Herod’s Temple Mount

Is this the Site of the Expulsion of the Money Changers?

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Herod’s massacre of the infants (Matthew 2:16-18) by the Italian painter Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-11.

King Herod the Great, who ruled the Land of Israel as a client of the Romans from 37-4 BCE, was among the most widely feared individuals who ever sat on a throne in Jerusalem. He was wildly despotic, manipulative, murderous, and paranoid. But today, these less savory aspects of Herod’s character have mostly faded into the past. What we are left with are the impressive remains of Herod’s numerous building projects.

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An aerial view of the fortress of Herodium (5 miles south of Jerusalem) which Herod later converted into his own burial site.

Many people are familiar with Herod’s desert fortresses such as Masada and Herodium and his renovation of the Second Temple. But we tend to forget that Herod did not merely rebuild the Temple itself, but totally overhauled the Temple Mount, creating the artificial flat platform  that still exists today. It is known in Hebrew as Har Habayit (“the Temple Mount”) and in Arabic as Haram es-Sharif (“the Noble Sanctuary”) and is pictured here:

DOME OF THE ROCK JERUSALEM.jpgThis was done by building a series of retaining walls and vaulted arches around Jerusalem’s eastern hill, in order to expand the surface area of the sacred plaza (Greek: temenos) surrounding the Temple itself (Greek: naos). The finished product was an artificial platform that housed the largest sacred structure in the Roman Empire at the time.

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For example, Herod’s Temple Mount was five times bigger than the Temple of Baal-Shamin in Palmyra (destroyed by ISIS in 2015), pictured here:

The Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra, Syria 02AM3152.jpg

One of the most impressive buildings built by Herod the Great was located on the southern side of the expanded Temple Mount platform. It was known as the “Royal Stoa” and was a unique building unto itself. It was also the part of the renovated Temple complex seen by the most number of people because it was not off-limits to anyone (i.e., Gentiles, women, non-priests). Likely the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” referred to by Josephus was located directly adjacent to the Royal Stoa. Separating the open area allowed to Gentiles from the Jewish-only zone closer to the Temple was a stone barricade (soreg), of which remnants have been found. Pictured here is a monumental Greek inscription discovered in 1871 by Clermont-Ganneau, which warns Gentiles not to pass beyond the barrier: “No stranger is to enter within the balustrade round the temple and enclosure. Whoever is caught will be responsible to himself for his death, which will ensue.”

File:Soreg inscription.jpgPictured here is the “Holy Land Hotel model” of Second Temple Era Jerusalem designed by Prof. Michael Avi-Yonah, today housed at the Israel Museum. The Royal Stoa is the red-roofed structure on the extreme left side of the Temple Mount.

Jerusalem Modell BW 2.JPGIn ancient Greek architecture the word stoa (στοά) means a covered walkway or roofed colonnade, commonly for public use. It is usually translated as “portico” or “porch” in English. Stoas were open at the entrance with columns lining the side of the building; they created a safe, enveloping, protective atmosphere. Here is an image of the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, located in the ancient agora of Athens.

Stoa of Attalus Ath.2.JPGAccording to Josephus, the magnificent Royal Stoa was the largest building atop the Temple Mount. It extended the whole length of the southern side of the esplanade. It was the main site of commercial activity atop the Temple Mount and was a major place for political meetings. It was a long three-aisled structure containing four rows of massive Corinthian columns holding up the roof.Although this was indeed a stoa, the Royal Stoa was also a basilica. The word basilica comes from the Greek basileos (βασιλεύς) meaning “king” because this type of building was commonly used as the royal palace for a king. After Christianity was legalized in the 4th century, the basilica structure was adopted for church architecture.

Josephus describes the Royal Stoa as having 162 columns, each 50 feet high and 16 feet in diameter (Jewish Antiquities 15.413-4).

A close-up of the Royal Stoa from the Holy Land model at the Israel Museum

As seen in the image of the Holy Land model above, the other three sides of the Temple Mount esplanade were bordered by much simpler (non-basilical) covered porticoes (stoas). The most famous of these was located on the eastern side, overlooking the Kidron Valley. It was called Solomon’s Portico and is mentioned in John 10:23 (as well as Acts 3:11.). This was during an earlier visit by Jesus to Jerusalem on the occasion of Hanukkah found only in John. Of course, King Solomon himself had nothing to do with the building of this Herodian portico.

If, however, we examine the final week of Jesus in Jerusalem, it is quite likely that the Royal Stoa was the setting for one of the most crucial incidents that took place during this week: the overturning of the tables of the money-changers (Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-48). This incident is popularly known as the “Cleansing of the Temple,” which is a problematic term because it implies that the Temple itself was somehow impure and in need of cleansing. The Gospels make no such statement. Rather, the problem is that the esplanade of the Temple Mount had become excessively commercialized. A more precise – if rather unwieldy – name would be the “Decommercialization of the Temple’s Outer Courtyards”. More than anything else that Jesus did during his final week, it was this act which got him in trouble with the Jewish authorities, paving the way for his eventual arrest and execution.

About the author

Jonathan LipnickJonathan Lipnick believes that a truly comprehensive understanding of Scripture must be capable of penetrating beneath the printed words to reveal the authentic world of the Bible: the landscapes, smells and sounds of ancient Israel. He is the dean of the faculty of Holy Land Studies at Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, and is the author of the course "Exploring the Biblical Land of Israel"

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Join the conversation (33 comments)

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  1. Therese Baca

    Dr. Jonathan,
    You are a blessing for us all. You add a thrilling energy to all of your work. Your effort to use real images truly help in reconstructing the Land of the Bible for all readers. Keep up your wonderful exposé(s)!

  2. Jo Ann Abreu

    I have read several of your Holy land studies and have enjoyed each greatly. Thank you for the studies.

  3. Doreen West

    Thank you for shedding light on the New Testament , which was written by Jews and so we need to appreciate the Jewish roots of it.
    I understand now what Yeshua did. Money changers would hardly have been in the Temple proper.
    I believe it was not merely the act of cleansing but the reference to “my father’s house”, which infuriated the authorities.

  4. Jo Ann Abreu

    Thank you for the Biblical insight on the Holy land. I would love one day to have the privalege to visit the holy lands and see the places that the Bible talks about first hand. Thank you for your studies.

    1. Jonathan Lipnick

      I encourage to you come and visit with an organized tour (either through a church or an educational institution) – you will get a lot more out of your visit than by doing it alone.

  5. Jo Ann Abreu

    Thank you for the information. I would love to have the privelage of one day visiting Israel and the holy land. Thank you for your studies.

  6. Thomas Englehart

    I find this article very enlightening and it helps me to understand more clearly where the events mentioned in Scripture took place

  7. Stephen Dollar

    It is interesting to note that the time of Jesus was a time of general terror and punishment at the hand of the governing body. Yet we find the Apostles speaking of how times would get far worse before the end came. I find it interesting that people talk of the end times because things are getting so bad. Yet, from the apostolic view things would have to become much, much worse before the times would even be as bad as they were at the time of Jesus, let alone worse. I do not feel that we are in the end times yet. Of course, that could happen quickly with appetite of our governments worldwide

  8. Dorothy Finlay

    Very interesting material Dr Lipnick. Many new facts come to light from Herod’s amazing building in Jerusalem. Thank you

    1. Jonathan Lipnick

      Thank you for reading!

  9. jane z mazzola

    This is very interesting. I love the art & photography to make your article visually understandable. Having been on the Temple Mount 2 yrs ago, I could remember & relate to the locations, further appreciating the Temple’s monumental import spiritually, physically, & historically, to the Jews first, & to all the nations.

    Thank you again,

    1. Jonathan Lipnick

      Jane, So glad the visuals are helpful. Thank you for reading!

  10. Peter K. O. Adeyemi

    Thanks Dr. Lip nick for sharing