Question: "What was Herod’s temple / the third temple?"
Answer: When David was king, he asked God if he could build a temple (1 Chronicles 17:1-15). God told him no, but he could gather materials for his son, Solomon, to build (1 Chronicles 22:2-5). This temple was destroyed and ransacked by the Babylonians in 586 BC (2 Kings 25:9). King Darius allowed the temple to be rebuilt (Ezra 1:2), but construction was slow as those who returned from exile concentrated on the wall around Jerusalem and their own livelihoods. Over the next four hundred years, a series of Gentile rulers alternatingly built up and defiled the temple. The cycle culminated in the 39 BC battle in which Herod took control of the temple, slaughtering many of the priests and defenders, but kept the Roman soldiers from going into the sanctuary. Herod proposed to renovate the temple in 20-19 BC, his reason being the post-exilic temple was sixty cubits shorter than Solomon’s original. Despite the Jews’ fears that he meant to tear it down and forget to rebuild, the main work on the temple was completed in one-and-a-half years, and the outer courtyard in eight years. Finishing touches continued until 63 BC.
On the eastern edge of Jerusalem, just west of Gethsemane and northwest of the Kidron Valley, sat the Temple of Herod. Literature states that the outer walls formed a rough rectangle, 500’ long by 100’ wide, slightly narrower on the south than the north, and slightly tilted to the northwest. Archeological evidence, however, has the dimensions closer to 1550’ by 1000’. On the far northwest corner sat Antonia Fortress, the home of the temple garrison that stayed alert for disturbances in the temple—disturbances which could gain the governor unwanted attention from Rome.
Two gates provided entry into the temple court from the south, four from the west, one, the Golden Gate, from the east, and an underground passage led from Antonia Fortress. Just inside the walls ran porticoes—roofed walkways flanked on the outside by the great walls and the inside by rows of tall marble pillars. The northern entrance was the most level and easiest to climb, but the southern gates (the double Huldah and the triple Huldah) the most frequently used. Because a ravine lined the southern wall, great staircases led to the actual gates. Tunnels passed through and into a honeycombed underground area called “Solomon’s Stable.” More stairs led up to the southern section of the Court of the Gentiles. The eastern portico was named for King Solomon, and it was somewhere along this wall that the twelve-year old Jesus debated with the scholars (Luke 2:46). It’s possible that the highest corner of the eastern wall was where Satan took Jesus in Matthew 4:5. But it was the east gate, called Shushan, HaKohan, or Golden, that Nehemiah 3:29 and Ezekiel 44:1-3 prophesied the Messiah would use. Jesus rode through this gate on a donkey colt in Luke 19:28-48. The western wall is all that remains of the temple. It’s now called the Wailing Wall.
The third temple itself sat skewed in the center of the large courtyard so that its entrance might better face due east. A balustrade—a low wall of stone posts and caps—surrounded it, defining the inner boundary of the Court of Gentiles. It was this courtyard, between the balustrade and the outer walls, where Gentiles could go to worship. It was also this court where Jesus drove out the money changers in Matthew 21:12. It was unlawful for any Gentile to go past the balustrade, an offense punishable by death, which the Roman leaders allowed the Jewish authorities to carry out. Paul was attacked by a mob of Asian Jews in Acts 21:27-32 because it was presumed he took a Gentile friend beyond this court and into the temple. The commander of the garrison in Fort Antonia intervened before the crowd could kill him.
Like the outer courtyard, the temple was enclosed by a wall on the outside; storage and work rooms as well as gate houses lined the inside. Fourteen steps up the east side of the Court of the Gentiles sat the main entrance, possibly called the Beautiful Gate, which led to the Women’s Court, although women were required to use the gates on the north and south. To the left of the entrance sat thirteen trumpet-shaped containers for voluntary offerings. It was here that Jesus noticed the widow donating her last mite in Mark 12:41-44. Directly west of the Beautiful Gate and up fifteen steps was the Gate of Nicanor, where Mary brought the Baby at the time of His presentation. Through this gate was the Court of Israel where the ceremonially clean Jewish men could congregate. Four gates, two on the south, two on the north, also led into this court. A low balustrade and another staircase separated it from the Court of the Priests; three gates, one each from the south, west, and north, provided direct access for the priests from the outer courtyard.
The center, near edge of the Court of Priests was dedicated to the altar. Forty-five feet on each side and twenty-two feet high, it was made of uncarved stone. In an earlier manifestation, the nearby area where the animals were slaughtered was fitted with a trough of running water, fed by a spring and underground cisterns to wash away the blood. It’s possible this was retained in Herod’s version. Behind the altar sat the large laver resting on twelve bronze bulls, where the priests washed, and then yet another staircase leading to an embroidered curtain which hid away the temple. The temple was situated such that a priest burning a heifer on the top of the Mount of Olives could look over the short eastern wall, down the line past the Beautiful Gate and the Gate of Nicanor, and onto the entrance to the Holy Place.
The temple itself was set up similarly to the tabernacle of Moses. Beyond the first veil was the Hall which contained the Golden Altar for the incense offering, the Golden Table for the showbread, and the Golden Lampstand. It was this lampstand, the seven-armed menorah, which stayed lit during the eight-day rededication of the temple during the Maccabean Revolt in the second century BC, despite having only one day’s worth of oil. Only priests could enter this area, and only the high priest, once a year, could go beyond the final veil to the Holy of Holies. Because the Ark of the Covenant had been lost years before, the room had no furnishings, although it is possible a stone held the place of the ark. It was this veil, into the Holy of Holies, which tore from the top down when Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27:51). Around the Holy of Holies, to the south, west, and north were three stories of interconnected rooms. Openings from the upper story allowed workers to be lowered down and make repairs to the structure of the room without touching the ground.
Like parents everywhere, the Romans were generally content to provide services and political stability to those they ruled in return for relative peace. The kings and governors they placed over Israel knew this, but in their greed and cultural unawareness (or apathy), they managed to frequently insult the Jews. Several times the local Roman authorities quelled riots and protests with massacres. After a long, destructive civil war between the Jewish Zealots and the Roman authorities, four Legions, led by Titus the Roman General, besieged Jerusalem and burned down the temple in 70 AD. As the temple burned, the gold and silver ornamentation melted and seeped between the cracks in the stone. In their zeal for a stipend, the Roman soldiers took the temple apart, stone by stone, fulfilling Jesus’ prophesy in Matthew 24:1-3. The Jewish people were scattered into the Diaspora, and did not return en masse to Palestine until after World War II. The Temple Mount, where Herod’s temple stood, is now home to the Islamic mosque Dome of the Rock. The Wailing Wall stands to the southwest of the mosque and north of an Islamic Museum. The temple will not be rebuilt until the end times.
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