Jerusalem is probably the most important archaeological site available to the scientific historian. Few sites anywhere are likely to rival for the lure of discovery the extensive excavations nears the Southern and the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.
Under the direction of Professor Benjamin Mazar, former President of Hebrew University, the “dig” along the walls of the Temple Mount is revealing to historians more about Jerusalem’s past, especially the time of Herod and of Jesus, than any other record except Josephus’ account and the Bible itself. There is an air of antiquity in every shovelful.
To the Israelis, the dig is bringing to light, after almost 2,000 years, the time of Herod the Great (sometimes called the period of the Second Temple).For nearly 2,000 years, there were only “empty centuries” after the Romans destroyed the Jewish state in 70 A.D. and shoved the giant stones down from the top of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
Many Israelis emotionally associate themselves with the Herodian Commonwealth when the Second Temple was built. The intervening nineteen centuries, though certainly recognized as having passed, are viewed nationally and politically as a hiatus, a time which never existed. The 1948 emergence of the state of Israel is almost looked upon as a continuation of that ancient Commonwealth. And scientific evidence that makes that time more real represents to Israelis an anchorage for the continued existence of their new nation.
To Christians, the time of King Herod is important because it was the time of Jesus and the apostles. The Tyropoeon Valley on the west of the dig had been filled so thoroughly that the Lower or Herodian City south and west of the Temple Mount disappeared entirely. In the digging – as far down as 70 feet-- archaeologists and students have been uncovering the city of Jesus’ time and are sifting through the alluvium of this Upper City.
Along the Southern Wall, for example, diggers have uncovered a series of beautifully arranged steps, over 100 feet long, leading up to the Double Gates into the Temple enclosure (the major entrance to the Southern wall of the ancient Temple). These steps, uncovered in the summer of 1971, have probably not been walked on since the days of the apostles. Standing there, realizing that you are one of the first to retrace their footsteps, words almost fail you. The New Testament, along with Jewish history, seems to come alive beneath your feet.
In the New Testament account Marks says, “For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders and there are many other traditions which they observe, the washing of cups and pots and vessels of bronze” (Mark 7:3-4).
Going through these southern Double Gates or the Triple Gates (called the Huldah Gates by later Jews); one would have found himself inside the southern edge of the Court of the Gentiles. It was here that Jesus drove out the money changers. Inside were many commercial shops associated with the Temple sacrifices. A person could have bought animals or birds for sacrifice, or he could have changed his money in order to pay the yearly Temple Tax of half a shekel.
Jesus threw out those money changers and Temple merchants for a little recognized reason that lives in the artifacts of the dig. The money changers were there to prevent Roman or other pagan coins with effigies (pictures of men or animals) on them from being taken into the holy Temple area. The strict Pharisaical party among the Jews thought it was a sin to picture any human or animal form. Jesus himself showed elsewhere in the gospel accounts that such a rigid interpretation was not specifically required by using just such a coin with Caesar’s image on it.
The money changers were there for the business of exchanging the heathen coinage for less offensive local coins, or for those from Caesarea and Tyre. Jesus’ anger flared out at them not because they were handling the money but because of their outrageous rate of exchange, perhaps as much as a third of what the coins were worth. To Him, they were making a profit in the name of God by robbery.
At the southern corner of the wall of the Temple Mount, there is another fascinating reminder that one is walking on the very ground where many of the New Testament events took place – the Temple’s pinnacle-- associated with the Devil’s temptation of Jesus.
In the New Testament record, Satan took Jesus from the wilderness of Judaea to a high pinnacle of the Temple (a high tower or battlement at the southeast corner) and dared Him to jump off. Old Testament scriptures had said that the Messiah would be protected if he accidentally fell.
But no wonder Satan took him to that particular spot! It was the highest in all Jerusalem. Josephus describes this pinnacle as being so high that when one viewed the Kidron Valley (immediately below) from it, it made one dizzy to look down. According to the description, it was almost as high as a 35-story building.
Today, only a fraction of the drop remains. Washed-in debris from the Upper City, which covers what was ground level in Jesus’ day, is buried many feet of the magnificent Herodian stones of the lower part of the wall of the Temple Mount. Only a few of the original courses of stone remain above the surface. Also, after the destruction of A.D. 70, the top courses of stone along the wall were removed and used in buildings later constructed in the area. The upper portion of the present wall of the Temple Mount was built in Turkish times and is lower than the original.
Josephus records that the royal battlement rose higher than the wall itself. Add this additional height to the original wall, plus the extra depth of the valley, and one would have had a fall of several hundred feet if one had fallen from the pinnacle of the Temple. Even as one stands atop the wall today, the story of the temptation seems very real.
Jesus, before his death in A.D. 31, predicted the destruction of the Temple as He stood across from the Kidron Valley on the Mount of Olives while looking at the Temple and the spot where many students dig each summer. The disciples, just before Jesus’ prediction, had called His attention to the grand and majestic stones which made up the Temple, its adjacent buildings and the walls surrounding it (Mark 13:1). Carved from native white limestone, some of these original foundation wall blocks measured as large as 30 feet by 5 feet on a side and weighed up to an estimated one hundred tons.
Even more impressive than the actual stones themselves is the structural architecture of the walls. Each stone was so precisely positioned that no mortar was needed. The fitting was so accurate that not even a thin knife blade could be wedged between adjacent stones.
Yet Jesus, knowing what was soon to happen, said of the buildings on the Temple Mount: “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another” (Mark 13:2). Today, as a stark witness to the reality of His prediction, nothing of that once magnificent Temple and its adjoining buildings remain. The city now, picturesque and delightful as it may be to locals and tourists alike, is pathetic in comparison to what it was in Jesus’ day.
Through the science of archaeology, the period of Herod and the New Testament is becoming more real every day. With each shovelful of material, we are seeing just how true the Bible really is. Here the past truly becomes alive as you “behold these stones.”