The Long View: What If the Second Temple Had Survived AD 70?

A fun bit of alternative history exploring the likely impact of the survival of the Second Temple upon the religion and politics of the Middle East.

What If the Second Temple Had Survived AD 70?

This note takes issue with Donald Harman Akenson's recent book, "Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds." You can find my review of the book by clicking here

--John J. Reilly


Akenson's governing assumption is that the key event that created Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism was the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem in AD 70. Actually, he holds that there never was such a thing as non-rabbinical Judaism. Akenson uses the words "Judahism" to refer to the religion of Yahweh that existed in Palestine between the end of the Babylonian Captivity in the sixth century BC and the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans. This was a religion of very many sects, which often had little in common and sometimes were mutually hostile.

One growing sect after about AD 30 was the Jesus Faith. Another was the closely related (and therefore antagonistic) movement known to us as the Pharisaism. (Akenson makes the interesting observation that we know of just two self-proclaimed Pharisees. One was St. Paul, the other was Flavius Josephus, the turncoat author of "The Jewish War.") Like the rest of Judahism, these two groups greatly revered the Temple, and their religious practice was closely connected with it. According to Akenson, it was only the destruction of the Temple that made it possible for them to become separate religions. They then set themselves to replace the physical temple with mental temples. Thus, the Christian scriptures came to refer to Jesus as the Temple, while the rabbis came to equate studying the rituals that had been performed in the Temple with actually conducting them.

The year AD 70 (well, the Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-73) is a comforting landmark to historians of religion. God alone knows precisely when Jesus was born or what the Sadducees really believed. For scholars of religion to study the first century, they must interpret and reinterpret partisan texts of ambiguous provenance, all while living in terror that someone will blow their beautiful theories to smithereens. (As, indeed, they themselves plan to do to the theories of their colleagues.) For the Jewish War, in contrast, they have vivid first person accounts and sober descriptions by the standard historians of the second century. Scholars are greatly tempted to attribute decisive significance to this event for the perfectly understandable reason that they happen to know a lot about it.

The problem is that the fall of the Temple need not have been decisive for the history of either Christianity or Judaism.

The case of Christianity need not detain us. It is possible that the whole of the "Jesus Faith" was reconfigured after AD 70 to show that it had always been independent of its homeland. Maybe all that the earliest Jesus People wanted was to add a little filigree about the Messiah to their Temple-based religious practice. Perhaps the entire canon of the New Testament grossly misrepresents both the life of Jesus and the careers of the Apostles, particularly that of St. Paul. Well, maybe. The problem with this sort of argument is like the problem with the argument that God created the world in 4004 BC, fossils and all, to look as if it were billions of years old. The fact is that the texts of the New Testament say what they say. They do not suggest that the Temple was central to the concerns of the earliest Christians, or even to Jesus himself. If the New Testament is judged to be wholly misleading on this matter, then fancy can wander freely. However, the result will have nothing to do with history.

With Judaism, the matter is more complicated. The Mishnah, the code of the "oral law," does consist in large part of loving recollection of the structure of the Temple and the rites performed there. Prayers for the reconstruction of the Temple featured in public and private devotions for centuries. These observations, however, do not address the question of whether this preoccupation could not have developed had the Temple not been destroyed.

The obvious analogy is Islam. Like Judaism before AD 70, Islam has a ritual center, in Mecca. It has a legal tradition, the Sharia, which resembles the Babylonian Talmud in seeking to be completely comprehensive both of secular life and religious practice. It has a Book, the Koran, which like the Torah is held to be a special, textual revelation from God. If anything, the Koran is even more insistent on the importance of the ritual center at Mecca than is the Jewish canon about Jerusalem, since the Koran enjoins Muslims to make a pilgrimage to Mecca if they possibly can.

Something else that Judaism and Islam have in common is that their adherents have been spread out all over the world for a very long time. This was true of Judaism (let us forget this "Judahism" hypothesis) even during the period of the Second Temple. This is not the kind of thing you would normally expect of a cult tied to a particular place, which is what is usually meant by a "temple religion." The religion of the Classical world, like that of much of the Far East today, is built around the particular shrines of local gods. Grand abstractions like "Zeus" or "Shiva" are really for poets. The piety of the practitioners of these cults is always local. They worship the god of one temple because he is the god of where they live. If they travel, then naturally they worship the gods of the places through which they pass. To do otherwise would seem nonsensical.

In contrast, what Judaism and Islam, as well as Christianity and some forms of Buddhism, have in common is that they are fairly portable. You can find God wherever you are, and if a holy book directs your attention to a sacred site on the far side of the world, then the site's sacredness comes from the book and not the other way around. This is true today in the case of Islam, even though a ritual center is an important part of its theology. It also has been true of Judaism since the Babylonian Captivity. The term for this is monotheism, and it has more to do with how a religion works than do the details of its ritual dimension.

That said, though, it is hard to imagine that the destruction of the Second Temple did not have some effect on the evolution of Judaism. Here is what might have happened if the Angel of Death had passed over the Temple in AD 70.

It is not difficult to imagine a history in which the Temple survives. The Roman-Jewish War was also a civil war. The contenders actually held different parts of the Second Temple and fought each other as the Romans invested the place. Supposedly, the Pharisees were not really very keen on rebelling against Rome in the first place. That is why many of them were expelled from Jerusalem by the zealots. One of their leaders, Yohanan ben Zakkai, then made a deal with the Emperor Vespasian to allow Yohanan to found the academy at Jamnia, where the Mishnah began to be composed. Suppose that, instead of abandoning Jerusalem, the Pharisees had contrived to gain control of the Temple complex, or some large fraction of it. They might then have negotiated with the Romans to, in effect, trade Jerusalem for the Temple by holding the later against the rebels. Though much of the city might have been destroyed in the Roman assault, still the Temple would have been spared.

Thereafter, the Temple would have continued to function as a ritual center as before, but with some differences. For instance, immediately after the rebellion was put down, the Temple would have found itself in the odd position of being a huge religious center without much of a surrounding population. The Temple would have been in small danger of being abandoned: Jews from all over the world came to visit and sent donations. Doubtless Jerusalem would have been rebuilt, as it had been before. Still, activity in the Temple would have begun to shift away from ritual and toward scholarship, particularly if the Pharisees were running the place. This would have accelerated trends that had long existed in Judaism.

Even before Babylonian Captivity, the prophets complained that God was less impressed by offerings in the Temple than by, say, the fair treatment of tenant farmers and the even administration of justice. The ethical dimension to Judaism would certainly have continued to develop, whether there was a temple or not. There is also some reason to suppose that the ritual practiced at the Temple might have begun to change dramatically.

We have to remember that, when we talk about ritual in this context, was are talking about animal sacrifice. This, of course, was typical of temples throughout the ancient world: they were abattoirs. The difference was that the Jerusalem Temple was huge, one of the wonders of the world, and to some extent it must have been a terrifying place. While this assessment may seem to be the projection of modern delicacies onto ancient people, there is some evidence otherwise. Noted Jewish authorities, including Maimonides himself, have argued that animal sacrifice was a brutal practice that God sought first to restrict and then to eliminate. Also, for what it is worth, we should remember that the other major religious survivor of first-century Palestine, Christianity, dropped the practice of animal sacrifice from the first. (This was the case even though Christianity, too, retained the basic texts on the subject in its Old Testament.)

Ironically, the emphasis given to the old rituals in the Mishnah and the Talmuds was due precisely to the abruptness with which they were cut off. In the normal course of events, one suspects, temple sacrifice would have become rarer and more symbolic, until eventually no actual animals were killed at all. As it was, though, all the early rabbis were left with were memories to record, which they did with great thoroughness.

We must therefore imagine the Temple continuing to function through late antiquity, becoming all the while less like a Classical temple and more like an academy. There was one more major Jewish revolt in Palestine, the Bar Kochba rebellion of the 130s. It is entirely possible that the continued existence of the Temple would have defused this uprising. That rebellion is famous in the study of Messianic millenarianism. (Bar Kochba was called the Messiah, though he may not have claimed the title for himself.) However, richly endowed religious foundations usually take a dim view of militant endtime movements, as the history of the Catholic Church illustrates.

Even if the influence of the conservative Temple failed to prevent the outbreak, the existence of the Temple would still have altered matters. It is likely that the Temple authorities would have stood aloof from the rebellion. Jerusalem might have been declared an open city, or it might actually have resisted Bar Kochba in the name of Rome. Even if the insurgents gained control of Jerusalem for a period, in this case the Romans would have had no reason to destroy the city or the temple when they reconquered the country. Unlike the situation in AD 70, there would have been a normative form of Judaism, one more concerned with the affairs of the spirit than with those of this world. The Romans would have made haste to reestablish this orthodoxy in its chief center as soon as they could. This would have been the quickest way to restore peace. After all, this was pretty much what the Emperor Vespasian did with Rabbi Yohanan.

By the time Christianity became the Imperial religion in the fourth century, it is quite likely that Jerusalem would have been a university town, like Athens or Alexandria. Like them, it would have had increasing trouble with the Imperial government's wildly gyrating religious policies. In the fifth century, these resulted in the closing of the academies in Palestine in which the Jerusalem Talmud was composed. In 529, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian closed even the Academy at Athens. It would thus be reasonable to suppose that, sometime in those centuries, the Temple would have been converted into a church, and the associated schools into seminaries.

In the seventh century, with the appearance of Islam, the role of Jerusalem in world history would have become considerably different. It is conceivable that the attraction of Jerusalem, with the Temple intact, might have preempted the choice of Mecca as the center of Muslim worship. (Mohammed prayed to Jerusalem for a time, even without the Temple.) This would have had considerable consequences for the development of later Islamic civilization. Neither Mecca nor Medina are suitable points from which to administer a great empire. They are too isolated, too small, and they depend on local resources that are too thin. To a lesser extent, the same is also true of Jerusalem. As the Ummayid and Abbasid Dynasties realized, Damascus or Baghdad was far preferable. However, if Jerusalem had been the goal of the Haj, with the Temple now the holiest of Mosques, it was close enough to the Mediterranean's major trade routes that it could have continued its role as a center of learning. Jerusalem is wrongly placed to be a large city. With the Temple, however, it would never have become a backwater.

In later centuries, Jerusalem would have been captured and lost by the Crusaders, patronized and abused by the Turks. Its political history might not have been dramatically different from that in our own world. The biggest difference would have come in the 20th century. In 1900, Palestine was a relatively lightly populated country. Its cities, including Jerusalem, were of mainly historical interest. Had the Temple been the center of Islam, however, these things would not have been the case. Certainly the enterprise of Zionism would have been inconceivable. Jews might well have had easy access to the Temple by the second half of the 20th century. Christians have been able to hold services in the Hagia Sofia under the Turkish Republic, to take a comparable case. Nevertheless, we must consider the possibility that one consequence of the preservation of the Temple in the first century might have been the non-existence of Israel in the twentieth.

Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reilly

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