INNER COURTS OF THE TEMPLE
Reconstruction of the Inner Courts of the Temple
An image of the Women's Court (left with patterned floor) and the surrounding Court of the Gentiles.
It was in one of these courts that Jesus was confronted with the woman taken in adultery - see .
At right is the Court of the Israelites and the Court of the Priests (from a reconstruction built by Alec Gerrard)
The great open space that surrounded the Temple had no particular name, because it had no particular function. It was paved with many coloured stones and served as a sort of backdrop, to give scale and setting to the central buildings. The space is known today as the Court of the Gentiles, because everyone, without restriction of race or sex was admitted to it; but it had no such name when it was built.
The Jews called it "the mountain of the House", a far more expressive name, for there in the middle of the mountain stood the House itself.
Those who approached it were left in no doubt as to whose House it was. All round the building ran a beautifully carved marble balustrade, breast-high, called the Soreg.
It was pierced by four gates on the north, four on the south, one on the east and none on the west.
At each gate stood a notice, engraved on stone in Latin and Greek, which said "Let no stranger come within the barrier and the court which surrounds the Temple. Every trespasser who is caught will be himself responsible for his ensuing death." Of these notices, one complete version and one fragmentary have been recovered.
From the gates, stairways of fourteen steps each led up to a platform, called the Chel, 15 feet wide, which ran round three sides of the sanctuary.
The Temple itself was orientated to the East and stood up like a big, square fortress, about 500 feet long from west to east, and slightly less than 400 in width. The surrounding wall was 60 feet high outside. From the Chel, or first platform, five more steps led through gates in the great wall to the inner court.
Each gate had a porch which was almost as high as the wall itself, flanked by massive columns.
The leaves of the doors were of wood, covered with sheets of gold and silver.
The Eastern Gate was larger than the eight side gates. Its enormous double doors were decorated with plaques of Corinthian bronze, so that it was known as the Corinthian Gate. It was most probably the "gate which is called Beautiful" of Acts 3:2.
The inner court was divided in two by a plain wall. The eastern portion was called the Court of the Women. It contained the money-chests, each labelled, which received offerings. In the angles of the court were chambers in which wine and oil were stored, and in which lepers and Nazarites performed their prescribed rites.
From this court, fifteen steps, arranged in a half-circle, led up to the court of the Priests, through a magnificent gate called the Gate of Nicanor, after the Alexandrian Jew who made it. Its double doors shone with gold plates. So famous was this work of art that when Nicanor's son died and was buried on the Mount of Olives, he was described on his ossuary as "the son of Nicanor the Alexandrian who made the doors". It was said to have taken twenty men to open and shut these doors.
Immediately inside this gate was the court of Israel, open to every male Jew, priest or layman. Beyond it, and before the Shrine itself stood the altar, on either side of which was the court of the Priests.
Thus, non-priestly men might stand within sight of the altar, and take part in the services; but only the priests might actually approach it and the holy shrine which lay beyond.
The altar was of unhewn stones, between 50 and 60 feet square, and 23 high, with "horns" of 18 inches at each corner.
There has been a great deal of fanciful material written about these 'horns'. However, any farmer will tell you that when you slaughter a frightened animal, it will struggle, even though it is tied. Bracing the rope that ties it against a projecting rock makes the task easier. The 'horns' at the corners of altars were probably used for this.
The priest officiating at a sacrifice reached the top of the altar by means of a ramp. This altar was the successor of the primitive rock-altar of Araunah's threshing-floor.
North of the altar were the items needed for sacrifice: rings to which the animals were fastened, tables for the flesh, fat and entrails, hooks for hanging up the pieces, a marble table for laying them out, and a silver table for the gold and silver vessels of the service.
On the south was the great ablution laver, the bronze basin used for purification. Sacrificial water was brought from the Pool of Siloam; but water for ablution and cleansing was furnished by the low-level aqueduct and by the vast storage cisterns holding upwards of ten million gallons.
Finally, on the west of the altar, stood the Temple itself.
It stood on a still higher terrace or plinth, and so was reached by yet another flight of twelve steps.
The porch was much larger than the body of the house, which led proud Jews to compare their Temple to a lion, with a great head surmounting a small body. It was 150 feet high and of the same width, the actual inner chamber being only three-fifths as wide.
Within the porch was a vestibule of nearly the same height from which a glimpse could be caught of the entrance to the Holy Place, the chief element of the Sanctuary.
The entrance itself had doors of precious metals, before which hung a Babylonian tapestry, embroidered with different coloured wools and representing a sort of map of the heavens.
Above this door, a magnificent golden vine spread its tendrils and hung its bunches of grapes, which were as tall as a man.
The Holy Place was 28 feet broad, twice as long and three times as high. Being surrounded by three storeys of chambers it was dark, and the obscurity was increased by the smoke of the seven-branched candle-stick and the clouds of incense rising from the altar above the table where the Shewbread was renewed.
The farthest recess of the sanctuary was a room 28 feet square, separated from the rest by a veil. This was the Holy of Holies.
In the days before the Exile, it had contained the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat.
Now it was completely empty. No one entered it, except the High Priest, once a year, on the Day of Atonement.
Above the sanctuary, or perhaps above the porch only, there was a large chamber in which a number of people could assemble. On its roof gilded spikes prevented the birds from settling and soiling the shrine.
From a distance, the golden facade glittered like the sun; and the whole monument, its white stones unweathered, shone like a mountain of snow.
Such was the fabulous setting which Herod had built for the worship of God.
The inauguration of the Temple coincided with the accession of the king, who offered a sacrifice Of 300 oxen. That was in the summer of 18 BC, when Jesus was a young man. The whole fabric was not completed until eight years later, and as we have seen the last touches were not given to the grandiose creation for another seventy-four years.
Curiously enough, even as it was being built, the Jewish people were developing another pattern of worship - the Synagogue. In these smaller, simpler buildings instruction was given, the Torah read, and prayers were offered. Already in Jerusalem there were numbers of synagogues, one even in the Temple Enclosure itself.
If Herod built his Temple to gain favor with the Jewish people, he failed. The rabbinical authors praise the Temple and devote pages to describing its glories. But never by so much as a hint do they mention the man who built it.
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