The Temple Mount Paradox: Solved
Updated: May 11
Southern end of the western wall with a shadowed Robinson’s Arch
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem stands today with massive retaining walls in a near-rectangle quadrilateral roughly 900-ft wide by 1500-ft long. The wall’s lower sections are from the 1st century CE and earlier. Yet no historical writer from that era even once mentions these dimensions—thus the paradox. Instead, they write that the outer Temple enclosure was square—either 600 feet (according to Josephus), or 750 feet (according to rabbis who wrote the Mishnah and the Talmud). Today the prevailing theory by Israeli historians and archaeologists follows the rabbis, and the most popular recreated models (1) of Herod's Temple cover all of today’s existing rectangular Mount. Solid walls are hard to ignore.
in my last blog I introduced you to Thomas Lewin, the 19th century London barrister and Josephus scholar, and several weeks ago I discussed some of his conclusions about what was originally beneath the Dome of the Rock. Today I will summarize his landmark, forgotten paper of 1873, which solves the paradox by, as he put it, pitting the landscape and Josephus against each other until they agree. (2)
Lewin first lays out six careful arguments as to why the Temple enclosure was indeed 600-ft square and located in the SW corner of the platform (see map below):
1. Josephus states in three separate ways that the Temple area was 600 feet on each side. In one place he states it was 400 cubits (1.5 ft per cubit). Elsewhere he states it was one stadia—1/8th of a Roman mile (4,800 ft)—also 600 feet. Finally, he states that the southern Royal Stoa had 162 columns extending across the entire enclosure’s length. This colonnade had four rows of Corinthian columns with two extra at the western gate. That meant 40 columns per row and, given the universal distance between such columns was 15 feet, that results in a 600-ft distance. If those 40 columns extended over today’s 900-ft platform it would require well over 20 feet between columns, an unprecedented and unstable arrangement.
2. Robinson’s Arch (see above photo) is the remnant of the bridge leading to the temple. The center of the bridge would have lined up perfectly—to the nearest foot—with the center aisle of the Royal Collonade. Today’s standard model proponents (1) agree with this fit. Historians who have long argued against a temple in Lewin’s SW location (3) often claim it was disproven by Warren (4). Warren, however, mainly disproved Fergusson’s argument (5) that the Dome of the Rock was the site of the original Holy Sepulchre. Fergusson did also suggest exactly Lewin’s location for the Temple, shown on the map of Catherwood (6). This SW site was not disproven by evidence, but rather disregarded because Warren argued the Temple was somewhere else—at the Dome of the Rock.
3. Josephus describes four gates leaving the Temple’s west side (see map below). The third gate from the south lies 600 feet from the southern wall’s edge lining up exactly with the northern colonnade. You will notice though that the fourth gate is north of the 600-ft square. Josephus reported that Herod doubled the original Temple area to extend northward, with the extra space being spanned by one-stadia-long cloisters connecting the NW Temple corner to Fortress Antonia. A section of these cloister/ramparts were cut down fending off the attempted Roman raid of the Temple’s gold in 66 CE. When they were burned down during the siege, Josephus bemoaned to the crowd the well-known omen of the time "When square the walls, the Temple falls!" Josephus also states the gate(s) in the southern wall was near (not at) the center of it—the Double Gate fits this description for the 600-ft square Mount—the Double and the Triple Gates do not for today’s 900-ft-wide Mount (see map).
4. The Temple needed a water supply to wash away sacrificial blood, and the Mishnah clearly states that large cisterns beneath the Mount were filled via the aqueduct and drawn upon to deliver this need. Most of these caverns are beneath southern part of the Mount, with the largest by far being squarely beneath where the Temple would have stood in Lewin’s map. Surveys have found no large cisterns under or close to the Dome of the Rock.
5. King Agrippa was stated to have elevated his bedroom at his Palace in the western city so he could see the sacrifices at the Temple altar. The priests responded by raising a counter wall on the western end of the Temple. A straight line of site connecting the three (palace, altar, and counter wall) only exists for Lewin’s Temple location, and not for the Dome of the Rock.
6. The Wailing Wall today lies very close to where the Temple was according to Lewin’s map. For centuries after the second revolt Jews were only given access one day a year on Tisha B’Av to mourn at the walls of the Temple Mount. They chose one location year after year, presumably where they could be closest to where the Temple had been. They did not forget.
You will also see in Lewin’s map the location the former Greek fortress known as the Acra, at today’s Dome of the Rock site. I will discuss the Acra more later. My final thought here is that Lewin reminded us that Josephus carefully described the perimeter of the outer city walls. The third, and northernmost, wall also ran south on the western side to connect, not to the Temple, but to the first wall, which itself ended at the "Ophlas" (Ophel) at the SE Temple corner from the east. This helps to solve the paradox—the eastern Temple Mount wall today is not the original Temple wall but the original city wall, with the space in between the two described by Josephus as being the “so-called Cedron Ravine”. Josephus says the rebel leader John’s followers held the so-called Cedron (Kidron) Ravine, and kept the attacking Romans at bay from both there and before the Tombs of King Alexander. The recent Temple Mount Sifting Project results (7) support this “ravine” having been an intra-wall zone. The debris from there has yielded items that span centuries, suggesting a landfill slowly filled with debris over many centuries, rather than a Herodian-age constructed platform to support the surface we see today.
There are many more details and well thought out arguments in Lewin’s 45-page paper. I have placed the entire paper on our website for your perusal at www.cryforjerusalem.com/documents.
(1) Ritmeyer, Leen (2006) The Quest—Revealing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Carta, Jerusalem, 440 p.
(2) Lewin, Thomas, Esq., M.A., F.S.A. (1873) Observations on the probable sites of the Jewish Temple and Antonia, and the Acra, with reference to the results of the recent Palestine Explorations. Archaeologia, vol. 44, p. 19.
(3) Jacobson, D.M., 2019, George Grove and the establishment of the Palestine Exploration Fund, In, Exploring the Holy Land, 150 Years of the Palestine Exploration Fund. Gurevich D, and Kidron, A. Eds., Equinox Publishing Limited, United Kingdom, p. 18.
(4) Warren, Charles (1880) The Temple or the Tomb, Richard Bentley and Son, London, 227 p.
(5) Fergusson, J. (1878) The Temples of the Jews and the Other Buildings in the Haram Area at Jerusalem. John Murray, London.
(6) Fergusson, J. (1847) An essay on the ancient topography of Jerusalem; with restored plans of the Temple, and with plans, sections, and details of the church built by Constantine the Great over the Holy Sepulchre, now known as the Mosque of Omar. John Weale, London, plate IV shows Catherwood's map.
(7) www.tmsifting.org. The Temple Mount Sifting Project.
Lewin's Map from his 1873 article in Archaeologia.