Second Temple 224.88 courtesy.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is a persistent narrative by the Islamists to deny any past Jewish presence on what they call Haram al-Sharif. Like the cult centers of Mecca and Medina, they call it the Noble Sanctuary rather than the Temple Mount. The propaganda is spreading throughout the Arab world, and would deny any legitimacy to our claim to have experienced the destruction of two Temples on the site.
All the evidence, the propaganda goes, is written by Jews and is therefore suspect. The claim for the building of the First Temple comes from the Book of Kings. It is a detailed description, but nothing of the structure has been found. The inscription on a little pomegranate showing it to have been part of a priestly scepter from the First Temple has recently been denounced as a later forgery. The parallels with temples in Syria are fine, but no proof that one existed in Jerusalem.
What evidence is there that a Jewish Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians? There is a tablet in the British Museum that Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem in his seventh year (597 BCE) and captured the city, but he destroyed no temple and only set up a "king of his own heart" (Zedekiah). The tablet goes up to the year 594 and then stops. The following years are missing and the next tablet restarts in 556 BCE. The crucial year 586 is lost.
In the Berlin Museum is a cuneiform tablet that the exiled king of Judah, Jehoiachin, was after some years restored to the emperor's table and treated with respect, but no mention of a temple, either built or destroyed. Cyrus, who conquered the Babylonians, allowed the Jews to return to Judah and recorded his decision on a cylinder, called the first Bill of Rights, now in the British Museum. But there is no mention there of a temple. The Book of Ezra mentions a restoration document, but it was written by a Jew, as were the books of the prophets that called for the rebuilding to be hastened.
As for the second destruction, the work of Herod the Great in rebuilding the Temple relies on the testimony of the Mishna and Josephus - both Jewish sources.
Josephus was, of course, somewhat suspect to the Jews as well, having at one stage gone over to the Romans, but he remained a great exponent of Jewish values and deeds, and wrote a wonderful defense of the Jews in his work Contra Apion, so his testimony about the Temple is suspect in the eyes of the Islamists.
But what about the great stones of the Temple compound, still visible today all around Haram al-Sharif, in the lower courses of the Western Wall and elsewhere? Only Herod could have forced men to move such megaliths. Well no, the propaganda goes, after the Romans conquered Jerusalem, they had to set up their temple to Jupiter, and thus built this vast platform as its base. The Roman builders were the equal of Herod when it came to monumental structures, just look at the temples of Baalbek. And there is nothing on the Temple Mount to indicate that a Jewish Temple ever stood there.
Our own history is so ingrained in us, and our belief in the First and Second Temples so deeply inscribed in our hearts that it is difficult to think of an answer to these charges. But there are answers that don't depend on our own literature.
Firstly Josephus. His account of his own period is good history. His description of contemporary buildings is borne out by archeology. He lived shortly after the death of Herod, and gives a vivid account of that ruler's ruthless personality as well as his achievements in construction. But as Josephus was not alive at the time, what were his sources? His main source was Herod's personal historian, Nicolaus of Damascus, a non-Jew who would have had no reason to invent the story of Herod rebuilding the Second Temple.
Josephus mentions that there was a stone at the southwest corner of the Temple Mount from which one of the priests would blow the trumpet on Friday afternoons to announce the start of the Sabbath. That stone has been found, with the Hebrew inscription "Lebeit hatekia" (to the place of trumpeting). No such stone would have graced the corner of a Roman temple.
Furthermore, the existence of the Second Temple is made clear from the New Testament and the stories of Jesus within the Temple complex. But then, the Islamists would say, those Christian documents were also written by Jews, maybe by Jews with a new belief in a savior, but still Jews who needed to aggrandize the miracles of their messiah in the context of his Jewish past.
So the external sources are slim, except for one piece of evidence that is hard and fast. And that is the large frieze on the Arch of Titus in Rome, showing the spoils of the Temple being carried by Jewish slaves through the Forum Romanum. The shapes of the menora and silver trumpets are clear. Trumpets appear everywhere in the Roman world, but there was no menora at that time at any place in the world except Jerusalem.
Was this proof of a Temple on Haram al-Sharif? It's pretty good evidence, but perhaps not enough for the Islamists, so let's turn to their own sources. The Dome of the Rock was built during the caliphate of Abdul al-Malik and completed in 692 CE. It stands directly over the extensive rock which, by Muslim tradition, was the landing and departure point of Muhammad on his steed El-Burak during his Night Journey from Mecca. The "evidence" is the foot and hoof marks on the rock - a cultic relic from early days.
These marks also indicate that it is from here, and to here, that God will come and go at the End of Days. As His direction of travel is not known, the Dome of the Rock was built facing the four winds of heaven. It has no focus except the central rock, and entrances on all four sides. Does the central rock indicate the presence of a Jewish Temple? Not necessarily, but the Koran itself now makes that clear.
The prophet's night journey is described in Surah 17: "Glory be to Him who made His servant go by night from the Sacred Temple [Mecca] to the farther Temple [Al-Aksa, Jerusalem], whose surroundings We have blessed..." It goes on to say, "We solemnly declared to the Israelites: 'Twice you shall commit great evil in the land... and We sent against you a formidable army which ravaged your land... and when the prophecy of your second transgression came to be fulfilled, We sent another army to afflict you and to enter the Temple, as the former entered it before..."
Thus the Koran itself gives us the evidence of the destruction of the two Temples that had stood on the site of Al-Aksa.
Nothing could be clearer.
The writer is a fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem.