While studying up on the Knights Templar for a recent class presentation, I came across a book called The Jerusalem Temple, by Simon Goldhill.1 This interesting little book (small format, less than 200 pages) tracks the idea of the Temple from it construction through its destruction and continued reimagining by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. The book explains how the idea of the Temple has been interpreted and reinterpreted throughout the ages by people of different faiths.

Some background is in order here. The term “Jerusalem temple” refers to three different buildings that were constructed atop a hill known as Mount Zion. The first temple was built around 1000 BC by Solomon, the third king of Israel. The Babylonian army under Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple in 587 BC, when they carried the Jews off into their first exile. Following the overthrow of the Babylonian Empire by the Persians in 539 BC, some Jews returned to Jerusalem and built a lower-budget second temple. This rebuilt temple stood until 19 BC, when Herod the Great replaced it with a much larger and more opulent structure. In addition to an enlarged central sanctuary, Herod’s building project involved the expansion of a natural hill into a massive elevated platform, the Temple Mount.

The sanctuary of Herod’s Temple did not even last a century; the Roman army destroyed it during the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70. The Temple Mount survived, in part. Later it served as the foundation for two Islamic structures, both built in the seventh century: the Dome of the Rock, in the center of the Mount, and al-Aqsa Mosque, on its southern edge. These two structures continue to stand on the Temple Mount to this day.

A particularly interesting part of Goldhill’s book is his discussion of reconstructions of the Temple. For reasons ranging from fervent piety to detached scholarly interest, countless individuals over the ages have attempted to reconstruct Solomon’s or Herod’s Temples. (Although it stood longer than any of the other temples, the lower-budget second temple has not captured the imagination of reconstructors in the same way as its predecessor and successor have.) Reconstructions made by Christians in the Middle Ages showed temples built in Gothic style. During the Renaissance, reconstructed Temples looked like Italian palaces. Although literary descriptions of the temples describe them as rectangular buildings, some artists used the round shape of the extant Dome of the Rock to represent the Temple. It was only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that reconstructors started to pay attention to archeological evidence in the interest of making their reconstructions more authentic.

Goldhill’s descriptions of reconstructions interested me, in part, because I am one of the countless people throughout the ages who has attempted to reconstruct the Jerusalem Temple. In 2003, when I was in high school, I set to work reconstructing both Solomon’s and Herod’s Temples. My model of Solomon’s Temple was a simple affair of polystyrene foam based on the descriptions in I Kings. By contrast, my model of Herod’s Temple was much more ambitious. I drew up the plans for it based on the description found in Flavius Josephus’s The Jewish War (only one of several sources I could have used). Over the next four years, off and on, I worked on my model, until I finally finished it in 2007.

My model of Herod’s Temple, built in 1/250 scale.

My model of Herod’s Temple, built in 1/250 scale.

I also made a few different digital models of Herod’s Temple. One of them included the entire Temple Mount, placed on the terrain of Google Earth:

One of my digital Herod’s Temples, placed in Google Earth. The view is from the southeast.

One of my digital Herod’s Temples, placed in Google Earth. The view is from the southeast.

Reading Goldhill’s book has made me want to make another reconstruction of Herod’s Temple, based on literary sources besides Josephus, as well as all of the latest archeological scholarship. I probably won’t be able to do that when I’m still in grad school, though.

Goldhill argues that all reconstructions belong to their times, and they tell us as much about the time they belong to as they do of the period they attempt to represent. This is obvious in the case of the medieval and Renaissance reconstructions that used the currently fashionable architectural styles to represent buildings that were supposed to have been built thousands of years ago. But it is also the case with the more recent reconstructions—including my own. They tell us that they belong to a time that values rational analysis and trusts the work of scholars such as archeologists. They also tell us that interest in the Jerusalem temples still has not faded, more than 1900 years after the last one was destroyed.

  1. Simon Goldhill, The Temple of Jerusalem (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005). []