Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod

Bruce Satterfield
Deparment of Religious Education,
Brigham Young University - Idaho


At the time of Christ, the Jews were not living in an isolated area in Judea and Galilee.  Rather they were srpead throughout many areas in Europe, Asia, and Africe.  Luke preserves a list of many of the countries they lived in including, among such peoples as the "Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia,  Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and . . . of Rome . . . Cretes and Arabians" (Acts 2:9-11).   Though dispersed among the old world, Jerusalem remained the spiritual center of Judaism.   Indeed, it is more true to say that
the Temple of Herod (Fig. 1, no. 5; Fig. 2; Fig. 3; Fig. 4) located in Jerusalem was truly the spiritual center of Judaism during the time of Christ. Though the Synagogue grew in importance during this time, the Temple remained at the heart of Jewish worship for it was only in the Temple that the sacrifices required by the Law of Moses could be performed. The Temple was also the focus of the activities of the three major pilgrimage feasts required of the Law of Moses: the Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.  

Figure 1
Jerusalem at the time of Christ
(looking from south to northeast)

An examination of Figure 1 reveals that Jerusalem was divided into various sections.  No. 5 points to the temple built by Herod the Great (73 to 4 BC).  The section immediately to the south of the temple and its surrounding courts is the orginial city of Jerusalem built by the Jews who retruned from the Babylonian exile in the  5th and 4th centuries BC.  To the far west a section was added where the wealthy lived.  Between the two was a valley where the poor lived.  By the time of Christ another section was added to the north of the wealth section.

General Use

S. Safrai has noted that during the Second Temple period, "The Israelites came to the Temple for various reasons: a) to fulfil their obligations, such as the offering of the first fruits, the tithes and the wave-offerings and obligatory sacrifices, b) to worship and pray during the liturgy and at other times, or to pose questions on legal tradition and to study the Torah, c) to participate in Temple worship alongside the priests, especially in the form of deputations" (Safrai, "The Temple," in The Jewish People in the First Century. Vol. 2 [1974], p. 876; hereafter, Safrai). These will each be briefly discussed.

A) The Law of Moses required that all men make a pilgrimage to the temple three times a year to celebrate the feasts or festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Jews would also come to the temple "to offer either the obligatory sacrifices or those which he volunteered as thanks-offering or as whole-offering. Many came to the Temple to cleanse themselves of severe impurities such as defilement by the dead, which required sprinkling with 'cleansing water'. . . and many people came to the Temple to cleanse themselves ritually, particularly before the festivals" (Safrai, pp. 876-877).

B) Aside from the obligatory offerings and becoming ritually clean, "Many Jews would go up daily to the Temple in order to be present at the worship, to receive the priestly benediction bestowed up- on the people at the end, to pray during the burning of the incense, and to prostrate themselves before God upon hearing the singing of the Levities. Others would go up to hear or to teach the Torah; or they would combine several such activities" (Safrai, p. 877).

C) The public sacrificial offerings performed by the Priests were accompanied by common Israelites. "The participation of the Israelites in the ritual of the sacrifices was by deputations. The Mishnah states: 'What are the deputations? In that it is written: 'Command the children of Israel and say unto them: my obligation, my food' how can a man's offering be offered while he does not stand by it? Therefore the First Prophets ordained twenty-four courses, and for every course there was a deputation in Jerusalem made up of priests, Levities and Israelites.' The idea here is that communal sacrifices were not the concern of the officiating priests but of the entire nation, for 'the individual does not volunteer a communal offering' and the priests only represented the people. The division into deputations was based upon the geographical constitution of the twenty-four districts; the terms deputation and district were interchangeable in talmudic literature. The men of the deputations stood beside the priests during their ministrations and, after the completion of the sacrifices, gathered for the daily reading of the Torah and for the prescribe prayers. Throughout most of their week they fasted. We are unable to determine how each deputation was composed" (Safrai, p. 873).

Appearance and Description

The Temple was built upon a hill that was biblically known as Mt. Moriah (Fig. 1, no. 5). It was to here that Abraham brought Isaac to be offered as a sacrifice to the Lord (Gen. 22:2). Surrounding the Temple were several courts. The Temple with its several courts was enclosed by a large massive retaining wall (the foundation of which still exists to this day). All together, the Temple, the courts, and the large outer wall were known as the Temple Mount (Figs. 2 and 4; the Hebrew term for the Temple Mount is literally "the mountain of the house").

Figure 2

Model of the the Herodian Temple Mount During the Time of Chirst

Figure 3

The Retaining Walls of the Herodian Temple

(This figure is a bird's eye view of the retaining walls looking from south to northeast.  It shows the development of the retaining walls upon which the Temple and its courts were built.  The light blue wall was the retaining wall built for the earlier temple reconstructed on the same site the Solomonic temple was built when the Jew's first returned from Babylonian captivity.  The massive dark blue wall is the retaining wall built by Herod the Great for the enlarged temple complex.)


South and west of the Temple Mount lay the city proper (see Fig. 1). Directly south of the temple lay the original city of Jerusalem, often called the city of David. This was the city rebuilt by the Jews upon returning from the Babylonian captivity. Just west of the city of David is Tyropoeon Valley. The poor lived in this section of Jerusalem. One of the major water supplies of Jerusalem lay on the southeastern end of this section: the Pool of Siloam (Fig. 1, no. 12; John 9:1-7). In these figures and pictures on the northeast end of the poor section and on the southwest end of the Temple Mount was the Hippodrome, or the place where the horse races took place (Fig. 1, no. 13).  It has been more recently determined that the Hippodrome actually was north of the city of Jerusalem.  West of the poor section lay Mt. Zion. Upon this hill the rich aristocracy lived. Herod's palace was located here (Fig. 1, no. 7) as well as the residency of the high priest (Fig. 1, no. 8). North of Mt. Zion lay another section of Jerusalem that was known as the new city. Immediately north of the new city was Golgotha or Calvary ( Fig. 1, no. 9).

On the northwest corner of the Temple Mount was the large and imposing Antonia Fortress, the Roman garrison (Fig. 1, no. 4; Fig. 2, no.1). This may have been the Praetorium mentioned in the gospels (Mark 15:16) where Jesus was taken before Pilate (the other possible location proposed by scholars was Herod's palace - Fig. 1, no. 7). Luke referred to this structure as the castle (Acts 21:34, 37; 22:24; 23:10). It was set higher than any other structure in Jerusalem in order for the Romans to keep a watchful eye upon all Jerusalem.

East of the Temple Mount was the Mt. of Olives with the Kidron valley running between ( Fig. 1, no. 1). On the western slope of the Mt. of Olives was the garden in which Gethsemane was located. According to Rabbinical writings, two bridges spanned the valley from the eastern wall to the Mt. of Olives (Mishnah Shekalim 4:2; Mishnah Yoma 6:4; Mishnah Parah 3:6). One crossed the valley from the Eastern Gate (which was directly east of the Temple Proper, Fig. 1, no. 2) and was known as the Red Heifer bridge. It was across this bridge that the Red Heifer was taken to be sacrificed (the ashes of this sacrifice were the principle ingredient of the "water of impurity" used for the purification of uncleanliness caused by contacting death - see Numbers 19:1-10). The second bridge was located on the southern end of the eastern wall (Fig. 1, no. 3). It was known as the Scapegoat Bridge (for on the Day of Atonement the goat upon which Israel's sins were symbolically placed was taken across this bridge and then led into the wilderness - Leviticus 16).

Figure 4
Herod's Temple
(Looking south to northeast)

Generally, Israelite worshipers entered the Temple Mount through the wall on the south side of the Temple Mount.  They ascended a curious set of stairs --  a narrow step followed by a wider step followed by a narrow step followed by a wider step, and so on. The worshipper then passed through a triple gate and ascended a large flight of stairs (Fig. 2, no. 10) that existed into the Court of the Gentiles. To exit the Temple grounds one must pass through the exit platform on the south side (Fig. 2, no. 15), down a flight of stairs and out a double gate (Fig. 2, no. 9).

Referencing the Palestinian Talmud, Safrai has noted: "Everyone, priest or layman, took a ritual bath, even if he were clean, before entering the Temple. "This could be done in the ritual baths associated with the Temple, especially those located next to the southern entrance of the Temple. Safrai also states: "It was customary for visitors to the Temple to wear white rather than coloured clothing, for the former was held to indicate modesty and piety: pious people were careful always to wear white. Before entering the Temple courts they removed their shoes, and laid aside their staffs, their money belts, their cloaks and bundles" (Safrai, p. 877; Safrai gleans this information from the Mishna and Talmud which may suggest that this was the ideal but may not have always been practiced.)

The stairs leading up from the triple gate opened into a large open court known as the Court of the Gentiles (Fig. 2, no. 13). As the Salt Lake Temple is surrounded by Temple Square, so this court surrounded the Temple proper (which included the inner courts and Sanctuary as depicted in Fig. 3) and received its name from the fact that gentiles could proceed no closer to the Temple proper than this court. Surrounding the Court of the Gentiles were porticoes two columns deep and each 25 cubits high upon which lay a flat roof. The rituals associated with the Mosaic Law were not performed in the Court of the Gentiles; "rather, its colonnades served as a gathering place for the people before and after worship, or for those who ascended the Temple Mount to hear the words of the Law. . . Business transactions relating to the Temple, as for example the purchase of sacrificial doves, oils, wines, and even the money changing, were not conducted in the inner courts but rather on the outer court of the Temple Mount . . ." (Safrai, pp. 865-866).


Figure 5

Bird's Eye View of Herod's Temple


Figure 6
Herod's Temple

(including the immediate courts associated with the Temple)

The Temple proper was separated from the Court of the Gentiles by a balustrade that was chest-high (Fig. 6, no. 16). There were gates through which patrons passed in order to proceed to the inner courts and the sanctuary itself. By each gate there was a sign warning Gentiles not to pass any further. Archaeology has uncovered one of these warning notices which states:

"No foreigner is to enter within the forecourt and the balustrade around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death."

Beyond the balustrade lay the Temple proper (or sanctuary) with its several courts (Fig. 5; Fig.6). "Though the temple area was entered from the south, the temple proper, where the altar and the sanctuary were, faced east and was entered from that direction. Thus Jewish worshippers walked from the southern end of the temple area towards the centre, turned left, and then proceeded from east to west. They passed the balustrade and its warning notices, went up a flight of fourteen steps, crossed a terrace ten cubits deep, went up another five steps and came to the inner wall . . ." (E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice & Belief [1992], p. 61). Beyond this wall lay the Court of Women (Fig. 6, no. 21; Fig. 7, Court of Women) so named because women could pass no further than this area. The main entrance into the Court of Women was through the eastern gate (Fig. 6, no. 19) which was gold and silver plated. Secondary doors lay on the north and south (Fig. 6: 2).

On the western end of the Court of Women (Fig. 6, no. 24; Fig. 7, steps) was a flight of 15 stairs in a semicircle that led to the Gate of Nicanor (also known as the "Beautiful Gate" - Acts 3:2,10). Beyond this gate was the Court of the Israelites followed by the Court of the Priests. The Court of the Israelites (Fig. 7, Court of Israelites) "was actually that portion of the Court of the Priests open to all male Jews . . . The Court of the Israelites was long and narrow . . . set off from the Court of the Priests by blocks of large polished ashlars and according to others by the levities' stand and stairs leading up to it, so that the Court of the Priests was 2 1/2 cubits higher than that Court of Israelites" (Safrai, Encyclopedia Judaica Vol. 15, p. 966). Within the Court of the Priests was the sanctuary. In the forecourt of the Court of the Priests between the Court of Men and the Sanctuary was the massive Altar of Burnt Offerings (Fig. 6, no. 25; Fig. 7, Altar) upon which all animal sacrifices were offered. Between the altar and the sanctuary was the large laver where the priests washed their hands and feet (Fig. 7, Laver). North of the altar was the slaughtering area for the animal sacrifices.

Within the wall surrounding the Court of the Priests were various chambers. Each chamber was used in the various actions associated with the rituals of the Law of Moses with the exception of the Chamber of Hewn Stone (Fig. 7, letter I). Some believe that it was in this chamber that the Sanhedrin met.  Others believe they met in the Royal Stoa on the southern end of the Temple Mount.   Besides the Gate of Nicanor, six other gates lead into the Court of the Priests. Beginning on the north-west end, the names of the gates were as follows: the Gate of Flame, the Gate of the Offerings, and the Gate of the Kindling. Continuing on the south-west side: the Gate of Fuel, the Gate of Firstlings, and the Water Gate.

The most imposing feature of the Temple Mount was the sanctuary or Temple proper (Fig. 1, no. 5; Fig. 2, no. 17-32; Fig. 6, no. 29). It was no less than a hundred cubits high. This would be compared to a modern 15 story building. The structure was divided into three rooms: the vestibule, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies. Only door posts separated the vestibule from the Holy Place while a veil (which consisted of two curtains) separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. Entrance into the sanctuary was through a flight of stairs and beyond a massive gate which opened into the vestibule (Fig. 7, Porch). Beyond the vestibule lay the Holy Place (Fig. 7, Sanctuary), a long rectangular room within which stood the golden candelabrum (near the southern wall), the table of shewbread (near the northern wall), and the altar of incense (in front of the veil). The Holy of Holies (sometimes called the Most Holy Place) was a square room (Fig. 7, M). In the Tabernacle built by Moses and the temple built by Solomon, the Holy of Holies housed the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol for God's throne. But in Herod's Temple, this room lay empty, the Ark of the Covenant having been lost. However, the Mishnah states: "After the Ark was taken away a stone lay there from the time of the early Prophets and it was called Foundation. It was three figerbreadths high" (Mishnah Yoma 5:2).

Figure 7
Floor plan of Herod's Temple

Degrees of Holiness

It should be noted "that the temple area consisted of areas of increasing sanctity and that admission was progressively restricted" (Sanders, Judaism: Practice & Belief, p. 70). In fact, the view of the Mishnah is that there were ten degrees of holiness in ancient Judaism ( Mishnah Kelim 1:6-9). Israel is more holy than any other land. Walled cities within Israel are more holy than Israel itself. Jerusalem is more holy than any other walled city. The Temple Mount is more holy than Jerusalem. The rampart upon which the Temple proper is built (separated from the Court of the Gentiles by the balustrade) is more holy than the Temple Mount. The Court of Women is next in holiness. The Court of the Israelites surpasses the Court of Women in holiness. The Court of the Priests is more holy than the Court the Israelites. The area between the Altar of Burnt Offering and the vestibule is holier than the Court of the Priests in general. The Holy Place is still holier than the space. Finally, the Holy of Holies is the most holy of all.

This holiness was symbolized by elevation. Walled cities were always built on hills. Jerusalem was built on Mt. Moriah and Mt. Zion. The Temple was built on the highest part of Mt. Moriah. A long stair way had to be traversed to reach the Temple Mount. The Temple proper was approached only by ascending the stairs surrounding the rampart upon which it was built. Once again, the Court of Women was accessible only by mounting stairs as was the Court of the Israelites, the Court of the Priests, and finally the sanctuary itself.

Accessibility within each holiness was dependent upon ritual fitness and purity. Israel was more holy than any other land because it was the promised land, the land of the Jews, while all other lands were gentile . . . walled cities were holier than the land itself for lepers could not live therein neither could a corpse be buried within the walls . . . the Temple Mount was more holy because men or women with any excessive or unnatural discharge of body fluids were not able to pass further . . . the rampart was more holy than the Temple Mount because gentiles could pass no further. And so it went. The closer to the Holy of Holies the greater the ritual fitness was required. This was so because the Holy of Holies was the place of God's presence and the symbol of his kingdom "and there cannot any unclean thing enter into the kingdom of God" (1 Nephi 15:34).

The Priesthood

During the Second Temple period the temple was under the charge of the Priests and Levites. "These priests and Levites (who numbered many thousands) were divided into twenty-four 'courses' or teams (cf. I Chron. 24:1-19), which came up to the Temple in rotation for a week's period of service, each course being further divided into 'fathers' houses' that served on successive days throughout the week" (D. S. Russell, The Jews From Alexander To Herod [1967], pp. 120-121).

The priesthood had a three-fold hierarchy with each order separate and distinct and with each having clearly defined duties. The high priest stood at the head of the hierarchy. "The chief feature of his position was the conjunction in one person of a political and a priestly dignity. Not only was he the supreme officer in the filed of religion who alone had the right to perform certain cultic acts of the highest ritual significance, such as the offering of the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement; he was at the same time the political leader of the nation, the head of state,in so far, that is, as it was not under the domination of foreign overlords. In the days of national independence, the hereditary Hasmonaean High Priests were simultaneously princes and kings; later, the High Priests were Presidents of the Sanhedrin as well as the supreme representatives of the nation vis-a-vis the Romans even in political matters. One consequence of the High Priest's distinguished social position was that he officiated as a priest only on festive occasions. By law, he was obliged to do so only on the Day of Atonement, when he presented the great sin-offering of the nation to God (Lev. 16); according to later practice, he also offered the daily sacrifice [which will be discussed later] during the week preceding the Day of Atonement. Otherwise, he was completely free to sacrifice whenever he wished. According to Josephus, he did this as a rule every Sabbath day and on the feasts of New Moon and New Year.

"The uniqueness of his position also found expression in the special purity and holiness required of him [even above other priests] as well as in the magnificent vestments worn in the performance of his priestly duties" (Emil Schurer, History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, Vol. 2 [1979] pp. 275-276).

Next to the high priest in rank were the priests. The main duties of the priests centered on the sacrifices (only priests could sacrifice) and the care of the vessels of the sanctuary (the candelabra, table of shewbread, and the altar of incense). Even within this order there was a hierarchy. The order of precedence went as follows. First, was the Captain of the Temple who had supreme charge over the cultic actions of the Temple proper and who also was the chief of police on the Temple Mount. Next, was the temple overseers (at least seven in all), who held the keys to the gates and supervised the physical arrangements of the Temple. Finally, there were the three treasurers who administered the Temple income. In the New Testament these men comprised the chief priests mentioned in the New Testament. They were all part of the Sanhedrin, the body of 70 to 71 men who were the ruling body of the Jews.

Worship in the Temple 
(This section is not complete)

Worship in the Temple can be divided into two categories:  (1)  public worship, and (2) priviate worship.  The following is a brief discussion of worship in the temple during the time of Christ.

Public Worship   Public worship consisted of (1) the daily worship where the morning and evening burnt offering was performed, and (2) the yearly festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.

The Daily Worship.  The daily worship consisted of two public sacrificial offerings each known in the King James Bible as the burnt offering, often called the whole offering since the entire animal was consumed in flames.  These offerings were done both in the morning and the late afternoon.  The time between the morning and afternoon whole-offerings was used for private worship which will be discussed later. 

The rabbinical writings of the Mishnah describe the rite of the burnt offering as being performed in four parts with each part being determined by lot.  The first lot was the clearing of the ashes from the Altar (Yoma 2:2; Tamid 1:4).  The ashes were cleared from the Altar “at cockcrow or close to it, either before or after it” but during “the Festivals at the first watch” for “before cockcrow time drew near the Forecourt was already filled with Israelites” (Yoma 1:8).  Josephus tells us that the temple gates which were normally kept closed until morning were opened at midnight during festivals (The Antiquities of the Jews, 18.2.2).  The second lot determined “who should slaughter [the burnt offering], who should toss blood [on the altar], (and) who should remove the ashes from the Inner Altar [the altar of Insence in the Holy Place], and who should clear away the ashes from the Candlestick [also in the Holy Place], and who should take up the limbs [of the burnt offering] to the Altar-slope” (Yoma 2:3; see also Tamid 3:1).  The animal could not be slaughtered before dawn, therefore, the Captain of the Temple (sagan ha kohanim) said to one, “Go forth and see if the time has arrived for slaughtering.”  The priest went to a high point of the temple to see if the light of morning lit up the east “as far as Hebron” [which was due south of Jerusalem].  If so the animal could be slaughtered (Yoma 3:1; see also Tamid 3:2-7).   The third lot determined who would offer the incense upon the altar of incense  (Yoma 2:4; Tamid 5:2-6:3).  The fourth lot determined which priests would offer the burnt offering on the Altar (Yoma 2:5;  Tamid 4:3).   These being determined, the priests who drew the lots to go into the Holy Place to performed their functions.  The incense altar was cleared of the previous days ashes and new hot coals placed on the altar.  The candleabra was lit.   Then the priest who drawn lot to offer incense went in put the incese on the altar, which represented the prayers of the people (see Rev. 5:8).   Often, Israelites gathered in the courts around the temple and prayed while the incense burned.  The offering of the incense in the afternoon became known as "the hour of prayer" (Acts 3:1).  After the incense was offered, "all the priests entered the sanctuary [the Holy Place], prostrated themselves, came out and stood upon the porch steps in order to bestow upon the people the priestly benediction" (Safrai, p. 889).  Then was burnt offering was offered on the Altar.  Levites, accompanied by musical instruments, sang sacred psalms.  "There was a prescribed chapter from the Psalms for each day of the week.  The daily psalm was divided into two or three parts; priests sounded the horn for each portion, and at each blast the people [Israelites who came to worship] prostrated themselves.  The end of the singing marked the conclusion of the morning [burnt-offering] ritual" (Safrai, p. 889).

This provides the background to Luke 1:5-23 where Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, was visited by an angel when officiating as a priest in the temple.

Between the morning and late afternoon offering of the burnt offering, private worship took place.  That is, the common Israelite came to the temple to perform ordinances required of the law of Moses for personal purity.  For example, after the Savior was born, we are told that "when the days of [Mary's] purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought [Jesus] to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; (as it is written in the law of the Lord [see Exodus 13:2; 34:19], Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) and to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons" (Luke 2:22-24).   E. P. Sanders offers this recitation of how this event would have been carried out: