David L., who recently joined M*, and I have been having a really wonderful conversation about methodologies of interpretation and comparison. My response got too long, and so I thought it would be better to put up as a full post of its own. At issue, I believe, is how LDS should understand themselves and their relationship to the ancient world, David and I representing two different approaches that are currently wrestling for primacy in LDS scholarship more generally. Let me summarize the main outline of the methodogical issues at stake.
A. David has described the methodology that he employs in reading scripture as “conjectural/speculative” based on meeting a threshold of “possibility.” He does not argue that his interpretations are correct, only that they are possible.
B. With respect to comparison, David’s personal belief is that the temple ordinances that we have today were practiced in antiquity, at least in “essence” or in their “core features.” What drives his research is to find points of comparability between ancient Israelite practices and 20th c. Mormon temple rituals.
C. In place of these methods that David offers, I submitted in their stead two different standards that would govern interpretation.
1. With respect to “possibility,” I suggested that this standard of evidence is way too low. Lots of things are “possible,” (including aliens being the source of the ancient temple) and by this standard, the interpretations that he offers are as equally possible as not. First, I suggested that the claims that we make about the ancient temple should be falsifiable. This doesn’t mean that we cannot offer hypotheses that cannot be fully proven, only that such hypotheses must be tethered to some degree of reality so that they may be tested.
2. I suggested that the method for analyzing both the ancient and modern temple should offer “explanatory plenitude.” That is, the descriptions that develop of the ancient temple that are driven by David’s interest in comparison to the modern temple should be weighed against the descriptions that I offer of both the ancient and modern temple. I argued that since David’s method avoids serious analysis of the points of difference that it could not achieve explanatory plentitude. I argue that the attempt to look only for comparisons inevitably distorts both modern temple rituals and the ancient temple practices. I have suggested that close readings of both practices should be evaluated independently in order to allow for a more clear picture of what the practices actually were, what ideologies and theologies (deliberately in the plural) are connected to the practices by different groups, and what historical, political, and cultural factors were at play in both the production and consumption of these practices. Such an approach brackets and even eschews questions of “origins” or attempts to find a historically transmitted link, and instead focuses on meaning and contextualization as the driving forces in analysis. As far as I am aware, David’s methodological response to this the same as above, that his interpretations should be judged by the low standard of ‘possibility,’ and explanatory plenitude of the texts and evidence we do have is not a goal, only that of seeing what is similar to modern temples.
The Test Case
As the discussion developed, I invited David to select one particular issue that he felt strongly that there was a connection between ancient and modern temple practices that we could further investigate. We would adopt his choice as a test case for the competing methodologies. David settled on this claim:
Temple gates and guardians: the procession would have to pass through a series of temple gates in order to reach the temple building itself. The gates would have been guarded by priests (1 Chron. 9:17-19) who required certain moral qualifications and passwords in order for the procession to pass through (see Psalm 24). It has been suggested that one of these passwords may have been associated with the name of the Lord and that this was a “new name” given to the candidate. These guardians of the gates likely represented the angels who guard the gates of the various heavens leading to the highest heaven.
Here, he offers severals points of evidence on the interpretation of Ps 24: 1) there were a series of temple gates; 2) the guards stationed at these gates were priests; 3) these guards asked for a) moral qualifications and b) passwords as requirements to enter the gate; 4) one of the passwords was a “new name;” and 5) the guards were understood to symbolize angels who guarded the various levels of heaven.
While I had only minor quibbles with 1 and 2, I most strongly objected to 3, 4, and 5 as not supportable readings from the text. Further, I added things that this interpretation left out because it was only interested in seeing the similarities to Mormon temples. What is really happening here is that there are two different issues: first, the status, identity, and function, and symbolism of the “guards,” and second, the function, performance of, theology behind, and historicity of the “entrance ritual” in Ps. 24. David was connecting up the “guards” at the temple with a liturgical performance of Ps 24. I made separate arguments about how to best understand the guards and the liturgy of Ps 24.
There are a few possible sources about the “guards,” some from the Deuteronomic historian of 1 and 2 Kings (2 Kings 12:9; 22:4; 23:4; 25:18); and some from the rival historian of 1 Chronicles (1 Chron. 9:17-19) written in the second temple period. (Ps 84:10 is a disputed reference, and is in any case dropped by David, so I will drop it too).
While David’s original nterpretation sees the guards primarily in a liturgical role, symbolizing angelic figures (even though none of the texts from this period we have make either of those claims), he later offers this explanation of their function:
I am willing to concede that we don’t know exactly what their role was. I don’t think that it is much of a stretch to assert that these gatekeepers likely had a role in the entrance liturgy presented in Psalm 24. …I think it’s fair to assume that the speaker(s)… could have been the gatekeepers… I don’t think we need to dismiss the idea that the gatekeepers participated here, especially since there may have been a view that Yahweh himself was the ultimate/final gatekeeper. In Psalm 24, in particular, I believe that the most logical assumption is that the gatekeepers are involved, especially in 8a and 10a, and if we concede this, then I would also assert that the gatekeepers are also involved in the exchange in vv. 3-5, where the qualifications for entry are being established.
We will get to Ps. 24 later, but the key point here is on the role of the guards. Again, using the standard of evidence of “possibility” that a) the temple guards participated in the liturgy of Ps 24 (even though no text, not Ps, Kings, Chron, or Lev makes anything close to this claim), David then builds the case from this assumption that b) the next “most logical assumption” is that they were involved in both of the different dialogues in Ps 24. Further, David suggests another assertion that “may have been,” namely c) that Yahweh himself is understood to be a temple guard. Now, David will readily admit that there is not a scrap of evidence for a, b, or c. Instead, he relies on conjecture and speculation to suggest the possibility of all three. So, while David here abandons the view that these figures were understood by anyone to represent angels (he returns to this point later), he maintains that they held a liturgical role and now, instead of angels, they represent Yahweh.
Does this interpretation meet the standards of falsifiability or explanatory plenitude? No. As I’ve said, David will readily admit that this is only a “possibility,” but a possibility doesn’t demonstrate anything, as I have argued above. The threshold is so low that nearly anything can pass it. With respect to explanatory plenitude, I submit that if all that one knew about the temple guards were what David told that person, they wouldn’t know anything at all about what the texts actually say about them. Instead, I offered the following explanation about the identity and function of the temple guards based on what the texts actually say about them.
1. The guards serve a policing function to guard “treasure,” literally the mounds of money inside the temple. Basically, the ancient temple was like the national bank. It is where money was stored and protected.
2. These guards stood outside the temple to protect the four gates of the temple precinct, not inside even in the courtyard, let alone anywhere actually near the interior of the temple.
3. Other responsibilities included gathering money and moving temple instruments when asked.
4.There is no evidence from any of the relevant descriptions of these figures that they held any liturgical role at all, especially not one of asking questions to those who entered.
5. These guards were a subset of the priestly class and held their position by right of lineage. Their status as priests derives not from any presumed liturgical performance, but from the fact that priests were in charge of all aspects of the temple, from janitorial, security, banking and money management, and all sorts of non-liturgical duties.
While not one of the descriptions that David offers of the temple police can actually be found in the ancient literature, all of the descriptions that I provide are rooted in the reading of the texts, which makes them a) falsifiable through evaluating what the texts say about them and b) result in explanatory plentitude. I would note that when a full description is provided of the temple police, they look a lot less like veil workers (or even the temple recommend card checkers) than David’s description would lead you to believe.
The Entrance Liturgy
David has suggested, and I have mostly agreed, that Ps. 24 represents an “entrance liturgy,” perhaps performed during a processional entry into the temple. The text consists of two separate dialogical exchanges.
Ps. 24 (NRSV)
Of David. A Psalm. 1 The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; 2 for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.
3 Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? 4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. 5 They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation. 6 Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Selah
7 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. 8 Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. 9 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. 10 Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory. Selah
I am going to have to summarize David’s arguments here, but in addition to arguing that the temple guards for some reason moved from security to liturgical duties, he also offers at least 8 claims that I will address, hopefully getting to at least all of the really crucial pieces. At the outset, I will say that we do share some similar ideas about this text, but my main objections will be how far David is willing to push. These assertions not only lead into the realm of non-falsifiability, but also result in a misreading of what the texts actually do say.1. Ps 24 may have been performed at the Feast of the Tabernacles (Sukkot) annually because at the dedication to the temple under Solomon that occurred during this feast, there was a procession bringing the ark to the temple. There were possibly “subsequent reenactments” of this event, not only at Sukkot, but also at the other festivals.
As noted in the OP, we have a series of these “entrance liturgies,” all of them different from each other, though sharing some common features. Unfortunately, none of them give us any idea about who performed them, when they were performed, or even whether they were performed at all. We have lots of examples of “imaginary liturgies” from the ancient world, and it is just as possible that not one of these liturgies was ever actually performed, let alone annually, as it was that they were performed in any of the elaborate scenarios that David suggests. Now, I admit that there are aspects of David’s interpretation that do have some credibility to them, but David pushes them so far as to strain that, hanging a mountain off a thread, so to speak. The fact is that none of the descriptions that we do have of these Feasts describe such a procession, nor such a liturgy. When were these liturgies performed then, or were they at all? Your guess is as good as David’s, literally.
Further, I’d say that there has been no connection at all made to the significance of Sukkot in interpreting this procession. If we were using explanatory plenitude rather than ancient-modern parallel’s we’d have to consider the ideology, theology, and political significance of Sukkot in the context of our analysis.
2. This procession was led by the king/priest, accompanying Yahweh (represented by the ark) to the temple.
The idea that the ark was carried in this procession is something that I’d like to address specifically. Not only is the idea that the king leading this procession totally without warrant, but the notion that the ark was paraded around once a year has no basis whatsoever in any text. The Psalms are great, and tell us about what some people, at least at some point, might have thought about the temple. But being able to derive actual historical practices, let alone any that would have spanned any significant time during the tumultuous and contentious period of the first temple when different kings were using the temple in completely different ways, is nigh impossible to do. Imagine for a moment that you found an LDS hymnal 1000 years from now, and from it attempted to reconstruct what an LDS sacrament meeting was like. You could come up with all sorts of ideas about processionals that reenacted JS’s martyrdom or the trek west annually along with the annual Christmas hymns. We could list the moral requirements for entering the chapel. We could conclude that Mother in Heaven was actually worshipped. But without a secondary piece of evidence to anchor any of these conjectures, we’d be lost. But what if we had other texts that gave some more clues about our sacrament services than the hymnal? In fact with the secondary pieces of evidence that we do have about the ancient festivals and processions don’t include any of the details David is providing. These conjectures may pass some minimal level of “possibility,” but hardly constitute anything reliable on which to draw historical conclusions.
3. The Q&A in Ps. 24:3-6 was performed before beginning the procession, i.e., not at the gates, or that this occurred at the “outer gates” in which case “I think it’s fair to assume that the speaker(s) in verses 5…could have been the gatekeepers [ie, temple guards].” The second Q&A in Ps. 24:7-10 would have occurred later in the procession and was performed at the gates themselves, or perhaps some otherwise unknown set of “inner gates” also by the temple guards.
As far as I am aware, there is no evidence for multiple sets of “gates” other than those surrounding the outer precinct of the temple grounds for the first temple, and even what we know about those is pretty conjectural. There is no such description in any of the architectural accounts of the temple, and (though I might be wrong on this) I don’t think even Ezekiel’s imaginary temple describes a series of interior gates. If you are right that this first Q&A represents the earlier point of some liturgy along these lines, they can’t both happen at the gates.
4. Ps. 24:4 constitutes the “moral requirements to enter the temple.”
First, I want to deal with the phrase that you continually invoke here, which is to “enter the temple.” Worshippers at the temple in Jerusalem did not “enter the temple.” The temple was not something you went into, but something that you stood outside of. Now, I know you know this, but I think that your imprecision on this point in your language points to exactly the problem that I have suggested when your primary goal is to draw parallels to our modern temples. In our temples, being “inside” is how you worship. This notion of sacred space as an interior space is central to our notion of temple, but completely different from ancient temples, which were more exterior monuments than interior spaces. Yet, your repeated description of ancient worshipers as “entering the temple” completely obscures that fact, and misleads readers who don’t know any better.
On the specific point, I think that there is some confusion about my argument concern morals here. And, I think that it may be cleared up by the other word that you’ve used to describe the text’s statement that those with a “pure heart” and who keep oaths may “ascend,” namely, “qualification.” I think that the difference between a qualification and a requirement is that one may be aspirational while the other is juridical. That is to say, I don’t think that the suggestion that only those with “pure hearts” may ascend functioned as a test for who could worship at the temple, but more of a goal outlining who would be blessed by their ascent. To be more clear, there was no bishop’s interview, no one checking your recommend as you went to worship. This was an interior, internal standard that functioned in practice (again, assuming this was ever practiced) as an affirmation of what one should be like, rather than a test about what one must be like in order to participate in this particular ritual.
Let’s also be clear that this standard, even if we grant that it was used in a Sukkot procession, is also limited to that time. There is no evidence that non-high holy days one would have been compelled to the same standard in order to worship at the temple. Instead, ritual cleanness was required, which is why I think the moral standard functioned not as a basis for exclusion.
5. “Entering the temple involved the revelation of moral requirements in the form of covenants from God”
Again, you’ve got the “entering the temple” misnomer. Otherwise, this is an interesting suggestion. While this is based on your reading of Ps 15, not Ps 24, it is interesting for how the Ps. may be understood. I still think that we are completely in the dark about when, how, why, or whether these were performed though.
6. “the seven levels of heaven described in the late Rabbinic and Mystical Jewish texts are likely based on the seven levels of holiness of the ancient temple”
First, the rabbinic and mystical texts tell us about what the rabbis and mystics thought, not about what was happening in the first temple period. These texts tell us about their authors’ views of the temple, not their ancestors. Second, there is not only no evidence that these symbolic understandings of the temple were known popularly or shared by the priests running the temple, there is no evidence that anyone had even thought of them. They represent a kind of allegorical thinking and symbol making that is characteristic of those living without the temple, not those living with it. Third, the “seven levels of holiness” are features of the second temple, not the first, so Ps 24 certainly never knew about them and they were not a part of the liturgy, if it was ever performed.
7. “In the later texts, there would be angelic guards at the gates of each of the celestial levels requiring passwords. I think it is reasonable to argue, based on the above, that the same structure may have existed in the ancient temple, the source of inspiration for these texts.”
While the case may or may not be made from the selection of texts that you provide to make the claim that SOME “later texts” imagine angelic guards represented in the temple, there is simply no warrant for your claim that it is “reasonable” to project these 2nd. c BCE – 5th c. CE interpretations of the temple back into the first temple four centuries earlier than the earliest reference to any such belief. Further, you have provided no primary source references to back up any of these assertions even about later beliefs about the temple. I don’t deny that some existed, but you mesh all together DSS and Rabbinical texts, along with other apocalyptic texts, as if they all represent a single, coherent view of 1) temples, 2) angels, 3) the structure of the heavens, and 4) ritual/liturgy. You’re right that these assertions need to be demonstrated, and that it is too much for you (and me!) at this point to track them down. You’ve registered your assertions about what analysis of these texts might yield, and I want to register my objection that there is no single, coherent picture of the temple, angels, heavens, or liturgy that can be culled from these wildly diverse ancient texts. Finally, on the basis of Ps 24 alone, there is no reason to think that the interlocutors are angels, or represent angels, or frankly, that they even believed in angels at this time.
8. “It is possible that name(s) for God (including a “new name”) were given as passwords to get through the gates. “
This is simply asserted at the end, without really adding to the discussion we already had about this. I argued then that there is zero evidence in Ps 24 for a “new name.” While the name “Yahweh” is given in the Ps., calling it a “password” is a stretch since the name of God isn’t exactly a secret.
Finally, one might get the impression from this description that Ps 24 is essentially about moral requirements and call-and-response “passwords” (even though they aren’t secret) as qualifications to enter into the temple grounds (not in the temple). This description certainly meets the low threshold of “possibility,” and in some regards may even exceed it in that Ps. 24 at some point during the First Temple was at least once performed on an unknown occasion by a procession of unknown people to the temple, sung by unknown interlocutors. What about explanatory plenitude? Is anything left out in this description that David offers? Most certainly, yes. For instance, I have suggested that the central theological point of Ps. 24:7-10 is to describe Yahweh as the warrior God of Israel doing battle with her enemies. Acknowledging such a view is critical to revealing the broader ideology of the temple in antiquity, namely that it is a political institution that centralizes authority in the hands of a particular ruling class that was based on a hereditary caste system and monarchy. The temple was a symbol of the kingdom and God’s protection of it, and its place in the land was not an abstract piece of sacred space, but rather rooted the nation of Israel as a religious, and consequently political entity. David completely ignores a political and economic function of the ancient temple by seeing it solely as a symbolic ascent. Further, the political differences for how the temple was invoked by different factions in different time periods is not addressed at all in David’s reading simply because he has decided that the temple is primarily symbolic of the heavens, which reflects our own modern understandings of temples rather than how ancient Israelites might have understood them.
I think that David provides some interesting readings, some of which I even agree with in paired down, qualified form. Some of my objections I am even so-so about, and I’d certainly be willing to reconsider some of the minor points in light of more evidence. However, I think that the interpretations which he provides are methodologically insufficiently grounded, and ultimately misleading. By only requiring that his own theories meet the most minimum standard of “possibility,” David is untethered from the text at all and free to connect dots that aren’t really there.
Further, the interpretations that he provides are actually misleading because they continually ignore the plentitude of evidence that we do have in favor of the evidence we don’t have.