“Celestial Wonders in Jerusalem Temple” by a Jewish writer, best known as Flavius Josephus. He was born as Yosef ben Mattitayhu into a priestly family in first century CE. This excerpt from his account of Jewish revolts against Rome preserves his memories of the Jerusalem Temple before it was destroyed by Titus in 70 CE. Josephus wrote in Greek for a Roman audience, so his descriptions paint the temple’s beauty in a way that his first-century Gentile audience would appreciate. Curiously he connects various Temple items to planets, zodiac, sun, thunder, and lightning.

(215) When any person entered into the temple… and had in it three things that were very wonderful and famous among all mankind; the candlestick, the table [of shew bread], and the altar of incense. (217) Now, the seven lamps signified the seven planets; for so many there were springing out of the candlestick. Now, the twelve loaves that were upon the table signified the circle of the zodiac and the year; (218) but the altar of incense, by its thirteen kinds of sweet-smelling spices with which the sea replenished it, signified that God is the possessor of all things that are both in the uninhabitable and habitable parts of the earth and that they are all to be dedicated to his use.

(219) But the inmost part of the temple of all was of twenty cubits. This was also separated from the outer part by a veil. In this there was nothing at all. It was inaccessible and inviolable, and not to be seen by any; and was called the Holy of Holies… (222) Now the outward face of the temple in its front wanted nothing that was likely to surprise either men’s minds or their eyes, for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays… On its top it had spikes with sharp points, to prevent any pollution of it by birds sitting upon it. Of its stones, some of them were forty-five cubits in length, five in height, and six in breadth.

(225) Before this temple stood the altar, fifteen cubits high, and equal both in length and breadth; each of which dimensions was fifty cubits. The figure it was built in was a square, and it had corners like horns; and the passage up to it was by an insensible acclivity. It was formed without any iron tool, nor did any such iron tool so much as touch it at any time. (226) There was a wall of partition, about a cubit in height, made of fine stones, and so as to be grateful to the sight; this encompassed the holy house, and the altar, and kept the people that were on the outside off from the priests… (229) but then these priests that were without any blemish upon them, went up to the altar clothed in fine linen. They abstained chiefly from wine, out of this fear, lest otherwise they should transgress some rules of their ministration. (230) The high priest did also go up with them; not always indeed, but on the seventh days and new moons, and if any festivals belonging to our nation, which we celebrate every year, happened. (231) When he officiated, he had on a pair of breeches that reached beneath his privy parts to his thighs, and had on an inner garment of linen, together with a blue garment, round, without seem, with fringework, and reaching to the feet. There were also golden bells that hung upon the fringes, and pomegranates intermixed among them. The bells signified thunder and the pomegranates lightning.

(232) But that girdle that tied the garment to the breast was embroidered with five rows of various colors of gold, and purple, and scarlet, as also of fine linen and blue; with which colors, we told you before, the veils of the temple were embroidered also… There were upon it two golden buttons like small shields, which buttoned the ephod to the garment: in these buttons were enclosed two very large and very excellent sardonyxes, having the names of the tribes of that nation engraved upon them: (234) on the other part were hung twelve stones, three in a row one way, and four in the other; a sardius, a topaz, and an emerald: a carbuncle, a jasper, and a sapphire: an agate, an amethyst, and a ligure; an onyx, a beryl, and a chrysolite; upon every one of which was again engraved one of the forementioned names of the tribes. (235) A miter also of fine linen encompassed his head, which was tied by a blue ribbon, about which there was another golden crown, in which was engraven the sacred name [of God]; it consists of four vowels. (236) However, the high priest did not wear these garments at other times, but a more plain habit; he only did it when he went into the most sacred part of the temple, which he did but once a year; on that day when our custom is for all of us to keep a fast to God. (Flavius Josephus, War 5.215–236)

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14 COMMENTS

  1. interesting that he said seven planets. Copurnicus established three. Then Galileo 9. Now pluto is in dispute. thanks

  2. In the second Temple was there a door or curtain separating the outer court from the Holy Place? I know there was a curtain separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. When Yeshua was on the cross, Scripture states that the Veil was torn revealing the Holy Place. Was the Holy Place revealed or the Most Holy Place? This has confused me. Thanks

  3. I prefer to use AD and BC. CE and BCE attempt to avoid the connection to Jesus. Still, I love what you are doing.

    • Phyllis, personally, I understand your preference. 🙂 We do, however, use this standardized way of rendering time among modern humanities disciplines because it is inclusive of all people, not just Christians. I personally prefer to number the current year 5778, but insisting on using the Jewish time-rendering system I would knowingly disenfranchise those who do not measure time as I do. We seek to attract people to our message, so Latin letters become of little consequence in the grand scheme of things.

  4. Prof Shir, is this altar,(225) Before this temple stood the altar, built in a figure of square, still there?

    • None of the temple structures from the 1st century remain to this day with the exception of the retaining walls that held up the temple plaza.

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