I want to talk about the temple as a place of ascent to God, to treat the temple as a model of reality, a reality of things to come, and to talk about ascension motifs around the world. I will only be sampling what is really a vast, vast literature, a vast assemblage of traditions. Because the idea of ascension is connected with the temple all around the world and the idea of ascension is all around the world, I’ll only be touching a few cultures. There is a lot more where this comes from. Our goal, ultimately, (we’ve taught a seminar on this couple of times) is to talk about ascensions worldwide, and to organize them so that non-Mormons will profit from it, but Latter-day Saints who are familiar with the temple will see patterns, and I’m hoping some of you will see some of that today.
The idea of ascension is ubiquitous (a fancy word for omnipresent) in the world. You find it in the New Testament. For example, Second Corinthians, Chapter 12, where Paul tells in modest language what is probably his own experience.
It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. (2 Cor 12:1-4)
This idea of ascension, which is presupposed there, also presupposes a structure of the cosmos, which is indicated, roughly, here [slide].
Basically, you have the idea of Sheol, the underworld, below where we live; the earth, you have the earthly temple there; you have heaven, second heaven, the heavens of the stars, of the sea, and the third heaven, the abode of God. And everything is arranged in this kind of hierarchical setting.
There is a celestial temple that corresponds to the earthly temple. The windows of that heaven that separates the Celestial Sea from us are the windows through which God sends blessings, and the windows through which rain comes. It’s a good explanation of how water falls out of the sky onto us and also was an explanation, by the way, of how meteorites sometimes hit us, because that heaven up there is actually made out of rock, and every once in a while, a piece falls off, so a meteor hits you. It all makes a certain amount of sense. I mean, it’s scientific in a way—it did account for the observed data. But this idea of three heavens underlies Paul’s experience. It also is clearly related to some other things we know about: the idea of a celestial, terrestrial, and telestial kingdom.
There are some things about that passage in Second Corinthians 12 that I want to point to. Paul says this man “was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” There’s a difference between those two expressions. The unspeakable words have to do with things that you literally can’t express. These are things that cannot be uttered—the experience is ineffable. But also, there are words that it’s not lawful for a man to utter. You might be able to say something about it, but you can’t. You aren’t supposed to talk about it. So on the one level, it’s an incommunicable, in some sense mystical (using that word in very vague sense) experience, and on another, it’s an experience that could be expressed, but should not be.
The idea of ascent is Biblical, not only from Paul’s story, but also from the story of Jacob’s Ladder.
This [slide] is a medieval account of that: people going up into the heavens, the ladder of divine ascension, and the imps and devils are trying to pull people off the ladder, and they’re successful with a number of them, pulling them off into the flames of hell below. But if you’re lucky, or good, or whatever it is, if you belong to the right theological faction of medieval Christendom, you will make it up to the top of that ladder and be saved.
Christ himself, according to the New Testament account, ascended into the heavens.
Here [slide] you have the Hand of God reaching down out of the cloud, that veil-like cloud, to pull him up into heaven as he goes up into the sky. You see the disciples asleep below, and there are a lot of things going on in this. So this idea of ascension, the idea of going up literally into the presence of God, is common throughout the Bible.
It’s also common to the Book of Mormon. You have the story of the Three Nephites that is very, very similar in its language to this account of Paul’s ascension into the heavens. In Third Nephi, Chapter 28, verses 10 and then 12 through 17, you have this. (I include verse 10 for a very deliberate reason.)
And for this cause ye shall have fulness of joy; and ye shall sit down in the kingdom of my Father; yea, your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fulness of joy; and ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father; and the Father and I are one; (3 Ne 28:10)
This is talking specifically to the three disciples. I want you to know there’s something about that. It’s commonly said that Joseph Smith’s idea of human deification or exaltation was a late development, something that comes about in the Nauvoo period of the Church. It’s actually not true. Even [Doctrine and Covenants] Section 76, if you look at the date on it, is amazingly early. It’s February of 1832, less than two years after the foundation of the Church. But the idea of exaltation is already present there in this passage in Third Nephi. Listen to the language (this is Christ speaking to the disciples): “Ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father.”
Have any of you had elementary mathematics? Do you know the [Transitive Law]? You know, if A equals B, and B equals C, then what does A equal? C, right? Okay, the Savior is the intermediary between the Father and humanity. In mainstream Christian language, he’s divine and human, the man-God. He has human nature and divine nature. The Savior says, “You will be like me, and I am like the Father.” If you’re going to be like B and B is like C, then you’re going to be like C. So there’s a promise of exaltation right there, it seems to me. “And the Father and I are one,” which means you will be, too. “And you will be one with the Father as I am one with the Father because you’ll be like me.” So there is a lot going on in that little verse. Now, did Joseph Smith notice it? I have no idea, but it was there already when the Book of Mormon was published, before the Church was even founded, or about the time the church was founded.
Here is the part that I really want to get to with ascension:
And it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words, he touched every one of them with his finger save it were the three who were to tarry, and then he departed. And behold, the heavens were opened, and they were caught up into heaven, and saw and heard unspeakable things. And it was forbidden them [see the two categories here: things that could not be spoken and things that should not be spoken] that they should utter; neither was it given unto them power that they could utter the things which they saw and heard. And whether they were in the body or out of the body, they could not tell; for it did seem unto them like a transfiguration of them, that they were changed from this body of flesh into an immortal state, that they could behold the things of God. But it came to pass that they did again minister upon the face of the earth; nevertheless they did not minister of the things which they had heard and seen, because of the commandment which was given them in heaven. And now, whether they were mortal or immortal, from the day of their transfiguration, I know not. (3 Ne 28:12-17)
The point here is that, in addition to the kind of matter discovered in Paul’s account, is this transfiguration, which may even have changed them into immortality, certainly altered the nature of their being. They come back and they minister upon the earth, but they’re forbidden to talk about the things that they have seen. Now, I’m going to argue that the temple is a kind of model representation of this kind of experience.
Again, I want to point to the omnipresence of the idea of ascent. Here [slide], for example, is an illustration of Dante’s Mount Purgatory. (If you remember the Divine Comedy, that hilarious slapstick work of medieval poetry.) It starts off with the Inferno, a kind of counter Mount Purgatory, you’re burrowing down further and further into the depths of the earth to the lowest circles of Hell, where the worst people are, where Satan himself is. Then eventually, if you prove worthy, if you aren’t trapped in Hell, you get to climb up Mount Purgatory. As you climb Mount Purgatory, you are shedding your earthly sins, moving closer and closer to the presence of God. Again, this idea of ascent unto the presence of God.
Here [slide] is an image of Dante’s Geocentric Universe, again not unrelated to ancient ideas that had been around for a long time—the earth in the center. By the way, when people say that modern science has displaced the ancient notion that the earth was at the center of the universe, so it’s made us all feel less exalted; it’s humbled us. Well, ancient people didn’t put the earth at the center of the universe because they thought that was the place of honor. That was the worst place. Do you know what’s at the center of Dante’s Universe? Hell. It’s in the center of the earth; the earth is in the center of everything; the heaviest things fall down, lightest things (spirit and fire and flame) go up; rock and dirt and all that stuff go to the center. So it wasn’t a place of honor for the earth to be at the center of the universe. It was the place of dishonor. You’re trying to ascend to get beyond it. This is one of the many areas where Christopher Hitchens and his pals were simple wrong. (I don’t know of any area, significantly, where they’re right.) The idea that somehow modern science got rid of this exalted notion of humanity being the center of the universe is just nonsense.
There are more than three heavens. You have the heavens of the various spheres, the planets, and so on, and then the area, eventually, where God dwells, just to illustrate that. Eventually this idea, the Ptolemaic Universe, is spiritualized. You find that in Plotinus, the great founder of Neoplatonic Philosophy, that salvation consists of a mental ascent to God.
You have in the Islamic tradition, which is my particular focus, Ibn Sina or Avicenna and al-Farabi and al-Kirmani, the extraordinarily obscure philosopher who was the bane of my dissertation. They all have a notion of salvation as ascent, mentally and spiritually, up through the Ptolemaic universe to the presence of God, at least metaphorically. It’s common in Islamic mysticism and other mysticisms as well (the idea of ascension unto God).
I want to talk specifically about the mountain of the Lord’s house, the cosmic mountain. Here [slide] is an illustration of the cosmic mountain, the mountain of paradise. This is from a Greek Christian traveler of the Sixth Century by the name of Cosmas Indicopleustes. It’s typical. It represents the kind of image that you would find just about everywhere. God dwelling on mountains was hardly a new thought to the Christians. Think of Mount Olympus. Think of Mount Meru among the Buddhists. Mount Sinai, of course, in the Bible. God is associated with mountains. Think of the Mount of Transfiguration.
The mountain of the Lord’s house was sometimes really a mountain. If you didn’t have a Lord’s house, you had a mountain. The Saints, sometimes, coming West would go up onto mountains to pray. When they got to Salt Lake, before they were able to build even the Endowment House, went up onto Ensign Peak. George Q. Cannon received his endowment on Ensign Peak.
So, it was very, very common for mountains to be associated with, and artificial mountains to be built by, people who are trying to get into the presence of God. I will come back to it, but the Tower of Babel is probably an artificial mountain, a kind of ersatz temple, an attempt to falsify, to forge the rituals that would get you into the presence of God.
In the Psalms, you have Psalms 120 through 134, known as Songs of Ascent, or Songs of Degrees in the King James Bible. It’s the so-called Pilgrim Psalter. These were songs that were sung by people who were coming up to the mountain of the Lord’s house into Jerusalem. Jerusalem is literally on a mountain ridge. If you’re coming up from Jericho or from the seacoast over on the Mediterranean, you’re climbing up to Jerusalem, and it’s a pretty steep climb in some places. The temple itself was thought to be the Lord’s Mountain in the tops of the mountains. So they would sing these Songs of Ascent. If you read these psalms with that in mind, they make a lot sense. Jerusalem is literally 2,500 feet above sea level. That may not seem like much, but if you’re coming up from the seacoast of the Mediterranean, it’s a climb, and a climb in a fairly short order. Here are the words of Isaiah, Chapter 2, the first through the fourth verses:
The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
This was a common motif in that period. A near contemporary of Isaiah was the Prophet Micah, in the late 8th Century BC. In Micah, Chapter 4, verses 1 through 5, he has essentially the same thing to say:
But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow unto it.
Now, you know that these passages were also referred to Salt Lake by the Latter-day Saints; the temple, the mountain of the Lord being built in the top of the mountains—again.
And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among many people [sounds very similar so far], and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it. For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.
I mentioned already that the Tower of Babel is a kind of satanic counterfeit of this, that people living in an area largely without mountains built a counterfeit mount of the Lord as a way of ascending into the presence of God. I don’t think they really thought they were going to build it high enough to get up into the presence of God. It was a fake temple with fake temple rites, and all that sort of thing—a ziggurat, as we now refer to them.
We don’t have any living examples of them, but here [slide] is a marvelous building at Samarra, which is not too far from Baghdad in Iraq. This is the minaret of the old mosque, the old Abbasid mosque there in Samarra. The mosque doesn’t survive, but the minaret still does. This [slide] is an aerial view, looking down. You can see the steps going up, in a circular fashion around the minaret to the top.
This is built in Iraq, and it’s probably modeled on surviving examples, to the extent they survive of that period, of ziggurat architecture. There’s only one other minaret that I know of like this. It’s in Cairo, Egypt, attached to the mosque of Ibn Tulun. It was built by somebody who was from Samarra originally, so they carried that idea of the ziggurat with them. This was the idea that you go up into this tower, and the god dwells on the top of the tower—not in the minaret, Muslims don’t believe that. But in Babylonian mythology, the god dwelt at the top of a tower. Gods often dwelt at the top of a cosmic mountain, and this was a symbolic architectural representation of it.
The question is, who could enter into the mountain of the Lord’s house? If you look in the Psalms, you actually get temple recommend questions. A little different from ours today, but they’re recognizably temple recommend questions, in a sense. This is the entirety of Psalm 15:
Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart. He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbour, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour. In whose eyes a vile person is contemned; but he honoureth them that fear the Lord. He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not. He that putteth not out his money to usury, nor taketh reward against the innocent. He that doeth these things shall never be moved. (Psalms 15)
Here’s another one from Psalm 24, verses 3 to 5:
Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation. (Psalms 24: 3-5)
So there are entrance requirements for entering into the mountain of the Lord. What is the connection of this with the temple? Well already, you can see that we’re talking about the mountain of the Lord’s house, sometimes a literal mountain, sometimes an artificial one. There is a strong connection to the temple.
I want to cite a verse—again, I’m on this kick, trying to show that there are things in the Book of Mormon that foreshadow what’s going to come up later, even though some people, some critics, will say, “The Book of Mormon doesn’t contain a lot of things that become characteristic of Mormonism in a later years.” Listen to this, from Mormon Chapter 9, verses 12 to 13. See if this isn’t a pretty good summary of elements of the temple. It talks about God, who created the heavens and the earth and all things that in them are. Listen to the organization and rhetorical structure of this.
Behold, he created Adam, and by Adam came the fall of man. And because of the fall of man came Jesus Christ, even the Father and the Son; and because of Jesus Christ came the redemption of man. And because of the redemption of man, which came by Jesus Christ, they are brought back into the presence of the Lord; (Morm 9:12-13)
That just struck me one day, having just come back from the temple, that that was pretty good stuff.
Let me read a line from Margaret Barker. Margaret Barker has become sort of quasi-canonized within Mormonism these days, and for good reason. Some of you have heard the story. Margaret Barker is a Methodist Biblical Scholar in the UK. I don’t know who was the first person to find anything by her. I like to claim it was me. I can claim it because I don’t claim any special virtue for having done so — it was sheer dumb luck.
I was at an annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. The thing I go for (I don’t care about the lectures) is the book sale. Everything’s at half price or 90 percent off. It’s just wonderful. It’s the bane of my wife’s life. It’s not just the cost—it’s the space. I was sitting there one day, going through the books, and there was a book by Margaret Barker called The Great Angel sitting there on the shelf, and it sort of glowed. You know, “Buy me. Buy me.” It was heavily discounted, so I brought it home, and didn’t read it for a while.
Then I picked it up one night and began to read it. Here’s this woman who was talking about how (she was looking at the question of how early Jews were supposed to be monotheistic) Jews could have come to the belief that there was a Father and a Son. Some scholars have argued that it was because there were early Greek converts who brought the idea of demigods like Hercules into the equation. But she’s arguing, “No, no, no—it’s totally Jewish.” They were harkening back to an older Jewish tradition that there was a Father, El or Elohim, and a Son, Jehovah or Yahweh.
Then pretty soon she’s talking about the idea that God might have a consort or wife. I’m reading this thing, and thinking, “This has got to be a Latter-day Saint, it’s just got to be.” She’s talking about things like Melchizedek Priesthood, the importance of the temple, and all that sort of stuff. Then I’d think, “No, it can’t be a Mormon,” then I think “No, it has to be a Mormon; it has to be a Mormon.” We finally discovered she was a Methodist.
We had her out to BYU once to do a presentation, a sort of master class for some of the faculty. She didn’t know anything about Mormons, nothing, nothing at all. And she’s going on and on about these things like, at one point she was sort of apologetic, mentioning the idea that the evidence seems to suggest the earliest Israelites believe God had a wife, and “I hope I’m not offending you,” and we were assuring her that we could handle it.
Then this Melchizedek Priesthood thing, she said, “I don’t know what it is, but I’m really curious about it.” We were kind of snickering and casting glances at one another. She finally realized that there was something funny here. She told me afterwards that she had called her son back home, and told him some of the things she was discovering, and he said, “Mom, that’s really spooky.” She has worked her way through to a lot of things that are really amazingly similar to Latter-day Saint views on these things.
Anyway, Margaret Barker is very interested in the temple. She explains that “the earthly sanctuary, whether it was the tent [tabernacle] or the temple, was thought to reflect a heavenly pattern.” (Gate of Heaven, 16)
Further, she observes, “one of the keys to any understanding of the temple cult is the realization that the rituals and the personnel were also thought to be the visible manifestation of the heavenly reality. [There were characters in the temple who represented divine characters, or celestial characters.] The priests were the angels, the high priest was the representative of the Lord.” (Gate of Heaven, 17)
According to Mircea Eliade, who was a great Romanian scholar of comparative religions, the three parts of the temple at Jerusalem correspond to the three cosmic regions. The lower court represents the lower regions (“Sheol,” the abode of the dead), the holy place represents the earth (think of the Terrestrial Kingdom in the middle), and the holy of holies represents heaven. The temple is always the meeting point of heaven, earth, and the world of the dead. (See Kevin Christensen, Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem) Isn’t that what the temple is today?
This [slide] is an Egyptian temple cutaway showing the entryway to the temple, great gate, monumental gateway, and so on. As you enter into an Egyptian temple, the floor rises, and the ceiling will sometimes lower, you’re going into a more and more holy area, the further you go back into the temple.
The Tabernacle, likewise, had areas of increasing holiness as you come in from the outside. In Solomon’s Temple, areas were ever more restrictive, ever more holy. Herod’s Temple as well, in the court of the gentiles, in the court of the women, eventually the holy of holies. You go in deeper and deeper into the divine as you go into the temple. In modern temples, what do we do? We actually ascend. In some of the older temples, it’s a physical ascent. In the Salt Lake temple, as you go through the temple, you’re actually climbing. What’s the lowest point of the temple? The baptismal font.
There are common representations of the cosmic mountain from the ancient Near East. Typically the deity is residing at the top, but from the bottom, you will have, in typical representations, four jagged lines coming out representing water, the sources of life, the waters of life coming out of the basement of the cosmic mountain. Think of the temple today. Where is the baptismal font? It’s in the basement, at the base of the temple. Then as you ascend up into the temple, you’re going up in the higher regions. In the Salt Lake temple, the higher you go up, the further you’re coming up towards the celestial room, symbolically toward the presence of God. These are very, very common temple motifs.
Now I want to look particularly at the temple and the Garden of Eden, the mountain and the Garden of Eden. In the Qur’anic narrative of the fall of Adam and Eve, one of the things that is most apparent is that the fall seems to be thought of literally as a physical descent, a physical fall from an elevated location, from a high place to a lower. In this context, I think it’s worth noticing the extraordinarily interesting 28th chapter of Ezekiel, which expressly draws upon the Eden story to make a point regarding the King of Tyre. Listen to this in a modern translation,
The word of the Lord came to me: O mortal, say to the prince of Tyre, Thus said the Lord GOD: Because you have been so haughty and have said, ‘I am a god; I sit enthroned like a god in the heart of the seas,’ whereas you are not a god, but a man, though you deemed your mind equal to a god’s, assuredly, thus said the Lord God, because you have deemed your mind equal to a god’s, I swear I will bring against you strangers, the most ruthless of nations. They shall bring you down to the Pit in the heart of the sea. You shall die the death of the slain. Will you still say, ‘I am a god’ before your slayers when you are proved a man, not a god, at the hands of those who strike you down? The word of the Lord came to me: O mortal, intone a dirge over the King of Tyre and say to him: Thus said the Lord GOD: you were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and flawless in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; Every precious stone was your adornment: carnelian, chrysolite, and amethyst; pearl, lapis lazuli, and jasper; sapphire, turquoise and emerald; and gold beautifully wrought for you, mined for you, prepared the day you were created. I created you as a cherub with outstretched shielding wings; and you resided on God’s holy mountain; you walked among stones of fire. You were blameless in your ways, from the day you were created until wrongdoing was found in you. By your far-flung commerce you were filled with lawlessness and you sinned. So I have struck you down from the mountain of God, and I have destroyed you, O shielding cherub, from among the stones of fire. You grew haughty because of your beauty, you debased your wisdom for the sake of your splendor; I have cast you to the ground. (Ezekiel 28:1-17)
This is a literal casting down from a high place, which is identified with Eden, the garden of God, so it’s on a mountain: the temple, the mountain, the Garden of Eden. All these things associated together, the references to a cherub in that passage in Ezekiel certainly echo the Genesis narrative as well as it seems the king of Tyre’s ambition thinking of himself as a God, grasping after divinity, blurring the distinction between human and god, reminiscent to the Genesis story.
Going back to the Egyptian temple, it’s been said that the colonnades, the pylons that are there in the entryway, just past the entrance way, represent in many cases the plants of a garden, a sort of celestial grove. So you start off with the garden there.
Back to Margaret Barker, “Descriptions of the temple, however, do suggest that it was Eden” in connection with the creation stories might strike you as familiar. It’s connected with Eden. It’s connected with the mountain. “Ezekiel described a temple built on a high mountain (Ezek. 40.2), whose courtyards were decorated with palm trees (Ezek. 40.31, 34).” She’s drawing evidence from all the over the book of Ezekiel. “The interior was decorated with palm trees and cherubim (Ezek. 41.17ff.), and from the temple flowed a river which brought supernatural fertility (Ezek. 47.1-12).”
Some of you may know that the stone in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is thought by some to mark the spot, or near the spot, where the holy of holies of the ancient temple was. Someday, it will be removed, and the waters underneath the temple mount will burst out and flow down into the Kidron Valley, and then down the valley into the Dead Sea, and heal the Dead Sea. Right now it just needs water of any kind—it’s disappearing. This will be miraculous water that will cause the Dead Sea to be healed, so it’s the waters of life coming out of the base of the temple structure.
Ezekiel did not invent these Eden-like features; each is mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament. The temple on a high mountain was the theme of Isa. 2.2-4 and Mic. 4.1-3; the righteous were described as the trees of the house of the Lord (Ps. 92.13), a metaphor which would have been pointless had there been no trees there; 1 Kings 6.29 described the palm trees, cherubim and flowers carved on the temple walls; and several prophets looked forward to the day when waters would flow from the temple (e.g. Zech. 14.8; Joel 3.18). Hezekiah had removed a bronze serpent from the temple (2 Kings 18.4), and the seven-branched candlestick, as we shall see presently, was remembered as the tree of life [that’s what the menorah is]. Ezekiel, it seems, had a vision of a garden sanctuary like those known elsewhere in the ancient Near East, but it was also an accurate description of the temple he had known in Jerusalem. (Gate of Heaven, 69)
This is from biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman:
The temple was Eden and its rituals will have interacted with this fundamental belief about the creation. The temple itself, like Eden, was between heaven and earth with access to both the divine and material worlds. (Who Wrote the Bible? 126)
Finally, a comment from Margaret Barker:
Since the temple was a statement about the natural order, it was closely associated with the myth of the creation. (Gate of Heaven, 63)
Now back to the cosmic mountain and the waters of life. One of the things that goes on with the waters of life is ritual cleansing, initiatory ordinances, if you will. Before the ascent, you have to be clean. One of the best models of this sort of ascension story (but it’s not the only one by far) that you will find around the world, is the story of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. There is a story about Muhammad, who is taken from Mecca or Medina to Jerusalem on a miraculous steed known as Buraq, which means lightning. (It’s not Baraq; it’s Buraq.) He’s taken to Jerusalem, where he leads the former day prophets in prayer. But before all of this, according to many of the stories, the angel Gabriel comes, sometimes accompanied with two other angels, and they do something very strange. They split open Muhammad’s chest, take his heart out, and wash it in icy water, taken from the mountains in the North, and then replace his heart in his chest. It’s a symbolic cleansing of Muhammad, or washing of him, before he begins this ascension story. So you start off with that ritual cleansing.
This [slide] is from the Egyptian temple of Karnak. Presentation scene before the God; purification and anointing; and then clothing and crowning. Clothing is often a part of this climbing, as well. The person takes on new clothing at some point, either as part of, or as a culmination of the ascension. Then you climb the cosmic mountain, you ascend through the heavens, through the planetary spheres, which are represented in many cases as veils or curtains or something like that.
The story of Muhammad and the mir’aj, the so called ascension into heaven for Muhammad, is a really interesting one. He’s taken from the area that is now marked by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, where he begins to ascend a ladder or a staircase into the heavens. He comes up through seven heavens by this time, in the development of that kind of motif, and each of those seven heavens is separated off from the one before it by a curtain. In each of those seven heavens, there is a prophet of former days who is stationed there as the guardian. Muhammad is brought up by the angel Gabriel, who presents him at the curtain. The person behind the curtain asks questions whether he is qualified to enter in, and in each case, eventually, he answers the questions correctly, he identifies himself properly, and he’s taken through the curtain into that heaven. It culminates with him ascending actually into the presence of God after seven of these ritual repetitions.
The heavens were thought of as being not just lifeless places, but the domain of God.
This [slide] is seeing it from down below, with the eye of faith, if you will. This is the interior of the Dome of the Rock, the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended, according to Islamic legend. Unfortunately, the Dome of the Rock is almost impossible to get into nowadays. I used to wander into it all the time, and took it for granted. Now you can’t get in no matter what. The last couple of times I have been there, I tried my most solid unctuous charm, including speaking Bell Arabi. It doesn’t do any good at all, so you have to look at photographs of it. Believe me, it’s unbelievably gorgeous inside. It’s an enormous dome covering that rock, and it shows you the way they conceive of the heavens.
This [slide] one from the mosque in Cordoba in Spain, giving the same idea. Here’s [slide] an actual illustration of the seven heavens. Here [slide], in this case, you don’t have the earthly temple as in Jewish or Egyptian mythology. You have the Ka’ba, the Muslim shrine, that black cube down below. You ascend up through the heavens to the presence of God. Believe me, there will be a celestial Ka’ba up there as well on which the earthly one is modeled, just as our temples are modeled upon celestial temples.
Here [slide] you have an image of Muhammad at the veil. Muhammad is there before the curtain, about to be admitted into the presence of one of the prophets. There [slide] is another image from a text called the Ascension of Abraham. God is surrounded by veils, and Abraham is being brought by the angel up to the veil just before the presence of God. You see below him the winged chariot wheel, which goes back to the ascension of Elijah, another famous ascension story. That’s the way you get up there in some cases, is with this fiery chariot that takes you up there—a flaming, fiery chariot. At some point, often, through the curtain there’s an embrace. The deity welcomes you, and brings you into his presence.
This [slide] is a little church in Athens that has been renovated to give it the appearance of a Byzantine Church from early times, from probably the 5th or 6th Century, somewhere in there. The exterior is not all that interesting, but here [slide] is the interior with the veil that marks off the altar. The priest can go beyond that; the congregation can’t. I thought, for various reasons, the veil was kind of interesting. But the idea of the veil was common even in churches. They didn’t know what to do with it, exactly, except that it marked off the altar from the congregation. A veil was an imitation of the ancient temple.
Here’s [slide] a passage from a description of the mysteries of Mithra that I like. You will see that I am gathering things from all over the place. You could describe this as parallelomania, if you will, but the fact is, there’s a kind of common ascension ideology that exists all around the ancient world everywhere: China, ancient Greece, the Islamic world, Egypt, Babylonia, the Americas, India, and Ethiopia. It’s astonishing how common it is, which to my mind suggests that it goes back to either real experiences, or real rituals, or both, as the most common, most plausible suggestion of the commonalities that exist.
This is from Mithraism. The Mithraic religion was a real rival to Christianity, at least in some circles, in the early Christian centuries. It was particularly popular among Roman soldiers – men. They’re not that many women involved with it, but lots of men. They found Mithraeums, Mithraic sanctuaries in England, where the Roman military was stationed. This is from a book by Franz Cumont called The Mysteries of Mithra:
“The heavens were divided into seven spheres, each of which was conjoined with a planet. A sort of ladder, composed of eight superimposed gates, the first seven of which were constructed of different metals, was the symbolic suggestion in the temples, of the road to be followed to reach the supreme region of the fixed stars. To pass from one story to the next, each time the wayfarer had to enter a gate guarded by an angel of Ormazd [or Ormazda, if you were from the Iranian tradition]. The initiates alone, to whom the appropriate formulas had been taught, knew how to appease these inexorable guardians.”
There are certain things you have to do and say when you get up to these barriers in order to enter into the presence of the god, or to get past the veil that marks off each heaven from the previous one.
“As the soul traversed these different zones, it rid itself, as one would of garments, of the passions and faculties that it had received in its descent to the earth. [There is an idea of preexistence here as well; you’re just going back to where you came from.] It abandoned to the Moon its vital and nutritive energy, to Mercury its desires, to Venus its wicked appetites, to the Sun its intellectual capacities, to Mars its love of war, to Jupiter its ambitious dreams, to Saturn its inclinations. It was naked, stripped of every vice and every sensibility, when it penetrated the eighth heaven to enjoy there, as an essence supreme, and in the eternal light that bathed the gods, beatitude without end.”
“It was Mithra, the protector of truth, that presided over the judgment of the soul after its decease. It was he, the mediator, that served as a guide to his faithful ones in their courageous ascent to the empyrean; he was the celestial father that received them in his resplendent mansion, like children who had returned from a distant voyage.”
Now that ought to sound at least vaguely familiar to you. I almost feel like breaking into “O My Father” or something like that. Now then, when you’re back in the presence of God, all sorts of wonderful things might happen. Muhammad is called as a prophet in many stories; people are deified. Muhammad receives his call as a prophet in this connection, although there are other stories of his call.
Here [slide] you have Muhammad seeing the Celestial Tree Of Life, and it’s covered according to this ancient, early, medieval illustration, with jewels. Here [slide] is Muhammad in the heavenly Mosque, the equivalent to the Celestial Temple, if you will. Here [slide] in Egypt is a depiction of the Tree of Life with the name being written on the fruit or on the leaf. Notice the faces have been carefully defaced by pious Christians.
Paul, remember, also had a supernal experience going up into the heavens. “He was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” The three Nephites “were caught up into heaven, and saw and heard unspeakable things. And it was forbidden them that they should utter; neither was it given unto them power that they could utter the things which they saw and heard. … And now, whether they were mortal or immortal, from the day of their transfiguration,” Mormon says, “I know not.” So something spectacular happens at this point. You become deified. You can no longer talk about the things you’ve received. You’ve been given some special endowment of power and knowledge.
I’ll conclude with a quotation from 3 Enoch, chapters 11 through 13, which is one of the greatest ancient texts that I haven’t referred to yet.
“Rabbi Ishmael said: The angel Metatron, Prince of the Divine Presence, said to me [Metatron is Enoch, but at this point, he’s been changed into the angel Metatron, who dwells before the Throne]: The Holy One, blessed be he, revealed to me from that time onward all the mysteries of wisdom, all the depths of the perfect Torah, and all the thoughts of men’s hearts. All mysteries of the world, and all the orders of nature stand revealed before me as they stand revealed before the Creator. From that time onward, I looked and beheld deep secrets and wonderful mysteries. Before a man thinks in secret, I see his thought. Before he acts, I see his act. There is nothing in heaven above or deep within the earth concealed from me.” (3 Enoch 11:1-3)
“Rabbi Ishmael said: Metatron, Prince of the Divine Presence, said to me: Out of the love which he had for me, more than for all the denizens of the heights, the Holy One, blessed be he, fashioned for me a majestic robe, in which all kinds of luminaries were set, and he clothed me in it. He fashioned for me a glorious cloak in which brightness, brilliance, splendor, and luster of every kind were fixed, and he wrapped me in it. He fashioned for me a kingly crown in which 49 refulgent stones were placed, each like the sun’s orb, and its brilliance shone into the four quarters of the heaven of Arabot, into the seven heavens, and into the four quarters of the world. He set it upon my head, and called me the lesser YHWH in the presence of his whole household in the height, as it is written, “My name is in him.” (3 Enoch 12:1-5)
Now listen to that! “He called me the lesser Jehovah.” That’s deification. This is a Jewish text!
“Rabbi Ishmael said: the angel Metatron, Prince of the Divine Presence, the glory of highest heaven said to me: Out of the abundant love and great compassion wherewith the Holy One, blessed be he, loved and cherished me more than all the denizens of the heights. He wrote with his finger, as with a pen of flame upon the crown which was on my head, the letters by which heaven and earth were created; the letters by which seas and rivers were created; the letters by which mountains and hills were created; the letters by which stars and constellations, lightning and wind, thunder and thunderclaps, snow and hail, hurricane and tempest were created; the letters by which all the necessities of the world and all the orders of creation were created.” (3 Enoch 13:3)
In other words, he gives him the capacity to be a creator. He deifies him, declares him to be “the lesser YHWH,” and gives him the power of creation. It’s a remarkable thing.
It is my firm belief that the temple represents a model, which itself represents a cosmic reality, a reality that involves access to divine mysteries, access to the waters of life, access to cleansing and ascension, access to the presence of God, a symbolic representation of admission into the presence of God, an endowment of power that goes with that, with the ultimate culmination of a blessing of exaltation in the presence of God. That’s remarkable stuff, and it’s remarkable that Joseph Smith restored these ancient models from the ancient world, living in 19th Century America.
But I’m not making this only as an apologetic point. I’m making it as a point to say that we, as Latter-day Saints, who aspire to defend and sustain the kingdom, should be aware of the riches we’ve been given. We should not forget what it is that we’ve been given. It’s not only a matter of defending it; we should live it, and observe it ourselves, and treasure what’s been given to us. It’s a remarkable thing. It’s far more than we deserve or merit. It’s the grace of God that gives it to us.
I bear you my testimony that these things are true, and that the blessings that have been promised for us are beyond comprehension. There’s a wonderful passage by an Indian poet, who was asked to give up his mystical experiences, his experiences, basically, of divine ascent. He’d had some inklings of this sort of thing. To give that up and come back to the orthodox legalistic religion that he had been raised in. His response was, “I have felt the back of the elephant moving between my knees and now you want me to come down and ride on a donkey?” Well, that’s the way I feel when people come to me and offer me other forms of religious experience, other forms of religious belief. I can’t imagine anything more fulfilling, more wonderful than what we’ve been given in the Gospel even though we seldom appreciate it in its fullness. It’s worthy of living. It’s worthy of defending. I bear you my testimony of that in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Question 1. I’ll take an easy one first. Why would Muslim artwork depict Muhammad when Islam forbids depicting his actual image? Well, Islam doesn’t. Wahhabi Islam does, the really hardcore rigid Sunni, to my mind distasteful fanatic form of Islam. (I’m kind of showing my colors here.) I tend to be very sympathetic to Islam, as some of you may know, but Wahhabism, and those forms of Islam don’t appeal to me much. They will tell you it’s the law of Islam that the Prophet cannot be represented. But hey, if that’s the law of Islam, it’s kind of amazing. There’s a vast quantity of Islamic art depicting the Prophet Muhammad, you know. Particularly popular are the Mi’rajnamas, the book of his ascension, which shows him ascending into the heavens. It shows his face and everything else. Sometimes, they’ll just show his body with a flame on his shoulders, you know, so as not to show his face. But quite commonly, they will show his face. So, it simply isn’t true that there is an absolute prohibition against the representation of Muhammad in Islamic art. That is a particular sectarian account of Islam, which happens to be characteristic of the vocal fundamentalist, particularly Sunni, minority right now. They manage to impose it on a lot of people, and scare other people into accepting it, but it’s not true.
Question 2. What is your response to critics who use the example of the King of Tyre’s ambition to become a God as evidence against Theosis? Well, obviously there are incorrect ways to try to become a god. The Tower of Babel was an illegitimate way. It was an attempt to force a way. The only way in is by the proper door, you know, the proper Shepherd. The person doesn’t gain access to the sheepfold by the wrong door. You go in the right way. You don’t try to force your way into heaven, or cheat your way into heaven. You go in by the way the Lord has outlined. Early Christians talked quite unashamedly about becoming deified. They weren’t afraid of that doctrine. It’s all over the place in early Christianity. There is also the wrong kind, the arrogant kind, that assumes we can become deified in our sins, without following the path we have to follow, and without the grace of God, without asking his permission. He can grant it, but we can’t steal it; to steal it is wrong. And Lucifer was basically offering something that wasn’t his to give. King Tyre was an arrogant person who sought to steal deity on his own, not by living righteously.
Question 3. Could these similarities to our temple today be considered relics of Christianity from the days of the ancients? Absolutely. I think absolutely they can, and you’ll find traces in the liturgy of the Catholic and Orthodox churches and elsewhere in Christendom that represent, to my mind, survivals from that ancient time, particularly in very old churches, in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. In Rome, you’ll find, the further you go back, the more temple similarities you’ll find, in my view.
Question 4. Considering the HBO Big Love rendition of the Endowment recently, can the church honestly claim it was taken out of context if the church itself fails to clearly explain and/or define what the context itself actually is? Well, I don’t know that I would have, that my primary line of criticism would have been that it was taken out of context, although in a sense, I think it is ripped out of context, because the temple will not make sense to a person who’s not properly prepared spiritually and doctrinally for it. It will be “unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness,” as the Gospel always has been for people who are not prepared for it. The temple will make sense for people who are prepared, and for those who aren’t, they won’t be. And so, one of my labors is, for example, in trying to prepare people to go to the temple is to get them into the right mindset, so they can appreciate what’s there. I know lots of people who go, including Latter-day Saints who aren’t prepared, and don’t get out of it what they should get. Hopefully they will some day. Some never do, I suspect, but showing it on HBO is, to put it mildly, not the proper context for the Endowment ceremony. This is something that we regard as genuinely sacred, esoteric, if you will, but something where the truths of it are to be communicated spiritually, and probably will not be communicated via Big Love.
Question 5. Mention Margaret Barker’s summary in the coming FARMS Review. Yes! Well, we have from time to time published things in the FARMS Review, and elsewhere with FARMS at the Maxwell Institute from, by, and about Margaret Barker. The next issue of the FARMS Review will contain a couple of articles about some of Margaret Barker’s recent work on the temple. So place your orders now. It’s going to be good stuff. She’s got endlessly interesting things to say, for Latter-day Saints. I don’t think she realizes, even now, how interesting we find her.
Question 6. How do temple experiences, that is, the Endowment, fit into the Nephite experience if it is essential for salvation? Well, we don’t know much about Nephite temples. My suspicion is that there were temple things going on among the Nephites, but that they kept them pretty quiet. I can’t prove that, because they kept them fairly quiet. We do have traces from early Christianity suggesting that even though there’s nothing in the New Testament that would clearly teach you the temple Endowment, or anything like that, but there were things going on in early Christendom that were very closely related to what we now have as the Endowment ceremony, and certainly other things. You know, like baptism for the dead is only mentioned once in a kind of oblique aside by Paul, and yet there’s evidence that it was practiced for quite a long while in Corinth. It was a pretty big deal for some people, but there’s not a lot made of it. We do know that even baptism itself was sometimes regarded as a more or less esoteric ordinance in early Christianity, and that non-members were not to be there. One of the proposed etymologies for the word “mass” is that it comes from a word having to do with being dismissed. Catechumens, investigators, and non-members were told to leave before the administration of what we would see, effectively, as the Sacrament. They may have been much more secretive, enclosed, and esoteric about early Christian ordinances than we are today. So it wouldn’t surprise me that we would have almost nothing that would survive.