Temple Worship among Post-Exile Jews

Excavation of Jewish settlement on Elephantine Island, Egypt

First of all I’d like to thank all those who have participated in the TempleStudy feedback that was posted yesterday. I have received a good number of responses, and most were very positive. Some even compared my methodology, albeit detrimentally, as similar to Hugh Nibley’s, for which I could not be more flattered. If I am able, in the least measure, to be compared to Dr. Nibley, I am very grateful. I also received many ideas for topics and directions which will help to continue charting the course here. I’m glad to see that there is so much support for this site, however inadequate my research or conclusions may be. Mostly we are trying to sit at the feet of some of the greatest LDS scholars here, and learn as we go along. And just to quell some uncertainties, I have not entertained any thoughts of quiting TempleStudy anytime soon. We’ve just begun!

I’d like to draw some attention to the great research on the temple that was presented in the latest Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 16/2 (2007). Two articles in particular in this issue have the temple as a major theme, namely, A Tale of Three Communities: Jerusalem, Elephantine, and Lehi-Nephi” by Jared W. Ludlow, and “Service and Temple in King Benjamin’s Speech” by Donald W. Parry. We’ll review Ludlow’s study today.

Book of Mormon Temple Scholarship

At a recent lecture at the Olivewood Bookstore I posed a question to Dr. Daniel C. Peterson if there was much scholarship on temples and temple imagery in the Book of Mormon. He responded that there hadn’t been much work done in that area, and that more could be done particularly because there are some very interesting passages which allude to those things. He mentioned that Professor John W. Welch’s book The Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount (available at Deseret Book, Amazon, or online) was written precisely to try to connect some of the things from the Sermon at the Temple in the Book of Mormon to certain temple imagery, even if we didn’t recognize that this is what Welch was trying to do. I still need to pick up this book (we’ve mentioned it before). Peterson did mention that a lot of work has been done on temple complexes in the New World which could still be analyzed in light of the Book of Mormon. Hugh Nibley has also mentioned that there is much temple imagery in the Book of Mormon that could still be studied.

This is why I was so pleased to find two articles in the latest JBMS which had some focus on temples in the Book of Mormon. Ludlow’s article compares the temple practices, among other aspects, of three groups or communities that left Jerusalem around 586 B.C. due to the Babylonian attack—Elephantine in Egypt, the colony of Lehi-Nephi in the New World, and post-exilic Jerusalem. These three groups have some interesting similarities in their dedication to temple worship which they took with them. Indeed, the very identity and life of these people was centered around the temple in Jerusalem, and so when they were scattered from their holy place, there arose a dilemma about how to continue temple worship. What Ludlow presents is that all three communities strove to continue their temple practices, even apart from the temple in Jerusalem. Wherever the covenant people were, they continued their temple worship.


Reconstruction of the Jewish temple at Elephantine - by Stephen RosenbergDr. Ludlow presents the temple in Elephantine (or Philae), Egypt, as a unique example of a temple outside Jerusalem. Some of our critics have tried to show that a temple outside of Jerusalem was not allowed according to Jewish custom and belief, and so the temples mentioned in the Book of Mormon would not have happened if the story was authentic. Finds such as the temple in Elephantine show otherwise:

One of the strongest institutions for all three communities was a temple . . . Elephantine was noteworthy because it was a Jewish community outside of Israel that constructed its own temple, a development that runs counter to the belief “that foreign soil was ritually unclean precluding erection of a temple.”1

Indeed, an extant letter between Elephantine and Jerusalem shows that the High Priest in Jerusalem authorized the building of the temple in Egypt:

In the relevant Elephantine letter, a promise was made that, if the temple were rebuilt, “the Jews in Elephantine would pray for the governor of Judah and offer meal offerings, incense and burnt offerings in his name on the altar of YHW [Jehovah] at Elephantine.”2

You can see an associated video from FAIR and BYU scholars talking about this temple here.


Another similar community that built temples outside of Jerusalem following the Babylonian siege was the Nephites in the New World:

As Nephi’s people began to construct buildings, they built a temple “after the manner of the temple of Solomon save it were not built of so many precious things” (2 Nephi 5:16). According to Nephi’s own record, the workmanship was exceedingly fine. Not much detail is given about the specifics of the Nephites’ temple worship, but since they were following the law of Moses (see 2 Nephi 5:10), they presumably performed customary offerings and sacrifices, perhaps from flocks and crops they had produced (see 2 Nephi 5:11; see also Mosiah 2:3).3

This practice of building temples by Jews who left Jerusalem is evidence of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon record.

Postexilic Jerusalem

Those Jews who gradually began returning to Jerusalem after their exile started work restoring and rebuilding the temple there. The temple structure and rites were of supreme importance for these people. Dr. Ludlow remarks:

The temple altar was already being used for sacrifice as soon as the Jews returned, perhaps even before (see Jeremiah 41:5). But the temple’s importance went beyond sacrifice—it was tied to the Jews’ national identity, which is probably part of the reason why the returning exiles, in rebuilding the temple, refused the assistance of the Samarians and other inhabitants who had been left behind. The community they were establishing was going to be more narrowly defined, and only those from the narrow group could rebuild and worship in the restored temple.4


In summary, Ludlow states:

Each of these groups saw the temple and its accompanying sacrifices and offerings as absolutely vital to their communities.5

Wherever the people went, the temple followed. The temple has always been of paramount importance to God’s covenant people. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught:

What was the object of gathering the Jews, or the people of God in any age of the world? . . . The main object was to build unto the Lord a house whereby He could reveal unto His people the ordinances of His house and the glories of His kingdom, and teach the people the way of salvation; for there are certain ordinances and principles that, when they are taught and practiced, must be done in a place or house built for that purpose.6

I recommend Dr. Jared Ludow’s article in which he also compares the similarities between these three groups in their social relations, festivals, texts, and priesthood practices. It is a great read.

  1. Jared W. Ludlow, “A Tale of Three Communities: Jerusalem, Elephantine, and Lehi-Nephi,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 16.2, 2007, p. 31. []
  2. ibid., 33. []
  3. ibid., 33. []
  4. ibid., 34. []
  5. Ibid., 40. []
  6. TPJS, 307-308. []

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