May 26, 2008

The Temple Courtyard

Herod’s Temple was nearly finished in 4 BC, when it burned (mostly) down - though it seems clear that Jerusalem finished rebuilding that Temple by Jesus’ day. Obviously, he walked in it and talked about it. But some books say it wasn't finished until 30 years later. I disagree. Strongly! Well, sortof. :)

I believe the Temple was completed by 29 AD and Jesus saw the same Temple Josephus saw 30 years later... only with one key exception. In Jesus' day the Courtyard was made completely of dirt.

That is, I believe the Temple courts weren't PAVED until King Agrippa II sent workmen to do it in the late 50's to early 60's AD. That final upgrade was "completed" about 62/63 AD – which explains how writers can say the whole project took over 80 years to "complete". (And of course, we know the whole thing came down for good when Rome burned it down a second time in 70 AD.)

Now, that’s my reconstruction. Here’s the evidence and thought process that led me to it:


Major second-hand sources on Herod’s Temple sometimes point out it took 83 years to finish the [entire] project, but they don’t go into details. Yes, Josephus says it was “completed” in the 60’s AD under Agrippa II, but how could construction work on an unfinished temple have remained ongoing for 83 years? That never seemed right.

For one thing, the gospel accounts all read just as if Jesus was walking around in a completed Temple complex. For another, Josephus also says the covered walkways (porticos) all burned down in 4 BC, along with (most likely) the inner-court structures as well. Burned down in 4 BC, finished around 29 AD, but not “finished” until 62/63? Something just doesn’t add up.

The common sense solution seems (to me) that the later work under Agrippa II was only a project to put paving stones down in the courtyard. In fact, those same lines in Josephus say that Agrippa’s workmen wanted more work, so he let them pave the main street through Jerusalem. So they were pavers. And that is probably all they were.

My reconstruction starts by supposing that Temple reconstruction began in 4/3 BC on the comparatively shoestring budget of the Sanhedrin. Archelaus’ likely refusal to help (which I strongly suspect because all of his actions were selfish, because his main pastime seemed to be feasting and because Caesar cut his initial revenues by more than half) was just another reason the Jews tried so hard to get rid of him. Their construction speed must have been about half that of Herod (whose resources enabled him to be virtually finished in less than 16 years) because the Sanhderin seems to have just finished about the same time as Jesus walked into town, in 29 AD. Otherwise, how could he threaten to tear down what was only half-way built?

Back to paving. Easily 99% of the ancient world (apart from carved or tiered, layed steps) remained unpaved in those days. The fact that it was Jerusalem’s main street getting paved proves the novelty of it. But there are more specific clues that the Temple itself stayed unpaved before Agrippa. When Jesus “drew in the dirt”, doesn’t that show the court was a courtyard? And the pilgrims of 4 BC threw stones at Archelaus’ troops (who tried to enter the temple at that Passover). Doesn’t that show the courtyard was unpaved? You can easily kick stones loose out of packed earth, but who would let hundreds of loose stones remain on a smooth, paved surface? Especially on their busiest day? What a hazard! It must have been dirt.

By the way, even if the project had gone on continuously for 83 years, wouldn’t paving just naturally have been about the last priority that could possibly make the list? So the court was a courtyard for all that time, either way! But it seems far more likely that the finished Temple Complex merely remained unpaved for 30 years.


Now, with all of that said... I can think of just three possible applications, of Biblical interest.

First, this is important simply for the sake of our general attention to detail. All those pictures of Jesus walking on paved stones in the courtyard now need to be changed. Boo! Old books are inaccurate. Yea! New jobs for the illustrators! ;)

Second, someone whose Greek grammar is far beyond mine should go look at John 2:20 again, with this reconstruction in mind. I'd love to know if their verbiage suggests at all that work was just recently completed: “has taken… to build” – hmmm. And some translations say "was in building" using "was" - may I presume - as strictly past tense? Again, hmmm.)

Third, if those Jewish elders said what I think they were saying... then that means the Sanhedrin finished rebuilding their Temple just in time for God's Living Temple (Jesus) to walk into it. Wow! Personally, I think that's remarkable just from a coincidental point of view, but it may be even more significant from God’s own viewpoint. Yes, perhaps even the timing. No, I can't guess at God's reasons (yet) but I'm sure HE had at least one.

Anyway, please note that I don't have a theory right now driving this whole thing. This all started for me when I was working on 4 BC and at the Passover fight scene I said to myself, "Where'd they get all the stones?" Because I had my image of all the story-bible art with the smooth pavers, see? :)

A fourth point: sometimes, this is just so much fun! ;)


So this is my work on the subject to date. But I need scholars to chime in…

Anyone? Please?

For all I know, this has been pointed out long ago. I hope it’s just a detail that editors have chosen to gloss over for simplicity’s sake. But then again, most readers & writers value such attention to detail…

Is it possible this has simply been overlooked?


Bible artist said...

Hello Bill
Thanks for dropping by the 'Bible illustration blog'.
Yes, I came to a similar conclusion to you with regard to the floors of the outer courts. Have a look at my 'Writing in the sand' post. Although I have to say I'm not an expert!

I have forwarded your email though to Dr Leen Ritmeyer who is an expert on the Temple Mount. Hopefully he will be able to shed some light on this.

Bill Heroman said...

Brother Graham,

Thanks for the comment and encouragement. I did find your post (via the custom search!) and enjoyed scrolling past some other posts, like the Mad magazine one. I'm an old school DC/Marvel kid (well, not that old) but I definitely see Kirby in your art, and maybe a few others. (Byrne? Kane? Maybe?) Anyway, I like it! :)

I do have to ask, where did you get "sand"? Is there research on that somewhere, or is it a translation I don't know? On BLB, the NIV says "dust" and everyone else says "ground". And my greek text says "ge" which is "earth".

Again, I'm eager for more knowledge here. Whence "sand"?

Besides that, I'm honored you thought my note was worthy of Dr Ritmeyer's attention. I only hope he agrees! ;)

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