The dramatic recent collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace talks and the ongoing political turmoil involving the Temple Mount have again focused world attention on the centuries-old struggle for that sacred site. Since antiquity, the roughly 37 acres of the Temple Mount and its immediate surroundings have frequently been the focus of interreligious strife.
The destruction of the Jewish temple by the Romans in A.D. 70 was a devastating event in the history of Judaism. It served as a transforming catalyst in both the origins of Christianity and the transition of Israelite religion from a priestly sacrifice-centered system to the legalistic text-centered religion of rabbinic Judaism as we know it today. Ever since that catastrophic year, many Jews have longed for the restoration of their lost temple.
During the centuries after its destruction, Jews made three major attempts to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. The first was the messianic movement of Shimon Bar Kokhba from A.D. 132-135. His efforts were cut short by the overwhelming victory of the Roman emperor Hadrian, who altogether expelled the Jews from Jerusalem and built a temple to Jupiter on the site of the ancient house of the Lord.
In 361, a second rebuilding program was undertaken with the support of Julian “the Apostate,” a Roman emperor who had been raised a Christian but, perhaps understandably unimpressed by the murderous intrigues of his “Christian” imperial family — he was a nephew of Constantine the Great — had converted to pagan polytheism. Hoping to embarrass Christians by proving that Jesus had uttered a false prophecy about the destruction of the temple (Mark 13:1-2), Julian subsidized Jewish plans to rebuild their temple at Jerusalem. But this venture ended almost before it began when Julian died in battle against the Persians in 363, and subsequent Christian emperors halted work on the temple.
The third effort occurred in 614, when the Persians — supported by Jews in both Mesopotamia and Palestine — took Jerusalem from the Christian Byzantines.
The Persians initially rewarded the Jews for their support by granting them permission to rebuild their temple. However, Jewish relations with the Persian emperor Khusraw rapidly deteriorated and permission was quickly withdrawn. When the Arabs conquered Jerusalem in 638 and erected the current Dome of the Rock on the site of the old temple, Jewish dreams faded into the eschatological distance. Their temple, most believed, would be rebuilt only after the Messiah came.
With the rise of the state of Israel in the mid-20th century, however, the hope of rebuilding the temple has again come to life, at least in the minds of some enthusiasts. With the political success of Israel over the past five decades, many Orthodox Jews have become militant Zionists; some of these see the building of a new “Third Temple” as a key element in their messianic Zionist agenda.
The Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement, under the leadership of Gershon Salomon, is one of the most active of these groups. They believe that God “expects Israel to re-liberate the Temple Mount from the pagan Arab worshippers” (see "Temple Mount Fanatics Foment a New Thirty Years' War," Executive Intelligence Review, Nov. 3, 2000). Their goal, as stated in their newsletters, is “the building of the Third Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in our lifetime.”
They vowed in their newsletters that “we shall do everything to save the Temple Mount from the terrible abomination (Daniel 11:31) which is done today by foreigners and enemies (Arabs) and to purify the Temple Mount exactly as our forefathers did when they liberated the Temple Mount from foreign occupation and abomination” — presumably an allusion to the wars of the Maccabees in the second century B.C. (see "Secret and Suppressed II: Banned Ideas and Hidden History Into the 21st Century" edited by Adam Parfrey and Kenn Thomas, p. 91).
Such declarations by radical Jews that they plan to destroy the “abomination” of the Muslim Dome of the Rock and replace it with the Third Temple have been met with horror by Muslim worshippers, and by more than a few worried Jews.
Recent disturbances on the Temple Mount have been caused by increasing Jewish agitation to have Jewish prayers on the Muslim holy site and, ultimately, to establish a permanent Jewish presence there. Surrounded by armed Israeli guards, small groups of activists have recently marched onto the Temple Mount, provoking raucous and sometimes violent reactions from Muslim worshippers who see such acts as an intentional provocation and as the preliminary to full Israeli military occupation of the Temple Mount, the destruction of their shrines and the rebuilding of the Third Temple.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin teaches history at BYU and is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.