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Temples on the Mount – Beginnings Jerusalem's holy theme park

Temples on the Mount – Beginnings

Jerusalem's holy theme park

The "Temple of Solomon", centrepiece of an ancient imperial capital and Yahweh's very own residence on earth, has ever cast its chimeric shadow over the Jewish people. The fabulous sanctuary has engaged the interest and excited the imagination of enthusiasts of the esoteric ever since the yarn of the mighty Jewish king was first told.

Solomon's arcane wisdom, supposedly encoded within the very measurements of the Temple itself, sustained Freemasonry for centuries. The purported clandestine activities of mediaeval Templars and Kabbalists have been regularly woven into complex "mysteries" in which lost treasures, even artifacts of the divine, await the intrepid. But for all the adventure, and considerable baloney, in reality, not a single stone of the Temple – nor the entire Solomonic theme park for that matter – has ever been unearthed.

In recent times, a single 4-centimetre pomegranate, the "ornamental barb of a priestly staff", enjoyed fame as the sole evidence of the Temple's existence – until it too was exposed as fake!

Why the deceit? For the priesthood of Judaism the grand illusion of a Temple of Solomon was a necessary one: it supported both the myth of God's patronage of the chosen people and the comforting dream of a once and future empire. This simple tale of fantasy and fraud begins with the purchase of a hilltop and leads rapidly to mass murder. But then, we are talking of religion.


A house for Yahweh

"And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them." – Exodus 25.8.

The inspiration for the biblical fable of a Solomonic temple, with its elaborate paraphernalia of sacrifice and ritual, was drawn – not from God – but from the courts of Assyria and Babylon and from a time later than any 10th century king.

In Jewish mythology King David, after slaughtering Philistines wholesale by a strategy of blitzkrieg, seized the Jebusite city of Shalem by stealth. He then chose to buy the top of the nearby high place (Mount Moriah) from Araunah the Jebusite (2 Samuel 24.16) – or if you prefer, from Ornan the Jebusite (1 Chronicles 21.15). He paid Araunah 50 shekels of silver – or if you prefer, he paid Ornan 600 shekels of gold.

Either way, it seems our Jewish hero legitimately took possession of a "threshing floor" – a motif of integrity copied from Abraham's "purchase" of the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite featured in Genesis 23.

Upon this newly purchased hilltop – remarkably the very place that Abraham had bound Isaac, ready for sacrifice – David built an altar and offered burnt offerings to the badgering deity of the Jews. Yahweh was clearly delighted – he called off the plague with which he had been harrying the Jews. Even so, David's hands were too "bloodied" to build his god's earthly residence – that honour was left to David's son Solomon. Court wizard Nathan was God's mouthpiece as he vowed to David:

"I will set up your seed after you, which shall proceed out of your bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever." – 2 Samuel 7.12.13.

The deal was thus struck, an everlasting dynasty was the reward for building the house of God.

But what sort of house? It is reasonable to assume something rather better than the ornate tent formerly used for the Ark of the Covenantin the wilderness years.

God had very exacting requirements for his earthly residence. Bizarrely, he wrote his plans for the temple, including its dimensions and furnishings, onto David himself (1 Chronicles 28.19). This included a punctilious listing of candlesticks, bowls, shewbread tables, fleshhooks and even a "chariot of the cherubims" – all in pure gold, of course. Supposedly, this grandiose temple was actually built and, true to his promise, a godly presence took up residence:

"Then the house was filled with a cloud, even the house of the LORD. So that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud: for the glory of the LORD had filled the house of God." – 2 Chronicles 5.13,14.

"Then spake Solomon, The LORD said that He would dwell in the thick darkness. I have surely built thee an house to dwell in, a settled place for thee to abide in forever.– 1 Kings 8.12,13.


Endless dynasty, endless gold?

"The silver is mine! And the gold is mine! said the LORD of hosts." – Haggai 2.8.

The "forever" turned out to be rather less than four hundred years, during which time several Jewish kings purloined all the gold and silver fitments of God's sacred house to buy off threatening armies of either Assyria or Damascus (Asa, 1 Kings 15.18; Jehoash, 2 Kings 12.18; Ahaz, 2 Kings 16.8; Hezekiah, 2 Kings 18.15).

But even before all that supposed plundering by Judah's monarchs the treasury had first been emptied in the time of Rehoboam – Solomon's own son who went "bad". It seems the dust had hardly settled on Solomon's handiwork before God's punishment – in the guise of pharaoh Shishak – arrived at Jerusalem and "took away the treasures of the house of the LORD ... he even took away all" (1 Kings 14.26). Which makes it rather curious that Johoash, 8th century king of the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel, could turn up at Jerusalem, destroy much of the city wall, and also take "all the gold and silver, and all the vessels that were found in the house of the LORD" (2 Kings 14.14). The treasure house of Yahweh clearly had a propensity to refill itself rather rapidly.

Real history intrudes in 586 BC with the destruction of Jerusalem wrought by the Babylonians. Even then, according to the Bible, it is "Solomon's gold" which is sequestered – and even more curiously, returned sixty years later, despite being "cut up"!

"And Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came against the city ... And he carried out thence all the treasures of the house of the LORD, and the treasures of the king's house, and cut in pieces all the vessels of gold which Solomon king of Israel had madein the temple of the LORD, as the LORD had said." – 2 Kings 24.11.13.

During the period of Babylonian exile the Jewish god lost none of his appetite for gold and silver:

"Cyrus the king brought forth the vessels of the house of the LORD, which Nebuchadnezzar had brought forth out of Jerusalem, ... thirty chargers of gold, a thousand chargers of silver, nine and twenty knives, Thirty basons of gold, silver basons of a second sort four hundred and ten, and other vessels a thousand.

All the vessels of gold and of silver were five thousand and four hundred. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up with them of the captivity that were brought up from Babylon unto Jerusalem." – Ezra 1.7-11.


Fantasia – the Temple of Solomon

"It was perhaps at this time [the Babylonian exile] that some of the traditions associated with Solomon were also invented ... In the biblical account the reign of Solomon is presented as a golden age of peace. His name in Hebrew – Shlomo – is written slm, the same three letters as also would be used to spell shalom or peace. It is at least possible that he is a story figure – an idealized version of an historical personage." – Matthew Sturgis, p163.

Unfortunately, whatever golden "Yahweh sanctuary" may ever have existed on the "high place" at Jerusalem prior to the Babylonian period, after Nebuchadnezzar's conquest it stood no more.

"When the king of Babylon besieged this very city, and our king Zedekiah fought against him, contrary to what predictions were made to him by Jeremiah the prophet, he was at once taken prisoner, and saw the city and the temple demolished." – Josephus, War 5.9.4.

But what did the Babylonian king really destroy?

Nothing at all confirms biblical claims of a monumental structure, despite the plethora of models fashioned after the details so reverentially recorded in the Tanakh. The Temple's "symbolic" existence is palpable: every part of this "earthly heaven" was overlaid with pure gold – including apparently a porch that soared 180 feet into the air! (2 Chronicles 3.4). Its construction in seven years and dedication in the seventh month clearly reflected the seven days of creation. The fabulous Temple was a motif of heavenly perfection and the earthly residence of "divine glory". Functionally it was "God's footstall" and the place where he spoke to his people.

The immense wealth and consummate skill required to have ever built the purported temple and then to have fashioned the elaborate paraphernalia of sacrifice and ritual – way beyond the reach of a petty iron age kingdom – underscores the pious fantasy of it all. And the Temple was but one of several grandiose buildings attributed to Solomon which have left no trace.

The book of Kings claims that a labour force of over 150,000* was set to the task of building the temple yet at the same time it accredits a single named artisan – "Hiram of Tyre" – with a prodigious quantity of work. This included everything from two giant brass pillars (covered with hundreds of pomegranates), decorative lions, oxen, and cherubims, to chains and shovels. One item alone, a "molten sea" – a thirty ton bronze basin mounted on twelve bronze oxen – held over 10,000 gallons of water.

As if.


Reality check – Stones in High Places

Keep it simple, says the Lord:

"An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me ... And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it." – Exodus 20:24,25.

The semi-nomadic pastoralists of the Levant – proto-Jews and Canaanites alike – marked their sanctuaries and cult centres with large stones, not mediaeval-style cathedrals. It was the obvious choice of early peoples throughout much of the world. The "theology" was not complex, nor dissimilar to that of any pagan sanctuary. The invoked god, honoured by a megalith or cairn in a chosen spot, took up residence in or about the commemorative structure and the place became sacred.

The Israelites adopted the practice of erecting standing stones and continued to worship at "pillars" throughout their history. Only after contact with their more civilized neighbours – Assyria and Babylon – did they copy the more sophisticated temple-style sanctuary.

The Bible actually relates that all the major Jewish heroes followed the practice of erecting, anointing and sacrificing at stones in "high places":

"Abram ... removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent ... and there he builded an altar and called upon the name of the LORD." – Genesis 12.7-8.

"And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel." – Genesis 28.18,19.

"Moses ... got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel." – Exodus 24.3-4.

"And those twelve stones, which they took out of Jordan, did Joshua pitch in Gilgal." – Joshua 4.20.

"And the king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there; for that was the great high place: a thousand burnt offerings did Solomon offer upon that altar." – 1 Kings 3.4.


Grove on Temple Mount

An indication that standing stones and a "sacred grove" really graced Temple Mount is found in the campaign of desecration and murder so gleefully attributed by the books of Chronicles and Kings to king Josiah of Judah.

The regency of this young, 7th century BC king provided the priests of Yahwism with the opportunity to eradicate rivals to the Yahweh cult and at the same time impose an exclusive, Jerusalem-based theocracy. Even rural priests of the Yahweh cult were to be compelled into service with the sacerdotal hierarchy in Jerusalem.

Josiah "did that which was right in the sight of the LORD" and waged a fierce campaign of terror against rivals of Yahweh worship. Priests were murdered and burnt on their own altars, images were smashed, sacred groves destroyed and even the graves of children defiled. All God's work.

The biblical account may well exaggerate the success of Yahwism's violent program of religious purification but it certainly confirms that a plethora of gods, groves and altars in "high places" peppered the Palestinian landscape.

So tenacious was the appeal of other deities that even even after the iconoclasm of Josiah most of the kings of Judah continued to embrace a multiplicity of gods and even rebuilt the "high places".

"But the high places were not taken away: the people still sacrificed and burnt incense in the high places."

– 2 Kings 12.3.

Why were the chosen people so reluctant to embrace the warrior god Yahweh? What was it that made the alternative gods so agreeable? The phallic symbolism of many standing-stones makes abundantly clear that much of the religious impulse was directed at fertility.


Sex Gods on Mount Moriah

"An Assyrian-style altar replaced the old altar of sacrifice in the Temple courtyard, and henceforth there would be a new enthusiasm in Judah for cults involving the sun, moon, and constellations, which were appearing at this time in other parts of the Near East."

– Armstrong, Jerusalem, p66/7.

It seems that even the "house of the Lord" in Jerusalem was shared by a number of deities. Josiah's brutal reformation apparently included an assault on a polytheistic cult centre on "Temple Mount" itself – apostasy had gone that far, despite Yahweh's not infrequent intercession in Jewish affairs!

"And the king commanded ... to bring forth out of the Temple of the LORD all the vessels that were made for Baal, and for thegrove, and for all the host of heaven: and he burned them without Jerusalem in the fields of Kidron ...

And he brought out the grove from the House of the LORD ... and burned it at the brook Kidron, and stamped it small to powder, and cast the powder thereof upon the graves of the children of the people. And he brake down the houses of the sodomites, that were by the house of the LORD, where the women wove hangings for the grove ... " 

– 2 Kings 23.4-20.


Whatever else, there is little to suggest that the Yahweh sanctuary ravaged by Josiah had much in common with the fabulous "Temple of Solomon" of later fame. The site evidently featured a grove and altars to Baal, Ashtoreth (Astarte/Ishtar) and other gods. To the priests of Yahweh this was surely "the mount of corruption" (2 Kings 23:13) – not the Mount of Olives.

Astarte figurines are found in ancient sites throughout the Levant. The ubiquitous Asherah worship – more popular than the vengeful god Yahweh – celebrated the creative union of male and female, Baal with his consort Astarte.

Even the Bible provides disguised confirmation of the fertility cult in Jerusalem with its curious references to "sodomites" and "women weaving" in 2 Kings 23.7. The word used for sodomites here (qadesh) refers not to homosexuals but to prostitutes consecrated to the goddess.

The innocuously described "groves" for which the women of Jerusalem were weaving "hangings" were not leafy orchards but trees carved to represent the "staff of life" – the erect phallus. These virile poles would be raised aloft mounted in drilled foundation stones. This portability made it possible for them to be "brought out" and "burned in the Kidron valley". The woven adornments hung upon them represented the "door of life" – the receptive female organ.

The writer Lucian of Samosata, in the 2nd century AD, reports a comparable cult in his native Syria.

"The greatest of the festivals that they celebrate is that held in the opening of spring; some call this the Pyre, others the Lamp. On this occasion the sacrifice is performed in this way. They cut down tall trees and set them up in the court; then they bring goats and sheep and cattle and hang them living to the trees; they add to these birds and garments and gold and silver work.

After all is finished, they carry the gods around the trees and set fire under; in a moment all is in a blaze. To this solemn rite a great multitude flocks from Syria and all the regions around. Each brings his own god and the statues which each has of his own gods."

– Lucian (De dea Syra49.

Lucian also records that at the coastal city of Byblos the women had to choose between a shaven head and a day of sacred whoredom:

"The women who refuse to be shaved have to submit to the following penalty, that is to stand for the space of an entire day in readiness to expose their persons for hire. The place of hire is open to none but foreigners, and out of the proceeds of the traffic of these women a sacrifice to Aphrodite is paid."

– Lucian (De dea Syra) 6.

No wonder Yahweh got jealous.



From a world away – a "grove" celebrates fertility

The "sacredness" of the generative organs has been a universal human perception.

Each spring Shinto priests in Japan carry a newly carved giant wooden phallus along a processional route to a shrine at Komaki, near Nagoya. The venerated member is partially hidden by a small "tabernacle".

Did Temple Mount witness similar scenes when the kings of Judah "did evil in the sight of the Lord"?

"You have also taken the fair jewels of my gold and of my silver, which I had given you, and made to yourself images of men, and did commit whoredom with them." – Ezekiel 16.17




"Look what we've found"

"And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD ... When the king had heard the words of the book of the law, that he rent his clothes."

– 2 Kings 22.8-11.

Supposedly, Josiah ordered the "repair" of Solomon's Temple and as work began the high priest of Yahweh "found" a neglected book of the Law. But the "repair" almost certainly was an original construction in just the same way that the "found" book of Moses was an original, draconian statement of the entire Law. The book of Kings records that this "supplement" to the 10 commandments just happened to come to light during reconstruction – suggesting unbelievable neglect of a work purportedly written by Moses shortly before his death (and even recording that very event! - Deuteronomy 34.5).

In reality, the text functions as a guidebook to Josiah's rampage, almost certainly penned during the Babylonian exile, a century after the event. It even refers to casting the dust of a shattered idol "into the brook that descended out of the mount" (Deuteronomy 9.21) – arrestingly similar to 2 Kings 23.12 "cast the dust of them into the brook Kidron."

The new scripture – Deuteronomy – introduced rules on everything from cross-dressing to war brides. Seventeen times the text warns against "going after false gods" and graven images. Fourteen times it makes reference to the exclusive privileges of the "place which the Lord your God shall choose to put his name" – an oblique reference to Jerusalem. The Levites are endorsed as an elevated priesthood. The cult of kingship, although endorsed, is now circumscribed by "Mosaic Law" as interpreted by a privileged priesthood (Deuteronomy 17.15-20).

The modest first Yahweh temple on Mount Moriah in all probability was that associated with the Josiah/ Deuteronomy reformation.

"In the eighteenth year king Josiah sent Shaphan ... to Hilkiah the high priest, that he may sum the silver which is brought into the house of the LORD ... Let them deliver it into the hand of the doers of the work ... to repair the breaches of the house, unto carpenters, and builders, and masons, and to buy timber and hewn stone to repair the house." – 2 Kings 22.3-11.

Significantly, 2 Chronicles, in relating the same tale, reverses the order of events and has the murderous destruction of rival cults occur before the book is found which 2 Kings says inspired the rampage! And now "repair" has become "repair and amend" with a serious workforce:

"They delivered the money ... to repair and amend the house ... to buy hewn stone, and timber for couplings, and to floor the houses which the kings of Judah had destroyed ... the Levites ... were over the bearers of burdens, and were overseers of all that wrought the work in any manner of service: and of the Levites there were scribes, and officers, and porters." – 2 Chronicles 34.9-13.

Even so, the Josiah temple was a small and short-lived sanctuary.


A Persian temple?

"Who is left among you that saw this house in her first glory? and how do ye see it now? is it not in your eyes in comparison of it as nothing? ... The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former, saith the LORD of hosts." – Haggai 2.3,9.

Josiah's days of iconoclastic glory quickly passed. The Egyptian Pharaoh Nekau II moved his army north to assist his Assyrian ally against the rising power of Babylon and eliminated this minor Jewish king along the way. Judah returned to the Egyptian empire. But four years later, in 605 BC, Nekau was himself defeated and soon after Judah – and then Egypt itself – became provinces of a neo-Babylonian empire.

The sojourn of the elite of Judah in exile proved crucial. A half-century of acculturation transformed the priesthood and its Yahweh cult.With the accession of Cyrus, it seems a force of Persian-sponsored returnees were charged with a temple building project in Jerusalem, beginning with an altar. The book of Ezra credits both the Jewish god and a succession of Persian kings for the "reconstructed" temple:

"And the elders of the Jews builded ... and finished it, according to the commandment of the God of Israel, and according to the commandment of Cyrus, and Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia." – Ezra 6.14.

However, because of "local resistance" worked stalled almost as soon as it had begun and resumed only sixteen years later, in the second year of Darius the Great (520 BC). The "Persian temple" apparently took four years to complete. To expedite matters an existing Yahweh temple on Mount Gerizim was pillaged and even the traditions of the Samaritan sanctuary transferred wholesale to Jerusalem. Thus a modest structure on Temple Mount dating from the late 6th century BC is more certain than any earlier Solomonic edifice, although nothing of this temple has been found either.

Some idea of this "second" temple may be gleaned from the remains of another Persian-sponsored sanctuary from the same time: the Sidonian temple of Eshmun. Almost certainly the two temples shared design features. But unlike impoverished Jerusalem, Sidon was a wealthy, cosmopolitan trading city with a powerful fleet in the service of the Persian empire.


The "Second Temple"

"Then I separated twelve of the chief of the priests, ... And weighed unto them the silver, and the gold, and the vessels ... I even weighed unto their hand six hundred and fifty talents of silver, and silver vessels an hundred talents, and of gold an hundred talents; Also twenty basons of gold, of a thousand drams; and two vessels of fine copper, precious as gold."

– Ezra 8.24-27.

Ezra, a priest of Aaronic descent and exponent of racial purity, reports arriving in Jerusalem circa 458 BC ("in the seventh year of Artaxerxes the King"). It seems he had been given a free hand by the Persian king and another vast horde of treasure destined for God's money box. But in reality, "Ezra" was a 4th century scribe (see Fox, p280) and the story is bogus.

Ezra 6.3 describes the "strong foundations" of the Second Temple, and a height and breadth of "threescore cubits" (90 feet?) – considerably larger than the purported original structure of Solomon (breadth 20 cubits, height 30 cubits, length 60 cubits – 1 Kings 6.2).

Once again, we are in the realm of the fabulous. The 1st century Jewish historian Josephus offers us a more convincing description of this structure, which is certainly much smaller than the fabled Solomonic prototype:

"Our fathers, indeed, when they were returned from Babylon, built this temple to God Almighty, yet does it want sixty cubits of its largeness in altitude; for so much did that first temple which Solomon built exceed this temple." – Josephus, Antiquities, 11.1.

Clearly, the biblical numbers make little sense. Although Josephus never saw the temple which was replaced by Herod long before his birth, he quotes a Greek writer who did see the structure, Hecateus of Abdera, a contemporary of Alexander the Great.

"But for Hecateus of Abdera, who was both a philosopher, and contemporary with king Alexander in his youth, and afterward was with Ptolemy ... composed an entire book concerning the Jews themselves ... The same man describe our city Jerusalem also itself as of a most excellent structure, and very large, and inhabited from the most ancient times. He also discourses of the multitude of men in it, and of the construction of our temple, after the following manner:

"There are many strong places and villages in the country of Judea; but one strong city there is, about fifty furlongs in circumference, which is inhabited by a hundred and twenty thousand men, or thereabouts; they call it Jerusalem. There is about the middle of the city a wall of stone, whose length is five hundred feet, and the breadth a hundred cubits, with double cloisters; wherein there is a square altar, not made of hewn stone, but composed of white stones gathered together, having each side twenty cubits long, and its altitude ten cubits.

Hard by it is a large edifice, wherein there is an altar and a candlestick, both of gold, and in weight two talents: upon these there is a light that is never extinguished, either by night or by day. There is no imagenor any thingnor any donations therein; nothing at all is there planted, neither grove, nor any thing of that sort. The priests abide therein both nights and days, performing certain purifications, and drinking not the least drop of wine while they are in the temple.

– Josephus, Contra Apion I.22


What we seem to have here is a raised platform about 300 cubits by 100 cubits (450 by 150 feet), a periphery of rooms for storing tribute and housing temple staff and a podium/altar (for the priest to harangue the crowd or sacrifice a goat?) and close-by a holy sanctum furnished with a single candlestick. (In contrast, Solomon's temple supposedly had ten "candlesticks of pure gold, five on the right side, and five on the left." 1 Kings 7:49).

It seems the "second temple" had none of the fantasy fitments of the Solomonic temple, such as the Ark of the Covenant (which mysteriously disappears from the story after the Babylonian intrusion), the priestly breastplates of divination ("Urim and Thummim"), the giant golden cheribim which stood in the holy of holies, the bronze serpent of Moses that cured snake-bite – nor even a genuine pot of manna! (Hebrews 9.4).

The temple's lacklustre appearance compared to the purported original apparently caused old men who remembered Solomon's temple (very old men!) "to weep" (Ezra 3.12). But then how could the works of man compare with a priestly fantasy?


Temples on the Mount – Part Two


Robert Gordon, Holy Land, Holy City (Paternoster, 2004)
H. J. Richards, Pilgrim to the Holy Land (McCrimmons,1985)
Martin Biddle, The Tomb of Christ (Sutton, 1999)
Matthew Stugis, It Ain't Necessarily So (Headline, 2001)
Jerusalem Revealed (Israel Exploration Society, 1975)
Sami Awwd, The Holy Land (Sami Awwad, 1993)
Peter Walker, In the Steps of Jesus (Lion Hudson, 2006)
Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, The Holy Land (Oxford, 1986)

Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem (HarperCollins, 1997)

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