The Destruction of the Second Temple
“Sorely have they afflicted me from my youth,” let Israel now say – “Sorely have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me. The plowers plowed upon my back; they made long their furrows.” The LORD is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked. May all who hate Zion be put to shame and turned backward! Let them be like the grass on the housetops, which withers before it grows up, with which the reaper does not fill his hand or the binder of sheaves his bosom, while those who pass by do not say, “The blessing of the LORD be upon you! We bless you in the name of the LORD!” (Psalm 129. A Psalm of Ascents)
Prelude to the Second Desolation of Jerusalem
Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, as well as most every one of the prophets of Israel, give us copious amounts of information telling us why it was that Israel was taken into exile in Babylon and why the magnificent First Temple should be destroyed. The terrible loss of life and all the associated suffering which took place especially on the 9th of Av, 586 B.C.E. were followed by a slow restoration. By the time of Yeshua (Jesus), 600 years later, Israel enjoyed a modest place among the nations of the Middle East. Gone was the great military prowess she had enjoyed under King David. Gone was the King – Israel had been a vassal state under foreign dominion for centuries. However, a respectable Temple stood in Jerusalem. Sacrifices and offerings and the externals of her religion were in place. The priesthood was corrupted and the number of the godly who were faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was very few. There was little evidence of real spiritual life from God. Demonic activity and occult practices were at an all time high, as the Christian gospels reveal, and the Jews were not highly regarded by the Greeks and Romans for their religion, or for their exemplary lifestyles. The internal politics of a once unified people was divided into factions of Herodians, Hellenists, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Scribes. Thankfully, a tiny believing remnant remained faithful to the Holy One of Israel.
The four Christian gospels say very little about the Temple in the days of Jesus. Except for a few brief words from Jesus there was no extensive public warning that the Second Temple was to be destroyed. The analysis of why this happened would be explained afterward, after resurrection of Jesus. It was then that the Apostles (all Jews) confronted the nation with her grievous sins.
The life of Jesus seemed unimportant to the Romans and to many of the Jewish people at the time Jesus the Christ taught and walked among his own people. The resurrection of this same Jesus and His ascension after a number of public appearances was followed 50 days later by the birth of church on Pentecost Sunday. This took place on the Temple Mount. However, it was not long before persecution drove the apostles and church leaders North to Antioch. The Jewish people were accustomed to outspoken sect leaders and false messiah so Jesus was soon forgotten and his qualifications as a true prophet of God were ignored. The hundreds of new followers of Jesus after the Day of Pentecost were of course originally all Jews.
Shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the mad Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus – nicknamed Caligula (“little boots”) – attempted to desecrate the Temple. Everywhere else in the Roman empire subjugated peoples had been forced to conform to the cult of Rome and acknowledge not only Caesar as Lord but also fall into line by adopting the Roman pantheon of gods. The Jews had been left alone and it was time they began to conform. Caligula gave an order to set up his statue in the Holy of Holies in the Temple:
Now Caius Caesar did so grossly abuse the fortune he had arrived at, as to take himself to be a god, and to desire to be so called also, and to cut off those of the greatest nobility out of his country. He also extended his impiety as far as the Jews. Accordingly he sent Petronius with an army to Jerusalem to place his statues in the temple, and commanded him that, in case the Jews would not admit of them, he should slay those that opposed it, and carry all the rest into captivity. (Ref. 1)
The Roman writer Tacitus adds that Caius commanded the Jews to place his effigies in the Temple. Josephus records that the Jews pleaded with Petronius not to do this. The Jews in their stubborn monotheism were willing to sacrifice their whole nation before they would allow the Temple to be defiled. Petronius marveled at their courage and ceased with the process so confrontation was temporarily averted. An enraged Caligula commanded that Petronius be put to death. Josephus records that Caligula himself died soon thereafter and due to bad weather at sea, the letter ordering Petronius’ death arrived three weeks after the news arrived of Caligula’s death. Petronius was not executed and the Temple was spared this particular abomination.
Revolt and Turmoil
To enforce their rule the Romans were forced to brutally repress the rebellions led by various “messiahs” – Theudas, James and Simon. One Jewish group, the Zealots, in existence since the turn of the century, gained enough strength by 50 A.D. that they were able to raid Jerusalem. The Roman procurator Gessius Florius (62-64), whose headquarters were in Sebaste (Samaria), had taken advantage of the instability by taxing the Temple treasury for his own benefit. He was the most cruel of all Roman leaders to date. Florius met the Zealots in Jerusalem by killing 3600 Jews as he pillaged the upper market place. The Zealots in response destroyed the northern portico of the temple adjacent to the Antonia fortress thus preventing Florius from reaching the Temple where he wanted to seize the temple treasures.
Florius was driven from the city eventually and the high priest Eliezer ben-Hananiah persuades the priests to cease offerings to the health of the Emperor. This gave Rome even more reason to crack down.
At the outset of the revolt Herod Agrippa II (grandson of Herod the Great) gained control of the Upper City but the high priest Eliezer took over the Lower City and a civil war began. Agrippa gathered the people in the Chamber of Hewn Stone in a futile effort to restore peace. The rebels set fire to the palaces of the king, his sister Bernice, and to the house of the high priest. Agrippa fled from Jerusalem allowing the Zealots to capture Fortress Antonia and Herod’s palace. The former was set on fire and burned.
As the civil war raging in Jerusalem intensified Cestius Gallius, procurator of Syria attacked Jerusalem in 66 A.D. from Mt. Scopus and the ascent of Beth-Horon, but a Jewish group led by Simon Bar-Giora harassed the soldiers of Gallius from the rear and captured all their arms. The rebels had a respite for four years during which time they were able to complete the third wall.
The struggles between the Zealots and the Roman soldiers from Syria destroyed the food stocks of the Zealots who then robbed the homes of the local Jewish population. The inhabitants of Jerusalem died in great numbers by famine as had happened when Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem centuries earlier (Jer. 52:6,7). Greater disaster was soon to come.
The Second Temple Destroyed – As Predicted
During the last days of his life Jesus had assembled his disciples together on the Mt. of Olives overlooking the Temple. The disciples were uncertain and anxious about the future especially in light of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple and stopping the sacrifices, and his astonishing statements delivered in holy anger denouncing the Pharisees. The disciples opened the conversation by talking about the beauty of the temple and its courts. Jesus opened his amazing and detailed reply by predicting the soon-coming destruction of that magnificent building:
Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Matthew 24:1-3)
Both the Temple and the City of Jerusalem were indeed about to be destroyed. With four Legions, Titus the Roman General, later to become Caesar, began the siege of Jerusalem in April, A.D. 70. He posted his 10th legion on the Mount of Olives, directly east of and overlooking the Temple Mount. The 12th and 15th legions were stationed on Mount Scopus, further to the east and commanding all ways to Jerusalem from east to north. The 5th legion was held in reserve.
The Second 9th of Av – 70 C.E.
On the 10th of August, in A.D. 70 — the 9th of Av — in Jewish reckoning, the very day when the King of Babylon burned the Temple in 586 B.C., the Temple was burned again. Titus took the city and put it to the torch, burning the Temple.
Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus was present in Jerusalem when the city was captured and the Temple was burnt. He described the event in this manner:
The Romans, though it was a terrible struggle to collect the timber, raised their platforms in twenty-one days, having as described before stripped the whole area in a circle round the town to a distance of ten miles. The countryside like the City was a pitiful sight; for where once there had been a lovely vista of woods and parks there was nothing but desert and stumps of trees. No one – not even a foreigner – who had seen the Old Judea and the glorious suburbs of the City, and now set eyes on her present desolation, could have helped sighing and groaning at so terrible a change; for every trace of beauty had been blotted out by war, and nobody who had known it in the past and came upon it suddenly would have recognized the place: when he was already there he would still have been looking for the City.
Josephus speaks of the house to house fighting that occurred:
These Romans put the Jews to flight, and proceeded as far as the holy house itself. At which time one of the soldiers, without staying for any orders, and without any concern or dread upon him at so great an undertaking, and being hurried on by a certain divine fury, snatched some what out of the materials that were on fire, and being lifted up by another soldier, he set fire to a golden window, through which there was a passage to the rooms that were round about the holy house, on the north side of it. As the flames went upward, the Jews made a great clamour, such as so mighty an affliction required, and ran together to prevent it; and now they spared not their lives any longer, nor suffered anything to restrain their force, since that holy house was perishing . . . thus it was the holy house burnt down . . . Nor can one imagine any thing greater or more terrible than this noise; for there was at once a shout of the Roman Legions, who were marching all together, and a sad clamour of the seditious, who were now surrounded with fire and sword . . . the people under a great consternation, made sad moans at the calamity they were under . . . Yet was the misery itself more terrible than this disorder; for one would have thought that the hill itself, on which the Temple stood, was seething hot, as full of fire on every part of it. (Ref. 4)
And Josephus lists the horrendous outcome:
To give a detailed account of their outrageous conduct is impossible, but we may sum it up by saying that no other city has ever endured such horrors, and no generation in history has fathered such wickedness. In the end they brought the whole Hebrew race into contempt in order to make their own impiety seem less outrageous in foreign eyes, and confessed the painful truth that they were slaves, the dregs of humanity, bastards, and outcasts of their nation.
….It is certain that when from the upper city they watched the Temple burning they did not turn a hair, though many Romans were moved to tears. (Ref. 5)
The prediction of Jesus with regard to the city and the Temple were now fulfilled:
As the flames shot into the air the Jews sent up a cry that matched the calamity and dashed to the rescue, with no thought now of saving their lives or husbanding their strength; for that which hitherto they had guarded so devotedly was disappearing before their eyes. (Ref. 6)
Jerusalem was totally destroyed and as Jesus had predicted – not one stone was left upon another. When the Temple was set on fire the Roman soldiers tore apart the stone to get the melted gold. The Menorah and vessels were carried to Rome and the treasury was robbed.
As Daniel had predicted the Temple was destroyed after the Messiah had come, not before.
Bible scholar Ray C. Stedman comments on the predictions of Jesus and their fulfillment in history a few years later,
In Luke 21:20 we have other details of this predicted overthrow of the city and the Temple. There Jesus adds, “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.” Forty years later the Roman armies under Titus came in and fulfilled the prediction to the very letter. With Titus was a Jewish historian named Josephus who recorded the terrible story in minute detail. It was one of the most ghastly sieges in all history. When the Romans came the city was divided among three warring factions of Jews who were so at each others’ throats that they paid no heed to the approach of the Romans. Thus Titus came up and surrounded the city while it was distracted by its own internecine warfare. The Romans assaulted the walls again and again, and gave every opportunity to the Jews to surrender and save their capital from destruction.
During the long siege a terrible famine raged in the city and the bodies of the inhabitants were literally stacked like cordwood in the streets. Mothers ate their children to preserve their own strength. The toll of Jewish suffering was horrible but they would not surrender the city. Again and again they attempted to trick the Romans through guile and perfidy. When at last the walls were breached Titus tried to preserve the Temple by giving orders to his soldiers not to destroy or burn it. But the anger of the soldiers against the Jews was so intense that, maddened by the resistance they encountered, they disobeyed the order of their general and set fire to the Temple. There were great quantities of gold and silver there which had been placed in the Temple for safekeeping. This melted and ran down between the rocks and into the cracks of the stones. When the soldiers captured the Temple area, in their greed to obtain this gold and silver they took long bars and pried apart the massive stones. Thus, quite literally, not one stone was left standing upon another. The Temple itself was totally destroyed, though the wall supporting the area upon which the Temple was built was left partially intact and a portion of it remains to this day, called the Western Wall. (Ref. 2)
A Temple Legend
Flavius Josephus also recorded a legend that sprung up about the Temple. While the Temple was on fire and there was tremendous looting, killing and rape many rushed to the Temple to die rather than become Roman slaves. When the flames leaped through the roof and the smoke had risen in thick columns one of the priests supposedly climbed to the top of the main tower. He had in his hand the key to the sanctuary. When he reached the top he cried out, “If you, Lord, no longer judge us to be worthy to administer Your house, take back the key until You deem us worthy again.” As the legend goes, a hand appeared from heaven and took the key from the priest.
A Second Exile for Israel
When the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 the period of the second exile began. The Jewish people were soon to be scattered throughout the earth. For the next 1900 years the Jews would have no authority in the land God gave to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. However during most of the period of this Second Exile there have always been some Jews living in Jerusalem. Although most of the nation was in exile from their land, the Jews did not forget Jerusalem or the Temple Mount. Their daily prayer was for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. The traditional Jewish prayer book contains the following passage:
Because of our sins we were exiled from our country and banished from our land. We cannot go up as pilgrims to worship Thee, to perform our duties in Thy chosen house, the great and Holy Temple which was called by Thy name, on account of the hand that was let loose on Thy sanctuary. May it be Thy will, Lord our God and God of our fathers, merciful King, in Thy abundant love again to have mercy on us and on Thy sanctuary; rebuild it speedily and magnify its glory.
For the next two thousand years, the Temple Mount would lack any Jewish presence. The destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 caused the beginning of the scattering of the Jews throughout the world. During this period, the Temple Mount was for the most part neglected and profaned. Though this time constituted a period of neglect some significant events concerning Jerusalem and the Temple Mount did occur. More information on this time period of Temple Mount history is given in Tuvia Sagiv’s writings.
In the first hundred years after the city and Temple were destroyed, there was high expectation among the Jews that they would once again return to their land and rebuild that which was devastated. The Court of 70 Elders, the Sanhedrin, was intact and many Jews still lived in small communities in Israel. Their hopes were dashed by the Emperor Hadrian when he decided to establish a new city on the ruins of Jerusalem. The Old City was plowed up to make way for the new Roman city to be named Colonia Aelia Capitolina.
Second Jewish Revolt
Hadrian’s actions, particularly his attempted to eradicate all traces of a Jewish city named Jerusalem, caused ongoing rebellion among the Jews. In response, there were large scale mass murders of Jews in Caesarea and other communities by the Romans. These murders sparked a larger rebellion led by a man named Simon Bar Kochba (A.D. 132-135). Bar Kochba rallied the people and massacred the famous 12th legion of the Roman army. Jerusalem was liberated for three years and Rabbi Akiva proclaimed Bar Kochba as the Messiah who was to deliver the Jewish people.
The Jews proceeded to set up an independent government. Coins were struck that commemorated the “First Year of the Deliverance of Israel.” One coin showed the facade of the Temple. It is possible that Bar Kochba attempted to rebuild the Temple. One later historical work (Chronicon Paschale) describes Hadrian as the one who destroyed the Temple of the Jews. The Roman historian Dio Cassius also said that Hadrian built his Temple to replace the one of the God of Israel. Some, therefore, assume that the Chronicon is not referring to the destruction of the original Temple by Titus in A.D. 70 but to a later destruction by Hadrian of a partially restored Temple built by Bar Kochba.
Within three years of Jerusalem’s liberation under the Bar Kochba revolt, Rome marched against the rebels and killed Bar Kochba. The Sanhedrin officially labeled him a false Messiah and Jerusalem was again in Roman hands. Jewish Jerusalem was once again blotted out and Aelia Capitolina was built on its site as had been planned. Because the war had cost the lives of Roman heroes, the Jews were thenceforth forbidden to enter Jerusalem upon penalty of death. Hadrian attempted to destroy every connection Jerusalem had with the Jewish people. Christians of Jewish background were also excluded from the city, but gentile Christians were able to remain.
In an effort to leave no trace of the Second Temple, Hadrian erected a Temple to Jupiter Capitolinus on the site. An equestrian statue of Hadrian was also built on the site. The next Emperor, Antonius Pius (A.D. 138-161), added another statue. The Jews were only allowed to enter the city on special occasions to mourn on the Temple Mount.
Constantine and the “Christian” Roman Empire
In A.D. 324 Emperor Constantine and his mother Queen Helena were converted to Christianity. Aelia Capitolina was renamed Jerusalem and the title of “Holy City” was restored to her. It was now, however, considered the Holy City of Christianity, not the national capital of the Jews. The pagan temple Hadrian was destroyed and the church of Holy Zion was built on the Temple Mount. These conditions lasted under A.D. 362 when the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate permitted the Jews to return.
A Plan to Rebuild
There was one occasion after the destruction of the Second Temple when the Jews were able to formulate plans to rebuild their temple. The man behind this project was the Roman Emperor, Flavius Claudius Julianus, a nephew of Constantine – also known as Julian the Apostate because of his opposition to Christianity. Julian planned the project in the last year of his reign in A.D. 363. Julian rescinded all the anti-Jewish laws that his uncle Constantine had instituted. He issued an edict that the Temple be rebuilt in Jerusalem. This caused a great deal of excitement among the Jews. From far and wide, Jews came to Jerusalem to help in the rebuilding work. Julian supplied the necessary funds and appointed Alypius of Antioch, the Roman Governor of Great Britain, to carry out the project. Jews from all over gave from their wealth upon the projected work of rebuilding the Temple. The roads to Jerusalem were filled with multitudes of Jewish men and women who had hopes of seeing a Third Temple built.
Then sudden tragedy struck. The foundations of the Second Temple were barely uncovered when flames of fire burst forth from under the ground. The flames were accompanied by large explosions. The cause for the flames were probably the result of noxious gas in the subterranean passages catching fire. The workmen fled and the building was stopped, never again to be restarted. Many believed that the explosion and fire were a demonstration of the anger of God.
With their hopes dashed, the Jews were then driven into Exile and became wanderers in foreign lands. They were people without a homeland. For some eighteen centuries they would be dispersed and persecuted. Throughout time their thoughts were of the Temple which once stood in Jerusalem and prayers for its restoration.
Visible Remains of the Temple
From ancient records we can glean some information about visible remains of the Temple after its destruction. Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (A.D. 260-340) testified that he could still see the remains of the sanctuary. He said that the large stone blocks were hauled away to build sanctuaries and theaters. During this period of exile the city was visited by a pilgrim known as the traveler of Bordeaux. He gave the following testimony in A.D. 333:
At the side of the Sanctuary, there is a pierced stone. Jews visit there once a year, pour oil over it, lament and weep over it, and tear their garments in token of mourning. Then they return home.
The once-a-year visit was probably on the 9th of Av, the Jewish date of the destruction of both Temples. The pierced stone, or a rock with a hollow in it, is not identified. It is assumed by some to have been the foundation stone upon which the Holy of Holies was built. In the Talmud we find a reference to the “Foundation Rock” which the Holy of Holies had rested (Yoma 5:2).
Early church father John Chrysostom wrote:
The Jews began uncovering the foundations by removing masses of earth, intending to go ahead and build …You can see the bared foundations if you visit Jerusalem now…Some of its parts (sanctuary) are razed to the ground.
The Jews were allowed to enter the city only one day a year during this period of exile. In A.D. 392 the Christian leader Jerome wrote concerning this day:
On the anniversary of the day when the city fell and was destroyed by the Romans, there are crowds who mourn, old women and old men dressed in tatters and rags, and from the Top of the Mount of Olives this throng laments over the destruction of its Sanctuary. Still their eyes flow with tears, still their hands tremble and their hair is disheveled, but already the guards demand pay for their right to weep. (Ref. 7)
In the sixth century the Pilgrim of Piacenze mentions the ruins of the Temple of Solomon. From these accounts we can deduce that there were at least some visible remains of the Temple foundation through the sixth century.
Cursed of God?
In the early years, the Christians looked upon the Temple Mount as a place that God had cursed. As Christianity gained foothold in the Roman world the Temple Mount was left to become a desolate rubble heap. In A.D. 534, over the site of Solomon’s elaborate palace, the Emperor Justinian built mighty substructures as foundations for the New Church of St. Mary. While other holy sites in Jerusalem were explored and identified, the Temple Mount was neglected.
The Scourge of Anti-Semitism
One of the tragedies of this period was the anti-Semitism that arose among the “Christians.” Concerning the Jews, early Christian leader John Chrysostom falsely wrote:
They sacrificed their sons and daughters to devils: they outraged nature and overthrew their foundations the laws of relationship. They are become worse than the wild beasts, and for no reason at all, with their own hands, they murder their offspring, to worship the avenging devils who are foes of our life…They know only one thing, to satisfy their gullets, get drunk, to kill and maim one another. (Ref. 8)
Chrysostom delivered eight sermons which expressed intense hatred of the Jews. His accusations were nothing but outright lies. The purpose of these falsehoods was to keep the Christians in Antioch from having any contact with the Jews. In another act of anti-Semitism, Bishop Ambrose of Milan ordered a synagogue to be set on fire. When Emperor Theodosius demanded an explanation the Bishop wrote him back:
I declare that I have set fire to the synagogue, or at least that those who did acted on my orders, so that there would be no place where Christ is rejected . . . Moreover, the synagogue was in fact destroyed by the judgment of God. (Ref. 8)
This desecration even angered the Romans. The bishop was required to rebuild the synagogue and those who had participated in its destruction were punished.
These, and others, failed to realize that it was God who had scattered the Jewish people and that He had ultimate purposes in doing so. The Jews would be a blessing to each city in which they were scattered to be regathered by God at the right time.
The abbreviations B.C. and B.C.E. and also A.D. and C.E. are used synomously in these articles.
1. Flavius Josephus, Antiquities, 15, 403 ff.
2. Ray C. Stedman, What’s This World Coming To? (An expository study of Matthew 24-26, the Olivet Discourse). Discovery Publications, 3505 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto, CA 94306. 1970
3. Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 303
4. Josephus, Antiquities xi. 1.2
5. Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 292
6. Josephus, ibid. p 323
7. Chrysostom’s Sermons, cited J. Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue, pp. 105-106
8. Bishop Ambrose, Eleventh letter to Theodosius as quoted by Parkes, ibid. pp. 163-164