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The Second Temple

Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod
James Tissot (French

As the central Jewish place of sacrificial worship from about  515 B.C.E. until its destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E., the second temple in Jerusalem played a major role in the religious and national life of the Jewish people. According to tradition, the first temple was constructed by King Solomon in the mid-10th century B.C.E. upon the Temple Mount, a hill in Jerusalem believed to be “the place that the Lord will choose” as his dwelling (Deut 12:14-15 and passim). It was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. Half a century later, in 538 B.C.E., Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great, King of Persia and Media), who had vanquished the Babylonian army, decreed that the temple of the Jews in Jerusalem was to be rebuilt and the exiles might return to Judea, which had become the Persian province of Yehud (Ezra 1:2-3, 2Chr 36:23). At the urging of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, Zerubbabel began construction of the second temple in 521 B.C.E. The second temple was completed around 515 B.C.E., was then substantially enlarged by the Hasmonean Dynasty, and was completely refurbished and enlarged by Herod the Great beginning around 20 B.C.E.

How did the second temple function?

A detailed description of the Herodian temple is provided by Josephus, and the Mishnah, which was completed around 200 C.E., provides a temple plan for what appears to be the pre-Herodian structure, probably constructed after the Maccabean Revolt of 168-164 B.C.E.). In addition to the temple building itself, the temple area (Greek, temenos) consisted of an outer courtyard surrounding the complex; the Court of the Women, which both men and women could enter; and a courtyard that enclosed the altar for burnt offerings. Only male Israelites were permitted in the Court of Israel, a small strip extending along the width of the inner courtyard. Beyond the Court of Israel, only priests were permitted to enter. Inside the temple building were the menorah, table for showbread, incense altar and, further in, the holy of holies. Biblical tradition held that this had been the location of the ark of the covenant in the first temple.

According to Second Temple period and rabbinic sources, the Jews believed that the temple was the place from which divine powers emanated to the world. The temple endowed sanctity to the entire city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel beyond it. Rabbinic sources concretized the temple’s centrality by requiring Jews to pray facing Jerusalem—and, if praying in Jerusalem, to pray toward the temple. If praying in the temple itself, one must pray toward the holy of holies.

Sacrificial offerings and prayers were performed twice daily, in the morning and late afternoon, with additional rites on Sabbaths and festival days. Offerings were tendered for forgiveness of sin, purification from contact with the dead and other ritual impurities, and expressions of gratitude to God. These and other offerings involved pure (kosher) animals such as cows, sheep, goats, and birds, grain offerings, or the first fruits of each season. The priests (Hebrew, kohanim) traced their ancestry to the descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron, and the Levites, who traced their ancestry to Jacob’s son Levi, were their assistants. They provided the musical psalmody, assisted with the upkeep of the sanctuary, and served as guards and doorkeepers. They also coordinated supplies and helped with the financial administration.

During the Great Revolt of the Jews against Rome, in 66-73 C.E., various Jewish rebel groups fought in Jerusalem for control of the temple, which symbolized the leadership of the nation. Ironically, this conflict led to the Romans’ razing of the city—and the temple itself­—in 70 C.E. After the destruction, Jews throughout the world who had contributed money each year for sacrifices and temple upkeep had to pay their half-shekel as a tax to the Roman government.

What is the significance of the second temple in Judaism and Christianity?

The second temple and its rituals were a point of contention between various Jewish groups of the time, with numerous texts criticizing the temple for violating the laws of the Torah. The Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ disagreement led to inconsistent control of temple rituals. Sadducean views held sway until the Pharisaic approach took over after the Maccabean Revolt, but the Sadducees regained control later in the Hasmonean period. The Dead Sea sectarians, who believed temple ritual was being conducted illegitimately, abstained completely. Josephus reports that the Essenes processed offerings in their own area of the temple in order to fulfill their special ritual purity requirements. The Temple Scroll from Qumran, like the end of the book of Ezekiel, looked forward to a vastly expanded temple complex. 

Josephus records numerous events around the temple during pilgrimage festivals, often related to the deteriorating relationship between the Jews and their Roman rulers. Huge numbers of Jews from all over the world attended the pilgrimage festivals. According to Josephus, 256,500 lambs were sacrificed to accommodate more than 2.7 million people at the Passover celebration of 66 C.E. While this may be an exaggeration, Josephus also reports that during that Passover, right before the outbreak of the Great Revolt, a massive protest erupted against the actions of the Roman procurator Florus.  

The temple also played a central role in the early history of Christianity. Jesus’ family came to the temple after his birth to celebrate the redemption of the firstborn (Exod 13:13, Num 18:15-16) and so that his mother could offer the sacrifice the Torah requires after childbirth (Lev 12). Most first-century Jews in the land of Israel observed these rites. Later, Jesus taught in the temple during one of his family’s Passover pilgrimages (Luke 2:41-48). Jesus saw the financial arrangements of temple maintenance and the purchase of sacrifices as corrupt, resulting in his famous protest, the overturning of the moneychangers’ tables (Mark 11:15 and parallels). This incident took place around Passover, as Jesus was participating in the festival (John 2:13). Indeed, according to the Gospels, Jesus predicted the temple’s destruction (Mark 13:1-2 and parallels). The temple and its sacrifices figure especially prominently as symbols in the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Many later Jewish and Christian rituals were based on temple rituals. For Jews, daily prayers replaced the sacrifices that could no longer be offered at the temple. Other temple rituals, such as the Passover seder and the carrying of the palm branch (Hebrew, lulav) and citron (Hebrew, etrog) on Sukkot, were transferred to the home or the synagogue, which is regarded as a replacement for the temple. Church worship was also largely patterned on the rituals of the second temple.

  • Lawrence H. Schiffman

    Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Judge Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and director of the Global Institute for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies at New York University. He has written extensively on the Dead Sea Scrolls and Rabbinic Judaism. His most recent books are The Courtyards of the House of the Lord: Studies on the Temple Scroll (Brill, 2008) and Qumran and Jerusalem: Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the History of Judaism (Eerdmans Publishing, 2010).