There is a strong intellectual current among some popular LDS personalities and bloggers (and a very few non-LDS thinkers) that see the temple not only as the defining element of Mormonism, but also of ancient Judaism, Christianity, and for many, a near universal cultural theme. This tradition imagines a cultural inheritance that is both conscious and unconscious of temple themes, motifs, and rituals. In this recent revival of this theme in Mormon thought, Margaret Barker has emerged as a central influence, not only because of her prolific and provocative theories about ancient Judaism and Christianity, but also because of her non-Mormonism.
It is no secret that I am not a great admirer of Barker’s work. Though her devotees see her as forging a new paradigm, I have suggested that she is simply reviving an older methodology of the “Myth and Ritual School” that was long-ago abandoned as problematic.
While most versions of the recent temple-studies movement in Mormonism have centered on the Jerusalem temple, others have adopted a structuralist or diffusionist model that looks at ritual traditions from cultures as diverse and China and India as confirmation for the truth about temples. While this later approach suffers from some serious problems of comparative religion and comparative anthropology, I’d like to focus on the historical problems of the most dominant LDS narrative of a historical descent of temple traditions in early Christianity.
One of the main problems with this move is that it homogenizes the diversity of perspectives about the temple held by early Christians, reproducing a discourse of orthodoxy and heresy as those who “preserved” the temple and those who “suppressed” it. This narrative begins with a certain thesis about the history of Jewish and Christian views of the temple and then finds the evidence to fit it. Not only does this approach presume a particular view at the outset as the “orthodox” view (which leads to problems in historical method), but also overlooks the variety of authentically Christian perspectives about the Jersulem temple, which can only be described as ambiguous.
My very brief survey revealed four different attitudes about the Jerusalem temple in the New Testament texts.
1) Acceptance: no break in continuity. Paul attends the temple seemingly unproblematically, at the suggestion of the Jerusalem church authorities. The only problem with this view is that the temple is only around for a few decades after Christ’s death, and is already destroyed by the time most of the NT texts are written, including all of the Gospels.
2) Rejection: condemnation of temple, priesthood, sacrifice, etc. Some of Paul’s texts, as well as sayings of Jesus, reject the very principles on which the temple is based, such as ritual purity.
3) Supersession: Jesus fulfilled the temple or the temple pointed to him. Hebrews is the most important text with this view, though some other scattered references may hold this view as well. One important question is whether supersession is seen in oppositional terms, or complimentary terms.
4) Metaphor: the temple becomes a symbol, even if not used. For instance, when Paul says that “your body is a temple,” he transfers the ideology of temples, such as purity and pollution, away from the temple to a different place.
These are merely provisional categories, and I am not totally confident in them as clearly distinct from one another, but I think that they do begin to suggest the multiple ways in which early Christians (to say nothing of ancient Jews) imagined, related to, and constructed the “temple” as a category and a site of meaning-making. The temple is a symbol, and symbols are produced by human beings, not naturally occurring. That means that symbols are variable and produced through sets of practices of interpretation. As historians we must be aware of the multiple interpretations of the temple, and as LDSs constructing our theologies of temples, we should also listen to the multiple voices within our heritage about the discourse of temples.