The Temple

By Daniel H. King, Sr.

Throughout the history of Israel, the temple represented the place where Heaven and earth came together for the purpose of sacred worship. Like the ark before it, the temple was intended to be a symbol of God’s presence in the midst of his people (Exod. 25:21-22). Its location was, therefore, the most sacred place on earth. The O.T. word for temple, hekal, meant “palace” or “great house.” The Sumerian word from whence it derived could be used of the dwelling place of a king or of a god. More often used in the O.T., however, were the terms beth Yahweh or beth Elohim, which simply signified the “house” of God, his place of earthly dwelling. In the N.T. two terms are found. First there is hieron, signifying a “temple area,” and naos, which described the “sanctuary” itself.

Three Temples

The Bible records in its history the stories of three successive Temples. Solomon built the first Temple (ca. 957 B.C.) after David had planned it and spent years accumulating wealth to adorn it (2 Sam. 7:3-16). David had acquired the Temple hill as a place of sacrifice from Araunah the Jebusite at an earlier period at the insistence of the prophet Gad (2 Sam. 24:18-25). The book of Chronicles identifies this hill with Mount Moriah, where Abraham offered his son Isaac (2 Chron. 3:1; Gen. 22:1ff.). So the place itself was considered sacred on account of these earlier events. 

The second period of Temple construction was initiated by the decree of Cyrus in 538 B.C. This proclamation made it possible for the Jews to return to their homeland from Babylonia. Persian financial aid was also offered to make the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem a reality. Sheshbazzar, the governor, laid the original foundation, but it was left to Zerubbabel the new governor in 520 B.C. to complete the work. Jeshua the high priest supplied support for the work, as did the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5:1-2). The size of this Temple was approximately that of Solomon, except that some aspects appear to have been influenced by the Temple Vision of Ezekiel (Ezek. 40-42). This Temple was later profaned by Antiochus in December, 167 B.C., and subsequently rededicated by Judas Maccabeus in 164 B.C.. Still later, it was captured by the Roman general Pompey in 63 B.C. Pompey, however, neither profaned nor plundered it.

The third and final epoch of Temple building is roughly equivalent to the period of the N.T. itself. Herod the Great came to power in 37 B.C. Hoping to capture the hearts of his Jewish subjects and the imagination of all the Roman Empire, Herod set about making the Jerusalem Temple one of the architectural achievements of the age. Since the Jews were afraid that the work would interrupt the temple service, Herod went to great lengths to prevent this, rebuilding the old structure piecemeal, never stopping the worship. Since only priests could enter the Temple and the inner court, one thousand of them were the masons and carpenters for that inner area. 

Herod’s workers began their work in 20 B.C., and although the king died in 4 B.C., they continued their labors until the rebellion in A.D. 64. Actually, the house itself was completed in a year and a half; eight years were spent on the surrounding buildings and the court areas took many decades. The Jews said to Jesus that the Temple had been under construction for forty-six years (John 2:20); more than thirty more years were to pass before the work was completed. Unfortunately, this great monument was destroyed just six years later in A.D. 70.

The Temple During N.T. Times

The most notable contribution of Herod the Great was the magnificent stonework of the Temple platform which was greatly enlarged by his workmen, to roughly twice its former dimensions. As enlarged by Herod, the Temple area occupied an elongated square of from 925 to 950 feet and upwards. Both at the southeastern and the southwestern angles of the once proud structure, excavators have found stones measuring from 20 to 40 feet in length, and weighing above 100 tons! The description which is found in the writings of Josephus (Antiquities XV.11; Wars of the Jews V.5) and the tractate Middoth of the Mishnah (written ca. A.D. 150) have thus been further fleshed out by the discoveries of recent archaeological efforts.

Herod is said to have surrounded the whole Temple enclosure with magnificent porches, particularly the royal stoa along the southern wall. Through the Huldah gates, double and triple arches of which may still be seen, worshipers went up through enclosed passageways into the court of the Gentiles. Greek inscriptions separating this court from the court of the women and the holier inner courts of Israel (men) and the priests have been found. The steps south of the Temple, where Jesus is thought to have taught on several occasions, have been excavated and reconstructed. An inscription which reads, “To the place of trumpeting,” was found below the southwest corner where there was a monumental staircase ascending into the Temple from the main street below. Perhaps this was the “Pinnacle of the Temple” from which Satan tempted Jesus to throw himself down.

The Fortress Antonia

Near the northwest corner of the Temple area was located the fortress Antonia. This structure was built or rebuilt in Hasmonean times upon a rock 50 cubits high covered with smooth stonework to make it more difficult to climb. Herod strengthened it and gave it the new name it had in N.T. times in honor of Antony. Protected by a wall 3 cubits high, the tower itself was 40 cubits high. At each corner of the tower was a turret. Three of these were 50 cubits high, but the one on the southeast corner was 70 cubits high. Stairways led up from the porticoes of the Temple to the tower. This defensive structure dominated the Temple, and was the headquarters of the Roman garrison so often needed to keep the peace. From the stairs which led from the Temple precincts to Antonia, Paul delivered his sermon after having been rescued by the guard from the riotous mob (Acts 21:31-22:21). The priestly vestments were kept in this building.

The Royal Bridge

By far the most magnificent avenue into the complex was that at the southwestern angle of the Temple. A colossal bridge on arches spanned the intervening Valley of the Tyropoeon, connecting the ancient City of David with what is called the “Royal Porch of the Temple.” Each arch of this bridge spanned 41.5 feet, and the spring-stones measured 24 feet in length by 6 inch thickness. It is difficult to exaggerate the splendor of this approach to the sanctuary. Here the city would have lain spread before us like a map. Over the parapet of the bridge we might have looked into the Tyropoeon Valley below, a depth of not less than 225 feet. The roadway which spanned this cleft for a distance of 354 feet, from Mt. Moriah to Mt. Zion opposite, was about 50 feet wide. And, it was over this bridge that the Jewish leadership led the Savior, in the sight of all Jerusalem, when they shuffled him to and from the palace of the high-priest, that of Herod, the  meeting-place of the Sanhedrin, and the judgment-seat of Pilate.

The Temple Porches

The Royal Bridge led into the Royal Tem- ple Porch. This Porch (portico, Greek stoa, an area with a roof supported by columns) consisted of a treble colonnade, formed of 162 pillars, ranged in four rows of 40 pillars each, the two odd pillars serving as a kind of screen, where the Porch opened upon the bridge. It consisted of a central nave 45 feet wide, with gigantic pillars 100 feet high, and of two aisles 30 feet wide, with pillars 50  feet high. This was only one of the porches which formed the southern enclosure of the first and outermost court of the Temple, that of the Gentiles. The view from the top of this colonnade into Kidron was to the stupendous depth of 450 feet. This and the other porticos, or cloisters, were among the finest architectural features of the Temple. They ran all around the inside of its wall, and bounded the outer enclosure of the Court of the Gentiles. They consisted of double rows of Corinthian pillars, all monoliths, wholly cut out of one block of marble, each pillar being 37.5 feet high. A flat roof, richly ornamented, rested against the wall, in which also the outer row of pillars was inserted. Possibly there may have been towers where one colonnade joined the other.

These halls or  porches around the Court of the Gentiles must have been very convenient places for friendly or religious meetings and discussions. Here Jesus was found by his parents, disputing with the doctors; here in later years he would often teach the people; and here the first assemblies of the Jerusalem church when they were “continuing daily with one accord in the Temple . . .” (Acts 2:46). In Solomon’s Porch, which ran along the eastern wall of the Temple, Jesus walked during the Feast of Dedication (John 10:23), when he so boldly declared, “I and my Father are one.” All the people ran together to this location after a “notable miracle” was performed upon a lame man (Acts 3:11), since this was the place where the Christians assembled on a regular basis (Acts 5:12).

The Court of the Gentiles

When one entered the Temple, it was the rule to pass in by the right side, and when leaving it to go out by the left hand. The first great expanse as one came into the structure itself was the great Court of the Gentiles. It formed the lowest or outer enclosure of the Sanctuary. The area was paved with the finest variegated marble. Its name was derived from the fact that it was open to all, both Jews and Gentiles, provided they observed the rules of decorum and reverence. In this court tradition places the apartments for the Levites, and a synagogue. In addition, a market was located there for the sale of oxen, sheep, and doves to be sacrificed. Here also were the tables of the money-changers (Matt. 21:12; John 2:14). 

Within a short distance, in the court, a beautifully ornamented marble screen stood 4.5 feet high, bearing Greek and Latin inscriptions warning Gentiles not to proceed further, on pain of death. Because the Jews thought Paul infringed this order, the infuriated multitude “went about to kill him” (Acts 21:31). Beyond this enclosure a flight of 14 steps, each 9 inches high, led up to a terrace 15 feet wide, which bounded the inner wall of the Temple.

The Gates of the Temple

On both the north and south sides of the Temple terrace, flights of steps led up to three gates which opened into the Court of the Priests, while a fourth gate led into the Court of the Women. Thus there were nine gates opening from the terrace into the Sanctuary, the principal one from the east, and four north and south, of which one on the north and south, led into the Court of the Women. The other three on both north and south led into the Court of the Priests. These eight side gates were all two-leaved, wide, high, with superstructures and chambers supported by two pillars, and covered with gold and silver plating.

More magnificent than all of these, however, was the ninth or eastern gate, which formed the principal entrance into the Temple. The ascent to it was from the terrace by fifteen easy steps. On these steps the Levites were wont on the Feast of Tabernacles to sing the fifteen ‘Psalms of Degrees,’ or ascent (Pss. 120-134). The gate itself was made of dazzling Corinthian brass, richly ornamented, and so massive were its double doors that it needed the united strength of twenty men to open and close them. This was the ‘Beautiful Gate’ of the Temple. It is twice mentioned in the N.T. (Acts 3:2, 10). From the fact that it was composed entirely of Corinthian brass, and had been the gift of a certain Nicanor of Alexandria, Josephus tells us it was known as “the Corinthian gate,” and the Mishnah informs us that it was also called the “gate of Nicanor.” It was before this gate that everything that was ordered to be done “before the Lord” took place. There the cleansed leper and the women coming for purification presented themselves to the priests, and there also the “water of jealousy” was given to the suspected wife.

The Court of the Women

This was most likely the place of common worship for most Jews. Since women were not allowed to proceed any further into the Temple complex, females occupied raised galleries along three sides of this court. The space itself covered an area around 200 feet square. All around it ran a simple colonnade, and within it, against the wall, the 13 chests, or “trumpets,” for charitable contributions were placed. These chests were narrow at the mouth and wide at the bottom, so that they were shaped like trumpets. Nine were marked for legally required gifts, the others were for strictly voluntary contributions. Trumpets 1 and 2 were for the Temple half-shekel; Trumpet 3 was for purchase of turtle doves for sacrificing (cf. Luke 2:22, 24); Trumpet 4 similarly received the value of the offerings of young pigeons; Trumpet 5 was for wood used in the sacrifices; Trumpet 6 for incense; Trumpet 7 for golden vessels; Trumpet 8 for sin offerings; Trumpets 9-13 for any left over after purchase of trespass-offerings, offerings of birds, the offering of the Nazirite, of the cleansed leper, and other voluntary offerings. This was the treasury where Jesus taught during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7-8). He also taught several lessons which pertained to this place and the practices which were familiar there (cf. Matt. 6:2; Mark 12:41; Luke 21:1).

The Court of Israel

This large double court, divided as it was by a low balustrade 1.5 feet high, measured about 280.5 feet in length by 202.5 feet in breadth. Of this only a narrow strip, 16.5 feet in width and extending the entire breadth of the court from north to south, formed the Court of Israel. Two steps led up from it to the Court of the Priests. In that court, three low semicircular steps brought one up to a sort of pulpit or platform, where the Levites often sang and played during the ordinary Temple service. On the northern side of the Court of the Priests were three gates, that of Nitzutz, Sacrifices, and Beth-Moked. But the most prominent object in this Court was the immense altar of unhewn stones, 15 feet high, and 48 feet square. An inclined plane, 48 feet long by 24 wide, led up to the altar. Beside it was a great heap of salt wherewith every sacrifice was to be salted, and upon it burned three separate fires. One was for the sacrifices, another for incense, and the third to supply the means for kindling the other two. An immense Molten Sea or Great Laver for the priests ablutions, stood between the altar and the porch of the Temple, supported by twelve colossal lions. It was filled every morning and drained every evening by machinery which brought it from tunnels in the Temple mount. They ultimately derived the water supply from the hills about Hebron, from Etham, and from the three pools of Solomon. The total length of this aqueduct (called the “low-level” aqueduct) was over 40 miles in length. Archaeologists have estimated that the total number of gallons which could have been stored for Temple use in the storage cisterns which they have discovered approach some 10 million gallons!

The Holy House

The Temple itself was built upon immense foundations of solid blocks of white marble covered with gold, each block measuring, according to Josephus, 67.5 by 9 feet. Mounting by a flight of 12 steps up to the Porch, the Holy Place and the Most Holy were contained within a building which was 90 by 120 feet. A gabled cedar roof, with protruding golden spikes, and surrounded by an elegant balustrade, covered the entirety.

Five Things Lacking

The Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 21b) presents a list of five things that were present in the Temple of Solomon which were lacking in the Herodian sanctuary. They are: the ark and its equipment, the sacred fire, the Shekinah, the Holy Spirit, and Urim and Thummim. The whole point of the passage is to point out the relative inferiority of Herod’s Temple, despite its physical grandeur, to that of Solomon.

Jesus Pronounces a Curse Upon the Holy Temple

In Matthew 24:1, 2 Jesus foretold the end of the magnificent Jewish sanctuary, noting that “not one stone shall be left upon another which shall not be thrown down.” The Lord’s prediction was fulfilled with chilling accuracy in the year A.D. 70, within one full generation of Jesus’ pronouncement. The Arch of Titus in Rome, upon which are sculptured some of the sacred objects taken from the Temple, is interesting in this regard. It pictures the golden lampstand, the golden table of the bread of the Presence with incense cups, two silver trumpets, and other objects being carried in the triumphal procession in honor of Titus, Jerusalem’s conqueror. These were the final vestiges of the sacred worship of Israel’s Temple. It has never again been rebuilt.

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Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 9 p8  May 4, 2000