Q: Why do we speak only of the First and Second Temples? During the Roman era Herod completely rebuilt the Temple, making it the largest temple in the world of its time. It was this temple that the Romans destroyed, so why do we not speak of it as the Third Temple?
— P, via email
A: King Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem in the year 957 BCE (Before Common Era). The first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian army of Nebuchadnezzar in the year 586 BCE. However, the real blow to the Israelite empire had already occurred in 722 BCE, when the northern part of the empire was destroyed by the Assyrians. The northern kingdom destroyed by the Assyrians encompassed the land of 10 of the 12 tribes, leaving only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in control of Jerusalem and the Temple. The destruction of the First Temple ended what we can call the First Commonwealth of Judaism. The ancient Jews were given some hope, if not political power, when the Temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt under the permission of Cyrus the Great of Persia in roughly the year 515 BCE. This begins the period known as the Second Commonwealth of Judaism. King Herod refurbished and greatly expanded the Temple in the year 20 BCE making it, as you correctly observed, the largest temple in the world.
It was Herod’s temple that was destroyed in the year 70 CE by the Romans, and this destruction ended the Second Commonwealth. We are technically in the Third Commonwealth but not really because the Temple has not been rebuilt, and according to Jewish law and Christian hopes it can only be rebuilt by the Messiah. To absolutely prevent the rebuilding of the Temple, in 691 CE the caliph Abd al-Malik constructed the golden Dome of the Rock shrine on the exact spot where the holiest part of the Temple once stood, and soon thereafter he built the Al-Aqsa Mosque nearby. He knew that Jewish law prohibited the destruction of a church or a mosque, so the location of the Temple is forever occupied by another faith. Islam believes that the Temple Mount is where Muhammad ascended into heaven on his steed Buraq. There is no sacred real estate on planet Earth that is more crowded and more contested.
Q: I was wondering why God chose circumcision as the outward symbol of God’s chosen people. How did people know if a man was circumcised or not? I am asking this because I am a Bible Quiz coach at our church. The topic comes up often and I do not know the answer.
— S, via email
A: Circumcision is commanded of Abraham by God as recounted in Genesis 17:10-12: “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations ... ”
In Luke 2:21 there is a reference to the fact that Jesus was circumcised: “And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”
Jesus’ circumcision is celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church and by Anglicans on Jan. 1, and is celebrated by Roman Catholics as the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus (even though circumcision is not obligatory in Christianity, only in Judaism and Islam). Circumcision in Islam is carried out at various times depending on the local traditions, but always between seven days after birth to sometime before 10 years of age.
The reason for this rite, beyond its being a sign of the covenant, is not explained. Perhaps it is a way of saying that we mark the organ of procreation for a man to indicate that the most wonderful thing we can create — a baby — is nothing compared to what God has created.
That is the thing about rituals. What to do is clear but why we are commanded to do it is never explained. In a way the very point of a ritual, any ritual, is to do something you do not fully understand in order to express obedience and love for God. In addition to rituals, every faith also has ethical laws that are understandable and rational and universal. A religion without rituals is empty and a religion without ethics is blind.
Recently there have been some concerns raised about circumcision as a medical procedure without clear benefits. Medical studies have indeed shown that there are several clear medical benefits from circumcision in reducing infections and diseases, but this has not ended the debate.