Review of Gaskill, Alonzo L., “The Seal of Melchizedek?”

Gaskill, Alonzo L.  “The Seal of Melchizedek?”  Religious Educator: Perspectives on the Restored Gospel 11, no. 3 (2010): 95-121. [Mormon/Symbolism/Melchizedek]

Through extensive research and regular writing, Alonzo Gaskill is establishing himself as one of Mormonism’s foremost authorities on Gospel symbolism, especially symbols relating to the temple.  In this essay he provides a needed and important corrective to the meaning given by some  Mormons to a symbol found in ancient mosaics.

The issue at hand is a design which appears on two altar cloths in two mosaics in two sixth-century churches in Ravenna and nearby Classe, Italy.  The symbol is two interlocking squares turned 90 degrees from each other forming an eight-pointed star and an octagon in the interior of the design.  In 1992 Hugh Nibley’s book Temple and Cosmos was published.  In a chapter on “Sacred Vestments” an illustration of one of these mosaics is reproduced on page 109 with this statement in the caption in reference to the symbol: “The white altar cloth is decorated with two sets of gammadia, as well as the so-called ‘seal of Melchizedek,’ two interlocked squares in gold.”  Almost immediately other Mormons latched on to this symbol and it quickly became the “seal of Melchizedek.”

Gaskell set himself the task to determine the origin of this symbol and the accuracy of the caption.  It turned out to be an interesting case study in Mormon myth making.  First of all, Nibley did not write the caption for the graphic.  It was written by Michael Lyon who was assisting Nibley  in the production of the book.  Lyon told Gaskill that he used the equivocal language “so-called” because he was writing from memory of having seen the symbol somewhere in a book described as the “seal of Melchizedek.”  He subsequently looked for but could not find the source.  According to Gaskill, Lyon himself does not believe it is the seal of Melchizedek.

The matter was further confused by stories which began circulating regarding conversations with Nibley about the symbol as well as its use the following year on the San Diego Temple.  Gaskill found conflicting reports from people who talked with Nibley about the symbol’s meaning.  Some seemed to confirm he thought it was legitimate to refer to it as the seal of Melchizedek, but no less a reliable source than Robert J. Matthews reported that Nibley indicated to him he “had little information about it as far as sources, other than the mural.”  The issue was even further complicated by the extensive use of the symbol on the San Diego Temple which was dedicated in April of 1993.  Legend quickly surfaced that the chief architect of the temple was inspired to use this symbol, one version even claimed he saw it in a dream.

Gaskill’s research into these matters is very helpful.  Not only did he find that reports of conversations with Nibley about the symbol conflicted with each other, he also found that the architect did not claim either inspiration or having a dream about the symbol.  It was primarily an architectural decoration without any intended meaning.  Gaskill took his research several steps further.  He wanted to know if he could find a relationship between the symbol and Melchizedek in ancient sources.  He couldn’t; instead he found that various elements of the symbol–the gamma, the square, the number eight, the star, and the connection with sacrifice (the altar)–all seemed to be associated with Christ and his saving atonement.  So much for the discovery of the ancient “seal of Melchizedek.”

However, I can only give Gaskill two cheers for his work in demythologizing the meaning of the alleged “seal of Melchizedek.”  The remaining section of his paper, “The Evolution of Symbols,” raises some interesting questions, not only about the emergence of new Mormon-defined symbols, but also about Mr. Gaskill’s role in this process.  In this section our author discusses how symbols “sometimes evolve in their meaning and use.”  To illustrate his point he briefly shows how the “cross” and the “star of David” evolved in their meaning in Christianity and Judaism.  The latter he asserts “is a symbol that was borrowed from ancient societies and reinterpreted to suit the needs of a more modern people who were looking for a symbol to represent an idea important to them.”  (p. 109) Though he does not say so in the text, the footnotes reveal that Gaskill had something of a controversy with Val Brinkerhoff over the latter’s use of the “seal of Melchizedek” in exactly this way.  In footnote 88 he quotes President Boyd K. Packer who gave this caution: “Instruction vital to our salvation is not hidden in an obscure verse or phrase in the scriptures.  To the contrary, essential truths are repeated over and over again.”  Gaskill follows this up with a comment of his own, i.e., “Obviously, the seal of Melchizedek is not essential to our salvation.   Nor is it a symbol discussed or taught publically by the presiding Brethren, employed in the salvific ordinances of the temple, or found in the holy scriptures.”  All of this seems to imply that Brinkerhoff is out of line.  Footnote 89 is even more telling.  It reads, “As one who feels it is appropriate to create our own modern symbols, Val Brinkerhoff wrote [to Gaskill]: ‘We as Latter-day Saints can take a motif and apply our own meaning to it….  If we want this historic motif to represent the Melchizedek Priesthood in the late 1980s or now (no matter what it may have represented for others), then so be it.’” (Emphasis in the  original.)

Gaskill’s conclusion in the text is mild.  He summarizes his work as showing that “a handful of Latter-day Saints have created a new symbol–a modern Star of David or cross. …an entire folklore has developed around it to show that divine origins have been behind the symbol and its employment on certain temples.  Through a simple misunderstanding of a caption under a picture in a book, Mormons have unintentionally created a symbol that has erroneously been connected with Melchizedek and his priesthood.” (p. 111) Then he raises but does not answer the question: “…is it appropriate for modern Latter-day Saints to take an unaffiliated design, such as dual overlapping squares, and turn such a design into an official symbol for the Melchizedek Priesthood…?”

The reason I give him only two cheers for this article is because three years later, as I have shown in my review of his 2013 Sperry Symposium address on the symbolism of the priestly garments used in the Tabernacle and Temple (see review previous to this one), Gaskill is involved in this very same process.  He approves of Augustine’s allegorical approach to interpreting scripture and symbols and used it extensively in his Symposium address.  I see no difference between Mr. Brinkerhoff asserting that it is legitimate for Latter-day Saints to create a specialized meaning for a symbol and Mr. Gaskill allegorically interpreting symbols.  Allegories are particularly difficult to interpret correctly.  One either has to be the author or know what the meaning is because the author told him, or one must have some special revelatory insight into its meaning.  Without these, even with the most thorough research into the meaning of component symbols at the time the allegory was written we are still left with the interpreter’s best guess as to what the allegory means.  There cannot be certainty.

In my view, Gaskill’s use of the allegorical method of interpreting symbols holds as much danger of creating new “Mormon” meanings to symbols as Val Brinkerhoff’s use of the seal of Melchizedek.  What indeed about creating new meanings to symbols?  I have been edified and enlightened by both Mr. Gaskill’s and Mr. Brinkerhoff’s writings on symbolism, but I have to remember that matters of interpretation of temple symbols are the prevue of the Lord and his authorized spokesmen to the Church.  Whatever research one does or inspiration one receives to interpret a symbol beyond those things taught by the Lord and his prophets, is for one’s own instruction and blessing.  It is not our place to tell another what the symbol means.  To research and share is a legitimate academic pursuit but it runs the risk of being misinterpreted or taken as authoritative.  This, as Alonzo Gaskill has shown, is for good or ill how new Mormon meaning to symbols is born.

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