Temples have been found throughout the ancient Near East. Mostly we do not have a very good idea of what and how things went on at these sites. Along with reconstructing architectural remains, we can wonder if scholars can piece together ancient worship practices.
Over the years, many ancient temples have been discovered and laid open, but this has not yet uncovered their customs. Many people question what went on in ancient sanctuaries. In spite of the information we get from texts such as the Hebrew Bible, from inscriptions and iconography, and from archaeology, we know precious little about what “ordinary people” did when they visited a temple in ancient Palestine or at other places.
For certain practices, we have already some ideas. From the Pottery Neolithic period (seventh–fifth millennia B.C.E.) and, in the Levant, lasting even beyond the Iron Age (1200–587 B.C.E.) we find the custom of infant jar burials. The earliest canopic jars found may give us some idea of ancient Egyptian funerary rituals, which came into use during the Old Kingdom (c. 2575–c. 2130 bce).
Also by the drawings on jars we get some impression of which god may have been honoured. For example from the 19th dynasty until the end of the New Kingdom (1539–1075 bce), the heads represented the four sons of the god Horus (jackal-headed Duamutef, falcon-headed Qebehsenuf, human-headed Imset, and baboon-headed Hapy).
The actual cases in the literature do not always specify infant sacrifice. The Bible describes how King Mesha of Moab sacrificed his crown prince to avert a military disaster (2 Kings 3:27). King Ahaz of Judah sacrificed his son in pagan fashion (2 Kings 16:3). King Manasseh of Judah sacrificed his sons by fire (2 Chronicles 33:6), filling Jerusalem with innocent blood.
Proofs of infant jar burials are found at Canaanite sites from Syria to the eastern Nile Delta, and especially in the southern Levant.
We also have indications of the practice of redeeming the first-born son at the age of one month (Numbers 18:16–17) which appears to be a milder substitute for the practice of child sacrifice. Another alternative to sacrificing a child was to dedicate it to the service of God. Hannah, by fulfilling her vow to dedicate her first-born, Samuel, to God’s service (1 Samuel 1:27–28) was rewarded by the birth of five other children whom she and her husband could keep for themselves (1 Samuel 2:20–21).
Anne Katrine de Hemmer Gudme of the University of Copenhagen has reconstructed some ritual activity that may have occurred at the temple on Mount Gerizim, (Arabic Jabal Al-Ṭūr, Hebrew Har Gerizim, mountain located in the West Bank just south of Nāblus, near the site of biblical Shechem.
Although the Mount Gerizim temple isn’t mentioned in the Bible, worship on Mount Gerizim is referenced in John 4:19–24, where Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman. During their conversation, she asks whether people should worship at Gerizim or Jerusalem:
“The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem’” (John 4:19–20, NRSV).
From this passage in the Bible and other historical texts, we see that the Samaritans viewed Mount Gerizim as their primary place of worship.
Archaeological evidence shows that a temple was built on Mount Gerizim around 450 B.C.E. during the Persian period. The temple complex was expanded during the Hellenistic period around 200 B.C.E., and it functioned until the Maccabees destroyed it in 110 B.C.E. Therefore, the omission of the Mount Gerizim temple in the New Testament isn’t surprising since the temple was destroyed long before the New Testament was written. Since the first temple on Mount Gerizim dates to the Persian period, we might expect a reference to it in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), such as the Book of Nehemiah. However, the text is silent about its existence.
The temple on Mount Gerizim once contained numerous inscriptions, many of which commemorate offerings. They name a gift that is offered to the deity, the giver, and his or her dependents. Of these dedicatory inscriptions, Gudme has identified about 50 that request a counter-gift of “good remembrance” from the deity. She explains that the dedicatory inscriptions would have been placed within the Mount Gerizim temple to remind the deity of the offering and the giver:
There appears to be a common notion … that to be remembered positively by a deity is desirable — probably conceptually similar to the notion of being blessed — and that it can be obtained by placing a physical object in close proximity to where the deity is perceived to be present, so that this object — the inscription — may continuously remind the deity of the worshipper who donated the inscription.
Although we do not know the original location of the inscriptions within the sanctuary, they would have been placed where visitors could see them. Gudme describes how later worshippers — both literate and illiterate — might have interacted with these inscriptions:
We simply cannot assume that all visitors to these sanctuaries were literate, so an actual recitation of the text of the inscription seems unlikely. However, it is possible that some literate visitors could have read aloud to others. It may even be possible that literate temple personnel could have assisted visitors in reading inscriptions. Even if visitors were unable to read and had no opportunity to have the inscriptions read for them,
these inscriptions may have been culturally recognizable as objects that required an interactive response. If that is the case, then the inscriptions may have triggered visitors to the sanctuary to touch one or several of the inscriptions that they passed on their way and to mumble, “Remembered be,” as they did so.
If this reconstruction is correct, it gives us a window into what a ritual practice at the Mount Gerizim temple may have entailed: Worshippers read and/or echoed the inscriptions, repeatedly reminding the deity of the giver and his or her offering. Thus, the inscriptions featured in the worship of the giver and of later visitors.
Mount Gerizim is not the only place to have interactive inscriptions. Gudme identifies temples throughout the Eastern Mediterranean with dedicatory inscriptions that call on others to remember them positively before the deity:
[T]he Gerizim inscriptions resemble a large number of Aramaic dedicatory inscriptions and graffiti in the Eastern Mediterranean area where the phrase “for good remembrance” and the more common “may he/she be remembered for good” is widespread. These other inscriptions are dated roughly from the second century B.C.E. to the second century C.E., and come from sanctuaries in places such as Hatra and Assur (in modern Iraq) and Palmyra (in modern Syria).
Such dedicatory inscriptions appear to have been common during the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
Learn more about the temple on Mount Gerizim and its interactive inscriptions in Anne Katrine de Hemmer Gudme’s article “Reactivating Remembrance: Interactive Inscriptions from Mt. Gerizim” published in the July/August/September/October 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review