Descriptions of the Jerusalem Temple in Josephus and the Temple Scroll

Lawrence H. Schiffman

Studies on the descriptions of the Jerusalem Temple found in the works of Josephus have generally concerned the correspondence between those descriptions and the Second Temple as it stood in the last days before its destruction. Accordingly, such studies have usually attempted to establish a correspondence between Josephus' accounts and the Temple plan found in tractate Middot of the Mishnah. It has generally been assumed that some form of harmonization of the data in these two sources would yield a reasonable reconstruction of the architectural plan and appearance of what is generally termed the Herodian Temple-- the Temple as rebuilt by King Herod (38-4 B.C.E.).

In his detailed introduction to the Temple Scroll, Yigael Yadin assumed that in some way the details of the Temple plan included in the completed Temple Scroll by the author/redactor paralleled the Temple structure as it existed in his day--sometime in th e early Hasmonean period. While certainly this must have been the case regarding certain elements common to all the Jewish Temple plans, the Temple plan of this scroll was a utopian, reformist document which sought to change radically the religious status quo of the author's time. It is possible that the Temple plan included in the scroll was composed even before the Maccabean Revolt.

Similarly, scholars have argued that Josephus was describing Solomon's Temple based on his first-hand knowledge of Herod's Temple. Yadin adds that Josephus may even have been influenced by the Temple Scroll itself and the Essenes with whom he spent some time in his youth.[1]

This constellation of interrelated issues has led us to undertake a detailed comparison of the Temple plans of Josephus and of the Temple Scroll. This discussion will read Josephus independent of mishnaic material, and will, in turn, compare Josephus' de scriptions to those found in the Temple Scroll.

A few words should be said about the nature of the material in Josephus which will be studied. Josephus presents three descriptions of the Jerusalem Temple. In Antiquities 8, he describes the Temple as it was built by Solomon. Scholars have suggested t hat Josephus was influenced in this description by the nature of the Temple as it stood in his own day. In narrating the life of King Herod in Antiquities 15, Josephus describes the Temple which Herod built. Finally, in War 5 Josephus describes the Temp le within the context of the description of Jerusalem on the eve of the Roman conquest. In addition, various minor comments regarding the Temple structure which appear scattered throughout the writings of Josephus will be dealt with in notes.

The Temple plan found in the Temple Scroll is set out in one of the sources of the Temple Scroll. Probably dating to the early Hasmonean period or to earlier in the Hellenistic period, this plan is spelled out in great detail with exacting dimensions. I t was created based on some form of exegesis of the Tabernacle texts in the Pentateuch as well as the descriptions of the Temple in Exodus, Kings and Chronicles with some literary dependence on the Temple plan of Ezekiel as well. In this context, we should note that Josephus' description of the Solomonic Temple was no doubt to a great extent the product of biblical interpretation on his part.

The Temple Precincts

a. Josephus

In Antiquities 8, 95-98 Josephus described the area of the Temple precincts built by Solomon. Immediately around the Temple there was a parapet of only three cubits. Surrounding the Temple and this parapet, Josephus says that there was another courtyard which was square. The wall of this courtyard had four gates, each of which was closed with two golden doors. The walls were also decorated with beautiful porticoes which must have been constructed, according to this plan, on the inside of the walls. A third area, which Josephus describes as including the entire temenos, seems to have included the entire raised area upon which the Temple was said to have been built.

Extremely important is the fact that, as described by Josephus, the massive earthworks which created what we know as the Temple Mount, seem to be ascribed to Solomon who had to fill up large valleys with earth and level the area to the level of the top of the mountain. This entire Temple precinct, in this description, was surrounded again with double porticoes which were beautifully roofed, and were entered through silver doors.

Reading this description might give the impression that we are dealing with a three courtyard Temple, but this is not the case. The inner area is occupied by the Temple building itself and the area into which only priests were permitted to enter. Further r out, within the next precincts there were permitted Israelites, apparently male, who were ritually pure. The final area, was that into which women and those of a lower purity status might enter. If one looks at the actual plan, then, of Solomon's Temple as defined by Josephus, an inner courtyard would surround the area of the Temple itself and that courtyard would itself be surrounded by the boundaries of the Temple precincts. Only two sets of walls, porticoes and doors would then surround the Temple, not three as in the Temple Scroll. It does appear, however, that the courtyards of Solomon's Temple were supposed to have been concentric in the plan outlined here.

Then in Antiquities 15, 396-402, in describing the Herodian building project, Josephus again describes the basic setup of the Temple courtyards. In this passage, he again emphasizes the contribution of Solomon to expanding the upper surface of the mountain and creating the basic platform upon which the Temple precincts stand. Herod, is credited with replacing the ancient foundations of the Temple with new ones (391-2). In this passage, we hear that surrounding the Temple itself was a set of porticoes which ringed the entire Temple enclosure--the Temple Mount. Another set of porticoes was located between the outer wall and a Temple structure. Here again, the Temple structure is surrounded by two apparently concentric courtyards, just as in the account of the Solomonic Temple. The measurements given by Josephus, namely that each side of the Temple enclosure was the length of a stade, which is between 585 and 660 feet, seems to indicate a dimension which agrees neither with that of the Mishnah nor with that of the present-day Temple Mount enclosure which may have been expanded somewhat during the Islamic period.

In his description in War 5, Josephus again repeats the contribution of Solomon to the expansion of the Temple Mount. The Temple precincts were surrounded at the very outside by a double row of porticoes. Between this outer boundary and that of the "second court" there was a small balustrade which contained the well-known signs warning gentiles not to enter further. Further in was the wall of the court which was higher than the outer area. This area is also described as quadrangular. Still higher was the wall itself. This wall surrounded a complex which included the court of the women, and further to the West the courts of the Israelites and priests. The Temple itself was at its western end. Four gates were installed on each of the North and South sides of this complex. An entry gate led into the women's court and then again opposite, to the West, from the women's court into the inner area surrounding the Temple. The wall surrounding this area was likewise outfitted with porticoes, but these were single. Detailed descriptions of the gates are given by Josephus.

In this description, it is clear that the outer wall, that surrounding the entire Temple precincts, totally surrounded that of the Temple area. Further, within the Temple complex itself, one proceeded from an outer court, the court of women, to an inner Temple court, without any concentric arrangement. Indeed, from an architectural point of view, these two courts constitute one structure subdivided by a wall.

b. The Temple Scroll

The beginning of the Temple Scroll's command regarding the Inner Court is not preserved. However, it is possible to reconstruct the dimensions and plan of this court.

The text specifies an Inner Court the inside measurements of which, when the length of the sections between the gates (120 x 2) and the gates themselves (40) are taken together, is 280 cubits square. With the thickness of the walls (2 x 7), the total out side dimension of the Inner Court is 294 cubits square.[2]

The gates of the Inner Court are located one on each of the four sides. These gates, as can be determined by comparison with the apportionment of chambers on the outside wall of the Outer Court, represented the four groups of the tribe of Levi, the Aaronide priests on the east, and the Levites of Kohath on the south, Gershon on the west and Merari on the north. This arrangement corresponds exactly to the pattern of the desert camp as described in Num. 3:14-39.

After describing the furnishings of the Inner Court, the scroll turns to the discussion of the Middle Court (11QT 38:12-15). The Middle Court is to be concentric (if this can be said of a square) with the Inner Court, surrounding it on all four sides, and located 100 cubits further out. Here the measurements are outside measurements. Included in the 480 cubits is the width of the walls (4 cubits). 99 cubits were to be between each of the three gates on each side (4 x 99=396). The gates were 28 cubits wide (x 3=84). This yields a total length of 480 (396+84) cubits measured from the outside.[3]

The names and locations of the twelve gates of the Middle Court (described in 11QT 39:11-13[4]) were apportioned to each of the twelve sons of Jacob, a pattern repeated in the gates of the Outer Court as well.[5]

The Outer Court is again located at a distance from the Middle, arranged also concentrically. Again the measurements given in the scroll are outside measurements, including the width of the walls. The sides are each "about 1600" cubits long. The actual dimension is 1590 cubits, or, including the outward extension of the gates from the outer wall, 1604 cubits. 11QT 40:11-13 specifies that there (shall be) three gates in [it] in the east, three in the south, three in the west, and three in the north. Each section of the wall is 360 cubits and each gate is 50. This yields a total of 4 sections of wall and three gates equaling 1590 cubits. cubits.

The scroll spells out the exact location of the respective gates for each tribe (11QT 40:13-41:11).[6] This account of the distribution of the gates of the Outer Court corresponds exactly with that of the Middle Court. Both descriptions list the sons of Jacob and proceed from the northeastern corner southwards.[7]

Especially significant is the requirement that a series of chambers be constructed in the inner wall of the Outer Court, facing inward (11QT41:17-42:6)[8]: Three distinct structures are envisaged he re. As one approached the outer wall, one first entered the stoas, then proceeded further into the "rooms," and then entered the inner "chambers."[9] The rooms and chambers each measure ten cubits wide, 20 long and 14 high. For the chambers, we learn of 3 cubits wide entrances. In the case of the stoas, the width is 10 cubits and the height 14, but there are no room divisions. Following these measurements, there is space for 18 chambers and their rooms on each side.[10] On top of the bottom story were two more stories of these chambers, reached by stairways, and the upper level was then set aside for sukkot (booths) which were to be 8 cubits high (11QT 42:7-12). The total height of these structures was to be 50 cubits.

In 11QT 44:3-45:2 we learn of the relationship of the chambers to the various gates.[11] Here we see the total of 16 sets of chambers and rooms, of three stories, with the sukkot on top, apportioned to the eleven sons of Jacob other than Levi, with five sections going two to Aaron and one each to the Levitical clans. The apportionment of a double portion to Aaron raises the possibility that in a ritual sense Aaron holds the birthright among the sons of Jacob.

The pattern of distribution of chambers corresponds to the distribution of the gates. The twelve sons each receive the chambers closest to their gates into the Outer and Middle Courts, and the four Levitical clans receive chambers between those assigned to their brothers, opposite their gates to the Inner Court.

We should pause to sum up our comparison of the structure of the Temple precincts the temenos. Josephus' accounts of both the Solomonic and Herodian Temple plans are in agreement that two courtyards existed. The entire temenos was surrounded by one wall and porticoes, and a second enclosure surrounded the Temple building. In the Temple Scroll, it was expected that three enclosures with similar, even more extensive porticoes, would surround the Temple building itself. While Herod's structure would have fit on the Temple Mount as it now exists, the structure outlined in the Temple Scroll would have occupied virtually the entire area of the city assuming the massive earthworks needed could have been constructed. Indeed, Josephus' plan for the Herodian Temple would have approximately matched the size of the Temple Scroll's middle court (which was the same size as the plan of M. Middot).

The Herodian Temple was patterned according to Josephus on that of Solomon. Yet detailed study of the Temple plan of the scroll indicates that it was a replica of the desert camp of Israel. We can conclude, then, that as regards the general layout of th e temenos and the internal courts, the accounts of Josephus and the plan of the Temple Scroll have very little resemblance. When we take into account that Josephus' inner court was rectangular, and that the Temple Scroll's was based on concentric squares , it is impossible to claim any real relationship.

Put simply, the attempt of the architect of the Temple Scroll to replicate the desert camp with the Tabernacle in its midst, as well as the Temple of Solomon, created a plan in marked contrast to that of Josephus whose account of Solomon's Temple and description of the Herodian Temple depend primarily on the Solomonic structure as described in the Bible, a structure which provided the basic scheme for Herod's royal architects as well.

2. The Temple Building

According to the description of the Solomonic Temple in 1 Kings 6:5-6, 8 the Temple building itself and the holy of holies were surrounded by stepped or storied structures. These chambers were entered through the outside, and, from this point of view, we re not part of the actual Temple.

These structures are mentioned in the description of the Solomonic Temple. 1 Kings 6:5-6, 8 describes the built around the outside wall of the Temple. This structure consisted of three rows of chambers on each side. The lowest was five cubits wide, th e next six, and the top seven.[12] The purpose of the recesses thus created, as the building was wider on top than down below, was to make impossible climbing up the side walls.[13] There were entry ways leading from one chamber to the next and also to the chamber above.

A description of the storied structures is found in Josephus' description of the Solomonic Temple (Ant. VIII, 65-66]. This description is based on his exegesis of the relevant biblical passages, which means that like the author of the Temple Scroll, he searched for sources in the descriptions of the Tabernacle in Exodus, the Temple of Kings and that of Ezekiel. Furthermore, he seems to have mixed in elements from the Temple of his own day, some of which are supported by tannaitic sources as well.

According to him, the Solomonic Temple was surrounded by thirty small chambers which had entrances one to another. While this specific arrangement is not discussed in the biblical account, it clearly represents some interpretation of 1 Kings 6:8.[14] He adds that each was five cubits wide and twenty cubits high, the height being a detail not mentioned in the Bible. Indeed, it is probable that he imagined an extremely high set of chambers because of his view that the Temple was 120 cubits high. He describes three sets, one on top of another, and says that they are "equal in proportion and number," which seems to deny the increasing width of the consecutive layers of chambers mentioned in the Bib le. He also notes that the height was equal to that of the lower story, that is, the main Temple building, and did not surround the upper story. These structures then would have been 60 cubits high.[15]

Josephus, in describing the Herodian Temple of his own day (War V, 220-221) mentions the chambers surrounding the Temple. They had three stories and doors connecting them. He also indicates that these chambers did not surround the upper story of the Temple, which in his view was 40 cubits high. Again, in this account as well, he does not seem to allude to the outward slant of the chambers.

These same structures appear in the Temple plan of the Temple Scroll. Effectively, these structures were part of the same building as housed the Temple. However, since they were entered from the outside they were not considered to be part of the actual Temple.[16]

The scroll, like Ezekiel, in this matter followed the plan of the Solomonic Temple as known from Kings. The term restored in the scroll, would have designated this storied structure. The term is used to designate the pavement or terrace upon which each story is constructed. This pavement would have had to be strong in order to support the next chamber which protruded further out than the one below.[17]

The scroll does appear to differ with the biblical sources, followed by Josephus, in one significant respect. It expects that there will be six levels of chambers, not three. It is difficult to understand this feature in light of the height of 60 cubits (4:10) which the scroll provides, unless the author, rejecting the view of Chronicles (see below), thought that Solomon's Temple had only been 30 cubits high. In that case, our author would be doubling the number of levels of chambers to accord with the doubling of the height of the Temple.[18]

Concerning the outside chambers, we can conclude that Josephus' descriptions are at variance with those of the Temple Scroll as regards the number of such chambers and the height of this outer structure surrounding the Temple. Further, the descriptions in Josephus (unlike that of M. Middot, by the way) make no mention of the increasing protrusion of the chambers from the building, designed to prevent climbing up the side. Other than dependence on the descriptions in the Bible, there is nothing common to Josephus and the Temple Scroll.

The main structure, of course, was the Temple itself. For Solomon's Temple, the complete dimensions were given in 1 Kings 6:2. There we are told that the Temple of Solomon was 60 cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and thirty cubits high. The same length and width are specified in 2 Chron. 3:3. It is important to note that the length of 60 cubits given in Kings and Chronicles includes the sanctuary and the holy of holies. The height given in Kings (no height appears in the Chronicles passage) is likewise only for the section of the building--the inner forty cubits--which is not included in the portico. The portico was 20 cubits wide, and 10 cubits deep, as specified in 1 Kings 6:3.[19]

The plan of Ezekiel's Temple was similar in regards to the overall dimensions. It called for a sanctuary 40 cubits long (41:2), not counting the portico, which makes this Temple equivalent in depth to that of Solomon. The depth of the portico, like that of Solomon, was to be twenty cubits (41:2). These same figures--60 cubits high, 20 cubits wide and 60 cubits long--are given by Josephus for the Solomonic Temple (Ant. VIII, 65-71), simply reflecting the dimensions found in MT. In describing the Herodian Temple, he gives the very same dimensions, a depth of 60 and a width of 20 cubits, not counting the greater width of the portico (War V, 215).[20]

The overall dimensions of the Temple building are given in the Temple Scroll in an extremely fragmentary passage (4:6-8). Virtually the entire text is reconstructed. Here the scroll must have given its length as sixty cubits, which was the length of the Solomonic sanctuary. The width expected here was probably twenty cubits and the height of the sanctuary was probably specified as thirty cubits which applied to the sanctuary but not to the portico () which was larger, as we will see below. Yet we must caution that this restoration cannot be considered definite in light of the reading of the Septuagint which has "twenty-five" for the height.[21] Codex Alexandrinus, however, gives "thirty" as in MT. Ezra 6:3 speaks of a Temple sixty cubits high and 60 wide, but our scroll took this measurement as the height of the portico in front of the sanctuary.

1 Kings 6:3 spelled out the dimensions of the portico. It was to have a width of 20 cubits beyond that of the Temple and a width of ten cubits. The very same figures appear in Josephus' description of the Solomonic Temple (Ant. VIII, 65). The twenty cubits were effectively the width beyond the Temple and the ten the depth. Its height of 120 cubits according to Josephus will be taken up below. Yet in describing the Herodian Temple, Josephus tells us (War V, 207) that the facade was 100 cubits high and 100 wide. He explains that the building behind was narrower by 40 cubits (being 60 cubits wide), since the portico extended to the right and left of the sanctuary itself 20 cubits on each side. These figures, however, are contradicted as we will see. It is possible that 100 cubits was the pre-Herodian height to which Herod added 20 cubits.

In Ant. VIII, 64, Josephus speaks of the Solomonic sanctuary as having a height of 60 cubits. Then he claims that on top of it was another 60 cubit story reaching a facade of 120 cubits.[22] Only then, in paragraph 65, does he go on to discuss the portico which was in front of it, reaching to a height of 120 cubits. That Josephus thought that Solomon's Temple was 120 cubits high is clear from the explanation he (or his source, Nicolaus of Damascus) puts into Herod's mouth as an explanation for his decision to build the Temple (Ant. XV, 385). Herod is made to say that whereas Solomon's Temple was 120 cubits high, the Temple built by the returning exiles was limited by the Persian authorities to 60 cubits. This notion must be derived from Ezra 6:3 which, as we already noted, speaks of a Temple of 60 cubits in height.

The command in the Temple Scroll (4:8-12) to build the portico specifies the size of the portico as 20 cubits long and 10 cubits wide. The "length" of twenty cubits is actually the width, and the "width" actually refers here to the depth of the portico. Put simply, one who entered the Temple and proceeded inwards would traverse a distance of ten cubits as he crossed the portico.

The scroll specifically informs us that the height of the portico structure was to be 60 cubits.[23] Earlier, the text mentioned the height of the sanctuary and the holy of holies which was to be 30 cubits. There is no height given in Kings for the Solomonic portico, however 2 Chron. 3:4 gives the probably exaggerated figure of 120 cubits.[24]

On the other hand, Herod's architects understood the Ezra passage to indicate the height of the sanctuary (their interpretation of ) but took the Chronicles passage to refer to the height of the portico. Hence, the total height of the building comes to 1 20 cubits.

The Temple Scroll must have understood the height of 60 cubits given in Ezra as referring to the entire structure, understanding in that wider sense--not just as referring to the sanctuary. The author of the plan in the Temple Scroll assumed that this was a sufficient height. He shares with the Herodian Temple the notion that the Temple building should be half the height of the portico and therefore emerges with a full height of 30 cubits. On the other hand, it is possible that he expects that the up per chamber of the sanctuary will add another 30 cubits to the height, leading to a height of 60 cubits for the entire Temple. Further, it is possible that he expects the upper chamber to be surrounded by side rooms, for which reason he expected six levels of storied structures whereas the other traditions speak of only three.

The final aspect to be discussed here is the holy of holies. This section of the Tabernacle was 10 cubits square. The 20 cubits of the Temple Scroll is the dimension given for the holy of holies in the Solomonic Temple plan in 1 Kings 6:20[25] and 2 Chron. 3:8. This same dimension is given by Josephus for the Solomonic Temple (Ant. VIII, 71). The book of Ezekiel expected a holy of holies of the same size in its Temple as well (41:4). These same dimensions are given in Josephus' description of the Herodian Temple (War V, 219). In view of the unanimity of the measurement of the holy of holies, the identification of the reference to twenty cubits in the Temple Scroll in a fragmentary passage must be accepted as definite.

When we review the dimensions of the Temple building itself, we see that Josephus and the Temple Scroll shared the dimensions for the sanctuary required by the biblical description of the Solomonic Temple. Josephus gives us contradictory numbers of the dimensions of the facade of the portico of Herod's Temple. In any case, he described a much higher and grandiose facade than that which the Temple Scroll required based on its particular biblical exegesis. Whereas Josephus spoke of 120 cubits as the height of the portico, the height in the Temple Scroll was only 60. Regarding the holy of holies, Josephus and the Temple Scroll all agree to a square structure of 20 cubits.


The descriptions of the Jerusalem Temple presented by Josephus and the Temple Scroll share very little beyond basic details which they derived from the biblical material pertaining to the Solomonic Temple. The structure of courtyards, the surrounding chambers, and the facades described are quite different. Several specific conclusions emerge:

There is absolutely no chance that Josephus used the Temple Scroll or the architectural plan included in it as a source.

The ideals of the architect of that plan for a gargantuan, redesigned Temple were never realized, even when Herod's architects rebuilt the Temple.

The Herodian architects made no use at all of the Temple Scroll.

Josephus' plan for the Solomonic Temple resulted from biblical interpretation with only minimal influence from the existing Temple of his day.

The description of the Herodian Temple by Josephus derived from direct information/observation of its architecture. Unlike the description of the Temple Scroll, Josephus' accounts represented reality, not utopia. Those of the Temple Scroll represented utopia, not reality.