Of his temple's design and structure Nephi states, "The manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon" (2 Nephi 5:16). According to John Welch, in saying this, Nephi "could only have meant that the general pattern was similar." From this, one may understand that the basic physical conception of the temple of Nephi was essentially comparable to that of the distinctive temple of Solomon, which divided its sacred space into three areas on a straight-line axis with the innermost being the most holy. In the opinion of some scholars, Solomon's temple was distinctive in that it "consisted of three rooms one behind the other, with a narrow front. . . . What is characteristic of the Jerusalem Temple is rather that the three rooms stand one behind the other in a straight line, and that the building is the same width all along its length" with the middle room being the largest." Apparently, Nephi built his temple in this same fashion so that it could be used for functions similar to those performed in the temple of Solomon.
While it may be completely coincidental, and while there are obvious differences between all varieties of temples, it is interesting to observe that sanctuaries at the center of the top of certain Mayan temples (for example, at Tikal) are divided into three small areas arranged in a straight row, each one being a step higher than the other. Although little is known about Mesoamerican temples, ethnohistorians have surmised that, in cases of two- and three-roomed temples in Mesoamerica, "worshippers could enter only the outer room of the temple, while the slightly raised, more sacred, inner chamber was restricted to priests," with altars along the back wall. Expanding on similar ideas, John Sorenson has drawn the following further comparisons between the prototypical Israelite temple and Mesoamerican temple structures:
The temple of Solomon was built on a platform, so people literally went "up" to it. Inside were distinct rooms of differing sacredness. Outside the building itself was a courtyard or plaza surrounded by a wall. Sacrifices were made in that space, atop altars of stepped or terraced form. The levels of the altar structure represented the layered universe as Israelites and other Near Eastern people conceived of it. The temple building was oriented so that the rising of the sun on equinoctial day (either March 21 or September 21) sent the earliest rays--considered "the glory of the Lord"--to shine through the temple doors, which were opened for the occasion directly into the holiest part. The same features generally characterized Mesoamerican temple complexes. The holy building that was the temple proper was of modest size, while the courtyard area received greater attention. Torquemada, an early Spanish priest in the New World, compared the plan of Mexican temples with that of the temple of Solomon, and a modern scholar [Laurette Sejourne] agrees.
[John W. Welch, "The Temple in the Book of Mormon," in Temples of the Ancient World, pp. 323-325]
“Nephi Did Build a Temple Like Unto the Temple of Solomon”
According to Daniel Peterson, Nephi's construction of a temple, recorded in 2 Nephi 5, has drawn a great deal of attention from critics of the Book of Mormon. Nephi states:
And I, Nephi, did build a temple; and I did construct it after the manner of the temple of Solomon save it were not built of so many precious things; for they were not to be found upon the land, wherefore, it could not be built like unto Solomon's temple. But the manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon; and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine. (2 Nephi 5:16)
But how, the skeptics demand, could a small family of refugees possibly build such a structure when Solomon's own temple required years of construction and the efforts of many thousands of workers?
Seeming problems in the Book of Mormon often dissolve when we attempt to find out what the text actually says, which is not always what we initially imagine it to say. What does it mean to be built "after the manner of the temple of Solomon"? I submit that it means to be patterned after, to have the same general layout as Solomon's temple, without necessarily being on the same scale. And since we know that smaller temples did in fact exist in ancient Israel, there seems no real reason to assume, without evidence, that one could not have existed among the Nephites. "Biblical evidence," notes the Israeli archaeologist Avraham Negev, "points to the existence of numerous other cult places all over Palestine, in addition to the main Temple of Jerusalem, and such shrines have now been found at Arad and Lachish, both of a very similar plan." Indeed, says Negev, "No actual remains of the First Temple [Solomon's] have come to light, and it is therefore only by the study of the Bible Scriptures and by comparison with other contemporary temples that we can reconstruct the plan." [In correspondence, one critic of the Book of Mormon demanded to know why, if Nephites really once existed, we have not found any ruins of Nephi's temple. I would suggest that it is for the same reason that we have found "no actual remains' of Solomon's temple.--n. 38, pp. 170-171]
Negev tells of one such temple, built "after the manner of the temple of Solomon," as follows:
The most remarkable discovery at Arad is the temple which occupied the north-western corner of the citadel. . . . Its orientation, general plan and contents, especially the tabernacle, are similar to the Temple of Solomon. . . . Flanking the entrance to the hekal were two stone slabs, probably bases of pillars, similar to the pillars of Jachin and Boaz in the temple at Jerusalem (1 Kings 7:21; 2 Chronicles 4:17).
Yet the Arad temple was only a fraction of the size of Solomon's temple. Significantly, it survived, in use, until approximately the time of Lehi. [Daniel C. Peterson, "Is the Book of Mormon True? Notes on the Debate," in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, pp. 153-154]
2 Nephi 5:16 I, Nephi, did build a temple . . . after the manner of the temple of Solomon ([Illustration]): An illustration of Solomon's Temple. The Nephite temple was built like this but was not as richly decorated. Artist: Unlisted. [Thomas R. Valletta ed., The Book of Mormon for Latter-day Saint Families, 1999, p. 85]