The Temple of Jerusalem
by Simon Goldhill
Harvard. 194 pp. $19.95

The first time I went up to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, I did so with the trepidation of someone aware of the thick skein of rabbinic prohibitions that enfolds this holiest of Jewish sites. But when I entered the compound, I became subject to a restriction emanating from an entirely different source. “If you try to say your prayers here, even under your breath,” said a stern official of the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust that administers the site, “we are going to remove you.” In the most sacred of Jewish places, I was made to feel foreign and out of place, a barely tolerated guest.

Had I read Simon Goldhill’s new book at the time, I would have more richly appreciated the irony. In a crisp and lucid style, Goldhill, a classicist at Cambridge University, sets out to write a history both of ancient Jerusalem’s glorious House of God and of the ways it has been imagined over the 2,000 years since its final destruction by the Romans.

The lively story he tells in the book’s first half begins with the Tabernacle—the temporary desert dwelling-place for the Ark of the Covenant, on which the successive temples of Jerusalem were all modeled. But Goldhill moves quickly to King Solomon, who built the structure that came to be known as the First Temple. This magnificent building rested on Mount Moriah, traditionally regarded as the foundation stone of Creation as well as the site of Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac and of Jacob’s dream of the ladder ascending to heaven.

Completed in 953 B.C.E. by 30,000 workers using stone, gold, and cedars from Lebanon, the First Temple comprised three adjoining chambers of increasing holiness: an outer vestibule, a main hall, and a holy of holies, the inner sanctum that housed the Ark. By all accounts, it was unmatched in its splendor. “When Solomon completed the temple,” says an ancient midrash, “God announced, ‘Now the work of the heavens and the earth is complete.’ ”

Having completed it, Solomon made his temple not only the center of the sacrificial rite but also the powerful axis of national life, host to the three annual mass pilgrimages and, as the seat of the highest court, the heart of an extensive judiciary. The building’s destruction in 586 B.C.E. at the hands of the Babylonians was exquisitely lamented by the prophet Jeremiah, who witnessed the devastation and was himself exiled in its wake; it became the defining loss of Jewish history.

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Though in time the mourners were permitted to return from captivity, the temple they managed to erect, inspired by the prophet Ezekiel, was rather less grand. This building, about which not much more is known than that it was an impoverished sequel to the first, stood for 500 years. In the year 19 B.C.E., King Herod replaced it with a magnificent edifice, known as the Second Temple, which made up in grandeur what it lacked in holiness.

Built on a truly monumental scale, the new temple boasted a façade some 50 yards high, staircases as wide as four-lane highways, balustrades, colonnades, altars, tapestries, and platforms for choiring Levites, all resting on a plaza the size of a dozen football fields and supported by brilliantly constructed walls. (A small part of one of these now forms the Western Wall.) The Talmud, while noting that the Second Temple lacked the Ark and much of the spiritual purity of the first, concedes that “whoever has not seen Herod’s temple has never seen a beautiful building.” Josephus seconded this judgment:

The outside of the building lacked nothing to astonish mind or eye. It was covered on all sides with massive plates of gold. When the sun came up, it radiated so fiery a flash that people had to avert their eyes.

It stood for less than 90 years until the Roman army destroyed it in the year 70, ploughed over the Temple Mount, and brought the spoils back to Rome. Thereafter, Jews were banned from entering Jerusalem (now renamed Aelia Capitolina), being left instead with only imagination and memory.

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Other surveys of the temple, like a 1957 book by André Parrot that bears the same title as Goldhill’s, have covered the historical ground. But if the first half of Goldhill’s study is a biography of a building, its second half offers a consideration of the temple as a powerful symbol with a long influence on the Jewish and the Western mind.

In recounting the history of this influence, Goldhill practices what he calls “an archaeology that uncovers not so much rock and dust as the sedimented layers of human fantasy, politics, and longing.” The first of these, fantasy, he unearths by portraying the ways in which the temple has entered the popular imagination, tracing, for example, how it has been represented in European art from the Renaissance onward.

To illustrate the quality of longing, Goldhill includes a chapter called “The Temple of the Scholars: A Building of Words.” Here he charts the rabbis’ efforts, after the crushing loss of the locus of religious and national life, to redefine Judaism itself while straining to preserve as much continuity as possible with the past. In their reconstituted Judaism, prayer would replace sacrifice and the study-hall the temple, while learning about a lost and longed-for past would become, in itself, almost a new ritual.

Turning to politics—inevitably, religious politics—Goldhill shows how Christians tended simultaneously to construe the temple’s destruction as proof of Jewish error and to submit the idea of the temple to theological reinterpretation. Thus, the Christian emperors left the Temple Mount barren so as to recall the Jews’ rejection of Jesus, while early Christian thinkers drew from the superseded temple sacrifices a central metaphor for Jesus’ offering of himself, or, with Paul, identified the temple with the body of the church (“For we are the temple of the living God”).

Muslims, by contrast, wished to replace and finally to erase the Jews’ temple. In 691, shortly after they gained control of Jerusalem, they renamed the plaza al-Haram ash-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) and on it erected the Dome of the Rock to commemorate Muhammad’s miraculous “night journey” from Mecca to Jerusalem and thence to heaven. The beautiful octagonal shrine, built by Caliph Abd al-Malik, was restored many times, most impressively by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century.

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Goldhill’s treatment of politics is skillful but thin. This is especially the case in his discussion of the Christian and Islamic uses of the Temple Mount, where he misses the chance to say something larger concerning what they reveal about the relation between Judaism and its daughter faiths. Had he done so, his book would have been close to an indispensable guide.

The problem is not that Goldhill is less than insightful. But at the very moment we want him to examine Christian and Islamic approaches to the temple as symptoms of attitudes toward Judaism generally, and to think through their significance for today, he pulls back. The book’s final paragraph makes a bland allusion to the temple as “a symbol that goes to the heart of current Middle Eastern politics and is as bitterly contested now in the 21st century as at any point in its long history.”

True as far as it goes, but there is much more to be said. The biblical temple of Jerusalem, the most spectacular and arguably the most famous sacred building in antiquity, is almost entirely absent from the archaeological record. Astonishingly, there has never been an excavation on the Temple Mount, for the simple reason that the Waqf has refused it.

This is not because its Muslim patrollers are loathe to disturb the priceless site. Though Goldhill fails to mention it, beginning in 1996, in order to complete an enormous new underground mosque at the plaza’s southeast corner, the Waqf removed some 13,000 tons of rubble from the Mount, including valuable ancient remnants now being sifted by Israeli archaeologists at a Jerusalem garbage dump.

The new mosque, occupying an area of 1.5 acres, has become the largest in Israel. Yet during its construction, over vociferous but vain Israeli objections, Waqf officials disallowed any archaeological supervision, even after alarming bulges appeared in the southern and eastern walls adjacent to the construction site. Muslim clerics, meanwhile, regularly deny that a Jewish temple ever existed, and almost as regularly seize upon perceived Israeli violations of the site as pretexts to incite deadly riots—as they did most recently in 1990, 1996, and late September 2000 (the start of the so-called al-Aqsa intifada).

For religious Jews, it must finally be said, none of this matters. Neither Christian supersessionism nor Muslim erasure has much affected their attachment to a building that stimulates their memory and imagination, informs their sacred literature, and sustains their messianic longings, however figuratively these may be understood. The house of an incorporeal and unseen God, which has itself gone unseen for millennia, thus continues to retain an extraordinary potency, whose full dimensions await another chronicler. In the meantime, Simon Goldhill’s introduction is highly recommended.

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