What was Herod’s Temple like during the Lord’s life? A look at the Temple—from the Pinnacle to the Holy Place.
Jesus and the Temple91904_000_008
No single place in all the world was holier to Jews and Christians at the time of Jesus than the Temple Mount. It was known as Har Habayit, the “Mountain of the House [of God].” On this sacred parcel of ground, the God of all creation had conversed with his prophets and priests, and on it a temple had been built to which He could come and in which his glory could dwell.
Illustrated by Leen Ritmeyer
Of course, God was not and is not limited to a building made by man. Mountains of God—such as Mount Sinai and the high mountains to which the brother of Jared, Nephi, and John the Revelator were caught away by the Spirit (see Ether 3:1; 1 Ne. 11:1; Rev. 21:10)—have often been the settings for templelike experiences.
The Savior himself sometimes “went up into a mountain apart to pray.” (Matt. 14:23.) He took Peter, James, and John to “an high mountain apart” and was there glorified and transfigured before them; there they received the keys of the kingdom and heard the Father himself bearing witness of his Son. (See Matt. 17:1–9; History of the Church, 3:387.) After the Resurrection, the Savior gave his final charge and instructions to the eleven Apostles in “a mountain where Jesus had appointed them.” (Matt. 28:16.)
These mountains were made holy by the divine presence of God.
The Savior and the Temple
But what of the Temple itself during Jesus’ day? How did Jesus—the very Jehovah in whose name it had been built and to whom its sacrifices had been offered—regard the Temple built by Herod?
Although the architectural beauty of Herod’s Temple made it one of the wonders of the ancient world, it had less of the hallowed and spiritual atmosphere that had infused the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple. The ark of the covenant, Mercy Seat, Cherubim, and other holy objects were not there; the Urim and Thummim, which provided revelatory contact with God, was not there; and the Shechinah—the divine presence—was absent.
Yet Herod’s Temple was a place of revelation, as seen in the experience of Zacharias. (See Luke 1.) And there is evidence in word and deed that Jesus considered the Temple to be the legitimate sanctuary of the true God. Indeed, Jesus called it “my Father’s house” (John 2:16) and “my house” (Matt. 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46).
The Savior’s life from beginning to end was bound to the Temple. When Mary had fulfilled the forty-day ritual of purification after giving birth, she and Joseph took the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for the ceremonial redemption of the firstborn. (See Luke 2:22–24.) Twelve years later, Mary and Joseph “found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, and they were hearing him, and asking him questions.” (JST, Luke 2:46.)
Near the commencement of the Savior’s ministry, “Jesus was taken up into the holy city, and the Spirit setteth him on the pinnacle of the temple.” (JST, Matt. 4:5.) There Satan made a vain effort to tempt him. During the three years that followed, Jesus was frequently in the Temple courts and in the Temple—that is, in various structures or colonnades of the inner Temple—though apparently not in the Holy Place itself (see illustration):
“The blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them.” (Matt. 21:14.)
“About the midst of the feast Jesus went up into the temple, and taught.” (John 7:14.)
“And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.” (John 8:2.)
“He taught daily in the temple.” (Luke 19:47.)
“All the people came early in the morning to him in the temple, for to hear him.” (Luke 21:38.)
“I spake openly to the world,” he said; “I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing.” (John 18:20.)
On at least one occasion, people in the Temple cried to him in praise, saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” (Matt. 21:15.)
Jesus was protective of the sanctity of his Father’s house. In the very early days of his ministry, he cleansed the Temple court of the merchandisers and money changers. (See John 2:13–16.) Then during his final week in mortality, he again “went into the temple of God, cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers.” (Matt. 21:12.)
As he taught, Jesus made figurative use of the Temple to foreshadow his death and resurrection: “Destroy this temple,” he said, “and in three days I will raise it up.
“Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?
“But he spake of the temple of his body.” (John 2:19–21.)
At Jesus’ death, the veil in the Temple’s most sacred chamber, the Holy of Holies, was “rent in twain from the top to the bottom.” (Matt. 27:51.) For generations, only the high priest had been permitted to pass through the veil and enter the symbolic presence of God—and even he had that privilege only once a year. But through his death, Jesus rent that partition, signifying, among other things, that all people could reach God’s presence. (See Paul’s explanation of the symbolism, Heb. 9:11–14; Heb. 10:19–22.)
Although the Temple had been built by a godless king and was in the hands of priests who had strayed from the true knowledge of Jehovah, Jesus reverenced it and respected it. But he also acknowledged its position in relation to the true Lord of the Temple: “I say unto you,” he told the Pharisees, “that in this place is one greater than the temple.” (Matt. 12:6.)
The Temple at the Time of Jesus
It was said that whoever had not seen the Temple of Herod had never seen a beautiful building. No other temple complex in the Greco-Roman world compared with its expansiveness and magnificence. One thousand priests trained as masons helped to build the holiest parts of the Temple. Ten thousand workmen, using a thousand wagons to transport materials, constructed the rest of the building. The Temple proper took a year and a half to build; the courtyards and porticoes were under construction for eight years. Additional work and refinements on the Temple continued until A.D. 64, only six years before the Temple was destroyed by the army of Titus.
Herod nearly doubled the size of the Temple Mount from what it was during the period of Solomon, making it in Jesus’ day nearly forty acres. In comparison, Temple Square in Salt Lake City covers ten acres; the famous Forum in Rome was only twenty acres; and the largest temple complex in the world—Karnak, in Upper Egypt, which was two thousand years in the building—is sixty acres, only a third larger than Herod’s Temple Mount. (Thirty-two American football fields would fit on the Temple Mount!)
Solomon’s Stables. To expand the Temple, Herod had to extend the platform of the Temple Mount. To the north and west he had his workmen bring in earth-fill to support the floor; but underneath the floor of the southern portion of the Temple courtyard are hollow chambers, vaults supported by rows of arched colonnades. Later, Crusaders used these large, columned chambers for stabling their horses. Although Herod constructed them, they are erroneously called “Solomon’s Stables.”
The Pinnacle of the Temple. The entire Temple area was enclosed by a high retaining wall. Since the southwestern corner of the wall provides the best angle for looking out over the city, a few recent researchers believe this is the Pinnacle of the Temple where Jesus was tempted. In the ruins of that corner, researchers discovered a carved platform stone with a Hebrew inscription, indicating that this is where a herald would stand to blow the shofar, signaling the advent of holy days.
The southeastern corner is the traditional candidate for the Pinnacle of the Temple. It is the highest point along the whole length of the walls of the Temple Mount—211 feet, or 64 meters. From the top of this point to the bottom of the Kidron Valley was a drop of more than 400 feet—the highest man-made height ever achieved anciently in the Holy Land. The point of Satan’s temptation was to entice Jesus into misusing his divine power by throwing himself off the dizzying height and counting on angels to rescue him from the fall. (See Matt. 4:6.)
Huldah Gates. The main entrance and exit to the Temple Mount were two gates, called the Huldah Gates, leading through the walls of the Temple Mount from the south. Through the one on the right, a person would enter to perform the holy work in the Temple, after having gone through ritual washings or cleansings in small pools or fonts just outside the walls. The left gate was the exit from the Temple Mount.
Susa Gate. The eastern gate of the Temple Mount was called the Susa Gate. It faced eastward toward Susa (or Shushan), the Persian capital where parts of the biblical stories of Daniel, Esther, Nehemiah, and others unfolded. (See Dan. 8:2; Esth. 1:2; Neh. 1:1.) This gate was said to have been lower than the other gates so that the priests who were sacrificing a red heifer (a symbolic representation of the Redeemer) across the valley on the Mount of Olives might look directly into the Temple.
Solomon’s Porch. At ground level on all sides of Herod’s Temple were extraordinary colonnaded porticoes (also called porches or cloisters)—covered walkways with colonnades opening to the inside. Each portico hosted a double row of Corinthian columns, each column a monolith cut from one block of stone and rising to more than thirty-seven feet.
The porticoes inside Herod’s newly positioned north, west, and south walls were unique to Herod’s Temple. However, he built up the eastern portico in the same spot as that of Solomon’s Temple. This eastern portico, called Solomon’s Porch (see 1 Kgs. 6:3), is possibly where twelve-year-old Jesus conversed with the learned rabbis. (See Luke 2:46.) Here the Savior later walked and taught at the feast of dedication (Hanukkah) and testified that he was God’s Son; the Jews tried to stone him here on that occasion. (See John 10:22–39.) This is also where Peter and John, after performing a miracle at the gate of the Temple, drew a large crowd and preached, calling the people to repentance for denying and killing the Holy One; here they were arrested by Temple police and Sanhedrin officials. (See Acts 3:1–4:2.)
Herod’s Basilica. The southern portico, grander than the others, is often called Herod’s Basilica. (The word basilica comes from the Greek word basileus—“king”; therefore, this was considered to be a royal portico.) This rectangular public hall with colonnaded aisles had a total of 162 Corinthian columns. At its foot were ramps leading onto the Temple courtyard from the south.
Court of the Gentiles. Solomon’s Porch, Herod’s Basilica, and the other cloisters or porticoes along the walls on the ground floor of the Temple complex opened onto the Court of the Gentiles, so named because non-Jews were allowed to enter. This is where people gathered to buy and sell oxen, sheep, and doves for use in Temple sacrifice and where money changers busily changed currency with pagan symbols and likenesses of polifical rulers into Temple coinage. Non-Jews were allowed to enter this far onto the Temple Mount, just as members of other faiths are allowed onto Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Of course, the Court of the Gentiles is where Jesus cast out the merchants and the money changers. (See John 2:13–16; Matt. 21:12.)
Surrounding the Temple proper, separating it from the Court of the Gentiles, was a balustrade (soreg in Hebrew)—a stone railing about four and a half feet high, with posted inscriptions in Greek and Latin warning Gentiles not to pass within. One of these inscriptions, found in 1935 just outside the Lion’s Gate of the Old City, is now on display in the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum. It reads: “No Gentile shall enter inward of the partition and barrier surrounding the Temple, and whosoever is caught shall be responsible to himself for his subsequent death.”
Court of the Women. Through the balustrade and up a level from the Court of the Gentiles is the Court of the Women, the easternmost portion of the Temple proper, where Israelites—both men and women—were permitted to enter. The main gate into the Women’s Court was called the Beautiful Gate because of its rich decoration. At this gate, Peter and John, on their way to Temple worship, stopped to hear the petition of a lame man. Peter healed the man, who then joined them in the Temple, “walking, and leaping, and praising God.” (See Acts 3:1–11.)
A fortified inner wall with towers, gates, and porticoes surrounded this court. Against the walls, inside the porticoes, were chests for charitable contributions; this is likely the place called the “treasury,” where the widow cast in her mites. (See Mark 12:41–44.)
The court itself was a large space, nearly two hundred feet square. In the four corners were chambers that served various functions. One eastern chamber served the Nazarites; those who had made special vows could prepare sacrifices there. The other eastern chamber was used for storing wood. One western chamber was used for storing olive oil. The other was a private ritual bath for purification of lepers.
It was perhaps to this Court of the Women that Joseph and Mary brought the infant Jesus five to six weeks (forty days) after his birth so that he, as a firstborn, could be redeemed and so that Mary could be ceremonially cleansed. (See Luke 2:22–24.) Here Jesus later taught during the Feast of Tabernacles (see John 7:2, 14; John 8:20) and bore witness of his own divinity; dealt mercifully with the woman taken in adultery; proclaimed himself to be the Light of the World, the Messiah; and bore testimony that he was the God of Abraham. In this court, angry Jews again tried to stone him. (See John 7–8.)
The Court of the Men of Israel and the Court of the Priests. Beyond the women’s court, fifteen curved steps led west upward toward the Nicanor Gate. (Nicanor was a wealthy Jew from Alexandria, Egypt, who donated the ornate doors of the gate.) This door opened into the innermost court of the Temple, which was actually a double court. The first was the Court of the Men of Israel; next to it was the Court of the Priests. Only priests and other authorized persons could enter this latter court.
Along the southern side of this court was the “chamber of hewn stone” where the Sanhedrin met. Stephen was transfigured before the Sanhedrin here (see Acts 6:12–15), and here Paul bore witness to the Sadducees and Pharisees (see Acts 22:30–23:10). Along the northern side of this court was the “chamber of the hearth,” where priests on duty could spend their nights.
Within this inner court were the Place of Slaughtering and the giant brass washbasin (the Laver) supported on the backs of twelve lions. (For all the water needs of the Temple Mount, millions of gallons of water were brought in from Solomon’s Pools, south of Bethlehem, and stored in a connected series of rock-cut reservoirs.)
Near the Laver stood the great horned Altar of Sacrifice, or Altar of Burnt Offering. It measured 40 feet by 40 feet by 15 feet high. Some believe that the huge rock inside the Dome of the Rock, which now measures approximately 40 feet by 50 feet by 7 feet high, once formed the base of the altar of sacrifice. It is clear that King David purchased the rock in order to build an altar to the Lord. (See 2 Sam. 24:18–25.)
The altar was made of whitewashed unhewn stone. A ramp 48 feet long and 24 feet wide led up to it from the south. The altar stood off-center in the court so that the priest sacrificing the red heifer across the valley on the Mount of Olives could see straight into the giant entryway of the holy sanctuary, which stood 66 feet high and 33 feet wide (20 by 10 meters).
The Holy Place. Twelve additional steps beyond the Court of the Priests led to the Sanctuary, or Holy Place. It was built on precisely the same site and to the exact dimensions as Solomon’s Temple. As was the case in Solomon’s Temple, the two columns in front of the Holy Place were named “Jachin” and “Boaz” (meaning “He will establish” and “In him is strength”). The Sanctuary itself was made of marble. It was more than 150 feet high (today’s Dome of the Rock reaches a height of just over 100 feet), and was topped by golden spikes to discourage birds from landing on and tarnishing the stone.
Inside the Holy Place was the veil leading to the most sacred chamber, the Holy of Holies. In this chamber the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias to announce the impending birth of John the Baptist. (See Luke 1:5–23.) This is where the veil hung that was torn from top to bottom at the death of Jesus. (See Matt. 27:51.)
Thus, the Temple area consisted of a series of rising platforms. From the Court of the Gentiles, one ascended stairs to the Court of the Women. From there, one ascended the fifteen curved stairs, possibly singing the fifteen Psalms of Ascent (see Ps. 120–134), to the Court of the Men of Israel and the Court of the Priests. Finally, one made another ascent of twelve steps to the Holy Place itself. Truly, “Jesus went up into the Temple.” (John 7:14; italics added.)
The three courtyards surrounding the holiest place where the Divine Presence could be manifest may be compared to the three degrees of glory: telestial, terrestrial, and celestial. (See 1 Cor. 15:40–42.) It is not enough to progress into the third courtyard, or heaven; to receive the fulness of the Lord’s glory, one must actually enter into the highest degree of that realm—to symbolically enter into God’s presence and be exalted.
One of the Psalms of Ascent says, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.
“Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem. …
“Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the Lord. …
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee. …
“Because of the house of the Lord our God I will seek thy good.” (Ps. 122.)
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Edersheim, Alfred. The Temple—Its Ministry and Services. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Win. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., reprinted 1983.
Har-El, Menashe. This Is Jerusalem. Jerusalem: Canaan Publishing House, 1977.
Ogden, D. Kelly. Illustrated Guide to the Model City and to New Testament Jerusalem. 2d ed., Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, 1990.
Ogden, D. Kelly, and Jeffrey R. Chadwick. The Holy Land—A Geographical Historical, and Archaeological Guide to the Land of the Bible. Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, 1990.
Patrich, Joseph. “The Temple of Herod,” in Bible Review. October 1988.
Yadin, Yigael, ed. Jerusalem Revealed. Jerusalem: The Israel Exploration Society, 1975.