Updated: Apr 25, 2020
The Jewish temple of the first century was considered a sight to see. The historian Josephus described it as a “mountain of snow” as it glittered in the sunlight. It had gold details, and huge enormous bronze gates celebrated for their beauty.
This was the temple where Jesus threw over the tables, where he healed the people in the courts. He stood toe-to-toe against the religious leaders in the shadow of this center of worship.
The whole nature of the temple was to be the place where the spheres of heaven and earth met. Understanding a little about the temple can actually help us understand more about our role as Christians.
What was the Jerusalem temple like in Jesus' day?
While the details are debated, I think everyone agrees on the basic layout. (Well as much as historians agree on anything!) There are many wonderful details, but we'll just do a simple overview.
Near the temple courts were the large baths for purification, for men and women.
Ironically, also right next to the courts was a Roman garrison, called the Antonia, with towers allowing soldiers to oversee what was happening in the courts. A Jew could not even worship in Jesus' day without the overshadowing, inescapable, presence of Rome.
Up many stairs was the platform, often called the temple mount, which was an enormous area of 1590 feet by 1030 feet, made smaller and smaller by holier and holier walled areas. (For reference, a USA football field is 160 feet wide, by 360 feet long, small by comparison!)
It had a colorful tiled floor, and was fully encircled by a colonnade - a roofed area supported by columns. The colonnade, on at least one side, was two stories tall. This large courtyard was called the Court of Gentiles, where anyone could visit. This was where the money changers, the dove sellers and other business transactions took place. It was likely noisy and bustling - not very conducive to a worshiping atmosphere.
Within this large area was the next courtyard, the Court of Women. Any Jewish man, woman, or child could worship here. There were smaller sections of this courtyard that included storage for the sacrificial goods, oil for lamps, wood for the altar, and so forth.
Up a staircase, and through stunning bronze gates, was the Court of Israel. Generally, this was only for men, unless a woman was bringing a sacrifice. The Court of Israel included the fifty-foot square area with the altar for burnt offerings and an enormous basin for ceremonial washing.
Within the Court of Israel was a low wall, separating it from the Court of Priests. Only the temple priests could go in here to perform the services of the temple.
The temple itself is described by Josephus as being one hundred cubits wide, and one hundred cubits high (100 cubits is about 150 feet) with gold spikes on its roof to keep birds from landing (and making a mess!). Inside the front area, there were special lamps and tables for service.
Dividing the interior of the temple was a curtained area, to partition off a room called the Holy of Holies, considered by Jews as the holiest place in the entire world. Only the high priest could enter, and even then, he shrouded himself in incense smoke, and the people waited with bated breath to see if he would emerge safely. However, in Jesus' day, the ark of the covenant was no longer in the Holy of Holies. It had been taken away when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and never returned.
You see, the temple Jesus visited was not the original temple.
A Quick Look at the History of the Temple
The very first dwelling place made for God was the tabernacle in the time of Moses. It was a massive tent with elaborate furnishings, constructed with the finest materials, and by the hands of the most skilled craftsmen. You can read in great detail about the tabernacle, its furnishings, and what the priests wore in Exodus 25-28, 30, 36-40.
When David became king, he wanted to construct a temple for the Lord, but that honor was given to his son, Solomon. It took seven years to build. You can read about Solomon's temple in 1 Kings, or in 2 Chronicles. Once it was completed, it was dedicated with prayers and sacrifices, and the priests moved the ark of the covenant and the furnishings and other articles into the temple. This was somewhere around 970-931 BC.
The book of Second Chronicles tells the whole history of Solomon's Temple, from construction to destruction. Here is a super simple overview:
The book begins with Solomon constructing the Temple.
Solomon dies, and not long afterward, the once united land splits into Israel in the North, and Judah in the South.
Israel turns away from God. They commit evil, including sacrificing their children to pagan gods. As a result, God allows Assyria to sweep in, and most of Israel and Samaria are led away into exile. Assyria puts their own puppets kings in charge.