Herod’s temple (Mark 11)

For hundred of years the Jerusalem temple was the centre of Jewish life. However, in the centuries leading up to the New Testament era, the postexilic edifice rebuilt by Zerubbabel suffered serious damage. The renovation and expansion of this dilapidated structure gave Herod the Great the opportunity to construct the greatest of his numerous building projects and perhaps the most impressive structure Jerusalem has ever seen.

Work on Herod’s temple began in 20-19 B.C., and though most of it was finished within ten years, adornment continued until A.D. 63. Herod faced a significant challenge: The size of the temple was limited by the Biblical precedent of Solomon’s temple, a fairly modest structure. But pagan temples of the New Testament era were becoming increasingly mammoth, and the Jerusalem temple if confined to Biblical standards would have seemed puny in comparison. Therefore, although the temple proper was left fairly small, the temple precincts in Herod’s scheme were enormous. Zerubbabel’s temple had to be torn down and the three surrounding valleys filled in. Massive retaining walls helped to support the platform of the temple precinct (the western retaining wall is the familiar “Wailing Wall”). The temple and its surrounding courtyards created a rhomboid shape, measuring 485 m on its western side, 468 m on the eastern side, 315,5 m on the northern side and 278 m on the southern side.

The temple area was essentially a series of concentric courts, each of increasing holiness as one proceeded closer to the temple proper.

  • The first courtyard, the court of the Gentiles, was open to Jews and God-fearing Gentiles. This area contained the merchant and money-changing areas, and here the blind and the lame begged and children were present (Matthew 21:14-15).
  • Only Jewish men and women could enter the court of women, which contained chests for tithes that contributed to temple expenses and was the location of the poor widow’s contribution (Mark 12:44).
  • Only ritually clean Jewish men were permitted to proceed beyond into the court of Israel. When Jesus came to the temple and “looked around at everything” (Mark 11:11), He was surveying this area.
  • Only priests could move farther into the temple area. The approach included an altar of uncut stones, the porch and finally the temple itself. Constructed of marble and gold, the temple was built to the same specifications as Solomon’s earlier counterpart. Golden spikes lined the roof to prevent birds from alighting there and defiling the structure.
  • Entering the temple proper, one first came to the Holy Place, which contained the lampstand, the table for the bread of the Presence and the incense altar, all cast in pure gold.
  • Separated by a heavy, embroidered curtain, the Most Holy Place contained only a single rock, upon which the high priest offered incense and sprinkled blood once annually on the Day of Atonement (the ark of the covenant had long since been lost). Some surmise that the Most Holy Place was located where the Islamic holy place, the Dome of the Rock, now stands.

Other important structures were within the vicinity of the temple. The Fortress of Antonia, north of the temple vicinity, was the barracks for Roman troops in Jerusalem. Soldiers from the fortress could enter the temple area quickly if needed, as when a riot broke out during Paul’s visit there (Acts 21:31-32). On the south side of the temple was the house for the Sanhedrin and a bathhouse for ritual immersion (a requirement for entering the temple area). As a social centre, the temple was the most important locale for education and debate in Judea (Luke 2:46), as well as the backdrop for many events recorded in the Gospels, most notably Jesus’ ejection of the merchants. Jesus’ actions and words upon that occasion created an “enacted parable”. He was angry not only at the extortion but also at the moneychangers’ occupation of the court of the Gentiles, which effectively limited access to this area.

For all its glory, this temple had a short life. Completed in A.D. 63, it was destroyed in A.D. 70 by the Romans. Jesus’ words to His disciples in this regard were fulfilled: Not noe stone was left upon another (Matthew 24:2).

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