9 August 2012


James Wasserman, The Temple of Solomon: From Ancient Israel to Secret Societies, Inner Traditions, 2011.

I came to this book with high anticipation. As, in James Wasserman’s words, the Temple of Solomon ‘is a fundamental component of the spiritual and religious yearnings of millions of people and has been the symbolic focus of the teachings of esoteric societies for three thousand years,’ the idea of gathering together in one volume all the history, legends and traditions relating to it was a promising one. 🔻

Moreover, as a practising occultist – he’s a prominent member of the Crowleyite Ordo Templi Orientis – who exhibits a respect for the academic approach to history (as exemplified in his excellent 2001 title, The Templars and the Assassins) Wasserman is the ideal person for the task. And the book looks good, in an attractive coffee-table format replete with colour illustrations.

However, I found The Temple of Solomon disappointing, for two reasons.

The first – perhaps the coffee table format should have been a warning - is that it lacks depth. The most fundamental and important questions are not explored, and in some cases not even acknowledged.

The most basic question of all is why Solomon’s Temple holds such an important place in the West’s religious and esoteric traditions. Is it because there really was something special about it, as the unique sacred space that the Bible says it was, built on God’s own command as the place where humans (at least specially chosen ones) could literally meet and interact with him? Or is it simply cultural, a consequence of Western culture being based on the Bible, so that institutions such as Freemasonry would naturally draw on its myths and symbols? That key question is never discussed: Wasserman starts from the premise that the Temple really was inherently sacred, and for the reasons given in the Old Testament.

Unfortunately that premise was, for me, largely undermined by Wasserman’s approach to the Old Testament material, which takes up the great bulk of the book. As the Bible is the sole source of information about the Temple, and the Temple was created as the focal point of the Israelite religion, he takes the line that in order to understand the building’s significance it needs to be put into the context of the development of that religion, and this requires him to summarise the entire Old Testament from Genesis onwards.

Although Wasserman says that his book ‘is by no means intended as a “condensed version” of the Bible’, it does come across as such. His summary of every single episode of the Old Testament takes up two-thirds of the book, and the Temple doesn’t even put it an appearance until we’re over 150 pages in.

One effect is that reading the stories from the early books of the Bible in such a hurried form brings home just how capricious, arbitrary and inconsistent – indeed, at times seemingly bonkers – the God of the Old Testament is, which raises the question of whether spending time in his presence is really such a good idea, and so weakens that basic assumption of the Temple’s inherent sacredness. Wasserman acknowledges that the ‘second creation’ in Genesis – that of Adam and Eve in Eden, as opposed to the first, ‘let there be light’ one - is ‘administered by an apparently less powerful and universal deity who makes errors’ (the lesser god of Gnosticism or the Demiurge, in other words) but, again, leaves this core issue, which goes to the heart of exactly who or what humanity is communing with in the Temple (and whether we really want to), unexplored.

While some background to the building of the Temple is necessary to show how it fitted into Israelite concepts of the relationship between God and his chosen people, Wasserman’s summary is far too long and detailed, and loses the main subject of the book in the minutiae of the trials and tribulations of the Tribes of Israel. It gets particularly bogged down in the period of the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel, i.e. from the Books of Kings and Chronicles.

It also brought home just how little information on Solomon’s Temple there actually is – if the book confined itself solely to that information and the later traditions based on it, it would be a slim volume indeed – giving the sneaking feeling that the over-long summary of the Bible is there as filler.

There’s no attempt – either in the précis of the Old Testament or Jesus’ story in the New – to distinguish between historical reality, deliberate propagandising and myth, all the Bible stories being flatly presented as factual.

When it comes to the significance of the Temple in the story of Jesus there is the same missed opportunity to explore important and far-reaching questions, which creates the incorrect impression that things are a lot clearer and more settled about Jesus’ motivation and agenda than they really are. (Of course, the Jerusalem Temple of Jesus’ day wasn’t the one built by Solomon, but the rather insipid replacement that followed the original’s destruction by the Babylonians some 600 years before, so the book’s title is a little inaccurate, if more attention-grabbing.)

Again there isn’t a lot of material to work with: Jesus is reported as having made some cryptic remarks about a symbolic connection between his body and the Temple and, most relevantly, went on a famous rampage in the building itself directed at the moneychangers and sellers of sacrificial animals. So Wasserman again fills the material out with a summary of the Jesus story, a straightforward telling of the hybrid Gospel accounts with no attempt to get to the historical reality behind them or reconcile the inconsistencies between them.

An in-depth discussion of the most significant part of the Gospels for this book is sorely missed. Jesus’ attack on the moneychangers in the Temple is not only important for understanding how he saw himself in relation to Judaism but, depending on the view we take of it, also has profound implications for our understanding of what Jesus was about. And (although this is seldom pointed out to grass-roots Christians) it is one of the most mystifying episodes in the Gospels, since he was actually attacking practices believed to have been ordained by God himself, and the Gospels offer no explanation of what his actual motive was.

Although, refreshingly, Wasserman acknowledges that there is a deeper question about the Temple episode than most churchgoers realise, he opts for the simplistic interpretation that Jesus was attacking the corruption of the priesthood of its day. This explanation is far from certain and has its own problems – not least that such sacrilege would have been out of proportion to the point he was trying to make, akin to trampling the cross to protest about the behaviour of individual Church leaders – and, since it is such an important issue that is directly relevant to the subject of the book, an examination of some of the other possibilities would have been welcome.

More disappointment comes when Wasserman moves on to the significance of Solomon’s Temple in esoteric traditions, the promise of which, I think, will be one of the main reasons that many buy the book. In fact, he devotes just seventeen pages to the subject, comprising one short chapter on the medieval Knights Templar and another on Freemasonry.

Wasserman accepts – while admitting that he can’t prove either contention - that there was an ‘inner corps of more spiritually aware Templars’ within the medieval Order that upheld Gnostic beliefs and practices, and that there was a connection of some kind between the Templars and the origins of Freemasonry. But again, while he describes how Solomon’s Temple is relevant to those organisations – its central place in Masonic initiation rituals, for example - he doesn’t examine the why in any depth.

And there’s nothing about the symbolic role of Solomon’s Temple in any other Western esoteric streams or societies, such as Rosicrucianism - including the many societies and orders that claim descent, either actual or spiritual, from the medieval Templars, which is particularly surprising given that Wasserman is a prominent member of one such society. I’d rather have seen a lot more on this than the lengthy summary of the Bible.

That’s my second reason for disappointment with the book. The lack of analysis of the more profound questions of the Temple would be softened if the book served as a comprehensive guide to its history and traditions. However, with the Biblical traditions the material directly relating to the Temple is swamped by extraneous information, and the section on the esoteric traditions it far too slight.

For Wasserman, the Temple of Solomon, in historical reality and symbolic myth, is all about ‘the interaction between humanity and the divine on earth.’ The construction of the Temple marked an important stage in the relationship between humankind and God, and changing ideas about it reflected developments in that relationship. The original sacred space where God and mankind met and communed was the Garden of Eden, from which humans were expelled because of their failings. The Temple – following on from the wandering Israelites’ mobile sacred space of the Tabernacle – was ordained by God as a kind of renewal of Eden, a new meeting place that showed that humans were gradually getting back into God’s good books.

Following the destruction of the Temple in the sixth century BCE – which Wasserman, accepting the Biblical interpretation, blames on the Israelites’ failure to keep God’s ways - prophetic hopes (e.g. Ezekiel’s) centred on its future restoration in an even more glorious form as a sign of the renewal of God’s favour. When it was finally rebuilt, however, the Second Temple was a pale imitation of the original, reflecting the still incomplete faith of the Jews. Later spiritual movements – particularly following the demolition of the Second Temple by the Romans - internalised that sacred place, a concept found in some of the Dead Sea texts and, more arguably, in some of Jesus’ words in the New Testament Gospels, showing that each individual can commune with the divine by looking inwards. This concept passed into the initiatory societies of the Western Mystery Tradition.

Of course, this is very much a Judeo-Christian centred reconstruction, and another element missing from the book is something – no matter how brief - about how other ancient temples and sacred places fit into the relationship between humanity and creator. Why, apart from the obvious cultural reasons, is this temple so important, as Wasserman clearly believes it is?

The Temple of Solomon is an attractive, well-written book, but was for me short on insight and analysis. – Clive Prince.

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