Herod started the Temple, but great grandson finished the job



Israel Antiquities Authority archeologists excavate a Second Temple period quarry in Jerusalem. (Flash 90)

By Arieh O’Sullivan (The Media Line)

It turns out that the Western Wall of the ancient Second Temple Mount wasn’t built during the reign of King Herod after all and that the place was a building site even when Jesus visited it.

Archaeologists have uncovered what they say is evidence that the massive retaining wall of the ancient Temple Mount wasn’t even started until at least 20 years after Herod died in 4 B.C.. The new findings challenge the perception that the enormous edifice, the largest construction endeavor in the ancient Holy Land, had been solely the work of the ancient king, known as Herod the Builder.

Herod is known as one of the great project engineers of the ancient world as well as for his legendary efforts to hunt down baby Jesus. Halfway into his reign, he decided to renovate the Temple in Jerusalem and greatly enlarge the mount it stood on in one of the biggest construction projects in the Roman Empire.

Clearing out an ancient drainage channel 2,000 years later, archaeologists got a glimpse of the ancient construction methods when they reached the foundation stones of the massive wall. Because the stones, some weighing as much as 50 tons each, needed to rest on firm ground, a residential neighborhood that existed at the time was razed in order to reach the bedrock. Remnants of this wall above ground are revered as Judaism’s most sacred sight.

Excavations revealed a rock-hewn ritual bath under a foundation stone that had been filled with debris. This allowed archaeologists for the first time to examine directly underneath the wall where they found 17 simple bronze coins and three oil lamps from the first century A.D.  That bewildered them.

“Four of the latest coins were minted under the Roman governor of Jerusalem, named Valerius Gratus in the 15/16 C.E. This is 20 years after Herod’s death so at least the western wall, or this segment of the western wall, was constructed long after Herod passed away,” archaeologist Ronny Reich told The Media Line.

“It took generations to build, not a few years.  It adds something to history of construction of the largest edifice ever built in this country,” he said. “The project is Herod’s. We will not take it away from him. He foresaw it. He planned it. He provided the means for 18 years of construction. But he didn’t see its completion.”

Reich said Herod had apparently been motivated to take on the massive complex because Jerusalem was growing and more room was needed for the tens of thousands of pilgrims who would converge on the city with thousands of animals to sacrifice.

“It also matched his own glory and that suited him,” said Reich, a Haifa University professor who has been excavating in Jerusalem for over 40 years.

Until now, archaeologists have only had the written record of Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, who said the construction of the Temple project was only completed during the reign of King Agrippa II, Herod’s great-grandson, in the 50s A.D., meaning the whole project took over 70 years.

“Josephus and his figures are controversial among scholars. So here we have an independent archaeological datum telling us that indeed it took a long time,” Reich said.

The excitement among the archaeologists is still apparent because the greatness of this discovery wasn’t a treasure, but knowledge. It was always assumed that the construction was a running project for generations, and their find finally proved it.

“Discoveries are never spectacular, like items of silver or gold,” Reich said. “But if I learn something else and close the gap of knowledge on Jerusalem, then I am satisfied.”

Historians say that Herod took on the project in the 18th year of his reign (22 B.C.). The new temple structure itself, built around an older one that had been standing for hundreds of years, took about a year-and-a-half to build. It originally stood on a platform measuring some 250 meters (yards) by 250 meters built by the Hasmonean kings.

Herod’s plans called for a magnificent new massive platform more than double the size about 500 meters long and 280 meters wide with huge retaining walls creating an artificial surface for worship.

Reich said the evidence also indicated, in his eyes, that construction probably began on the eastern side, followed by the southern and northern walls built, and ending with the western wall. Their excavations were directly underneath the Robinson Arch, which served as a major entryway into the Temple Mount, meaning that it too must have dated from well after 15 C.E.

The findings even indicate that during the time of Jesus, the Temple Mount was a construction site. Reich said that the Gospel of John even indicated that it took a long time to build.

“Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ (John 2:19)

“I don’t know if this figure is accurate but it does corroborate our findings. It took more than the days of Herod, more than twice the time to construct. The archaeological evidence now corroborates these texts,” Reich said.

For all the time it took to build, tragically, the edifice stood for less than a generation. The Romans destroyed it during the revolt of the Jews in 70 A.D.