• Ward Sanford

Coins Found Beneath Temple Mount Confirm New Testament Account

Original Herodian pavement blocks exposed at base of the Western Wall. Storm water runing off this pavement was diverted down the storm drain along the western edge of the City of David (see next photo).

The entire Temple Mount complex, as it stands today, has been attributed to King Herod the Great who reigned in Judea in the first century BCE until his death in 4 BCE. Josephus makes it clear it was Herod who promoted the idea for a grand upscale of the Jewish Temple and its surroundings and raised the funds to build it. This might lead to the assumption that the new temple complex was completed before Herod’s death. Josephus puts the start of the construction at 19 BCE, and so that would suggest it was completed within the 15 years before his death in 4 BCE.

In 2011 archaeologists under the direction of Eli Shukron were excavating a stone-block drainage tunnel that led south away from the Temple Complex. The drainage tunnel was part of Herod’s construction project (see photo below). It was discovered that its walls at one spot were built over a Jewish bath. Inside this bath were discovered two Roman coins. The coins bore images that could trace their minting to the reign of the Roman prefect Valerius Gratus. Gratus preceded the more well-known procurator Pontius Pilus. Gratus was the governor depicted in the movie Ben Hur; he was wounded by falling from his horse during his arrival parade at Jerusalem. Gratus served from 15 to 26 CE. The two coins were minted in the first few years of his reign and might have circulated a few years before ending up in the bath. Thus, given the coins ended up in the bath at say, 20 CE, this means the drainage walls on top of them, and the Herodian complex itself were not completed until 20 CE or later. This upgraded storm drainage system was likely one of the last parts of the construction project, but the date means the entire construction extended from 19 BCE until after 20 CE, a period of at least 40 years or more that included about 25 years after Herod died. This discovery caused historians to begin to rethink how long it took to construct the entire Temple complex. The discovery was reported in the news worldwide in 2011.

Inside the tunnel that drained stormwater from the Temple Mount south to near the Siloam Pool

In the gospel of John, Jesus was having a discussion with Pharisees on the Temple Mount and stated if they “killed this temple, he would raise it in three days”. Now he was referring to his body, but the Pharisees thought he was referring to the temple complex and replied: “It took 46 years to build this Temple and you claim to rebuild it in 3 days!”. Here the account suggests the construction had lasted for 46 years, in spite of the fact that King Herod himself had died over 30 years before. This was seen as problematic by some scholars, and no other evidence existed to support it, until 2011. The coins were physical, dated proof that construction was still occurring at the complex at least 40 years after it started. If one considers it took many decades to build medieval cathedrals, it’s not surprising, perhaps even expected, that it could have taken over four decades to complete Herod’s project. Josephus’s account gives some additional insight that supports this idea. He states that Herod’s buildng proposal was met by some skepticism by the priests and public, and they made it a requirement that all of the funds be raised before construction began. This was so they would not be left in a situation where the original temple was torn down, but its replacement could not be completed due to lack of funds. Herod agreed, and so all of the funds were first raised and stored in the treasury. Thus, when Herod died in 4 BCE, all the money to complete the project was there already, so it was easy for the construction to continue under the direction of Herod’s sons.

Josephus also mentioned that the project employed 18,000 laborers, who were left unemployed when the project was finished. Some suggest this sudden jump in unemployment led to unrest and to the swelling of the ranks of the rebel groups, and eventually the First Great Revolt that ended in disaster for the Jews. Herod’s grand Temple complex was destroyed in 70 CE. Jesus warned the disciples that some people alive at the time would live to see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, followed by the Temple’s destruction where not one stone would be left upon another. Solomon’s original temple had stood for over 370 years, and Zerubbabel’s temple finished after the Babylonian exile, stood for nearly 500 years. Then finally Herod’s temple, the grandest temple of them all, was finished just as Jesus arrived on the public scene. But it stood for less than the 46 years it took to build it.

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