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Scholars Debunk ‘Times’ Article on Temple Mount

There is no elusive historical certainty; there’s only politics

Ari Lamm
October 12, 2015

History is too vast, and time too short, to waste on fool-proofing for nonsense, which is why you won’t find serious historians spending their time de-bunking late-night pseudo-documentaries about the alien landing in Nevada that set off the Cold War or the super-secret advanced society that ruled the lost continent of Atlantis. But what happens when a marginal, crackpot theory makes its way into a major media outlet, where it has been deployed, consciously or not, for insidious political purposes?

Within Jerusalem’s holiest site, known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims, lies an explosive historical question that cuts to the essence of competing claims to what may be the world’s most contested piece of real estate.

The question, which many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered, is whether the 37-acre site, home to Islam’s sacred Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa Mosque, was also the precise location of two ancient Jewish temples, one built on the remains of the other, and both long since gone.

The second paragraph frames the issue of the temples’ location as a matter of legitimate difference—in fact, a bone of serious contention among experts. So let it be clear: There is absolutely no controversy whatsoever among historians in the field, anywhere in the world, about the existence of two successive temples dedicated to the God of Israel that stood on what is variously known as the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif.

This bears repeating: Two temples dedicated to the God of Israel certainly stood on the Temple Mount. All historians believe this. There is scholarly dispute about the existence of Jewish Temples on the Temple Mount in much the same way as there is a dispute about whether or not the earth is flat, which is to say, this is not a debate among historians, but between scholars and propagandists.

But what, you may ask, of the serious scholars named in the Times article—many of whom, like Jodi Magness, Jane Cahill, Matthew Adams, and Rivka Gonen, have literally sifted through the dirt of ancient Israel in pursuit of their expertise—who lent support to the articles’ characterization?

It appears that that they did no such thing. As Jodi Magness, renowned archaeologist and professor of Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explained to me via email:

Literary/historical sources leave little doubt that there were two successive ancient temples in Jerusalem dedicated to the God of Israel, the first destroyed in 586 B.C.E. and the second destroyed in 70 C.E. These same sources, as well as archaeological remains (e.g., the Temple Mount platform as it exists today, which is a product of Herod’s reconstruction), indicate that these temples stood somewhere on the Temple Mount. The only real question, then, is where exactly the temple(s) stood on the Temple Mount.

Magness added:

I do not know of any legitimate or credible scholars who doubt the existence of the two temples or who deny that they stood somewhere on the Temple Mount.

Magness’s statements are not surprising in the least, since they merely echo her already-published positions on the matter. In her textbook, The Archaeology of the Holy Land, Magness notes, matter-of-factly on page 153, that the temple “stood in the center of the Temple Mount, on a natural outcrop of bedrock that is enshrined today in the Dome of the Rock.”

Similarly conscripted into the Times’ historically agnostic narrative is Jane Cahill, former senior staff archaeologist for the City of David excavations. Cahill’s voice is deployed in the article to make the case that the absence of evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” makes a determination about the temples’ location impossible.

But in real life, not only is Cahill of the opinion that the temple most certainly stood on the Temple Mount, but—in an ironic twist—she has actually written an entire paper on First Temple-era Jerusalem, titled “Jerusalem at the Time of the United Monarchy,” in which she forcefully argues, on the basis of “roughly 150 years of archaeological excavation in Jerusalem,” that “the absence of evidence is largely meaningless.” Moreover, as Cahill confirmed to me via email, the question that she was asked, and to which she replied was not, “Did the First or Second Temple stand on the Temple Mount?” but rather, “Did the First or Second Temple stand where the Dome of the Rock stands today?”

This may allow us to reconstruct the process that led to a host of scholars articulating an opinion that they do not hold. I can imagine something like the following: The interviewer asked these historians a question along the lines of, “Do we know for certain where the temple stood?” They must have taken this, quite reasonably, to mean, “Do we know where, exactly, on the Temple Mount the temple stood?” That is, did it stand exactly where the Dome of the Rock stands right now, or did it perhaps stand somewhere just nearby on the mount? Most scholars think the likeliest spot is the site occupied by the Dome of the Rock, but it would be fair—in the context of a longer conversation—to answer in this fashion. This is especially true for scholars who well know that this is a subject with politically sensitive consequences. Of course, citing a scholarly appraisal of this sort out of context is itself an act of misrepresentation. But it would be tolerable.

The interviewer, however, seems to have later recast the question as “Do we know for certain whether the temple stood anywhere on the Temple Mount, at all?” The answer to this question is “Of course,” but the article makes it seem as if the scholars actually answered this (completely different) question in the negative.

This is a fairly substantial mistake, with rather obvious implications. And it is difficult for me to conceive of a scenario in which a reporter could speak to experts of this caliber and come away with even the slightest impression that anyone credible doubts that the temples stood somewhere on the Temple Mount. My suspicion is that bias in favor of casting every dispute in the region as a case of he-said-she-said did play a role in encouraging this interpretation—one which happens to promote, on pseudo-scientific grounds, the total erasure of Jewish identity from this space. That said, history and archaeology can be complex, so I hold out hope that this was a mistake.

Indeed, the Times later corrected the article. It now reads:

The question, which many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered, is where on the 37-acre site, home to Islam’s sacred Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa Mosque, was the precise location of two ancient Jewish temples, one built on the remains of the other, and both long since gone.

Note that now the question is not “whether” the temples ever stood on the Temple Mount, but “where” on the Temple Mount they stood. This is an important correction, but it is completely undermined by the following two paragraphs, which still remain untouched:

Many Palestinians, suspicious of Israel’s intentions for [the Temple Mount], have increasingly expressed doubt that the temples ever existed—at least in that location. Many Israelis regard such a challenge as false and inflammatory denialism.

“This is a very politically loaded subject,” said Matthew J. Adams, Dorot director of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. “It’s also an academically complex question.”

Here in these paragraphs remains the article’s original point: The existence of the temples on the Temple Mount is an “academically complex question.” But it is not—and although I have not been able to reach Matthew Adams as of this writing, I am quite confident that he does not think so either. The article therefore requires further correction. Were this article to be fully corrected for accuracy, it would be in serious tension with its headline, “Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place.”

Because there is no elusive historical certainty of which to speak, the Times has committed a double sin against history. By making scholars appear to cast doubt on the presence of Jewish temples on the Temple Mount, the newspaper is not just entirely mischaracterizing their views. It also makes it seem as though the ongoing Palestinian campaign to erase the Jewish historical connection to the Temple Mount is grounded in respectable scholarly argument, rather than in politics and prejudice.

Rabbi Dr. Ari Lamm is the CEO of the Bnai Zion Foundation, and a historian of religion