The theme of the Temple is fundamental to Freemasonry, whose aim is often described as building the Temple of Humanity. But which Temple are we talking about ? The symbol of this edifice is of course the Temple of Solomon, but the interpretations that can be given to it are much broader. But the Temple is not just a symbolic representation of the purpose of Freemasonry : this term is also used in Freemasonry in a much more concrete sense and often designates the premises where Freemasons meet to work, or even the building where the actual ritual premises are located.

Solomon's Temple

Solomon's Temple is the prototype of the Temple in Freemasonry, and this goes back to the customs of the ancient English builders. Although the earliest known "Old Charges", the Regius (c. 1390), makes no mention of Solomon's Temple, this theme appears as early as the Cooke (c. 1410), the second oldest document of this type that has come down to us. It was taken up again in all subsequent versions, as well as in all the old English and Scottish Masonic catechisms of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

In a largely Christianised society, it was obvious that the ancient builders and the first Freemasons should appropriate the biblical symbolism of the Temple of Jerusalem, for what other reference text could better illustrate the greatness of Masonry. The Temple thus provides Freemasonry with a founding story of the origins of the Craft, as well as the perspective from which it works. The Temple of Jerusalem can therefore be taken in its primary sense : Freemasonry works for the Glory of God. This was the initial conception, and it persists in Anglo-Saxon Freemasonry. During the nineteenth century, Latin Freemasonry, particularly French Freemasonry, moved away from this "religious" perspective and adopted a more humanist and rationalist stance. For many Freemasons, the Temple thus became the Temple of Humanity, in other words, the image of a better world for which they intended to work.

Whichever option you choose, the Temple of Jerusalem remains the founding myth of Freemasonry and has provided it with many of its symbols, starting with the two Columns B and J. 

Temple or Lodge?

Irrespective of its place in biblical tradition, the term Temple itself carries a great deal of meaning. In the Bible, there is no mention of "Temple", but of "House of YHWH". The word temple comes from the Latin "Templum", whose best-known meaning today refers to a building dedicated to a religious activity.

But this Latin word, which has the same origin as the Greek 'temenos', originally referred to a virtually delimited space for divination. In practical terms, the diviner would mentally mark out a space in the sky and observe the birds : if they entered this space from the right, it was a favourable sign, but if they did so from the left, it was a bad omen. Then, by association, "templum" came to describe the enclosure of a sanctuary, then the sanctuary itself, whose name was originally "fanum", hence the word profane (literally "in front of the sanctuary").

The Lodge can thus be described as a Temple, as is the case in certain Masonic Rites, such as the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite and the Rectified Scottish Rite, without having to refer to the Temple of Jerusalem. Before they had permanent premises, the Lodges met in any kind of place, and the act of tracing the Board with chalk or charcoal on the floor created the virtual sacred space in which the ritual could take place. The Lodge could therefore rightly be described as a Temple.

On the other hand, the use of the same term to designate both a virtual sacred space and the stone sanctuary built by Solomon can lead to misunderstandings. Certain Masonic rituals have therefore come to identify the Lodge with the Temple of Jerusalem. But this identification is problematic for various reasons.

First of all, the Masonic symbolism of the Temple of Jerusalem assumes that Freemasons are in the process of building this Temple. They cannot therefore meet in a place that they are currently building.

Secondly, the references in the ancient English and Scottish Masonic catechisms are clear. To the question "Where was the first Lodge held?", they answer "in the porch of Solomon's Temple". The Lodge is indeed related to the Temple, but is not confused with it.

Other statements in Masonic rituals and catechisms also indicate that the Lodge assembles outside the Temple. Thus the mention of the star vault which covers the Lodge, and the height of the latter, which counts innumerable inches.

Finally, the question of the orientation of the Temple and the place of pillars B and J. The biblical description of the Temple of Jerusalem is clear: the Temple was oriented from east to west, but the Holy of Holies (the sanctuary itself) was located to the west and it was the door, framed by the two columns, that was to the east, to let in the light of the rising Sun. The Lodge is also oriented from east to west, but the most sacred place is to the east, like the choir of a Christian church. 

The point of contact between the Temple and the Lodge is therefore the door and the two columns. Pillar J was placed to the south and pillar B to the north, as is the case in the 'Ancient' type of Masonic rites (Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite and all the Anglo-Saxon rites). But the two pillars were outside the Temple, whereas they are inside the Lodge.

Sacred and profane

The Lodge is therefore a distinct space, but adjacent to the Temple. When a Freemason leaves the Lodge, he enters the Temple, or at least the Temple site, which is not yet finished or consecrated. This place is still profane, but it is precisely the Freemason's task to make it sacred through his labour. The dialectic relationship between sacred and profane is therefore quite complex.

The Lodge is a sacred or sacralised place, but only when Freemasons assemble there for the ritual. It can therefore perfectly well be described as a "Templum" in the ancient sense, i.e. a virtual and temporary sacred space. When Freemasons leave the Lodge, one might at first imagine that they are returning to the profane world. But in fact they are simply returning to the Temple site, i.e. the vast construction site of the world, where they work tirelessly to build a sacred world.

This work is never-ending, and Freemasons are guided only by the hope that their labour is not in vain. But identifying the Lodge with the Temple itself may lead Freemasons to believe that their work is finished and to rest on their laurels. But can the Temple be finished? It is a delusion. Both biblical and Masonic tradition show us the precarious nature of this formidable project represented by the Temple : first destroyed by the Babylonians, it was rebuilt by Zerubbabel, only to be definitively destroyed by the Romans. Thus nothing can be taken for granted, and the ideal Temple is still to come. Otherwise, what would be the point of Freemasonry ?

January 31, 2024 — Ion Rajalescu