What does the Talmud say about the location of Herod's Temple?
Updated: May 11
A view of the Western Wall and remains of Herod's Temple retaining wall.
The Talmud is the body of written laws and stories that are at the heart of today’s Rabbinical Judaism. It is composed of two parts, the Mishnah and the Gemara—the latter being the commentary on the former. There is a Babylonian Talmud and a Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud—the latter having earlier origins and sections dealing directly with the Temple. The Middot (meaning measurements) is one section of the Mishnah that describes dimensions of both the Temple grounds and the Temple itself and holy items within. These contents of the Middot are the most pertinent to the discussions of where the Temple might have been located on the Mount.
In terms of a viable witness with direct evidence it is important to note that the Middot was believed to be first written down at about 200 CE. This is several generations after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and so there must have been oral traditions past down during the 130 years in between. In addition, Jews were banned from visiting the Temple Mount for nearly all that time, except to visit the Wailing (Western) Wall once a year on the anniversary of the Temple’s destruction. This time gap contrasts with Josephus, who was alive and lived with the Jewish leaders and visited Herod’s Temple routinely during its last 20 years. Of course, many will conclude that either or both Josephus and the Talmud may have religious or other biases that influence their descriptions, but from a strictly legal/evidence point of view Josephus makes a better witness given his first-hand presence at the site.
Three main features described in the Middot that are relevant to our discussion here are (1) that the Temple Mount was a square with 500-cubit-long (750 ft) sides, (2) it had five gates—these gates were the Huldah gates on the south side, the Kiponus gate on the west side, the Taddi gate on the north, and the Shushan gate on the East—and (3) it states that with respect to the Temple’s location within the Mount, there was the most space between it and the surrounding walls to the south of it, followed by the east, the north, and finally the west.
Those historians and scholars who dismiss the Talmud’s temple description as inaccurate argue a few different points: (1) there are no walls on the Mount today that define any 500-cubit square, (2) no current northern or eastern gates exist today that fit these descriptions, and (3) only one western gate is mentioned, as opposed to the four of Josephus, whose remnants can all still be seen today. Those who support the Middot as having accurate descriptions point out that the 500-ft dimension could have represented the pre-Herod temple and thus the gates would not necessarily correspond to today’s gates. Others suggest the objective of the Middot was not only to describe the original Temple, but to describe its future replacement, and so the 500-cubit length was chosen to match that prophesied by Ezekiel. It could also be that the Mount’s length was not a detail that was passed on orally; it was not as important as the Temple itself.
I believe the Temple Mount as described by Josephus and mapped out by Thomas Lewin (see previous blogs) explains some of the mismatches between the five gates of the Middot and what we see today. Today’s Eastern Golden Gate was believed to have been built during Roman or Byzantine eras, and so not part of any First Century architecture. Likewise, today’s northern gate is an Islamic construction in later centuries. But given Josephus’ 400-cubit square Mount, the northern and eastern gates would not expect to be still in existence today. They would have been torn down with the destruction of the Temple. The Shushan gate was supposed to be directly opposite the eastern gate of the Temple Sanctuary and to have been used predominantly by priests travelling due east to the Mount of Olives for a ceremony sanctifying a red heifer. The “two” Huldah gates could represent the double gate in the southern wall. But why only mention one western gate? It could be the rabbis were describing only gates used for Temple business. Of the four western gates, one was farther north entering beneath the colonnades connecting to Fortress Antonia. The other two were not as much “gates” as they were openings in the colonnades and walls where all the public visitors, including gentiles, could pass through.
Finally, the spacing of the Temple within the Mount is problematic for those who wish the Temple to have been situated at today’s Dome of the Rock. Most suggest the rock was the site of the Holy Altar or the Holy of Holies. But this location leaves the largest open space north of the Temple, and a smaller space east of it, contrary to the Middot. Today many conservative and Orthodox Jews believe that the Rock under the Dome is the "Foundation Stone", where the world was created, where Abraham attempted to sacrifice Isaac, and where the Holy of Holies was set up. These stories however can be traced almost entirely to Rabbis writing in the 12th through 15th centuries, long after the Moslems had set up their shrine and were spreading similar teachings. Thomas Lewin in his visit there in 1862 immediately noted this rock could not be any Jewish Altar because it was clearly cut and hewn, and holy altars were required to be made of unhewn stones. The Middot gives the height of the stone under the Holy of Holies as only three thumb widths above the ground. In contrast, the Rock under the Dome stands a few feet high and 20 feet above the Mount’s lower platform.
Other influential rabbis of the 16th century (Luria and Maharsha) argued the Temple location was in the southwest corner of the Mount just northwest of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, owing in part that the Temple grounds were prophesied to be “ploughed like a field” and not rebuilt upon until the last days. This southwest corner site fits the Josephus accounts (see earlier blogs) and the Middot’s Temple spacing of the Sanctuary within it—especially if the Temple is positioned closest to the Wailing Wall. The site today remains an open ground with a few shade trees and the Al-Kas fountain (see last week). But the belief in the Foundation Stone and the holiness and antiquity of today’s entire Mount is so engrained in Israel that it may be difficult for the weight of any evidence to displace that from today’s Jewish psyche.