ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY VS. UNESCO
The head of the Israel Antiquities Authority has recently (Times of Israel Oct. 20) compared UNESCO unflatteringly ‘to Islamic State jihadists’, for its October 13 resolution calling into question ‘the link between Judaism and the Western Wall’ (as Haaretz put it): the view that the Wall is a surviving feature of the pre-70 CE Temple Mount.
However the IAA’s own view, formed in reaction to new evidence, itself deserves to be questioned.
OLD AND NEW REPLIES: COINS, HEROD, AGRIPPA II AND JOSEPHUS
It is generally agreed that Herod the Great, King of the Jews, began work on the Temple in or near 20 BCE. According to a statement ‘Building the Western Wall’ published by the IAA through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on November 23, 2011, ‘every guide and every student grounded in history’, when asked ‘who built the Temple Mount walls?’ will ‘immediately reply ‘Herod”. However, there should now, the IAA continues, be a new reply in the light of archaeology. The New Reply runs, ‘the work was completed in the reign of Herod’s great grandson Agrippa II’ – i.e. in or around 62 CE, when the chain of events that would lead to the destruction of the Temple in 70 was just starting.
The IAA firmly invokes Josephus’ authority for its favoured date, using – misusing, I think – a passage from his Antiquities Book 20, never hinting that he says other things by which the Old Reply, Herod built the Western Wall, might have been encouraged. This misuse was once favoured, as I’ll note later, by Christians arguing against Jews.
The reason the Israel Antiquities Authority came up with the New Reply was the discovery in 2011 (described in the same IAA document) in a cistern space under the Wall of four coins, the latest dated to around 17 CE, in the governorship of Valerius Gratus, twenty years after Herod’s death. ‘This bit of archaeological information illustrates the fact that the construction of the Temple Mount walls… was an enormous project that lasted decades and was not completed during Herod’s lifetime,’ the IAA concedes.
For present, limited purposes I’ll assume that ‘Josephus represents reality’ (Lawrence Schiffman, Descriptions of the Temple in Josephus and the Temple Scroll, 1999; in context less emphatic) on Temple-related matters. Josephus main works are Wars of the Jews (78 CE) – ‘W’ and Antiquities of the Jews (93) – ‘A’.
Two passages, Josephus A 20:219, now favoured by the IAA, and John 2:20, long favoured by Christian tradition, refer to certain finishing points in the history of the Temple, one in the mentioned Year 62, one rather earlier, in the Year 26. These texts are much misused by being rehearsed without asking what exactly it was that got finished. In each case it was, I’d argue, neither Herod’s original design nor any major addition to it, but only a programme of repairs.
BOOK 15 and YEAR 12
Book 15 of Antiquities concludes with a long celebration of the Temple and of Herod’s role. Paragraphs 420 and 421 are the most important. We learn that the Naos, the inner or true Temple, was completed in eighteen months, ie in the Year 18 BCE. Josephus does not use the term ‘Temple Mount buildings’ but he does refer to the Periboloi, surrounds, or exo Periboloi, outer surrounds, of the Temple, which must include any outer wall, there being no hint of further Temple-related structures ‘beyond the surrounds’. He is completely clear (A 15:420) that these surrounding structures were completed by Herod in eight years, i.e. probably by the Year 12.
From the next para. (421) we learn that there was a mighty ‘work finished!’ celebration either in 18 or in 12 – I think Josephus means 18, but there’s some obscurity. If it was in 18, i.e. for the Naos alone, there was never any celebration – nothing such is mentioned in any source – of the completion of the less sacred ‘surrounds’. Indeed in 12, Herod was involved in a very different celebration at Olympia, where he was, says Josephus (W 1:427), Agonothete, or ‘President of the IOC’ we might say. (Here Josephus gains some credence from Athenian inscriptions praising Herod’s munificence.) In any event, what Book 15 so clearly says clearly contradicts what Book 20 is made to say, that the Temple was not completed for eighty years. In fact there were two main repair programmes, of which the first was caused by ravages in 4 BCE and was completed by 26, the date suggested by John’s Gospel. The second, arising after 54, was caused by subsidence problems, which were never really to be solved. It was finished only in the sense of being suspended and never resumed.
THE SABINUS INCIDENT: DAMAGE IN 4 BCE.
In 4 BCE there was insurrection, repression and plunder following Herod’s death (W 2:47-54, A 18:255-294). Roman and Herodian troops were gathered in the royal residence area, somewhat to the southwest of the Temple. From the Phasael Tower Sabinus, their rapacious and cowardly leader, ordered an attack. ‘Showing more confidence in him than he deserved they found the courage to break out’. After a fierce battle the insurrectionists, themselves very courageous, took up high positions in the Temple, making Roman archery from below ineffective. The Romans ‘surged into the Temple’, only to be pinned down by arrow volleys from portico roofs. At length a daring squad made a rush for the shelter of the portico itself where they started a fire which took hold on the wooden fitments and brought the structure crashing down, causing extensive damage and annihilating the opposition. As the fire abated the Romans made their way to the Treasury, which they ransacked. This outrage provoked further resistance, which ended only when Roman reinforcements arrived and negotiations began to seem like a good idea to both sides. Sabinus departed for the coast, doubtless with a well-laden cart. This episode must have necessitated repairs, and the nature and extent of these repairs call for some thought. They would surely, what with a denuded treasury and no dynamic Herod to drive things on, have been quite prolonged.
THE ‘WALL MERELY REPAIRED’ HYPOTHESIS.
Seeing that the Temple needed prolonged repairs we should consider the idea that the Wall too, massive though it is and not easy to damage, needed some repairs, which were duly carried out in 17 CE under Valerius Gratus and that the coins indicate nothing more dramatic than ‘mere repair’. I have some sympathy with this idea but on balance think it unconvincing. The only known event that could have damaged any massive feature of Temple architecture is the Sabinus Incident, the Battle of the Portico. Yet it is clear that Sabinus’ forces, starting from outside the Temple – maybe using a wide staircase – did not have to overcome or even to scale any sheer wall. The fire they started did not blow back on them or on the area over which they had ‘surged’ and did not engulf the whole edifice. It abated so that they could break into the Treasury.
THE ‘MINOR OVERSTATEMENT’ HYPOTHESIS
Though I’m working on the IAA’s own idea that on these matters Josephus is to be trusted, this is the moment to mention the possibility that Josephus was just mildly overstating: that Herod left the Temple project essentially complete, but with just minor gaps to be filled in. On that showing, the discovery of the coins is merely the discovery of one of those gaps: the coins do not reveal a repair to existing work but a minor addition, c. 17 CE, of a small, new, gap-filling section. Again, I think the suggestion unconvincing: a gap making a difference to the defensibility of the whole would have been more than a minor thing. Moreover, the last thing that the Romans would have conceded happily, with the Battle of the Portico burned into their memories, was completion of a really strong, highly formidable wall.
PILATE, JOHN 2:20, CORBAN
However, the Temple did return to fine shape. This is the general witness of the New Testament for Jesus adult lifetime, the 20s and early 30s CE. ‘What manner of buildings!’ (Mark 13:1) Pontius Pilate (plausibly!) took over from Valerius Gratus (W 2:175-177, A 18:255-294) in 26. He soon insisted on the secularisation of some Temple funds to build an aqueduct for the city. He must have been able to argue that it was ridiculous to reserve these funds for sacred – ‘Corban’ says Josephus, a gift or offering consecrated to God (W 2:175) – rather than for highly necessary civic use. He could scarcely have done this if the post-Sabinus repairs had not been reasonably complete by that point. There was indeed a protest against his decision and lethal police brutality was used. But the protests of 26, by contrast with those of 4 BCE when Sabinus’ activities had provoked further resistance, fizzled quite promptly. This was perhaps because the aqueduct was being well used, perhaps because there was nothing about the Temple that was obviously unfinished, so that we have no indication of new features there even after funds had reverted permanently to Temple control. John’s ‘forty-six years was this Temple in building’ fits the interval 20 BCE to 26 CE like a glove. If we consider this good fit along with the absence of any record of celebrations in or near 26 we may conclude that the moment to which John refers is the finishing of Temple repairs marked by Pilate’s secularisation of funds, not the triumphant completion of the original, now decades-old plan. So far the Antiquities 15 date of 12 BCE for completion of the whole complex need not be questioned.
AGRIPPA: THE SUBSIDENCE PROBLEM
‘In the time of Nero’, Josephus reports (A 15:391), the inner Temple began to suffer subsidence. Nero began to reign in 54. The collapse of the Temple under natural forces might have been a greater disaster and indication of God’s displeasure even than destruction by enemies. An attempted repair that failed or made things worse would have brought calamity on the one responsible. Such must have been the fears of King Agrippa. The decision was made to underpin the structure: vast amounts of timber and a huge workforce were assembled. But the decision was never carried out – or carried out only partially and gingerly. The timber – or much of it – was to lie around until after the outbreak of war in 66 when the revolutionary leader John of Gischala, Josephus’ bugbear, decided to use it to make barricades against rival factions (W 5:36). Agrippa a decade earlier had grown more and more wary of the technology of underpinning, in the end refusing to use it even experimentally on an outer building (A 20: 219). Meanwhile funds were accumulating and the people who used the Temple as a bank were becoming restive, seemingly fearing another secularisation of funds on Pilate’s model which would this time lead to a demand that they pay allegedly overdue taxes. The Romans were taking the view that Corban, the sacralisation of money, was an unethical tax dodge. The last Governor, Gessius Florus, was to take this view so aggressively that war would break out. After the war Mark, the Roman Christian, was to join with those who regarded Corban (7:11) as selfish and hypocritical.
AGRIPPA: DIVERSION OF FUNDS
The King’s decision in all the circumstances was to secularise a lot of the money himself, by accepting a proposal to replace all the pavements of the city’s streets with ‘white stone’, perhaps marble, a massive job for his massive band of workers. At least no one could say that the money was idling. At the same time there was a judgement over liturgy which Josephus records in doom-laden tones. He then writes the few words, only seven in Greek, ‘already by this time the Temple too had been finished’ (A 20:219 again) to which so much importance has been attached by the IAA and others. This terse remark, downbeat rather than tragic, surely does not record the completion after eighty years of Herod’s plan or of some even grander plan conceived later. It records only the finish of – the rather disappointing failure to follow through on – a programme of repairs. Josephus proceeds quickly to tell us of the need to protect investors and of the ‘white stone’ project. Once again there is no reason, in the light of this record in Antiquities 20 of a repair programme suspended in awkward circumstances, to consider the firm statement of Antiquities 15, that the Temple was completed after eight years, to have been contradicted.
THE TESTIMONY OF MEDIEVAL JEWRY.
‘It is noteworthy’ says Joseph Soloveitchik (Kinos Mesoras HaRav p.370) ‘that the Western Wall is not referred to at all in the Babylonian…or Jerusalem Talmud’. However, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, bolder than the IAA, claims through its ‘goisrael’ website that from a very early stage the Wall was recognised as a surviving part of the Temple complex. Its authority is certain Midrashjc passages, notably from the Exodus Rabbah 2:2, a commentary certainly written many centuries later than 70 – (Hauser and Watson HIstory of Biblical Interpretation 2009 Vol.2, p.133.) There we find a mention, alluding to Song of Songs 2:9, of a surviving western wall where God glimpses us ‘through the lattice’, as the lover in the Song does. However, it has been recognised, even among those who have no quarrel with claims that the Wall belongs to the Temple Mount, that this – like other comparable Midrashic references – concerns a very different matter, the walls of the Temple itself: so there is no real support here for the Ministry’s claims. Moreover, a sheer, massive wall is not very like a lattice. Perhaps a lattice-like structure had been visible within the Wall for some time in the medieval period but was lost by the time of Maimonides’ visit, perhaps in 1165 – (Davidson Moses Maimonides 2005, p. 29). Maimonides, recording his visit, makes no claim for any structure visible at that time, as a surviving element of either Temple or Temple Mount, which he surely would have done if there was any consensus within the medieval Jewish world behind the Exodus Rabbah’s remarks.
ISAAC OF TROKI VS. JOHN GILL
In 1681 Chizzuk Emunah, a defence of Judaism and critique of Christianity, finally made it into print – in a Christian series called ‘The Fiery Darts of Satan’ – nearly a century after the death of its author, the Lithuanian Karaite Isaac of Troki. He is cited by the Baptist John Gill (Exposition of the Entire Bible 1746 and later years) as using Antiquities 15 to declare John 2:20 to be in ‘palpable error’ – a high view of Book 15 which must have lived on to encourage the tour guides’ ‘Old Reply’, attributing everything to Herod. Gill for his part seems to have felt a palpable hit inflicted by ‘the Jew’. His response helped set the tone among Christian scholars whereby the long statement of Book 15 is somewhat devalued and the terse seven words of Book 20 made to say more than they really do. I certainly cannot say that the IAA is alone, though I still say that it is mistaken.
From the statements a) that the Temple complex was, as per A15:420, finished – completed according to plan, outer surrounds and all, with no significant gaps or omissions – in 12 BCE, b) that after that and before the destruction of 70 there were no major new features added or even planned and c) that the coins show that the Wall was not a completed feature of the outer surrounds even by 17 CE it follows inevitably that none of the Wall was ever part of the Temple complex and that one of the historical claims characteristic of Zionism is rather starkly false. These three statements are all supported by evidence but I accept that none is conclusively proved, so that the problem of the origin of the Wall remains a complex and difficult one. (I haven’t considered the arguments of those who believe that the whole Temple was located elsewhere.)
I argue that the attempt to dismiss the problem IAA-style by curt reference to those few words in Antiquities 20, with no attempt even to mention the crucial paragraphs of Antiquities 15, the Book where Josephus really focuses on the Temple, is inadequate, disappointing and misleading. I could wish that Israel would demonise Unesco rather less and that ‘every guide would reply’ that the status and origin of the Wall are quite problematic. They won’t, though.
Most dates mentioned are disputable within a year or two, but I think only to a degree that does not affect the argument. Available recent books on Jerusalem seem to have been published too soon to deal with the late 2011 publicity about the coins. Josephus is available in the Loeb Library edition and in the classic William Whiston translation. The new Brill edition is incomplete, but covers the Sabinus Incident. I have consulted Bill Heroman’s very valuable NT/History blog, also Ritmeyer Atchaeological Design, esp. for the ‘mere repair theory’ and Gil Student’s Torah Musings for Exodus Rabbah and the remarks of Rabbi Soloveitchik. For assessments of Josephus and other matters, see Helen Bond, ‘Pilate in History and Interpretation’ (2004), Martin Goodman ‘Rome and Jerusalem’ (2007) and Steve Mason, ‘A History of the Jewish War’ (2016).