Jerusalem At the Time of Jesus

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It is the Gospel of Luke that describes Jesus' childhood visit to Jerusalem. Though he had been there before-Luke says his family was visiting "as usual" for Passover-the 12-year-old from Nazareth, 60 miles to the north, must still have been agog walking south down the grand new Roman street toward the Temple's lower entrance. A stretch of that road is visible today, just below the Western Wall, majestically wide but piled high on one side with huge blocks of stone that rained from above during one of the city's many destructions.

There is a debate regarding exactly how citified the young Jesus would have been. Excavations of the city of Sepphoris, near Nazareth, reveal a bustling town, suggesting that he may have been less of a country lad than previous scholarship posited. But his native Galilee certainly had nothing to compare with this. Jerusalem was one of the biggest cities between Alexandria and Damascus, with a permanent population of some 80,000. During Passover, Succoth and Shavuoth, the great festivals during which Jews were obligated to make sacrifices at the Temple, between 100,000 and 250,000 visitors (historians differ) would stream down the long city thoroughfare.

The pilgrims would have shared the road with ox teams hauling huge slabs of limestone. Jerusalem, like today's Chicago, New York City or London, was a huge, ongoing building project. The sounds of construction would have mixed with the bleats and bellows of sacrificial animals for sale in streetside shops. The view to Jesus' left would have been taken up by a wall up to 150 ft. high-a wall not of the Temple itself but of a gargantuan platform atop which it perched. To his right would have been Jerusalem's Upper City, its Gold Coast, where the families of the priests who tended the sacrificial altars lived according to Jewish law but in Roman splendor. Asked to imagine the boy's main impression, Roni Reich, director of Temple Mount excavations for the Israeli Antiquities Authority, says, "Big!"

The city was in a renaissance. Its initial splendor had been snuffed out by Babylonia in 586 B.C. Within 50 years, Jews had begun rebuilding, but full glory awaited the rule, from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C., of Herod the Great. Herod is one of ancient history's extraordinary figures. Ten times married, a serious drinker and a half-Jew who was half-trusted by his subjects, he played the superpower politics of his day consummately. In 63 B.C., Rome became Judea's ruler, succeeding Babylonia, Persia, Greece and the Jews themselves. Herod, who hailed from the neighboring province of Idumea (which included part of today's West Bank), won and maintained his position as the empire's proxy King of the Jews by allying himself successively with Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Emperor Augustus, a dance involving very tricky pirouettes.

Herod killed thousands of Jerusalemites in the streets while taking power. But he was also a local who understood Judea's needs and its hard-won privilege of being governed under Jewish law. A builder king, he ordered up huge forts, palaces and indeed whole cities throughout Judea, and he created an artificial harbor at Caesarea Maritima that lasted 600 years.

But it was in Jerusalem, says Meyers, that Herod "undertook to make one of the major wonders of the ancient world." He rebuilt the existing meandering streets on a paved grid and created a moat-ringed palace featuring-in a moisture-starved region-picturesque water gardens. He added an amphitheater and a hippodrome. But the jewel in the crown, the spiritual, economic and social center of Judea and an icon to Jews throughout the region, was the Temple. It was his bid to rival Solomon, biblical builder of the Jews' first great house of worship, which had been razed by the Babylonians some 570 years earlier.

Physical remains of Herod's masterpiece are scarce. But they tend to support descriptions in the four surviving written sources from approximately the same period: the Gospels and the biblical book of Acts; the part of the Jewish Talmud called the Mishnah; and the histories of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish priest and commander turned Roman military aide who lived in the years A.D. 30 to A.D. 100. For instance, a stone found later near the Temple's likely site was inscribed with the words to the place of trumpeting, which corroborate Josephus' description of the signal for the beginning of the Sabbath.

Tradition forbade the Temple's enlargement beyond Solomon's original dimensions. So Herod expressed his egomania by adding a 35-acre platform- "the greatest ever heard of," writes Josephus-on which the Temple could sit. The Western Wall where Jews pray today is a small slice of the platform's 16-ft.-thick western side. Some of the stones are 30 ft. long and weigh up to 50 tons. ("Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" exclaims a disciple in the Gospel of Mark.) As Herod built out over the adjacent valleys, the outline of the mountain on which the compound sat gradually disappeared. The great stone featured in the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim shrine that now occupies Herod's immense pedestal, may be the mountain's peak.

At the time, the platform (Jews call it the Temple Mount) had up to seven entrances. Most experts believe the remains of an expansive, carved-stone stairway on the south side of the mount, perpendicular to the Roman street, were once the main entry for common pilgrims. At the foot of the stairs are the ruins of a series of baths, for ritual purification, and small shops, some of which still have hitches for animals.

Temple worship revolved around sacrifice: a lamb for Passover, a bull for Yom Kippur, two doves-"the poor woman's sacrifice"-to celebrate a child's birth. Before buying an animal, visitors changed their Roman denarii (the dollar of the day) for shekels, or Temple coins, that had no portraits on them and so did not violate the Jewish prohibition of graven images. Herod appears to have allowed the money changers onto the Temple platform, which may have spurred Jesus' scourging of them in "my father's house." Joshua Schwartz, a professor of historical geography at Israel's Bar Ilan University, styles the stairway as a Judean version of London's Hyde Park Corner. There would be "beggars and upper-class Jews and Gentiles from all over," he says. "Scholars would be teaching, and would-be prophets would be preaching. The steps were the experience in Jerusalem."

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