Jesus, however, was unimpresssed. "Do you see all these great buildings?" he answered his disciple. "Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down."
A few years later, Jesus's prediction came true. Jesus might not have been too enthralled with Herod's redecorating efforts, but Roman Emperor Vaspasian found them irresistible. The pet projects of Vespasian's predecessor, Nero, had emptied the imperial treasury, and Vespasian needed manubiae (booty) in a big way. The handiest target for Vespasian and his son Titus was the temple, which was also the center of gravity for the revolt-prone Jewish people. Destroying the temple would bring a rapid influx of wealth and break the back of the religious resistance—a winning combination. Vespasian began closing in on Jerusalem in the late sixties, and Titus finished the job in A.D. 70.
A relief on an arch in Rome documents some of the manubiae hauled from the temple, showing soldiers carrying a large menorah (probably solid gold) and other ritual items. The extent of the take, including gold and silver artifacts, fine woods and cloths, cash reserves (the temple served as a bank for widows and orphans), and Jewish prisoners (who could be sold as slaves or ransomed to kinsmen), is still debated, but it certainly amounted to millions and millions of contemporary dollars. Even more mysterious than the amount of loot, though, is what the Romans did with it.
And then, the obligatory: Until now. Using a technique that reminds me of the puzzlers in the Sunday newspaper, Professor Geza Alfoldy of the University of Heidelberg has discovered a "ghost inscription" in the Roman Colosseum linking that massive structure to the fallen temple. The reconstructed dedication reads, "The Emperor Titus Caesar Vespasian Augustus ordered the new amphitheater to be made from the (proceeds of the sale of the) booty."
Alfoldy's technique, illustrated in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, requires visual aids to explain fully, but in brief, he used tiny holes peeping through a later, carved inscription to map out where bronze letters from the original inscription had been attached. In other words, he connected the dots. Of course, many dots were missing, and the surviving dots could be construed in multiple ways, so Alfoldy also considered things like the typical wording of Roman dedications and the likely function of the pocked stone. Alfoldy acknowledges the imprecision of his craft, but other ghost inscription gurus solidly support his conclusion.
If true, this temple-Colosseum connection proves yet again how odious the Romans were to first-century Jews and Christians. Not only did the empire destroy a structure sacred to both of those faiths, but it used the spoils to build an arena where Christians and other undesirables were slaughtered for sport.
The Roman Colosseum has recently been brought back into service as a venue for classic plays. Last summer it hosted a production of Sophocles's tragedy Oedipus Rex. Fortunately, the Colosseum's truly tragic days are long gone, but Jews and Christians still have ample reason to resent this symbol of Roman imperialism and decadence.
Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
Biblical Archaeology Review is online, but its article on the Colosseum is not.
The Daily Telegraph of London also has an article on the findings.
For information on martyrdoms in the Colosseum, see Christian History issue 27: "Persecution in the Early Church," available in the ChristianityToday.com Store.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous Christian History Corners include:
Endangered History | The National Trust's list of imperiled places gives unnoticed gems a chance to shine. (June 29, 2001)
The Communion Test | How a "Humble Inquiry" into the nature of the church cost Jonathan Edwards his job. (June 22, 2001)
Visiting the Other Side | The Israelites spent time on both sides of the Jordan. Now tourists can, too. (June 8, 2001)
Beyond Pearl Harbor | How God caught up with the man who led Japan's surprise attack. (June 1, 2001)
Rivers of Life | In Africa, survival depends on open waterways. Missionary explorer David Livingstone believed that salvation did, too. (May 25, 2001)
Intro to the Inklings | C.S. Lewis's intellect was stimulated at one of the most fascinating extracurricular clubs ever. (May 18, 2001)
How Not to Read Dante | You probably missed the point of The Divine Comedy in high school. (May 11, 2001)
If My People Will Pray | The U.S. National Day of Prayer Turns 50, but its origins are much older. (May 4, 2001)
Mutiny and Redemption | The rarely told story of new life after the destruction of the H.M.S. Bounty. (Apr. 27, 2001)
Book Notes | New and noteworthy releases on church history that deserve recognition. (Apr. 20, 2001)
A Primer on Paul | The History Channel uses Holy Saturday not to discuss Jesus, but the apostle who spread his message. (Apr. 12, 2001)
Image Is Everything | The Taliban's destruction of Buddhist statues is only the latest controversy over the Second Commandment. (Apr. 6, 2001)