Contested Temple Mount History?

Bible and archaeology news

Aerial view of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Photo: Andrew Shiva’s photo is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Aerial view of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Photo: Andrew Shiva’s photo is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

A recent New York Times article by Rick Gladstone, titled “Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place,” set out to discuss the history and modern political complexities of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, a site sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. The piece, which was originally published on October 8, 2015, has drawn a great deal of criticism. For example, Gladstone suggested that scholars have not been able to “definitively” answer whether the ancient First and Second Temples of Jerusalem ever stood on the Temple Mount. Regarding this article, Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shanks said, “How could a New York Times reporter be so wrong? He obviously had predilections.”

The New York Times has since issued a correction following a Letter to the Editor from Dr. Jodi Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The correction reads:

Correction: October 9, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the question that many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered concerning the two ancient Jewish temples. The question is where precisely on the 37-acre Temple Mount site the temples had once stood, not whether the temples had ever existed there.

Below, read a reaction to the New York Times article by Temple Mount history expert Leen Ritmeyer as well as Jodi Magness’s NYT Letter to the Editor.*

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The So-Called “Elusive” Location of the Temple in Jerusalem

By Leen Ritmeyer
Originally published on Ritmeyer Archaeological Design on October 9, 2015

Rick Gladstone wrote an article [recently in the] New York Times, called “Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place,” in which he asserts that neither the location of the First and Second Temples can be determined:

The question, which many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered, is whether the 37-acre site, home to Islam’s sacred Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa Mosque, was also the precise location of two ancient Jewish temples, one built on the remains of the other, and both long since gone. [Ed. Note: This paragraph has since been revised.]

He apparently hasn’t contacted the right people and/or read the right books. He quotes Matthew J. Adams, Dorot director of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, as saying “This is a very politically loaded subject” and “It’s also an academically complex question.”

Gladstone had to admit that Rivka Gonen, in her book “Contested Holiness: Jewish, Muslim and Christian Perspectives on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem,” wrote that the reference in the Biblical text [to Mount Moriah, the location of Solomon’s Temple] “has been widely interpreted to mean the high point on the hill above the City of David — the rock now under the Dome of the Rock.”

Some historians have said that independent scientific verification of such a reference is problematic. But then, it depends on who you go to for clarification.

Many archaeologists agree that the religious body of evidence, corroborated by other historical accounts and artifacts that have been recovered from the site or nearby, supports the narrative that the Dome of the Rock was built on or close to the place where the Jewish temples once stood.


Explore the BAS Store for Temple Mount books and DVDs featuring such prominent scholars as Leen Ritmeyer, Yosef Garfinkel, Madeleine Mumcuoglu and Dan Bahat >>

As Yisrael Medad pointed out in his blog, “Gaby Barkay and Tzachi Dvira are missing. Eilat Mazar is missing. Dan Bahat, too.” These are archaeologists that are actively working in Jerusalem and familiar with the archaeological evidence. My own work on the Temple Mount is also ignored because my conclusions about the location of Solomon’s and Herod’s Temples are based on observation only and not on archaeological evidence, although it is directly derived from it.


This plan shows Herod’s Temple, courts and Altar (beige) in relation to the Dome of the Rock and the Dome of the Chain (blue). The Rock inside the Dome of the Rock was the Foundation Stone of the First and Second Temples on which the Holy of Holies was built. The Dome of the Chain stands on the former Porch that was built in front of the magnificent Temple built by Herod. Photo: Ritmeyer Archaeological Design.

So, ignorance is bliss, as it allows one to play a safe political card, with academics such as Kent Bramlett concluding: “I think one has to be careful about saying it stood where the Dome of the Rock stood.”

It is sad indeed when Biblical scholars and even archaeologists are afraid to speak out on important issues such as the location of the Temple in Jerusalem because of the political tensions in Jerusalem concerning the Temple Mount.

This post was originally published on Leen Ritmeyer’s website Ritmeyer Archaeological Design. It has been republished with permission.


leen-ritmeyerLeen Ritmeyer is an archaeological architect who has been involved in all of Jerusalem’s major excavations. He was chief architect of the Temple Mount Excavations, directed by the late Prof. Benjamin Mazar, and of the Jewish Quarter Excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem, directed by the late Prof. Nahman Avigad, both of the Hebrew University. Together with his wife, Kathleen, he runs a firm called Ritmeyer Archaeological Design, which produces teaching and learning tools used throughout the world and offers consultancy on archaeological background and illustration. In 2006, his major work, The Quest: Revealing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, was published after thirty years of intensive research.


The Temple Mount in Jerusalem

Originally published in the New York Times on October 12, 2015

To the Editor:

I am one of the specialists interviewed for “Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place” (news article, Oct. 9).

The question of the existence and location of two successive temples on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is not nearly as contested as the article suggests.

Literary sources leave little doubt that there were two successive ancient temples in Jerusalem dedicated to the God of Israel (the first destroyed in 586 B.C., and the second in 70 A.D.). These sources and archaeological remains indicate that both temples stood somewhere on the Temple Mount.

The only real question is the precise location of the temple(s) on the Temple Mount. The site of the Dome of the Rock is the most likely spot for various reasons, despite the lack of archaeological evidence or excavations. I know of no credible scholars who question the existence of the two temples or who deny that they stood somewhere on the Temple Mount.


Chapel Hill, N.C.

The writer is a professor specializing in early Judaism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


magnessJodi Magness holds a senior endowed chair in the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism. During the course of her career, Professor Magness has participated in 20 different excavations in Israel and Greece, including codirecting the 1995 excavations in the Roman siege works at Masada. Since 2011, she has directed an excavation project at Huqoq in Galilee, where mosaics depicting Samson in the Bible have been uncovered.


Update, October 14, 2015: An Editors’ Note to this New York Times article has been added. It reads:

Editors’ Note: October 13, 2015
An article on Thursday, with the headline “Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place,” examined the scholarly debate about two ancient Jewish temples on the Temple Mount, a site sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians. While the article laid out the history of the Jewish temples and the archaeological and historical evidence about them, the headline and a passage in the initial version of the article implied incorrectly that questions among scholars about the location of the temples potentially affected Jewish claims to the site and Israel’s broader assertion of sovereignty over Jerusalem. In fact, as the article was later corrected to clarify, the scholarly debate is a narrower one, focused on the precise location on the Temple Mount where the long destroyed temples once stood. All versions of the article should have made clear that the archaeological and historical uncertainties about the site — unlike assertions by some Palestinians that the temples never existed — do not directly challenge Jewish claims to the Temple Mount.




* Special thanks to Joseph Lauer for compiling these sources.


More on Temple Mount history in Bible History Daily:

Searching for the Temple of King Solomon

Sifting Antiquity on the Temple Mount Sifting Project

What the Temple Mount Floor Looked Like
by Frankie Snyder, Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira
As published in Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2016

The Stones of Herod’s Temple Reveal Temple Mount History

The Temple Mount in the Herodian Period (37 BC–70 A.D.) by Leen Ritmeyer

What Did Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem Look Like?

Tenth-Century B.C. Stone Seal Discovered by the Temple Mount Sifting Project

Herod’s Temple Mount Revealed in Al-Aqsa Mosque Restoration

Ancient Chisel Unearthed at the Western Wall

Study Investigates Western Wall Erosion


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  • David says

    I do have what I hope is a quick question. How old are the stones on top of the mount? Has it been re-paved with stone, or do those worn stones date back that far or further? How can we tell?

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