In recent years we’ve seen denials that any Jewish temples ever existed in Jerusalem or on the Temple Mount.
And now another theory is making the rounds, following from similar ideas put forward decades ago, proposing that the Jerusalem temples never existed on the Temple Mount, but instead were located several hundred yards to the south over the Gihon Spring, the original water source for ancient Jerusalem. According to this theory, the area that’s been identified as the Temple Mount for the last 2,000 years is actually the site of the Antonia Fortress, originally built by Herod the Great and later used by the Romans.
This theory—which to our knowledge isn’t supported by any trained Western archaeologist today—is built on a number of flawed assumptions and is contradicted by a great deal of biblical, historical and archaeological evidence. Regrettably, since it ignores or denies clear evidence, it also plays into the hands of those who deny any Jewish presence or Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
In understanding the history of Jerusalem, we need to be aware of the limitations of archaeological evidence. One is simply the fact that Jerusalem is a thriving, growing, active city—and modern houses, businesses, streets and schools lie atop whatever ruins exist from ancient times. This makes it extraordinarily difficult to excavate in and around ancient Jerusalem.
The situation isn’t helped by the fact that the city has been fought over dozens of times and destroyed and rebuilt several more times. Nor does it help that the temple constructed by King Solomon was destroyed by Babylonian invaders ca. 587 B.C., and the ruins were covered and built over by a massive foundation platform atop which was built a later temple.
And like Solomon’s temple, the temple of Jesus Christ’s day was so thoroughly destroyed in the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 that, as Jesus foretold in Matthew 24:2, “not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” He was, in context as shown by Matthew 24:1, Mark 13:1-2 and Luke 21:5, clearly talking about the temple itself and its outer buildings and structures, not the foundation platform on which they were built—a fact misunderstood by many over the years.
When it comes to the scarcity of archaeological remains, it was also common up until very recent times to “recycle” building stones in new structures, making it very difficult if not impossible to locate more than a fraction of the original pieces of ancient buildings.
But in spite of these challenges, there are firm and clear remains that can be seen today that mesh perfectly with historical eyewitness accounts from those who personally saw these structures, or knew those who did.
Space prevents us from addressing all of the evidence concerning the temple’s actual location, but we’ll examine some of the most important. Interested readers can learn more from the resources listed at the end of this article.
Where does the Bible place the Jerusalem temples?
The Bible and history are clear that Solomon’s temple and the later temple built by Zerubbabel were constructed on the same spot (see Ezra 3:3; Ezra 5:15; Ezra 6:7). Herod the Great later built his great temple, the one that existed in Jesus’ day, on the location of Zerubbabel’s temple.
And where was this spot? We read in 2 Chronicles 3:1 that “Solomon began to build the house of the Lord [the temple] at Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David, at the place that David had prepared on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.” The account of King David purchasing the threshing floor of Ornan is recorded in 1 Chronicles 21:14-22:1.
A brief overview of the geography of Jerusalem is helpful at this point. The Jebusite city that David captured and chose as his capital, naming it Jerusalem, was a walled city located on a narrow ridge that tapered to a point as it descended in elevation from north to south. As the ridge gained elevation to the north, it widened and somewhat flattened—though it was still highest near the center of the ridge.
The Jebusite city was well-fortified with strong walls, behind which its defenders felt confident enough to mock David’s soldiers, telling them that blind and lame men could prevent an army from entering the city (2 Samuel 5:6-8). The walled city, which would come to be known as “the city of David” following its capture (verse 9), was quite small, covering only about nine acres atop the ridge.
Steep valleys on the east, west and south sides helped make the city virtually impregnable. Archaeological excavations in recent years have uncovered strong defensive towers that protected the city’s water source, the Gihon Spring at the base of the ridge that emptied into the Kidron Valley between the ridge and the Mount of Olives to the east.
The temple was built on the site of a threshing floor
As noted above, the temple was built on the site of a threshing floor. What was a threshing floor? It was an open area where wheat and barley would be threshed to crack open the husks to separate the kernels so they could be ground into flour for bread.
The wheat and barley husks were typically cracked open by the hooves of an animal walking on them (Deuteronomy 25:4) or by a weighted sledge pulled by such animals. The mixed grain and husks were then tossed in the air, often with a large flat basket called a winnowing fan, and wind would blow the lighter husks away while the heavier grain fell back into the basket for collection (see Ruth 3:2; Isaiah 41:16; Matthew 3:12). Threshing floors were typically located on hilltops or large open areas where the wind would blow away the husks (chaff, as it’s called in the Bible).
The fact that the temple was built on the site of a threshing floor tells us that it was built outside the city of David, because locating a threshing floor within city walls would’ve been self-defeating—the city walls and buildings would’ve blocked the wind necessary for separating the grain from the husks. Also, one would never locate a threshing floor near a town’s water source, as the windblown chaff would blow into the water, unnecessarily polluting it with foul-tasting chaff.
The Bible itself confirms that the location of the threshing floor on which the temple was built was “up”—higher in elevation—from the City of David (2 Samuel 24:18-19). In light of the geography of the ridge on which the city was built, which widened and gained in elevation to the north, this makes the area to the north the only area in which a temple could be built—especially since the city was surrounded by steep valleys on the other three sides. (This is also the only logical location for a threshing floor, as the higher location would be outside the city walls and could take advantage of the wind needed to blow away the chaff.)
The Bible also tells us that after Solomon had finished building the temple and it was to be dedicated, he and the elders of Israel brought the Ark of the Covenant “up . . . from the city of David” to the temple (1 Kings 8:1, emphasis added throughout). The fact that the ark was moved up from the City of David means that it was brought “out of the City of David”(King James Version, Green’s Literal Translation, English Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version and various others) to the newly constructed temple.
The biblical account mentions eight times in 1 Kings 8 and the parallel account in 2 Chronicles 5 that they brought the ark up from the City of David to the temple—proving that the temple was uphill and out of David’s city—exactly where the Temple Mount is and has been for almost 3,000 years.
We see from these passages that any argument that the temple stood within the area of the original City of David is directly contradicted by plain statements of Scripture. These passages also prove that the temple couldn’t have been located directly atop the Gihon Spring, because the Gihon Spring is located downhill from the City of David toward the Kidron Valley at an elevation more than 100 feet below that of the city.
Archaeological evidence for the Temple Mount being the Temple location: Jewish ritual baths
It’s odd to feel a need to argue that the structure recognized for the last 2,000 years as the foundation platform for Herod’s Temple is exactly that, since it is in itself 36 acres of proof. Nonetheless we’ll recap some of the archaeological proof that this was indeed the actual temple location.
One of the most striking proofs that the Temple Mount was considered a holy place is the large number of Jewish ritual purification baths, called mikvot or mikva’ot (plural of mikveh), all around the Temple Mount. So far more than 100 have been found, ranging in size from being able to accommodate one person at a time to dozens or a hundred or more worshippers at once. (Incidentally, this large number of mikvot explains how the apostles were able to find sufficient water to baptize 3,000 people in one day on the Feast of Pentecost as described in Acts 2:41.)
During Jesus’ time it was common for worshippers going up to the temple to ritually immerse themselves in water so they could enter the temple precincts in a ritually pure state. Incidentally, this practice of ritual washing was carried over to a number of synagogues in Israel where similar mikvot have been found dating to this period—and the practice has been continued at many synagogues elsewhere in the centuries since.
Archaeologist Eilat Mazar describes what was uncovered in the excavations along the southern and western walls of the Temple Mount overseen by her grandfather, noted archaeologist Benjamin Mazar: “Dozens [of] ritual baths dating to the Herodian period were found throughout the excavation site. Rock-cut channels directed water into the baths from the surplus in the colossal cisterns on the Temple Mount . . . Each bath had one entrance with stairs and a low parapet in the center that separated those entering for purification from those leaving after purification” (The Complete Guide to the Temple Mount Excavations, 2002, p. 61).
Wherever archaeologists have excavated around the Temple Mount, all over the south and west sides and in what little digging has been done to the north, they have found Jewish ritual baths dating to the first centuries B.C. and A.D. The only area they haven’t found them is on the east side, where a large Muslim cemetery prevents any archaeological exploration.
Recently it was revealed from long-hidden historical records that after a 1927 earthquake in Jerusalem damaged the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, British archaeologist Robert Hamilton discovered and documented the remains of a first-century Jewish mikveh underneath its floor—a find kept hidden for almost a century so as not to arouse Muslim anger at such clear evidence of Jewish worship on the Temple Mount.
Of course, all of these dozens of Jewish ritual baths surrounding and atop the Temple Mount make no sense if this was the Antonia Fortress, as those who wish to relocate the temple try to argue. It makes no sense that Jews would’ve been ritually bathing themselves all around a Roman military fortress—but it makes perfect sense if they were purifying themselves before ascending to the temple to worship.
In stark contrast, in many excavation sites over many years of digging, no such baths—or any evidence of any kind of Jewish worship practice—have been found where some would relocate the temple above the Gihon Spring.
Finds corresponding with Josephus’ temple description
Flavius Josephus (ca. A.D. 37-100) was a prolific first-century Jewish scholar, historian and priest intimately familiar with Jerusalem and the temple and the war in which both were destroyed by the Romans. In his writings he gives many descriptions of the temple that allow us to correlate it with the Temple Mount, but we’ll focus only on a few archaeological finds.
Josephus records that the outer court of the temple complex, known as the Court of the Gentiles (into which gentiles could enter), “was encompassed by a stone wall for a partition, with an inscription, which forbade any foreigner to go in, under pain of death” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 15, chap. 11, sec. 5). In his work Wars of the Jews, he states there were a number of these signs on this wall, “some in Greek, and some in Roman letters, that ‘no foreigner should go within that sanctuary’” (Book 5, chap. 5, sec. 5).
Two of these stone “do not enter” signs, one complete and the other with the ends missing, have been found. The complete one was found in 1871 about 150 feet from the Temple Mount, and the partial one was found in 1935 in an excavation about 200 feet north of the northeast corner of the Temple Mount platform. Both were found reused in other structures, showing how ancient building materials were often scavenged and reused in other ways. The carved Greek inscription on the complete copy, spelling out what Josephus summarized, reads: “No foreigner may enter within the balustrade around the sanctuary and the enclosure. Whoever is caught, on himself shall he put blame for the death which will ensue.”
Josephus also describes a part of the temple complex “where it was custom for one of the priests to stand and to give notice, by sound of trumpet, in the afternoon of the approach, and on the following evening of the close, of every seventh day” (Wars of the Jews, Book 4, chap. 9, sec. 12). For this trumpet blast announcing of the beginning and ending of the Sabbath day to be meaningful, it logically must have taken place at a part of the temple where it could be heard through much of the city.
In 1968, Hebrew University archaeologist Benjamin Mazar found a large carved stone in the rubble of the destruction of the temple complex at the southwest corner of the Temple Mount platform, which in the first century overlooked most of the city. The stone was buried at the bottom of the rubble from some of the temple’s outer buildings, meaning it had likely fallen from the very top of the structures built around the edges of the platform.
Carved in elaborate Hebrew script on the stone were the words, “To the trumpeting place to declare . . .” with the remainder of the inscription broken off and lost. Temple experts believe that the full inscription read, “To the trumpeting place to declare the Sabbath,” and that the stone fell from the spot to which Josephus referred—particularly since the broken stone fit perfectly onto a much larger block of stone that had a niche carved out just the right size for a man to stand in.
Josephus also describes the western side of the temple platform as having four entrance points, one accessed by a bridge crossing the Tyropean Valley to Jerusalem’s wealthy upper city, two that opened to the rest of the city, and a fourth involving “a great number of steps” located “where the road descended down into the valley” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 15, chap. 11, sec. 5).
Today in the Western Wall one can see remains of these four entrances to the Temple Mount exactly as Josephus explained them. Named after famous Jerusalem archaeologists, they are called, respectively, Wilson’s Arch (the remains of a bridge crossing the Tyropean Valley), Warren’s Gate, Barclay’s Gate, and Robinson’s Arch, which is the remains of a massive staircase that indeed had “a great number of steps” leading down to the first-century “road [that] descended down into the valley”—exactly as Josephus describes.
Josephus further describes an astoundingly impressive colonnade “better than any other under the sun” running along the southern top of the temple platform (ibid.). Benjamin Mazar’s finds from his excavations along the southern wall of the Temple Mount from 1968-1978 again matched the description given by Josephus:
“Numerous fragments of such pilasters [rectangular pillars set into walls] and their capitals, as well as pieces from two stone sundials, together with fragments from other architectural elements including friezes, panels, cornices . . . some of which fell from the top of the wall and some from the Royal Portico [a huge columned structure that ran along the top of the southern wall of the Temple Mount], were found in abundance among the debris which had accumulated along the area facing the whole length of the South Wall and close to the Western Wall.
“These fragments bear typical Herodian decorations comprising the rich variety of geometric as well as floral patterns characteristic of the artistic repertoire of the period” (The Mountain of the Lord: Excavating in Jerusalem, 1975, pp. 121-124).
Josephus also added that the southern side of the temple platform had “gates in the middle.” Today one can visit the Temple Mount and see two sets of gates, known as the Double Gate and Triple Gate, in the middle of the walls—exactly as Josephus places them. (Josephus lists “one large gate” on the east side and doesn’t specify a number for the north side—but these areas today lie underneath a Muslim cemetery and the Muslim portion of the city, and no excavations have been carried out along these walls.)
Regrettably, since the Temple Mount has been in the hands of Muslim authorities, they have allowed no meaningful archaeological exploration in this or the last century. In fact, there is abundant evidence of Muslim authorities destroying ancient remains on the Temple Mount, presumably to erase any evidence of a Jewish presence there. So due to the impossibility of any scientific exploration of the Temple Mount anytime soon, other evidence lying beneath its surface that would further confirm this as the temple location must remain a mystery.
Archaeology disproves any temple above the Gihon Spring
In the first century A.D., when some argue that the Jerusalem temple was located on the ridge above the Gihon Spring, what was that area like? From 1995 until his retirement in 2011, University of Haifa professor Ronny Reich, recipient of multiple awards for his outstanding contributions to the field of archaeology, was co-director of excavations in the City of David. In that capacity he oversaw archaeological explorations all around the Gihon Spring, including the steep slopes of the ridge on which the City of David lay. His findings contributed a great deal to our understanding of the history of the area.
So what did he find in this area where some would place the Jerusalem temples? In his 2011 book Excavating the City of David: Where Jerusalem’s History Began, Dr. Reich explains what they had to dig through all around the Gihon Spring: “8-9 m[eters] of soil, stone clusters, [pottery] sherds and fragments of finds—all spilled down across the eastern slopes of the City of David . . .” He describes how a similar “thick overlay” covered other nearby sites excavated by previous archaeologists.
What was this “thick overlay” of material? “. . . This was a huge amount of debris, in the realm of hundreds of thousands of cubic meters. It was not long before we realized that we had been dealing all along with the Jerusalem city dump from the end of the Second Temple period”—i.e., from the time of Herod’s temple (pp. 219-220).
So rather than this being the site of Herod’s glorious temple where Jesus Christ visited and taught, the area above and around the Gihon Spring was actually the site of the city dump in Jesus’ day!
Additional archaeological excavation reports show that during the period of Solomon’s temple, this same slope was covered with agricultural terraces of the same kind seen all around Jerusalem today for growing olive trees—again showing the impossibility of the temple being located here.
In addition to these excavations all around and above the Gihon Spring—including at least eight where some would mistakenly relocate the temple—archaeologists have dug through all levels of human occupation in many nearby areas of the City of David, and nothing remotely indicates the Jerusalem temple having been located there, as some imagine. In spite of many decades of digging dating back to 1867—more than 150 years ago—nothing remotely resembling the remains of a temple have been found.
There is simply zero evidence to support the idea that a temple ever existed above or near the Gihon Spring—and the extensive excavations that have been conducted there conclusively prove the temples of the Bible never existed there.
If the clear evidence from the ground weren’t enough, both the Mishnah (a compilation of the Jewish oral law and tradition of temple times, including detailed descriptions of the temple, written down later in the second and third centuries) and Josephus place the size of the temple platform at 500 and 600 cubits, respectively—meaning it was some 900 to 2,000 feet wide, depending on the version of cubit used.
Locating a structure of that size atop the ridge on which the City of David lay is a physical impossibility—it would extend over and block large portions of the valleys on either side (including covering the first-century street that ran through the valley on the western side of the ridge). And if placed directly over the Gihon Spring, it would’ve completely dammed up the Kidron Valley (for which again there is zero evidence!).
And we know from archaeology that these areas were inhabited and used for centuries when, according to this proposed different location for the temple, they would’ve been buried deep beneath the temple’s foundation! Again, the physical evidence shows the impossibility of this idea having any validity.
Why the Temple Mount couldn’t be the Antonia Fortress
Those who theorize that the temple was located over the Gihon Spring in the City of David have to come up with an alternative explanation for the identity of what is now identified as the Temple Mount platform. They label it the Antonia Fortress, a military fortification constructed by Herod the Great and named in honor of his friend and supporter Mark Anthony, one of the generals of Julius Caesar. But there are a number of reasons why this is illogical and inconsistent with known facts.
One of the biggest problems with this idea is that Josephus plainly states that the Antonia Fortress adjoined the northwest corner of the temple platform. In Wars of the Jews, he writes, “Now as to the tower of Antonia, it was situated at the corner of two cloisters [colonnades] of the court of the temple; of that on the west, and that on the north” (Book 5, chap. 5, sec. 8). He later mentions “the north-west cloister [colonnade of the temple], which was joined to the tower of Antonia” (Wars of the Jews, Book 6, chap. 2, sec. 9).
However, the Gihon Spring, over which they would place the temple, is some 900 feet to the south of the Temple Mount platform and in no way joins to it. To resolve this, they have to read into Josephus’ account a 600-foot bridge from one location to the other—a bridge for which there is, once again, zero archaeological or historical evidence.
There are many other problems with this theory. Of the 55 times Josephus refers to the Antonia Fortress, 44 times he calls it “the tower Antonia” (the other times he refers to it simply as “Antonia”). The Temple Mount platform is a 36-acre flat level structure that is in no sense a “tower,” as Josephus repeatedly calls the Antonia Fortress.
Another huge problem with identifying the Temple Mount platform as the Antonia Fortress is the large number of gates, entrances, bridges and massive staircases providing entry to the structure—at least 10 entrances that we know of. A fortress by definition is intended to keep people out. Who builds a fortress with 10 entry points that must be defended? Obviously no one! A fortress is built with a minimum number of entrances, otherwise it defeats its very purpose as a defensive structure.
A further argument concerning these entrances is the fact that some of the southern wall entrances opened into long passageways that originally allowed worshippers to exit onto the top of the platform near the temple.
Years ago, before these passageways were permanently closed to non-Muslims, photographs and architectural drawings showed them to be adorned with beautiful columns and elegant domes decorated with carved stone vines and geometric designs—with no depictions of people or animals, which were forbidden according to Jewish law.
Such elaborate and enormously expensive decorative stonework wouldn’t be found in a military installation, but is very much in keeping with contemporary descriptions of the temple’s elegant beauty in every area. Fragments of similar elegant stonework have been found around the Temple Mount amid the rubble of its destruction.
Yet another problem for this theory is the date of construction of the structure. In a 2011 excavation near the southwest corner of the Temple Mount, coins were found under the foundations of the Western Wall dating to A.D. 17-18. This find shows that the structure’s massive walls were still under construction in the late teens A.D., decades after construction had started in the 18th year of Herod’s reign in 22 B.C. (This discovery also confirms the statement in John 2:20 that at this time, in the late 20s A.D., the temple complex had been under construction for 46 years).
This discovery also proves that the Temple Mount is not the Antonia Fortress, which Herod the Great built and named for his friend and supporter Mark Antony. Herod built and completed the Antonia Fortress in his lifetime, well before his death around 4 B.C. The unearthing of coins dating to A.D. 17-18 under the wall foundations shows the impossibility of this being the Antonia Fortress, which had been completed at least two decades earlier.
The facts are clear
When it comes to the actual location of Jerusalem’s temples, the facts are clear. Theories that the temples were constructed above the Gihon Spring are just that—theories—and quite weak and seriously flawed theories at that. They are theories unsupported by any real evidence.
In fact, the only real evidence that exists directly contradicts these ideas—which is why no reputable archaeologist that we’re aware of supports them. The actual evidence points to what has been accepted for the last 2,000 years—that the temples of Solomon and Herod were built on the Temple Mount exactly where history, tradition and archaeology place them.
Readers interested in learning more may read an interview we conducted with Leen Ritmeyer, perhaps the world’s foremost authority on the architecture and archaeology of the Temple Mount, by searching for “Leen Ritmeyer” at ucg.org/learnmore.
Dr. Ritmeyer has been involved in several major excavations in Jerusalem, and his illustrations have appeared in many Bible-related books, atlases and academic journals. At his website ritmeyer.com he regularly comments on significant archaeological finds from biblical times.
He is the author or coauthor of several highly recommended books on Jerusalem, the temple and the Temple Mount, including Jerusalem—The Temple Mount (2015), Jerusalem in the Year 30 A.D. (2015), The Quest: Revealing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (2012) and Secrets of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (2006).