Hanukkah, archaeology shine light on Jewish temple

By: Eric Czarnik | C&G Newspapers | Published December 20, 2016

 The Temple Mount Sifting Project in Jerusalem recently announced that it has found opus sectile floor pieces that are consistent with those found in geometric tile designs seen in Herodian times, as depicted here.

The Temple Mount Sifting Project in Jerusalem recently announced that it has found opus sectile floor pieces that are consistent with those found in geometric tile designs seen in Herodian times, as depicted here.

Photo provided by the Temple Mount Sifting Project


METRO DETROIT — More than 2,000 years later, the story of Hanukkah continues to inspire local Jews to celebrate and reflect as archaeologists and scholars expound on clues about a major subject of the festival, the Second Jewish Temple.

The eight-day Hanukkah festival, which begins on different dates of the Western calendar each year, starts this year at sundown Dec. 24. Jewish families often celebrate the festival by lighting menorahs, eating latkes and jelly doughnuts, playing a dreidel game, opening gifts and more.

But the Hanukkah story, as depicted in the book of 1 Maccabees, has additional historical, political and religious components. It entails a military conflict in the second century B.C. between Jewish rebels and a religiously oppressive occupying force, the Seleucid Empire. Under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucids desecrated the Second Temple in Jerusalem, banned Jewish customs and forcefully promoted Greek customs in their place.

Hanukkah celebrates how the Maccabee family and their Jewish allies took back their temple from enemy control and rededicated it for worship, hence the festival’s Hebrew name of Hanukkah, or dedication.

Rabbi Steven Rubenstein, from Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield, described the impact of Hanukkah’s message on many local Jews today.

“I think that the rededication of the temple at the time of the Maccabees serves as an inspiration for Jews in terms of the way we rededicate ourselves to Jewish life,” he said.

“The sense of overcoming great odds goes hand in hand with the story of the Maccabees, and I think that means a lot to people, especially to modern Jews as they think about just the existence of the Jewish people after a lot of really difficult times.”

But the subject of the temple lays the groundwork for a discovery announced by Jerusalem-based archaeologists in September. They said they have discovered clues about what the Second Temple’s grounds once looked like — though from a few generations later than the Maccabees.

Members of a group called the Temple Mount Sifting Project said they found stone floor pieces that belonged to tiles that were once used on the temple’s site. The tiles feature various geometric designs and are called “opus sectile” due to how the materials were carefully cut and fitted.

The researchers say these floor tiles could have been installed in porticos or other areas on the temple site starting around the time of a Roman-appointed king named Herod the Great. Near the end of the first century B.C., he renovated and expanded the temple site’s size, scope and grandeur.

The temple was located on a site in Jerusalem that Jews call the Temple Mount, or Har HaBayit in Hebrew. Muslims call the site the Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary. Today, the site holds Islamic buildings like the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which were built several centuries after the Second Temple’s destruction by the Romans in 70 A.D.

In an email, Frankie Snyder, a researcher and mathematician affiliated with the Temple Mount Sifting Project, said the tile pieces were found after her group searched through truckloads of dumped dirt excavated from the Temple Mount by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, an organization that oversees the Muslim holy sites there. The researchers said the sifting project’s purpose was to search the dirt for archaeological finds.

“It was in this discarded dirt that we found the opus sectile tiles that we believe are the ones (that) King Herod used to pave floors and walkways on the Temple Mount,” Snyder said. 

According to Snyder, the tiles were not present during the time of the Maccabees or the Hanukkah story, but they were installed during Herod’s reign. Narrowing down the tiles’ origins to Herod’s renovations — and not some earlier or later building project — required a close examination of the tiles’ traits, she said. Temple descriptions from writings like those from Jewish historian Flavius Josephus were also taken into account.

“To figure out which time period the tiles come from, I need to consider the size, shape, material, color and craftsmanship of each tile,” Snyder said.

“By comparing the tiles to those used by King Herod in his palaces and to Roman floor designs and tile materials popular at the time, I can distinguish those from the Second Temple period from the others. Opus sectile tiles were not used in Israel prior to King Herod, and in later periods, the tile shapes, sizes and materials changed.” 

The dating of the tiles means that it’s possible they could have been seen by Jesus, who visited the temple on multiple occasions, according to the New Testament.

While the Christmas story traditionally focuses on Jesus’ birth, the manger and Bethlehem, the Gospel of Luke says that Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple soon after his birth so he could be presented. The Gospels point to several other situations involving Jesus and the temple, such as when he drove out the moneychangers.

Eugene Mayhew, a professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages at Moody Theological Seminary in Plymouth, said in an email that he has taken graduate students from the Christian school to work on the Temple Mount Sifting Project nine times.

He praised the sifting project’s co-founder and co-director, archaeologist Gabriel Barkay, for being someone who is very careful and knowledgeable.

“He allows the methodology and the sciences time to do their job and works well with the preponderance of mounting evidence,” Mayhew added.

Learn more about the Temple Mount Sifting Project by visiting templemount.wordpress.com. Reach Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield by visiting cbahm.org. Learn more about Moody Theological Seminary by visiting www.moody.edu.