The Roman destruction of the Herodian Temple Mount was a tragedy that is still mourned today. On the 9th day of the Hebrew month Ab (usually in August), Jews worldwide remember the destruction of the First and Second Temples, both of which were destroyed on the same day of the year. On that day of fasting they read the Book of Lamentations, which God’s spirit moved Jeremiah to write.

Josephus Flavius, also known as Yosef Ben Matityahu, was an eyewitness to the siege of Jerusalem. He somehow survived the siege of Yotvat in Galilee and with one of his soldiers sur­rendered to the Roman forces in July 67 AD. The Roman forces were led by Flavius Vespasian and his son Titus, both of whom subsequently became emperors. In 69 AD, Josephus was released (War 4.622–629) and, according to his own account, ap­pears to have played a role as a negotiator with the defenders during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

On the last day of the battle, according to this vivid and tragic account of the siege and capture of the Temple Mount (War 6.249–270), a fire broke out in the inner court, which the Romans tried to extinguish. In the ensuing combat, the Romans “were routing the Jews and pursuing them right up to the sanctuary”. One of the Roman soldiers then threw a firebrand through “a low golden door, which gave access on the north side to the chambers surrounding the sanctuary”. He must have gone up the 12 steps that lay in front of the Temple, entered the Porch and thrown his firebrand through the little gate to the north of the main entrance. This little gate is also mentioned in the Mishnah (the earliest code of rabbinic law, written about 200 BC) and called a “wicket” (Middot 4.2; Tamid 3.7). Titus came on the scene and tried to prevent the burning of the Temple but in vain. The Roman soldiers were so frenzied that more firebrands were thrown into the Temple, “consuming the chambers surrounding the Temple”. Again, the Mishnah mentions 38 of these chambers that surrounded the sanctuary in three stories (Middot 4.3, 4). Finally the troops “thrust a firebrand, in the darkness, into the hinges of the gate” (War 6.265) and so the beautiful Temple was set ablaze in “the very month and the very day on which in bygone times the temple had been burnt by the Babylonians”.

After the Temple was set ablaze, the surround­ing buildings were “set alight, both the remnants of the porticoes and the gates … and the treasury chambers” (War 6.281, 282). Undoubtedly, those treasure chambers were first emptied of their con­tents. The Temple was plundered of all its gold, so that the “standard of gold was depreciated to half its former value” (War 6.317).

How much gold was there in the Temple? The ancient sources give the impression that it contained a huge amount. Josephus writes in War 5.222,223 that “the exterior of the building wanted nothing that could astound either mind or eye. For being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays. To ap­proaching strangers it appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain; for all that was not overlaid with gold was of purest white” (Fig 1).

The gold-covered façade of Herod’s Temple (model designed by Bro Leen Ritmeyer)

The gold-covered façade of Herod’s Temple (model designed by Bro Leen Ritmeyer).

This description is supported by Middot 4.1, which records that “all the house was overlaid with gold”. In the Porch stood the Golden Vine, one of the most remarkable features in all the Temple precincts. Middot 3.8 records that “A golden vine stood over the entrance to the sanctuary, trained over posts; and whosoever gave a leaf, or a berry, or a cluster as a freewill-offering, brought it and the priests hung it thereon.” The interior walls of the Temple were also decorated with gold sheets having engravings of palmettes.

From this description one gets the impression that most of the façade was covered with gold, apart from the upper part. To reduce the enormous amount of gold that the use of massive plates would require, it is more likely that a thin gold foil may have been pressed against the stones and the edges tucked in between them. Remains of such gold foil have been found in other buildings from that period. We know that the top part of the Temple façade, called the en­tablature, was not covered with gold, as other sources indicate that the exposed limestone blocks were whitewashed once a year at Passover time (Middot 3.4). This would accord with Josephus’ description of the Temple facade as a “snow-clad mountain”.

Josephus is not the only source to describe the gold of the Temple. Mishnah Shekalim 4.4 mentions that the surplus of the terumah was used to make “golden plating for bedecking the Holy of Holies”.

The terumah was originally a heave-offering of agricultural produce, but is used here as a financial contribution which was taken three times a year and put in the Chamber of the Half-shekel of the Temple. It appears that if enough money was avail­able, golden plates of one cubit square (52.5 cm, 20.67 inches) were made and hung on the walls of the Sanctuary. Some of these plates were put on display during the three main pilgrim festivals.

Another historical reference to the gold of the Temple is to be found in the New Testament (Matt 23:16–17) where Jesus berates the Pharisees and Scribes who said, “Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!” Jesus reasons that the Temple that sanctified the gold was greater than the gold itself. It appears therefore that peo­ple of that time were familiar with the idea of the Temple being a great repository for gold.

One may be inclined to think that these descrip­tions of the gold of the Jerusalem Temple are grossly exaggerated, as we cannot conceive of such wealth. There is, however, archaeological evidence that may cast light on this problem.

The Colosseum on a Roman coin (bronze sestertius) issued by Titus in AD 80

In the Colosseum in Rome, there is an inscrip­tion that suggests that the gold of the Jerusalem Temple was used to finance its construction. The Colosseum is an immensely imposing building and large funds would have been needed in order to build it. The construction was begun by Vespasian in 71 AD and completed by his son Titus in 80 AD. The inscription in question is the so-called Lampadius inscription. This man, a city prefect, carried out some restoration work on parts of the Colosseum in the 5th century AD and wrote an inscription on a marble slab to commemorate his work.

The Lampadius inscription in the Colosseum.

However, the block he reused had carried an earlier inscription made of bronze letters that were extravagance and the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD), Vespasian and Titus were under tremendous financial pressure. As successive generals of the Roman forces sent to quell the Jewish Revolt, the obvious source for funds to construct an impressive amphitheatre as a grand political gesture was the unparalleled booty they carried back from the East. Josephus estimated that 97,000 Jewish prisoners were taken in the war and many of these were believed to have been brought to Rome. This record has given rise to the tradition, which cannot be proven, that Jews actually toiled in building the Colosseum. Whatever their origin, it was the labour of slaves that hauled the pre-cut travertine blocks for its construction from Tibur (today Tivoli, about 20 km from Rome).

The Lampadius inscription in the Colosseum

The phantom inscription deciphered by Professor Géza Alföldy.

Fixed to the marble by bronze pegs. Professor Géza Alföldy from the University of Heidelberg used the location of the peg holes to reconstruct the inscrip­tion and came to the conclusion that it commemo­rated the completion of the Colosseum by Titus from the spoils of war (ex manubis)2.

The phantom inscription deciphered by Professor Géza Alföldy

Another scholar, Professor Louis Feldman of the Yeshiva University in New York, then suggested that the war in question may have been the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome, which resulted in the destruc­tion of the Temple in 70 AD. When standing in the Colosseum in Rome, one need only look a couple of hundred metres along the Via Sacra to the Arch of Titus to see a depiction of the spoils of the Jerusalem Temple being carried off. Josephus described the triumphal procession: “The spoils in general were borne in promiscuous heaps; but conspicuous above all stood out those captured in the temple in Jerusalem” (War 7.149). Having inherited the largest deficit re­corded in ancient history (caused by the combined effects of the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, Nero’s extravagance and the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD), Vespasian and Titus were under tremendous financial pressure. As successive generals of the Roman forces sent to quell the Jewish Revolt, the obvious source for funds to construct an impressive amphitheatre as a grand political gesture was the unparalleled booty they carried back from the East. Josephus estimated that 97,000 Jewish prisoners were taken in the war and many of these were believed to have been brought to Rome. is record has given rise to the tradition, which cannot be proven, that Jews actually toiled in building the Colosseum. Whatever their origin, it was the labour of slaves that hauled the pre-cut travertine blocks for its construction from Tibur (today Tivoli, about 20 km from Rome).

View towards the Arch of Titus from the Colosseum Plaza.

The image of the Jews’ subjection was etched in stone and frozen in time in the Arch of Titus. In the centuries that followed, observant Jews refused to walk under the monument – their protest against this insult to Jewish independence. It must have been a very moving experience in 1948, when, as a symbolic gesture, Roman Jews deliberately walked under the arch in the opposite direction to that of the conquering Roman army.

One day, we would hope to learn whether or not some of the Jewish slaves captured in Jerusalem had embraced a belief in Christ and were able to derive comfort from Paul’s letter to the Romans, whose intended audience doubtless included slaves and freemen: “To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7).

Footnotes

  1. This article is partly based on two blog posts of Ritmeyer Archaeological Design: http://www.ritmeyer.com/2015/12/14/the-gold-of-the-jerusalem-temple/ http://www.ritmeyer.com/2015/06/02/jerusalem-in-rome/
  2. Géza Alföldy, Eine Bauinschrift aus dem Colosseum, ZPE 109, 1995, 195-226.