BMCR 2006.02.32

God’s Mountain. The Temple Mount in Time, Place, and Memory

, God's mountain : the Temple Mount in time, place, and memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. xxxv, 353 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0801882133 $45.00.

This is a wide-ranging book on a fascinating topic. Its main thesis is that the Temple Mount in Jerusalem became an important concept invested with religious significance only after the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

After a lengthy introduction, Ch. 1 deals with the pre-Christian period (‘From David to Herod’) and argues that the place of the (First and Second) Jewish Temple, Mount Zion, hardly plays a role as an independent (let alone sacred) entity in the Hebrew Bible (where the expression Temple Mount occurs only once) and the Jewish documents from the Second Temple period. It is hardly ever viewed as a sacred place per se, apart from the Temple; an image of a holy mountain resonates in very few texts. “Not only are there no hints of the name ‘Temple Mount’ in the period when the Temple was up and running, but Second Temple writers always present the various components of the sanctuary as subordinate to the Temple itself” (221). Ch. 2 deals with the New Testament and the traditions concerning James, the brother of Jesus, who is said to have been murdered (thrown down from the temple’s ‘pterygion’) and buried on the Temple Mount and whose memory was kept alive there by his followers. “The fragmentary traditions pertaining to this line of thought display the seeds of a new spatial order and the consolidation of a new holy site: not the Temple itself but the area in which it was located” (81). Ch. 3 deals with the drastic changes in the Jerusalem landscape after Hadrian had turned the city into Aelia Capitolina and shifted the centre of the city away from the Temple Mount towards the northwestern hill (the present day Christian quarter of the Old City) and left the ruined Temple square outside the city’s boundaries. He convincingly argues that Cassius Dio’s remark (69.12.1) about Hadrian’s building a temple for Jupiter on that square is simply an unhistorical Christian reworking (by the epitomator Xiphilinus) of Dio’s original text. This temple was actually built on the site of the present day Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Ch. 4 is about the Temple Mount in Byzantine Jerusalem, and here Eliav argues that the writings of pilgrims and other sources make clear that the site of the Temple Mount was a favourite place for Christian visitors, who were especially interested in the pinna = pterygion, the architectonic expression of which is unknown to us, and that it is only in the course of the fifth century that the Temple Mount came within the city’s boundaries again. Ch. 5, on ‘The New Mountain in Christian Homiletics,’ demonstrates among many other things that in that same period the Church Fathers began to preach and write about (the nearby) Golgotha as the new mountain that superseded the old Temple Mount, and this has to be seen against the background of what Eliav describes at length in Ch. 6, the rise of the concept of the Temple Mount (without a Temple!) as a sacred place in Rabbinic literature. The rabbis went as far as extending to the Temple Mount the rulings that previously pertained only to the Temple building stricto sensu and thus invested the mountain with a high level of sacredness. “The destruction of 70 CE stripped the Temple from its glory, leaving its compound orphaned and desolate, but in the following generations, rabbinic literature imbued the ruined site of the Temple with a new life” (212). And even though the Temple itself was something of the distant past, “the direction of Jewish prayer as formulated by the rabbis centered on the Temple Mount” (228). So it is only in rabbinic and early Christian literature that the term ‘Temple mount’ begins to appear frequently because by then the Temple Mount had supplanted the Temple in the conceptual framework of the time. All chapters are well argued and provided with abundant bibliography.1

Even though the main thesis of this book is certainly correct, there are several details which have to be corrected. Eliav is somewhat sloppy in chronological matters. The building of Solomon’s temple is dated by nobody to “the beginning of the tenth century BCE” (2) but to the middle of that century; and the time span between the rebuilding of the temple in the sixth century BCE (520) to its destruction in 70 CE is not “six hundred and fifty years” (2) but 590 years. And the span of time between Jesus’s crucifixion and the death of his brother James is not “twenty two years” (61) but thirty two. At pp. 39-44 there is some overinterpretation of two passages in Josephus which are taken to imply that the Temple Mount and its compound acquire an independent category in the spatial organization of Jerusalem: even if Eliav’s interpretation of these passages is correct (which I doubt), it leaves unexplained why it is only in his earliest work (De Bello Judaico) and never in his later works that one finds this element (one would expect it to be the other way round). Also his interpretation of Jesus’ dialogue about the Temple with his disciples (“no stone will be left upon another”) as referring to the destruction not of the Temple itself but of the space that came to be the Temple Mount (52-6) stretches the imagination — I am not convinced. At p. 79 Eliav too easily follows the theory that the Greek Vitae Prophetarum is a Christian work from the early Byzantine period; I and others still defend its Jewish provenance.2 On the same page, in the final paragraph on analogies to the traditions about James’s burial place on the Temple Mount, Eliav seems to overlook the most obvious analogy, i.e., the rabbinic traditions about the prophetess’ Hulda’s tomb on that mountain. Finally, as regards the bibliography, at p. 317 A.D. Crown’s Bibliography of the Samaritans (1993) should now be replaced by the much enlarged new edition by Crown and Reinhard Pummer of 2005. And at p. 318 the late Han Drijvers and his son Jan Willem Drijvers are fused into one person. But apart from these quibbles, this is an impressive book.


1. But Eliav never mentions the best non-biblical source book about the Temple and its surroundings, sc. C.T.R. Hayward, The Jewish Temple, London-New York: Routledge, 1996.

2. See my “The Tombs of the Prophets in Ancient Judaism,” in my book Japheth in the Tents of Shem: Studies on Jewish Hellenism in Antiquity, Leuven: Peeters, 2002, 119-138.