The Second Temple by Lawrence H. Schiffman

As the central Jewish place of sacrificial worship from about  515 B.C.E. until its destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E., the second temple in Jerusalem played a major role in the religious and national life of the Jewish people. According to tradition, the first temple was constructed by King Solomon in the mid-10th century B.C.E. upon the Temple Mount, a hill in Jerusalem believed to be “the place that the Lord will choose” as his dwelling (Deut 12:14-15 and passim). It was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. Half a century later, in 538 B.C.E., Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great, King of Persia and Media), who had vanquished the Babylonian army, decreed that the temple of the Jews in Jerusalem was to be rebuilt and the exiles might return to Judea, which had become the Persian province of Yehud (Ezra 1:2-3, 2Chr 36:23). At the urging of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, Zerubbabel began construction of the second temple in 521 B.C.E. The second temple was completed around 515 B.C.E., was then substantially enlarged by the Hasmonean Dynasty, and was completely refurbished and enlarged by Herod the Great beginning around 20 B.C.E.

How did the second temple function?

A detailed description of the Herodian temple is provided by Josephus, and the Mishnah, which was completed around 200 C.E., provides a temple plan for what appears to be the pre-Herodian structure, probably constructed after the Maccabean Revolt of 168-164 B.C.E.). In addition to the temple building itself, the temple area (Greek, temenos) consisted of an outer courtyard surrounding the complex; the Court of the Women, which both men and women could enter; and a courtyard that enclosed the altar for burnt offerings. Only male Israelites were permitted in the Court of Israel, a small strip extending along the width of the inner courtyard. Beyond the Court of Israel, only priests were permitted to enter. Inside the temple building were the menorah, table for showbread, incense altar and, further in, the holy of holies. Biblical tradition held that this had been the location of the ark of the covenant in the first temple.

According to Second Temple period and rabbinic sources, the Jews believed that the temple was the place from which divine powers emanated to the world. The temple endowed sanctity to the entire city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel beyond it. Rabbinic sources concretized the temple’s centrality by requiring Jews to pray facing Jerusalem—and, if praying in Jerusalem, to pray toward the temple. If praying in the temple itself, one must pray toward the holy of holies.

Sacrificial offerings and prayers were performed twice daily, in the morning and late afternoon, with additional rites on Sabbaths and festival days. Offerings were tendered for forgiveness of sin, purification from contact with the dead and other ritual impurities, and expressions of gratitude to God. These and other offerings involved pure (kosher) animals such as cows, sheep, goats, and birds, grain offerings, or the first fruits of each season. The priests (Hebrew, kohanim) traced their ancestry to the descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron, and the Levites, who traced their ancestry to Jacob’s son Levi, were their assistants. They provided the musical psalmody, assisted with the upkeep of the sanctuary, and served as guards and doorkeepers. They also coordinated supplies and helped with the financial administration.

During the Great Revolt of the Jews against Rome, in 66-73 C.E., various Jewish rebel groups fought in Jerusalem for control of the temple, which symbolized the leadership of the nation. Ironically, this conflict led to the Romans’ razing of the city—and the temple itself­—in 70 C.E. After the destruction, Jews throughout the world who had contributed money each year for sacrifices and temple upkeep had to pay their half-shekel as a tax to the Roman government.

What is the significance of the second temple in Judaism and Christianity?

The second temple and its rituals were a point of contention between various Jewish groups of the time, with numerous texts criticizing the temple for violating the laws of the Torah. The Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ disagreement led to inconsistent control of temple rituals. Sadducean views held sway until the Pharisaic approach took over after the Maccabean Revolt, but the Sadducees regained control later in the Hasmonean period. The Dead Sea sectarians, who believed temple ritual was being conducted illegitimately, abstained completely. Josephus reports that the Essenes processed offerings in their own area of the temple in order to fulfill their special ritual purity requirements. The Temple Scroll from Qumran, like the end of the book of Ezekiel, looked forward to a vastly expanded temple complex. 

Josephus records numerous events around the temple during pilgrimage festivals, often related to the deteriorating relationship between the Jews and their Roman rulers. Huge numbers of Jews from all over the world attended the pilgrimage festivals. According to Josephus, 256,500 lambs were sacrificed to accommodate more than 2.7 million people at the Passover celebration of 66 C.E. While this may be an exaggeration, Josephus also reports that during that Passover, right before the outbreak of the Great Revolt, a massive protest erupted against the actions of the Roman procurator Florus.  

The temple also played a central role in the early history of Christianity. Jesus’ family came to the temple after his birth to celebrate the redemption of the firstborn (Exod 13:13, Num 18:15-16) and so that his mother could offer the sacrifice the Torah requires after childbirth (Lev 12). Most first-century Jews in the land of Israel observed these rites. Later, Jesus taught in the temple during one of his family’s Passover pilgrimages (Luke 2:41-48). Jesus saw the financial arrangements of temple maintenance and the purchase of sacrifices as corrupt, resulting in his famous protest, the overturning of the moneychangers’ tables (Mark 11:15 and parallels). This incident took place around Passover, as Jesus was participating in the festival (John 2:13). Indeed, according to the Gospels, Jesus predicted the temple’s destruction (Mark 13:1-2 and parallels). The temple and its sacrifices figure especially prominently as symbols in the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Many later Jewish and Christian rituals were based on temple rituals. For Jews, daily prayers replaced the sacrifices that could no longer be offered at the temple. Other temple rituals, such as the Passover seder and the carrying of the palm branch (Hebrew, lulav) and citron (Hebrew, etrog) on Sukkot, were transferred to the home or the synagogue, which is regarded as a replacement for the temple. Church worship was also largely patterned on the rituals of the second temple.

Lawrence H. Schiffman, "Second Temple", n.p. [cited 4 Dec 2022]. Online:


Lawrence H. Schiffman

Lawrence H. Schiffman
Professor, New York University

Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Judge Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and director of the Global Institute for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies at New York University. He has written extensively on the Dead Sea Scrolls and Rabbinic Judaism. His most recent books are The Courtyards of the House of the Lord: Studies on the Temple Scroll (Brill, 2008) and Qumran and Jerusalem: Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the History of Judaism (Eerdmans Publishing, 2010).

The second temple in Jerusalem was the central place of worship for the Jewish people from ca. 515 B.C.E. until its destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E.

Did you know…?

  • According to biblical tradition, the temple was the permanent structure modeled on the movable desert tabernacle described in Exodus. The Jews built the tabernacle as they traveled to the promised land after their liberation from slavery in Egypt.
  • Different parts of the Temple were understood as symbols of the universe.  The 12 loaves represented the 12 months, the seven lamps burning on the menorah hinted at the orbits of the seven planets known to the ancients, and the colors blue and green symbolized the sky and earth. These symbols showed that God ruled over the entire universe, not just one part of it.
  • Only the high priest was permitted to enter the holy of holies, and only on one day each year: Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar. So awesome was the presence of God in that place that, according to postbiblical Jewish sources, a special prayer was uttered upon his exit to thank God for his safe return.
  • The Roman emperor sponsored a daily voluntary sacrifice at the temple. This sacrifice was offered by the Jews as a substitute for emperor worship, which was required throughout the Roman Empire. As a rebellion against Rome, some Jewish priests prevented the offering of the Emperor’s sacrifice, touching off the Great Revolt, which ultimately resulted in the second temple’s destruction in 70 C.E.
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls envisioned a temple even grander than the second temple. It had three concentric courtyards with 12 gates, one for each of the tribes of Israel, and was designed to cover the entire ancient city of Jerusalem. This temple plan was never realized.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Residents of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, also used to refer to the population of the larger geographical designation of lower Mesopotamia.

A sequence of rulers from the same family.

Relating to the dynasty established by Simon Maccabeus that ruled Israel independently from 140-37 B.C.E.

the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy or what later became the larger province under imperial control

Relating to the system of ritual slaughter and offering to a deity, often performed on an altar in a temple.

The site in Jerusalem of the First and Second Temples, according to the Bible.

The Persian name for the province including the territory of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem.

Deut 12:14-15

14But only at the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribes—there you shall offer your burnt offerings and there you shall do everything I command y ... View more

Ezra 1:2-3

2“Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusal ... View more

2Chr 36:23

23“Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusa ... View more

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

the people from whom an individual is descended

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

"The revolt of the Jews against the Roman Empire between 66 and 73 C.E.,
the result of which was the destruction of Jerusalem and the second

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Of or relating to the reign of the family of Herod, which governed Palestine from 55 B.C.E. to the end of the first century C.E.

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

The innermost part of the tabernacle/temple, which housed the ark of the covenant and the presence of God; only the high priest was allowed to enter it, and then only on the annual day of purgation (Yom Kippur).

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

Permitted within the Jewish system of dietary rules.

An uprising led by the priest Mattathias against the Hellenizing agenda of Aniotchus IV Epiphanes. It turned into full-scale war with Judah Maccabee taking the reins and paving the way for the Hasmonean dynasty.

The seven-armed candelabrum that stood in the Jerusalem temple; the rekindling of the menorah when the Maccabees rededicated the temple is celebrated during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

A collection of rabbinic interpretations of biblical law. The Mishnah records the judgments of a group of rabbis called tannaim (as distinct from the amoraim, whose interpretations of the Mishnah are recorded in the Talmud). According to tradition, the Mishnah was compiled and edited by a rabbi named Judah the Prince around 200 C.E.

The means of cleansing oneself of any ritual impurity that would prevent participation in religious observance such as sacrifice at the temple.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

a site with religious significance

The historical period during which the second temple was standing in Jerusalem, from its dedication around 516 B.C.E. until its destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E.

A detailed letter, written in formal prose. Most of the New Testament books beyond the gospels are epistles (letters written to early Christians).

An ascetic sect of early Judaism whose adherents probably included the inhabitants of Qumran (the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

a journey, usually with religious significance

a Roman administrative officer

An archaeological site on the western shore of the Dead Sea, in modern Israel, where a small group of Jews lived in the last centuries B.C.E. The site was destroyed by the Romans around 70 C.E. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near the site and are believed by most scholars to have belonged to the people living at Qumran.

Literally "Booths," one of the biblical pilgrimage festivals, celebrated in the fall.

Exod 13:13

13But every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Every firstborn male among your children you shall ... View more

Num 18:15-16

15The first issue of the womb of all creatures, human and animal, which is offered to the Lord, shall be yours; but the firstborn of human beings you shall rede ... View more

Lev 12

Purification of Women after Childbirth
1The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:2Speak to the people of Israel, saying:
If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she ... View more

Luke 2:41-48

The Boy Jesus in the Temple
41Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.42And when he was twelve years old, they went up as ... View more

Mark 11:15

Jesus Cleanses the Temple
15Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in th ... View more

John 2:13

Jesus Cleanses the Temple
13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

Mark 13:1-2

The Destruction of the Temple Foretold
1As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildin ... View more

Reconciliation between God and a person, often brought about by sacrifice or reparation.

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

Of or related to history after the writing of the canonical Bible; can also mean transcending a culture that focuses on the Bible.

The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.

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