A Note on Temples, Stairs, and Mesoamerica

Occasionally, I will hear an argument raised that Mesoamerican temples cannot be temples belonging to Nephites or Lamanites because the Law of Moses clearly says that temples cannot have stairs. When others make this argument, they generally think of temples such as those at Chichen Itza – which is in and of itself problematic, because those temples postdate Book of Mormon times by centuries.

However, let’s assume for the sake of the argument that they are pertaining to people who practiced the Law of Moses. Could Israelite temples have stairs?

The verse that I have been referred to when this issue is raised is Exodus 20:26 (20:23 in the Masoretic Text), which is translated as thus in the King James Version:

Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.

This, upon first glance, appears to confirm this argument regarding stairs. However, a closer look at the Hebrew does not merit such a conclusion. The Hebrew reads as follows:

 וְלֹֽא־תַעֲלֶ֥ה בְמַעֲלֹ֖ת עַֽל־מִזְבְּחִ֑י אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹֽא־תִגָּלֶ֥ה עֶרְוָתְךָ֖ עָלָֽיו

This verse, literally translated, reads:

And you shall not ascend in ascents upon my altar, that your nakedness will not be revealed upon it. 

The word ma'alot literally means “ascents.” Further complicating what seemed to be a simple slam dunk against Mesoamerican temples is Ezekiel's vision of the eschatological temple to be built in Jerusalem. In Ezekiel 43:15–17, Ezekiel sees the altar of the temple and, after offering its measurements, states: 

וּמַעֲלֹתֵ֖הוּ פְּנ֥וֹת קָדִֽים

And its ascents turn/face east.

Ezekiel uses this same word, ma'alot. It would be ridiculous to say that Ezekiel was ignorant of the Law of Moses or the temple, he himself being a priest (see Ezekiel 1:3). It would appear that something else is going on in the directive found in Exodus 20.

The word ma'alot in Exodus 20:26 is followed by the preposition al, which means “concerning” or “upon.” It can occasionally mean “to,” but the double usage of it likely implies it should be understood in the same sense in both instances. Hence, a priest should not climb upon the altar so his nakedness would not be revealed upon the altar. 

1 Kings 18 may further shed light on this matter. Elijah, the lone prophet of the Lord, challenges 450 prophets of Ba'al (and, according to the Septuagint, an additional 400 “prophets of the grove"). The challenge is simple: whichever god can light the sacrifice ablaze is the true God.

After Ba'al does not hear the prophets, it is recorded that:

וַֽיְפַסְּח֔וּ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָֽׂה

They limped upon the altar that had been made. 

Elsewhere, the priests of Ba'al are shown to break the priestly code of sacrifice. In 1 Kings 18:28, the priests “cut themselves according to their ordinance with swords and spears until blood flowed upon them.” Once the priests are unable to have moved Ba'al to hear them, their sacrilege caused Elijah to “heal" the altar (1 Kings 18:30).

Hence, no injunction in the Law of Moses forbade temples from having stairs in any part of the temple precinct. Rather, it was forbidden for the priests to climb upon the altar where sacrifices were offered.

However, the analyses that Mesoamerican pyramid-temples break the Law of Moses are further complicated when it is recognized that Mesoamerican temples were not built as a pyramid, but rather the temple proper was built on the pyramid. Many Mesoamerican temples were built on man-made mountains—the “mountain of the Lord,” it might be said. Similarly, the Jerusalem temple was built on an elevated mountain and an elevated surface on that mountain, being originally a threshing-floor.

Finally, this is entirely a modern presupposition placed upon the biblical text, and stairs were not seen as a problem by some of the earliest Europeans who witnessed Aztecan temples. Many of the Spanish explorers specifically compared New World temples to the Temple of Solomon. For example, Juan de Torquemada noted: “It is worth noting the division of this [Aztec] temple; because we find that it has an interior room, like that of Solomon, in Jerusalem, in which the room was not entered by anyone but the priests.” (Juan de Torquemada, Monarquia Indiana, 3 vols. [Mexico City: Editorial Salvador Chavez, 1943], 2:160.)

This is all, of course, regarding temples that were not built during Book of Mormon times, which coincides with the late Pre-classic Maya. There were multiple temple patterns employed throughout Mesoamerica, many of which have striking correspondences to Solomon’s temple. Evidence Central has written an excellent article summarizing these temple patterns, and conclude that “While a wide variety of temple structures were present in ancient Mesoamerica, some of them (including examples which date to Book of Mormon times) correspond generally to the pattern of the temple of Solomon, featuring a building set on a raised structure with an outer and inner room fronted by two free standing pillars. Such examples are known from discoveries made since the publication of the Book of Mormon and would not have been known to Joseph Smith and his contemporaries. While these findings do not allow us to identify any of these temples as Nephite temples, they show that the type of temple Nephi claimed his people constructed would not have been out of place in ancient Mesoamerica.”

Ultimately, the claim that Mesoamerican temples cannot possibly be Nephite temples does not hold water and relies on vast oversimplifications and misunderstandings of both the biblical text and the culture of Mesoamerican civilizations.


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