Walking into a beautiful mosque, church, synagogue, or temple may inspire a familiar feeling of awe, but these places are not in any way interchangeable. Obviously, the purpose of these sacred spaces will depend on those who worship there, and the word origins of these terms are equally varied.
Let’s examine these words, starting with mosque.
What is a mosque?
A mosque is “a Muslim temple or place of public worship.” All the variants of mosque in European languages go back to the Arabic masjid, “a place of worship.” But masjid derives from the Arabic sajada, “to bow down in prayer.” Dig into the origins of Muslim and Islam and a common theme emerges: both words relate to the Arabic aslama, “to accept, surrender, or submit.”
What is a church?
Church comes from the Greek kȳriakón dôma, meaning “the Lord’s house,” which was used to refer to houses of Christian worship since around the year 300. Church can be used to mean both the building and the congregation. When Christians started worshipping, they congregated in homes.
In case you’re wondering, churches with an episcopal form of government also have a cathedral, which serves as “the principal church of a diocese, containing the bishop’s throne.” But in nonepiscopal denominations this term can also refer to an important church. Cathedrālis is Latin for cathedral.
What is a synagogue?
Like church, the word synagogue can be used to refer both to the Jewish “house of worship, often having facilities for religious instruction” and the congregation of Jews gathered for worship. The word is ultimately derived from the Greek word synagōgḗ, which means “assembly, meeting” but also can be translated literally as “a bringing together.”
What is a temple?
Temple is based on the Latin templum, “a piece of ground marked or cut off for worship.” It also refers to a place where Jews gather for prayer, as does a synagogue. Synagogue can be used more generally, but some Jews (though not all) use temple to refer to their congregation’s house of worship.
A Temple (usually with the initial capital letter) is an important word for Jews, as it is “any of the three successive houses of worship in Jerusalem in use by the Jews in Biblical times.” It was the central place of worship for the Israelites. The first Temple was built in Jerusalem by King Solomon. The stone tablets received by Moses on Mount Sinai—tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written—were kept in the central chamber of Solomon’s Temple. Solomon’s Temple was later destroyed, as were two succeeding temples built on the site.
The word temple is used to refer to other houses of worship, both modern and ancient. For example, temple is used by Buddhists, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and ancient belief systems, such as those of the Romans and Greeks.