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Model of Herod's Renovation of the Temple of Jerusalem

Model of Herod's Renovation of the Temple of Jerusalem

Herod’s Renovation of the Temple – The Talmudic Version

In their discussion of King Herod’s reconstruction of the Second Temple, Talmudic storytellers emphasize themes of sight, blindness, and illegitimate rule. They also make a surprising suggestion about who really should get credit for this renovation.

Prof. Jeffrey L. Rubenstein

King Herod: Master Builder

King Herod reigned from about 37 BCE to 4 BCE. His rise to power followed the upheavals that resulted after the Roman conquest of Judea in 63 BCE: a civil war between two Hasmoneans, Hyrcanus II and Antigonus II, and Antigonus’s rebellion against the Romans. With Roman backing, Herod defeated Antigonus II and become king.

Herod is well known for his great building endeavors, as anyone who has toured Israel can attest. He built the fortress of Masada, the palace at Herodium, the port of Caesarea with a massive harbor, and many other projects, most notably the renovation and expansion of the Jerusalem Temple—the Western Wall is part of the outer retaining wall that Herod built.

A Complicated Man and a Problem for the Rabbis
Herod presented the Rabbis with a problem. On the one hand, he was a usurper, a murderer, and a vicious tyrant. On the other hand, he had the great merit of rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple, the holiest place on earth, and did a magnificent job—numerous rabbinic traditions praise its spectacular beauty. How could God allow Herod to become king (since all rulers, in rabbinic theology, ruled by the grace of God)? How could God grant the wicked Herod the mitzvah of rebuilding the Temple?

The Talmud preserves a story that addresses these questions (b. Bava Batra 3b-4a). This story departs from what we know of the historical Herod from other sources. 1 That, in and of itself, is not exceptional, as rabbinic stories are didactic, fictional tales and not intended as reliable historical accounts. 2 Here I will offer a literary analysis of the story that highlights themes that help solve the theological implications of the evil Herod building the holy Temple. In a subsequent piece, I will compare the Rabbis’ narrative of Herod’s rebuilding to Josephus’ account, and will then explore the Persian traditions that influenced the rabbinic storytellers. 3 ­

The Story of Herod in b. Bava Batra 3b-4a

Herod, according to the story, is a slave or servant of the Hasmonean royal family, 4 who has designs on the throne. His primary motivation to rebel, however, is attributed to a sordid lust for a young Hasmonean princess—the Talmudic idiom “set his eyes on” generally refers to an illicit sexual desire. 5 Obviously the Hasmonean family will not consider marriage to a servant/slave, hence Herod must usurp power in order to gratify his desires.

An opportunity arises when Herod hears a “voice” (qala) disclose that it is a propitious time to rebel. The nature of this voice is far from clear, and we might wonder why Herod should trust it sufficiently to risk a rebellion that would involve certain death were he to fail. The “voice” evidently should be understood as a divine voice, typically referred to as a “bat qol” (or bat qala), as is indeed the reading in the Vilna printing of the Talmud and some other text-witnesses. 6 If so, then Herod understands that he has been privy to a prophetic revelation that guarantees success. (More on this later.)

A Suicide and Herod’s Plan B

קם קטלינהו לכולהו מרוותי שיירא לההיא ינוקתא. סלקה לאיגרא ורמיה קלה ואמר כל דאמר מבית חשמונאי אנא עבדא הוא דלא אישתייר מיניהו אלא ההיא ינוקת והיא קא נפלה ומתה. הטמינה בדובשא שבע שנין.

איכא דאמרי בא עליה ואיכא דאמרי לא בא עליה.

מאן דאמר בא עליה כי היכי דליתוביה יצריה.

ומאן דאמר לא בא עליה למה לי דעביד הכי? כי היכי דניפוק קלא דניסב בת מלכא.

Some say he had sex with her, and some say he did not have sex with her.

He who says he had sex with her—to satisfy his [sexual] urge.

Herod’s rebellion succeeds to the point where he murders not just the ruling monarch but “all of his masters,” that is, the entire dynasty—a complete and total massacre! He leaves alive the one princess he had lusted after. But she thwarts his plan by committing suicide before he can gain even a semblance of legitimacy by marrying into the royal family, much less having children with Hasmonean blood. To remove any possible doubt, the maiden broadcasts her suicide with a public proclamation so that everyone will know that all future descendants of Herod, despite claims of Hasmonean lineage, in fact have the same slave-status as their father.

His primary objective foiled, Herod adopts the strategy of preserving the maiden’s body in honey. 7 As is common in talmudic discourse, the Bavli now presents two alternative versions of the tradition: some storytellers relate that Herod had sex with the sticky corpse, while others record that he retained it for a different reason. The first version emphasizes that his overriding motivation resulted from his lasciviousness and construes Herod as a necrophiliac, while the second stresses his nefarious political ambitions and portrays him as a murderous pretender. In both cases the story contrasts the superficial appearance of things with the true, inner reality: Herod tries to make it look like a woman is alive, when in truth she is dead. Sight and vision will emerge as important themes of the story.

Herod Massacres the Rabbis who Challenged his Rule
Having disposed of the Hasmoneans, Herod now focuses on the other group whom he perceives as potential opponents of his usurpation: the Rabbis. This depiction is anachronistic, for the sages as a class did not yet exist.

The storyteller here draws on a rabbinic tradition that interprets Deuteronomy 17:15 as stipulating that the kings of the Israelites/Jews must be Jewish. The verse mentions the king must be from “your own people,” literally, “from your own brethren,” and this, according to the Rabbis, means your co-religionists (therefore excluding non-Jews), and not your fellow “citizens” or inhabitants (therefore including non-Jewish residents of Judea, but excluding foreigners who come from abroad.) In Herod’s view, the Rabbis, as the authoritative interpreters of the Bible, will threaten his rule. By disposing of them other Jews will accept Herod’s authority, not understanding that the Bible disqualifies him as king.

Why would Herod worry that he would not be considered Jewish? Herod came from an aristocratic Idumean family. The Idumeans who lived just south of Judea, in an area called “Edom” in the Bible. John Hyrcanos (164-104 BCE), the son of Simon “Maccabee,” conquered Idumea and forcibly converted the Idumeans to Judaism. The Rabbis questioned the sincerity of these conversions, and were divided as to whether such “forced” conversions were legitimate. As the descendant of Idumean converts, Herod’s Jewish status was shaky (in the rabbinic view), and hence his right to be king.

Herod therefore perpetrates a second massacre, again leaving alive but one member of the group. The storyteller artfully narrates this bloodbath with similar phrasing to the earlier massacre of the royal family:

  1. Herod “killed all” (the Hasmoneans/Rabbis) and “left” alive (one maiden/one sage)
  2. Herod wishes others to think he has “taken” the princess in marriage, while he intends to “take” advice from Bava b. Buta.
  3. Just as he wishes to use the maiden for his own twisted and self-serving purposes, so he wishes to use the rabbi.

To render Bava b. Buta weak and impotent, and hence even less of a threat, Herod blinds the sage, a gesture that continues the thematization of sight. Adding insult to injury, he makes Bava b. Buta wear a crown made of hedgehog hide. 8 According to early Christian tradition, the Romans sent Jesus to his crucifixion wearing a crown of thorns in order to mock and humiliate him, as if to say: you thought you were the messianic king, but this is the only crown you will wear. 9 Here too, Herod means to mock and humiliate Bava b. Buta, as if to say: I am the true king wearing a crown of gold, while you Rabbis are powerless, only fit for a degrading headdress.

Herod Tests Bava b. Buta
Herod, still acutely insecure of his position as King despite the double massacre and blinding, resolves to test Bava b. Buta. Perhaps the Sage retains some power by which he can harm the tyrant?

[1] אמר ליה: חזא מר האי עובדא בישא מאי קא עביד? (א”ל) ומאי אעביד ליה?

[2] אמר ליה. נלטייה מר. אמר ליה כת’ גם במדעך אמלך לא תקלל.

[3] (א”ל) הני מילי מלך. האי לאו מלך הוא. (א”ל) ולא יהא אלא עשיר. כת’ ובחדרי משכבך אל תקלל עשיר. ולא יהא אלא נשיא. כת’ ונשיא בעמך לא תאור.

[4] אמר ליה. בעושה מעשה עמך והאי לאו עושה מעשה עמך הוא. אמר ליה מיסתפינא דילמא איכא איניש אחרינא דשמע מילתא ואזיל ומודע ליה.

[5] (א”ל) השתא מיהת ליכא איניש גבן דאזיל ואמר. אמר ליה כי עוף השמים יוליך את הקל ובעל כנפים יגיד דבר.

[6] אמר ליה אנא הוא. אי הוה ידענא דצניעיהו כולי האי לא קטלינא לכו.

[1] He [Herod] said to him, “Do you see, Sir, this evil slave—what he does?” (Bava b. Buta said to him), “What can I do to him?”

[2] He [Herod] said to him, “Curse him.” He [Bava b. Buta] said to him, “It is written, Don’t revile a king even among your intimates (Qoh 10:20).”

[3] (Herod said to him), “This applies to a king. But that one is no king.” (Bava b. Buta said to him,) “Even if he is only a rich man, as is written, [Don’t revile] a rich man even in your bedchamber (Qoh 10:2). And even if he is only a noble, as is written, Do not put a curse upon a noble among your people (Exod 22:27).

[4] He [Herod] said to him, “[That verse applies] to one who acts in accord with the ways of your people, but this one does not act in accord with the ways of your people.” He [Bava b. Buta] said to him, “I am afraid lest there be another man who would hear something and go and inform him.”

[5] (Herod said to him,) Now, however, there is no other man with us who might go and tell.” He said to him, For a bird of the air may carry the utterance, and a winged creature may report the word (Qoh 10:20).”

Pretending to be an enemy of the king, Herod approaches Bava b. Buta, who of course cannot see the individual before him. There follows an extended dialogue where Herod tries to trick Bava b. Buta into cursing the king, which would reveal the Sage’s disloyalty. The wily Herod attempts to convince the Sage that biblical verses cautioning prudence do not apply to him. Because he is not a true king but an illegitimate pretender, the advice of Qohelet 10:20 against cursing a king is irrelevant.

As to the prohibition against cursing a nobleman, Herod counters with an interpretation of Exod 22:27 that limits the scope of the verse. He takes the words “among your people” as excluding those who do not observe the ways and laws of their people, that is, who do not act like good Jews. Such leaders deserve no respect, so Bava b. Buta may lawfully curse the sinful and false “ruler.” Bava b. Buta, however, drawing on his knowledge of scripture and ability to apply it to contemporary situations, refuses to curse Herod and thereby escapes the trap. 10

That Bava b. Buta declines to betray the King shows that Herod has miscalculated again, as he concedes in his concluding observation: “Had I known that the Sages were so discreet, I would not have killed you [all] (6).” His massacre of the Hasmoneans failed to achieve his purpose (either sex with the princess, or marriage into the dynasty), and his massacre of the Sages likewise was a failure (elimination of a rival and threatening group, as the Rabbis were loyal).

Appearances are not what they seem, as Herod’s perception of the Sages as a hostile group deceived him. Nor, were there any doubt, is Herod the rightful king, as he himself admits in his deceptive machinations. His own words testify to the fact that, appearances to the contrary, he is an “evil slave” who does not act “in accord with the ways of your people,” i.e., an illegitimate ruler. In these ways the storyteller continues his negative portrayal of Herod: not only a murderer, pretender, and necrophiliac, but also a buffoon, albeit a dangerous one.

Bringing Light to the World
Having realized he has miscalculated badly, Herod now asks Bava b. Buta for a remedy (takkanah), a way to atone for his sins. He had kept the Sage alive for his advice, and now needs it acutely.

השתא מאי תקנתיה דההוא גברא.

אמר ליה. כיבה הוא אורו של עולם ילך ויעסוק באורו של עולם.

הוא כיבה אורו של עולם דכת’ כי נר מצוה ותורה אור.

ילך ויעסוק באורו של עולם. בית המקדש דכת’ ונהרו אליו כל הגוים.

הוא כיבה עינו של עולם ילך ויעסוק בעינו של עולם.

כיבה עינו של עולם. רבנן. דכת’ והיה אם מעיני העדה נעשתה וגו’

ילך ויעסוק בעינו של עולם. בית המקדש. דכת’ הנני מחלל את מקדשי גאון עוזכם מחמד עיניכם.

He [Bava b. Buta] said to him: “He (=you) extinguished the light of the world. Let him go and busy himself with the light of the world.

“He extinguished the light of the world[—the Sages,] as is written, For the commandment is a lamp the Torah is a light (Prov 6:23).

“Let him go and busy himself with the light of the world—the Temple, as is written, And all the nations shall be illumined by it (=the Temple) (Isa 2:2).”

Some say he [Bava b. Buta] said to him thus:

“He extinguished the eye of the world. Let him go and busy himself with the eye of the world.

“He extinguished the eye of the world—the Sages, as is written, If this was not known to the eyes of the congregation (Num 15:24).

Bava b. Buta prescribes that Herod atone for his sin of murdering the Sages by “busying himself” with the Temple, that is, that Herod devote his resources to rebuilding or renovating the Jerusalem Temple. The Torah and the Temple were the two foci of Judaism in the Second Temple period, the two “lights” or “eyes” (note the theme of sight again) of the world, that is, the two primary ways to enter into relationships with God that ensure that divine blessings flow to the world. Having destroyed the one—the Sages who study and teach Torah—Herod can compensate by building up the other—the Temple.

Fear of the Romans
Herod presents a potential difficulty to Bava b. Buta’s suggestion: he fears the Romans may oppose this project.

אמר ליה מיסתפינא ממלכותא דרומי.

אמר ליה שדר שלוחא. אזיל שתא ומיעכב שתא והדר שתא אדהכי והכי בני ליה.

Again, Herod’s words unmask the true reality, that far from being a (real) king, Herod in fact serves the true kings, the Romans, whose slave he remains. And once again, Bava b. Buta counsels him on how to circumvent the problem. The Sage understands that “it is easier to beg for forgiveness than to get permission,” as the adage goes. Confronted with a fait accompli, the Romans can hardly request that a renovation be undone, and will reluctantly come to terms with the new reality. Bava b. Buta thus emerges as a true source of strength, capable of outwitting the powerful Romans, despite the outward appearance of weakness.

The Romans Response
Herod rebuilds the Temple at the behest of Bava b. Buta, and also follows the Sage’s advice in outsmarting the Romans.

עבד הכי. שלחו ליה. אם לא סתרת אל תסתור. ואם סתרת אל תבנה. ואם סתרת ובנית עבדת בישא בתר דעבדין מתמלכין.

אם זינך עלך סיפרך כאן. את לא רכה ולא בר רכה הורודוס עבדא קלינא מיתעבד.

The ploy succeeds, though Herod is called to account for his machinations. The Romans put him squarely in his place, emphasizing once more that he is in fact nothing but an “evil slave,” with no royal blood. They possess the scroll of his genealogy that documents his servile origins.

As some scholars have noted, the Romans’ words may also contain a double entendre. 12 The phrase, בתר דעבדין מתמלכין, in context meaning “consults (מתמלכין) after acting (בתר דעבדין)” can also be read as “after being slaves (בתר דעבדין) they become king (מתמלכין).” This alternative understanding functions as an additional rebuke to Herod, reminding him that he was a slave who became king and reigns at the whim of his Roman masters.

Two Talmudic Appendices

The story proper ends with the Roman rebuke, but concludes with two brief glosses that serve as types of appendices.

The Meaning of Rekha
The first appendix explains the etymology of the term used for king, rekha, as the rabbinic audience would expect the typical Aramaic word, malka. This word probably derives from rex, the Latin for “king,” but the glossator wished to offer a midrashic explanation or two. He draws on a verse where the king is described as “soft” (rakh), and on the Aramaic translation (Targum) of the Torah that takes the obscure word that Joseph is called, avrekh, as father (av) of the king (rekh).

ומנלן דהא רכה לישנא דמלכותא הוא? דכת’ ואנכי היום רך ומשוח ומלך

ואיבעית אימא. ויקראו לפניו אבריך ומתרגמין אבא למלכא.

The Beauty of Herod’s Temple
The second appendix invokes a tradition found in the Tosefta that praises the beauty of Herod’s Temple, and then explains the source of its splendor, namely the different colored stones from which it was built. This glossator adds that Herod considered covering it with gold to further enhance its beauty, not realizing that this covering would detract from the stunning appearance of waves created by the alternating colors of its stones. The Sages, with their superior aesthetic sense, advised Herod against this policy.

Again, the storyteller takes credit away from Herod and confers it upon the Sages. 13 Not only did a sage, Bava b. Buta, give Herod the idea to rebuild the Temple and advise him how to accomplish the task by deceiving the Romans, but the Sages are also responsible for the amazing beauty of the (so-called) “Building of Herod,” as Herod himself would have diminished its grandeur. The contrast between the inferior covering (despite it consisting of gold) as opposed to inner beauty rehearses the theme of the disparity between superficial appearance and the deeper truth.

The Message of the Herod Tale: Demoting Herod and Promoting the Rabbis

Herod presented a theological conundrum for the Rabbis because he was a murderous and sinful king who nevertheless had the incredible merit of rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple. How can that contradiction be explained? The storyteller’s strategy is to reduce the credit due to Herod as much as possible. He construes the rebuilding of the Temple as the suggestion of a Sage and as penance for Herod’s crimes. Nor would Herod have been able to accomplish the task were it not for Bava b. Buta’s advice as to how to circumvent Roman opposition. Even the Temple’s great beauty was due to the Rabbis’ counsel.

Sight and Vision
The storyteller emphasizes that outward appearances can be deceiving and masks the true reality. 14

  • Herod appears to be king, but is in fact a lowly slave, as his own words and the Roman messages reveal.
  • Herod attempts to make it look like the Hasmonean princess is alive when in truth she is dead.
  • Herod believes the Sages oppose him when in fact they do not.
  • It might appear that Herod deserves credit for reconstructing the Temple, but in fact the entire enterprise was the initiative of the Rabbis.
  • Gold veneer would appear to enhance the beauty of the Temple, but actually detracts from it.

However, the Rabbis, the rightful interpreters of Scripture, can penetrate beyond superficial appearance to the inner truth. Despite (or because of) Bava b. Buta’s lack of sight, he cannot be deceived by appearances, namely Herod pretending to be someone else. Likewise, Bava b. Buta understands the true historical moment, that it is time to renovate the Temple despite Roman opposition, and successfully brings it about.

The Prophetic Voice?

The storyteller tries to explain why Herod became king in the first place by employing a supernatural, prophetic “voice” that revealed the opportune time for rebellion. We should not think that God authorized Herod specifically, but that Herod luckily (over)heard a prophecy and capitalized on that information. He was not chosen by God (like King David), nor did God support his courageous and pious battle against the enemy (as we might say of the Maccabees/Hasmonean dynasty), but was fortunate to have learned that any slave who rebelled at that favorable time would succeed.

That said, the mechanics of this “bat kol” are far from clear. If we are not dealing with a fully prophetic voice—that is, if it does not stem directly from God—what exactly is its source and power? Further, even if it was not directed to Herod specifically, why provide such a general time for rebellion and allow the wicked to take advantage of the opportunity? And even if the Hasmoneans themselves had become corrupt and should not have become kings, as some sources suggest, why allow someone like Herod to replace them? Uncovering the Persian sources of the Talmud’s account of Herod, may help us answer these questions.

Professor Rabbi Jeffrey L. Rubenstein is Skirball Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Literature at New York University. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Religion of Columbia University and his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. His books include, The History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods (1995) Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition and Culture (1999), Rabbinic Stories (Classics of Western Spirituality Series, 2002), The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud (2003), and Stories of the Babylonian Talmud (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).
  1. The details of Herod’s life are known almost exclusively from the historian Josephus, especially Antiquities, Books 15-17. ↩
  2. For further discussion, see my subsequent piece on the Persian sources of the story. For a general introduction to Talmudic stories, see Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Rabbinic Stories (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2002), 1-22 and Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition and Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 1-33. ↩
  3. The essay is based on my article, “King Herod in Ardashir’s Court: The Rabbinic Story of Herod (Bava Batra 3b-4a) in light of Persian Sources,” AJS Review 38 (2014), 249-74, and on an article by Yonatan Feintuch, “External Appearance Versus Internal Truth: the Aggadah of Herod in Bavli Bava Batra,” AJS Review 35 (2011), 85-104. References to additional scholarship on this story can be found in both articles. ↩
  4. The Aramaic avda has a wide range of meanings, from a menial slave to a respected advisor who “serves” the king. ↩
  5. The Hebrew tinoqet, “girl,” need not mean a female child, but simply a young, unmarried maiden. Herod is not being accused of pedophilia. ↩
  6. There are additional variant readings too, which suggests the idea of a divine voice that enabled the wicked Herod to seize power was problematic. See Rubenstein, “King Herod,” 261-62 for discussion. ↩
  7. In fact, honey was frequently employed as a preservative in antiquity, and other writers mention the practice of preserving important bodies in honey until burial. See Herodotus, Histories, 1:140 Rubenstein, “King Herod,” 255 n.15. ↩
  8. The Aramaic word yalai is difficult, and is sometimes taken to refer to a lizard or salamander, though the hedgehog bristles would seem to most resemble a crown. See Feintuch, “External Appearance,” 96 n. 30. ↩
  9. Mark 15:17 Matthew 27:29, John 19:2. ↩

This section presents a biblically-based exchange: The rabbi first appeals to the book of Qohelet, which like the Book of Proverbs, is part of the “Wisdom Literature” included in the Bible offering sagacious advice, guidance and instruction. This adage counsels against cursing a king even in the ostensible safety and secrecy of a private gathering of friends, as one’s words may eventually be reported to the authorities. Likewise no place is truly safe, not even a cloistered bedroom, hence one should not insult powerful and rich people in such settings.

Herod Rebuilds Temple

According to Jewish historian Josephus, the Judean king of Idumean descent, Herod the Great (74/73 BC-4 BC) decided to build a magnificent temple of God in the 18th year of his reign (listed as 20 BC on the Biblical Timeline). He proposed an expansion of the original second temple (one built under the leadership of Zerubbabel) first built during the time of the Achaemenids and continued during the time of the Macedonians. Herod spoke to the people of Jerusalem about this idea, but they were not enthusiastic at first because they feared that Herod might tear it down again. After he had reassured them that he would not tear it down, the people agreed to this magnificent building project.

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As much as ten thousand workmen were chosen to help build the temple, according to Josephus, and it was one of the biggest construction projects at the time. It was located on the northern portion of Mount Moriah and dominated the Kidron and Tyropoeon Valleys. The retaining walls were made of large cut stone blocks that were skillfully put together so well that they can still be visited today. However, the inner courts and temple themselves were destroyed many years ago. The inner portion of the walls were enclosed with porticoes or cloisters.

It had the same dimensions as that of Solomon’s temple which measured 60 cubits long, 20 cubits wide, and 40 cubits high. The courts were divided into four: one for priests, one for Jewish males, one for women, and the last one for Gentiles. Four storage chambers were built at each corner of the women’s courtyard: the Chamber of Lepers, Chamber of Wood, Chamber of the Nazarites, and the Chamber of Oils.

Herod enlarged the length of the temple area, but not its width and according to Josephus and the Mishnah, had several gates that led to the outer court. It had an inner court which led to the sanctuary where the altar was located and where non-Jews were forbidden to enter. The enclosure had nine gates: four on the northern wall, four on the southern wall, one on the eastern wall, and none on the western portion. Two were reserved for women (one on the north and one on the southern end) while six were reserved only for men. Next to the women’s courtyard was the Gate of Nicanor, the largest gate leading to the temple, which measured 50 cubits high and 40 cubits wide.

The temple itself towered up to 15 stories high and divided into the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. The Holy Place contained the altar of incense, the seven-branched golden candlestick, and the table of the shewbread. It led to an inner sanctuary called the Holy of Holies, which the Jews considered as the dwelling place of God. The Ark of Covenant was located inside, and divided from the Holy Place by a curtain or veil. The magnificent decorations of the temple were covered in with silver, gold, and bronze.

According to John 2:20, it took forty-six years for the temple to be completed, but it was only completed during the procuratorship of Albius. Which means it took more than eighty years to complete the temple. It was destroyed by fire less than a decade later by the Romans when Jerusalem was besieged by Titus.

Model of Jerusalem, with the Herod’s Temple in foreground, during the Second Temple period (circa first century CE), Israel Museum, Jerusalem

The model is on a scale of 1:50 two centimeters represent one meter of the ancient city.

Jerusalem, by far the most famous city of the East. … (Pliny the Elder, Natural History V, 70)

The model before you recreates Jerusalem in 66 CE. In that year, the Great Revolt
against the Romans erupted, resulting in the destruction of the city and the Temple.
The ancient city was then at its largest, covering an area of ca. 445 acres (more than
twice the size of the Old City today). The model thus reflects ancient Jerusalem at
its peak, just before all was lost.

The model was built at the initiative of Hans Kroch, owner of the Holyland Hotel, in
memory of his son Jacob, who fell in Israel’s War of Independence. Produced under
the direction of Prof. Michael Avi-Yonah of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it
took four years to complete. In 1966 the model opened to the public on the premises
of the hotel and quickly became a popular attraction. In 2006 it was relocated to the
Israel Museum.

The reconstruction was based on three main sources of information: literary works,
especially the books of Josephus, the Mishnah and Talmud, and the Gospels ancient
cities similar to Jerusalem and archaeological discoveries in Jerusalem itself. Though
the information available at the time of the model’s construction was rather limited,
extensive excavations in Jerusalem since then have greatly enhanced our understanding
of the ancient city and enabled us to improve and update the model. It is expected
that such work will continue in the future.

Model of Herod's Renovation of the Temple of Jerusalem - History

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Biblical Israel: Second Temple Model

The large, scale model of Jerusalem in A.D. 66 offers one of the main attractions at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Hans Kroch, who owner of the Holy Land Hotel in Jerusalem, commissioned Professor Michael Avi-Yonah and his students to create the model in honor of Kroch’s son who died in the War of Independence in 1948. Avi-Yonah provided topographical and archaeological detail and architectural design.

For many years, the model resided at the Holy Land Hotel. Today the model is housed at the Israel Museum. When Avi-Yonah and his students began the project, the Old City of Jerusalem as well as the City of David—the area of biblical Jerusalem—lay in East Jerusalem, which was controlled by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

From 1948 to 1967, the city of Jerusalem was divided between West and East Jerusalem. West Jerusalem belonged to the State of Israel, while East Jerusalem belonged to the Kingdom of Jordan. East Jerusalem contained the area of biblical Jerusalem, which meant that during the period under Jordanian control little archaeological work and activity was conducted thus, much of the archaeological information that came to light in the latter part of the twentieth century remained unknown when Professor Avi-Yonah built the model.

This raises the obvious question: how could he have built such an accurate model of Jerusalem in A.D. 66 without the assistance of archaeological discovery? The answer lies in the rich descriptions of Jerusalem provided by the first century Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus wrote his works for a non-Jewish, Roman audience that had never been to Jerusalem. He provided such a detailed description of the city that using what they knew about the Roman world and the land of Israel in the first century, Professor Avi-Yonah and his students were able to produce this model, which contains a great deal of accuracy. While there are some mistakes within the model, it offers a testament to Josephus and his value as our greatest source on ancient Judaism and the land of Israel in the first century.

Visitors to the model will notice three primary features. First, Jerusalem in the first century covered much more area than the modern Old City of Jerusalem (which has nothing to do with biblical Jerusalem).

Also, the city had two principal foci. On its western edge, at the highest point of the city, stood the palace of Herod the Great. The largest of Herod’s palaces, his palace in Jerusalem played host to the wisemen (Matthew 2) and Jesus when he stood before Pilate. On the northern end of palace stood three towers, which Herod named Mariamme, Phasael, and Hippicus. On the eastern side of the city stood the Temple and the enclosure that surrounded it, which made the Temple Mount the largest sacred enclosure within the Roman world in the first century. The Temple provided the economic and religious center of the city.

Jerusalem in the first century produced nothing it did not sit on a major trade route. It dealt in religion. Jewish and non-Jewish pilgrims (see Acts 2) streamed into the city from all over the known world three times a year: Passover, Pentecost, and Sukkot. Pilgrims approached the Temple from the south. On top of the Temple Mount today stands the golden Dome of the Rock. To gain perspective, Herod’s Temple, the Temple that Jesus, Peter, and Paul knew, was twice the height of the Dome of the Rock. Looking at the model, visitors gain some perspective of its awesome grandeur.

The third feature of the city is its walls. In the model, people see three different wall lines. The wall that comes from the south-eastern part of the Temple Mount surrounding the southern and western sides of the city, which turns east and connects at the western wall of the Temple Mount, Josephus calls the first wall. A large wall includes the northern neighborhoods this is Josephus’ third wall, which was built after the time of Jesus. Inside the third wall, visitors to the model see a second wall. The first and second walls contained the Jerusalem that Jesus knew, which was twice the size of the modern Old City.

One of the biggest challenges for guides of Jerusalem is helping their groups understand the city’s history and many layers. The model of Jerusalem at the Israel Museum offers an excellent visual, as well as a monument to the city at its height in the first century.

Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions . He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible , was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.

A history of the new temple built by King Herod the Great

The history of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where King Herod’s temple stood, goes back to Abraham, the father of the Jewish religion, in the 18th century B.C. On this mount where God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, God intervened and a ram was sacrificed instead. This event sanctified for all time the steep rocky summit we call the Temple Mount.

Eventually King David (1000-970 B.C.) captured Jerusalem and placed there the ark of the covenant, a portable chest on top of which the presence of God dwelt between two angels facing each other. This ark was housed in a tent. When King David built himself a beautiful palace, he felt the ark should not just be housed in a small tent, but in a grand temple. David’s son Solomon (970-930 B.C.) eventually built the first temple for the Israelites. This temple was destroyed by the Babylonians from southern Iraq in 587 B.C. Many Israelites were taken into exile in Babylon.

When the Persians from Iran conquered Babylon in 538 B.C., they allowed the Israelites who wished to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. This new temple of Zerubbabel, a Judean prince who organized the rebuilding, was begun in 537 B.C. and dedicated in 515 B.C.

Father John McKenzie says the temple of Zerubbabel was of the same dimensions and structure as the temple of Solomon, but much inferior in the richness of its decorations. Eventually, with the Jewish conflict with their Seleucid or Syrian rulers like Antiochus IV (175-164 B.C.), the temple was probably severely damaged. This temple stood until the beginning of Herod the Great’s new temple in 19 B.C.

The temple of Herod was built on massive quarried blocks still visible today at the Wailing Wall or Western Wall in Jerusalem where many Jews congregate to pray. Often they write out a prayer intention on a small piece of paper and place it in a crack in the wall. Baedeker says that politically Herod wanted to gain the favor of his Jewish subjects, so he rebuilt the temple by combining the requirements of the Jewish religion with elements of the Graeco-Roman style. He extended the area of the temple to its present size of 985 feet by 1,575 feet.

The outer forecourt was for temporal business and open to anyone. The inner forecourt was on a higher level and only Jews were allowed access. It was divided into three parts: the Women’s Courtyard, the Courtyard of the male Israelites with the incense offering, and the Priests’ Courtyard with an altar on which animals were sacrificed. In the center was the temple with a white marble façade and golden capitals. The temple of Herod maintained the threefold division of Solomon’s temple: the vestibule, the holy place and the holy of holies.

Herod’s Temple Mount

Herod’s massacre of the infants (Matthew 2:16-18) by the Italian painter Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-11.

King Herod the Great, who ruled the Land of Israel as a client of the Romans from 37-4 BCE, was among the most widely feared individuals who ever sat on a throne in Jerusalem. He was wildly despotic, manipulative, murderous, and paranoid. But today, these less savory aspects of Herod’s character have mostly faded into the past. What we are left with are the impressive remains of Herod’s numerous building projects.

An aerial view of the fortress of Herodium (5 miles south of Jerusalem) which Herod later converted into his own burial site.

Many people are familiar with Herod’s desert fortresses such as Masada and Herodium and his renovation of the Second Temple. But we tend to forget that Herod did not merely rebuild the Temple itself, but totally overhauled the Temple Mount, creating the artificial flat platform that still exists today. It is known in Hebrew as Har Habayit (“the Temple Mount”) and in Arabic as Haram es-Sharif (“the Noble Sanctuary”) and is pictured here:

This was done by building a series of retaining walls and vaulted arches around Jerusalem’s eastern hill, in order to expand the surface area of the sacred plaza (Greek: temenos) surrounding the Temple itself (Greek: naos). The finished product was an artificial platform that housed the largest sacred structure in the Roman Empire at the time.

For example, Herod’s Temple Mount was five times bigger than the Temple of Baal-Shamin in Palmyra (destroyed by ISIS in 2015), pictured here:

One of the most impressive buildings built by Herod the Great was located on the southern side of the expanded Temple Mount platform. It was known as the “Royal Stoa” and was a unique building unto itself. It was also the part of the renovated Temple complex seen by the most number of people because it was not off-limits to anyone (i.e., Gentiles, women, non-priests). Likely the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” referred to by Josephus was located directly adjacent to the Royal Stoa. Separating the open area allowed to Gentiles from the Jewish-only zone closer to the Temple was a stone barricade (soreg), of which remnants have been found. Pictured here is a monumental Greek inscription discovered in 1871 by Clermont-Ganneau, which warns Gentiles not to pass beyond the barrier: “No stranger is to enter within the balustrade round the temple and enclosure. Whoever is caught will be responsible to himself for his death, which will ensue.”

Pictured here is the “Holy Land Hotel model” of Second Temple Era Jerusalem designed by Prof. Michael Avi-Yonah, today housed at the Israel Museum. The Royal Stoa is the red-roofed structure on the extreme left side of the Temple Mount.

In ancient Greek architecture the word stoa (στοά) means a covered walkway or roofed colonnade, commonly for public use. It is usually translated as “portico” or “porch” in English. Stoas were open at the entrance with columns lining the side of the building they created a safe, enveloping, protective atmosphere. Here is an image of the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, located in the ancient agora of Athens.

According to Josephus, the magnificent Royal Stoa was the largest building atop the Temple Mount. It extended the whole length of the southern side of the esplanade. It was the main site of commercial activity atop the Temple Mount and was a major place for political meetings. It was a long three-aisled structure containing four rows of massive Corinthian columns holding up the roof.Although this was indeed a stoa, the Royal Stoa was also a basilica. The word basilica comes from the Greek basileos (βασιλεύς) meaning “king” because this type of building was commonly used as the royal palace for a king. After Christianity was legalized in the 4th century, the basilica structure was adopted for church architecture.

An early 20th century photograph of the interior of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which has remained largely unchanged since it was rebuilt by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Note the basilical floorplan, containing four rows of columns surrounding a central nave. Not pictured are the three apses at the eastern side of the church.

Josephus describes the Royal Stoa as having 162 columns, each 50 feet high and 16 feet in diameter (Jewish Antiquities 15.413-4).

A close-up of the Royal Stoa from the Holy Land model at the Israel Museum

As seen in the image of the Holy Land model above, the other three sides of the Temple Mount esplanade were bordered by much simpler (non-basilical) covered porticoes (stoas). The most famous of these was located on the eastern side, overlooking the Kidron Valley. It was called Solomon’s Portico and is mentioned in John 10:23 (as well as Acts 3:11.). This was during an earlier visit by Jesus to Jerusalem on the occasion of Hanukkah found only in John. Of course, King Solomon himself had nothing to do with the building of this Herodian portico.

If, however, we examine the final week of Jesus in Jerusalem, it is quite likely that the Royal Stoa was the setting for one of the most crucial incidents that took place during this week: the overturning of the tables of the money-changers (Matt. 21:12-13 Mark 11:15-17 Luke 19:45-48). This incident is popularly known as the “Cleansing of the Temple,” which is a problematic term because it implies that the Temple itself was somehow impure and in need of cleansing. The Gospels make no such statement. Rather, the problem is that the esplanade of the Temple Mount had become excessively commercialized. A more precise – if rather unwieldy – name would be the “Decommercialization of the Temple’s Outer Courtyards”. More than anything else that Jesus did during his final week, it was this act which got him in trouble with the Jewish authorities, paving the way for his eventual arrest and execution.


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).

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). 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).

Later history

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.

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. Contruction 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).

Herod announces rebuilding temple

"I think I need not speak to you, my countrymen, about such other works as I have done since I came to the kingdom, although I may say they have been performed in such a manner as to bring more security to you than glory to myself. I have neither been negligent in the most difficult times about what tended to ease your necessities, nor have the buildings.

"I have made been so proper to preserve me as yourselves from injuries and I imagine that, with God's assistance, I have advanced the nation of the Jews to a degree of happiness which they never had before . . . As to that undertaking which I have a mind to set about at present, and which will be a work of the greatest piety and excellence that can possibly be undertaken by us, I will now declare it to you . . .

"Our fathers, indeed, when they were returned from Babylon, built this temple to God Almighty, yet does it want sixty cubits of its largeness in altitude. So much did that first temple which Solomon built exceed this temple nor let any one condemn our fathers for their negligence or want of piety herein, for it was not their fault that the temple was no higher.

"For it was Cyrus, and Darius the son of Hystaspes, who determined the measures for its rebuilding and it hath been by reason of the subjection of those fathers of ours to them and to their posterity, and after them to the Macedonians, that they had not the opportunity to follow the original model of this pious edifice, nor could raise it to its ancient altitude.

"Since I am now, by God's will, your governor, and I have had peace a long time, and have gained great riches and large revenues, and, what is the principal filing of all, I am at amity with and well regarded by the Romans, I will do my endeavor to correct that imperfection . . ."

Visit First Century Jerusalem

The best way to make Jerusalem history come alive and imagine it in the first century is to visit the model at the Israel Museum. This large-scale model reconstructs the city as it was in the year 66 CE.

This was four years  before the destruction of the second Temple, the period during which the Dead Sea scrolls were probably being written, and the very beginnings of Christianity.

The city included not only the Temple Mount and the lower city (the area of the present day Ophel Archaeological Park and the City of David), but also the upper city (the present day Armenian and Jewish quarters). Right next to the Temple, Herod razed the HaBirah Fortress and replaced it with the imposing Antonia Fortress.

The Antonia Fortress

Bring a hat or parasol - there is no shade, and you'll want to take your time exploring ancient Jerusalem.

Watch the video: Herods Temple - Model in Israel Museum,Jerusalem -Nahum Gofberg (January 2022).