The Temple in Jerusalem was the central place of corporate worship for all Jews and the focus of Jewish religion and culture. According to religious law, priests would ritually sacrifice animals here, and Jews from all over the world would visit it during national holidays. The Temple was intricately decorated with gold-plated walls, wood carvings, and tapestries. Facing east, the Temple complex was divided into various sections:
Temple Mount: The Temple and its courts were constructed on a massive rectangular plaza, elevated above the city. It had a thick wall surrounding it, with multiple gates and stairways leading up into it. Currently, the Temple Mount is the site of the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim holy site.
Court of Gentiles: The outermost courtyard of the Temple was where the whole nation periodically gathered to worship. However, a large market normally occupied much of this court. Gentiles were allowed into this outer court, but couldn’t go beyond the Beautiful Gate to the inner courts.
Antonia Fortress: This was Herod’s military barracks, built in the northwest corner of the Temple complex. Herod the Great built it in honor of his friend Mark Antony around 36 BC. Josephus described it as a central tower with four smaller towers on each corner. Its significant height offered a view of the entire Temple complex.
Solomon’s Porch: The east wall of the Temple complex, within the Court of Gentiles, had a covered walkway supported by pillars.
Court of Women: Through the Beautiful Gate, the first of the inner courts, was as far as Jewish women could enter.
Court of Israel: Only Jewish men that were ceremonially clean could enter through the Nicanor Gate into this court, where the Temple could be viewed close up.
Court of Priests: A short wall separated this area from the Court of Israel. A huge sacrificial altar lay in this space, where animal sacrifices were made daily.
Porch: A short flight of stairs led up to the entrance of the Temple, which was flanked by two bronze pillars.
Storage rooms: Around the outside of the Temple building (within the Temple walls) were rooms to house the various utensils needed by the priests for their duties.
Holy Place: The first room inside Temple building itself was a large space with tall ceilings. Only priests were allowed to enter the Temple itself. An altar specifically for incense was located here.
Holy of Holies: Behind a large curtain, toward the rear of the Temple, was the most sacred and restricted space of the entire complex, where God’s Spirit was said to dwell. The room was gold-plated, and it housed the Ark of the Covenant (a gold chest that contained tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments). According to Jewish Law, the Holy of Holies could only be entered once annually on the Day of Atonement by the High Priest after a series of purification rituals.
The original Jewish Temple was built by David’s son Solomon, with construction starting around 966 BC and ending 7 years later. It represented the pinnacle of Israel’s power and wealth under Solomon, attracting visitors from around the world. Israel’s glorious Temple was plundered and destroyed during the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem in 587 BC, with no trace of the original structure remaining to this day. However, under the Persian King Cyrus, Jewish exiles were allowed to return to Jerusalem and begin rebuilding the Temple in 538 BC, completing it 20 years later. This second Temple would remain until King Herod lavishly renovated it in 19 BC in an effort to please the Jews. It was Herod’s Temple that Jesus visited during his time in Jerusalem. However, this too was destroyed when Jerusalem was overthrown by the Romans in 70 AD.
In addition to serving as a place of worship, the Temple in ancient Jerusalem also served as a religious market, located in the Court of Gentiles, where pilgrims from all over the world could purchase animals for sacrifice.