The Jerusalem temple that tourists visit today isn’t the temple we read about in most of the Bible. Archaeologists say it’s not Solomon’s temple, or the temple rebuilt by Jewish people living during Ezra’s lifetime, nor is it Herod’s.
The Romans destroyed Herod’s Temple in 70 AD, along with the portions rebuilt during the time of Ezra. All that is left is the Western Wall, which, according to Dr. Frederick E. Greenspahn—the Gimelstob Eminent Scholar of Judaic Studies at Florida Atlantic University—is actually a retaining wall that held up the platform the Temple would have stood upon.
The destruction of Jerusalem by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 BC was a cataclysmic event that included the leveling of Solomon’s Temple (the First Temple). It had stood as a religious, cultural and sacrificial center for nearly 400 years. It also housed the famous Ark of the Covenant, whose whereabouts remain a mystery to this day.
When Cyrus the Great from Persia conquered Babylon in 539 BC, he set the stage for the Jews in Babylon to return to Jerusalem and start rebuilding the temple (known as the Second Temple). Even better, King Cyrus was paying the bill, though according to the book of Ezra, it would not be finished until the reign of King Darius I of Persia in 516 BC.
“We have no records outside of the Bible that mention Ezra and Nehemiah,” according to Dr. Greenspahn. “To be honest, I don’t think that proves anything. It just means they didn’t leave contracts behind.… We don’t have remnants from Solomon’s Temple either.”
He adds that the Bible’s descriptions conform to what is known about how the ancient Persians ruled their empire. “The Persians had a policy that the best way to control their empire was to support the local community. The Persian King let the Jews go back and have cultural autonomy [and] religious autonomy, but not political autonomy—they were still part of Persia.”
Andrea Berlin, Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of Archaeology at the University of Minnesota, concurs. “An empire in antiquity was largely what you might call a monetary racket. It wasn’t a belief system. In a world of many gods with every city having a patron, it was nobody’s idea to wipe out your God. You co-opted gods so there would be more gods on your side.” She confirms that the Persians permitted the Jews to return. “From the Persian view, this must have been reestablishing an important strategic spot and making sure it was strong enough to be useful.”
The heavy occupation, destruction, and rebuilding of Jerusalem throughout the centuries has made recovery of materials from that period extremely difficult, says Professor Berlin, who co-directs the excavations of Tel Kedesh in Israel. She says archaeology reveals that the Second Temple has virtually no resemblance to King Herod’s grand renovation of it 500 years later. Archaeology shows that “there would not have been the manpower or the resources to build a temple like Herod’s,” says Berlin.
She adds that archaeology also confirms that the Jews who built the Second Temple were a tight-knit, relatively poor community that made a living by farming. The 2,500–3,000 inhabitants of Jerusalem would have lived in one sector, the City of David, and were not a monetary-based community. This is shown by the discovery of numerous stamped storage jar handles. “Before they were fired, the handles were stamped with a kind of label. The way goods were stored in them was demarcated as either for priests, people who worked in the temple compound, or for agricultural goods—probably wine and olive oil—to be given in place of taxes.”
Even though we don’t have Solomon’s temple, or the temple built after the Jewish people returned from exile, the biblical accounts are confirmed by the archaeological evidence that is available. We may not be able to visit the First or Second Temple, but we can learn a lot about the people who built them.