Abstract: In this essay John Gee draws a connection between the Egyptian “Book of the Temple” and the book of Exodus, both in structure and topic, describing the temple from the inside out. Gee concludes that both probably go back to a common source older than either of them.
[Editor’s Note: Part of our book chapter reprint series, this article is reprinted here as a service to the LDS community. Original pagination and page numbers have necessarily changed, otherwise the reprint has the same content as the original.
See John Gee, “Edfu and Exodus,” in Temple Insights: Proceedings of the Interpreter Matthew B. Brown Memorial Conference, “The Temple on Mount Zion,” 22 September 2012, ed. William J. Hamblin and David Rolph Seely (Orem, UT: The Interpreter Foundation; Salt Lake City: Eborn Books, 2014), 67–82. Further information at https://interpreterfoundation.org/books/temple-insights/.]
Matthew Brown wrote many books on a variety of topics,1 but the one topic that held his interest and to which he kept returning was the temple. He invited me to give this paper only a couple of days before his untimely passing.
The first Israelite temple was the portable temple in the wilderness, better known as the tabernacle, whose description is provided in the book of Exodus. This description begins in the twenty-fifth chapter and runs through the twenty-eighth chapter.2 It first describes the ark of the covenant3 — a portable shrine carried on staves by priests (see Exodus [Page 272]25:10–22)4 — followed by the table for the shewbread (see Exodus 25:23–30),5 the lampstand (see Exodus 25:31–40),6 the curtains (see Exodus 26:1–7), their coverings (see Exodus 26:7–14), the boards (see Exodus 26:15–30),7 the veil (see Exodus 26:31–32),8 and the arrangement of the holy of holies (see Exodus 26:33–37). Next the altar is described (see Exodus 27:1–8), followed by a description of the courtyard (see Exodus 27:9–19). Finally, the garments of the priests are described (see Exodus 28:1–43).
A number of features of the description of the tabernacle compare with Egypt. These include the “gilded wooden frames socketed together and covered with curtains,” a description that “was based directly on long-established Egyptian technology.”9 It occupied “the center of a rectangular camp of the Hebrew tribal groups (see Num. 2). This compares directly with the war tent of Ramses II in its shield-palisaded rectangular camp.10 “The ark of the covenant was a gilded box carried upon removable gilded poles (Exodus 37:1–4). This is a specifically Egyptian usage …. Egyptian sacred barque shrines were also carried on such poles by priests in a procession.”11 The Hebrew term for the acacia wood out of which the tabernacle was constructed is a loan word from Egyptian,12 as is the technique of overlaying that wood with metal.13 The term for linen used in the construction of the tabernacle is likewise an Egyptian loan word.14 The leather used in the tabernacle’s construction might also be an Egyptian loan word.15 The incense dish mentioned in the description of the tabernacle is “hand,” derived from the hand-shaped incense cups depicted in Egypt.16 Three of the measures — the hin, the ’êpâ, and the ’ammâ — come from Egypt.17
This, however, is not the extent of the comparisons that can be made with Egypt.
The ancient temple has a long history. Temple studies have been going on for a number of years, but those doing temple studies normally overlook the Egyptian evidence. Egypt has more than one hundred fifty temples,18 providing a large number of archaeological remains. Many of these temples also are filled with inscriptions. Additionally, a number of papyri from temple archives have been recovered.
Among the papyri recovered are a number of copies of a work still unpublished, called “The Book of the Temple” by its editor because it deals with the layout of the temple and the work of the priests.19 It exists in hieroglyphic, hieratic, demotic, and Greek versions20 from all over [Page 273]Egypt21 and in multiple manuscripts, twenty from Tebtunis alone.22 Most of the manuscripts date from the Roman period, but the text goes back earlier — although the editor, Joachim Quack, has demurred to say how much further back it goes.23 At least one of the manuscripts dates to the Ptolemaic Period. While most of these manuscripts are unpublished, a couple of versions have been published.24 One of these, adapted from the so-called Book of the Temple, is the bandeau inscription of the temple of Edfu.25
The Edfu bandeau inscription contains a historical prologue introducing the building of the temple followed by a description of the temple, room by room. As Dieter Kurth has noted, “the ancient text makes an excellent guidebook” to the Egyptian temple.26 “The description is planned, accurate, detailed, and complete. If we allow ourselves to be guided through the temple by the author of this inscription, we shall see the building with the eyes of a competent contemporary.”27A parallel also exists for the Dendara temple,28 but “an overarching study of all bandeaux inscriptions of the late temples does not exist yet” but some general patterns have been discussed.29 I have used the description from Edfu because it is fuller than the Dendara inscription, providing more detail about the rooms and for what they are used.
The Edfu inscription describes the temple: “These monuments which his majesty and his fathers made are the image of the heavenly temple”; it also says that the inscription will contain “a knowledge of their chapels, a report of their halls, an account of their measurements and their columns, a revelation of their doorways, a list of their stairways, a report of the number of their upper chambers, a knowledge of their gates and the doors in them to every place onto which they open, an account of their walls perfectly decorated by master craftsmen of the house of life,”30 which has been argued to be the temple scriptorium, “where books connected with religion and cognate matters were compiled.”31
The structure of the Edfu bandeau inscription begins first with a historical introduction describing how the temple was begun under the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes and finally finished under the reign of Ptolemy X Alexander I.32 The temple was planned out by Ptolemy III “himself together with the goddess Seshat.”33 The correct position of the temple was given by divine decree,34 and “the primordial gods rejoiced while circumambulating it.”35 The sanctuary was completed twenty-five years later under Ptolemy IV Philopater.36 After the sixteenth year of Ptolemy IV, “the curse of rebellion occurred after the ignorant rebelled in the south and work ceased on the throne of the gods.”37 This [Page 274]condition lasted until the nineteenth year of the reign of Ptolemy V, when construction resumed.38 This rebellion, under Horronophris and Chaonnophris, is mentioned in the Rosetta Stone.39
As interesting as the historical portion of the inscription is, our primary focus here is the description of the temple. It begins with a description of the holy of holies, called the Emsun.40 “The Emsun is in its midst, the first chapel, the great seat” of the god.41 “Its length is 81/3 cubits, and its width is 52/3 cubits; its walls are inscribed with the council of gods of the Emsun and their images.”42
The inscription then describes the other chapels coming off the hall surrounding the bark shrine, starting to the right of the Emsun and continuing on through those on the right-hand side, then going to the left of the Emsun and following through the left-hand side.43 All these chapels, nine in total, open out onto the hall that encircles the bark shrine. These shrines belong to “the ennead of the nome”44 — that is, the council of gods that belong to the region.
The bark shrine or “great seat is in their midst surrounding it, 195/6 by 101/3 cubits.”45 The ark, a portable shrine shaped like a boat and carried on staves by priests, resided here.46 “The rituals of the lord are his: The revelation of the face of God, offering righteousness to its creator, and burning incense for the ark.”47
The first of these rituals, the revelation of the face of God, is part of a series of rituals that are found on the alternating first registers of the interior walls of the great seat. These include “mounting the steps,”48 “drawing back the bolt,”49 “unloosing the seal,”50 “revealing the face of god,”51 “seeing god,”52 and “praising god four times.”53 This could also be abbreviated simply as “seeing god”54 and is equated with worship.55
The offering of righteousness is also explicitly given three times in the great seat.56 The offering of righteousness is “thought of [by modern scholars] as an archetypal offering, a supreme offering into which all other offerings are subsumed.”57 It occurs in both royal and private settings and in both temple and funerary contexts.58 The purpose of this offering is to grant salvation to the offerer.59
The fumigation of the ark transfigures it, preparing it for the manifestation of the god.60 The great seat has a simple incense offering61 coupled with a depiction of doing so in front of the ark.62
Proceeding with the description of the temple of Edfu, the bandeau inscription records: “The central hall is in front of it,”63 referring to the great seat. “It is twenty cubits by nine cubits. The shrines of the gods are [Page 275]in it.”64 Off to one side is a shrine for the god Min, and on the other is the food altar.65
There is an open-air court off of this room called the wabet or pure place.66 “Ointment, clothing, and protective amulets are offered to provide the god with his regalia after his majesty is purified with his soap and water jars so that his spirit may unite with his image.”67 This description from the bandeau inscription matches that of a modern scholar who carefully analyzed the inscriptions inside the pure place: “The central themes of the rites performed in the wabet are the purification and censing of the statues of the gods, their clothing with linen, anointment, and adornment with protective insignia and royal regalia.”68 “The ritual activities performed within and depicted and described on the walls of the wabet show a strong resemblance to a number of other rituals …. These rituals can be observed in the temple (the Daily Temple Ritual), in the funerary sphere (the ritual of the ‘opening of the mouth’ and even the embalming ritual), and also in the royal sphere (e.g. in the confirmation of the pharaoh in his power …).”69 “The preparation consists in the purification, clothing with linen, anointing, and provision of protective amulets … and food-offerings to the statues of the gods …. These activities are followed by the presentation of items characteristic of the theology of the temple and its central deity.”70 So “the distinction scholars make between temple rituals and funerary rites is not self-evident, especially with regard to the rites performed in Ptolemaic and Roman temples.”71
In front of the central hall is the offering hall.72 “It is decorated on its face with the rites of the divine rite and all the instructions pertaining thereto.”73 The divine rite, as we know from a ritual roll in Berlin, is the daily temple ritual.74 The rituals in this papyrus in Berlin are broken into two parts: first, rites for entering the sanctuary and seeing the god75 and second, offerings made to the god.76 The inscriptions on the wall pertain to the offerings portion of the divine rite. The Berlin papyri seem to have only the first portion of this second part. Some of the middle of the offering ritual is missing, but the end is contained in a papyrus in Turin and Cairo.77 Thus in the offering hall at Edfu78 we have depicted rituals for offering incense,79 putting fat on the fire,80 offering joints of meat,81 offering beer,82 offering white bread,83 offering wine,84 offering milk,85 libating the offerings to the gods,86 offering incense and libations,87 offering libations,88 offering divine offerings,89 lifting the offerings,90 bringing the god to his food,91 offering an offering table,92 and entering after the reversion of offerings.93 At Edfu there are also other rituals depicted, such as rattling sistra;94 offering a clock;95 offering images [Page 276]of the gods;96 offering other beverages;97 purifying the altar;98 offering oil;99 lifting cakes;100 offering royal offerings;101 offering papyrus and geese;102 offering bouquets;103 offering invocation offerings;104 offering righteousness;105 performing rituals;106 giving the crook and flail;107 giving life, stability, and power to the nose;108 praising the sun as it sets in the west;109 and offering honey.110
Staircases leading to upper rooms flank the offering hall.111
“The great hall is in front of it, with twelve pillars, great supports, beautiful in appearance. It is 37 cubits long and 15 cubits wide.”112 “It is called the chamber of happiness.”113 “It is like a papyrus thicket.”114 Off this room are chambers dedicated to washing,115 anointing,116 whitening clothing,117 and adorning with amulets.118
“The forehall comes after it. It is higher than these and larger than them.”119 It contains “eighteen beautiful columns.”120 “This hall, which is in front of the forehall, is larger than it,” and measures “ninety cubits from south to north and 80 cubits from west to east.”121 “Thirty-two columns surround it in its circuit like a falcon’s nest.”122 “Its name is place of overthrowing the serpent,123 the enemy of the sun-god.”124
“A pylon stands in front of them which is 120 cubits long, 60 cubits high to their head, and 21 cubits in thickness.”125 “They have been decorated with the inscriptions on all the instructions of opposing foreigners.”126 “Two obelisks stand in front of them to penetrate the clouds of heaven.”127 These obelisks provide an Egyptian analogue for the “pillars” Jachin and Boaz that were found in Solomon’s temple (see 1 Kgs. 7:15–22, 41–42).128
Exodus and Edfu are similar in many ways. They both start with a historical introduction and then provide a description of the temple. Like the Edfu bandeau inscription, the book of Exodus begins with a historical prologue (see Exodus 1–24). This story is well-known and ritually commemorated in the Passover festival. They both start from the sanctuary and work out. Both are concerned with measurements. They differ in that the Edfu inscription concentrates on the room, while Exodus concentrates on the furniture.
Because the Edfu inscription is based on the so-called Book of the Temple, the text dates as early as the Book of the Temple. How early is that? The Edfu inscription provides a date of a manuscript of the Book of the Temple to the reign of Ptolemy X Alexander I, and the pattern for [Page 277]the temple, which the inscription follows, was laid out under Ptolemy III Euergetes. How far earlier can this be traced?
Although manuscripts of the text are lacking, we could see how far back elements of the text go by looking at temples to see if they follow the general architectural layout specified in the Book of the Temple and whether their decoration matches that given. It is, of course, easier to specify this research program than to carry it out. We will look at temples founded going back in time from Edfu, founded under Ptolemy III Euergetes, and compare them with the inscription.
There was a new temple for Min at Coptos under Ptolemy II Philadelphus, but “unfortunately, nothing remains of the new temple, except a few parts of the high temple platform with two parallel staircases.”129 Ptolemy II also founded a temple at Theadelphia, but it is “now completely destroyed.”130 Ptolemy I built a temple at Terenutis that “was found, destroyed down to the foundation trenches.”131 Ptolemy also built a new temple at Tebtynis.132 This is the temple whose cellars provide the Tebtunis temple archive, “mostly second-century ad papyri containing religious, scientific, literary, administrative, and private texts, in hieratic, demotic and Greek, to do with the temple and its priests,”133 including twenty different manuscripts of the so-called Book of the Temple.134 Surely we should expect this temple to follow the same pattern. It probably did; “surface fragments where the temple once stood showed that it had been built of stone and decorated with painted reliefs, but only the mudbrick foundations survive.”135 We can probably date the so-called Book of the Temple to at least the reign of Ptolemy I.
For the earlier Persian Period in Egypt, we have some difficulties. The initial “121-year Persian domination left minimal traces in Egyptian architecture, and even the number of stelae, stone sarcophagi, and other monuments in Egyptian style decreased significantly.”136 In the later Persian Period, there was some building. Most Persian Period pharaohs extended or enlarged previous buildings. Nectanebo II, however, began construction of a temple for Isis and Osiris at Behbeit el-Hagar.137 “The temple has collapsed, and its tumbled blocks cover an area 80 m long and 50 to 60 m wide. It may have been destroyed by a strong earthquake in antiquity and “ongoing stone robbing has reduced the pile considerably.”138 Nectanebo also seems to have begun a major temple at Sebennytos because there were about forty inscribed blocks at the site in 1911, but “no official excavation of the site is recorded.”139
For Saite times, the Ammoneion of the Siwa Oasis was built under the reign of Amasis. “Besides the Hibis temple in the El-Kharga Oasis, [Page 278]it is the only standing temple of the 26th Dynasty.”140 It is a smaller temple, about fifteen by fifty-two meters,141 and incompletely published. Psammetichus II built the Hibis Temple in the Kharga Oasis, which is a small temple142 that is missing many of the elements of the larger temples like Edfu.
In Kushite times, Taharqa built three very similar temples at Tabo, Kawa, and Sanam,143 and it would appear that the Hibis temple in Kharga is based on these. “The organization of these temples discloses that only minor details had changed in temple building since the New Kingdom and that older plans and decoration programs were purposefully followed.”144 This indicates that the temples follow a set plan. The so-called Book of the Temple may not have existed in its form in Edfu but something like it existed.
This brings us to the New Kingdom temple of Medinet Habu. Similar in shape to the Edfu temple, the interior of the rooms, particularly around the area of the holy of holies, is quite different from Edfu. For example, at Edfu, the hall of the Ennead does not surround a central bark shrine but is set to the left of the holy of holies.145 Nevertheless, the temple has the pylon, the open court, and the multiple hypostyle halls. Much of the rear of the temple has been destroyed, including most of the innermost hypostyle hall, so we cannot compare the decoration. The pylon, however, is decorated precisely as laid out in the Edfu temple. With its scenes of Pharaoh smiting the enemies,146 it has been “decorated with the inscriptions on all the instructions of opposing foreigners.”147 This motif is continued around the sides of the temple with the inscriptions describing Ramses III’s triumphs against foreign enemies.148 So that portion of the so-called Book of the Temple seems to go back to the New Kingdom.
Furthermore, it has long been noted that the ritual in the various temples is similar if not identical to each other.149 The content of the rituals is not necessarily adapted to the individual deities and sometimes is not connected with the gods the rituals are used to worship.150
There was clearly something like the Book of the Temple that goes back to the New Kingdom. It standardized temple forms, functions, and decorations. This means that there may have been some connection between an early form of the Book of the Temple and the book of Exodus. Both start with a historical prologue followed by a description of the temple. Both follow a similar format, describing the temple from the [Page 279]inside out. Both are concerned with the dimensions of the sacred space. One can make a plausible, although hardly demonstrable, case that both the Edfu bandeau inscription and the book of Exodus were influenced by an early version of the so-called Book of the Temple. There might be a stronger case to be made, but that will have to wait for the complete publication of the Book of the Temple.
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