New Testament Primer: The Temple in Christ's Day

This is the first in a series of articles that will establish a backdrop for our study of the New Testament this year. Each primer, authored by experts, will shed light on one aspect of the geography, worship, or culture of New Testament times. Check back each weekday prior to the first Sunday in January (the 4th) for another primer. For more on the history of Jerusalem and its temples, be sure to see Jerusalem: The Eternal City, by David B. Galbraith, D. Kelley Ogden and Andrew C. Skinner.

No single place in all the world was holier to Jews and to Christians at the time of Jesus than Jerusalem's Temple Mount.1 It was known as Har Habayit, the "Mountain of the House [of God]," and no mountain on earth has such a unique history. To this most sacred parcel of ground the God of all creation could come to converse with his servants, the prophets and priests. "The Temple was the approach of a Nation to their God," wrote George Adam Smith. 2 And Jesus said, "In this place is one greater than the temple" (Matt. 12:6). There is evidence in word and in deed that Jesus considered the Temple to be the legitimate sanctuary of the true God. At one point he called it "my Father's house" (John 2:16); later he called it "my house" (Matt. 21:13).

Jesus' life from beginning to end was bound up with the Temple. An angel of the Lord appeared to Zacharias in the Holy Place, announcing the birth of the prophet who would prepare the way for the Messiah (see Luke 1:5-22). When Mary had fulfilled the forty-day ritual of purification after giving birth, Jesus was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem for the ceremonial redemption of the firstborn, at which the old Temple worker Simeon looked upon the promised Messiah in the flesh (see Luke 2:22-32). At age twelve, he was found "in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, and they were hearing him, and asking him questions" (JST Luke 2:46). 3

Near the commencement of his ministry, "Jesus was taken up into the holy city, and the Spirit setteth him on the pinnacle of the temple" (JST Matt. 4:5), where Satan tempted him. Of the whole length of the Temple Mount retaining walls, the southeast corner is the highest point—two hundred eleven feet, or sixty-four meters. But the distance from the top of Herod's Portico to the bottom of the Kidron Valley was more than four hundred feet. That is the traditional "pinnacle of the temple" to which it is believed Jesus was brought because it is 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). 4

Some researchers, on the other hand, consider the southwestern corner of the Mount to be a more logical location for the temptation of Jesus. That corner has a much better angle for looking out over the city, and a specially carved platform stone was discovered in the toppled ruins below, the stone indicating by a Hebrew inscription where one of the priests would blow the shofar, or ram's horn trumpet, to signal the advent and the departure of the Sabbath and other holy days. 5

The Gospels frequently note Jesus' activity in the Temple courts and in the Temple itself when he was in Jerusalem during his three-year ministry:

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them. (Matt. 21:14)

Now 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)

And he taught daily in the temple. (Luke 19:47)

And 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; 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)

Jesus routinely adapted his teaching to objects or conditions from his immediate environment, often referring to something appropriate to the place where he taught. On one occasion in the Jerusalem Temple he made figurative use of the Temple. Hebrew literati for ages had metaphorically compared the human body to a temple. "Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, 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). 6

According to the testimony of John, this was said near the beginning of Jesus' ministry, which would make this declaration the first recorded foreshadowing of Jesus' death and resurrection. Evidently the Jews understood his figurative language, that he referred not to Herod's Temple but to his own body, which he claimed power to raise up again after its death. At his hearing before the chief priests, one of the false witnesses testified, "This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days" (Matt. 26:61). At the cross, "they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, and saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself" (Matt. 27:39-40). Nevertheless, through all of this, the Jewish leaders understood Jesus' figure of speech. The following report is preserved of a conversation soon after Jesus' death: "Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate, saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day" (Matt. 27:62-64; emphasis added).

Jesus further prophesied that not one stone of the Temple would be left standing on another (see Mark 13:1-2; Luke 21:6). The magnificent Temple, the House of the Lord, to which many Jerusalemites must have looked with a confident sense of inviolability, would be leveled to the ground and the Temple Mount plowed! Isaiah had once assured the Lord's people that as birds protectively hovered over their young, so the Lord of hosts would defend and preserve Jerusalem (see Isa. 31:4-5). But with no allegiance and devotion to their God, the leaders of the Jews and many of their followers had abandoned the Hope of Israel. Without faith and faithfulness, the Lord's hand would not be stretched out to protect them or the Holy Temple. The Lord's hand, like his word, could be a sharp two-edged sword, providing either protection or destruction. In this case, the Temple would be destroyed—as foreseen by Daniel, the prophet: "[Then] shall Messiah be cut off . . . and the people of the prince [Latin, princeps, as the Roman general Titus] that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary" (Dan. 9:26, emphasis added).

The largest and grandest of the Temples in Jerusalem would also be the shortest lived. 7

The Temple of Herod

The Temple of Herod was constructed beginning in 20 B.C. with the help of ten thousand workmen. One of Herod's main purposes was to provide greater space for the hundreds of thousands of worshippers who came to the Temple during the pilgrimage festivals and high holy days. One thousand priests who had trained as masons and carpenters helped to build the holiest parts, 8 and a thousand wagons transported materials. The Temple proper was under construction for a year and a half, and the courtyards and porticoes for eight years (though embellishment of the outer courts actually continued for more than eighty years). It was said that whoever had not seen the Temple of Herod had never seen a beautiful building in his life. 9 No other temple complex in the Graeco-Roman world compared with it in expansiveness and magnificence. According to Josephus, the polished white marble exterior of the Temple was covered with so much gold that when the sun shone on it, those who looked upon it could be blinded. 10 Although the architectural glories of Herod's Temple far surpassed those of Solomon's Temple, Herod's Temple had little of its predecessor's spiritual atmosphere. The Ark of the Covenant, the mercy seat, the cherubim, the Urim and Thummim providing revelatory contact with God, and other holy objects were lacking. And yet it was a place of revelation, as seen in the story of Zacharias (Luke 1), and Jesus acknowledged it as the Father's and his own House.

Herod nearly doubled the size of the Temple Mount from what it was during the period of the First Temple, making it in Jesus' day approximately forty acres in area (compare with the ten-acre area of Temple Square in Salt Lake City). He had to extend the platform of the mount to the north, to the west, and to the south. He built a massive retaining wall, trapezoidal in final shape, around the entire Temple Mount. That retaining wall alone was the longest, highest, and most impressive around any shrine in the ancient world, and the artificial esplanade, or enclosure, inside is the largest of its kind in antiquity. 11 Below floor level to the north and west was earth- fill, but to the south Herod supported the floor with vaults—twelve rows of arched colonnades with a total of eighty-eight pillars. The area under the floor of the southeast portion of the Temple courtyard, therefore, was hollow. This space is now occupied by a large, columned chamber erroneously called Solomon's Stables. Because it was constructed by Herod, the place did not exist in Solomon's day, though it was later used by the Crusaders for stabling horses.

The Temple Mount was a huge space measuring more than 157,000 square yards (144,000 square meters). 12 The Forum in Rome was only half that size, the Acropolis in Athens one-fifth that size, and the largest temple complex in the world—Karnak, in Upper Egypt, which was two thousand years in the building—is only a third bigger. Above ground on all sides of the Mount were extraordinary colonnaded porticoes, or porches (also called cloisters, that is, covered walkways with colonnades opening to the inside). Each portico had a double row of Corinthian columns, each column a monolith (cut from one block of stone), and the columns rose to more than thirty-seven feet high. According to Josephus, Herod extended the Mount northward, westward, and southward and erected porticoes inside these newly positioned walls, but he built up the eastern portico in the same position as on the previous Temple Mount. This eastern portico was called Solomon's Porch (see 1 Kgs. 6:3; Acts 3:11). There Jesus, having come to the Passover at age twelve, conversed with the learned rabbis; there he later walked and taught at the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) and testified that he was God's Son; and there the Jews tried to stone him (see John 10:22-39). Also Peter and John, after performing a miracle at the gate of the Temple, drew a large crowd in Solomon's Porch and preached and called for repentance following the denying and killing of the Holy One. They were arrested by Temple police and Sanhedrin officials (see Acts 3:1-4:3).

The southern portico, grander than the others, is often called Herod's Basilica. The word basilica (from the Greek basileus, "king," and therefore designating a royal portico) meant a public hall that was rectangular in shape and had colonnaded aisles. A similar ground plan was later adopted for early Christian churches. The Royal Basilica, or Portico, contained 162 Corinthian columns. At its foot were ramps leading onto the Temple courtyard from the south.

The eastern gate of the Temple Mount was called the Susa Gate, because it faced eastward toward Susa (Shushan in the Bible), the Persian capital where the biblical stories of Daniel, Esther, Nehemiah, and others in part unfolded (see Dan. 8:2; Esth. 1:2; Neh. 1:1). When this gate was originally built in the early Second Temple period, the memory of Shushan was fresh in the minds of the remnant that returned from Babylon. This gate was said to have been lower than the other gates so that the priests gathered across the bridge on the Mount of Olives for the sacrifice of the red heifer 13 might still look directly into the Temple.

The Courts of the Temple

The outer court was called the Court of the Gentiles, from which Jesus cast out the money changers. Non-Jews were allowed to enter this far onto the Temple Mount. 14 Surrounding the Temple proper was a balustrade (Hebrew, soreg), an elevated stone railing about four and a half feet high with inscriptions in Greek and Latin warning Gentiles not to pass beyond. One of these inscriptions was found in 1935 just outside the Lion's Gate of the Old City and is now on display in the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem. 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." 15 Roman authorities conceded to the Jewish religious leaders control of the sacred inner area to the point of capital punishment for non-Jews who passed beyond the stone railing.

A fortified inner wall with towers and gates surrounded the Court of the Women, which all Israelites were permitted to enter. The main gate into the Court of the Women 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 dramatically healed the man, who joined them in the Temple, "walking, and leaping, and praising God" (Acts 3:1-11).

The Court of the Women was a large space nearly two hundred feet square. In the four corners were chambers for various functions. The eastern chambers served the Nazarites, where those who had made special vows could prepare their sacrifices, and another chamber was used for storing wood. The western chambers were used to store olive oil and for purification of lepers, which required a private ritual bath. 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 for him as a firstborn to be redeemed and for Mary to be ceremonially cleansed (see Luke 2:22-23).

This whole court was surrounded by porticoes. Against the walls inside the porticoes, the place called the Treasury, were trumpet-shaped boxes for charitable contributions, where the widow cast in her mites (see Mark 12:41- 44) and where Jesus taught during the Feast of Taber-nacles (see John 8:20). In this court stood giant lampstands (menorot), seventy-five feet in height, giving light to the Temple Mount and to much of the City. 16 There Jesus proclaimed himself the Light of the world. There he bore witness of his own divinity, dealt mercifully with the woman taken in adultery, announced his Messiahship, and bore testimony that he was the God of Abraham. Jews tried to stone him again (see John 7-8).

Fifteen curved steps and then the Gate of Nicanor led into the innermost court. (Nicanor was a wealthy Jew from Alexandria who had donated the ornate doors of the gate.) Only priests and other authorized Temple officiators and participants would enter this court. To the sides of its porticoes were the Chamber of the Hearth, where priests on duty spent their nights, and the Chamber of Hewn Stone, where the Sanhedrin met. In the latter chamber, before the council, Stephen was transfigured (see Acts 6:12-15) and Paul later testified (see Acts 22:30-23:10).

On the north side of this court, which was actually a double court—first the Court of the Men of Israel, then the Court of the Priests—was the Place of Slaughtering. On the south side was the giant brass wash basin, or laver, supported on the backs of twelve lions. 17 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, or cisterns.

Near the Laver the great horned Altar of Sacrifice or burnt offering stood, measuring forty-eight feet square and fifteen feet high. Some think that the huge rock mass inside the Dome of the Rock—which now measures approximately forty by fifty by seven feet high—once formed the base of the Altar of Sacrifice. 18 It is clear from scripture that King David purchased the rock to build an altar to the Lord (see 2 Sam. 24:18-25). The altar consisted of whitewashed unhewn stone, and it had a ramp leading up to it from the south that was forty-eight feet long and twenty-four feet wide. The altar either stood off-center in the court or was low enough in the center of the court so that the priest sacrificing the red heifer on the Mount of Olives could see straight into the giant entryway of the Holy Sanctuary, which stood sixty-six feet high and thirty-three feet wide.

The Sanctuary, or Holy Place, was made of marble. Two columns in front were named Jachin and Boaz (meaning "He will establish" and "In him is strength"), after the names of the entry columns of Solomon's Temple. The Temple proper was more than one hundred fifty feet high 19 (today's Dome of the Rock reaches a height of just over one hundred feet) and was surrounded on top 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. That same veil was torn from top to bottom at the death of Jesus (see Matt. 27:51). Whereas only the high priest once a year could enter the symbolic presence of God, now Jesus, through his death, rent that partition, signifying the accessibility of God's presence to all people (see Heb. 9:11-14; 10:19-22 for Paul's explanation of the symbolism). The rending of the Temple veil may also denote the rending of the Judaism of the Mosaic dispensation.

Overall, 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 fifteen curved stairs (possibly singing fifteen Psalms of Ascent; see Ps. 120-34) to the Court of the Men of Israel and the Court of the Priests; and a final ascent was required to enter the Holy Place itself. Thus the phrase "Jesus went up into the temple" (John 7:14) is quite literal. The three courtyards surrounding the holiest place where the Divine Presence could be manifest may appropriately be compared to three degrees of glory and three settings for instruction in modern Temples: telestial, terrestrial, and celestial. It is not enough to progress into the third courtyard or heaven; it is incumbent upon each worshipper, now that the Great High Priest has made it possible for all, to actually enter into the highest degree of that realm, to symbolically enter into the Presence of God and be exalted.

We recall again the message of one of the Psalms of Ascent: "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).


1. Sources for particulars about the Temple Mount during the late Second Temple period include Josephus, Antiquities 15.11 and Wars 5.4, and the tractate of the Mishnah called Middoth ("Measurements"). See also Bahat, Illustrated Atlas of Jerusalem, 42- 43; Yadin, Jerusalem Revealed, 14-20. For visual illustrations and reconstructions, see Ogden, Illustrated Guide; A Model of Herod's Temple (slide set), circulated internationally by Ritmeyer Archaeological Design, York, England; Connolly, Living in the Time of Jesus.
2. Smith, Jerusalem, 2:522.
3. We wonder, as we did with Solomon's Temple, what ordinance work would have been performed in Herod's Temple. The only clarifying scriptural passage on this subject is D&C 124:38-39. Elders Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie supposed that Peter, James, and John received their endowment on the Mount of Transfiguration. See Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 2:165; McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 1:400. Such sacred ordinances would not have been available in the Temple in Jerusalem because it was operating without the Melchizedek Priesthood—although it may be instructive to compare Luke 24:49 with D&C 95:8-9. Baptisms for the dead at least could be performed after the Savior's preparation for such work in the spirit world (see D&C 138) and after his resurrection. Truman Madsen wrote: "There is some evidence, in addition to the statement in 1 Corinthians 15:29, that proxy baptism for the dead was practiced among and by early Christians. Indeed, in the iconography, in the typology, and in the baptismal instruction of the early church fathers one may discern at least two different sorts of initiation: one through water baptism, and the other through certain initiatory oblations and anointings and baptism for the dead. That men and women are privileged to 'go through' each and all of the patterns and ordinances for and in behalf of their deceased families and others is unusual in contemporary religious practice. But, again, the proxy and representational ideas are not at the periphery of early Jewish and Christian practice; they are at the core." Madsen, Temple in Antiquity, 12. See also Adams, "Iconography of Early Christian Initiation"; Nibley, "Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times"; Foschini, "Those Who Are Baptized for the Dead," 328- 44.
4. See Finegan, Archeology of the New Testament, 203-4.
5. The inscription reads: "Leveit hatekiya lehakh . . ." (to the place of trumpeting to [announce?] . . .). See illustration in Bahat, Illustrated Atlas of Jerusalem, 44; Yadin, Jerusalem Revealed, 27; New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations, 2:740.
6. Some Jews saw in Jesus' remark an irreverent slight of their holy Temple. Later, Stephen and Paul were denounced for their seeming disrespect for the Temple. False witnesses accused Stephen: "This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place" (Acts 6:13). Stephen was killed. Paul was censured for allegedly taking a Gentile into the sacred precincts of the Temple (Acts 21:26-32); enraged Jews sought to kill him, too.
7. See Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6:365. Jesus' prophecy was fulfilled literally—not one stone was left standing atop another of the Temple itself; what is left standing to this day is the retaining wall around the hill of the Temple.

8. Herod was aware of the Jews' distrust of him and their sensitivities regarding their holiest place. Before he began the actual reconstruction of the Temple itself, he had all the stone and other materials cut and prepared and in place. Then the demolition of the old Temple and rebuilding of the new proceeded. See Josephus, Antiquities 15.11.2. We note that the use of priests as masons gave rise over the ages to masonry—temple workers who were also builders.
9. Talmud, Succah 51b, and Baba Bathra 3b, 4a.
10. Josephus, Wars 5.5.6.
11. Ben-Dov, Shadow of the Temple, 78. See also Bahat, Illustrated Atlas of Jerusalem, 42-43; Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6:365; Broshi, "Role of the Temple in the Herodian Economy," 31-37. Of the Western Wall of Herod's Temple Mount, popularly called the Wailing Wall, only a middle portion is visible today. The original retaining wall was some thirty yards above the paved road (as high as a modern ten-story building) and the towers were thirty-five yards high. The prodigious undertaking of bringing into position all of Herod's massive building stones is evidenced by the finding of one stone measuring more than fourteen yards long, three yards high, four yards thick, and weighing about four hundred tons. See Ben-Dov, Shadow of the Temple, 88; Bahat claims that the largest of these stones could weigh 570 tons. See Geva, Ancient Jerusalem Revealed, 181; Bahat, "Jerusalem Down Under," 39. At the southeast corner of the Temple Mount, about one hundred feet (thirty-two meters) north of the corner, is a "seam." An obvious difference in the cut of the stone is visible. To the north, stones were left rough on the exterior and to the south, very smooth. North of the seam is pre- Herodian work; the extension south is definitely Herod's addition to the platform of the Temple Mount. See New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations, 2:743.
12. Avi-Yonah, Herodian Period, 215; Yadin, Jerusalem Revealed, 14; New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations, 2:737; Ben-Dov, Shadow of the Temple, 77.
13. On the sacrifice of the red heifer, whose ashes, mixed with water, were used to represent purification from sin and were symbolic of the Savior's atoning sacrifice, see Num. 19:1-10 and the Mishnaic tractate Parah. See also Heb. 9:11-16; McConkie, Mortal Messiah, 1:136, 152.
14. Similarly, non-Latter-day Saints and Church members without temple recommends are allowed onto Temple Square in Salt Lake City to within a certain proximity of the Temple.
15. See Bahat, Illustrated Atlas of Jerusalem, 44. Another warning inscription was discovered earlier, in 1870. See New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations, 2:744; see also photo in Connolly, Living in the Time of Jesus, 36. Josephus mentions the partition wall with warning inscriptions in Antiquities 15.11.5 and Wars 5.5.2.
16. Succah 5:2-3.
17. Edersheim, Temple, 55.
18. Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6:354, s.v. "Jerusalem Temple"; New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations, 2:736; Kaufmann, "Where the Ancient Temple of Jerusalem Stood," 40-59; Ritmeyer, "Locating the Original Temple Mount," 24-45, 64-65; New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations, 2:743.
19. Encyclopedia Judaica, 9:1398.

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