Part III of a series: Where Did Israel’s Temples Stand?
In the previous post in this series, we looked at the fairly convincing evidence that Jerusalem’s present-day “Temple Mount,” or Haram-esh-Sharif as the Muslims call it, is the foundation of what was once the Roman fortress at Jerusalem, built by Herod and named “Antonia” for his patron Mark Antony. It was not the site at all for any of the earlier temples which were at the center of Jewish religious life. Rather, as eyewitness testimony will show, the site for Herod’s temple (and Zerubbabel’s, and Solomon’s) was at the top of the mount called Ophel, about 1000 feet to the south of the Antonia fortress.
In this post, I want to review the eyewitness testimony as to the temple’s location, in contrast to that of Antonia’s. We will start with the earliest testimony recorded just after Titus and his Roman soldiers had razed Herod’s temple to the ground — including all its foundations. Our starting point is, once again, the first-century historian Josephus, who was in Jerusalem (and a member of Titus’ staff) when the Romans destroyed the temple.
Josephus quotes Eleazar, the commander of the Jewish forces at Masada until that fortress in turn was overrun by the Romans three years after Jerusalem fell. As the Romans were about to storm the last ramparts that defended the Jews there, Eleazar gave a speech urging his men to put themselves to the sword rather than accept death or captivity at the hands of the Romans. In the course of that speech, Josephus has him say of Jerusalem (Jewish War, 7:375-76 [Hammond tr., OUP 2017; my emphasis):
“Where now is that great city, the mother-city of the whole Jewish race, secure behind all those rings of walls, protected by all those guard-posts and massive towers, with hardly enough room for its arsenal of munitions, and with all those tens of thousands of fighting men to defend it? Where has it gone, that city of ours which was believed to have God as its founder? It has been torn up by the roots and swept away. The only memorial of it left is the camp of those that destroyed it, still quartered in the ruins . . .”.
While Eleazar’s words might be artistic license rather than recorded verbatim, the fact that their author is Josephus, who was himself personally familiar with what the Romans left standing at Jerusalem, is guaranty enough that what Eleazar states is an accurate description — otherwise those with equal knowledge of the facts — including Josephus’ own sponsor, Titus himself — could easily have contradicted him.
The next eyewitness testimony is from the time of the Emperor Hadrian, in 132 A.D., who with Roman troops put down the second Jewish rebellion which began that year, led by Simon bar-Kokhba. That rebellion, unlike the first, was not fought in the streets of Jerusalem, because Titus and his troops had left the city uninhabitable. Citing contemporary accounts, Epiphanius of Salamis, who was the bishop of Cyprus, wrote in the fourth century:
It was in the second year of his reign when [Hadrian] went up to Jerusalem, the famous and much-praised city which had been destroyed by Titus the son of Vespasian. He found it utterly destroyed and God’s Holy Temple a ruin, there being nothing where the city stood but a few dwellings and one small church. . . . [Then] Hadrian decided to restore the city, but not the Temple.
Hadrian built the city he called Aelia Capitolina on the westernmost hill of the former Jerusalem, in the area of what Josephus called “the upper city.” The builders used stones from the former Temple and from other ruins left by Titus. (This “recycling” of stones from the lower city has presented many puzzles for archaeologists at Jerusalem’s various sites.)
The former City of David, on the lower eastern hill (where the temple had stood), was left to go fallow, and according to the testimony of St. Jerome (in his Commentaries, with reference to Isaiah 64:11) “the Temple which earned reverence throughout the world has become the refuse dump of the new city Aelia . . .”.
The Christian historian Eusebius was the librarian at Caesarea, and frequently visited the library at Aelia in the early fourth century. On numerous occasions in his writings he laments the complete and utter destruction of the Temple, and notes that its site was now “a Roman farm like the rest of the country . . . I have seen the bulls plowing there and the sacred site sown with seed” (Ecclesiastical History VIII.3:406).
In contrast to the site of the Temple, other fourth-century writers referred to the site of Fortress Antonia as the site of the rebuilt Praetorium, where Jesus had been tried before Pilate. The Romans ceased using it as a fort around A.D. 289, and Eusebius reported it had deteriorated from disuse by the time he came to Jerusalem (Aelia). But St. Jerome again describes it rebuilt circa 380 A.D. as an “imperial residence”, in which he invited his noble-born friend Paula (who had become a nun) to stay. (She declined on the ground that it was too ornate for a nun, even one who was noble-born.)
By the time of the “Piacenza Pilgrim“, writing ca. A.D. 570, there was a Christian shrine, called the Basilica of St. Sophia or the “Church of the Holy Wisdom” built on the Praetorium platform to surround the “judgment rock” on which it was thought that Jesus had stood when Pilate sentenced him to death. From the description the Pilgrim gives of the rock, there can be no doubt that this is the same irregular stone over which the Dome of the Rock now stands, in the middle of the Haram-esh-Sharif, and the Pilgrim’s narrative thus supplies the conclusive connection between the former Roman Praetorium (Antonia Fortress) and the Haram-esh-Sharif which so many now mistake as “the Temple Mount”. The indentations which present-day Muslims identify as the “footprints of Mohammed” which the Prophet left as he began his final journey are the same which the “Piacenza Pilgrim” identified in 570 A.D. as the “footprints of Jesus” when he stood before Pilate.
Making this connection enables one to understand just how the memory of the original temple site was lost over time, and became conflated with the site of the Antonia, now the Haram-esh-Sharif. The Church of the Holy Wisdom stood over its revered rock during Byzantine times until the Persians (and Jewish soldiers) destroyed it in A.D. 614. As I noted in the post before this one, Caliph Omar, after conquering Jerusalem in A.D. 638, left the (now) bare rock alone when he built the al-Aqsa Mosque at the far southern end of the fortress platform to honor the Prophet’s last journey. But by the time of the Caliph Abd-al-Malik in A.D. 691, Muslims had come to identify the visible markings on the rock with the Prophet’s nighttime journey, and so he had the Dome of the Rock built over it, where it stands today.
So things went until the time of the Crusades. When the Christians conquered Jerusalem in A.D. 1099, they slaughtered most of Jerusalem’s Muslim and Jewish inhabitants, and converted al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock into Christian places of worship. Later Crusaders mistakenly identified al-Aqsa as having been built on the site of Solomon’s Temple, and called it “Templum Solomonis“. King Baldwin II of Jerusalem, along with Jerusalem’s then patriarch, gave approval to the formation of a military holy order to protect Christian pilgrims to the Holy City. He let them establish their headquarters in the refurbished al-Aqsa mosque, and due to its Christian name they became known as the “Knights Templar“.
And ever since, Christians, Moslems and Jews have identified the Haram-esh-Sharif as the former site of the Jewish temples, beginning with that of Solomon.
The original connection between the Temple of Solomon and the Gihon Spring has been forgotten. (Even the Roman historian Tacitus referred to Herod’s Temple as having an “inexhaustible spring” within its perimeter, while there were only cisterns — and no spring — to supply water for the Antonia Fortress.) To complete the circle back to the original temple site, I will review the evidence identifying Gihon’s waters with the Temple in a subsequent post.