A Visit to Herod’s Temple
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP (1935-2013)
Ecole Biblique, Jerusalem
The temple built by Herod the Great in Jerusalem was the fourth on the site chosen by David, and it was the most magnificent of all. It was the largest religious complex in the Greco-Roman world; a dramatic assertion of the dignity of the Jewish people. Although dominated by higher hills on three sides, for Jews it was the Mountain of the Lord.
The original temple built by Solomon had been destroyed and rebuilt twice when Herod took possession of Jerusalem as king in July 37 BC. His first concern was for his own security, building first the Antonia fortress and the
n his new palace. The jobs thus created fueled the rebuilding of private houses. So many new buildings stigmatized the shabbiness of the much repaired temple. It was an eyesore in a beautiful city. Herod resolved to rebuild the temple completely but on a much greater scale than ever before. Starting in 20/19 BC he preserved the original square platform (each side 260 m) but enlarged it on the north, west and south. The hugh bossed blocks of the retaining wall are still visible on the west and south. Each course is set 2 cm inside its predecessor. This was imperative if the very high wall was to look vertical. Were it built absolutely vertical it would appear to be falling outwards.
The purpose of the extension to the south was to provide space for the construction of the Royal Stoa. It ran the width of the esplanade along the south wall. There were entrances at both ends. Each was reached from outside by a roadway supported by an arch. It was once thought that the road on the west continued to the Upper City, but the discovery of a series of arches diminishing in height running to the south unambigously indicated a monumental staircase leading to the City of David. The road from the Upper City crossed a bridge a little further north.
The high central aisle of the Royal Stoa was supported by columns. Three men with arms outstretched were needed to go round each one, but it seemed slender because of its great height. The forest of such columns (162 in all) created an immediate impression of magnificence. As a mere layman Herod was exluded from the most sacred parts of the temple, which were accessible only to priests. He invested so much in this great secular building because here he could display without reserve the glory of his majesty. If the Holy of Holies was the High Priest’s domain, the Royal Stoa was Herod’s. It served as the commercial center of the city. The money-changers had their tables here. At the east end was an apse where the city council met.
The east end of the Royal Stoa did not rest on bedrock but on a platform supported by pillars. It was the most economical way to create a level surface on a slope. Later the vast underground area was to be called Solomon’s Stables, but it was never used to house horses. Further west two tunnels beneath the Royal Stoa ran from the Double Gate and the Triple Gate to the Court of the Gentiles. These were known as the Hulda Gates, but not to honour the prophetess. The first meaning of the Hebrew hulda is ‘mole’ (taupe), a little animal that tunnels under the earth. The impressive passage inside the Double Gate is completely intact, and ends at a little green door just north of the Aksa Mosque.
Outside both Hulda Gates were flights of steps; many of the original stones have survived. The narrow staircase leading to the Triple Gate was sufficient for worshippers who entered in ones and twos. Worshippers exited through the Double Gate en masse, and coming from a dark tunnel needed a much wider staircase in order to spread out and to see the steps.
Leaving the Royal Stoa one could walk north in the shade of Solomon’s Portico. As the name suggests this had been the line of the east wall of the first temple. About one-third of the way along passage was barred to non-Jews. This was the ‘wall of separation’ (soreg) which marked the limits of the square platform of the original temple. Each gate carried notices in Greek and Latin promising death to any gentile who trespassed on that sacred space, in the middle of which was built the temple proper. The protected central part of Solomon’s Portico would have been an ideal place for teachers to gather their students. There were no pagans to cause distractions. Jesus could have preached there. He certainly walked there with his disciples one winter’s day (Jn 10:23).
The slope of the hill obliged the visitor to climb several sets of stairs as he penetrated the different areas of sanctity of the temple proper. At the top of the first flight of steps were two great doors plated with Corinthian bronze (more valuable than gold), the gift of Nicanor of Alexandria. This is the Beautiful Gate of Acts 3:2. It gave access to the Court of the Women. It was not reserved to them alone. It got its name because for the first time ever in a Middle Eastern temple that specific religious space was alotted to women. There was a squat tower at each corner linked inside by collonades.
To reach the Court of the Israelites men alone passed through double doors at the head of a flight of steps on the west side of the Court of the Women. The space alotted to laymen was minimal, merely a collonade along the east wall, and only those with specifical sacrifical gestures to perform were admitted (m. Kemim 1:8). The dominant feature of the Court of the Israelites was the great altar of sacrifice, It tapered slightly as it rose to the surface on which the sacrificial fire burnt day and night. Beasts were hauled up a ramp on the south side. They had been slaughtered in the open air north of the altar, then hung on pillars while the blood drained, and were finally skinned on marble tables. The bronze basin, where the priests washed their hands and feet before sacrificing, was between the altar and the most sacred part of the temple.
The façade of the sanctuary shone with gold and white marble. The doors stood open but no one could see inside because of the curtain. Priests were permitted to enter the first chamber. In the center stood the golden altar on which incense was offered daily, morning and evening. On one side was the golden seven-branched candelabra, which was to be kept continuously alight, while on the other was the golden table of the shewbread, on which were placed twelve fresh loaves of bread each Sabbath.
Another over-lapping curtain closed the entrance to the Holy of Holies. The High Priest alone could enter there once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). That small space had once contained the Ark of the Covenant, which enshrined the stone tablets on which the Law had been given to Moses on Mount Sinai. It disappeared in the sack of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 and was never replaced. Some have thought that its place was taken by the Mercy Seat (m. Middoth 1:1). This was a sheet of pure gold 1,3 m long and 0,78 m wide. At each end was moulded a gold winged sphinx. They faced each other head down with their wings spread over the Mercy Seat (Exod 25:17-20).
To reach the northern part of the Court of the Gentiles from the area in front of the Royal Stoa non-Jews had to follow the colonnade on the west side outside the sacred square. If sacrificial animals were brought into the temple area for sale, it can only have been just inside the single gate in the north wall. It was the only one of the seven gates of the temple that communicated directly with the fields outside, and thus was appropriate for animals. All the other gates had to be reached via busy city streets and involved steep staircases.
The Antonia fortress is located at the north-west corner. It was Herod’s first building in Jerusalem because of his need for security. He named it after his patron Mark Antony, who had secured for him the throne of Judea. At one time it was believed that it projected out onto the esplanade, but recently uncovered evidence shows that the fortress was built above the western extremity of the north wall.
About 112 m of a wall 4 m thick was found at the edge of the escarpment occupied today by the Omariya School. It can only be the south wall of the Antonia. Inside was a narrow rectangular courtyard with a tower at each corner. That on the south-east corner was higher than the others, and served as the sentry post from which the Romans after AD 6 controlled the temple. It was from there that an alert soldier noticed the attempted assassination of Paul, and rushed a squad to his aid (Acts 21:27-36). In the course of his interrogation in the fortress Paul made his proud claim of having been born a Roman citizen. In consequence, the tribune decided to send him down to his superior, the governor Felix in Caesarea (Acts 23:23-35).
In the escarpment below the Antonia fortress are a series of holes 0,48 m square and 8,9 m above the present ground level. These can only be the sockets into which were fitted the roof beams of the north portico of Herod’s temple. Big beams were demanded by the width of the portico (15,6 m), which was of a part with the magnificence of Herod’s creation to the honour of YHWH. On 29 August 70 AD the whole complex was reduced to rubble by the Roman legions of Titus.