MAYFIELD, Ky. – Viewing the remains of the Jewish Temple complex that Jesus visited on many occasions remains the favorite aspect of both trips I’ve made to Israel. After nearly 2,000 years, the Temple still inspires the many Jewish and Christian visitors to the old city of Jerusalem.
In the New Testament, the term “Temple” is used for both the sanctuary/shrine as well as for the whole Temple complex site that includes its many courts and retaining walls. The Temple that Jesus visited was started by King Herod beginning around 20-19 B.C. Under Herod, the sanctuary itself was completed in a year and a half, but construction on the various courts, gates and retaining walls continued on and off until just a few years before the Jewish revolt in A.D. 66.
In the early ministry of Jesus, the most recent terminus of construction to that point had occurred 46 years after Herod began the project, according to the biblical record in John 2:20. It was the third Jewish Temple built on the site. Solomon and Zerubbabel had earlier sponsored Temple complexes there, but the historian Josephus related that Herod even removed the foundation stones of the earlier Temples to construct his Temple (Antiquities of the Jews, 15,391; 15,421).
Herod’s Temple complex was impressive. Largely constructed of local white meleke limestone from the Jerusalem area with a veneer of marble and gold on the shrine itself, the huge ashlars (finely cut and dressed rectangular blocks designed to fit together without mortar) were polished to reflect the sunlight. Josephus tells us that visitors seeing the Temple from a distance may have thought it a snow-covered mountain (Jewish War, 5,223). Even a disciple of Jesus marveled at the beautiful and massive stone work of the Temple (Mark 13:1).
Spanning nearly an acre, this outdoor model of the first-century Temple and the surrounding ancient city of Jerusalem is on display at the Israel Museum.
Nevertheless, the Lord knew that Herod’s great Temple would be destroyed – particularly the buildings and shrine at the site. Jesus replied to His disciple: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here on another that will not be thrown down” (Mark 13:2 HCSB). His prediction came true in A.D. 70 when the Romans destroyed all the buildings on the Temple Mount, including the magnificent sanctuary.
So, what remains of the Temple that Jesus visited? Although the buildings on the Temple Mount were destroyed, one can still find a good deal of the Temple complex that Jesus, the disciples and the apostle Paul would have recognized. Specifically, the following features still can be viewed today: portions of the massive retaining walls, some special features and even some signage that once was posted in the Temple complex.
The retaining walls
Today we know that the lower courses of Herod’s retaining walls are found on all four sides of the Temple Mount (or the “Haram al-Sharif” to Muslims who currently possess the Temple Mount platform). Most of the north side retaining wall is under the present ground level, but on three sides – the west, south and east – portions of the retaining wall exist above ground. We can identify the Herodian masonry because of the huge stone ashlars in the lower courses of the present old city wall around the Temple Mount. The upper portions, containing smaller stones from later centuries, were not present in New Testament times.
One of more imposing parts of the Herodian retaining walls is at the southeastern corner of the Temple Mount (the “pinnacle of the Temple” – the highest point of the Temple complex above the Kidron Valley). Here the Gospels record that Satan unsuccessfully tempted Jesus (Matthew 4:5; Luke 4:9). Below-ground portions of the “pinnacle” platform extend another 75 feet or so underneath the present ground level.
Nevertheless, the most famous above-ground portion of the retaining wall is the Western Wall (the so-called “Wailing Wall”). Here 21st-century Jews pray at the most impressive surviving portion of the wall above ground. Like the stone courses of the “pinnacle” platform, many layers of the Western Wall continue underneath the present ground level. A tunnel adjacent to another portion of the Western Wall reveals the Herodian ashlars set on massive foundation stones.
Other aspects of the Temple that Herod built and Jesus visited still are extant today. These include some paving stones and floor tiles that match tiles found at Herodian palaces at Masada and other locales, a sundial for perhaps determining the time of day for prayers (Acts 3:1) and sacrifices, geometric and floral designs on the column capitals and facings of the stone work (no animal or human likenesses have been found among these) and, just outside the Temple complex on the south side, there are a number of Jewish “mikvot.” A “mikveh” (singular) was a baptismal pool for Jews undergoing ceremonial cleansings. Many Jewish pilgrims to the Temple made use of these before ascending the steps into the Temple complex on the south side.
In addition, some surviving architectural features can still be viewed today. Among these is Wilson’s Arch on the Western Wall (named for the archeologist who rediscovered it). The arch once was part of a bridge over the Tyropoeon Valley (the misnamed “Valley of the Cheesemakers”) into the Temple. A part of the arch is the original Herodian structure or a later rebuilt arch constructed with Herod’s huge building blocks. Archeologists remain divided on the origin of the current structure. Not disputed are the nearby partial remains of Robinson’s Arch (named for another archeologist) also on the Western Wall. Here pilgrims could enter the Temple from the valley below on a staircase supported by the arch.
On the south side of the retaining wall for Herod’s Temple are a number of interesting features. These include the stairs to the Double and Triple Gates. Both gates functioned as the entrance way for most Jews entering the Temple Complex in the New Testament era (Mishnah, Middoth, 1,3) but today, no one can enter the Temple Mount in the vicinity of these gates. Some of the stair steps have been reconstructed and restored while other original steps reveal their 2000 years of wear and tear. The lintel piece atop the walled-up Double Gate is partially visible today but the rest of it is covered by a Crusader era structure. The Triple Gate also is walled-up but contains some of the original stones at the bottom and below the ground level. It is not known if this was a “Triple Gate” in antiquity; the modern Avi-Yonah model of the Temple shows it as another Double Gate.
Around and under the Temple Mount are a number of other surviving features. Highlights include some of the cisterns and water courses that served the Temple and the Fortress Antonia (some still carry water), storerooms and the massive Herodian structures misnamed as “Solomon’s Stables.” These huge pillars supported the massive works above ground near the south side. Some of these features have only recently been accessible to tourists by the opening of tunnels under and adjacent to the Temple Mount.
Like most public structures in the 21st century, the Temple that Jesus visited possessed signage. Only a few years ago, archeologists recovered a sign in Hebrew letters announcing “to the place of the trumpeting.” At the original site somewhere atop the southwestern part of the Temple complex, Jewish priests blew the shofar to announce the beginning of the Sabbath and other special days. The sign either was a deliberate permanent sign to designate where the priests would trumpet or a temporary sign that remained to point construction teams to the site of the “place of the trumpeting.”
Josephus acknowledged that special signs in both Greek and Latin warned Gentiles not to go beyond the Court of the Gentiles into those courts reserved for Jews (Jewish War, 5,194). Although no Latin signs have been recovered, today we possess two stone signs in Greek that caution Gentiles not to go any further into the Temple Complex. The signs warn: “No foreigner [Gentile] is to enter within the forecourt and balustrade around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death” (ABD 2.963). That the Jews of this period took the warning seriously can be gleaned from Acts 21:27-33.
Aspects of the first-century Temple fascinate both Jews and Christians. One can still view some of the sights that Jesus saw when He ministered at the Temple. Archeologists continue to uncover both artifacts and even structures (largely underground today) connected to the Temple of this era.
Although Christians are not commanded in the New Testament to make pilgrimages, Southern Baptists can learn much about their faith by touring Israel and Palestine and visiting places like the Temple Mount. Having returned from my second trip shortly after the tensions with Gaza last fall, I found the experience inspirational, safe and problem-free. My two visits to the Holy Land have positively impacted my faith.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Stephen Douglas Wilson is dean emeritus and chair of the history department of Mid-Continent University in Mayfield, Ky., and a member of the SBC Executive Committee.)