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Temples on the Mount Herod's Temple – Facts and Fantasies

 Temples on the Mount

Herod's Temple – Facts and Fantasies

For Jews and Christians alike, "The Temple in the time of Jesus" has long held a special value. For Jews it is central to their cherished notions of an ancient and powerful kingdom and a tangible link to the splendours of Solomon and even to God himself. For Christians it is the venue of many favourite episodes in the yarn of Jesus, evidence both of his existence and – in its destruction – of the displacement of Judaism by Christianity.

How, then, to evaluate the descriptions of Herod's handiwork given by Josephus in Wars and Antiquities? Josephus takes an obvious pride in the sanctuary that King Herod built for the Jews. Writing in the shadow of defeat, with the temple in ruin, Josephus felt obligated to defend the former glories of his people before they were led astray by sedition.

Greek writers questioned the truthfulness of his histories and Josephus responded with recriminations of his own (Against Apion). Yet when it came to the Temple – the heart and soul of Judaism – did his objectivity desert him? Josephus poured scorn on the Greeks for their subjective histories but defended his own precisely because it was drawn from holy writ and therefore was "beyond reproach."

Archaeological evidence of the temple is in short supply but "models" proliferate, consistently grandiose but otherwise as varied as their designers' imaginations. Whether in the conflagration of the Jewish war or in later development of the concourse, the holy edifice was destroyed so completely that not even today's forensics can identify the footprint of the building, let alone cast a light on the true form of its purported monumental structure.

The partisan texts suggest a formidable structure but unlike the great sanctuaries of paganism, no non-Jewish source was moved to comment on this "wonder of the world."

Could it all be grossly exaggerated?


Josephus' gift for hyperbole meets the gospellers' gift for invention

"Herod ... got ready 1000 wagons, that were to bring stones for the building, and chose out 10,000 of the most skillful workmen, and bought 1000 sacerdotal garments for as many of the priests, and had some of them taught the arts of stone-cutters, and others of carpenters, and then began to build." – Josephus, Antiquities, 15.11.2.

"And now it was that the temple was finished. So when the people saw that the workmen were unemployed, who were above 18,000 and that they, receiving no wages, were in want because they had earned their bread by their labors about the temple." – Josephus, Antiquities, 20.9.7.

Estimates for the population of Jerusalem during the time of Herod vary enormously: from a total of about ten thousand (Elbridge, Oxford Companion to the Bible, p125) to one hundred and twenty thousand (Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem, p128). Yet the entire city was less than a mile square and a comparison with, say, medieval London is illuminating. The 14th century English city, still largely confined within the 2nd century Roman walls, crammed 80,000 people into its 448 acres. Space was in such short supply that houses were built across the city's wooden bridge. 1st century Jerusalem was barely half the size of medieval London, at around 230 acres. Any suggestion, therefore, that Herod's city had a population much beyond 25-30,000 has to be regarded as fantasy.

The notion, therefore, that "ten thousand labourers plus a thousand priests" set to work on the temple construction project has itself to be regarded as a tad exaggerated and the idea that "above eighteen thousand" were made unemployed when it was finished as plain nonsense.


Size DOES matter

The fantasy of the temple porch

"Now these are the things wherein Solomon was instructed for the building of the house of God. The length by cubits after the first measure was threescore cubits, and the breadth twenty cubits. And the porch that was in the front of the house, the length of it was according to the breadth of the house, twenty cubits, and the height was an hundred and twenty: and he overlaid it within with pure gold." – 2 Chronicles 3.3-4.

" The entire altitude of the temple was a hundred and twenty cubits ... As to the porch ... its height was raised as high as a hundred and twenty cubits" – Josephus, Antiquities, 8.3.64-65.


Herod's new edifice was intended to be a "restoration" of the fabled Temple of Solomon, a religious fantasy which supposedly was "elaborately adorned and built with the finest materials." In the holy texts Yahweh's first permanent home was said to have been around 90 feet in length and 30 feet in width, dimensions quite typical of pagan temples of the time. The Temple of the Deified Julius Caesar, for example, was an edifice about 98 feet long (30 metres) and 85 feet wide (26 metres). The Temple of Apollo Sosianus (also in Rome, next to the Theatre of Marcellus) was 130 feet long (40 metres) and 72 feet wide (22 metres).

Difficulties arise,  however, with regard to the height of Herod's building and in particular to the "porch" or entrance chamber (the Ulam).

For the Solomonic prototype, 1 Kings offers a modest 30 cubits height (45 feet) for the entire building of Solomon, including the entrance, but the writer of Chronicles, clearly out with the fairies, writes that Solomon's portico rose "a hundred and twenty cubits, overlaid with pure gold." Such a tower, rising over Temple Mount, would have resembled the lighthouse of Alexandria more than any ancient temple!

Alarmingly, the Chronicler's quixotic figure resurfaces in Josephus' description of the temple porch, both of Solomon and of Herod. It seems that the "restored" porch rose 120 cubits (180 feet). As if to balance this extraordinary height Josephus tells us that the porch also bloated out sideways, to again reach 120 cubits, with the consequence that the entrance porch was considerably larger than the sanctuary to which it gave access. Unlike the temple ascribed to Solomon, Herod's temple was T-shaped when viewed from above.*

But in fact, Herod actually replaced a modest Hasmonean structure, not the creation of any Solomon, and the words which Josephus puts into Herod's mouth has the king describe that edifice as "lacking 60 cubits in height for so much did that first temple which Solomon built exceed this temple" (Antiquities 15.11.1). The claim makes a dubious sense only if it refers to a small Hasmonean porch, perhaps no higher than forty feet.

But did Herod's temple porch in reality even get close to a height of 120 cubits?

It seems not. Although Josephus' words are frustratingly obtuse it is clear that the Cyclopean porch was never finished:

"So Herod took away the old foundations, and laid others, and erected the temple upon them, being in length ahundred cubits, and in height twenty additional cubits, which upon the sinking of their foundations, fell down: and this part it was that we resolved to raise again in the days of Nero." – Josephus, Antiquities 15.11.3 (391)

Here we are told that Herod's grand design was not realized and in Wars 5.5. Josephus describes a porch of a more modest 100 cubits (150 feet) high. Elsewhere (Wars, 5.1.5) Josephus writes that King Agrippa II (52-66) "at great expense and great pains," brought together large timbers for rebuilding the porch but that with the onset of war John of Gischala, the rebel leader, commandeered the material for military towers.

In any event, Herod's temple was apparently completed in a year and a half (Antiquities, 15.11.6), scarcely time enough for a porch unique in the annals of ancient architecture, with all the attendant demands of design and construction – even with a task force of "ten thousand craftsmen"! The pylons of Egyptian temples took decades to build.

A measure of the absolute nonsense of this claimed Herodian edifice is to compare the "portico" with real gates from antiquity.

The Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon rose to a height of a mere 47 feet. The city of Constantinople withstood every assault for a thousand years with walls 40 feet high and the highest of its gate towers rose to 65 feet. The Arch of Constantine in Rome, celebrating the triumphs of the first Christian emperor, has a height of 69 feet; and the pylon of Edfu, which perhaps most closely resembles the favoured visualization of the Herodian porch, rises to a mere 118 feet!

Is it really a surprise that not a single brick of this pious Jewish fantasy has ever been found?




In the real world, the Arch of Constantinewas recycled from the monuments of three of Rome's greatest emperors. The lower parts of the arch and the decorative roundels are from the time of Hadrian; other parts are taken from the works of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Constantine added his own frieze.

This impressive monument is still standing, 69 feet high and 84 feet wide. But it pales in grandeur compared to the plethora of models of Herod's "Second Temple," all inspired by the claims made by Josephus and holy propaganda from the Mishnah.

Can it seriously be entertained that a petty Levantine king, in just a few years, could have upstaged the best that the Roman Empire could achieve?

Size Does Matter

The fantasy of Herod's "Royal Portico"

Josephus gives his fullest account of Herod's Temple and its enclosures in Wars of the Jews – his earliest work. In WarsJosephus describes the perimeter cloisters thus:

"Now for the works that were above these foundations, these were not unworthy of such foundations; for all the cloisters were double, and the pillars to them belonging were twenty-five cubits in height [38 feet], and supported the cloisters. These pillars were of one entire stone each of them, and that stone was white marble; and the roofs were adorned with cedar, curiously graven. The natural magnificence, and excellent polish, and the harmony of the joints in these cloisters, afforded a prospect that was very remarkable; nor was it on the outside adorned with any work of the painter or engraverThe cloisters were in breadth thirty cubits [45 feet], while the entire compass of it was by measure six furlongs, including the tower of Antonia."

– Wars, 5.5.2. (190).

Notice that Josephus refers to ALL the cloisters as double and makes NO MENTION here of an especially grand portico which, twenty years later, in his Antiquities of the Jews, transports him with such delight. In Wars there is no "triple portico" worthy of special attention, standing south of the temple and remarkable for its "altitude."

Josephus refers to the cloisters numerous times in Wars; they are the gathering point and redoubt of John of Gischala who, in the factional rivalry between the Jewish rebels, controlled the esplanade. Eleazar and his Zealots were bunkered down in the holy house and Simon held the city. John's forces, occupying the middle ground, were compelled to fight on two fronts and used the roofs of the porticos to increase the effectiveness of their missiles. At a late hour in the unfolding disaster they torched the western cloister to incinerate Roman troops that had followed them onto the roof. The Romans responded by destroying the northern cloister.

In all this, a particularly vast and elaborate portico is not so much as mentioned. When Josephus refers to the southern portico at all it is simply as the southern cloisters, as, for example, when he describes their final conflagration:

"And now the Romans, judging that it was in vain to spare what was round about the holy house, burnt all those places, as also the remains of the cloisters and the gates, two excepted; the one on the east side, and the other on the south; both which, however, they burnt afterward.

"They also burnt down the treasury chambers, in which was an immense quantity of money, and an immense number of garments, and other precious goods there reposited; and, to speak all in a few words, there it was that the entire riches of the Jews were heaped up together, while the rich people had there built themselves chambers. The soldiers also came to the rest of the cloisters that were in the outer court of the temple, whither the women and children, and a great mixed multitude of the people, fled, in number about six thousand. But before Caesar had determined any thing about these people, or given the commanders any orders relating to them, the soldiers were in such a rage, that they set that cloister on fire; by which means it came to pass that some of these were destroyed by throwing themselves down headlong, and some were burnt in the cloisters themselves. Nor did any one of them escape with his life."

– Wars, 6.5.2.

In his autobiography Josephus actually refers to personally entering the temple (and what would have been last of the cloisters), obviously in the interlude before they were torched, and rescuing friends. Again there is not a hint that the southern portico was (in fact or in fable!) the largest and grandest basilica in the Roman world:

"When I also went once to the temple, by the permission of Titus, where there were a great multitude of captive women and children, I got all those that I remembered as among my own friends and acquaintances to be set free, being in number about one hundred and ninety; and so I delivered them without their paying any price of redemption, and restored them to their former fortune." – Life, 75.

With the writing of Antiquities around 93 AD, twenty years after Wars, a basilica of astounding proportions makes its appearance:

The fourth front of the temple, which was southward, had indeed itself gates in its middle, as also it had the royal cloisters ... and this cloister deserves to be mentioned better than any other under the sun ...

This cloister had pillars that stood in four rows one over against the other all along ... These four rows of pillars included three intervals for walking in the middle of this cloister; two of which walks were made parallel to each other, and were contrived after the same manner; the breadth of each of them was thirty feet, the length was a furlong, and the height fifty feet; but the breadth of the middle part of the cloister was one and a half of the other, and the height was double, for it was much higher than those on each side;

The middle was much higher than the rest, and the wall of the front was adorned with beams, resting upon pillars, that were interwoven into it, and that front was all of polished stone, insomuch that its fineness, to such as had not seen it, was incredible, and to such as had seen it, was greatly amazing." – Antiquities, 15.11.5. (411-416).

It now seems than the southern cloister has ballooned to a width of at least 105 feet and soars to a height of a hundred feet or more! Notice that the basilica so described resembles the Graeco-Roman design found throughout the empire but is bigger and has an "incredible fineness." This stupendous structure is graced with no fewer than 162 columns, awesome in their girth and topped with Corinthian capitals of the finest marble.

"The thickness of each pillar was such, that three men might, with their arms extended, fathom it round, and join their hands again ... and the number of all the pillars was a hundred and sixty-two. Their chapiters were made with sculptures after the Corinthian order, and caused an amazement, by reason of the grandeur of the whole."– Antiquities, 15.11.

A reasonable calculation of "three men linking outstretched arms" indicates a column 16 feet in circumference. Such a column would have a diameter of 5 feet.

But notice how in this "most realistic" model of Herod's royal portico (below left) the columns are nothing like that size! The figures provided by Josephus are woefully exaggerated. Compare the columns of the model with the real thing at the Temple of Apollo at Didyma (below right). This third largest of all ancient temples had 124 colossal pillars, many, as here, over six feet in diameter. At Didyma, unlike at Jerusalem, the evidence is there for all to see.


A comparison from Greece

Herod's "Royal portico," reports Josephus, had a roof of cedar with a raised central section; and, despite the earlier contradiction in Wars, its gables even had carved pediments:

" ...the roofs were adorned with deep sculptures in wood, representing many sorts of figures."

The floor area of such a behemoth would have been an incredible 6,500 sq. metres – more than fifty per cent larger than theBasilica of Maxentius, the largest basilica ever built in Rome (built by a pagan and purloined by Constantine to house his own monstrous statue, the head and foot of which can still be seen in the Capitoline Museum).



The "Royal Stoa of Herod" – as reported by Josephus and conjectured in numerous models – compared to a real royal portico, the Stoa of Attalos in Athens.

In the Stoa of Attalos, Athens, two rows, each of 45 columns, rise to a height of 42 feet at the apex of the roof. This huge structure is almost four hundred feet long and in the Roman period ran the entire length of the eastern side of the Athenian agora. But impressive as it is the stoa cannot compare to the fantasy supposed for the Herodian basilica, said to have graced the entire southern end of Temple Mount. The claims made for Herod's creation surpass the work of Attalos in every dimension: fifty percent longer, twice as high and twice as wide – effectively a building six times larger!

How significant that the Mishnah (the earliest major compilation of rabbinical Judaism, with its own detailed description of the temple) fails to mention this wonder of the world – and not a single fragment has ever been found.

Surprise, surprise.




Modelling Herod's Temple – fun for all the family!

Models of Herod's "Second Temple" come in all shapes and sizes.

The two sources, Josephus and the Mishnah, are vague on crucial points and get next to no support from limited archaeological findings.

Could it all be just a tad exaggerated by Jews and Christians alike?


Influence on the Gospels?

Now it so happens that this cloister implicitly, if not explicitly, features in two key episodes in the Jesus yarn, notably:

1. The temptation of Jesus. Early on in his career Jesus is taken by Satan "to the pinnacle of the temple." This pericope is NOT found in Mark (or John) but it appears in Matthew 4.5 and Luke 4.9. The "pinnacle" could have been a point on the temple itself but Christian opinion favours the southeast (or southwest) parapet which works better with the idea of a headlong fall and rescue by angels.

Now it just so happens that Josephus stresses the dizzying height of the south cloister in Antiquities:

 " For while the valley was very deep, and its bottom could not be seen, if you looked from above into the depth, this further vastly high elevation of the cloister stood upon that height, insomuch that if any one looked down from the top of the battlements, or down both those altitudes, he would be giddy, while his sight could not reach to such an immense depth." – Antiquities, 15.11.5. (412).

Is this a passage written to match – or did it inspire? – the "temptations" found in Matthew/Luke? The drop from the "pinnacle," though considerable, would have been nothing like the figure of "500 feet" claimed by some biblical enthusiasts.


2. The cleansing of the Temple. In this dramatic yarn JC is quite a berserker, chasing out whole herds of animals and people with a whip.

"And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables." – John 2.14.

Apparently livestock, unclean in reality as well as ritually, could only enter the temple concourse through the Tadi or northern gate. No doubt the oxen relieved themselves along their sacrificial way. Were the beasts corralled in the open Court of the Gentiles, or had the traders set up shop in the massive Royal portico? And through which of those fine gates (and subterranean stairways) did the JC-provoked stampede escape? It's hard to conjecture any scenario that would work as "history" – an enraged messiah dashing about the temple concourse, driving a mêlée of animals and people?

As pure symbolism, of course, the yarn works well enough – and pure symbolism is the entirety of the tale of Jesus.


Witness of the Middoth

Josephus - No head for heights (or widths, or lengths)?

It is significant that the rabbinic Mishnah, compiled a century later than Josephus, describes a temple edifice of far more modest proportions than given by our 1st century "eye-witness."

According to the Middoth, 10th Tractate of Seder V of the Mishnah, the Temple mount enclosure was 500 cubits by 500 cubits, with access gained through 5 gates. Josephus reports that Herod's temple concourse was 4 stadia in circumference and could be entered by 8 gates (Antiquities 15.11).

The Middoth reports that the total area of the temple courts was 322 cubits by 135 cubits (483 feet by 202 feet). The partition that set it apart from the main plaza was "10 handbreadths" high (half the height of Josephus' stone balustrade of 3 cubits). 12 steps (not 14, as per Josephus) led up to the inner courts.

Within the Court of the Priests the Middoth reports a stepped altar rising from a base of 32 by 32 cubits. For Josephus this altar was a massive 50 by 50 cubits (75 by 75 feet) – surely the mother of all altars?

The Middoth (Perek 3.7) says that the outer doorway of the Temple portico was 40 cubits high (60 feet) and 20 cubits wide (30 feet) – considerably smaller than Josephus' 70 by 25 cubit doorway (105 by 38 feet). Similarly, the Middoth has it that the inner doorway was 20 by 10 cubits – not the 55 by 16 cubits of Josephus.

In a similar vein, Josephus reports that the precipitous drop from the "Pinnacle of the Temple" to the floor of the Kidron Valley was 300 cubits (450 feet). Today, the drop from the southwest corner is around 160 feet. Even allowing for accumulated debris and the height of a portico the "pinnacle" could have been nothing like that height.

Consistently, Josephus' dimensions past way beyond credibility into a fantasy all of his ownQuiet demonstrably between his detailed description of Herod's temple in Wars and his reminiscences in Antiquities the holy edifice grew both in size and grandeur.

It is possible that Josephus had no head for heights. More likely, however, is that we have here a prime example of Jewish aggrandizement. In the melancholy years that followed the Temple's destruction, in his recriminations with the Greeks, Josephus had to maintain a comforting delusion of former Jewish glories. In his histories the temple of Herod grew and grew. Ironically, for the Christians, in the temple's enlargement and glorification, greater yet was the triumph of Christ "who had prophesied its overthrow."


Robert Gordon, Holy Land, Holy City (Paternoster, 2004)
H. J. Richards, Pilgrim to the Holy Land (McCrimmons,1985)
H. Shanks, Jerusalem's Temple Mount; From Solomon to the Golden Dome (Continuum, 2007)
Joan Taylor, Christians and Holy Places: The Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins (Clarendon, 1993)
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)

Leen Ritmeyer, The Quest: Revealing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem  (Carta, 2006)
M. Ben-Dov, In the Shadow of the Temple (HarperCollins, 1985)

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