Second Temple Backgrounds for New Testament Studies

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. David Nystrom at Fuller Theological Seminary during my second year for a class on the Gospels.


The New Testament requires a prerequisite knowledge of the second temple. Such a knowledge is important and essential for understanding texts like Matthew 21:12ff, where Jesus

drives out the commerce from the temple, and Mark 15:38, which references the tearing of the temple curtain. How are we to understand Jesus’ actions in Matthew 21 if we do not understand the second temple? What significance does the reference to the tearing of the curtain have for the reader, and how ought the reader discover that significance? Such questions identify for New Testament studies the necessity for understanding the background information of the second temple’s structure and significance. Without it we would not be able to best comprehend the message of the authors. We should examine the design and structure of the second temple, and we should also consider how it functioned and seek to determine the significance it had for the Jews in the First Century A.D., so that we might be able to best understand instances in the New Testament where the temple is involved.

The second temple contains no less than five important sections. First, on the outside of the temple was a court designated for Gentiles, which was called the Gentiles’ Court (Gundry 2003, 55). Second, beyond the Sacred Enclosure and through the Beautiful Gate–the gate where the lame man of Acts 3 was healed–was the Women’s Court (55). Third, through the gate called the Nicanor Gate was the Israelite’s Court (55). Fourth, after the Israelite’s Court was the Priests’  Court (55). Fifth, beyond the inner courts was the sanctuary (55). We will return to the basic structure of the second temple later. However, at this time we are going to study the grandeur of the temple.

The second temple was quite impressive. Its outer retaining walls were as high as 100 feet above street level (Gundry 2003, 57). Its stones were neatly fitted without mortar, and some of them reached 150 feet in length (57). The two-door gate was 45 feet high and 22 feet wide (57). Much of the temple sanctuary was overlaid with gold (57). From Josephus we know that the entire front of the sanctuary was covered in gold so that when the sun rose and reflected off of it the temple was quite blinding (Wise 1982, 812). The temple covered approximately 26 acres (Gundry 2003, 57).  In fact, when Herod rebuilt the temple for the Jews, he doubled the foundation, which also meant that he had to reshape the topography of the land that he was building on (Wise 1992, 812). The temple mount possessed a rhomboid-area equivalent to 35 football fields (812). The top of the temple sanctuary was overlaid with some gold but it was probably primarily made of marble so that it was pure white, which made the temple stand out on a clear day (812). For whatever reason, Herod obviously was attempting to make the temple very special for the Jews, and it appeared so. But the splendor on the outside was not all that the temple had going for it; the inside of the sanctuary was just as grandiose.

The inward designs of the sanctuary were quite impressive too. The entrance to the sanctuary was guarded by a veil that was woven in Babylon and embroidered with four colors, which were scarlet, light brown, blue and purple (Wise 1992, 813). The sanctuary and the Holy of Holies made up one long room that was 103 feet long, 35 feet wide and 69 feet high (813). The rooms were marked off by curtains, which were beautifully embroidered with eagles and lions (813). The sanctuary’s inward walls were overlaid with gold panels (813). In the second temple, unlike the early sections of the sanctuary, the Holy of Holies had no furnishings, with the one exception being a small rock that the high priest made his annual offerings of incense (813). Again, the structures appeared glorious both on the inside and outside.

We know that the second temple was very splendid, but how did it function? How did people view it? What was the significance of the temple? We must learn how it was used and then determine the significance that it had.

The temple was used for many things and was the cultural center for Jerusalem. It was at the temple–in the outermost courts of course–that scholars wrote, read and taught, and political debate occurred (Wise 1992, 813). The temple was the center for learning about the world, and it was also the social center (Achtemeier, Green and Thompson 2001, 43). The temple was the place that private and daily burnt offerings for the entire nation were sacrificed, and the burning of incense, prayers, priestly benedictions, liquid offerings, the blowing of trumpets and the chanting and singing by priests while being accompanied by harps, lyres and wind instruments occurred (Gundry 2003, 57). Holy days, such as Sabbaths, festivals and others, had additional ceremonies at the temple as well (57). No one could enter the temple being unclean, so there were purification baths at the entrance of the temple that everyone had to immerse themselves in (Wise 1992, 812). The Gentiles could go as far as the outer court, which was called the Gentiles’ Court (812). The inner courts were restricted to Jews only (812). The first of the inner courts was the Women’s Court, beyond which women could not go (812). The second of the inner courts was the Israelites’ Court, beyond which only priests could go (812). It is in the Israelite’s Court that the altar and the laver are located (812). Only the high priest could go into the Holy of Holies, and then only once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Wise 1992, 813). In the sanctuary before the veil were a golden lamp and two tables with bread on them. The lamp was a gift from Queen Helena of Adiabene who was a convert to Judaism, and the two tables, one of which was made of marble and the other was made of gold, held the shewbread–the marble held the new and the gold held the old (813). Beyond the veil were the temple implements, which are the lampstand, the shewbread table, which is different from the two aforementioned tables, and the altar of incense, and they were all made of gold (813). For the second temple, the seven branches of the lampstand signified the seven planets, and the twelve loaves of the shewbread signified both the twelve tribes of Israel and also the signs of the zodiac (813). The temple was an active religious center as well as a cultural and global learning center.

In light of the practices and usages of the temple, we know that it had a special significance. It is in the temple that holiness and purity are brought together for the Jewish religion. God is holy and purity is the means for which one can draw close to God (Achtemeier, Green and Thompson 2001, 42). It is in the temple that these two concepts are especially focused; holiness is represented by the Holy of Holies, and purity is represented by the purification rituals, such as the atonement sacrifices (42-3). The temple was the center point for which human life was to be oriented (43). Since the temple was considered the central focal point for human life, those who operated it had much authority for everyday life because they were seen as an extension of God; as such, to speak against the priests who operated it would be the equivalent of speaking against the temple, which was tantamount to speaking against God (44). The temple had a symbolic significance of not only holiness and purity, but also power and authority.

The second temple was the grand religious and learning center of Jerusalem. It was a marvel to behold both inside and out, although only the priests could see the inward makings of the temple. It was massive both in size and also in use. It served political, academic, cultural, business and religious functions. But it also had authoritative significance on top of religious worth. When we come to texts of the New Testament that make reference to or involve the second temple, we ought to bear in mind its splendor, function and significance, so that we might best be able to understand the sacred texts.







Reference List


Achtemeier, Paul, Joel Green and Marianne Thompson. 2001. Introducing the New Testament:

Its literature and theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B.

Eerdmans Publishing Co.


Gundry, Robert. 2003. A survey of the New Testament. 4th ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.


Wise, Michael. 1992. “Temple.” Dictionary of Jesus and the gospels: A compendium of

contemporary biblical scholarship. Joel Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall, eds.

Downers Grove, Illinois, and Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press.