Ghosts of the Temple
As Jesus was walking out of the temple in Jerusalem, Mark 13 tells us, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!" Indeed, the first-century Jewish temple, extensively renovated by Herod, dazzled nearly everyone who saw it. Jewish historian Josephus reported that it was "covered on all sides with massive plates of gold," and when the sun struck it, "it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from solar rays."
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 ampitheater 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.
* Biblical Archaeology Review can be found online.
* For information on martyrdoms in the Colosseum, see CH issue 27: Persecution in the Early Church, available for purchase in the Christian History Store.
Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The online issue archive for Christian History goes as far back as Issue 51 (Heresy in the Early Church). Prior issues are available for purchase in the Christian History Store.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.