I have spent much of the last month attending conferences. Fun, but tiring. But fun.
Let me offer a few thoughts on one of them, “Marking the Sacred: The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem,” which took place at Providence College on June 5-7, 2017. The conference involved about thirty scholars who discussed the archaeology and significance of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives. Given the intensely political nature of this topic, it was refreshing to be able to engage in a sustained civil, critical, and productive discussion that crossed ideological, political, and religious fault-lines. Tremendous credit goes to the organizer, Professor Joan Branham, for creating such an environment.
I was unable to attend the last day, but through the first two there were a few leitmotifs that struck me:
1. There was a temple on the Temple Mount. Now, this might be rather obvious but both modern political discourse and a recent kerfuffle over an inaccurate article in the New York Times a couple of years ago (for my own response to this, see here) led to review of the various kinds of evidence that demonstrate that a Jewish temple existed on this site. For example, Jodi Magness discussed the literary evidence; Shmuel Gibson the archaeological evidence that can be gleaned from archival sources; and Yuval Branch some of the extant archaeological finds. It was fascinating to see a discussion of a photograph of a piece of mosaic floor found on the Temple Mount and published long ago (picture above). While this mosaic floor almost certainly was not from the Jewish temple, there was uncertainty about whether it could be part of an ancient church built on the site or was put in later by the Umayyads. It was also heartening for me to hear Sari Nusseibeh explicitly condemn the attempts to deny that there was a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount.
2. It is a bit misleading to speak of a single “Second Temple.” There was an original “second” temple that according to literary sources was renovated. That was followed by what must have been another renovation in the Hellenistic period. The Hasmoneans then either renovated or reconstructed the temple after they took control in the mid-second century BCE; Lawrence Schiffman argued that the plan of that temple is preserved in Mishnah Middot. And then, of course, Herod extensively reconstructed the temple. There was more than one “Second Temple.”
3. The Temple Mount has always been a political football. After its destruction, Romans and Christians had a stake in keeping it desolate: the desolation was a living testament to the supercession of Judaism. This is highlighted by the Christian building program in Jerusalem in the fourth century and beyond. Thus, as discussed especially by Robert Ousterhout, Jon Seligman, and Tracy Thorpe, the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre intentionally was meant to create a contrast with the devastated Temple Mount. Christian supercessionism was deliberately etched into the urban landscape. This very downgrading of the Temple Mount created a strange and newly competitive dynamic when Muslims gained control of and began to build on the site. Michael Press has an informative post on this issue.
4. Given the impossibility (and undesirability) of actually digging in the Temple Mount, there are emerging new approaches to the evidence that is available. Ancient lumber, for example, can be analyzed for age and provenance. Most interesting to me was the approach to ancient garbage, which can provide some insight (as discussed by Helena Roth) into pilgrimage at the site.
A fuller record of the papers can be found at twitter using the handle: #templemountharam. A volume of the papers is forthcoming.