The Two Pillars

The Two Pillars

Feature ImageThe Temple Mount – considered to be the premier holy site in Judaism as it is the place where the First and Second Temples stood. By Andrew Shiva

The Chaldeans broke up the bronze columns of the House of the Eternal, the stands, and the bronze tank that was in the House of the Eternal, and they carried all the bronze away to Babylon (Jeremiah 52 : 17).

The Chaldees Destroy the Brazen Sea – James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902) and followers.
IMAGE LINKED: Believed to be in the Public Domain. From the jewish museum. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

King Jehoiachin of Judah rebelled against the Babylonians in 597 BCE. King Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, took it and exiled a large part of its population to Babylon.

He placed Jehoiachin’s uncle Mattaniah on the throne, who was subsequently renamed Zedekiah.

Eleven years into his reign, Zedekiah rebelled against the Babylonians, and this time the response was even harsher: after a dreadful siege of 18 months – some say 30 months – the ‘Chaldeans’ took Jerusalem, ‘burned the House of the Eternal, the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem’ (2 Kings 25: 9) and left only the ‘poorest of the land to be vine dressers and ploughmen’.

Nebuchadnezzar and Zedekiah By Guillaume Rouille – Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

This catastrophe of 586 BCE will be seconded only by the second fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the second – and last – destruction of the Temple.

The new rulers of Babylon, the Persians (from 539 BCE), allowed the Judeans to return to Jerusalem and to build a second Temple, completed in 516/5 BCE.

According to Hebrew Scriptures, the First Temple was built by Solomon and completed in 957 BCE.

It was conceived as an abode for the Ark, that had accompanied the Children of Israel in the desert and during the conquest of the land.

The Temple was designed as a substitution for the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, or ‘Tent of Meeting’, which sheltered the Ark.

The tabernacle, engraving from Robert Arnauld d’Andilly’s 1683 translation of Josephus.
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Even though the Second Temple was supposed to replace the first, some notable differences existed between them:


The Ark of the Covenant, and the two tablets of Covenant it contained went missing after the destruction of the First Temple, and no one knows its fate with certainty. Its place is left empty in the second Temple, only remembered in the Holy of Holies.

The Kodesh Kodashim, ‘Holy of Holies’, now empty in the second building, is hidden behind thick curtains, and nobody is allowed in, except the High Priest, once a year, who says aloud the hidden name of God.

The two columns were broken by the Chaldeans (Jeremiah 52:17) and were not rebuild by Zerubabbel.

Moses and Joshua bowing before the Ark, painting by James Tissot, c. 1900
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Early Christians and Rabbinic Jews had a immediate experience of the second Temple, and yet, Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and Rabbinic literature referred mainly to the Temple of Solomon, whilst they had in their mind its blueprint, the Temple of Solomon. It is no surprise therefore that Freemasonry has focused on the first building.

The mention of the two pillars as components of the First Temple appears in two parallel texts: 1 Kings 7: 21 and 2 Chronicles 3: 17, the latter being more recent than the former [1].

The Book of Kings reports, ‘He [Hiram of Tyre] set up the pillars in the vestibule of the temple – le’ulam ha-heykhal; he set up the right pillar and called its name J***, and he set up the left pillar, and called its name B***’ (1 Kings 7:21).

A parallel text in the Second Book of Chronicles says, ‘He [Hiram of Tyre] set up the pillars before the Temple – al peney ha-heykhal…he called the name of that on the right hand J***, and the name of that of the left B***’ (2 Chronicles 3:17).

Rabbi Raymond Apple, an Australian Masonic scholar explains, ‘Midrash Tadshe, a pseudepigraphic work traditionally ascribed to the second-century tanna Pinchas ben Ya’ir, attaches a cosmic symbolism to the Sanctuary, connecting the pillars with the moon and the sun.

According to this midrash, J*** represents the moon, since the Psalmist affirms: David’s throne ‘shall be established [yikkon] forever as the moon’ (Ps. 89:38); while the moon determines the festivals for Israel, as it is written, ‘He appointed the moon to mark the seasons’ (Ps. 104:19). B*** represents the sun which comes forth in power and strength, as it is written, ‘He [the sun] rejoices like a strong man to run his course’ (Ps. 19:6). [2]

Mystical alchemical diagram of B & J pillars of the Temple of Jerusalem, interpreted as cosmic principles.
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Placed at the entrance of the Temple, B & J emphasize the strength and the stability of the Davidic monarchy.

Unlike their use in lodges, their names described mainly their qualities. Freemasonry read them literally, as two characters.

Ruth marries B***; their son, Obed, was King David’s grandfather. B*** was the ancestor of King Solomon. J*** is a minor biblical figure, a son of Simeon, who was among the 70 souls that emigrated to Egypt with Jacob (Genesis 46: 10).

However, if one follows this Midrashic tradition, there is a clear connection between the presence of the sun and the moon in the lodge and their association with the two pillars, even though the First Degree tracing board separate them. This tradition, more than a meditation on their names, is the link between Jewish sources and their Masonic interpretation.

One may wonder, why did these pillars become part of the architecture of the First Temple, and why did they disappear from the Second?

The pillars were free-standing and did not seem to have supported any roof or portico.

In a recent article, Rabbi Raymond Apple evokes various theories about their role and function [3].

It might also be possible that these columns had the same function as the pylons in the Egyptian temples. These were two massive structure at the entrance of some temples in Egypt, and their hieroglyph, akhet, was a description of two hills between which the sun rose and set [4].

The temple axis represented the daily route of the sun, and the Temple of Solomon had the same East-West orientation.

Hiram of Tyre was probably influenced in his craftsmanship by the neighbouring great culture of Egypt. These pylons were frequently paired with obelisks, closely associated with the sun god Ra.

Depiction of a 3rd-century (AD) glass bowl which depicts Solomon’s Temple. B & J are the detached black pillars shown on either side of the entrance steps. Image from Encyclopaedia Biblica, 1903.
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Akhet, hieroglyph meaning ‘horizon’ or ‘the place in the sky where the sun rises’
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Located at the entrance, the two columns played an important bridging role between the profane domain, and a sacred space, with a gradual level of holiness.

When the second Temple was built, some five centuries later, the Egyptian influence had receded, which may explain why the new architects did not see the relevance of this piece of the previous Temple.

And yet, as the development of Freemasonry reveals, Egyptian influences on the Craft are not to be underestimated. An element which was considered as peripheral for the architects of the Second Temple retained its prominence in Freemasonry.

It is now possible to draw some conclusions, and ponder why these pillars became so central in Freemasonry.

The Masonic narrative flourishes in the Temple of Solomon, and the Temple rebuilt by Zerubbabel is mentioned only in a higher degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (15: Prince of Jerusalem), and in the York Rite, the Holy Royal Arch of Jerusalem.

The position of the pillars in the lodge has become a matter of contention between various workings. It is partly due to the ambiguity of the biblical text.

Biblical sources suggest that the columns stood near the entrance of the Temple. We have seen earlier that in Biblical sources, J*** is located at the left of the entrance, and B*** at the right.

This begs the question, from which direction does the spectator look at these pillars? Mishnah Sukkah 5:4 describes an aliyah, an ascent to the Temple at the end of the festival of Sukkot.

Worshippers would go up to the Temple, and ‘when they reached the gates which lead out to the east, they turned their faces from east to west’, in order to prevent any suspicion that they were worshipping the sun.

Therefore, the Jewish view is that they were looking inside out, placing J*** to the south, and B*** to the north.

In his book, René Désaguliers explains further that the location of the brazen sea confirms that ‘right is south and left is north [5].

The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite has kept this order, and it takes the perspective of the RWM who looks towards the west.

The French Rite, on the contrary, has inverted both columns, placing the emphasis on the one who enters the lodge. It is a question of perspective, and not who is right and who is wrong [6].

In any event, B & J, whose names are the s…d w…s of the First and the Second Degree mark the entrance of the lodge.

One does not walk at one’s wish in a sacred place. Moves are codified, they follow a certain pattern, and the two pillars are the threshold between the sacred and the profane.

Their names explain that Freemasonry is firmly established on solid grounds, and when one enters such a space, one has to be aware that here begins a different, higher dimension.

[Publishers Note: this article has been edited in order not to violate my obligation]


[1]  There is a whole debate in modern biblical scholarship about the sources these verses come from. Kings is part of Deuteronomist History and was compiled by the time of the Exile in the 6th century BCE, and Chronicles is more recent, probably Hellenistic.


[3]  Raymond Apple, “Pillars of the Temple”, in: Jewish Bible Quaterly, vol. 42, n°4, 2014, pp. 221-228.

[4]  Cf. Toby Wilkinson, The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, London, 2005, p. 195.

[5]  René Désaguliers, Les deux grandes colonnes de la franc-maçonnerie, 2nd édition, Dervy, Paris, p. 14.

[6]  For an extensive discussion on the inversion of both pillars, see Désaguliers, op. cit., Chapter III.

Article by: Rene Pfertzel

Rene Pfertzel was initiated in 1992 in Lodge Ouverture et Fraternité 1540, in the French Federation of the International Co-Masonry, Le Droit Humain.

After a gap of over 15 years, he re-joined Le Droit Humain in the British Federation, Lodge Hermes 20.

He has a PhD in Biblical Studies, and after a career as a history teacher in France, he retrained to become a Rabbi in London, and stayed in the United Kingdom ever since. He serves a Progressive community in Surrey.

Les deux grandes colonnes de la franc-maçonnerie

by René Désaguliers



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