Reconstruction of Jerusalem and Temple of Herod. (credit: James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum–via Wikipedia)

So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus Answered “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” – John 2:18-19 (ESV)

The Israel Antiquities Authority, an independent arm of the government, recently revealed that it has been digging six meters (about 20 ft.) beneath the Western Wall in old Jerusalem for the past two years. This excavation has been kept secret in part because the Western Wall continues to be a site of worship for Jews and because of its proximity to the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock, a holy place for Muslims.

IAA archaeologist Dr. Joe Uziel works along one of eight courses of the Western Wall discovered in this excavation. (credit: Yaniv Berman, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

In order to safely and quietly excavate beneath a portion of the Western Wall frequented by worshipers, Authority archeologists reinforced the floor overhead, says an article in the Times of Israel.

One of the most significant results of this excavation has been the uncovering of eight courses of stone thought to be part of the Second Temple. “The original purpose of the excavations was to accurately date [Wilson’s] arch and determine whether it was built in the time of King Herod, a Roman King of Judea who ruled from 37 [B.C.] until 4 [B.C.]” according to Haaretz, an Israeli news service.

The First Temple, which the Bible says was built by King Solomon, was destroyed by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, when his army took part of the Judean population into captivity in 586 B.C.

Under Persian King Cyrus, a segment of the Jews in exile were allowed to return in 538 B.C. The territorial governor Zerubbabel, himself a Jew, laid the foundation for a Second Temple in 537 B.C. That temple was completed in 516 B.C. and consecrated in 515 B.C.

Herod’s Temple as imagined in the Holyland Model of Jerusalem. (credit: Juan R. Cuadra, Public Domain–via Wikipedia)

In the 1st Century B.C., according to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, Herod the Great began a massive upgrade to the Second Temple with the intention of making it one of the wonders of the world. He is said to have begun the work around 19 B.C. and completed the main structure of the temple in a year-and-a-half with the help of 10,000 of the most skilled workmen and 1,000 priests specially trained in construction techniques. Josephus also mentioned that building continued on some of the out buildings of the temple complex for another eight years. Herod reportedly died in 4 B.C.

This temple that Herod the Great built would have been the Jewish center of worship when Jesus was born.

According to the biblical account, Jesus was born shortly before the death of Herod. About 30 years later, early in Jesus’ ministry, he is recorded as having a conversation with Jewish authorities in which they mention how long the construction at the temple had been going on at that point.

The Jews then said, “It has taken 46 years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. – John 2: 20-22 (ESV)

Could there be supporting evidence for this statement by the Jewish leaders, and if so, how can we reconcile Josephus’ record of Herod building the temple with a 46-year-long construction period (referred to in the Bible) that extends nearly 30 years after Herod’s death?

The answers may be found in an earlier excavation undertaken by the Israel Antiquities Authority as reported in a Nov. 23, 2011 story of Phys.org., a leading science and technology news site.

Two ancient bronze coins revealed in 2011 excavations beneath the Western Wall. (credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)

That article, entitled “Coins show Herod built only part of Second Temple walls” states that IAA archaeologists found coins, dated to A.D. 15 inside a Jewish ritual bath at the foot of the Second Temple’s Western Wall. Workers had filled in the bath to make way for construction of the wall. So, these coins were essentially “under” the Second Temple wall.

Here is the lead archaeologist’s assessment as published in Phys.org. “Until today, accepted wisdom said that all walls were built by Herod,” said Eli Shukron, an archeologist from the Israel Antiquities Authority who led the dig. “When we found those coins, which were dated about 20 years after Herod’s death, we understood that it couldn’t have been him who built this part of the wall.”

So, it is entirely possible that, while Herod the Great may have built the temple proper within one-and-one-half years, the work on some of the out-buildings, courts and walls of the temple continued for decades after his death. In fact, other Jewish sources say that the some of the details of the work were not completed until A.D. 63, seven years before its ultimate destruction.

Consequently, the time attributed for work on the temple by the Jewish authorities in the New Testament seems quite plausible.

Dig Also Uncovers Amphitheater

Archeologist Avi Solomon looks around the ancient Roman theatre as Joe Uziel (left) cleans stones of this structure hidden for 1,700 years. (credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In their current dig, IAA archaeologists excavated an area of the Western Wall near Wilson’s Arch, which is a massive stone structure that once supported a bridge leading to the Temple Mount during the Second Temple Period. Here, they made a remarkable discovery, uncovering a long-lost ancient Roman theater. This entertainment or meeting place had been constructed after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in A.D. 70. It, too, had been described in the writings of Josephus. However, its whereabouts had been a mystery until today.

What more will be found as archeologists continue to dig? According to the Times of Israel, the IAA team expects to continue excavations until next spring. They quote lead archeologist Dr. Joe Uziel as saying that, while he cannot know what still lies beneath, he expects to reach First Temple period remains before this dig is over.

These are exciting times. Keep Thinking.