The Life of Jesus in Harmony
Directly across the Tyropean Valley from the Upper City, in the northeastern
corner of Jerusalem, stood the magnificent temple, the city's crowning jewel. Built by Herod as a
goodwill gesture toward his hostile Jewish subjects, it was commonly accepted
as one of the finest religious structures in the world.
The central sanctuary was approached through a series of spacious outer
courts, each court progressively more exclusive. The outermost was the COURT OF THE GENTILES, a huge rectangular area about 35 acres in size. It was paved with colored stones and enclosed by tall,
stately columns. Visitors entered through a number of immense double and triple
gates, which stood at intervals along the outer court. As its name suggests, the
Court of the Gentiles was open to Gentiles as well as Jews, and it was usually crowded with people
from many backgrounds and walks of life. On a typical day a visitor would
encounter Jewish pilgrims from all over Palestine and the Roman Empire; merchants
selling doves, young sheep and cattle for sacrifice; moneychangers converting foreign currency into Jewish shekels; Jewish scribes and rabbis discussing points of Mosaic law; and others simply passing the
time of day.
At the center of the Court of the Gentiles stood a second enclosed compound,
posted with signs in Greek and Latin warning: "No foreigner is allowed within the balustrades and embankment about
the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will be personally responsible for his
ensuing death." Only Jewish men and women could venture beyond this point, which led,
through three large gates, into the COURT OF WOMEN. This court too was surrounded by ornate columns.
At the western side of the Court of Women was a curved flight of 15 stairs,
which ascended to the NICANOR GATE, so named because its magnificent bronze doors
had been donated by a rich Alexandrian Jew named Nicanor.
Beyond them lay the COURT OF ISRAEL, a long and narrow area where the Jewish men assembled during temple
services. No women were allowed here.
A low balustrade (railing) separated this section from the COURT OF THE PRIESTS, accessible only to the priests and Levites who served in the temple.
In the center of this court was the great horned ALTAR OF SACRIFICE with a
long ramp leading to the top.
The beauty of the entire complex was the majestic TEMPLE SANCTUARY itself, which stood at the rear of the Court of Priests. It was built of
perfectly tooled and fitted white marble stones, covered with plates of heavy gold.
Golden spikes rose from the roof, which soared to a height of about 165 feet.
At the back of a large porch were immense gilded doors covered by a Babylonian
tapestry of blue, purple, crimson and gold, depicting the heavens. Above was a
golden vine, symbol of the nation of Israel. It was said that there was so much gold covering the building that no one
could look directly at it in bright sunlight.
THE FIRST ROOM OF THE TEMPLE SANCTUARY
Inside the Temple Sanctuary were two rooms. The first, the HOLY PLACE, was a large hall paneled in cedar. It contained a GOLDEN ALTAR FOR INCENSE, a GOLDEN TABLE FOR THE BREAD OFFERING and a GOLDEN MENORAH, a seven-branched candelabrum lit by seven lamps burning purest olive oil.
THE SECOND ROOM OF THE TEMPLE SANCTUARY
The second room, the HOLY OF HOLIES, was separated from the first by a heavy linen curtain embroidered with spun
gold. Only the high priest was allowed to enter this sacred spot, and he only on the annual Day of Atonement. Within this mysterious chamber, believed to be the earthly dwelling place of
Israel's Lord, there was nothing at all. The very absence of objects
symbolized the intangible and invisible presence of God.
THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE TEMPLE
Begun in 20 BC, the construction of the temple was one of Herod's most
ambitious projects. The old temple mount first had to be cleared and enlarged to about
twice its original size. The new area was roughly 1000 by 1500 feet, girded by a massive retaining wall of huge fitted stones, each more than 15 feet
long and 13 feet thick. As Solomon had done earlier, Herod imported the best stone masons and architects from
Phoenicia to direct the construction. Only the finest materials were used: cedar
from Lebanon, the purest marble and limestone and the finest gold.
"One of his disciples said to him, 'Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and
what wonderful buildings!'" (Mk 13:1)
When Herod the Great rebuilt Jerusalem's temple in 20 BC, he erected a great retaining wall to
extend the temple's base. Taking thousands of workers many years to build, the
huge wall was made of limestone blocks (some of them over 30 feet long) hauled
from a quarry on rollers and hoisted aloft by wooden cranes. Its fine masonry is
apparent in unweathered, newly excavated portions, where the unmortared stones
still show their smooth original faring.
The project required the services of more than 10,000 laborers. Herod had
1,000 priests specially trained as carpenters and masons to work on the sanctuary
building: by law no layman was allowed to handle the sacred building materials.
The sanctuary was completed in 18 months, but the outer courtyards were not
finished for another 80 years, in 64 AD. During this entire time the temple ritual
was never interrupted.
THE FORTRESS OF ANTONIA
Along the northern side of the temple courtyard stood the massive palace -
fortress of Antonia, another of Herod's landmarks. A stairway and an underground
passageway connected the Antonia with the Court of the Gentiles, and the 600
soldiers stationed there were always on the alert for disturbances in the temple
precincts. The precious ceremonial robes of the high priest were kept in one of
its four guard towers and were released only on important religious feast days.
The Romans had taken custody of the garments as a precautionary measure.
Realizing the tremendous power of the high priest's office, they sought to limit it
by restricting the use of the robes, which symbolized its authority. In the
century before the Roman occupation in 63 BC, the king of Israel had also been the
high priest and both offices had been hereditary. The Romans had abolished the
kingship and had made the office of high priest appointive, always subject to
their approval. Nonetheless, in Jesus' day the high priest remained the most
powerful figure in the Jewish nation.