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Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus

Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, O.P.

Jesus paid his first visit to Jerusalem in the arms of his mother when he was a month old (Luke 2:22). It was to be 12 years before he visited again, this time as a Galilean pilgrim (Luke 2:42).

The fatigue of the four- or five-day walk from Nazareth would have fallen from him when he reached the summit of the Mount of Olives and looked down upon the city. Its power and beauty would have swept aside all emotions save wonder and immense pride.

When Jesus first saw it that spring day, Jerusalem had been a Jewish city for a thousand years, during which it had been laid waste many times. The last had been the summer of 37 B.C. when the catapults of Herod the Great and his Roman allies had pounded the city for 55 continuous days. After having broken through the two north walls, the troops murdered and pillaged at will. Herod found himself with a capital of ruined buildings and a decimated population.

Herod's Palatial Residence

Some 40 years later, from the Mount of Olives, Jesus' eye would have been first caught by the splendor of the Temple just on the other side of the Kidron valley; its impressive mass balanced on the far side of the city by the three great towers of the royal palace. These dominant structures sat on hills divided by the Tyropoean (Cheesemakers) valley on whose slopes were more houses than Jesus had ever seen. The whole was surrounded by a high wall with towers at regular intervals. The city into which Jesus walked was Herod's achievement.

Fully aware that he had very few friends, Herod's primary concern was his own security. His first monumental building was the fortress Antonia, named for his friend Mark Antony, at the northwest corner of the Temple. It is described by the Jewish historian Josephus, an eyewitness, as having four towers, that on the southeast corner being 30 feet higher than the others (War 5.238-46). Nothing remains now except a section of the 12-foot-thick south wall.

After Rome assumed direct control in A.D. 6, it was garrisoned by Roman troops. They were preparing to interrogate Paul under torture there before he revealed his Roman citizenship (Acts 22:22-29).

Such soldiers, or their predecessors under Pompey in 63 B.C., were probably responsible for the pagan healing sanctuary that has been excavated in the grounds of St. Anne's Church. In the first century it was outside the walls of Jerusalem. There Jesus healed a man who had been ill for 38 years (John 5:2-9).

No sooner was the Antonia nearing completion than Herod initiated an even more grandiose project, a new palace at the highest point of the city, today the area just south of Jaffa Gate. Words fail Josephus as he tries to describe its wonders (War 5.161-181). What struck him, as it did every visitor, were the three great towers named Hippicus for Herod's friend, Miriamme for his murdered wife, and Phasael for his brother. Originally the tower was 150 feet high, greater than the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

This palace was Pontius Pilate's residence when he came to Jerusalem, and it was here that Jesus was condemned to be crucified (John 19:13). Jesus would have seen the great blind stones of the solid base of Phasael (which still survives) towering above him as he began the way of the cross, which brought him out through the Gennath Gate to Golgotha.

Such investment in construction brought prosperity. To ensure that his supporters had the means to enjoy themselves, Herod built a theatre just outside the city to the south and a hippodrome or amphitheatre whose location is unknown. The games they hosted had all the trappings of pagan festivals and, in consequence, gave great offense to pious Jews. These, however, were too important a constituency to be ignored. To placate them Herod offered to rebuild the much-repaired temple. His plans were so grandiose that he had to prove he had the money and material in hand before the religious authorities permitted him to begin work, probably in 23 B.C.

The Temple

The original temple area was a square—812 feet to a side. In the second century B.C. the Maccabees extended it to the south in order to appropriate the little eminence on which the hated Syrian Akra had stood (1 Mc 1:33; 13:49-53). Herod enlarged this area on three sides (north, west and south) creating an immense platform whose sides measured 1035 (N) x 1536 (E) x 912 (S) x 1590 (W) feet.

Since he had to build out over three slopes, this involved gigantic retaining walls to hold the fill within. Many of the huge stones are still visible on the south and in the tunnel along the western wall.

There were two gates on the south, four on the west facilitating access from the center of the city, and one on the north, by which animals were brought in from the countryside for sacrifice; this was the Sheep Gate of John 5:2.

We know from the detailed description of Josephus that magnificent cloisters ran around the north, west and east sides (War 5.184-225). In these the teachers sat with their pupils. One winter's day Jesus walked with his disciples in the eastern cloister called Solomon's Portico (John 10:23). Later the apostles preached there (Acts 3:11; 5:12).

The place of a cloister along the south wall was taken by the Royal Portico, so called from its majestic proportions. Columns 50 feet high divided it into three aisles. Each was 30 feet wide, and the center aisle was twice as high as the lateral aisles. Much of the commercial business of the city took place here. This is probably where the money changers had their tables. No wonder that Jesus reacted as he did (John 2:13-16).

The limits of the original square Temple were marked by a waist-high wall at each of whose gates was a notice forbidding entrance under pain of death to all non-Jews. Pagans had access only to the Court of the Gentiles, the northern and southern parts of which were linked by a narrow passage along the west side.

All the specifically religious buildings were within the square. Entered from the east there were successive courtyards of increasing holiness—women, Israel, priests—and then, within a building, the sanctuary (Luke 1:9) and, finally, the holy of holies.

The facade of the sanctuary was covered with gold. Instead of a door there was a curtain embroidered with blue, scarlet and purple. This was the veil that was torn in two at the death of Jesus (Mark 15:38). The response to such beauty was lyricism. For Josephus the sanctuary appeared like "a snow-clad mountain, for all that was not overlaid with gold was of purest white" (War 5.223).

One of the best views of the Temple was from a series of six houses of the Herodian period on the eastern edge of the Tyropoean Valley. The restored remains are preserved in the Wohl Museum in the Jewish Quarter. The piety of the inhabitants is attested by the severe geometric decoration of the mosaic floors and the number of ritual baths. The size of the houses betrays their wealth; one is over 6000 square feet.

The combination of riches and piety suggests these were the homes of the priestly aristocracy, the "chief priests" of the New Testament (Acts 4:5-6). A stone weight found in another Herodian house (the Burnt House), some 50 yards further north, mentions Kathros, one of the great priestly families.

Other Magnificent Buildings

The basement area of another magnificent mansion of the first century is now enshrined by the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu. Rock-cut cellars, silos, cisterns and stables are perfectly preserved.

Among the debris, the excavators found a two-word Hebrew inscription reading 'For the fire. Corban.' In the New Testament corban can mean either a gift to God (Mark 7:11) or the treasury in which such gifts were stored (Matthew 27:6). This house may have belonged to one of the privileged families who were entitled to supply wood for the altar in the Temple. They would need a place to stock the donated wood to be sent over to the Temple when the need arose.

Now located outside the walls, this mansion was inside the city that Jesus knew, which was smaller on the north than the present Old City, but much bigger on the south. Its walls ran along the edge of the Hinnom Valley then up the edge of the Kidron Valley to join the Temple.

These walls enclosed the Pool of Siloam to which water was carried in the tunnel of King Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 32:30) from the only spring in the vicinity of the city, Gihon in the Kidron Valley, where Solomon was annointed king (1 Kings 1:38-40). It was here that Jesus sent the man born blind to be cured (John 9:1-41).

Water was crucial to the survival of any city. Each house had its cistern to collect rainwater. The Pool of Siloam would have been a last resort because from it water had to be carried up a steep hill. Run-off from natural catchment areas was collected in large reservoirs out to the west. One of these, the Mamilla Pool, was connected by an aqueduct to the Amygdalon Pool just north of Herod's palace. This reservoir would have been most convenient for those living in the Upper City.

The main aqueduct, however, came from Solomon's Pools and ended in the Temple. It must have had other branches for the benefit of the Lower City. It was a 14-mile channel following the contours along which water flowed by gravity. If it was not built by Herod, he certainly extended it from Solomon's Pools some 28 miles further south to Arrub. This section is cut and built to a very fine tolerance; it drops only one foot per thousand feet!

The supply of water from all sources in the first century would have supported a maximum population of around 70,000, assuming a consumption of 5 gallons per person per day.

Places of Sorrow

In the angle between the First Wall and the Second Wall, on the northern side of the city, was an abandoned quarry. Opened in the eighth century B.C., it was taken out of use in the first century B.C. when a bank of the best limestone ran out. Windblown earth and seeds watered by winter rains created a "garden" (John 19:41).

Jesus was crucified on a rock shaped like a skull (Mark 15:22) projecting from the eastern cliff of this quarry. A tomb had been cut into the western cliff; there the body of Jesus was laid (Mark 15:46).

Today the quarry is covered by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, within which the quarrymen's marks are still visible.

Many pilgrims to this magnificent city find their way to this once-forsaken site, and they find here a greater source of contemplation and wonder than all the edifices built by Herod and now crumbling into ruin.

Jerome Murphy-O'Connor is a Dominican priest and teaches Scripture at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. He is the author of several books, including a definitive study of Paul.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved