The Second Temple of Jerusalem was the main structure of religious worship in ancient Israel. Built upon the site of the First, or Solomon's Temple, the Second Temple was in actuality two separate buildings: the temple built by Zerubbabel from 538 to 516 B.C. after the return of the Jewish exiles from the Babylonian Captivity; and a complete rebuilding of the structure on a grand scale begun by King Herod from 20 B.C. to 64 A.D. Both buildings are considered one temple, as the religious functions did not cease during Herod’s reconstruction.
Decree of Cyrus
Forty-eight years after Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of the first Temple, the Babylonian empire came to an end (538 BC), and Persia became dominant under Cyrus. The following year Cyrus made a decree sanctioning the return of the Jews, and ordering the rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 36:23; Ezra 1:1-4). This decree also included the return of the Temple’s sacred vessels and furnishings as well as the levying of a tax upon his western provinces to provide building materials, in addition to what was offered willingly (Ezra 1:6-11, 6:3). The relatively small number of exiles who chose to return for this work (40,000) were led by Sheshbazzar, “the prince of Judah” (Ezra 1:11), whom some identify with Zerubbabel, likewise named “governor of Judah” (Haggai 1:1).
Founding of the Temple
The first work of Zerubbabel was the building of the altar on its old site in the 7th month of the return (Ezra 3:3). Masons and carpenters were engaged for the building of the house, and the Phoenicians were requisitioned for cedar wood from Lebanon (Ezra 3:7). In the 2nd year the foundations of the temple were laid with dignified ceremonial, amid rejoicing, and the weeping of the older men, who remembered the former house (Ezra 3:8-13).
Opposition and Completion of the Work
The work soon met with opposition from the mixed population of Samaria, whose offer to join it had been refused; hostile representations to the Persian king against the building were successful enough to cease construction for about 15 years, till the 2nd year of Darius Hystaspis (520 BC; Ezra 4). On the other hand, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah stimulated the flagging zeal of the builders, and, with new permission being obtained, the work was resumed and proceeded so rapidly that in 516 BC the temple was completed, and was dedicated with joy (Ezra 5; 6).
The Temple Structure
Few details are available regarding this temple of Zerubbabel. It stood on the ancient site, and may have been influenced in parts of its plan by the descriptions of the temple in Ezekiel. Slightly larger than the First Temple (60 cubits high by 60 cubits wide, Ezra 6:3), it was judged to be inferior to the first as a result of the lack of adornment, specifically the absence of the Ark of the Covenant.
Divisions and Furniture
The temple was divided, like its predecessor, into a holy and a most holy place, doubtless in similar proportions. In the apocryphal 1 Maccabees 1:22 mention is made of the “veil” between the two places. The most holy place (or Holy of Holies) was empty, save for a stone on which the high priest placed his censer on the Day of Atonement. The holy place had its old furniture, but on the simpler scale of the tabernacle - a golden altar of incense, a single table of shewbread, one 7-branched candlestick. These were taken away by Antiochus Epiphanes (1 Maccabees 1:21, 22). At the cleansing of the sanctuary after its profanation by this prince, they were renewed by Judas Maccabeus (1 Maccabees 4:41), who also pulled down the old desecrated altar, and built a new one (1 Maccabees 4:44 ff).
Courts, Altar, etc.
The second temple had two courts - an outer and an inner (1 Maccabees 4:38, 48; 9:54; Josephus, Ant., XIV, xvi, 2) - planned apparently on the model of those in Ezekiel and quite large at 500 cubits radius from the center of the temple. The altar, the first thing of all to be “set on its base” (Ezra 3:3) - is shown by 1 Maccabees 4:47 and a passage quoted by Josephus from Hecataeus (Apion, I, xxii) to have been built of unhewn stones. Hecataeus gives its dimensions as a square of 20 cubits and 10 cubits in height. There seems to have been free access to this inner court till the time of Alexander Janneus (104-78 BC), who, pelted by the crowd as he sacrificed, fenced off the part of the court in front of the altar, so that no layman could come farther (Josephus, Ant., XIII, xiii, 5). The courts were colonnaded (Ant., XI, iv, 7; XIV, xvi, 2), and, with the house, had numerous chambers.
The vicissitudes of this temple in its later history are vividly recorded in the apocryphal books of 1 Maccabees, Ecclesiasticus, and in Josephus. In Ecclesiasticus 50 is given a glimpse of a certain Simon, son of Onias, who repaired the temple, and a striking picture is furnished of the magnificence of the worship in his time. After a brief period of independent rule under the Maccabees following the revolt against Antiochus, Judea became part of the Roman empire. In 66 BC Pompey, having taken the temple-hill, entered the most holy place, but kept his hands off the temple-treasures (Ant., XIV, iv, 4). Some years later Crassus carried away everything of value he could find (Ant., XIV, vii, 1). The people revolted, but Rome remained victorious. In 39 B.C. Rome nominated Herod to be king of Judea, acquiring actual power two years later.
Temple of Herod
Initiation of the Work
Several years into his reign (ca. 31 B.C.), Herod built the fortress Antonia to the North of the temple. Midway in his reign, assigning a religious motive for his purpose, he formed the project of rebuilding the temple itself on a grander scale (Josephus gives conflicting dates; in Ant., XV, xi, 1, he says “in his 18th year”; in BJ, I, xxi, 1, he names his 15th year). To allay the distrust of his subjects, he specified that the materials for the new building should be collected before the old structure was taken down; additionally he had some 10,000 skilled workmen employed for the project, including 1,000 priests trained to be masons and carpenters. Construction commenced in 20-19 B.C. The naos, or temple proper, was finished in a year and a half, but it took 8 years to complete the courts and cloisters. The total construction occupied a much longer time; indeed the work was not entirely completed until 64 A.D. - 6 years before its destruction by the Romans.
Built of white marble, covered with heavy plates of gold in front and rising high above its marble-cloistered courts - themselves a succession of terraces - the temple was a conspicuous and dazzling object from every side. The general structure is succinctly described by G. A. Smith: “Herod's temple consisted of a house divided like its predecessor into the Holy of Holies, and the Holy Place; a porch; an immediate fore-court with an altar of burnt offering; a Court of Israel; in front of this a Court of Women; and round the whole of the preceding, a Court of the Gentiles” (Jerusalem, II, 502).
The Temple and Its Courts
Temple Area - Court of Gentiles
Josephus states that the area of Herod's temple was double that of its predecessor (BJ, I, xxi, 1). The Mishna (Mid., ii. 2) gives the area as 500 cubits (roughly 750 ft.); Josephus (Ant., XV, xi, 3) gives it as a stadium (about 600 Greek ft.); but neither measure is quite exact. It is generally agreed that on its east, west and south sides Herod's area corresponded pretty nearly with the limits of the present Haram area but that it did not extend as far North as the latter. The shape was an irregular oblong, broader at the North than at the South. The whole was surrounded by a strong wall, with several gates, the number and position of some of which are still matters of dispute. Josephus mentions four gates on the West (Ant., XV, xi, 5), the principal of which, named in Mid., i. 3, “the gate of Kiponos,” was connected by a bridge across the Tyropoeon with the city (where now is Wilson's Arch). The same authority speaks of two gates on the South. These are identified with the “Huldah” (mole) gates of the Mishna - the present Double and Triple Gates - which, opening low down in the wall, slope up in tunnel fashion into the interior of the court. The Mishna puts a gate also on the north and one on the east side. The latter may be represented by the modern Eastern, or Golden Gate - a Byzantine structure sealed up in the 6th century. This great court - known later as the “Court of the Gentiles” because it was open to everyone - was adorned with splendid porticos or cloisters. The colonnade on the south side - known as the Royal Porch - was especially magnificent. It consisted of four rows of monolithic marble columns - 162 in all - with Corinthian capitals, forming three aisles, of which the middle was broader and double the height of the other two. The roofing was of carved cedar. The north, west, and east sides had only double colonnades. On the east side was the “Solomon's Porch” of the New Testament (John 10:23; Acts 3:11, 5:19). There were also chambers for the officials, and perhaps a place of meeting for the Sanhedrin (bēth dīn) (Josephus places this elsewhere). In the wide spaces of this court took place the buying and selling described in the Gospels (Matthew 21:12 and parallel's; John 2:13).
Wall, “Hel,” “Soregh,” Gates
In the upper or northerly part of this large area on a much higher level was a second or inner enclosure - the “sanctuary” in the stricter sense (Josephus, BJ, V, v, 2) - comprising the court of the women, the court of Israel, and the priests' court, with the temple itself (Josephus, Ant., XV, xi, 5). The surrounding wall, according to Josephus (BJ, V, v, 2), was 40 cubits high on the outside, and 25 on the inside - a difference of 15 cubits; its thickness was 5 cubits. Since, however, the inner courts were considerably higher than the court of the women, the difference in height may have been some cubits less in the latter than in the former, a fact which may explain the difficulty felt as to the number of the steps in the ascent. Around the outside of the wall at a height of 12 (Midrash) or 14 (Josephus) steps was an embankment or terrace, known as the ḥēl (fortification), 10 cubits broad (Midrash says 6 cubits high), and enclosing the whole was a low balustrade or stone parapet 3 cubits high called the ṣōrēgh, to which were attached at intervals tablets with notices in Greek and Latin, prohibiting entry to foreigners on pain of death. From within the ṣōrēgh ascent was made to the level of the ḥēl, and five steps more led up to the gates (the reckoning is probably to the lower level of the women's court). Nine gates, with two-storied gatehouses “like towers” (Josephus, BJ, V, v, 3), are mentioned, four on the North, four on the South, and one on the East - the last probably to be identified with the “Gate of Nicanor” (Midrash), or “Corinthian Gate” (Josephus), which is undoubtedly “the Beautiful Gate” of Acts 3:2 and 3:10. This principal gate received its names from being the gift of a wealthy Alexandrian Jew, Nicanor, and from its being made of Corinthian brass. It was of great size - 50 cubits high and 40 cubits wide - and was richly adorned, its brass glittering like gold (Midrash, ii. 3). The other gates were covered with gold and silver (Josephus, BJ, V, v, 3).
Court of the Women
The eastern gate, approached from the outside by 12 steps (Midrash, ii. 3; Maimonides), admitted into the court of the women, so called because it was accessible to women as well as to men. Above its single colonnades were galleries reserved for the use of women. Its dimensions are given in the Mishna as 135 cubits square (Midrash, ii. 5). At its four corners were large roofless rooms for storage and other purposes. Near the pillars of the colonnades were 13 trumpet-shaped boxes for receiving the money-offerings of the people (compare the incident of the widow's mite, Mark 12:41; Luke 21:1); for which reason, and because this court seems to have been the place of deposit of the temple-treasures generally, it bore the name “treasury” (γαζοφυλάκιον: gazophulákion, John 8:20).
Inner Courts: Court of Israel; Court of the Priests
From the women's court, the ascent was made by 15 semicircular steps (Mid., ii. 5; on these steps the Levites chanted, and beneath them their instruments were kept) to the inner court, comprising, at different levels, the court of Israel and the court of the priests. Here, again, at the entrance, was a lofty, richly ornamented gate, which some, as said, prefer to regard as the Gate of Nicanor or Beautiful Gate. Probably, however, the view above taken, which places this gate at the outer entrance, is correct. The Mishna gives the total dimensions of the inner court as 187 cubits long (East to West) and 135 cubits wide (Midrash, ii. 6; Act_3:1). Originally the court was one, but disturbances in the time of Alexander Janneus (104-78 BC) led to the greater part being railed off for the exclusive use of the priests (Josephus, Ant., XIII, xiii, 5). In the Mishna the name “court of the priests” is used in a restricted sense to denote the space - 11 cubits - between the altar and “the court of Israel” (Acts 3:1). The latter - “the court of Israel” - 2 1/2 cubits lower than “the court of the priests,” and separated from it by a pointed fence, was likewise a narrow strip of only 11 cubits (Midrash, ii. 6; Acts 3:1). Josephus, with more probability, carries the 11 cubits of the “court of Israel” round the whole of the temple-court (BJ, V, vi).
In the priests' court the principal object was the great altar of burnt offering, situated on the old site - the ṣakhrā - immediately in front of the porch of the temple (at 22 cubits distance - the space “between the temple and the altar” of Mat_23:35). The altar, according to the Mishna (Mid., iii. 1), was 32 cubits square, and, like Ezekiel's, rose in stages, each diminishing by a cubit: one of 1 cubit in height, three of 5 cubits, which, with deduction of another cubit for the priests to walk on, left a square of 24 cubits at the top. It had four horns. Josephus, on the other hand, gives 50 cubits for the length and breadth, and 15 cubits for the height of the altar (BJ, V, v, 6) - his reckoning perhaps including a platform (a cubit high?) from which the height is taken (see ALTAR). The altar was built of unhewn stones, and had on the South a sloping ascent of like material, 32 cubits in length and 16 in width. Between temple and altar, toward the South, stood the “laver” for the priests. In the court, on the north side, were rings, hooks, and tables, for the slaughtering, flaying and suspending of the sacrificial victims.
The Temple Building
House and Porch
A flight of 12 steps, occupying most of the space between the temple-porch and the altar, led up to the platform (6 cubits high) on which stood the temple itself. This magnificent structure, built of blocks of white marble, richly ornamented with gold on front and sides, exceeded in dimensions and splendor all previous temples. The numbers in the Mishna and in Josephus are in parts discrepant, but the general proportions can readily be made out. The building with its platform rose to the height of 100 cubits (150 ft), and was 60 cubits (90 ft.) wide. It was fronted by a porch of like height, but with wings extending 20 cubits (30 ft.) on each side of the temple, making the total breadth of the vestibule 100 cubits (150 ft.) also. The depth of the porch was 10 or 11 cubits; probably at the wings 20 cubits (Josephus). The entrance, without doors, was 70 cubits high and 25 cubits wide (Midrash makes this 40 cubits high and 20 wide). Above it Herod placed a golden eagle, which the Jews afterward pulled down (Josephus, Ant., XVII, vi, 3). The porch was adorned with gold.
“Hekhal” and “Debhir”
Internally, the temple was divided into a holy place (hēkhāl) and a most holy (debhīr) - the former measuring, as in Solomon's Temple, 40 cubits (60 ft.) in length, and 20 cubits (30 ft.) in breadth; the height, however, was double that of the older Temple - 60 cubits (90 ft.). In the space that remained above the holy places, upper rooms (40 cubits) were erected. The holy place was separated from the holiest by a partition one cubit in thickness, before which hung an embroidered curtain or “veil” - rent at the death of Jesus (Matthew 27:51). As in Zerubbabel’s temple, the Holy of Holies was empty; only a stone stood, on which the high priest placed his censer on the Day of Atonement (Mishna, Yōmā', v. 2). In the holy place were the altar of incense, the table of shewbread (North), and the seven-branched golden candlestick (South). Representations of the two latter are seen in the carvings on the Arch of Titus. The spacious entrance to the holy place had folding doors, before which hung a richly variegated Babylonian curtain. Above the entrance was a golden vine with clusters as large as a man (Josephus, Ant., XV, xi, 3; BJ, V, v, 4).
The walls of the temple appear to have been 5 cubits thick, and against these, on the North, West, and South, were built, as in Solomon's Temple, side-chambers in three stories, 60 cubits in height, and 10 cubits in width (the figures, however, are uncertain), which, with the outer walls, made the entire breadth of the house 60 or 70 cubits. Windows are not mentioned, but there would doubtless be openings for light into the holy place from above the side chambers.
New Testament Associations of Herod's Temple
Herod's temple figures so prominently in New Testament history; it was here, before the incense altar, that the aged Zacharias had the vision which assured him that he should not die childless (Luke 1:11). Here, in the women's court, or treasury, on the presentation by Mary, the infant Jesus was greeted by Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:27). In His 12th year the boy Jesus amazed the temple rabbis by His understanding and answers (Luke 2:46).
Jesus in the Temple
The chronological sequence of the Fourth Gospel depends very much upon the visits of Jesus to the temple at the great festivals. At the first of these occurred the cleansing of the temple-court - the court of the Gentiles - from the dealers that profaned it (John 2:13), an incident repeated at the close of the ministry (Matthew 21:12 and parallel's). When the Jews, on the first occasion, demanded a sign, Jesus spoke of the temple of His body as being destroyed and raised up in three days (John 2:19), eliciting their retort, “Forty and six years was this temple in building,” etc. (John 2:20), giving a possible date of this occurrence of about 27 A.D. At the second cleansing He not only drove out the buyers and sellers, but would not allow anyone to carry anything through this part of the temple (Mark 11:15-17); it was to be His Father's house and a house of prayer for all nations (compare Isaiah 56:7). With this non-exclusiveness agrees the word of Jesus to the woman of Samaria: “The hour cometh, when neither in this mountain (in Samaria), nor in Jerusalem, shall ye worship the Father” (John 4:21). During the two years following His first visit, Jesus repeatedly walked in the temple-court and taught and disputed with the Jews, usually at festival times. We find Him in John 5 at “a feast” (Passover or Purim?); in John 7; 8, at “the feast of tabernacles,” where the temple-police were sent to apprehend Him (John 7:32, 7:45), and where He taught “in the treasury” (John 8:20); in John 10:22, at “the feast of the dedication” in winter, walking in “Solomon's Porch.” His teaching on these occasions often started from some familiar temple scene - the libations of water carried by the priests to be poured upon the altar (John 7:37), the proselytes (Greeks or gentiles) in the great portico (John 12:20), etc. Of course Jesus, not being of the priestly order, never entered the sanctuary; His teaching took place in the several courts open to laymen, generally in the “treasury” (see John 8:20).
The first days of the closing week of the life of Jesus - the week commencing with the Triumphal Entry - were spent largely in the temple. Here He spoke many parables (Matthew 21; 22 and parallel's); here He delivered His tremendous arraignment of the Pharisees (Matthew 23 and parallel's); here, as He “sat down over against the treasury,” He beheld the people casting in their gifts, and praised the poor widow who cast in literally all the money she had (two mites) above all who cast in a portion of their abundance (Mark 12:41 and parallel's). It was on the evening of His last day in the temple that His disciples drew His attention to “the goodly stones and offerings” (gifts for adornment) of the building (Luke 21:5 and parallel's) and heard from His lips the astonishing announcement that the days were coming - even in that generation - in which there should not be left one stone upon another (Luke 21:6 and parallel's). The prediction was fulfilled to the letter in the destruction of the temple by the Romans under Titus in 70 A.D.
Seven weeks after the crucifixion the Pentecost of Acts 2 was observed. The only place that fulfils the topographical conditions of the great gatherings is Solomon's Porch. The healing of the lame man (Acts 3:1) took place at the “door ... called Beautiful” of the temple, and the multitude after the healing ran together into “Solomon's Porch” or portico (Acts 3:11). Where also were the words of Luke 24:53, they “were continually in the temple, blessing God,” and after Pentecost (Acts 2:46), “day by day, continuing stedfastly ... in the temple,” etc., and for a while the apostles continued the methods of their Master in daily teaching in the temple (Acts 4:1 ff). Many years later, when Paul visited Jerusalem for the last time, he was put in danger of his life from the myriads of Jewish converts “all zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20), who accused him of profaning the temple by bringing Greeks within the precincts forbidden to foreigners (Acts 21:28-30). But Christianity had now begun to look farther afield than the temple. Stephen, and after him Saul, who became Paul, preached that “the Most High dwelleth not in houses made with hands” (Acts 7:48; 17:24), though Paul himself attended the temple for ceremonial and other purposes (Acts 21:26).
The Second Temple was pulled down in A.D. 70 by the Romans. Fragments of blocks from the structure remain in the garden areas outside of the Temple Mount walls. The western retaining wall, the only substantial structure remaining from this time period, is known as the Wailing Wall. It is considered to be the holiest place in the Judean world.
The Koran says that Mohammed ascended to heaven at the "further mosque" or al Aqsa. Although present al Aqsa Mosque was built centuries after the Koran was written, it is traditionally considered to be the site of this ascension. The mosque is on the site of the Israelite royal palace. Muslim authorities consider the Dome to be part the al Aqsa complex, but they do not grant it a special status in its own right.
In 12th century, the Crusaders called the Dome the "Temple of God." The Al-Aqsa served as a Crusader palace and was headquarters of the Knights Templar.
The Temple Mount has been administered by the Wadf since 1948. This Muslim group is funded by the Jordanian government.
This article incorporates text from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, a work in the public domain.
- Ritmeyer, Leen, "The So-Called “Elusive” Location of the Temple in Jerusalem," Biblical Archaeology Review, October 13, 2015.
- "Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque: The Same?", About Islam.