Roman Jerusalem and Herod’s Temple

Jerusalem’s Relentless March to Divine Destiny – Pt 6

“It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” John 2:20 NIV

It took nearly twenty-five years after Pompey’s triumph in Jerusalem for the Romans to finally establish a stable government in Judea. Pompey returned almost immediately to Rome where he was vying with Caesar for supreme rule of the Empire. In his absence he appointed two men to govern from Jerusalem, his minister Antipater, who was the son of an Edomite convert to Judaism, and a High Priest named Hyrcanus, who was of Maccabean descent. In 48 BC Pompey was defeated by Caesar in Italy and he fled to Egypt. Caesar gave hot pursuit but two days before he arrived, the Egyptians had already put Pompey to death. Egypt was in the midst of a civil war between King Ptolemy XIII and his deposed queen Cleopatra. During Caesar’s brief stay in Alexandria he threw his lot in with the enchanting young queen. Meanwhile in Jerusalem Antipater, Pompey’s former ally, seeing an opportunity to ingratiate himself with Caesar raised an army to 3,000 local Jews, rallied sympathetic Egyptian Jews, attacked, and defeated Caesar’s opponents. Before returning to Rome, Caesar restored Cleopatra to the throne and then gratefully turned his attention to Judea. He confirmed the high priestly rule of the Jews to Hyrcanus and gave permission for the walls of Jerusalem to be repaired. He granted the governmental power over Judea to Antipater as procurator. In addition, Antipater’s older son, Phasael, and younger son, Herod, were appointed tetrarchs of Jerusalem and Galilee respectively.

Herod, just fifteen years of age at the time, would soon become a rising star on the Roman political stage. Highly educated and gifted with looks, charm, and grit, he was a natural leader with an appetite for power. Herod would deftly handle the malevolent machinations of the Roman government within the next ten years to eventually become the second most powerful individual in the Empire. As the son of a Jewish convert father and an Arab mother, he was also uniquely equipped to navigate both the ethnic and religious dichotomies permeating that part of the world.

The assassination of Caesar in 44 BC triggered a series of events that shook the Roman Empire and once again put Jerusalem in the cross hairs of conflict. When Antipater, Herod’s father, sought to align his rulership of Judea with Cassius, one of Caesar’s murderers, he himself was assassinated. A rival poisoned him and took control of Jerusalem. But the rule of this usurper was short lived as Herod quickly managed to murder him in retaliation and seize power. In the meantime, the vacuum left by Caesar’s death resulted in his adopted son Octavian and his general Mark Antony splitting the Empire between them. The Jews, perceiving an opportunity to cast off Roman rule began an uprising against Herod and his brother. The two of them immediately quelled the rebellion.

In response, a more insidious plot to overthrow these two unwanted Roman puppets was hatched. At the time Jerusalem was being threatened from without by an army invading from the expanding kingdom of Parthia which already occupied territory from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. Jews seeking to restore Maccabean rule forged an agreement with the Parthians, and opening the gates invited them in to liberate the city. The rampaging Parthians were triumphant and in the process murdered Herod’s brother Phasael. They also removed Hyrcanus the High Priest from office and cut off his ears disqualifying him from any further priestly service. Keeping their end of the bargain they crowned a Maccabean prince named Antigonos as king. It was a dream come true for the Jews as they celebrated the return of Hasmonean rule. A despairing, yet combative Herod just barely escaped with a select company including his mother, sister and concubines. Taking them to his mountain top fortress at Masada which he had built earlier, he fled alone to Egypt and from there sailed for Rome.

Antony and Octavian welcomed Herod to Rome where they invited him to join them in their plans to counterattack and expel the Parthians. In 39 BC they declared Herod King of Judea (or King of the Jews) before the Roman Senate. Now an official Roman ally, Herod headed east to enjoin the battle to recapture his kingdom. After three years of conflict with the Parthians, Herod, with the help of Antony’s army, finally reached Jerusalem. Following a siege that lasted forty days they breached the outer walls, ravaged the city, burst into the temple, and killed forty-five of the seventy-one members of the Sanhedrin. They deposed Antigonos the King and dispatched him to Marc Antony for execution, putting an end, once and for all, to Hasmonean/Maccabean monarchs.

The joint rule of Antony and Octavian over the Roman Empire came to an end when they squared off against one another in a naval battle off the western coast of Greece in 31 BC. Octavian triumphed convincingly. Mark Antony escaped to Egypt where he and his paramour Cleopatra, having lost hope, committed suicide. Octavian was now the sole ruler of the Empire and adopted the name Augustus Caesar. Herod, ever the crafty politician, denounced any connection with Antony and won favored status with Caesar who increased his kingdom to include parts of modern Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Shrewdly leveraging his holdings, Herod would become the wealthiest man in the Mediterranean second only to Caesar. Herod was a builder and he wasted no time in constructing two magnificent cities in honor of the new emperor. They were Caesarea on the coast and Sebaste (Greek for Augustus) inland on the former site of Samaria.

Herod the Great, as he would eventually be called, now turned his focus to Jerusalem where he set about to embellish it as an architectural wonder and testimony to his greatness. First he built a military fort north of the Temple named the Antonia Fortress. Then he constructed a towered Citadel and Palace complex with courtyards, colonnades, groves of trees, lawns, and pools all surrounded by a 45 foot wall. Not to be outdone by other leading cities of the era he also build entertainment venues including a Greek style theatre and hippodrome. But his most ambitious project, the remnant of which would be the center of world attention for two thousand years was his construction of an expanded Temple Mount and replacement of Zerubbabel’s Second Temple. He began this, the greatest of his accomplishments, in 20 BC. As a Jew, albeit the descendant of a convert, Herod understood the historical and biblical significance of the Temple both to Jerusalem and the Jewish faith.

Herod was meticulous in his approach to making the reconstruction of the Second Temple incomparable to anything that had preceded it. Sensitive to the apprehension of the Jews and wanting to curry their favor, he engaged them in every aspect of the planning. He saw to it that a thousand priests were trained as builders and arrangements were made for the daily offerings to continue without interruption throughout the construction. The sheer size of the undertaking was mind boggling. Erasing any vestige of the Second Temple and excavating even the remnants of Solomon’s Temple, Herod dug foundations to bedrock. Choosing to greatly expand Mount Moriah’s natural plateau to the south, he built massive retaining walls using gigantic stones weighing up to 600 tons. The precisely cut stones were transported from nearby quarries using thousands of ox-drawn wagons and put in place without the sound of hammer, just as in the construction of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:7).

The Temple Mount and main Temple, with the Holy of Holies positioned over the rock where Abraham had sacrificed Isaac, was completed in two years. Legend has it that during that time it never rained in the day, so the work was enabled to continue without any interruption. The entire project would extend beyond Herod’s lifetime and take decades to complete. Reference to its lengthy construction is recorded in John’s Gospel. It was on the occasion that Jesus was driving out the money changers from the Temple and His authority to do so was challenged by the Jews. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” Jesus retorted. He was speaking prophetically of His body as the temple which would die, but be raised to life in three days. Perplexed, the Jews replied “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days” (John 2:19-20 NIV)? Biblical and other historical accounts of the impressiveness of the Temple complex agree. Jesus’ disciples marveled at its magnificence (Mark 11:1). Historical descriptions speak of its gleaming limestone with gold plating reflecting a fiery visage in the morning sun from the Mount of Olives, so bright that beholders of its glistening glory had to look away.

Despite his magnanimous investment in beautifying Jewish worship Herod was no saint. His lust for power was entangled with and matched by his lust of the flesh. He had at least ten wives in addition to a harem of five hundred. His tempestuous marriage to his favorite wife Mariamne, a Maccabean princess esteemed by the Jews, ended with him having her killed. A niece of Antigonos, she had been plotting his overthrow, suspecting him of killing her brother. Before Herod’s purge of threats to his supreme rule was finished, he had Mariamne’s mother and four of his closest friends put to death as well. It is little wonder therefore that when three wise men from the East came to his Jerusalem court seeking to locate a baby they believed born “king of the Jews” this maniacal possessiveness of his throne was piqued. After all, that was his title, and woe to whomever should dare to take it from him. Having inquired of the chief priests and teachers of the law, Herod had a secret audience with the wise men and sent them to Bethlehem with the scheming appeal “As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Matthew 2:8 NIV). We know the rest of this story that ended tragically with every baby boy in the Bethlehem area being slaughtered at Herod’s command (Matthew 2:16-18).

It was into this politically charged Herodian ruled world, when his capital Jerusalem was at its Roman and Jewish architectural zenith, that the long awaited Messiah would be born, would live, and would die. It was this magnificent Temple that the Messiah would call “My Father’s house” and a “house of prayer for all nations.” There, Jesus would be dedicated as an infant, visit during the feasts from His youth, and cleanse twice at the beginning and end of His three year ministry.

To be continued in my next blog post. Your comments and feedback are always welcome. 

4 thoughts on “Roman Jerusalem and Herod’s Temple”

  1. Hi Tom, This stud;y you are doing is really drawing me into the history of beginnings of Jesus and his training to become the Lamb of God.. Herod’s desire to beautify the temple was perfectly timed to train Jesus and awaken him to his call. I always imagine Jesus as a little boy going to this temple and within the patterns and types realizing that He was the Lamb of God revealed in the study. This alone had to be a deep burden in accepting the depths of knowing this, in the middle of all this tradition. He didn’t have anyone to counsel him and had to take these deep revelations to His father alone. He was not a Christian, as we know it, but a little Jewish boy in the culture you reveal in your writings. Of course, we know in the end these leaders had a responsibility in his rejection and in the end, his death. What a paradox and deep confusion and pain he must have gone through. Yet, the beauty of it all is now our light…Thanks again for stirring me to consider…

  2. These last two posts about the church history are intriguing. I’ve always enjoyed Roman history, but hearing how it connects with Biblical history is making the Bible truly come alive for me.

  3. Thanks for your comments. As always your observations bring added light and revelation into the deeper meaning behind the “story.”

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