One of the main themes of the Old Testament and the New Testament is that of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Before we look at the Jerusalem Temple as it existed in the time of Jesus, we have to look at its predecessor, the Tabernacle in the desert. At one time in the Old Testament God ordered Moses to make the Ark of the Covenant, which was a gold-covered wooden box with a lid and a cover. (If we know about the movie from the 1980s, this is the ark in the title “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) This ark, or box contained the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, a golden jar holding manna and Aaron’s Rod, which budded.
“…. having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, which contained a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant.” (Heb 9:4)
This ark was carried by the Hebrews as they travelled in the desert. It was a truly holy object, in which God’s presence was strongly felt. Because it was so holy when the Hebrews camped it was put into a special, richly-decorated tent called a Tabernacle. The description of the Tabernacle is found in Exodus chapters 25-30.
The Tabernacle in the desert was a large, rectanglar tent which was erected whenever the Hebrews settled down in a camp. It had three sections. The first section was where people first entered. The second was called the Holy Place. The altar of incense was there. Finally there was the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was located. As the name implies this was the most sacred place in the Tabernacle. It is described in Exodus.
“And you shall make a veil of blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen; in skilled work shall it be made, with cherubim; and you shall hang it upon four pillars of acacia overlaid with gold, with hooks of gold, upon four bases of silver. And you shall hang the veil from the clasps and bring the ark of the testimony in thither within the veil; and the veil shall separate for you the holy place from the most holy. You shall put the mercy seat upon the ark of the testimony in the most holy place. And you shall set the table outside the veil, and the lampstand on the south side of the tabernacle opposite the table; and you shall put the table on the north side. “And you shall make a screen for the door of the tent, of blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen, embroidered with needlework. And you shall make for the screen five pillars of acacia and overlay them with gold; their hooks shall be of gold, and you shall cast five bases of bronze for them. You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits broad; the altar shall be square, and its height shall be three cubits. And you shall make horns for it on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze.” (Ex 26:31-27:2)
Eventually, after the Hebrews had entered the Promised Land and became a settled kingdom, the Temple in Jerusalem was constructed by King Solomon. This temple was attacked and damaged several times by the enemies of the Hebrews, and finally was completely destroyed by the Babylonians in 585 BC when Jerusalem was attacked and the Jewish people were taken into captivity in Babylon.
The Second Temple was built between 538-515. This Temple was renovated and expanded by King Herod the Great in 20 BC. This is the Temple that existed in the time of Jesus. This Temple was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans and followed the same pattern as the Tabernacle, but in a much more elaborate way. The layout was as follows: First came the Courts of the Gentiles or non-Jews. This was the only part of the Temple that non-Jews could enter. As a matter of fact, if a non-Jew went further than this he could be put to death. To see how seriously this was taken we can take an example from the Book of Acts. St. Paul was in Jerusalem with Trophimus, a gentile (non-Jew) convert to Christianity. The Jews believe that St. Paul brought him into the temple beyond the Court of the Gentiles. This is how the Jews reacted:
“When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, who had seen him in the temple, stirred up all the crowd, and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching men everywhere against the people and the law and this place; moreover he also brought Greeks into the temple, and he has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Troph’imus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. Then all the city was aroused, and the people ran together; they seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. And as they were trying to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. He at once took soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them; and when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. (Acts 21:27-32)
In other words, the Jews wanted to kill St. Paul for brining a non-Jew into the Temple. There was such a disturbance that Roman troops were called to calm things down.
Next was the Court of the Women. Then the Court of the Israelites, where any ritually pure Jewish man could enter. After this we have the Court of the priest then the temple court, where the altar of sacrifice was located. Finally, we get to the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was the holiest place in the Temple. This was where the Ark of the Covenant was kept in the Tabernacle in the first Temple. But as we have seen it disappeared with the destruction of the first Temple. Only the High Priest cold enter this part of the Temple. He would enter it once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the holiest day of the Jewish year.