Jerusalem Holy Temple in herodian period
During the Herodian era (1st century BC), Jerusalem covered an area of some 230 acres and had a population of about 40,000.
During his reign, Herod enriched Jerusalem with splendid buildings, including:
Second Temple (actually, the third)
The New Testament contains over a hundred references to Herod’s Temple, however few give us any information about its appearance. More detailed descriptions and measurements are given in the Mishnah, the oldest post-biblical codification of Jewish Oral Law (about 200 AD), and the writings of contemporary Jewish historian Flavius Josephus — The Jewish War, which describes the first Jewish Revolt against Rome, and The Antiquities of the Jews, a history of Jewish people from the beginning to Josephus’ time. However, they do not always agree. Modern attempts to construct models based on them vary in their details. Moreover, nobody knows exactly where Herod’s Temple (or that of Solomon or its successor built after the Babylonian Exile) stood. Some think the sacred rock, known to Muslims as al-Sakhra (“the rock”) was inside the Temple; others believe it was under the altar of sacrifice. Fear of offending Muslim religious sensibilities prevents scholars from making a closer physical investigation of the central Temple Mount in the area of the Dome of the Rock. However, excavations on a large scale have been taking place in the surrounding area since 1968, and the extensive finds have stimulated renewed study.
Since its completion in 515 BC after the return from the Babylonian Exile, the Temple had stood for five centuries. Herod’s proposal to tear it down and build a new worship center met with resistance from the public and much of the conservative priesthood. To ease their minds, he committed himself to cut as much of the masonry for the new Temple as possible in advance of its construction. Ten thousand workmen were recruited and, in order to further win over the wary Jews, a thousand priests were trained as stonemasons so that the sacred areas would not be defiled by impure hands.
Above, 1:50 scale model of the Herodian Temple at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (formerly at the Holyland Hotel).
In actuality, this was the third temple; the first was built by Solomon and the second by Zerubbabel after the Babylonian Exile. Herod’s was a massive rebuilding of Zerubbabel’s sanctuary using a new Greek-Roman architectural style. However, the Jews still referred to it as the “Second Temple.” Herod began construction about 20 BC; the Temple itself was completed in just 18 months, but the outer courts and the decoration were carried on during the entire period of Jesus’ life on earth, and was finished only in the time of the Roman procurator Albinus (62-64 AD), a few years before its complete destruction by the Romans in 70 AD.
Above, aerial view, from the east, of Herodian Jerusalem dominated by the massive Temple Mount.
Herod initiated his vast project to expand the Temple enclosure by creating a huge platform, more than doubling the size of the previous Temple Mount by building supporting structures into the deep valleys surrounding it. The area of his platform, one of the largest sacred areas in all of antiquity, was about 35 acres, the size of 24 football fields. The famed Acropolis in Athens was one-third the size. This giant platform was bordered by four mammoth retaining walls, measuring 1,595 feet on the west, 1,020 feet on the north, 1,562 feet on the east and 921 feet on the south. The lower parts were built of large rectangular ashlars (blocks of shaped and worked stone) with recessed margins and a large, slightly raised central panel (boss). Each row of stones, on average, was four-feet-high, except for one row where the stones are 11.5 feet high. The largest stone in this so-called “master course” is 41 feet long, 11.5 to 15 feet wide and 11.5 feet high, and weighs an incredible 370 tons.
Right, intact Herodian stones of the west retaining wall of the Temple Mount. Upper right is the huge “master course” (camera lens not wide enough to show the entire stone). Note its size compared with the smaller stones below. (Photo taken in the Western Wall [or Rabbic] Tunnel).
What is truly amazing is that today’s best cranes can only lift 250 tons. This means, of course, that we will have to totally re-think our understanding of ancient technology. How were such huge stones lifted into position? According to one theory, the quarry was to the north of the Temple Mount at a higher elevation. If so, the builders could have pushed the stone into place using lever and pulley systems available at that time.
Great colonnades or porches ran around the entire perimeter of Herod’s Temple Mount, supported on the outside by the upper part of the retaining walls, and on the inside by rows of Corinthian columns thirty seven and a half feet high. Those on the north and west had cedar roofs; as did the one on the east side, known as Solomon’s Colonnade. The latter was the meeting place of the young church, and where the “apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people” (Acts 5:12). Extending along the whole length of the southern end of the platform was the high Royal Stoa, a basilica-style building with 160 columns arranged in four rows, forming a long nave flanked by two side aisles. It was the largest building on the giant Temple Mount, measuring 600 feet long and soaring to one hundred feet at its highest point. Apparently it served many purposes, including a business center, a place for exchanging money, and perhaps at a later date the meeting place for the Sanhedrin. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus praised the Royal Stoa as a “structure more worthy of description than any other under the sun.”
Entering the Temple Mount
During the 1st-centuries BC/AD, the outer court of the Temple area (Court of Gentiles) was entered on the west by four gates, two of which were those given the names “Robinson’s Arch” and “Wilson’s Arch” in modern times.
Right, Remains of the staircase that entered the Temple Mount from the west, so-called “Robinson’s Arch.”
To the northwest, steps lead to the Antonia fortress; these were the ones used by the Roman soldiers to quell a riot that occurred when Paul was accused in of bringing Gentiles into the Jewish-only courts of the Temple compound (see Acts 21:26ff). On the north was the Tadi (or Todi or Tari) Gate, which was unused. On the east was the Shushan Gate, in the area of today’s Golden Gate. Finally, on the south were the two Huldah Gates.
Their name honored Huldah, a prophetess in the time of Josiah (see 2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22).
Right, the southern wall of the Temple Mount from the Ophel Archaeological Park; only the eastern half is seen here. At its base is the 200-foot-wide staircase that once carried pilgrims up to the Huldah gates, the major entrances used to reach the Temple Mount at the three annual pilgrim festivals—Passover (Pesach), Pentecost (Shavuot) and Tabernacles (Sukkot). The risers of the 30 steps are low, between 7 and 10 inches, and the treads alternate from 12 to 35 inches, requiring you to walk in slow, measured steps. Some have suggested that the fifteen wide steps may have been the locations where pilgrims sang the fifteen “Psalms of Ascent” (Psalms 120 through 134) as they went up to worship. Among those who walked these stairs in the 1st century AD was Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus. One row of Herodian stones is visible at the top landing of the stairs (lighter colored in the photo); those above it date from reconstructions during four later eras.
A series of public ritual bathing installations were also found on the south side of the Temple Mount. Because of the laws requiring purity before entering holy places, demand for mikvot (singular mikvah) was high and many have been discovered from 1st century AD Jerusalem. Larger mikvot have separate entrances and exits; some could facilitate only one person at a time.
Left, three walled-up arches in the southern wall of the Temple Mount mark the location of the eastern (“Triple”) Huldah Gate. However, these are not original. The only Herodian stone still seen in these doorways is at the base of the left-hand jam of the left doorway (obscured here by the flowers). The gate received its present form, with thee rounded arches, during the Crusader period. Originally there were straight lintels at the top of each doorway. To get a better idea of how they looked, you need to walk left, to the western Huldah Gate…
The western (or “Double”) Huldah Gate is located some 200 feet from the eastern Huldah Gate, but it is more difficult to see because it is partly covered. Half the lintel above one doorway is just visible to the right of a tower-like structure built by the Crusaders (far left side of photo) against the southern wall of the Temple Mount. If you look carefully, you can still see some of its original Herodian stones. Just above the square opening is a decorative Umayyad half-arch. Immediately above this is the original Herodian lintel with its typical recessed margin and slightly raised central panel (boss). Just above the lintel are the trapezoidal stones that formed the relieving arch at the top of the doorway, transferring the weight of the wall above down into the doorjambs, relieving the pressure on the lintel.
Surprisingly, parts of the underground tunnel-ramp leading up from the western Huldah Gate to the Temple Mount have survived intact, despite the various destructions that have ravaged the city. Just inside the doorways are the elaborately carved domes and columns, some standing today in their original form. Complex rosettes made with intricate carvings of vines, stylized flowers and geometric designs cover every inch of the domes. No doubt Jesus, his disciples and other figures of the early church would have entered the Temple precincts through these gates, and marveled at the skilled craftsmanship.
Left, A 1902 photograph of the area inside the western Huldah Gate. According to one reference (“The Holy Land, an Indispensable Archaeological Guide for Travelers” by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor) those visitors with a sufficient charm and persistence can sometimes prevail on officials of the Supreme Muslim Council to visit this area, which includes the ramp once used by worshipers entering the Temple Mount in the 1st century AD — most notably Jesus and his disciples, and the apostle Paul).
The Temple courts
The whole 35-acre Temple platform (below) was built in the style of market (Greek agora; Roman forum), surrounded on all sides by roofed colonnades which provided shelter from the rain and sun, and also served as gathering places before and after worship. The largest of these was known as the Royal Stoa (Hebrew Hanuyot), an immense basilica-style building with three halls running along the entire southern end.
These colonnades formed the outside boundary of the huge Court of Gentiles where everyone, both Jews and non-Jews, could enter. Here elders gathered to exchange gossip, money changes haggled with pilgrims and merchants sold pigeons, sheep and oxen for sacrifices. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus came here early in his ministry to cleanse the Temple and restore an atmosphere more conducive to worship (the other Gospels place this event after his triumphal entry on Palm Sunday):
“When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!’” (John 2:13-16)
Within the Court of Gentiles was a smaller, separate area where only Jews could enter, fenced off by a wall (the “Soreg”), according to Josephus, some 4 1/2-feet high. Posted at intervals along this dividing wall were stone plaques, some inscribed in Greek, others in Latin, warning foreigners (non-Jews) not to enter the sacred inner precincts of the Temple. Two of these Greek inscriptions have miraculously survived and may be seen in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem (a partial) and the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul (a complete version, below). It reads:
“No Gentile is to enter within the partition wall and enclosure around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will be responsible for his own subsequent death.”
Within the Soreg was a terrace reached by a stairway of 14 steps (according to Josephus; 12 per the Mishnah) leading to the Court of the Women, so-called because it was as far as women could go. In its corners, there were four little courts, each with different functions: one for those who took special Nazirite (or Nazarite) vows of abstinence (see Numbers 6:2-21), one for storing wood, one for oil and one for the purification of lepers, with its own ritual bath.
From the Court of the Women, a set of semicircular stairs (fifteen, according to Josephus) ascended to the Nicanor Gate, because its doors were donated by a wealthy Jew from Alexandria, Egypt named Nicanor. According to tradition these gates were miraculously saved during a storm when transported by sea, therefore, and because of their beauty, they were left in copper, and not gilded with gold like all the other Temple gates. This is thought to be the “gate called Beautiful” referred to in Acts 3:2 where Peter and John healed a man crippled from birth.
Inside the Nicanor Gate was the narrow Court of Israel, reserved for men only, perhaps surrounding the Temple on three sides. From the Court of Israel, another 5 steps led up to the Court of the Priests, where the great altar of uncut stones stood. The court was surrounded by colonnades, behind which were various chambers, including the Chamber of Hewn Stone where sat the Sanhedrin. Another important chamber was the Chamber of the Hearth where the priests on duty spent the night.
A further flight of 12 steps ascended to the Temple itself, which was “shaped like a lion, broad in front and narrow behind,” with a facade of white marble 165 feet square (15 stories high). Like its predecessors, the Herodian Temple consisted of a portico, a long main sanctuary and a Holy of Holies (NIV “Most Holy Place”). The Temple was constructed of huge white stones measuring 12 by 6 by4 feet, and many parts of it were overlaid with gold and silver. The gospels record the wonder of Jesus’ disciples who beheld its fine large stone and rich ornamentation:
“Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” (Mark 13:1b) ”Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God.” (Luke 21:5)
Over the main entrance, the lintel was decorated with golden grapevines. Coins issued at the time of the Bar Kochba revolt depict it with four columns; the two flanking the doorway were made of reddish marble in memory of Jachin and Boaz, the two bronze columns in front of Solomon’s Temple. The capitals were of gold, as were the spikes punctuating the top of the roof to discourage roosting birds. According to Flavius Josephus:
“To strangers as they approached, [the Temple] seemed in the distance like a mountain covered with snow; for any part not covered with gold was dazzling white.”
Inside the narrow portico, columns flanked the main sanctuary entrance which had a set of double gold-covered doors, in front of which hung a costly tapestry depicting a panorama of the heavens. Within the sanctuary was an altar for incense, a table for the shewbread (the 12 loaves of unleavened bread consecrated as an offering to God) and a seven-branched gold menorah. Two curtains, embroidered with lions and eagles, separated the sanctuary from the Most Holy Place, a windowless cube measuring 30 feet on each side (like Solomon’s Temple). According to the Mishnah the Most Holy Place was empty except for a flat rock where the High Priest burned incense on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year when he alone was allowed to enter.
The new Temple and the massively expanded Temple Mount ranked as one of the engineering marvels of the classical world. While it is practically impossible to convey its majesty, a hint survives in the magnificent retaining walls built to enclose the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock and El Aqsa Mosque now stand. A portion of that wall on the west is today called the Western or Wailing Wall. Since the exact location of the Most Holy Place is unknown, observant Jews will not enter Temple Mount. Thus, the Western Wall has become the focal point of prayer—prayer for oneself, family, the Jewish people, and for many, the restoration of the Temple.
Every day, Orthodox Jews pray three times for the restoration of the Temple. In 1983, a group of fanatically religious Israeli Army reservists decided to give God a little help in restoring the Temple when they attempted to blow up the Dome of the Rock. That same year, a survey showed that fully 18% of Israelis would not be averse to restoring the Temple now. In the Jewish Quarter today are a number of organizations devoted to the study of the Temple and its operation. They vary in their belief as to whether God or human intervention will create the next Temple. But most at least hope that a restored Temple and the Messianic era will come in their lifetimes and they are working toward that end.
Then there is the issue as to the exact location of the three Temples, those built by Solomon, the exiles upon their return from Babylon and that of Herod. A minority view holds that they were built just to the north in a relatively open area of the Temple Mount. But, most experts believe they were located where the Dome of the Rock now stands, over the limestone outcropping known to Muslims as al-Sakhra. If you hold to this latter view, a thought comes to mind. It is striking indeed that the sacred rock so prominent today is never mentioned in any of the ancient sources describing the Temple. Did the rock protrude above the floor of the Herodian Temple as it does today in the Dome of the Rock? According to one study by David Jacobson, published in the September/October 1999 issued of Biblical Archaeology Review, “almost certainly not.” If you add up the total height of the 31 steps ascending from the Court of Gentiles to the various courts leading up to the Temple, you get a total of just under 24 feet. This would place the level of the Temple floor above the top of al-Sakhra. It was therefore underground and was never a part of any Temple ritual. It was simply the center of the mound on which the Temple was built! Probably ancient writers never knew it existed.
Right, Inside the Dome of the Rock with al-Sakhra (“the rock”), the huge stone from which the prophet Mohammed is said to have begun his night journey to heaven.