Temple teachings were well known and widely dispersed throughout antiquity as a means of forming good communities within religious groups. Indeed, temple themes and practices enlightened charismatic leaders and led to the establishment of several religious communities in lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.Legendary and historical sources bear witness to the centrality of such elements in the formation and daily workings of four ancient Mediterranean “utopian” or ideal communities. Temples provided a stabilizing center in these communities as (1) their sacred teachings became a basis of authority and boundaries, (2) their precincts became places of instruction, (3) their regimes of common ownership of property formed them into economic centers, and (4) their functions allowed them to serve at the heart of these communities in many specific ways. For example, in antiquity, temple covenants helped individuals abstain from evil practices as defined by their charismatic leader. Care for the poor and unfortunate was intimately associated with the temple in these religious communities. Likewise, temple themes—deeply rooted in Near Eastern, Hebrew, Christian, and Greek texts; semihistorical late antique sources; legends; and other traditions—are intertwined with notions of ritual purity, education, asceticism, religious initiation, charity, community building, and service to others. In sum, temples set the moral, economic, and educational standards for both ancient utopian societies and their members, as can be seen in the following examination of the four groups founded by Pythagoras in southern Italy in the sixth century BC, by the Essenes at Qumran in the second century BC, by Pachomius in Egypt in the fourth century AD, and by Proclus in Athens during the fifth century AD, each offering interesting comparisons to the formation of early Christian and Latter-day Saint covenant communities.
Ancient sources demonstrate that in the religious mindset of the time, temple teachings often formed the basis of education for religious leaders. After receiving temple instruction, enlightened leaders in antiquity were able to eventually form utopian communities. Pythagorean sources, while they admittedly are very late, semihistorical, and perhaps even legendary, describe in great detail how the temple played a central role in Pythagoras’s teaching and community. Iamblicus, for instance, stated that Pythagoras (who was born around 570 BC) learned all forms of excellence (arête) in Egyptian temples for twenty-two years, beginning in a Phoenician temple at Carmelus Mountain, and was later initiated into all the temple teachings of Byblus, Tyre, Syria, and Morgos.He also learned Orphic teachings at Mt. Pangaeus and acquired more knowledge of numbers there. Finally, Pythagoras was taken to Babylon by soldiers of Cambyses, where he studied with the magi and learned the ancient wisdom of the gods. Even though the accounts of these visits to ancient temples are semihistorical at best, it is clear that the temple was thought to have been an important revelatory source of inspiration for Pythagoras as a charismatic leader. Indeed, the temple became a model for his ideal community.
According to ancient sources, these Egyptian and Near Eastern temple rites became the center of Pythagoras’s education.In his work On the Life of Those Who Excelled in Virtue, Antiphon described how Pythagoras had to meet difficult ascetic requirements in order to enter into and be initiated in Egyptian temples. This knowledge seems to have not been available in its purity in Greece. Antiphon stated:
[Since Pythagoras] approved the way of life of the Egyptian priests and was anxious to participate in this, he besought the tyrant Polycrates [of Samos] to write his friend and former host Amasis king of Egypt, and ask that he [Pythagoras] might be permitted to share in the training of these aforesaid priests. Coming to Amasis, he received letters to the priests and, when he had spent some time with those at Heliopolis, was sent on by them to Memphis, as if to their seniors, though in fact this was merely a pretense of the Heliopolitans, and from Memphis, as a result of the same pretense, he went to the priests of Diospolis [ancient Thebes, in upper Egypt]. They were not able, from fear of the king, to allege any causes [for refusing to initiate him]. However they thought to turn him away from his attempt by the greatness of the hardship it would entail. Therefore they ordered him to submit to harsh rules that were quite alien to the Greek way of life. But when he willingly accomplished these things, they so admired him that he was authorized to sacrifice to the gods and to be present when they were taken care of, something not known to have happened in the case of any other alien.
Likewise, according to Philostratus, this ritual initiation in Egyptian temples enlightened Pythagoras’s soul. Pythagoras became empowered as he came to know who he was, who he had been, and who he would become.As part of living these ancient temple teachings, Pythagoras later wore linen, let his hair grow long, cultivated wisdom, followed a vegetarian diet, and tried to live a silent, sober, purposeful, and ascetic life.
Pythagoras then traveled to southern Italy to found a new community based on these acquired temple teachings. When he arrived in Croton (in southern Italy), he immediately attracted six hundred followers through temple wisdom. His followers studied philosophy, held goods in common, and were called the Cœnobitae.Pythagoras attracted even more followers by just one powerful oration based on wisdom. Porphyry (AD 234–305), using Nicomachus, a much older source, described how Pythagoras converted many:
By one single lecture that he gave when he arrived in Italy he captured by his words more than two thousand men. They did not return home, but together with children and wives, establishing a great school of fellow hearers, built a city in that country everyone calls Magna Graecia in Italy. They received from him laws and commandments as if they were divine covenants, and would do nothing whatever in transgression of these. They both communized their possessions and counted Pythagoras among the gods.
Timaios, writing in the fourth century BC, also confirmed that Pythagoreans held all possessions in common.
After contributing their possessions, Pythagoreans became friends. Apollonius mentions that “his friends he considered equal to the blessed gods, but the others were hardly worth mentioning, and counted nothing at all.”Plato, who may have been following the precedent of Pythagoras’s early community in his ideal republic, had guardians use public property to help other members of the community. Pythagoras organized and committed these new converts to his ascetic lifestyle based on temple principles. Converts were later called Acusmatici, who subsequently founded a city called Magna Graecia. They lived in harmony by following all of Pythagoras’s laws and precepts, which included sharing possessions. Ritual clothing helped the Acusmatici remember these covenants. Diogenes Laertius added that Pythagoras introduced this ritual since “his robe was white and spotless with quilts of white wool because linen had not yet reached those parts.” Soon Pythagoras and his disciples used only white linen clothing, both symbolizing and reminding them of the pure life they had covenanted to live in ancient temples. Other notable temple precepts and ideals these early converts followed included worship of the gods, piety to the dead, legislation, erudition, silence, continence, temperance, sagacity, divinity, and all things pertaining to the love of learning. His first disciples had to purge themselves of all evil practices in the ancient temple tradition since “dense thickets full of briars surround the intellect.” These disciples were required to abstain from wine, be moderate in their intake of food, and sleep only as much as needed, demonstrating contempt for glory and wealth as Pythagoras did. Pythagoras’s personal authority was derived from his adherence to these temple principles.
A variety of ancient sources emphasize that temple teachings were essential in strengthening Pythagorean communities. Iamblichus reported:
When the things said were reported by the youths to their fathers, the Thousand called Pythagoras to the council. After first praising him for the things said to their sons, they urged that if he had anything advantageous to say to the Crotoniates, to declare this to those presiding over the community. He first advised them to dedicate a temple to the Muses in order that they might preserve their existing concord; for these goddesses all have the same title (that of “Muse”), and they have been handed down in a common tradition with one another and especially delight in common honors. In general, the dance of the Muses is always one and the same, encompassing unison of sound, harmony and rhythm, and all things which provide for concord. He showed that their power extended not only to the finest arts and sciences, but even to the concordance and harmony of existing things.
Then, after Pythagoras educated these young followers through mathematics, he had them make a sacred oath to become part of his community:
Therefore, choosing one detail of their secret teachings—a subtle concept, however, and related to many solutions of physical problems, the sum of the first four numbers—by means of this they invoked Pythagoras, like some god, in their oaths, all of them uttering, after all things which asseverated, “Verily, by him who gave the sum of the first four numbers to our generation, that which contains the source and root of eternal nature.”
This oath was also referred to by Sextus Empiricus (late second century CE) who says they “swear their most characteristic oath: ‘No, by him who handed down to our company the fourthness (tetraktys), the font which holds the roots of ever-flowing nature.’”These oaths officially made candidates members of Pythagoras’s community after they had accepted certain temple ideals.
Once Pythagoras had a group of loyal disciples who had sworn an oath to follow his temple teachings, he required that they give their wealth to the community.Strict requirements of commonality of possessions among members of the community controlled capricious envy and excess in the community while providing the means of taking care of poorer members. This law of consecration encouraged a spirit of harmony among initiated members.
Even though Pythagoras’s focus on ritual forms of the temple was viewed with suspicion of self-aggrandizement, it created harmony in other ways among his new followers. Early material culture accompanied by later sources claim that Pythagoras used parts of the Orphic religion to educate his community. A relief of a bearded man representing Pythagoras was found on a stone block, dating to the fourth century BC, and depicted Pythagoras being instructed by Orpheus.Ion of Chios claimed that Pythagoras ascribed some of his writings to Orpheus. Herodotus of Halicarnassus concurred with Ion in stating, “This custom agrees with the ritual prescriptions known as Orphic and Bacchic which are actually Egyptian and Pythagorean; for anyone initiated into these rites is similarly debarred from burial in a garment of wool. ‘They have a sacred discourse’ [hieròs lógos] which explains the reason for this.”
Plato further clarified the nature of Orphic doctrines associated with Pythagoras. Pythagoras may have utilized these ritual doctrines that center on rewards and punishments in the next world in order to encourage his followers since “the Orphic books give instruction on purification, both private and communal, by means of sacrifice both for the living and the dead. These they call ‘Teletai, rites of initiation,’ which if performed will save us from hurt in the next world, whereas if we fail to perform them, dire pains await us.”Pythagoras taught initiates to strive for rewards of salvation in the next life through Orphic temple rituals.
The temple itself became an orienting guide for Pythagoras and his community. Even Pythagoras’s father, Mnesarchus, who was trained in sacred ritual religion, built a temple to Apollo after returning to Samos from Syria.According to Diogenes Laertius, Pythagoras entered the holiest part of Egyptian temples and thereby received his religious initiation. Other reports held that Pythagoras often visited temples, groves, or tranquil landscapes with one or two followers. In On Abstinence from Animal Food, Porphyry states that Egyptians philosophized in their temples and sought piety and divine knowledge there. Egyptians were frugal in their diet and apparel in temple worship. They made divine works, abstained from many kinds of foods and did not laugh more than a smile since they lived near the gods. Astronomy and mathematics (and their symbols) were an essential part of Egyptian temple teachings. In the same manner, Pythagoras required the performance of ordinances and laws to be viewed as divine precepts. Porphyry stated that the Pythagoreans’ beliefs were always based on Egyptian temple ordinances.
Pythagoras transferred these Egyptian temple values to his followers. One of the first communal actions was to build a temple to the Muses as a symbol of concord, harmony, and rhythm that should prevail ideally among friends.Pythagoreans replaced the almost ubiquitous ancient institution of ritual temple prostitution with proper temple worship. The temple was always used as a house of learning and communal association. We know that Pythagoras instructed the boys in the temple of the Pythian Apollo and instructed the women in the temple of Juno. Erudition and initiation required devotion as well as passing through ritualistic temple ceremonies and testing. Before entering the temple, followers had to enter the temple on the right and leave on the left. A follower could not enter the temple unshod or turn away after entering.
Pythagoras customarily entered the temple with his disciples and tested their erudition in many ways.These included: (1) their proper association with parents and relatives; (2) laughter and proper speaking; (3) associates they kept; (4) how they spent their leisure time; (5) their temperament, including joy and grief; and even (6) how they walked. Disciples of slow intellect or those lacking in moral qualities were not admitted to the temple. After candidates passed the test, they were further tested by experiencing three years of neglect by the community in an examination of how they subjugated their tongue, gave up property, and responded to community politicians, economizers, and legislators. If they passed the test, they became Esoterics, who could pass through the temple veil and live with Pythagoras and the gods as immortals. Esoterics heard and saw Pythagoras inside the temple veil (these became interior auditors, while others who saw Pythagoras only outside the veil became exterior auditors). At first, all candidates had heard Pythagoras only outside the veil.
Some candidates did not pass the rigorous religious testing and were barred from the temple. Pythagoras’s disciples called Homacoi expelled rejected candidates from the community. Pythagoras and his followers returned to these former members their material contributions to the community and even doubled them and later raised a tomb to them as if they were then dead to the community.One man who revealed Pythagorean doctrines was excommunicated and a tomb was built for him—and according to later legend, he suffered divine punishment from the gods when he drowned in the sea. Diogenes Laertius tells of members being separated and rejected for speaking too much of Pythagorean doctrines to the outside world. This rejection often instilled dissension in former candidates who later became leaders of violent apostate groups. One rejected candidate named Cylon became a prominent leader of dissenters who destroyed Pythagoras’s community through mob violence and reportedly killed Pythagoras in a temple.
Initiation into temple rituals distinguished early members of Pythagoras’s community. Once initiated, Pythagoras’s disciples made morning walks alone solemnly to groves and temples.Their state of impurity was removed by temple ordinances of washing, sprinkling, and abstaining from certain foods. Ritual purity was extremely important when approaching the gods to sacrifice. One wore white clean garments symbolic of an undefiled soul. Pythagorean mathematical and astronomical symbols derived from Egypt were used to teach the initiated and erudite that they should not enter a temple negligently or carelessly stand only at the doors. Uninitiated members were separated from the initiated in learning these sacred symbols. Initiated members were not supposed to speak of these sacred matters lightly. Hipparchus, a notable initiated member, showed too much to the world of these doctrines and was severely chastised.
Pythagoras guided his community through continued education in the temple. Women were fortified against the desire to wear costly apparel by having their simple apparel consecrated in Juno’s temple.After his youthful followers made oaths and became members of his community, Pythagoras gave them further advice in the temple of Apollo to be eager to learn, to achieve moral excellence, to be worthy of the god’s friendship, and to obey one’s elders.
Members of the community were inspired according to temple ideals. Pythagoras not only taught his followers “what friends own, they own in common,” and “a friend is a second self,” but he practiced these teachings.He even took care of the medical and physical needs of others in the spirit of charity. Because he cared for everyone in his community and all members were expected to practice the ideal of friendship, most individuals became well integrated into the community. According to anthropological and sociological models, being “rich” is associated with being well integrated into a community while being “poor” is to be socially isolated. Thus, by making these personal associations to care for the poor, all Pythagoreans felt fulfilled. Because all felt rich, they seem to have had no desire to acquire material goods beyond their basic necessities.
Pythagorean ritual practices were centered on the temple. Later, inexpensive white garments were used by all Pythagoreans to emphasize harmony and similarity to the gods in the ancient sense of an endowment (enduo—I put on clothing).Sextus the Pythagorean taught that all people, especially those who were initiated, became similar to the gods. Thus, Pythagoras’s initiated followers lived their lives in bodies that resembled the early Greek anthropomorphic conception of the gods. Clearly, temple worship molded Pythagoras’s followers and community into a pious, tight-knit, and loyal group of followers. Temples provided a place to sacrifice to the Muses for protection against enemies. Indeed, temples became the vehicle for introducing education, service, and initiation into Pythagoras’s holy community.
Certain religious standards and prohibitions in Pythagoras’s community were associated with the temple. According to Timaios, as quoted in Diogenes Laertius, “the common property of friends is equal friendship.”Pythagoreans prayed for the good things of prudent men in a spirit of friendship. According to ancient sources, Pythagoras continued to spread these values of community by getting rid of sedition, discord, and party zeal. Pythagoras believed a harmonious community could be established only when mankind banished its evil nature. Even rebellious children had to honor and obey their superiors and parents in this community. Acts of reveling and taking vengeance for alleged wrongs were likewise prohibited.
In addition, many temple values and teachings guided Pythagorean communities. The community tried to remove contention from true friendship.Women gave up costly apparel and disciples did not strive after the universal desires of money, fame, strength, or power, and their souls were tempered to asceticism through music. In short, followers were urged to cultivate the simple life because extravagance often ruined a man’s fortune and body. Women became deified in temple marriage by using the names of gods. By this ritual they went through the stages of virgins, nymphs, and finally mothers. The importance of pure forms of procreation seems to have been part of these temple rituals. Preparation for erudition through abstinence and religious rituals further fortified Pythagorean communities. According to Pythagoras’s temple teachings, sex was for procreation, and a man had intercourse only with his own wife. Regarding idle speech, Pythagoras said “that it was either requisite to be silent or to say something better than silence. Let it be more eligible to you to throw a stone in vain, than to utter an idle word. Do not say a few things in many words, but much in a few words.”
A great deal of Pythagorean moral and scientific teaching also came from numbers and symbolism of the ancient temple. The compass and right-angled triangles measured by the Pythagorean theorem were formed through geometry or “measuring the earth.” Initiates were able to live in harmony with the gods and their community through remembering the significance of these geometric symbols. In antiquity, a templum was a special square cut or measured out by a priest. In ancient Greek, one also “cuts” (temnō) oaths or covenants. The number four was considered to be a perfect or covenant number by the Pythagoreans, who believed that all musical scales—and true harmony—are found to exist within it. This number contained the nature of all things and became the basis of their oath: “I swear by him who the tetractys found, whence all our wisdom springs, and which contains Perennial Nature’s fountain, cause, or root.”According to some of Pythagoras’s followers, the number three represented unity and the three stages of life: premortal life, mortal life, and the afterlife. The tetractys, a triangle formed by arranging ten dots in four rows, represented temple wisdom and the perfectability of both their community and the universe. Ten may have symbolized the wisdom gained in Pythagoras’s temple. Seven and twelve were also sacred temple numbers related to temple teachings because they come about through adding and multiplying four and three. These numbers and symbols attributed to Pythagoras represented perfection as a value embodied in religious rituals of the temple into which his community was initiated. These numbers summarized all Pythagoras’s teachings regarding perfection in making and keeping temple covenants in order to build the perfect society.
Among the Essenes, under the influence and leadership of their Teacher of Righteousness, the yahad (union or community) made a new covenant and became the nucleus of a “perfect and sacred” community based on Hebrew notions of the temple. In fact, the fifteen founding members became known as the “holy of holies,” since their leadership was associated with the temple.Philo confirmed that this Teacher of Righteousness encouraged his followers to live as a community.
It is clear from documents discovered near Qumran that covenants, often associated with the temple, fostered unity among the Essenes. Certainly covenants had always been important in Judaism. However, for the Essenes, covenants had expanded their individual commitment to the community. Volunteers freely made a covenant to give all of their possessions and abilities to the community. When the individual made an everlasting, binding oath to obey the rigorous mundane and ritual commandments of the community, he thus became initiated.
All those who freely devote themselves to His truth shall bring all their knowledge, powers, and possessions into the Community of God that they may purify their knowledge in the truth of God’s precepts and order their powers according to His ways of perfection and all their possessions according to His righteous counsel. They shall not depart from any command of God concerning their times; they shall be neither early nor late for any of their appointed times, they shall stray neither to the right nor to the left of any of His true precepts. All those who embrace the Community Rule shall enter into the covenant before God to obey all his commandments so that they may not abandon Him during the dominion of Satan because of fear or terror or affliction. On entering the Covenant, the Priests and Levites shall bless the God of salvation and all his faithfulness, and all those entering the Covenant shall say after them, “Amen, Amen!”
Because of the individual and communal nature of their covenant, the Essenes felt it imperative to separate themselves from “men of falsehood.”Furthermore, a covenant was always binding on the individual and could not be annulled. All members of the Essenian community renewed their covenant “year by year” as long as the “reign of Satan” lasted.
Outside sources describe unique Essenian practices, in addition to the Law of Moses, that separated them from other Jews. Philo emphasized that the Essenes tried to live in a manner worthy of divinity.While the Essenes believed their community was a living covenant, they still performed sacrifices in the temple at Jerusalem in accordance with the covenants of the Mosaic Law. However, the Essenes used a different ritual of purification there and were, according to Josephus, barred from those precincts of the temple that were frequented by all the people. In short, the Essenes had to perform their Mosaic rites in a part of the temple in Jerusalem by themselves.
The Qumran community consisted of priests and the multitude of men who were united by the law and possessions, symbolic of the temple.The yahad modeled itself after Israel and the temple, dividing itself into priests and Levites on the one hand and common Israelites on the other. The covenant community became a substitute temple since the Essenes seem to have “cut off their imperfections,” according to the root meaning of temple (temnō—I cut), by purity laws. It is likely that each community applied the same rigorous standards for admission and dismissal.
Admission to the Essenes’ community required a total commitment to an ascetic lifestyle of thoughts and deeds. The Dead Sea Scrolls, probably written by the Essenes at Qumran, demonstrate that only capable individual members could live according to the Book of the Community Rule, which included striving for perfection according to ideals of purification.They had to obey their superiors in every way but still seem to have held some private property. “These are the ways in which all of them shall walk, each man with his companion, wherever they dwell. The man of lesser rank shall obey the greater in matters of work and money. They shall eat in common and pray in common and deliberate in common.”
Provisions governed the probationary period of candidacy within the community. According to outside sources, for a full year, each candidate was expected to provide materially for his own needs and then was expected to hand over much of his wealth to the community at the end of the probation. Josephus stated that candidates were not immediately admitted and had to live one year on probation with a “hatchet and loin-cloth.”Porphyry noted that while living under probation, candidates received a white undergarment. After one year, according to Josephus, the candidate also received other white clothes and became a part of the community, sharing in the holy water, although he was not admitted to communal meetings. Two more years of testing followed, and then terrible oaths were sworn before the candidate could touch the common food and be given a rank in the community.
Ten ritual oaths were made, ten being a number often associated with the temple even in Pythagorean thought, as I have previously shown. Josephus noted the Essenes regulated proper behavior in the community as follows: (1) piety to deity, (2) justice to men, (3) wrong no one, (4) fight for justice, (5) not abuse authority or appear eminent, (6) love truth, (7) expose liars, (8) endure tortures, (9) not rob, and (10) preserve the books and names of angels.The Dead Sea Scrolls also list ten communal guidelines:
 They shall love each man his brother as himself;  they shall succor the poor, the needy and the stranger.  A man shall seek his brother’s well being and  shall not sin against his near kin.  They shall keep from fornication according to the statute.  They shall rebuke each man his brother according to the commandment and  shall bear no rancor from one day to the next.  They shall keep apart from every uncleanness according to the statutes relating to each one, and  no man shall defile his holy spirit since God has set them apart, and  if they live in camps according to the rule of the land, marrying and begetting children, they shall walk according to the law.
After an individual made covenants to obey these ten commandments, the candidate met the requirements to become a member of the community. But the community at large had to accept every new member after two years of probation: “But when the second year has passed, he shall be examined, and if it be his destiny, according to the judgment of the Congregation to enter the Community, then he shall be inscribed among his brethren in the order of his rank for the Law, and for justice, and for the pure Meal; his property shall be merged and he shall offer his counsel and judgment to the Community.”Finally, only through individual covenants and communal consent did the individual become a full member of the Essenian community.
Various ancient sources characterize the new community of the Essenes as communitarian. The Community Rule scroll stated that “all shall bring all their knowledge, powers, and possessions into the community of God.”Furthermore, the Damascus Rule scroll taught the Essenes to love each brother as himself and to “succor the poor, the needy and the stranger.” Essenian covenants, rules, and membership itself in the community were founded on the blueprint of the temple.
Pachomius (AD 292–346), the father of Egyptian monasticism, was raised in Egyptian temple traditions and then trained in strict Christian ideologies by his ascetic mentor Palamon. Because of Pachomius’s ascetic training, he attracted many followers and formed an inspiring religious community. As his community grew larger, he built a monastery symbolic of the temple, where all could assemble, learn from the Holy Scriptures, make covenants, and thus become part of his community. The monastery also served as a place of refuge for the needy and poor, which included local shepherds and commoners.Pachomius eventually built many monasteries to accommodate thousands. He established regulations that prohibited all forms of private property since everything belonged to the community once its members had made important covenants. Twice a year all monastic communities gathered at the Great Monastery to take part in feasts and receive instruction. Pachomius’s community was based on Christian principles, with the monastery as a temple that became the stabilizing religious, economic, and social center. It also became a center for Pachomius’s and his successors’ authority; a place of refuge for travelers, the poor, and sick; and a communal economic engine all connected to the ritual of the ascesis or assembly prayer.
Proclus (AD 410–485), who founded a thriving community in Athens, was trained from a young age through ritualistic teachings. As a young child, Proclus took grammar lessons in Lycia and then continued his studies in Egypt. There he lived in the household of Leonas the sophist and studied with other Egyptians. The grammarian Orion, who descended from the priestly caste of Egypt and knew of these religious temple teachings, trained Proclus in esoteric religious studies.Damascius summarized these Egyptian studies in which Proclus was trained as wisdom that “is expressed in myth and quietly and slowly revealed to man” through secret temple rites that rest on the hope of heaven and the general welfare of other Egyptians. Later, Proclus was trained in theurgy at Plutarch’s school in Athens, which functioned in many ways as a temple. Ancient sources claim that theurgy derived from Greek, Near Eastern, and Egyptian sources. But in this period, theurgy (or accomplishing divine acts—theourgia) was especially associated with Neoplatonic philosophy and the Chaldean oracles. These mysteries strove to facilitate a mystical union with the divine in the spirit of eclecticism. After Plutarch’s death, Syrianus continued to give Proclus help with scholarly pursuits, made him his roommate, and trained him in worldly and divine matters, since Proclus was going to inherit Plutarch’s school. Proclus read many of Aristotle’s and then Plato’s works under his teacher’s supervision in order to become initiated into pagan thought and religion, starting with the lesser mysteries or temple teachings and working up to the greater ones. Thus, Proclus’s preparation in temple teachings was gradual and occurred over a long period of time.
Proclus’s schoolhouse, which functioned similar to an ancient temple, became the center of his community. Damascius explained that Proclus taught his student Isidore many holy discourses and mysteries there.The architectural design of house C (an excavated rich house associated with Proclus’s school on the Areopagus) reveals a “coordinated plan and common purpose” to educate, pray, and make covenants. Statues of Hercules and Hermes, which have been recovered in recent times, were set up as symbols of righteousness and education. Proclus encouraged his followers to perform various rituals of the Great Mother, received revelation, and fasted there.
In accordance with Proclus’s teachings, individual members contributed their money, time, and talents to the community and served the poor. Archiadas, the grandson of Plutarch, became a “private benefactor” to all and left part of his possessions to Proclus’s temple school at Athens.Theagenes, an Athenian archon and senator at Constantinople, often used his extraordinary wealth in redressing misfortunes and helping others by spending his money on “teachers, doctors and other matters relating to the welfare of Athens.” Marinus remarked that Proclus cared for his companions and their children and wives as a “common father and author of their being.”
Proclus’s religious campus was situated on the Areopagus near other temples and contained many temple symbols. He lived in a house where both Syrianus and Plutarch had lived, near the theatre and the temples of Dionysus and Asclepius and in sight of the Acropolis.Archaeologists are relatively certain they have positively identified Proclus’s house (House C), which includes a large room (6.6 m by 4.4 m) with elaborate marble, philosophical inscriptions, mosaic floors, geometric patterns, and an apse with a Cybele shrine. House C was situated near wells and a spring on the northeast side. Fountains of all kinds are often symbolic of purity and healing in many ancient religious traditions. The close interrelationship of the Areopagus houses and the compactness of the area suggest a planned, coordinated layout and a purpose to educate and initiate. Proclus’s school, which functioned as an ancient temple, became a symbol of piety, ritual purity, moderation, education, prosperity, and philanthropy. Indeed temple rituals enabled the creation of an ideal community in late-antique Athens.
The Temple as the Center of Ancient Ideal Communities
These four examples from antiquity are not the only cases of ancient utopian societies or Zion communities, but they are among the best documented. They span a millennium, from the sixth century BC to the fifth century AD. They range from the Judean desert to southern Italy, from Athens to Egypt. The charismatic leaders of these communities always led their followers to make covenants in temples. Some of these communities were more authoritarian than others. Punishments varied according to their leaders’ ideals. Some utopian experiments survived only for a short time while others prospered for centuries. Most of these communities, with the exception of Proclus’s Athens, were founded in remote settings, far removed from the world. This is not surprising, since “Zion” always flees “Babylon.” Covenants, often made in ritual temple settings, unified each of these communities while still allowing for individual communal differences. These communities drew dynamic strength and organic vitality from their leadership, ideals, covenants, learning, and the unifying functions of temple traditions as found in their civilizations and unique cultures. Temple elements run so deeply through the histories of these groups that one is tempted to conclude that the cohesiveness and success of any new idealistic religious movement in antiquity correlated directly with the extent to which it effectively incorporated and venerated those temple elements in their community existence and daily life.
Covenants accepted in temples have always helped mankind to progress toward the good life. Universal human foibles and problems of social inequality, war, isolation, poverty, hunger, instability, greed, envy, hate, anger, and even pride were mitigated and often eliminated when members of these religious communities made and kept their covenants. Temple worship can even change human nature—thus allowing communities to function as utopias. As I have demonstrated in analyzing these four examples of ancient communities, it is very normal for temple-centered, religious communities to be successful. There is no better way to inspire individuals to live moral and ethical values, thereby providing a framework for ideal communities, than to set a communal goal for individuals to enter a holy temple. Problems entered these religious communities only when individuals chose not to keep the covenants they had freely contracted. These ancient temples became houses of learning, preparation, and covenant making that helped these good individuals to progressively become like God. Not surprisingly, temple-oriented communities became stable centers of peace, refuge, and harmony anciently.
Rejection of the Idea of Utopia
While the idea of an ideal or utopian society was widely embraced in the ancient world, as the Renaissance and Enlightenment spread through Europe, the notion that a perfect society could be created fell out of favor. Most Western thinkers rejected the idea of an ideal community as impossible or at least beyond the reach of modern society, embracing instead the idea of “paradise lost” and the permanent fall of Adam and Eve from a primal state of ideal existence.
The Garden of Eden appears in the Hebrew, Near Eastern, and later Western tradition as a primeval archetype of utopia and has many parallels to Middle Eastern and Far Eastern beliefs as well as a multitude of other traditions. After Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit and were cast out of the Garden, the earth naturally produced thorns and thistles instead of fruits and vegetables. Adam had to toil to gain his food since he had fallen from the paradise of God’s presence. Thus, the idea of utopia, or an ideal society, was often connected to escaping the evils of the natural world as well as a return to a pristine environment, which often symbolized man’s return to God’s presence.
Various notions of this return to an ideal state existed in antiquity and persisted through the Renaissance. Although constructing models of a perfect society has long been the pastime of philosophers and intellectuals in the Western tradition, Sir Thomas More (1478–1535) was the one who actually coined the term Utopia. More, who often demonstrated his Renaissance learning by using puns, made no exception with Utopia: ou (no) + topia (place). More cleverly came up with this compound title for his imaginative work describing the ideal and fanciful life, manners, and customs of a fictitious island community of the same name. For More, Utopia seems to have been an ideal “good place” that did not exist. In this sense, More’s “no place” has much in common with other modern conceptions of the ideal society.
In contrast to ancient attempts at creating ideal communities, modern Western secular thought generally promulgates the notion that perfect societies can never concretely exist. Indeed, it appears that when modern experiments with utopian ideals are devoid of the temple—and the ritual worship, education, blessings, and covenants associated with it—they result, at best, only in critical fantasies or, at worst, in oppressive dystopian regimes. More’s Utopia (1516) firmly established the notion of an otherworldly fantasyland in the Western tradition. His work made a clean break with Plato, who argued that it was indeed possible for mankind to create an ideal society on earth. While More’s Utopia critiqued sixteenth-century England and suggested progressive innovations, it also introduced the notion that a good place could exist only on a remote and unrealistic island environment. Other works, such as Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), Henry Neville’s The Island of Pine (1668), and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), further entrenched the motif of shipwrecked mankind’s imperfect struggle in a dangerous, natural world. Unlike the harmonizing, empowering nature of the ancient temple communities discussed above, these later “utopias” do not inspire individuals to change their own nature but only teach them to survive in their given natural surroundings.
The nineteenth century brought various attempts—by religious and secular groups—to found utopian communities, but none of these attempts succeeded in the long term, thus further entrenching the already widespread skepticism regarding the feasibility of such idealistic experiments. Ann Lee, for instance, gained a following of Shakers in New England who worked together and shared what they produced, but this group survived only until the beginning of the twentieth century. Henri de Saint-Simon, a French utopian socialist, influenced the foundations of various nineteenth-century philosophies, including Marxism and Positivism. His followers established a short-lived community based on his teachings. Charles Fourier, another French advocate of utopian experiments, grew up in the topsy-turvy environment of the French Revolution. His ideas took root in America and inspired the founding of several communities, including La Reunion in Texas and Utopia in Ohio, but none of these experiments endured long. Young Robert Owen, a wealthy and successful mill owner in Scotland, believed he could concretely reform industrial society. He criticized the entire economic, social, and religious status quo of the nineteenth century and even attacked the institution of the family. He created a utopian community at Lanmark, Scotland, but the members of his community had trouble getting along. When he decided to move to New Harmony, Indiana, he encountered even more problems. His utopias seemed to attract self-interested loafers instead of the skilled and hardworking reformers that New Harmony needed to become self-sufficient. Although Owen gained some admirers, he eventually turned his back on industrialism and gravitated toward the growing socialist movement that was gaining strength in the 1840s.
Nineteenth-century socialist movements were led by powerful intellectuals, none more influential than Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Engels’s socialism associated utopian thought with theory, and utopian experiments with fantasy. He failed to note that stable but small utopian communities had existed in antiquity. Karl Marx, on the other hand, believed that there were fundamental differences between his scientific socialism and what he argued was its earlier inchoate, utopian rival. Although Marx rejected utopianism because of its progressive belief in social improvement, his system retained a certain vision of future socialist and communist society that many scholars would still define as utopian.
Unlike utopian thinkers of the nineteenth century, twentieth-century writers did not view the future with optimism. Two extremely destructive world wars accompanied by the excesses of colonialism, totalitarianism, and nationalism influenced writers to caution society against the dangers of further utopian thinking. They warned that because of excesses in science and technology, utopias inevitably degenerate into dystopias or horrible totalitarian societies. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, and Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies are examples.
In accordance with materialistic and antireligious ideologies of modern times, many secular societies conducted utopian experiments during the twentieth century that produced disastrous results. Instead of alleviating mankind’s problems, megalomaniacal dictators, their followers, and their political parties have reigned with blood and horror throughout the world. The most extensive of these socialist utopian experiments were the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. After decades of oppression and unsuccessful attempts to make their respective forms of communism work, the Soviet system collapsed under the weight of its own inefficiencies and the Maoist system embraced market reforms to become one of the most vibrant modern economies, although China still suffers from certain remnants of political and military tyranny.
The Early Christian Church and the Latter-day Restoration of Temple Communities
The main modern exception to the belief that utopias are not achievable is the Latter-day Saint restoration of the early Christian vision of creating a Zion community. This exception is surely not unrelated to the one common element of successful ideal communities in the ancient world that is missing from all of the failed modern utopian efforts: the temple. We learn from the scriptures that Enoch, primitive Christians, ancient Americans, and the early Latter-day Saints were all motivated to become more righteous through covenants made in a temple setting. The temple became a blueprint for a righteous society in diverse dispensations and places. Jesus spent a great deal of time in the temple in Jerusalem. As he attracted many disciples and other followers during his ministry, he took some of them up “into the mountain,” symbolic of the temple (Matt. 5:1). Greek religious use of the verb “to be perfect” (teleō) may refer to being initiated into a holy temple community and making sacred covenants (Matt. 5:48). Several other similar points could be mentioned, including the Mount of Transfiguration, all leading to the report in the book of Acts of how Jesus’s disciples took these temple teachings literally in building up the Church of Jesus Christ, based on keeping the faith, sharing possessions, and serving others in practical ways (Acts 2:44–47). In fact, the temple in Jerusalem was a central feature of the earliest Christian community for twenty-five years after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. Likewise, in the Book of Mormon, the Savior visited the surviving people who were gathered “round about the temple that was in the land of Bountiful” (3 Ne. 11:1). His followers made covenants to follow him, and they kept these covenants because they “were all converted unto the Lord, upon all the face of the land, both Nephites and Lamanites, and there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another. And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift” (4 Ne. 1:2–3). Love, unity, and equality are all common utopian themes of Zion in ancient scripture.
Jesus’s nascent church differed significantly, however, from each of the four ancient utopian communities I have described. Jesus and his Apostles were phenomenally and often immediately successful itinerant leaders and teachers because of the influence of the Holy Ghost and later the gift of the Holy Ghost, unlike the isolated, solitary, and stationary utopian communities that usually grew very slowly under a charismatic leader such as the Teacher of Righteousness among the Essenes or Pachomius in the Egyptian desert. Jesus’s Apostles had already been changed (or converted) by the Holy Ghost—instead of by slow transformation through living the rules of a leader in a solitary desert environment. These Apostles rigorously sought to convert large numbers of people when they preached the gospel or evangelized to the outside world. In contrast, ancient utopian communities normally gained new members only by passively attracting them instead of actively seeking them out or preaching to them. Jesus and his disciples taught their followers how to flee the world without becoming physically isolated from it, unlike individuals who lived in utopian communities. But Christians, like these four utopian communities that strove for personal purity, were bound to God and indirectly to their fellowmen through covenants made in a temple context.
The early Christian church changed over time, however, and as the Apostles were martyred, divine authority was lost, doctrines were abandoned, ordinances were altered, and the connection to the temple and its covenants was severed. Then, after many long centuries, a restoration of ancient authorities, doctrines, and ordinances burst upon the world. And with it came restored knowledge of temples and temple covenants, which laid a foundation once more for the establishment of an ideal or “Zion” society.
This notable exception to the modern utopian and dystopian writings and experiments discussed above began with Joseph Smith in upstate New York in 1830. The Book of Mormon, which Smith translated from gold plates delivered to him by an angel, describes how the ancient Americans lived peacefully and happily after a visitation of the resurrected Jesus Christ and “had all things common” (4 Ne. 1:3) among them. Smith also received through revelation an account of the ancient city of Enoch, a utopian society called Zion “because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18). Joseph Smith and his followers also practiced for a time a form of economic egalitarianism called the law of consecration, in which they consecrated all their possessions to the Church and received back a portion, “every man equal according to his family, according to his circumstances and his wants and needs” (D&C 51:3). Significantly, the Mormon utopian or “Zion” experience had as its centerpiece the building of a temple—first in Kirtland, then in Nauvoo, and finally in Salt Lake City—accompanied by the expected covenants, rituals, teachings, and commandments.
The utopian experiment under Brigham Young in Utah, often referred to as the United Order, eventually gave way to the pressures exerted by both the U.S. government and the expanding capitalist economy, but remnants still persist in the form of the law of tithing, the collecting of fast offerings, the Church’s welfare program, and the more recent Perpetual Education Fund. While certain aspects of the Zion ideal have been withdrawn, at least for a time, the temple is still central to Mormonism, and temples now exist or are being built in countries across the globe. Just as temple covenants empowered the four ancient communities examined in this paper, LDS temples today serve as a means of helping communities and individuals in their efforts to create Zion wherever the Church establishes wards and branches.
Ancient and Modern Parallels
When we analyze both early LDS history and the current Church, we recognize strong utopian parallels to the four ancient communities discussed earlier in this study. Under the leadership of Joseph Smith and later Brigham Young, the early Saints fled westward from their persecutors to eventually settle in the semiarid region of the western United States, much like the Essenes who established their community in Qumran. The restored Church began with only six members, similar to the few members of ancient utopian communities associated with Pythagoras, Pachomius, and Proclus. Joseph Smith, like Pythagoras, was violently persecuted and later martyred. As the community of Latter-day Saints gradually became larger, better organized, and increasingly hierarchical, it established, like ancient utopian movements, increasingly complex laws and rules that fill much of the Doctrine in Covenants and current leadership handbooks. The Word of Wisdom, the law of tithing, and other commandments sociologically define boundaries between insiders and outsiders in the form of members and nonmembers, and between the most faithful and “the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints” (D&C 89:3) in LDS communities. Missionaries attract and preach to new converts who gradually but steadily add to the membership of a statistically small but worldwide church. While doing proxy ordinances in temples for their ancestors, members of the restored gospel are continually reminded of the covenants they have made, while, on the other hand, dissenters who choose not to keep their covenants are sometimes excommunicated. These dissenters often create trouble as they attack their former church community and its members, similar to the dissenter Cylon’s destruction of Pythagoras’s community—and similar to the apostate-led attack on the Mormon temple community of Nauvoo. The covenants contracted in a temple setting can exalt or condemn a person, depending ultimately on that person’s choices. It is in the temple that one may learn most effectively God’s blueprint for the happiness of the individual and his kingdom.
The restoration of the temple and its covenants and ordinances opens up possibilities that many people yearn for but have long assumed to be unattainable in this life. Although most people in today’s world have given up on the idea of utopias, or ideal societies, the gospel of Jesus Christ in its original version, as well as in its restoration, sees this as not only possible but eventually inevitable. Indeed, the gospel incorporates all of the key elements used in ancient utopias to make them work. These elements enable us to establish across the earth “communities of Saints,” where we can enjoy some aspects of an ideal society even if the one true utopia may not be fully realized until the Millennium.