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Ancient Jerusalem

Part of the old city is an archaeological dig and sheds new light on many of our oldest myths.

Around 950 BCE King Solomon built a Temple in Jerusalem to house the Arc of the Covenant and it became the most important Jewish shrine for around 400 years.   Both Babylonian and Hebrew records agree that it was destroyed in the second Babylonian siege of the city.  Babylonian records suggest that this was in the summer of 587 BCE.  The secular dates differ from the rabbinical dates.

King Darius the Great completed a replacement Second Temple in 516 BCE on the hill that is now covered by the mass of the Temple Mount.  This temple then served for another half millennia with minor extensions to the Mount until Herod decided to undertake its renovation.

At the time of Herod  the Great Judea was very wealthy. The Romans had recently replaced the Greeks (Alexandrians - Egyptians) as overlords and Herod, the king of Judea, was a consummate builder of ports, forts and temples.

He completely rebuilt the Temple between 20 and 18 BCE. According to the Roman Historian Flavius Josephus he even replaced the foundation stones and restructured the Temple Mount.


Herods Temple after 18 BCE - Model at the Israel Museum
Herod's Temple after 18 BCE - Model at the Israel Museum
The city walls have been attacked and rebuilt several times since then
Today the city wall to the right is the same height as the Mount



Temple Mount as we see it today
Temple Mount - in the middle ground - as we see it today
The golden dome is the Dome of the Rock
The long building to its left, with the smaller grey dome at its end, is the Al-Aqsa Mosque
Herod's rebuilt Second Temple was between them, slightly covered by the former
The Western wall is on the other side of the Temple Mount


As a result of Herod's new improved Temple Jews flooded in from around the Diaspora. There was a half Shekel head tax on all Jews, to be paid at the Temple, and all were expected to make an animal sacrifice there, usually a lamb or goat.  Special cleansing baths can still be seen among the ruins. 


sacrifice cleansing baths
Sacrifice Cleansing Baths
You went down the steps on one side carrying your sacrifice, got purified in the bath water
(more likely putrefied in what was effectively a sheep dip), and then come up the other


On the archaeology museum site today there is an audiovisual presentation dramatizing this with the story of a man coming in to the temple exchanging his money, paying his tax and  buying his animal for sacrifice.

It is said that the temple featured unusually large gutters, not for rainwater but to deal with the flow of blood.  There was a huge industry around providing and selling animals and, presumably, preparing the carcasses that were supposed to be cooked with the entrails still inside then eaten ritually.  Money changers exchanged currencies into Shekels for these transactions with the usual degree of honesty, constrained only by marketplace competition.

It is said that a young Rabbi called Jesus was unhappy about the money changers and got martyred for his troubles.  As a result some hailed him as the Jewish Messiah who would restore the Temple of Solomon.   All of the major Messianic prophecies indicate the Messiah must be a descendant of King David (Ezekiel 34:23, 37:21-28; Isaiah 11:1-9; Jeremiah 23:5, 30:7-10, 33:14-16; and Hosea 3:4-5). Thus Matthew's Gospel opens (Matt 1:1) with the genealogy of Jesus in groups of fourteen generations.  Luke, another early synoptic gospel, goes to similar trouble to demonstrate that Jesus was a son of David, but by a different route:

Luke 3
23 And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli,
24 Which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Janna, which was the son of Joseph,
25 Which was the son of Mattathias, which was the son of Amos, which was the son of Naum, which was the son of Esli, which was the son of Nagge,
26 Which was the son of Maath, which was the son of Mattathias, which was the son of Semei, which was the son of Joseph, which was the son of Juda,
27 Which was the son of Joanna, which was the son of Rhesa, which was the son of Zorobabel, which was the son of Salathiel, which was the son of Neri,
28 Which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Addi, which was the son of Cosam, which was the son of Elmodam, which was the son of Er,
29 Which was the son of Jose, which was the son of Eliezer, which was the son of Jorim, which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi,
30 Which was the son of Simeon, which was the son of Juda, which was the son of Joseph, which was the son of Jonan, which was the son of Eliakim,
31 Which was the son of Melea, which was the son of Menan, which was the son of Mattatha, which was the son of Nathan, which was the son of David...

and so on, back to Abraham and Adam.

If only Ancestry.com could do this for 40 or so generations.

Many scholars believe that these Messianic Gospels were subsequently 'tweaked' to accommodate the Immaculate Conception and the idea that Jesus was conceived by God, and thus presumably sacrificing the idea that he was the Messiah.

Herod who, it is suggested, would himself  have liked to have been the Messiah died in 4 BCE and was succeeded by Herod Archelaus who reigned until 6 CE until being exiled to Southern France (see my travel diary there) for inciting extreme religious unrest, that began when he put a Golden Eagle over the Temple. 


Vienne Vienne2
Vienne3 Vienne5

Roman Ruins Vienne - Herod Archelaus was exiled here in 6 CE
'Not the comfy chair!'


He was succeeded by his brother Herod Antipas, who ruled Judea under the oversight of the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate (CE 26–36). 

Thus these three kings spanned the events that are related in the Gospels of the New Testament.  Herod the Great is said to have received the Magi and to have ordered the massacre of the innocents around the time of Jesus’ birth. 

To escape this fate Joseph his father: "took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod" (Mathew 2:15). Most secular scholars think that this killing is unlikely to have taken place, as it is unlike Herod to be bothered and it is an obvious retelling of an earlier myth.

Similarly the reason for the family going to Bethlehem must be wrong as the Census of Quirinius was over ten years after Herod died and that story also makes Jesus too young for later chronology that has to fit with Herod Antipas the death of John the Baptist and Pontius Pilate.  Also Bethlehem was the reputed birthplace of King David so it suited prophesy to allege that Jesus was born there too.

At the other end of his life, in one account, Herod Antipas is said to have refused to try Jesus and to have sent him back to Pilot, who then ordered his execution.  So that was some time after 26 and prior to 36 CE. Thus the historical Jesus must have been no younger than 30 and no older that his early 40's when he was executed. This accords with Mathew's assertion that he began his ministry at about the age of 30.  As this began with his baptism it must have been before John the Baptist parted with his head, thanks to Herod Antipas and Salome.


Salome_with_the_Head_of_John_the_Baptist- Titian
Salome with the Head of John the Baptist - Titian
Probably around 28-29 CE
(Wikipedia commons)


This execution is reasonably certain to have happened more or less as reported in the Gospels as it is confirmed by actual contemporary sources. The execution was blamed for Herod's subsequent defeat by Aretas IV (nemesis of Paul) during the winter of CE 36/37.

All the synoptic Christian gospels began as oral history, written down after the death of Jesus and they are frequently contradictory about times, dates and places.  Later Gospels are even more imaginative.  For example John's Gospel doesn't even get the date of the Passover correct. The Hebrew calendar is/was Luna and there are only two dates between 26 and 36 when Friday (the Sabbath) plausibly coincided with the Passover. This gives the two possible dates for the Crucifixion as: Friday 7 April 30 and Friday 3 April 33.  But there is an apparent reference, in all three synoptic Gospels, to a solar eclipse at the Crucifixion:  Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land.

This sounds like an eclipse not just a change in the weather, but a solar eclipse only happens at new moon and couldn't have happened at the Passover, which always coincides with the full moon.  However, there was a Luna eclipse that was partially visible in Jerusalem on the night of April 3, 33 CE.  This has caused many to choose the latter date.

A Luna eclipse could not account for hours of darkness during the day but its coincidence with a crucifixion would certainly have been seen as a potent omen by the superstitious.  If this coincidence indeed occurred it would undoubtedly have become more significant with each retelling, like the impact of Halley's Comet on the Norman Conquest.

These various diversions from known facts illustrate, yet again, that these are works of poetry and imagination, intended for religious instruction, and should not be taken literally, as historical fact.


Today the actual, historic, Second Temple, in which Jesus is said to have attacked the money changers, and was alleged to have wanted to destroy the entire structure, the crime for which he was crucified, is gone.  He had nothing to do with that.  The Romans destroyed it in 70 CE. 


Temple Mount and Second Temple
Some stone fragments from the Second Temple in the time of Jesus
 In the background an artist's impression of the Temple and the Temple Mount


The war in which this occurred had probably been brewing since around the time of Jesus. 


Time of Jesus
Explanation in the Israel Museum - supporting the earlier Crucifixion Date
and a beautifully succinct description of the origins of Christianity


The people of Judea were growing economically stronger, and longed for independence.

What have the Romans (proxy for the British) ever done for us?

They've bled us white, the bastards. They've taken everything we had, and not just from us, from our fathers, and from our fathers' fathers… And from our fathers' fathers' fathers… And from our fathers' fathers' fathers' fathers...

Yeah. All right, Stan. Don't labour the point. And what have they ever given us in return?!

At which point various ‘commandos’ make suggestions - each of which is conceded:
The aqueduct.
And the sanitation.
And the roads.
And the wine… that's something we'd really miss, Reg, if the Romans left. Huh.
Public baths.
And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now, Reg.

Yeah, they certainly know how to keep order. Let's face it. They're the only ones who could in a place like this.

All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Brought peace.
Peace? Oh. Shut up!



At the same time the Emperors of Rome, after the death of Julius Caesar, were becoming increasingly unstable and megalomaniacal. 

In 37 CE Gaius Caligula came to power and to gain his approval one of his underlings decided to put his statue in every temple in the Roman world. Like golden eagles or any other statue, this is strictly forbidden in a Jewish place of worship by the Biblical second commandment, against graven images and idols, and the Jews revolted. Thus the first Jewish-Roman war began.

Long story short: after a couple of ignominious defeats, as a result of underestimating the strength and resourcefulness of the Jews, the Romans applied some serious resources to putting down the uprising.  The future Emperor, Titus led four legions, comprising about 60,000 trained soldiers, and surrounded Jerusalem in February 70 CE. 

Attempts at negotiation failed.  Although it was besieged, foragers had dug tunnels through which they were resupplying the city. Sound familiar? To prevent this, the Romans built their own outer wall around the city and in the no-mans-land between the walls they crucified any foragers they caught. Then in August the Romans finally moved in and crushed the Judean defenders, reportedly killing around a million inhabitants and sending another 97,000 into slavery. 

The Arch of Titus (constructed in 82 CE) still stands in Rome commemorating these events and illustrating the sacking of Jerusalem in a surviving frieze.


Arch of Titus
Arch of Titus in Rome (foreground - photographed by me in 2005)


It is said that Titus wanted to preserve the Temple, as he wished to rededicate it to the Roman Pantheon, but it was inadvertently consumed by fire during the fighting.  But the huge and impressive Temple Mount remains to this day, a tribute to Herodian (basically Roman) civil engineering. 


TempleMountl TempleMount2
TempleMount3 TempleMount4

Temple Mount Stonework


Meanwhile, Temple Mount is said to be built over Mount Moriah claimed to be the location of the Rock upon which Abraham was going to sacrifice his son Isaac, until God's last minute reprieve, and is holy to Islam.  So, after Jerusalem fell to Islam, the Muslims built The Dome Of The Rock on the site (where it stands today - very beautiful) and the nearby, at the Southern end of the Temple Mount, the Al Aqsa Mosque.


The Dome Of The Rock1 The Dome Of The Rock2
Al Aqsa Mosque1 Al Aqsa Mosque2

The Dome Of The Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque


This supposed sacrilege, against whom, the Jews (?), was one of the motivations for the First Crusade. On 13 July 1099 the besieging Crusaders launched their final assault on the city and many Muslims sought sanctuary in this mosque.  Initially they were not harmed but a day later they joined the tens of thousands massacred in the city.

I had a quick glimpse through the door of the Mosque but was quickly ejected.  It seemed unremarkable compared to many other mosques I've been allowed to enter, particularly the wonderful historic mosque in Damascus, the Blue mosque in Istanbul and the mosque/cathedral in Cordoba.  I hadn't expected to be excluded, Australian mosques are generally open and I had no problem going into the mosque in Nazareth where we were both made welcome.  But this one is controversial.  Jewish fundamentalists have recently caused riots in Jerusalem by invading it, fermenting on-going religious confrontations.

We saw a small taste of this on Shabbat when Jewish groups went out of their way to walk, several abreast, through the Muslim section of the Old City near our hotel.

For many years the Western Wall of Herod's great oblong Temple Mount on which the temple was built, provides the closest point to the ancient holy of holies of the first and Second Temples, where the Arc of the Covenant was housed, so Jews pray there. 


Western Wall1 Western Wall2
Western Wall Tunnels1 Western Wall Tunnels2

The Western Wall and Western Wall Tunnels


Underground in archaeological tunnels you can get even nearer to the location of the Jewish Holy of Holies and this is preserved for faithful women who insert little messages in the cracks and pray vehemently, rocking back and forth.  Men not allowed unless on a tour. Indeed, even above-ground, except at Shabbat when huge numbers converge, women frequently outnumber men at the Western Wall, each in their own area of course.

This mirrors the Christians up the hill at the reputed location of Calvary where women fall to their knees and kiss various venerated objects with similar passion.

The Muslims on the other hand regard religion, at least in public, to be men's business.




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