A New York Times article published Thursday has evoked anger from historians and archaeological experts by appearing to cast doubt that a Jewish temple ever existed on the Temple Mount — a claim often promoted by Palestinian spokesmen to deny Israel’s right to exist.
The Times later amended its piece — “Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place” — to focus on the issue of where precisely on the Temple Mount the Jewish temple once stood, which is a point of debate even among biblical scholars and archaeologists.
But for researchers who've spent decades studying ancient Jewish history, the damage was done.
“It was based on ignorance, simple ignorance; you cannot ignore all the literary evidence” of the existence of Jewish temples on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount site, Prof. Gabriel Barkay, codirector of the Temple Mount Sifting Project, told TheBlaze by phone Sunday.
Barkay, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, called the Times’ take “temple denial” and pointed out the extensive and detailed descriptions of the Second Temple — built during the first century B.C — in ancient Jewish texts, in the writings of the first century Roman-Jewish scholar Josephus and by Greek and Roman historians.
Besides that, the Bible describes extensively Solomon’s Temple — that is, the first Jewish temple.
“I don’t have any doubt about the existence of the temple," Barkay explained. "We have inscriptions on the prohibitions of Gentiles to enter the temple which got preserved. We have the outer walls of the Temple Mount which are still standing, the Western Wall is one of them."
Even Islamic texts refer to the Jewish temple.
“Muslims themselves built the Dome of Rock [on the Temple Mount] as a replacement of Solomon’s Temple, and they call Jerusalem the ‘City of the Temple’ in Islamic literature,” he added.
The Times article also evoked the derision of bloggers who cover Jewish issues.
The Rationalist Judaism blog called the story a “masterpiece of obfuscation and falsehood.”
“‘The New York Times’ goes truther on the Temple Mount,” Liel Liebovitz of Tablet Magazine wrote in a scathing piece describing the Times' take as “a potent blend of ignorance and malice.”
Michael Satlow, a Brown University professor of Judaic and religious studies, wrote that he was “riled” by the New York Times piece which he called “so misleading and confused that it really got my goat.”
What annoyed Satlow and others who vented their frustrations on social media was that — at least in the original version of the article — it glossed over evidence that two ancient Jewish temples stood on the Temple Mount.
In a blog post debunking the Times article, Satlow wrote, “Did a Jewish temple stand on the present day Temple Mount? Yes. This is as historically certain a fact as one can get in the study of ancient history.”
“Now it is true (and has long been recognized even in Jewish law) that we do not know precisely where on the Temple Mount those structures stood, but there is no question that they stood there,” Satlow wrote.
“The second temple was built around 520 BCE and underwent a few renovations before Herod gave it a major overhaul,” the Brown professor wrote. “If Herod moved the site of the temple, we would know, both from the extensive archaeological excavations conducted all around the temple as well from literary sources. People notice stuff like that.”
Satlow noted that there is a debate among scholars over the precise location of the first temple, which was destroyed in 586 B.C.
“When Jews returned from Babylonia [to Jerusalem] to rebuild the temple, were they careful to find the site of the old structure, clear the rubble, and build it on the same exact spot?" Satlow asked. "It seems likely, but this we really don’t know."
“If the first temple did not stand within the confines of the present Temple Mount, though, it would have been within a couple of hundred meters,” he added.
Beyond amending the body of the article, the Times on Friday issued this correction note at the bottom of the piece:
An earlier version of this article misstated the question that many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered concerning the two ancient Jewish temples. The question is where precisely on the 37-acre Temple Mount site the temples had once stood, not whether the temples had ever existed there.
The Temple Mount Sifting Project, which archaeologist Barkay directs, is run by the City of David Foundation and Bar-Ilan University which recruits volunteers to sift through tons of topsoil that Islamic authorities secretly dumped more than a decade ago from the Temple Mount site.
Volunteers have found various artifacts in the rubble attesting to the Jewish historical connection to the site.