Wherever Solomon’s temple was originally located, it clearly remained in the same place from its original construction around 960 BC until its destruction by the Babylonians roughly 400 years later in 586 BC. The question thus becomes: could the location of Solomon’s Temple have been moved, forgotten or legendarily transferred in the subsequent twelve centuries before the building of the Dome of the Rock in AD 685? We know from many historical examples that, in fact, transference or invention of sacred sites does occur, both by conflation and confusion of traditions, and by sheer invention. But do we have evidence of such a confusion or transference occurred in the case of the location of Solomon’s Temple? In fact, quite the contrary, we have what could be called a “golden thread” of evidence—thin, but nonetheless there—connecting the Temple Mount with the location of Solomon’s Temple. This golden thread begins in the Bible itself, and can be followed up to the time of Abd al-Malik and the building of the Dome of the Rock in the late seventh century.
• 538 BC. Between the destruction of the original Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BC and the command of Cyrus the Persian to restore the temple in 538, only forty-eight years had elapsed (Ezra 1:1-4). Clearly there would have been surviving Jews who would have worshipped at the old Temple as young adults, and still be alive at the beginning of its rebuilding. Indeed, the Bible explicitly states that when the rebuilding of the Temple was completed in 516 BC (Ezra 6:15), Haggai asked, “Who is left among you that saw this house in her first glory? and how do ye see it now? is it not in your eyes in comparison of it as nothing?” (Hag 3:16). In other words there were still old people at the rededication of the Temple in 516 BC who remembered the original Temple, and recognized that the newly rebuilt Temple lacked the magnificence of the former building. Ezra also makes it clear that the restored Temple was built on the foundations of the original Temple. Ezra 2:68 tells us that the returning Jews collected offerings “to erect the House of God on its site (mĕkônōt).” The Hebrew word mĕkônāh in Hebrew means “place or site” (HALOT), but it is plural here, meaning “places/sites;” KJV translates “bases.” Ezra 3:3 confirms this, saying that the Jews “set up the altar on its site,” again the plural mĕkônōt in Hebrew. Now, the clear implication of all this is that the altar and temple of Zerubbabel was rebuilt “on its site,” that is, on the same location and foundations of the Temple of Solomon. There where still priests alive who had served in the last days of the original Temple in 538 BC when the altar was rebuilt and sacrifices renewed, but before the temple building itself was rebuilt (Ezra 3:6). So the location of Solomon’s original temple would have been identifiable among the ruins of Jerusalem.
• 19 BC. The Temple of Zerubbabel remained in existence until the reconstruction efforts of Herod, beginning in the eighteenth year of his reign (Josephus, Antiquities, 15.380), which corresponds to about 19 BC. At that time, according to Josephus,
“But while they [the Jews] were in this disposition, the king [Herod] encouraged them, and told them he would not pull down their temple (naos) till all things were gotten ready for building it up entirely again. And as he promised them this beforehand, so he did not break his word with them, but got ready a thousand wagons, that were to bring stones for the building, and chose out ten thousand of the most skilful workmen, and bought a thousand sacerdotal garments for as many of the priests, and had some of them taught the arts of stone cutters, and others of carpenters, and then began to build; but this not till everything was well prepared for the work. So Herod took away the old foundations, and laid others, and erected the temple (naos) upon them, being in length a hundred cubits” (Antiquities, 15.389-391).
This text tells us two things related to our problem. First, Herod did not begin building his new temple until he had prepared all the materials necessary for its construction. Second, Herod tore down Zerubbabel’s temple to its very foundations, and laid a new foundation for his new Temple. (This was because his temple was bigger than Zerubbabel’s.) Neither of these things would have been necessary if Herod had been building his new temple in any location other than the precise spot of Zerubbabel’s old temple. In other words, the evidence clearly indicates that Zerubbabel’s Temple was built on the site/mĕkônāh of Solomon’s original, and that Herod’s temple was likewise built on the precise site of Zerubbabel’s—in other words, it, too, was on the site of Solomon’s original. Incidentally, the fact that Herod, in order to build his new bigger Temple, had to remove the earlier structures down to their foundations (that is, to bedrock), basically guarantees that no archaeological remains of Solomon’s Temple should be expected. (See below for a discussion of how Julian’s rebuilding efforts likewise removed the ruins of Herod’s temple.)
• AD 70. Herod’s temple remained in operation until destroyed by the Romans during the First Jewish war in AD 70 (Josephus, Wars, 6), expanding the continuity for nearly another century. The question now becomes: could the location of Herod’s Temple have been forgotten or confused between AD 70 and the building of the Dome of the Rock six hundred years later?
• AD 130. With Jerusalem and the Temple in ruins, in could in theory be possible that the exact location of the Temple could have been forgotten in subsequent decades and centuries. However, around AD 130 “at Jerusalem [the Roman emperor Hadrian] founded a city in place of the one which had been razed to the ground [by Titus in AD 70], naming it Aelia Capitolina, and on the site of the temple of the [Jewish] god (tou naou tou theou topon) he raised a new temple to Zeus” (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 49.12.1). (Note that the Greek term naos here has reference to the Temple building proper; the entire Temple Mount is the hieros, a distinction clearly used by both Josephus and the New Testament authors, but is often obscured in translation.) This text clearly states that a Roman temple was begun on the site of Herod’s Jewish temple some sixty years after the destruction of the temple by Titus in AD 70, well within living memory of Jewish teenagers who would have worshipped at Herod’s temple, and been in their seventies when Hadrian began building the Roman temple. There is, in fact, a Christian tradition that a synagogue survived in the “Mount Zion” area of southwest Jerusalem, (which some scholars link to the contemporary “Tomb of David,”) indicating a continuing limited Jewish presence in Jerusalem, which could have kept alive a knowledge of the location of the Temple (F. Peters, Jerusalem, 125-6). Rabbinic legends likewise confirm that Jews during this period visited the site of the Temple and remembered its location. Sifre Deuteronomy, complied in the third century AD, tells the story of the famous Rabbi Aqiba (died 135 AD) who visited the Temple Mount and saw a fox run out of the site of the Holy of Holies (Pisqa 43).
• AD 132. Hadrian’s attempted construction of a Roman Temple on the site of Herod’s Temple was a major factor instigating the second Jewish revolt (the Bar Kochba rebellion) from AD 132-135. Unfortunately, the evidence for the details of the rebellion is quite sparse. It seems that Bar Kochba controlled Jerusalem for a year or two, and perhaps renewed sacrifices on the altar, and initiated, or at least planned, the rebuilding of the Temple. This is most evident from his coins, which show the façade of the Temple. The point here is that renewal of Jewish control over the Temple Mount within the living memory of Herod’s Temple would have renewed the knowledge of the location of the altar and Herod’s Temple among contemporary Jews. It seems that after Hadrian had defeated Bar Kochba he abandoned his previous plans to build a Temple on the site of the Jewish Temple, not wanting to further fan the flames of the rebellion. However, he did set up an equestrian statue of himself on the spot that was seen by several later visitors.
• AD 200. The Mishnah, a Jewish work complied around AD 200, but reflecting traditions of the previous decades, includes detailed descriptions of the Temple Mount, Temple, and altar. Traditions concerning the location of the Temple found in the Mishnah are again within living memory of Jewish control of the Temple Mount and the possible attempted restoration of the Temple by Bar Kochba. The Mishnah has one of the earliest discussions of the “foundation stone” in Yoma 5.2: “Once the ark was taken away [from the Holy of Holies of the Temple], there remained a stone (eben) from the days of the earlier prophets, called Shetiyyah (šĕtîyyāh).” So, by AD 200 (and probably at least several decades earlier)—again within living memory of the Jewish occupation of the Temple Mount under Bar Kochba—the Jews were equating a rocky outcrop on the Temple Mount with the site of the Holy of Holies. This does not, of course, tell us precisely where that rocky outcrop is, but, wherever it was, it was almost certainly the site identified in the days of Bar Kochba as the place for the attempted reconstruction of the Temple. We thus, have a continuity of tradition from the destruction of the Temple by Titus in AD 70 to around 200. This makes it very likely that the Jews in 200 knew precisely where the Temple had stood 130 years earlier.
• AD 245. Origen, who died around AD 253, notes in his Commentary on Matthew (24.15, 254), that the ruins of the Temple had an equestrian statue of Hadrian. The site of the Temple known to Origen was thus probably related to the site of the Roman Temple had been begun by Hadrian about 100 years earlier.
• 311. Eusebius’s Proof of Gospel was written around 311 while he was Bishop of Caesarea, and before the conversion of Constantine in 312. As Bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius was an eyewitness of the situation in Jerusalem before the establishment of Christianity transformed the sacred geography of the city. In this text Eusebius observed: “It is sad for the eyes to see stones from the Temple itself, and from its ancient sanctuary and holy place, used for the building of idol temples, and of theaters for the populace” (8.3.12). In other words, Eusebius claims to have seen the ruins of the Jewish Temple being used as a quarry by the Romans. This again is within living memory of Origin, who saw an equestrian statue on by the ruins of the Temple. (Confirming Eusebius’ claim, archaeologists have found evidence of the reuse of Herodian ashlars—from the Temple or other Herodian buildings in Jerusalem—reused in various buildings in Jerusalem; see Shanks, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, 37-45, especially p 43, note 10.)
(To be continued.)