Nephi appears to be relating events in a rough chronological order, describing first the community’s religious beliefs, communal laws, economic base, and need for protection. With those aspects in place and with a larger (and now more skilled) population, Nephi turns to the construction of a significant sacred structure—a temple.
The very construction of such an edifice suggests a substantially increased population, sufficient stability in food sources to free workmen as laborers, and sufficient prosperity that the building materials can be readily obtained. All three factors must be present at this point, which obviously occurred within the first generation since Nephi was still alive.
Nephi’s conscientious explanation that this temple lacked as many “precious things” as Solomon’s temple suggests that his people’s productivity was not at a level to supply the true luxury items associated with the Old World temple. Solomon’s temple was built with “great stones, costly stones, and hewed stones” (1 Kgs. 5:17) and the interior was covered with cedar from Lebanon so that none of the stone showed in the interior (1 Kgs. 6:18). The massive entrance doors were elaborately carved and overlaid with gold (1 Kgs. 6:32) and gold overlays were used extensively (1 Kgs. 6:20–22, 28). It was “garnished with precious stones” (2 Chr. 3:6) and the veil of the temple was made of fine linen in the expensive colors of blue, purple, and crimson (2 Chr. 3:14). Some of these materials would have been unavailable to Nephi, but what Nephi and his people would lack most would be a population of sufficient size to support the massive effort required to build Solomon’s temple, an effort that severely taxed a much more numerous people.
Nephi gives no information about the building materials. Solomon’s temple was constructed of carved stone. While later Nephite populations would certainly build with available stone, it is more likely that Nephi would have used the various hardwoods that were locally available. I hypothesize that this first building was constructed of wood rather than stone. These are the two historical building materials in Mesoamerica, and the stone would have been too labor-intensive for Nephi’s early city.
Temple building was an old practice in Mesoamerica by the time of the arrival of the Nephites. During the time period from 1500–1100 B.C., temple mounds have been identified along the Pacific plains of Chiapas. These early mounds were transformed into a miniature cosmology during the Olmec period, beginning around 1200 B.C. An early attempt to compress the universe into a symbolic sacred geography was created at La Venta, which flourished from 900 B.C. to 600 B.C. Linda Schele, an epigrapher, tells us:
The people of La Venta built a replica of a volcano, probably San Martin itself, with their main pyramid, as Robert F. Heizer first argued. Lake Catemaco, the great crater lake at the base of San Martin, must have been seen by the Olmec as a fragment of the primordial sea, and it, too, has its analogue at La Venta in the sunken court with its great serpentine mosaic offerings.
The form of these Mesoamerican cosmological temples differed from that of Solomon’s temple. Nevertheless, the Mesoamerican structures shared the conceptual symbolism of encapsulating a representation of the sacred cosmos in a single location. The La Venta artificial mountain is combined with the artificial waters to represent original creation. The temples of the ancient Near East were also the “architectural embodiment of the cosmic mountain,” frequently associated with the primordial waters of life. Notes John Lundquist, “The temple [was] viewed as incorporating within itself such a spring or as having been built upon the spring. The reason that such springs exist in temples is that they were perceived as the primeval waters of creation.”
Although the specific form of Solomon’s temple was different, the form of ancient “high places” was remarkably similar to what the Nephites would have seen in Mesoamerican cultures. Excavations at Mount Ebal and Tel Dan have discovered altar sites that have a large raised platform and a sloping ramp leading to the top. This basic low platform is visible in a number of Mesoamerican sites and continued to be in use at least through the Teotihuacan period. The Mount Ebal altar is even enclosed by a surrounding wall as are many Mesoamerican temple platforms.
The combination of similar concepts and the likelihood that there was an available Old World model similar to the architecture of Mesoamerican temples was probably the point on which the Nephite preference shifted away from the Solomonic architecture (based on Canaanite or Phoenician models) and toward the ubiquitous temple platforms noted in Mesoamerica.
While Nephi’s first temple was likely built of wood and likely followed an Old World model, it is plausible that the Mesoamericanization of the Nephites included a shift in their conception of what a sacred representation of the cosmos should look like. Eventually the Mesoamerican form was accepted, no doubt because of the shared symbolism of the two forms. It is certain that to date no Old World temple structures have been discovered. All of the temple buildings where the Nephites would have lived follow the Mesoamerican pattern. It is important to remember, however, that this form was simply a different way of symbolically encoding the same information. The transition from Solomon’s temple to the Mesoamerican temple would be quite logical following these cosmic similarities and the prevalence of the style in the New World.
The importance of a temple is its sacredness, not its construction. It may not have been as rich as that of Solomon, but it performed the same sacred function. The desert tabernacle was as much a temple as the richly adorned building of Solomon.
Archaeology: The fact that Nephi had a temple is also important as a clue about how Nephi viewed the religio-political situation in the Jerusalem. I have postulated (see 1 Nephi, Part 1: Context,Chapter 1, “The Historical Setting of 1 Nephi”) that Lehi resisted at least some of Josiah’s reforms, one of which centralized worship in a single temple in Jerusalem. Recent discoveries tell us that during Lehi’s lifetime it would not have been unusual to build a temple outside of Jerusalem. William G. Dever, professor emeritus of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona, discusses a temple that has been excavated at Arad (not far east of Beersheba). This is a temple that existed in the 9th to 8th centuries B.C. It is identifiable as a temple by both architecture and evidence of its use. In addition, on one of the ostraca [writing on a pottery shard] from the site is found the inscription “house/temple of Yahweh.” The discovery of the Elephantine documents shows a group of Israelites leaving Israel and moving to a home on the Nile, where they also build a replica of Solomon’s temple. The Jewish outpost at Elephantine was established around 650 B.C. The documents cover the period from 495 to 399 B.C. While later tradition would have eschewed a temple outside of Jerusalem, it was clearly tolerated in times close to Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem.