Should We Expect to Find the Temple Ordinances as One Coherent Whole in the Scriptures?

Should we find the Temple ordinances in the Old Testament? If so, should we see them presented as they are today? In short, yes to the first and no to the second.

In my experience, most people assume that the Endowment (meaning the portion after the Initiatory ordinances and before Sealing, as described by Elder Packer in The Holy Temple) must inherently be one whole cohesive ceremony, with all the elements presented together. After all, since that’s the way it is now, shouldn’t it always have been thus? That seems to be wide-spread thinking.

In 1978 for example, John K. Edmunds, who served as Salt Lake Temple President from 1972 to 1977, wrote of having “searched the biblical record of the Tabernacle built by Moses and the Temple built in Jerusalem for some perceptible record of the holy endowment: but all in vain.” Through Temple Doors (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1979), 67.

If this is what we are looking for in the scriptures, neither we nor our Bible-based critics will find it. (For them, of course, the non-mention of a unified temple ceremony in the Bible makes it “non-biblical” and thus illegitimate.)

I don’t believe we should find record of one coherent ceremony, for one good reason. It’s probably not the one you’re thinking of, namely, “The Endowment is holy and sacred, and therefore we wouldn’t find anything about it in the scriptures.” Perhaps. Let’s set that aside so I can get on to my main point.

My one good reason- It is evident from several sources that the Endowment as we have it today is a collected edition, a compilation, a package. In other words, I don’t believe we should find one cohesive ceremony in the scriptures because before the present era, the covenants and blessings of the Endowment were not administered in one cohesive ceremony. Simple, no?

On what basis do I say this?

1) The ordinances were not given all at once to Adam and Eve.

Regardless of whether one understands them, as presented in the Temple, to be historical, ritual or mythical (in the classical sense), the Endowment does not portray Adam and Eve receiving their covenants and ordinances all at one time. Rather, after they are given and make a covenant, significant time (for evaluation?) passes before they are given another one. This is clear from the presentation itself as well as some of the dialogue (my second supporting point), which I obviously won’t go into.

3) Several Church Presidents and Apostles taught that the the Endowment naturally belonged in (at least) two parts, though it was acceptable as is.

Joseph Smith taught on several occasions that the temple ordinances included both Melchizedek AND Aaronic portions (see quotation here), and the Endowment explicitly points this out. Regarding these two portions of the Endowment, Brigham Young said,

when we give the brethren their endowments, we are obliged to confer upon them the Melchizedek Priesthood; but I expect to see the day when we shall be so situated that we can say to a company of brethren you can go and receive the ordinances pertaining to the Aaronic order of Priesthood, and then you can go into the world and preach the Gospel, or do something that will prove whether you will honor that Priesthood before you receive more. Now we pass them through the ordinances of both Priesthoods in one day, but this is not as it should be and would if we had a Temple wherein to administer these ordinances. But this is all right at present;

Discourses of Brigham Young, 396, quoting the Brigham Young’s speech of 11 June 1864, Journal of Discourses 10:309.

Brigham was not alone in thinking this. Later on, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Franklin D. Richards and others all expressed desire for the same thing. George Q. Cannon recorded that

our endowments are too easily obtained. Men and women go to the temples who do not understand the value of the precious blessings that are bestowed upon them, and I have felt for years that something should be done to change this so that instead of it being necessary for a man to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood, he will first manifest his efficiency in the Aaronic Priesthood and show his capabilities and good desires before receiving the higher Priesthood. I firmly believe that this will be so some time and that men will not get the fullness of the endowment with the ease that they have done but will receive that part which belongs to the Aaronic Priesthood.

Gospel Truth, 178. (Elder Canon goes on to give a particularly harsh appraisal of how many of us go to the temple.)

I am unaware of any historical data on why this was not implented. (The most obvious response would be that God instructed them to keep it together, which would argue against my thesis but not completely undermine it.)

4) The Old Testament Patriarchs received what appear to be Temple ordinances at different times in their lives.

From my reading of the scriptures and Joseph Smith’s commentary thereon, I believe the patriarchs also received the covenants and blessings of the Temple at different times in their lives, not all at once, particularly with Jacob. That they are doing what appear to be Temple things strongly implies that they are, well, doing Temple things.

From these four things (ie. Adam and Eve, the Endowment dialogue, the expression of GA’s that the Endowment should be split into its logical halves, and Joseph’s commentary on the Old Testament), it is apparent to me that whereas in modernity all the elements of the Endowment are administered together, it was not so in the past. Therefore, we should not expect to find a coherent ceremony analogous to our own in the scriptures, though we may find elements of it.

Caveat lector- I am not saying that everywhere we see a Temple concept or element, someone is receiving ordinances. I do, however, firmly believe that Temple ordinances are much more rooted in the scriptures than is apparent on the surface, but we have to know what we are looking for.

(This is from a paper of mine I’ve had to shelve, but hope to get published after I’ve finished my exams.)

37 thoughts on “Should We Expect to Find the Temple Ordinances as One Coherent Whole in the Scriptures?

  1. I agree with what you’ve stated. It’s interesting how much the news that the endowment ceremony is not the exact same one Joseph Smith administered will shake the testimonies of many people. I think it’s a very adaptable ordinance, by it’s very nature it has to be.

  2. Interesting. I’ve always been astounded that the Pearl of Great Price (i.e. parts of the Bible that should be there but were edited out over the millenia) contains so much history/dialogue that seems to be endowment related. There certainly doesn’t seem to be any reason that it couldn’t have been given over the different dispensations in many different parts.

  3. Ben, thanks for these thoughts. It’s very helpful to be freed to find smaller chunks of familiar ritual in the scriptures, and several come to mind, now that I view it this way.

    Aaron: “I think it’s a very adaptable ordinance, by its very nature it has to be.”

    I find that idea interesting. What do you see in the nature of the endowment that requires some flexibility in administration?

  4. Ben,

    The wide-spread assumption in the Church is Joseph received the various Temple ceremonies lock, stock, and barrel by revelation of some sort. Of course, there is nothing to suggest this, its just assumed, and almost never discussed. The other assumptions about the various ceremonies stem from the “history” presented within the endowment ceremony itself. All of these assumptions are backed by nothing substantive, and attempting to point that out to faithful members will only get you a lot of aggravation and contention. People enjoy their unsubstantiated assumptions, if they didnt they wouldnt hold them.

    Setting the history of the contemporary ceremonies aside, it seems unlikely anyone would expect (I’ve never met anyone who has suggested it) the contemporary ceremony in full to be found in an OT context as the Melchizedek Priesthood as we know it today was not operative for the vast majority of the OT record. Thus, expecting any aspects drawn from the MP to have permeated that portion of the record is a non sequitur.

    Additionally, the Law of Sacrifice was in operation during the OT, so literal sacrifice was committed regularly, something we clearly have none of today. That alone would render things very different.

    Furthermore, during the vast majority of the OT record there was no separation of the Church and State, the religious institution was supposed to be the state and there was regular overlap, meddling, and considerable conflict as a result. There was also a dedicated lineage-based work force assigned to the Temple with a smaller subset dedicated specifically to administering the ordinances, and they found themselves co-opted by various governments over time, which resulted in conflict between them and the prophets. Throw in the three divinely instituted regalim, and the others added along the way and you have something else entirely. All of this would have rendered the Temple fuctions wildly different from the way they are used today.

    Any temple-related events prior to corporate Israel are very sketchy, so its just a lot of arm waving. You have various people doing various things at various times, not ever in the context of formal worship.

    I cannot see how anyone who spent any significant time thinking about the subject at all could come to the conclusion that OT temple ceremony was anything like it is today.

  5. Kurt, interestingly, Hugh Nibley did some work showing that many aspects of the temple endowment ceremony may have been around in the 1st century AD. I think some individual aspects may have also existed in OT times. But I would agree there is no reason to believe the ceremony was exactly the same as it is today.

  6. Follow-up comment: Ben, it makes sense from an eschatological and historical standpoint that the entire endowment was not revealed in past dispensations. It would make more sense to me that they would be revealed in the latter days as part of the great winding-up scene. So, your post is believable (except it’s missing a point 2) :0 🙂

  7. Ryan Bell:

    What do you see in the nature of the endowment that requires some flexibility in administration?

    The nature of the ordinance, with dialog, drama, costume, clothing etc. make it quite complex. A simple example is the fact that this ordinance has to be translated into so many different languages. There’s no possible way you can convey the deeply symbolic meaning of every word spoken in English the exact same way in Chinese for example.

    Time constraints are another factor, one reason our endowment is so much quicker today is probably because we (for the most part) make use of technology, whereas Joseph Smith didn’t have that, so it had to be done all by people; live. We could also consider that the nature of the endowment is a progressive, step-by-step ceremony; therefore steps could be done at different intervals; the pacing can be modified without destroying the meaning. Much of the ordinance is expounding on already-revealed scripture. I’m sure there was more expounding being done originally, more explanation; the endowment is a lot of teaching, not just ritual acts. It would follow that some things, therefore, can be altered or even taken out without people being utterly lost because they have some source to go to and get more; the scriptures.

    That’s basically all I can safely go into. Talking about the temple outside the temple is hard.

  8. Kurt, I’ve never heard the idea that the Melchizedek Priesthood was somehow non-operational during most of the OT period. What do you mean by that, and what are your sources?

  9. The Salt Lake School of the Prophets Minute Book has the following quotes from Pres. Taylor and Cannon:

    I have myself, however, had very many misgivings about the departure from any of those ordinances that have been introduced by the Lord. And I must say, too, that I have had serious misgivings about conferring all the blessings and powers of the Priesthood as we do in our Endowments at the present time, upon everybody indiscriminately, that is recommended to as worthy by men sometimes, who themselves are unworthy and who do not comprehend their position; I say I have serious misgivings as to whether it is proper to confer these blessings on so great a number of people who do not seem to comprehend them and who are not prepared to carry them out. And if we could only arrive at some form whereby a smaller degree or a portion of the Endowment could be given to parties first; and whether or not that first thing was not the thing that here might be intended I am not prepared to state. But I will state that I have frequently reflected upon this, and have thought that the sacred things of God have been handled too loosely and too carelessly, and that they have been made too common. We do not seem to comprehend their value. Men may make mistakes and apostatize, and that they have always done it, and that there has always been confusion and difficulty arising from these things we all know. The history of the Church is full of examples of this kind. I have been, as I have stated, of the opinion that if our Endowments could only be given in part instead of as a whole, it would be much better and much safer, and we should thus avoid placing upon the heads of the incompetent people that which they are not prepared to receive and which they [11] seldom live up to. It has seemed to me always to be tampering with sacred things to thus indiscriminately bestow all the blessings of the Priesthood upon all that come along. -John Taylor

    Bro. George A. Smith and myself had several conversations with President Young upon this subject. It was very strongly urged that there should be a division in the Endowments, and I have no doubt that the Lord will yet through you reveal to us what shall be done about the matter. It is as clear to me as the light of the sun that there is a necessity for such a division. We have been carrying things on a very crude manner for many years. Joseph in his haste to get the Apostles and other Elders their Endowments bestowed everything he had received upon them. Being pushed, as it were, by the Spirit and the exigencies of the times, he bestowed these things in their fullness upon the men whom he selected. In like manner, when the Temple at Nauvoo was completed, the Apostles (being in a hurry and the mob crowding upon us, and having to leave Nauvoo very quickly), bestowed in like manner upon the people everything that had been received from the Lord. What has been the result? Why, we see that things of God have become too common. Our Endowments have become lowered to an extent that, to a man who appreciates their solemnity and importance, we must look at it with pangs of sorrow to see the lightness to which these matters are treated. Men go into the Endowment House and come out of it as if it were some place of amusement. -George Q. Cannon

  10. Ben,

    With respect to the separation of the ordinances at some point; in the New Jerusalem, yet to be built, there will be 24 temples – 12 Melchizedek and 12 Aaronic. So I guess it’s safe to assume that they will be separated.

  11. Ryan, I believe Kurt is pointing to the fact that the OT temple was staffed and administered by the Aaronic Priesthood and the books of Moses dealing with the temple are pretty much exclusively devoted to Aaronic/Levitical ordinances; any presence which the Melchizedek Priesthood had in ancient post-Mosaic Israel would have been through a non-institutional line of authority — the prophets, who were usually outside of and separate from the institution of the Levitical priesthood. Thus, the MP was not “operative” in the sense that it was outside the structure of authority in the temple and was not the priesthood authority to which the people were exposed, not that God had somehow “turned it off.”

  12. Ryan: My guess is that Kurt is referring primarily to D&C 84:23-26 (particularly 25-26), JST Exo.34:1-2 and Exo. 20:18-21
    The MP was only removed from Israel in general. Joseph taught that the prophets each held the Melchizedek priesthood, and I believe other individuals may have as well. In any case, the Aaronic portions may well have been in effect after that point, and the whole thing before.

    Kurt said “Additionally, the Law of Sacrifice was in operation during the OT, so literal sacrifice was committed regularly, something we clearly have none of today. That alone would render things very different.”

    While true that we don’t offer physical sacrifices in the temple, there is clearly some continuity between the sacrifices of the OT (some of which predate Moses) and the covenantal sacrifices of will that LDS make at altars in the temple.
    Very briefly, sacrifices were intrinsically tied to both atonement, covenant making and covenant keeping. In making those covenants of obediance, they submitted their wills to God.

    Psalm 50:5 establishes textually what is known from many other passages and ritual studies, that covenants were made and ratified by sacrifice.

    Psalm 51:17, continuing the covenant/sacrifice connection, shows that the animal sacrifices were to be symbolic of sacrifices of will, “a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart.”

    When Jesus appears to the Nephites, he tells them that Law of Moses is done and over, no more animal sacrifices. BUT, they are to continue making the same sacrifice of will that should have been accompanying those sacrifices!

    “And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings. 20 [But] ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” 3 Nephi 9:19-20

    Again, note the ritual language and connection between sacrifice (whether animal or will), covenantal obediance, and atonement in 2 Nephi 2:7. “Behold, [the Messiah] offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit;”

    This has strong connections to the sacrificial/redeeming concepts in Lev. 1, and the author of both Galatians and Hebrews makes use of these connections in explicating the literal sacrifice of Jesus.

    “All of this would have rendered the Temple fuctions wildly different from the way they are used today.”

    I agree, but then I see no reason why these things would have had to take place there.

    “I cannot see how anyone who spent any significant time thinking about the subject at all could come to the conclusion that OT temple ceremony was anything like it is today.”

    I can. We say, “we have temples, just like Solomon’s Temple and Moses’ tabernacle.” It’s an easy leap for many people to make.

    Geoff: “So, your post is believable (except it’s missing a point 2) “
    Point 2 is certain dialogue in the Endowment itself, which I mention and then skip over.

    Just to clarify, I believe that the vast majority of the ritual elements of the temple are ancient, have analogues in the Old Testament and Israelite society, and were restored by revelation. However, as with all revelation, it comes through the receiver. It seems that, as with the Book of Mormon, Joseph had to “translate” it into modern idiom. Just as he had to borrow modern language make Nephite concepts clear to modern readers, he had give form to the temple ordinances. An example of this is “Alpha and Omega” which is Greek and probably unknown to the Nephites. However, Hebrew also uses the first and last letter to express the same concept, and the idea is ultimately traced back to Isaiah 44. Thus if the plates said something like “from aleph to tav” the most logical translation in the vernacular of Joseph Smith would be “from Alpha to Omega.”

  13. Ben,

    When can you come down to Dallas and give a fireside on the temple… ? 🙂

  14. On Clark’s point, see “Seven Promises to those who Overcome: Aspects of Genesis 2-3 in the Seven Letters.” Richard D. Draper and Donald W. Parry. The Temple Through Time and Eternity:121-142., available as #5 here.

    Parry and Draper trace most of the ritual elements in the first part of Revelation back to (surprise!) the Garden of Eden pericope.

  15. I’m personally a bigger fan of Exodus as a source for temple stuff, especially when they are touching the blood to certain parts and then oil. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that since water was a symbol of death and chaos, that it would be a perfect substitute for blood which also represents death.

  16. Ben sez: We say, “we have temples, just like Solomon’s Temple and Moses’ tabernacle.” It’s an easy leap for many people to make.

    But, Ben, the structure and function of both of those ancient examples have very little overlap with the modern Temple structures we have today. Sure, sure, we have baptismal founts (sp?) perched on 12 oxen and altars (most rabbis I have talked to are not willing to label that a mikvah, doesnt mean its not, but if they arent willing to call it that then why are we?), but thats about it. We dont have the court of the Gentiles, a succesive series of courts leading to the Holy of Holies and a huge sacrificial barbecue. No incense burners, no vats of oil, not any of that stuff detailed ad infinitum in Leviticus.

    As you are already aware, I argue that contemporary Temple liturgy has its roots in the OT, but one would be hard pressed to find anything beyond the roots (i.e., overlapping symbols). Things have changed way too much, both theologically and culturally.

    With respect to my MP comments, the other people above addressed them. I do not need to elaborate. Thanks.

  17. The Parry paper was good, but they missed some rather key features of the interspersion. Surprisingly some of the most interesting stuff I found in a commentary on the Book of Revelation from a scholarly non-Mormon source. I forget which. (Heaven knows there have been dozens over the last 20 years)

  18. Kurt, there are lots of interesting parallels in the Merkavah literature though. Also I’ve long thought that the tradition about the sons of Moses versus the priesthood of the sons of Aaron was relevant here. I know FARMS has written a bit on that, but it is an interesting Jewish tradition fairly relevant to the LDS notions of priesthood and by extension the temple.

  19. It also seems to me that most of the OT scriptures that would be familiar to us with regard to modern temple ordinances took place outside the Mosaic OT temples. They happened primarily on mountains: the “mountain of the Lord”.

  20. Clark,

    Yes! The Book of revelations is loaded with temple imagery.


    I think one of the strongest parallels between the OT and modern rituals is the basic plot of the endowment. The temples/tabernacles of the OT are structured around a linear journey into sacred space. Progression through the modern endowment parallels the OT journey and possess the same major division points and markers along the way.

  21. I think it’s silly to search for parallels between ancient animal sacrificing temples and modern temple instruction that continuously improves with the times. It’s like trying to compare apples and oranges. And gosh, the early church leaders come off in these quotes as rather sanctimonious pompous unchristian judgmental SOB’s who placed themselves above the flock and who seem to have forgotten the source of their blessings. J. Golden Kimball should have said the church must be true or the leaders would have destroyed it long ago.

  22. “I think it’s silly to search for parallels between ancient animal sacrificing temples and modern temple instruction that continuously improves with the times.”

    Yes, well, ignorance can be blinding like that. At least, if the ordinances are restored, they have to be restored FROM something, right?

    I don’t think this blog really welcomes such overt contempt as you consistantly display towards those God has chosen to lead the Church, Mr. self-proclaimed Serial Fornicator.

  23. Aaron,

    Sorry about the flippancy. Temples are definitely a sign of the true church to me. I just don’t personally care if the modern instruction has ancient parallels because I assume the instruction is adapted to our time. I also think our leaders need the atonement just as much as we do. I’m active LDS, but I’ve never been a GA groupie and probably never will be. BTW, I’m a former serial fornicator (FSF), not a SF. The FSF in my handle is my scarlet letter for being too weak to keep that commandment before marriage. I admire people who can wait until marriage, but those of us who got married by a Bishop before getting a temple marriage aren’t second class members of the church.

  24. Thanks for the clarificiation.
    Others of us find this kind of information interesting and useful for understanding the “wier” things we do there.

  25. “…the early church leaders come off in these quotes as rather sanctimonious pompous unchristian judgmental SOB’s who placed themselves above the flock…”

    Yeah, that’s why people kill them sometimes.

  26. Jack,

    The quotes from early church leaders in some of the comments above do imply in no uncertain terms that, in their view, the bulk of the church is unworthy for the higher portions of the endowment. If that’s not sanctimonious, pompous, unchristian, judgmental and arrogant, I don’t know what is. It’s the type of comment one would expect from someone who has who placed themselves above the flock and forgotten that they to need the atonement. If you and others see it differently, we can agree to disagree. In any event, their view point was a dissenting one which didn’t win out, for which I’m grateful.

  27. Steve,

    It may well be that in the early days, the saints did not have a full appreciation for the endowment, thus the comment by the Brethern. We weren’t there, so how do we know what the reaction was.
    I think it is patently unfair to dismiss the early Brethern so flippantly. They suffered more than you or I and had a greater appreciation for holy things than many of us do today.

  28. Steve,

    In the old days only ONE(!!!) was admitted into the Holy of Holies once a year. Boy, those guys must’ve been real jerks not to allow the general membership the same priviledge.

  29. Jack,

    But that relates to my original point, the Temple procedures, instruction, etc continuously improves. They’ve improved significantly in just the last generation. So trying to find parallels to ancient temple rites seems silly because so much has changed since then, the big one that comes immediately to mind is we don’t do animal sacrifice nowadays. I’d be amazed if any recognizable parallels remain.

  30. Steve,

    Do you know you? You’re style has a familiar ring to it.

    C’mon, there are countless parallels.

  31. Clark, I am anti-mysticism, as you may recall, so I am in no rush to bring the merkavah into Temple or endownment discussion. With respect to John’s Revelation, that text draws so heavily on the OT Prophets, anything endowment related therein can be traced back to the OT.

    Jack, there are linear aspects of progression present in both ancient and modern temple worship. However, those are largely the overarching symbolic aspects. At the level of direct participation (i.e., the individual person participating in the ritual), it seems unlikely to me there would be much that would be similar, at a superficial level, between the ancient and modern temple ceremonies. By that I mean that casual observation of the two in parallel would show significantly greater difference than similarlity.

    Steve, the former serial fornicator, since you seem to be an expert on a good many things, I would appreciate it if you would review my comments on the subject and then very specifically detail what you find “silly” about the parallels.

  32. Wow. That’s what happens when I comment after one AM.

    I meant to say (in #32) Do [I] know you? And it’s a sincere question.


    I think you’re right that at a superficial level the rituals can seem wildly different. But I think there are a lot of parallels, not only in the linear journey itself, but in the markers that plot that journey, in the way the various levels of sacred space are represented, in the way covenants are represented and how those covenants point to the specific law that one must keep in order to progress in the journey.

    The type and placement of artifacts in the ancient temples is (imo) most telling. The placement of alters of sacrifice vs alters of incense, for example, have a direct correlation with the diverse usage of the alter at various stages in the modern endomment.

  33. Jack,

    I dunno. You may very well know me. I’m kinda dreading the day somebody pegs me, but I’ve certainly left enough comments in the bloggernacle w/ personal info for someone who really wanted to peg me to do so. But I also hope people probably have better things to do with their time and that day will never come. In short, I enjoy being a believing iconoclast w/ a temple recommend, and I don’t want the church to ask me to surrender the latter due to my unorthodox views. I enjoy the church too much for that, although the thought control wing of the church does bother me.


    I certainly didn’t mean to come off as a know-it-all. I’m definitely not. I’ll look at your paper this evening.

  34. Blood and water each represent both life and death, depending upon context. At-one-ing blood as the scripture says. And both life giving and filthy waters.

    It is by both blood and water that members of the body become familiar with or commune other members -where there is sin, that means suffering, where there is righteousness that means life eternal. By his stripes, we are healed.

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