Herod the Great started construction on the third temple to occupy Mount Zion in Jerusalem. King Solomon had built the first temple (I Kings 5-8), which was destroyed when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 B. C. The second temple was built by the Jews after they returned from exile. The person chiefly responsible for its construction was Zerubbabel. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe the building of this temple. Herod undertook the construction of a magnificent-even opulent-temple on the same site, partly to win favor from the Jews and partly to augment his already well-deserved reputation as the builder of outstanding public and private edifices.
The temple area measured about thirty-five acres, crowning the highest point in the city of Jerusalem. Within the temple area and around all four sides were wide-open porticos or porches lined with marble columns thirty-seven feet high. The elaborate ceilings were made of cedar. There was a large court, accessible both to Jews and Gentiles, in which sacrificial animals were sold and money exchanged for coins that were approved for temple use. This court, known as The Court of Gentiles, was paved with multicolored stones.
In the center of The Court of Gentiles was a smaller court, separated by a balustrade four feet high. Only Jews could enter that area, which was called The Court of Women. Marble slabs that were carved in both Greek and Latin warned any Gentile that if he went farther he did so under the threat of being put to death. These slabs were posted outside the balustrade.
Still further into the center of the temple area was The Court of Israel, into which only Jewish men were allowed. Beyond this area was The Court of Priests, where only priests were permitted. In the center of this court was the great stone altar on which whole burnt offerings were sacrificed. Behind the altar was the temple building itself. The interior of the building measured 90 feet high, 90 feet long, and 30 feet wide. It was divided into two large rooms. The first room, which was 60 feet long, contained the seven-branched lampstand (menorah), the table for the bread of presence (shewbread), and the golden altar of incense. It was in this room that Zechariah offered up the incense of prayer when Gabriel announced to him that he would have a son, John. When the Roman Emperor Titus sacked Jerusalem in A. D. 70 and destroyed the temple, he triumphantly took back to Rome the items of worship from this room. This scene is depicted on Titus's Arch of Triumph near the Roman Coliseum.
The innermost room of the temple, measuring 30 feet square and 60 feet high, was called the Holy of Holies. It vas screened off from the first room by a curtain-the one torn from top to bottom at the time of Jesus' death (Matt. 2751). This unlit room was completely unfurnished. Only the high priest could enter - and then only on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), when, as the representative of all the people of Israel, he offered sacrifices for all the unwitting sins committed by the people during the past year. So long as the temple stood, it gave every Jew a central, unifying symbol of the special link between God and his people. It was also the center of an extensive religious bureaucracy. Herod's Temple, finished in A D. 64, only six years later was destroyed by the Romans. Jesus was dedicated in the temple, attended the annual religious festivals, and discussed there "his Father's business" during his years of ministry. He cleansed , hoping to restore the temple to its rightful purpose. He said that he was greater than the temple, the center of Israel's religious and national life; and he predicted it would be destroyed. His view that be was greater than the temple led directly to the verdict of the Sanhedin that he should be executed.