Biblical Archeology

Biblical Archeology: Ancient temples and altars

Despite standard features, places of worship unearthed in the near East show widespread individuality.

Larry G. Herr received his Ph.D. from Harvard in June of 1977 in the field of Near Eastern languages and literatures.


For as long as man has existed he has reached out toward divinity, leaving widespread evidence of his religious concerns in the numerous temples and altars reclaimed by archeological excavations.

The relatively large number of such structures discovered is due mainly to two phenomena: 1. Archeologists tend to excavate the most prominent areas on their site, which are often the places where public buildings such as palaces and temples were built. 2. Since much of what is excavated represents a culture radically different from our own, the function of many objects and structures cannot be identified with certainty. The temptation in such cases is to ascribe unknown functions to the most enigmatic of man's activities—his religion. Thus "cultic" remains turn up quite frequently, although through subsequent study many turn out to be quite secular.

By the time of the early Israelites, temples had developed into special buildings or precincts set apart from the secular activity of the town. Earlier scholars tried to define as many similarities as possible be tween temples of different cultures, especially in their general features, but so many differing forms have come to light that settling on a typical temple plan is becoming recognized as impossible. Each nation worshiped its own particular gods and expressed that worship through temples that reflected the nation's religious personality, much as modern church buildings comment on their owners' modes of worship.

In seeking to find parallels for Solomon's Temple, an activity re searchers have been attempting since the science of archeology began, similar buildings have been suggested as candidates now and then, but the general consensus is that there is no temple yet unearthed having a real identity in plan with that of Solomon's Temple.

The temple with the most similarity to Solomon's Temple of any yet found is in the northern part of modern Syria, at a site called Tell Tainat. This structure dates from the ninth or eighth century B.C., a century or so later than Solomon's time. Because it is only the chapel to a large palace nearby, it lacks the storerooms that Solomon's Temple had, nor has a courtyard with an altar of burnt offering been found. We are thus left only with the basic building itself. Two pillars, like the Biblical Jachin and Boaz, originally stood on a porch in front of a central room (approximately twice as long as it was wide) corresponding to the Biblical Holy Place. Beyond this room is a "Most Holy Place" with a platform for the divinity similar to the function of the Biblical ark of the covenant. This "Most Holy Place," however, is rectangular and not square, as was Solomon's.

As we shall see, many ancient Semitic temples had corresponding features in their temple plans, including the two pillars in a porch and two rooms making up the main portion of the temple, but these were usually arranged in slightly differing plans. Therefore the similarity of the Tainat temple with that of Solomon is probably more coincidental than meaningful.

In order to trace the development of this rather standard temple plan we should look first at temples from the period just prior to the conquest of Palestine by the Israelites during the Late Bronze Age. Probably the most striking temple recently unearthed is that found in the lower city of Hazor. It is complete with a porch containing the two columns, a middle room, and an inner room, the "Most Holy Place," with a niche for the deity. Other temples, such as those at Beth Shan, combine the porch and the "Holy Place," placing the two columns into that first room. A "Most Holy Place" with a plat form for the divinity completes the building. Another temple, probably less formal than these at Beth Shan, was found in a large moat at Lachish; it had only one basic room, into which were placed both the platform for the deity and the altar, usually a courtyard feature. Most of these differences were due probably to the same reasons that modern churches tend to be different from each other—encroaching buildings, dissimilar topography, relative wealth of the devotees, architectural expression, or the effects of specific religious beliefs reflected in the temple architecture.

Another important aspect of temple life focused on the altar where the daily and special sacrifices were offered, although not as many altars have been recovered as temple buildings themselves. Altars unearthed by archeologists usually stand outside the temple in a fore court, much like those of the desert tabernacle and Solomon's Temple, and, like the Biblical altars, represent many different sizes and shapes, from the large, round, out door altar at Megiddo to the very small, single-stone altar in the temple at Lachish. Some of these altars had stairs for the priests to reach the top, a practice which was forbidden to the Hebrews in Exodus 20:26. Some altars were made of a single, large stone, carved so as to receive the draining blood of the victim; one such altar was found on the ground's surface at Hazor.

Many small incense altars—complete with horns, as if they were miniature reproductions of the larger altars of burnt offerings—have been found all over the Holy Land, several of which have been broken in pieces, possibly by the invading, looting Israelites. One temple has been discovered from the time of the Judges, predictably not Israelite, but Philistine. At Tell Qasile, near Tel Aviv, a mud-brick structure was found, very similar to the smaller temples of the Late Bronze period at Beth Shan and Lachish. Hemmed in by other structures, it is composed of two rooms with the "Most Holy Place" much larger than the first room. Probably the first room should be considered the porch, with the second room combining both the "Holy" and the "Most Holy Places" into one room. From the Semitic nature of this temple plan many scholars surmise that the Philistines had adopted much of the Canaanite religion, possibly that which the Bible ascribes to them, the worship of Dagon, whose name means "wheat" or "the god of grain."

Several temples have been found from the time of the Israelite monarchies. A platform, or "high place," has been found at Dan on the northern edge of Israel, perhaps the very one recorded in 1 Kings 12:28-31, and the one against which Amos preached. An actual temple building or an altar has not yet been found there.

The most remarkable Israelite temple to be found is the one at Arad inside a small border fortress protecting the southern flank of the Judean kingdom from possible marauding bands attacking from the southern desert. Even though it is perhaps overbilled by the excavator as a very close parallel to the desert tabernacle and Solomon's Temple, we should note the similarities. The altar is in a large courtyard and measures five by five by three cubits, the same dimensions as the tabernacle altar, and is made of unhewn stones, following the Biblical injunction. The earliest structure at Arad had no storerooms on the sides but the second stratum added such rooms to the north, almost enclosing the altar in the process, and added two columns in front of the door into the "Holy Place," as on Solomon's Temple.

However, the similarities end here, for the "Holy Place" is extremely rectangular, and the "Most Holy Place," if that is what it is, is little more than an elevated platform to house the presence of the divinity, perhaps as a place for several small standing stones, called massebot, possibly intended to represent a covenant between clans or between the worshipers and God. Also, on the front of the raised platform, as if before the "Most Holy Place," are two incense altars, still with the evidence of burning on them.

This temple, or sanctuary, does not seem to be mentioned in the Bible, and indeed, seems to have been missed by the purges of Josiah's reformations, since it continued on through to the Babylonian destruction. It may have been one of those unrecognized places of worship that the prophets railed against so heartily, in spite of several very orthodox elements, such as the unhewn stone altar.

A Judean temple that ignored the command regarding unhewn stones was found at Beer Sheba. It is mentioned explicitly by the prophet Amos in one of his most cutting invectives. The stone blocks of its finely chiseled altar, complete with horns and a rude carving of a snake, were found recently where they had been rebuilt into a storeroom wall after having been dismantled, prob ably in the reforms of Hezekiah. No wonder it received the language from Amos that it did; it clearly was not an orthodox shrine!

So far, however, nothing has been found of the temple itself at Beer Sheba, although one scholar thinks it could have been a building near the city gate containing an unexplained, cornered stairway that would fit precisely the dimensions of the re constructed altar. If he is correct, the stairs would be yet another violation of the Biblical commands for altar structure (Ex. 20:24-26). Possibly the temple was completely destroyed by Hezekiah's reformers and another building constructed in its place.

In the last couple of years an extremely important find has been made in the southern desert near Kadesh Barnea. Here, at a lonely military and trade outpost a small sanctuary has been found whose plan has not yet been published. Its plastered walls are covered with inscriptions, in which the name of Yahweh is mentioned several times. In one case He even seems to have a consort, the Canaanite goddess, Asherah, well known from Biblical passages dealing with heretical religious practices of the Israelites (Judges 6:25, R.S.V.). Several of the votive vessels found in the rooms contain inscriptions dedicated to God, as well.

It would thus seem that what archeologists have found regarding temples remarkably confirms the Biblical record. Certainly, the discoveries illustrate the unorthodox temples and shrines erected throughout Israel and fully illustrate the necessity for the frequent invectives of the prophets.

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Larry G. Herr received his Ph.D. from Harvard in June of 1977 in the field of Near Eastern languages and literatures.

August 1978

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