Jeffrey J. Harrison


The Jewish Temple in the time of Jesus was an awesome structure. The true size of it only dawns on you when you stand by one of its building stones. Most were a uniform 4 ft (1.2 m) in height and up to 35 ft (10 m) in length of precisely cut limestone. The smaller stones were 30-50 tons each. The largest yet found is 10 by 43 ft (3.5 by 14.5 m), with an estimated weight at between 400-600 tons--for a single stone! Yet these stones fit so precisely, without mortar, that only where there has been erosion or other damage can you squeeze a slip of paper between them.

The walls originally went soaring straight up as much as 120 ft (37m) above the surrounding street level. These were support walls for an elevated platform and buildings within. This platform (the Temple Mount) encloses a rectangular area of 35 acres (14 hectares) in size.

In the middle of the enclosure, the Sanctuary building rose above the rest, its gold-covered roof glowing like fire in the rays of the desert sun [see photo after the diagram below]. Josephus, the Jewish historian, wrote, "To approaching strangers [the Temple] appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain; for all that was not overlaid with gold was of purest white" (The Jewish War 5.5.6, Ritmeyer p. 26). The rabbis said that whoever has not seen the Temple has not seen a beautiful building (BB 4a). Jesus' disciples agreed: "Look--what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!" (Mark 13:1). Both in its conception and its realization, this was an image of heaven, of coming into the presence of God himself (Heb. 9:23,24).*

* Herod the Great, whose improvements we are describing, consulted the prophetic plan of Ezekiel for guidance in his design (Ez. 40-44).

The main entrance to the Temple Mount was on its south side. Here, behind a plaza lined with shops, rose a 244 ft (75 m) wide stairway approaching the southern façade of the Mount. This huge stairway is sometimes called the "stairs of the rabbis" because of the memory of Rabbi Gamaliel and the elders sitting here to make religious decisions.* This is the same Rabbi Gamaliel that taught the apostle Paul and that stood up in behalf of the early Jewish Christians before the Sanhedrin Council (Acts 5:34, 22:3). This stairway led to two sets of "gates" (31 ft [9 m] high doorways in the façade) that opened into tunnels and then to stairs leading up to the Temple Mount platform above.

* YT Ma'aser Sheni 5:4 [56c], Sanh. 11b, Nadich p. 240; Tosefta Sanh. 2:2, Ritmeyer p. 36. See bibliography below.

Access through these gates to the Temple was restricted to those who were ritually clean. This was the purpose of the two small buildings built right into the middle of the "stairs of the rabbis" (see drawing above). They were filled with dozens of Jewish ritual baths (known in Hebrew as mikvaoth [MIK-vah-oat]; mikvah in the singular) for the purpose of ritual purification. They stood as a symbolic reminder that holiness is required for access into the presence of God.*

* The discovery of these baths helped to answer the question where the thousands of Jews that accepted Jesus on the Day of Pentecost were baptized (Acts 2:41). It may also have been here that Mary was immersed after giving birth to Jesus, when she came to offer up the required sacrifice in the Temple (Luke 2:22-24).

Ritual uncleanness could come from many different sources. The highest degree of uncleanness came from contact with the dead: anyone who touched a dead body or was in a room with a dead body was unclean for seven days (Num. 19:11,14). Other sources of ritual uncleanness included a woman in her time of the month (a seven day uncleanness; Lev. 15:19), a woman who has given birth (a 40 day uncleanness if to a baby boy, 80 days for a girl; Lev. 12:2-5), marital relations of a husband and wife (a one day uncleanness; Lev. 15:18), and touching an animal--or even an insect--that has died (a one day uncleanness; unless the animal died from a ritually clean slaughter). Lesser degrees of impurity derived from these: for instance from touching something that had been touched by an unclean person (a one day uncleanness; Lev. 15:22, Num. 19:22).

These are all Biblical regulations from the Law of Moses. The scribes and Pharisees added many more, just to be sure--or as they put it, to build a "hedge" around the Law. The apostle Peter, for example, observed one of these Pharisaic decrees all his life--that Gentiles were unclean (see Acts 10:28)--until he had his vision at the house of Simon the Tanner in Joppa (in which God taught him that he should not call anyone unclean). His later relapse in Antioch, when he stopped eating with Gentiles, was vigorously opposed by the apostle Paul (Gal. 2:12).

The Pharisees' decision that Samaritans were unclean explains the verse in John that says, "For Jews have no sharing with Samaritans" (John 4:9). This refers to the sharing of food and utensils which, by contact uncleanness, would make the Jew unclean. Jesus rejected this ruling and its implication--the total separation of Jews and Samaritans. He asked the Samaritan woman at the well for a drink from her waterpot (which the Pharisees considered unclean from her contact with it; John 4:7,11,28). Jesus was unwilling to let the Pharisees' rulings isolate him from a person or group simply because of their ethnic or racial identity. This was one of the rabbinic decrees that Jesus considered a "tradition of men" in opposition to the Word of God (Mark 7:8).*

* The most well known of these decrees challenged by Jesus was the Pharisaic ordinance of the ritual washing of hands (netilat yadayim), established in the preceding generation of Hillel and Shammai (Mark 7:3,5). For more on this subject, see our teaching Did Jesus Abolish the Jewish Food Laws?

The Biblical and rabbinic examples of impurity mentioned here are only a few of the different kinds of ritual impurity. The complete list occupies four pages of small print.* Every one of these different kinds of uncleanness meant you could not enter the Temple until the given time had passed and you took a ritual bath to become clean again.**

* While some of the rabbinic ordinances were widely observed in Jesus' day, others were in force only among the adherents of the Pharisees.

** This was not an ordinary bath for cleaning off dirt, but a special ritual bath (a mikvah). For more information on ritual baths see below and our article "The Baptism of Jesus" (TL #7). Contact with the dead also required a sprinkling twice during the week with water prepared with the ashes of the red heifer (Num. 19:16-19).

One of the unanswered questions of the Bible is why some of the things ruled ritually unclean in the Bible are considered unclean. For example, why is a woman who has just given birth unclean (Lev. 12:2)? How can giving birth to new life be considered unclean? But just because something is ritually unclean doesn't mean it's morally bad. For example, burying the dead is an important religious duty, important enough to risk your life to do (Tobit 1:17-19). But it was also considered unclean. Why? To show us that death and God, the source of life, are fundamentally incompatible. Pagan religion insists that death is a "natural" part of life. In some cases, it even glorified human death as a part of pagan ritual (human sacrifice; as practiced even by some of the kings of Judah; 2 Kings 16:3, 17:17, 21:6, 23:10). But the Bible asserts that death is an enemy that will ultimately be overcome (1 Cor. 15:26). All contact with death, therefore, separates us to some degree from the presence of God; which was expressed by the exclusion of those who were unclean from the Temple.

Making babies is in fulfillment of God's command to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28). It's something good, not something bad. So why is giving birth considered a source of uncleanness, that brings ritual separation from God? Even in modern first-world countries, the pall of death sometimes hangs over birth. Certainly in ancient times, and even recent history, women often died in childbirth. Even in a normal birth, the blood released in the process is a kind of death, since the Bible teaches that the life is in the blood (Lev. 17:11). The pain of childbirth traces back to the curse, that came as a result of sin (Gen. 3:16). But there can be no sin or death, even indirectly, in God's presence.

In pagan religions, fertility is often a primary religious concern and goal of life, especially for women. But in the religion of the Bible, the bearing of children is a temporary thing that is passing away (Matt. 22:30). The focus of true religion lies elsewhere: in a living relationship with the God of life.

Even some of the required ritual duties of the priests made them unclean. These were ritual ceremonies that God himself commanded them to do (such as burning the Red Heifer, Num. 19:7; leading out the Scapegoat, Lev. 16:26; etc.). But since they involved ritual contact with sin (such as that carried by the Scapegoat) and death, it excluded them from the fullness of God's presence. God wanted to send a clear message: that not only sin and death, but even indirect contact with them, excludes you from the fullness of his presence.

But what about the marital relationship of a husband and his wife, why is that considered unclean (Lev. 15:18)? There is no shedding of blood, there is no contact with death as we ordinarily think of it. But even here, most of the seed of the man dies, even when a conception takes place. So, too, the seed of the woman dies (along with the shedding of blood) when conception does not take place.

Many pagan religions glorify the sexual relationship, including modern secularism. In ancient times, immoral relations were actually part of the religious ritual in many pagan temples. But God pronounced the sexual relationship unclean even for a man and wife, an uncleanness that restricted entrance to his Temple until the next evening after a ritual bath. Even though the marriage relationship is something good, still it brings a separation from God. But in the Temple, as a symbol of the heavenly presence of God, there is to be nothing that separates his people from him. Marriage and the physical marital relationship are passing away (Matt. 22:30).*

* Although some groups teach marriage and the production of babies in the Millennium, this is one of the earliest heresies rejected by the church and, according to tradition, by the apostle John himself (the heresy of Cerinthus; Eusebius Church History 3.28, Irenaus, Against Heresies, 3.3.4).

The Gentile church has largely misunderstood the Bible's teaching about clean and unclean and failed to recognize the opposition it teaches between God and death. From an early date, the church glorified not only the godly testimony of those who died for the faith, but took a morbid, pagan interest in their physical remains as well. Their bones were treated as holy relics and churches were turned into cemeteries of the dead.* But while the deaths of the martyrs are unquestionably noble and godly, sharing "the sufferings of Messiah" (1 Pet. 4:13), this hardly justifies, from a Biblical and Jewish point of view, the attempt to pronounce clean what is fundamentally unclean, and confuse death, the "last enemy" of God (1 Cor. 15:26), with God himself and godly religion. The testimony of Scripture is not that death is somehow a neutral natural event, or even the "will of God," but that it is a product of sin, in direct opposition to God's ultimate will and plan, and will one day be destroyed.** The death of the martyrs is proof of the wicked nature of unregenerate mankind and the need of a saving relationship with God.

* The same psychology lies behind the creation and use of crucifixes (which display an idol of Jesus hanging on the cross). Early Gentile Christians continued the pagan practice of eating in cemeteries on the anniversary of the dead--a practice that continues in All Saints' Day celebrations in many countries, where meals are eaten in the cemetery.

** This is why physical resurrection was such a central and essential part of the apostolic teaching, though it was later largely neglected as a living doctrine. After all, if death itself brings us into a satisfactory permanent condition with God, how can it be considered bad? And what need is there of a resurrection? Yet the souls in heaven are not content, but cry out "How long, holy and true Master, will you not judge and avenge our blood on those dwelling on the earth?" (Rev. 6:10). The drama of history is not resolved, and the permanent future condition of mankind is not achieved without a physical resurrection, and a righting of the wrongs that led to the martyr's deaths.

This same fundamental misunderstanding underlies the shift in meaning of the Lord's Supper, which turned this sacred memory of Jesus' last Passover and sacrificial death into the bizarre practice of eating (supposedly) the actual dead body of Jesus after an act of what is in effect a ritual murder (according to the Roman superstition that the priest sacrifices Jesus anew with every Mass, and that the bread and wine of communion turn physically into the body and blood of Christ; the doctrine of transubstantiation).* But this is a travesty of the gospel message. Scripture considers it an act of betrayal and apostasy to "again crucify...the Son of God, and put him to open shame" (Heb. 6:6). His death, "once for all" (Heb. 7:27), is an act of grace necessitated by the horrible sin of mankind and moves us precisely because he did not deserve to die, and if all was right in the world, this would never have had to happen. "He made him who knew no sin to become sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God in him" (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus was the sin-carrier, like the scapegoat of the Day of Atonement, who became ritually unclean through his death and being hanged on the cross (Deut. 21:23). This was a ritually necessary action (a "good" action) that nevertheless separated him from God (like some of the ritual actions of the priests), making him to become sin and a curse (Deut. 21:23, 2 Cor. 5:21). This action is not wonderful because his physical body has some substantial holiness that can be taken in by chewing on it. On the contrary, that holiness was stripped away from him in his death. He became unclean and experienced the uncleanness of death so that we don't have to! He died that we might be delivered from the uncleanness of death into life. Holiness is not a residue that clings to dead bodies. Holiness is a decision to leave death behind and enter a living relationship with God that even death itself can no longer steal away (John 11:25). As the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem proclaims: He is not here--he has risen! Death no longer has any place in him or in his people, for he has overcome death with life!

* The original communion teaching of Jesus was presented as part of a Passover Meal, in which many of the food items on the table have a traditional symbolic meaning (Matt. 26:19). Jesus used these items of food as symbols of his impending death, which were symbolically eaten.

Cleansing from impurity took place in a ritual bath, a mikvah. These ritual baths could not be filled with a bucket. They had to be filled with "living" (naturally flowing) water. For many of these baths, such as those in the ritual bath buildings at the entrance to the Temple, this meant rainwater--water from heaven--a heavenly cleansing.* ** This is symbolism that points to a spiritual cleansing, a baptism (immersion) in the Holy Spirit, the true "living water" from heaven, in which we are to be cleansed and renewed (John 4:10; Titus 3:5).

* This was also the symbolism of the Bronze "Sea," the large mikvah of the priests that stood before the entrance of the Sanctuary. In Solomon's day, this mikvah was held up by twelve bronze oxen (1 Kings 7:23). They represented, in the style of that day, angelic creatures holding up the sky (as the four living creatures in Ezekiel that hold up the "firmament," Ez. 1:22; the same Hebrew word that appears in Gen. 1:6-8). When the priests washed their hands and feet in the Bronze Sea before entering the Sanctuary, they washed symbolically in the water of heaven (the waters above the firmament, Gen. 1:7; see also Deut. 28:23).

** The mikvahs at the entrance to the Temple were filled with rainwater that had fallen on the Temple Mount. This was then channeled underground to the ritual bath buildings and the ritual baths.

The Biblical laws of ritual purity are an important picture of spiritual truth: that spiritual cleanness is required to come into the presence of a holy God. But they also point to times when we, like Jesus, are called to willingly become unclean, to sacrificially allow ourselves to be separated from God's presence, as when we reach out to touch souls that are lost in the darkness of death.* In fact, it's impossible to avoid contact with sin and death, even while doing good--things we should do. But that's when we need to be cleansed in the water of life, so we can enter into the presence of God again.

* This uncleanness must not be confused with sin. Jesus became unclean though he never sinned.

What about you? Have you been cleansed in the Spirit lately? Have you come into God's presence? Ask, and he will send "times of refreshing" descending like rain "from the presence of the Lord" (Acts 3:19), that you may enter into his presence (Luke 11:13).


The diagram of the southern Temple facade follows the reconstruction of Leen Ritmeyer in Reconstructing Herod's Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Biblical Archaeology Society, 1990, pp. 36-7.

Judah Nadich, The Legends of the Rabbis, Jason Aronson, 1994.

Recent illegal construction by Muslims on the Temple Mount has destroyed archeologically priceless information about the Jewish Temple. To register your protest of this desecration of one the world's most important cultural and religious sites, visit http://www.har-habayt.org.


Read these Questions and Answers about this article:
Should Gentile Christians Gradually Conform to the Law of Moses?
Will Babies be Born in the Millennium?

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Updated 11/18/10. Copyright © 2000-2003, 2008, 2010 by Jeffrey J. Harrison.  All rights reserved.
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