, not always because of the prior existence of a theophany on that very spot, but often because of its central or strategic location in the district sacred to the god. In some cases the site was indeed sanctified by a supernatural manifestation, as in the case of David at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite, where the temple of Solomon later stood (1 Chron 21:15-22:5). In other cases, temples seem to have been built in localities convenient to the people, with the assumption that the deity would inhabit them, because the god was a local god and both the region and the people were his. But localization of the divine presence was the fundamental idea. This is true whether the deity is a spirit inhabiting a spring, rock, or tree, or a local god living in the town sanctuary, or a national god dwelling in the magnificent state temple of the capital city. In all of these places, a tradition once established seldom became dislodged, with the effect that the permanence of sacred sites is axiomatic in the study of ancient religion. The purpose of constructing a house for the god is equally elementary, despite the elaborate mythic and cultic developments which grew up around the temples. It was to provide a systematic, and therefore controlled, method of relating to the deity. If the place where the god would manifest himself could be predicted or known in advance, then the task of approaching him would be made easier. And if the god received the amenities of domestic life there—food, drink, and clothing—then the temple would become his abode. Performance of the temple duties would demonstrate the servile status of the worshipers who had placed themselves under his patronage. It was hoped that it would also cause the deity to become favorably disposed toward “his people.”

It is not, however, correct to think that people in the ancient world actually believed that the god was confined to the temple. It was the place where he might be addressed, where he consistently appeared, and where he “dwelt,” but it was not the only place where these things could be thought true. The many temples of Amon, for example, bearing a variety of local names, were nevertheless thought to be residences of the one solar deity, Amon-Re. An eighteenth-dynasty hymn to Osiris illustrates this principle:

Praise to thee, Osiris! Thou lord of eternity, king of gods! Thou with many names and lordly being! With mysterious ceremonies in the temples. He it is that hath the noble ka in Busiris and the abundant sustenance in Letopolis; to whom men shout for joy in the nome of Busiris, and that hath many victuals in Heliopolis...Lord of the great hall in Hermopolis, and very terrible in Shashotop; lord of eternity in Abydos, that hath his seat in Ta-zoser....(Adolph Erman, The Ancient Egyptians, p. 141).

A worshiper could pray to the same god in all of these places. He could also pray anywhere at any time, because the deity transcended the physical limitations of the sacred precinct. But he was more likely to be heard if he prayed in the temple, and particularly if he stood before the image of the god. The perceptive suppliant recognized that the deity was not the cult statue itself but in the statue, just as he recognized that the deity was not bounded by the temple but was present in the temple. The less thoughtful, however, probably erred in the direction of a literal and superstitious belief, which tended to enhance the status of the temple as an institution in society and the power of the priestly establishment.

The Biblical experience, although shaped to some extent by the same factors which influenced contemporary civilizations, was nevertheless unique in that it called foremost attention to the transcendental aspect of God, with a secondary emphasis on the functional localism inherent in the temple idea. In Israel, the “tent-dwelling” or “house” of God, far from being “an attempt to localize God” was a visible extension of the covenant relationship which was central to Israel’s religion. God descended to the Tabernacle (Exod 33:9), but, inasmuch as it was movable, he could not be thought of as resident there. Solomon’s prayer of dedication succinctly expressed the Biblical perspective:

But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built! (1 Kings 8:27).

This exalted sentiment expresses the profound truth of God’s transcendent nature. The Solomonic temple’s significance lies in the fact that the divine self-disclosure set Yahweh’s name there in a special way for the achievement of his redemptive purpose. Both Stephen and Paul expand on this: “The Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands” (Acts 7:48; 17:24). The temple idea is repudiated in Christianity, but the theme of the presence of His name is extended in synagogue and church. Ultimately, the believer himself becomes the temple of God (1 Cor 3:16).

In the wider sphere of the ancient Near Eastern and classical words, the temple as an institution in society often came to overshadow its primary function as the house of the god. The uses of temples were as varied as the life of the community itself. The temple came to be involved in the economy through the management of lands, and through the functions of manufacturing, storage, and banking. The stimulus to trade offered by such a viable economic community was considerable. The political activities included taxation and administration, while social contributions included entertainment and service as a kind of community center. Education received great impetus from the scribal schools attached to the temple.

In surveying temples and their uses in the ancient world, it should be noted that all are variations on the basic idea of localization of the god, but the functions are as diverse as the geographical and historical distribution of architectural types.


Not all places of worship can be properly called temples. Some are mere shrines. These range from house shrines to imposing monuments, and sometimes they have an unusual function.

Natural shrines

occur frequently in ancient religion. The Caananites, in particular, had an affinity for places which displayed some imposing aspect of nature, whether a high hill, solitary tree, or unusually-shaped rock. “On every high hill and under every green tree...(thou hast) played the harlot” (Jer 3:6). Such a place might serve as a national sanctuary or cultic center, as in the case of the famous rock sanctuary at Yazilikaya near Hattusas, an open area enclosed by natural rock cliffs which the Hittites carved into processional scenes containing the entire pantheon. The high place at Petra is another open-air sanctuary which has been preserved; it was sacred to the Nabatean deity Dushares. The most famous Israelite cultic shrines were the open-air altars at Dan and Bethel, although Beer-sheba and Gilgal are also denounced (Amos 5:5). A monumental horned altar was found at Beersheba in 1973.

Domestic shrines

were numerous at every period, and had the advantage of allowing a more intimate relationship between the devotee and the deity. The teraphim of Laban were apparently kept in his house (Gen 31:19), and Micah of Mount Ephraim developed an important house-shrine which included a silver image among the teraphim and even boasted a Levitical priest. Micah’s gods and the Levite were forcibly transported to Dan, accounting for the origin of that famous shrine (Judges 17:1-18, 31).

Commemorative shrines

were built for special purposes connected with mythical events in the life of the god. Osiris, for example, had a shrine (later a temple) in each of the places where the dismembered parts of his body were found by Isis. Holy men were also sometimes so honored and pilgrimages made to their shrines. The temple of Ptah in Memphis, one of the most important Egyp. sanctuaries, is thought to have been originally a shrine in honor of an early predynastic ruler of that city.

The patriarchal shrines commemorated places of revelation. Jacob, Joshua, and later Samuel and Saul erected mounds and stones of witness. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have greatly developed the tendency toward commemorative shrines. Jesus said, “You build the tombs of the prophets, and adorn the monuments of the righteous” (Matt 23:29). The proliferation of Byantine church building was an enlargement of this spirit, and many structures were erected in isolated spots for purely commemorative reasons, for example, the church at Ras es-Siyaga (Mt. Nebo) in honor of Moses, the Propheteum of Amos at Tekoa, and the famous church of St. Simon Stylites at Qal’at Seman in Syria. Modern Christians and Muslims have continued this tradition, as the numerous tombs of Muslim holy men in the Near E and frequent roadside shrines in rural Greece demonstrate.

Chthonic shrines.

The need to communicate more directly with the forces of nature, particularly the great earth mother, led men to utilize caves as one of the earliest types of sanctuary. The Dictean, Idaean, and Kamaras caves on Crete, sacred to Zeus, are examples from historic times. The Minoans also worshiped in “pillar crypts,” dark underground grottos beneath the palaces, as at Knossos. The mystery religions, in part at least, untilized this type of shrine to inspire dread at the initiatory rites, much as the later kivas of the southwestern American Indians were designed to do. The Aesculapium at Pergamum is an example of the role of Chthonic shrines in classical times. Healing was effected by means of snakes (totems of the god) released among the worshipers in a hypogeum, or dark underground chamber.

Portable shrines.

Egyptian religion incorporated portable shrines into its rites at an early period; Old Kingdom reliefs frequently show chests carried on poles as a part of the funerary equipment. The portable shrines of Tutankhamen are better known and bear a strong affinity of design to the wilderness tabernacle of the Israelites. An archaic Sem. tradition of carrying tent-shrines into battle has also been adduced as comparative material for understanding the Tabernacle. In any case, it is clear that the Biblical tent of meeting was the central shrine of an amphictyony, in which the tribes of the league were linked together by a covenant.

Local and civic sanctuaries.

Genuine temples, however, as distinguished from mere shrines, were structures designed and built for the purpose of providing a house for the god. A secondary and important purpose was to offer a locality for the regulated service of worship. Their auxiliary functions varied considerably, depending on the needs of the people, the attributes of the god, and the requirements of the cult.


The typical functional pattern for Mesopotamian temples reveals that the majority were community oriented. They existed to meet a variety of social needs as well as to allow the people to efficiently serve the god. The city and temple grew together, and most temples were located in the population centers, frequently in the very heart of the cities. Two significant roles of the temple related to the oath-taking ceremonies and the certification of weights and measures. The unique economic status of the Mesopotamian temples developed out of this advantageous symbiotic relationship between the commercial and religious life of the community. Possessing vast numbers of slaves and extensive lands, the average Mesopotamian temple grew rich. Its full granaries gave it power in the “storage economy” basic to the ancient Near Eastern way of life. The temple was further enriched by votive offerings and bequests, and by tribute and spoil by the king. The delicately balanced relationship between the king and the priests in Mesopotamian society worked harmoniously for two and a half millennia, a model in church-state relations. The social position and power of the temple was greatest in the early period, but eventually the palace became the more important of the two. Apparently the temple granted the nominal suzerainty of the king, and in return, the king submitted to humiliation by the priests (which included being ceremonially slapped in the face) on one day in the year. There is evidence that Sargon and Naram-Sin, as well as Nabonidus, had difficulties with the priesthood, but these are exceptions which underscore the general harmony which existed between temple and palace. The Assyrian temple, basically different in origin and form, nevertheless served the same function as its Babylonian counterpart and held the same position in society despite the sacerdotal character of the Assyrian kingship.


The fundamentally opposite concept of kingship in Egypt caused the civic sanctuaries to follow a different course of development than in Mesopotamia. Local temples existed within each community, but the absence of city-state rivalries deadened local particularism, and the centrality of the godking and solar cult made the development of great national temples inevitable. The consolidation of power by the priests in the great temples also made conflict with the crown unavoidable, the prime example of which is the Aton revolution and its aftermath. The Theban temples in particular grew in weath during the empire, and their economic effect began to be felt more and more strongly as time went on. In addition to owning landed estates and holding multitudes of peasants in economic thralldom to landlords who owed their position to the temples, the priests themselves gained so much power that the high priest of Amen-Re at Karnak arrogated to himself the kingship at the end of the twentieth dynasty.

On the whole, the Egyp. was perhaps more likely to find the temple precincts a place of exclusively religious devotion than his Mesopotamian counterpart. Each town had its own temples which were served by courses of lay priests. The nome capitals, esp., had strongly localized rites going back to the prehistoric period. But it was difficult for the common citizen to feel any very close attachment to the great temples except at the time of festivals. Then the great temple of Karnak was surrounded by pavilions of lesser deities, and processions and a carnival-like atmosphere prevailed. Such feasts as the Memphite Khoiak and the feast of Min of Coptos were likewise the occasion for general rejoicing.


The name for temple in W Sem., hekal, is derived from the Sumer. E.GAL “great house, palace” via the Akkad. ekallu. Its name emphasizes its function as the palace of the divine being, comparable to that of the residence of the earthly ruler. One notable difference between the temples of Syria-Palestine and those of Egypt and Mesopotamia is their size. Their smallness perhaps reflects the intense isolation and regionalism resulting from the natural geographical barriers. Neither a unitary political or religious pattern was easily developed in the face of such diverse topography. The main Caananite deity, Baal, suffered a degree of fractionalization which scarcely allowed the assertion of his unity. This was also true of his consort Asherah, and accounts for the pl. names “Baalim and Asherim” used in the OT (Exod 34:13; 1 Kings 18:18).

The tendency toward localism was so pronounced that the story of the Israelites was one of a constant temptation to heterodoxy. The average size of the excavated Palestinian temples is so tiny that the picture which emerges certainly indicates that they existed for priestly, cultic, and oracular purposes and not for the general use of the populace at large.

It is likely that the outdoor shrines and cultic centers drew crowds of worshipers, but that the temples were basically the domain of the priests. The purge of Jehu seems to have been directed toward the professional adherents of Baal. Their numbers could not have been large since they were all confined within the “house of Baal” before being slaughtered.

Monumental and state temples

Kingship and the temple.

The magnificent state edifices were primarily influenced in their function by the varying ideas of kingship in the ancient world. Egyptian state temples, such as the great temple of Amon-Re at Karnak, were dominated by reliefs and statuary of the Pharaoh, depicting his campaigns and listing his accomplishments. This was considered fitting, since the king was the living embodiment of the deity. But the same circumstance detracted from the more truly religious aspects of temple observance and allowed the ostentation of power to predominate.

The situation in Mesopotamia was different by virtue of the opposite position of the king in relation to the temple. Since the king was a mere mortal (although sometimes having priestly functions), the temple was more independent of the crown than in Egypt. But the fact that the donations for the constant repairs needed came from the king, and that new temples were built by royal munificence, equalized the differences to some extent. In both areas of the ancient world the monumental temples reflect the essentially political glorification of the dynasty in boastful dedicatory inscriptions.

The temple and the state.

The temple expressed, by its location and design, not only theological ideas, but the social and political order as well. Foremost among these concepts was the cosmology which found frequent and prominent architectural expression in the Egyptian and Mesopotamian state temples.

From at least the third dynasty of Ur onward, the monumental ziggurats are believed to have portrayed the “cosmic mountain” theme of the mythology, representing the primeval hill or mound which formed the basic stuff of which the heavens and earth were made. The idea is fundamental to Near Eastern cosmogonies. The names of the various Mesopotamian staged temple-towers support this belief. Babylon’s famous ziggurat, E-temen-an-ki, “house of the foundation of heaven and earth,” is frequently referred to in this connection.

The Egyp. temples are particularly rich in allusions to the cosmic order in their interior embellishments. Thus, symbolically, the floor becomes the earth, the wall reliefs and paintings depict nature, wild life, and human activities, the columns represent papyrus stalks or palm trees stretching upward to the heavens, and the roof was painted with stars or astrological signs. The theological meaning corresponds to the artistic message—the temple is transformed into a little universe, and just as the god dominates the temple in religious symbolism, so in reality he dominates the world of nature.

Beyond this, the idea of cosmic stability under the patronage of the god is extended to the state. Several Egyp. temples claimed to rest on the primordial hill (Memphis, Thebes, Heliopolis, Hermopolis, and Philae, for example), and were supposed to represent the center of the universe. When Marduk rose to the head of the pantheon in Mesopotamia, Babylon came to assume the same position as the “navel of the world.” The unified cosmological order and its parallel in the state can be understood also from the exalted titles claimed by numerous kings, as for example the Mesopotamian title, “King of the four quarters (of the universe).” Since stability and order emanated from the gods, and the king administered the state under the auspices of the gods, then the political and social order was but a reflection of the divine cosmic order. The state temples are the architectural expression of this concept. Some later temples contained essentially the same notion, and the omphalos (“navel”) monument was common in many classical cities. A stone at Delphi in Greece was supposed to mark the center of the universe, and even the Roman Forum boasted such a stone.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that the imagery of the temple included both cosmological and dynastic ramifications. The Psalms of Ascents frequently juxtaposed the temple and the Davidic dynasty as established permanently by the faithfulness of God (e.g. Pss 122 and 132), and the vision of Isaiah reflects the universality of the eschatological house of God:

And it shall come to pass in the latter days, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it (Isa 2:2).

Psalm 24 expresses similar sentiments:

The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein; for he has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the rivers. Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? (Ps 24:1-3).

In Israel, as well as elsewhere in the ancient Near E, the state temple was regarded as a fixture in the divine cosmic order. God’s rule of the universe included the establishment, protection, and stability of both nation and king.

Dynastic chapels.

Because of the proximity of certain small Near Eastern temples to the palaces of the kings, it is thought that they served as private state chapels dedicated to the patron deity of the king, with services directed toward the maintenance of dynastic rule. Such is believed to be the case with the small chapel at Tell Tainat, which frequently is cited as an architectural parallel of the Solomonic temple. For this reason, and because the temple in Jerusalem was adjacent to the palace, it has been claimed that the Solomonic temple was a mere dynastic chapel. Support for this opinion is furnished by the names of the pillars flanking the doorway of the sanctuary: Jachin, “establish,” and Boaz, “strengthen” (2 Chron 3:17), meaning, it is argued, “(May God) establish and strengthen (the Davidic dynasty)” (cf. Ps 89:20, 21). One must distinguish, however, between the purpose of the temple and its functions. There is, it is true, a close connection between the divine selection of the temple as the place of God’s presence and the promises to the Davidic line: “For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there for ever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time. And as for you, if you walk before me, as David your father walked...then I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father, saying, ‘There shall not fail you a man to rule Israel’” (2 Chron 7:16-18).

The function which the temple performed in enhancing the glory of the Davidic dynasty and celebrating the promises made to him was nevertheless subordinate to the main purpose of God’s provision of a locale for historical revelation and perpetual witness.

Border sanctuaries.

Protection of the frontiers was a basic necessity in the security of the state. It is clear that the deity bore the responsibility for warding off evil and averting dangers from those under his protection. The shrines and temples located at the important border towns carried a double significance for the preservation of the state. Their existence would guarantee the presence of the god and be valuable as a morale booster for friends and as a superstitious deterrent for foes. Whether or not the Israelite and Judaean shrines of the late monarchy fulfill this functional pattern is as yet unclear. At any rate, it has been used to explain the placement of the shrines of Jereboam’s kingdom at Dan and Bethel, as well as to account for the modern discovery of the so-called “temple” at Arad (perhaps “shrine” would be a more appropriate name), and the monumental altar at Beer-sheba. According to this theory, there should be sanctuaries at Lachish and Aphek, as well as other places. It does appear that the function of guarding or protecting a frontier was the meaning of the covenant and heap of witness made by Jacob and Laban at Mizpah (Gen 31:36-55). The same practice may be reflected in the problematical “altar” erected by the Trans-Jordanian tribes (Josh 22:10-34). It was not for burnt offerings or sacrifice, they explained to the offended tribes gathered at Shiloh, but served rather as a “witness” on the border; whereupon civil war was averted. At any event, the importance of such border sanctuaries was minor in comparison to the great state temples and their significance.

Funerary temples.

Rites for the dead form one of the oldest types of religious observance. Wherever people were buried, it was inevitable that varieties of cultic observances would grow up over the years and become sanctioned by tradition. Only in Egypt, however, did the tendency to honor the dead and perform potent incantations over them result in the creation of grandiose temples. The pronounced funerary character of Egyp. religion is apparent; the tombs and funerary temples survive because they were designed to survive, and because the environment of the western desert plateau (where the necropolis was usually located) was favorable to archeological preservation. It must be acknowledged, however, that there was a real preoccupation with the continuity of life from this world to the next. Whereas, this was also true elsewhere in the Near E, only in Egypt did the doctrine of the necessity of preserving the corpse intact become so deeply imbedded in the public consciousness that mummification became imperative. Of perhaps greater importance was the solar cult of Pharaonic deification as the living Horus. Its gradual development from predynastic times to the zenith of kingly power in the fourth dynasty accounts in large part for the unsurpassed funerary monuments of the Old Kingdom. The most famous examples are the Step Pyramid and its enclosure at Saqqara, and the Giza group on the plateau SW of Memphis. The pyramids of the third, fourth, fifth and sixth dynasties required two funerary temples each, one at the base of the temple on the eastern side, and the other in the valley accessible to the inundation and connected to the first by a causeway. In the later Old Kingdom, the temples and causeways were decorated with carved reliefs and statuary. The royal family, nobles, and administrative officials were buried in benchlike mastaba tombs surrounding the pyramids, and each had a provision for funera ry offerings before the principal false door. Eventually small shrines or mortuary chapels were constructed on the exterior of the tomb, and then in the fifth and sixth dynasties these chapels became internalized, so that one could enter the tomb from the SE corner and make offerings before the false door on the interior.

The New Kingdom saw the removal of the principal royal necropolis to western Thebes, and tomb robbers forced a change in burial patterns. The Pharaohs were now buried in rock-cut tombs in the desert for greater security, and they built separate funerary temples near the cultivated areas. The function of these temples remained the same as those of the Old Kingdom. The outstanding example from the eighteenth dynasty is the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari. It was built in terraces against the base of a soaring rock cliff, and its horizontal lines contrasted effectively with the backdrop, on the other side of which was the Valley of the Kings.

The nearby Ramesseum was the immense funerary temple of Ramesses II of the nineteenth dynasty. It was surrounded by a precinct wall, within which were numerous magazines, slaughter courts, priests’ houses, apartments, colonnades, porticoes, and a small palace and audience hall. At the center of the enclosure was the temple itself, within an imposing front pylon and two open courts before the hypostyle hall. On the pylon was a scene from the famous battle of Kadesh.

The funerary temple of Ramesses III at Madinet Habu forms a closely parallel twentieth dynasty example. The structure contains famous reliefs depicting Ramesses repelling the Sea Peoples. It is also remarkable for its size (688 by 1038 ft).

Temple ritual.

Inasmuch as construction of the monumental temples required such vast and lavish expenditure of time, effort, and treasure, it should not be thought strange that the ancients viewed the rituals conducted in the temples to be of supreme significance. Despite this, scant attention has been paid to the subject of temple ritual by modern scholars. A great part of the cause is the paucity of sources for such an investigation. Clues can be pieced together, however, from acheological artifacts, from indications of the architecture, and from hymns, epics, and prayers. Historical writings are also helpful, but suffer from the distortions of naivete, prejudice, and polemic. The descriptions of Babylonian religion by Herodotus (I. 181-199), for example, provide some insights, but are not strictly accurate.

The task is nevertheless a rewarding one, because only by reconstructing the ritual and its meaning can a modern person come close to understanding what functions the ancient temple performed and how the service of the temples affected the participants.

Central to the ritual was the cult image. It was made of wood, clay, or stone, and frequently overlaid with gold on the visible parts. The statue was dressed in an elaborate regalia which helped to create the effect that the image was properly an object of veneration. Such apparel was fixed by rigid tradition. On one occasion, Nabonidus offended the priests of the Sun god by attempting to change his tiara.

The setting of the cult statue was enhanced by placing the god in a niche in a darkened room, where it was visible from a courtyard. The monumental doorways of Babylonian temples provided a further splendid frame for the impressive image, and was designed to stimulate awe on the part of the beholder. There is little evidence that the temple itself was a place where the ordinary person might come into the presence of the deity, but he was seen by everyone when carried through the streets in the great processions.

The problem of the human manufacture of the gods was a serious one to paganism, and was the subject of heavy sarcasm by the Heb. prophets (Isa 44:9-20; Jer 10:1-15). To circumvent this, the Babylonians devised a procedure of consecration or investiture, in order that the statue might be inhabited by the god. This elaborate ceremony was performed mainly at night, and consisted of the symbolic “opening of the mouth” of the statue by a series of fourteen ritual washings. The image was taken to the river bank in a nocturnal journey which included various sacrifices and incantations toward the cardinal points of the compass. The eyes were symbolically opened by a priest, and the god was decked out and taken to the temple with prescribed processional chants and a final sacrifice at the gate. Similar practices are known to have been utilized in Egypt, with the effect of making the transition from the workshop to the temple. A sophisticated Babylonian or Egyptian might have answered Jeremiah or Isaiah: “No, you are wrong. The god magically inhabited the statue at a specific point of time.”

The activities of the god consisted mainly of repasts, oracles, and processions. Two meals were usually served to the image daily, each made up of two courses with a variety of foodstuffs and delicacies. Often these were served in gold vessels, and one source tells that even the horses which pulled the god’s ritual chariot ate grass, which was harvested with gold sickles, from golden buckets. Curtains were pulled while the god was “eating,” a finger bowl was brought for washing the god’s fingers, and the cella was fumigated afterward to remove the smell of food. The “leftovers” were, on, certain occasions at least, the prerogative of the king, who took pride in consuming them. The god was apparently thought to partake of the food by merely having it placed before him, or alternatively, having it waved before his eyes. Another method was the burnt offering, which transformed the food into another dimension and could be smelled by the god. Sacrifice and the pouring of blood before the god did not figure as largely in Mesopotamian religion as in W Sem. practice.

The oracle was a typical function of the cult image. By means of questions and a supposed pattern of indication from the god, a “yes” or “no” answer could be obtained. One such means was the casting of lots, a practice which appears throughout the pages of the OT. The clearest indication is found in 1 Samuel 28:6, but the theological dimension is added in Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from the Lord.” Sometimes the pagan priests sought ways of making the image answer in a more dramatic fashion. The Egyp. priests of the Ptolemaic era were particularly skilled at this, and the classical world is filled with stories of various extraordinary oracular techniques.

Processions were another colorful cultic activity of the images. The enactment of the sacred marriage ritual was one such procession in Mesopotamia. The usual city festivals brought the god out of the temple and into contact with the people in an atmosphere of jubilation. Nabu normally made the journey from Borsippa to Babylon to honor his father Marduk. In Egypt the gods being conducted on journeys or in processions had various pavilions or way stations provided, to which they were welcomed with great ceremony. One of the most unusual texts tells of a Babylonian deity being taken out to hunt in the royal game preserve. Gods were sometimes, but infrequently, taken into battle. In this spirit the Ark of the covenant was taken out to battle the Philistines, with disastrous results (1 Sam 4:3-7:2). The god Ashur is always depicted as a winged disc hovering over the Assyrian armies in the reliefs, but it is doubtful if the image normally accompanied the troops.

A host of priests attended to the other religious functions of the temple. In Egypt, the funerary temples required numerous levels of purification and offering priests. In Mesopotamia the emphasis on conjuration, incantation, exorcism, and divination likewise necessitated special classes of priests. The “enchanters” of Daniel 2:10 refer to the technical term for a kind of incantation priest. Omen priests were concerned with the application of the exhaustive omen-texts to daily events of unusual significance. Eunuchs were players at the cultic performances. Among the priestesses were the Entu, Naditu, and Qadishtu, the latter being temple prostitutes similar in function to the Qadeshah of Deuteronomy 23:17 and 2 Kings 23:7.

Special rituals were observed whenever the king entered the temple precincts. A Hitt. text describes the observance at one religious festival, which becomes understandable if set in the largest of the five temples found at Boghazkoy, temple I. The temple is surrounded by a precinct wall and magazines, but is located in an open space and has a central court. The king, leading a procession, went into the propylaeum, performed ritual ablutions at a well before the gate, entered the sanctuary, and partook of a ceremonial meal, during which time he uncovered the sacrificial loaves and divided them with his spear.

Another important aspect of the temple ritual concerns the construction of the temple itself. Great care was taken in invoking the deity for permission to build. Naram-Sin, like David, was not permitted to build a temple. But, unlike David, he presumed to build one anyway, an impiety which had dire consequences. In laying the foundations, elaborate precautions were made, which included tracing the precincts, offering sacrifices connected with laying the cornerstone, and the sanctification by various rituals of the entire area. A certain procedure was prescribed for cleansing a desecrated temple, and the complex and lengthy formula for rebuilding a ruined temple would almost try the patience of a god.

All of these factors demonstrate the involvement of ancient man in his religion and his heartfelt participation in the life of the god, whether in daily activities or in the dramatic activity of the festivals.

Near Eastern and classical temple architecture

History of architectural developments.

The earliest temples developed out of the architectural forms of houses, and are clustered in the crowded villages of the Neolithic period. Small, roomlike shrines were found at Jericho as far back as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B levels (c. 7000 b.c.). The fullest plan bears a resemblance to the later rectangular megaron, which eventually became the preferred shape for classical sanctuaries as well.

In the late Neolithic period, about 5000 b.c., squarish house-shrines occur at Hajilar and Catal Huyuk in Anatolia. The remarkable series of forty shrines at Catal Huyuk scattered throughout the domestic quarter on nine levels provides the best glimpse of religious architecture at this early stage of history. The rooms were windowless and doorless, with access from the roof by ladders, and light from openings near the eaves. The walls were plastered and frequently painted with bulls, leopards, vultures, and anthropomorphic figures, sometimes executed in relief. Low benchlike “altars” were arranged around the walls. These often contained bucrania (the horns of Aurochs or wild bulls) and are linked to the common fertility worship of the period. The presence of skulls testifies to the life and death symbolism of the shrines, just as the catalog of small objects suggests a similar theme.

The Ubaid culture of the Chalcolithic period in Mesopotamia saw significant developments in temple architecture shortly after 4500 b.c. These are particularly noticeable in two places, one in the S and one in the N. At Eridu, near Ur at the head of the Persian Gulf, a series of seventeen temples was uncovered, which revealed not only the continuity of the sacred area, but the character of the earliest temple-platforms, which later became a standard feature of Mesopotamian temple architecture. The genesis of the ziggurat idea was in this type of foundation, and its evolution is traceable elsewhere in the Tigris-Euphrates basin. The temple at Eridu is thought to have been dedicated to the god Enki (Ea), the lord of the Apsu, by virtue of the presence of layers of fish bones covering the floor of parts of the shrine. The earliest temple measured only 12x15 feet, and contained two elements which became basic to the architecture of the cella: a small niche for the god, and a low mud-brick offering table before the niche.

Tepe Gawra near Nineveh boasted a cluster of three temples grouped around a court in the same period, all standing on a mud-brick mound forming a kind of acropolis about thirty meters square. The temples were distinguished by monumental façades of recessed brick plastered in white. Small rooms led to the rectangular cella which was the center of the cult. It is assumed that a triad was worshiped here, although many subsidiary deities could have been venerated as well. The court becomes an important feature in later Mesopotamian temples. The recesses and buttresses employed in stratum XIII served both utilitarian and esthetic functions, supporting beams for the roof and relieving the plain façade. Such stepped recesses were characteristic of Mesopotamian temple architecture thereafter.

The “white temple” at Erech (Warka) in the succeeding Uruk and Protoliterate periods following 4000 b.c. was built upon a much higher 40 ft. elevated platform and displayed a regular shape, approximately 17x22 meters in size. The façade consisted of stepped brick recesses all around the structure. The interior was divided into three parts, with two rows of small rooms flanking a cella which ran completely through the long axis of the temple. An altar with traces of burning occupied the center of the cella, with a pedestal in the NW corner which was presumably the focal point of the cult. The excavators named the complex the “Anu ziggurat,” but it is not really a true ziggurat, inasmuch as it is not stepped, and the association with Anu is based on evidence from a much later period. Subsequent temples, however, tended to follow the pattern of regularity in shape and decoration.

The temples at Khafajah show further developments in the Early Dynastic period (c. 2900-2350 b.c.). At first an original temple stood on a mound as an isolated building within the city. It was a simple community shrine separated from the domestic structures, and containing a fireplace, offering table, and an altar. The standard shape for a Mesopotamian temple was achieved, as at Eridu, by placing an entrance on one of the long walls and the altar on one of the short walls. The temple is called the Sin temple, but the attribution to that deity is quite tenuous. Rooms were added around the temple beginning as early as the Protoliterate period. Eventually a courtyard became the dominant feature in the Early Dynastic period (Sin temple VIII). A monumental entrance flanked by two towers with an impressive stairway was added. A much more complex function is indicated, with ovens, living quarters, and a major antecella being added, as well as a kisu, a low wall which surrounded the structure near its base.

In the second ED phase, another larger sacred area was built at Khafajah. In preparation, the site was filled with clean sand. Next, massive surrounding walls were erected, as much for defense, perhaps, as for isolation. In any case, the temenos wall (from Sumer. temen) surrounding the sacred area became a feature of the more important temples throughout the ancient world.

The most pronounced feature of Mesopotamian temple architecture was the ziggurat. The lavish expenditure of labor required for the erection of these artificial mountains and their centrality to the cult has caused a general scholarly agreement that the structures represent the mythological cosmic mountain. They did not achieve monumental size, however, until the imperial centralization of the Akkadian and Ur III periods. There are some obscure references to temples built by Sargon and Naram Sin, which, in the latter case, was an impiety punished devastatingly by the gods. The most noteworthy and lasting effort in the early period was that of Ur-Nammu, who built the famous ziggurat to the Moon god at Ur. It measured 130x190 ft. and stood in a courtyard, but the temple which surmounted the tower in ancient times has not survived.

The much later Neo-Babylonian period ziggurat at Babylon, built by Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 b.c.), was 295 ft. square and 295 ft. high. The infinite variety of Mesopotamian temples in the later periods nevertheless continued to exhibit the basic features of the early temples, and some of these architectural traditions continued to influence the development of sacred architecture into the classical era.

In Egypt there were a number of architectural developments which contributed to the general pattern of later temple construction.

First, the abundant use of stone in sacred buildings was apparent quite early. It is probable that the earliest Egyp. temples were small shrines constructed of mud bricks much like their Mesopotamian counterparts. But the development of funerary architecture influenced temples in the direction of the use of more permanent materials.

Most Egyp. buildings in the Old Kingdom (including even the royal palaces) were flimsy structures of wood, reeds, and fabric. The tombs, by contrast, were made of stone for greater permanence, because they were built as “houses of eternity” designed to endure forever.

Mesopotamian temples were seldom built of stone, except for stone foundations, which were sometimes employed. The great accessibility of stone in Egypt made the development of a genuine monumental architecture possible. Pharaoh Zoser’s massive funerary complex at Saqqara (c. 2800 b.c.), is the earliest example of a grandiose stone structure in history. The step pyramid is an outgrowth of earlier tomb construction, and is totally unrelated to the Mesopotamian temple-towers, which originated in temple architecture.

The importance of the Saqqara enclosure for sacred architecture resides in several elements. Essentially, it was a reduplication in stone of the palace; the walls were a mile long and thirty-three feet high, with fourteen gates. Wooden doors were copies in stone, and glazed tiles imitated the actual reed mats of the interior. The columns of the Zoser entrance hall were not free-standing, but engaged and fluted, with pendant leaf capitals. This marks the earliest usage of these components which later became so prominent in temple construction.

The Egyptians also experimented with naturalistically derived forms, making columns in stone which imitated the papyrus stalk bundles used in ordinary building. A particularly early variation of this idea was the use of columns imitating date palms. The pyramid and valley temples of Sahure (Dynasty V) exhibited this style. It is an extremely simple and esthetically pleasing form, rendered in rose granite, with smooth round monoliths topped by carved fillets and gently arching palm branches forming the capital. The fact that they are all in one piece emphasizes the Egyp. stonecutting ability.

Egyptian temples, like the Mesopotamian, utilized the temenos wall to separate the sacred precinct from the profane world. One feature which was peculiarly Egyp., however, was the pylon façade. It served as an impressive archway which confronted one with the magnitude of the structure even before entering, and as a supporting role, displayed iconography which frequently glorified the reigning monarch. The hypostyle hall at Karnak was the epitome of Egyp. temple architecture, with a vast forest of massive columns giving a lofty and unworldly atmosphere to the interior. In Ptolmaic Egypt Hel. and native Egyp. architecture existed side by side as attested by coin evidence. But the most important contributions to be made by Egypt had already been bequeathed to the Mediterranean oecumene prior to the end of the Bronze Age.

North Syrian temple architecture is illustrated by two phases of a mud-brick structure on stone foundations from the 13th cent. b.c. at Alalakh (Tell Achtana). Each of the phases has both the antecella and the cella arranged transversely to the entrance and parallel to the façade. The basic shape again bears a resemblance to the meagron, in this case an oblong structure with one or two columns in antis.

The Aramaean rulers of the Neo-Hittite period in North Syria developed a type of palace called in the Assyrian inscrs., bit hilani. The contrast between the palaces and temples of the period shows that, while there was latitude for experimentation and development of new forms in the royal residence, temples were more conservative. At Tell Tainat, for example, the shape of the chapel was again that of the megaron. A similar preference exhibits itself in the early Anatolian structures, and as early as 2300 b.c. Troy level II-G had a fine megaron as its largest public building, with a roof span of thirty ft.

The similarity of these geographically and chronologically diverse buildings has been attributed to a unilinear pattern of derivation. But the links in the line have been difficult, if not impossible to document. It is perhaps better to say that the megaron form was preferred because of its functional and religious value. It is true, of course, that religion is conservative, and that the antiquity of an element was regarded as enhancing its sacredness. The history and evolution of the Gr. and Rom. temple is equally involved. Some of the basic features had their roots far back in antiquity, but the vigorous Hellenic genius allowed the flowering of beautiful classical forms which became standard for temple architecture of the ancient world.

The megaron form, used for palaces and public buildings in the Bronze Age, as the finds at Mycenae, Tiryns, Troy, and elsewhere show, was adapted to sacred architecture as the Aegean world emerged from the dark ages, and became the preferred form thereafter.

The archaic temple of Apollo at Corinth is an example of the early Gr. edifice type in Doric style. One of the most noteworthy buildings in the ancient world was the temple of Diana (Artemis) at Ephesus. The Artemision, as it was called, was the first monumental structure ever to be made of marble, and it was the largest building of the Gr. world. The archaic Artemision (c. 550 b.c.) had a deep pronaos and a long unroofed cella. It had, according to Pliny, 127 columns, each 19 meters in height. The later Artemision (334-250 b.c.) was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was the same size as the earlier temple, but had a higher platform. The Greeks experimented with other architectural forms. The altar of Zeus at Pergamon, built by Eumenes II (197-159 b.c.), was a large and impressive example of an entire structure designed as an altar and covered with mythological reliefs. It served as the model for the Augustan Ara Pacis in Rome. Of the multitude of temples constructed in the Graeco-Roman world, most were of the rectangular variety, with columns arranged in prostyle, amphistyle, or peripteral patterns. A few temples, such as the treasury at Delphi, the temple of Vesta in Rome, or the Venus temple at Baalbek, were round. Perhaps the most famous of the round temples was the Pantheon in Rome. Designed by the Emperor Hadrian, the temple used massive concrete walls to support the circular dome. A propylon retained at least the semblance of the ordinary temple style. The greatest influence in subsequent church architecture, however, came from the Rom. civic building, the basilica. Nevertheless, Christian sacred architecture owed much to the ancient traditions, and was built on a long heritage of religious devotion expressed in bricks, mortar, stone, and marble.

Elements of temple architecture.

By the time the ancient temple reached the height of its development in the Classical Era, each element in its architecture had become established through adherence to a rigid convention. The canonical pattern remained essentially the same from the time of Pericles to the end of the Roman empire in the W, although stylistic innovations occurred throughout.

In terms of the typical ground plan, the basic megaron form was elaborated beyond the naos or cella itself by extending the side walls forward to form the pronaos or porch. Some temples had a similar addition in the rear but without an entrane, called the opisthodomos.

The use of columns made possible the esthetically pleasing effect of balance, lightness and harmony and broke up the sense of great mass normally present in a monumental structure. The play of sunlight and shadow on the intercolumnation, together with a restrained use of delicate sculpture on the friezes and pediments, created an architectural form of unsurpassed beauty.

The three types of columns which are associated with classical temple architecture, the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, each expressed a different style. The Doric is massive, simple, and plain. It is exemplified in the archaic temple of Apollo at Corinth, and is elsewhere frequently made the lower member of a two-or three-tiered façade. The Ionic is lighter and is characterized by a tasteful restraint. The voluted capital was widely employed throughout the classical world, and has a history which reaches back through the Aeolic order into the earlier developments of the ancient Near E. The Corinthian style is the lightest of all, consisting of a capital of acanthus leaves, which gives an elegant and highly refined, somewhat ornate effect.

Many of the Hel. and Rom. temples merely had a row of columns in front of the cella, forming the so-called prostyle temple. The amphiprostyle had columns in front and rear; whereas the peristyle or peripteral temple was surrounded with a row of columns. All were popular. For example, no less than five temples of the prostyle type were built at Pergamon alone during the 2nd cent. b.c. The largest temple to Dionysus in the ancient world was that of Teos in Asia Minor. It was a peripteros of the Ionic order, built, according to Vitruvius, by the architect Hermogenes. This famous architect wrote a treatise on the proportion of temples, in which he expressed a preference for the eustyle principle (whereby the columns should be spaced 2 1/4 times the column diameter for the most pleasing effect, based on the interaxial span and lower columnar dimension).

The dipteral type of temple had a double row of columns surrounding the structure. The archaic Didymaion at Didyma (550 b.c.) exhibits this type of columnation. The later Hel. temple at Didyma (300 b.c.), the third largest building of the Hellenic world, had another feature characteristic of certain temples. It was hypaethral, that is, the adyton (cella) was unroofed and open to the sky. A small naiskos or temple-like shrine stood where an altar might in a smaller temple. The Didymaion was sacred to Apollo, and had a chresmographeion or oracle room to serve the ancient cult.

The pseudodipteral temple type duplicates the dipteral, except that the inner row of columns are omitted, producing a particularly spacious and pleasing esthetic effect. The temple of Artemis at Magnesia on the Maeander was constructed in this style by Hermogenes. It is one of the most important creations of Gr. art by virtue of its structural innovations, as well as because of its monumental size and 200 m. sculptured frieze.

Standard elements of classical temple architecture include a three-stepped foundation called the stereobate or crepidoma. The topmost step of the platform is termed the stylobate. On the platform, the first row of masonry forming the walls of the cella is the orthostate. The columns stand on square blocks (in the Ionic order) which are called plinths. The column base is made up of several elements depending on the order, but grooves (trochilos) and ridges (astragalos) are frequently employed, surmounted by a large rounded moulding (torus). Columns were fluted and separated by ridges called arris (Doric order) or fillets (Ionic order). The capital crowned the column in the Ionic and Corinthian orders.

Spanning the colunms was the architrave (also called epistyle or lentil). Sometimes the architrave was separated into three fasciae or bands, above which was usually a band containing the familiar egg and dart motif. The middle member of the entablature in the Ionic order was a sculptured frieze. The Doric frieze alternated triglyphs (stones with three vertical bands) and metopes (sculptured stones). Above the frieze was a row of dentils or alternating indentations. The pediment was actually the horizontal cornice, and formed the topmost member of the entablature. It was socalled because the sculptured figures of the gods stood on it, as in the famous Parthenon friezes. The raking cornice was the angular member which framed the roof. The roof was flanked by a gutter called the sima along its lower edges on the long sides of the temple. Often carved figures or antefixes were attached to these gutters. The ridge of the roof was sometimes crowned with an acroterium, consisting of sculptured figures.

The results of the long history of architectural development of temples in the ancient world, and particularly the contribution of the Greeks, is still apparent in many of our modern buildings.


G. Ernest Wright, et al., “The significance of the Temple in the Ancient Near East,” BA VII. 3 and 4 (Sept. and Dec., 1944), 41-88; Henri Frankfort, et al., Before Philosophy. Originally published as The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (1946 and 1949); W. Stevenson Smith, The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt (1958); Henri Frankfort, The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient, 3rd ed. rev. with additional notes and bibliography by H. J. Kantor (1970).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The original signifies the thinnest part of the skull (Jud 4:21,22; 5:26). In So 4:3; 6:7, the bride’s cheeks are likened to pomegranates because of the rich coloring of a slice of this fruit.