Tag Archives: soreg

Gentile Access to the Herodian Temple: A New Opinion

Two millennia ago, the block served as one of several Do Not Enter signs in the Second Temple in Jerusalem, delineating a section of the 37-acre complex which was off-limits for the ritually impure — Jews and non-Jews alike. Written in Greek (no Latin versions have survived), they warned: “No foreigner may enter within the balustrade around the sanctuary and the enclosure. Whoever is caught, on himself shall he put blame for the death which will ensue.”

-Ilan Ben Zion
from the article “Ancient Temple Mount ‘warning’ stone is ‘closest thing we have to the Temple’”
Times of Israel

I found a link to this article on Facebook and it’s really very interesting. It suggests that Gentiles may have had more access to the Herodian Temple in Jerusalem than was previously believed. I’ll let the article speak for itself, quoting what I think are the most relevant sections, and I encourage you to click the link I provided above and read the entire story yourself.

Contrary to the recent New York Times report, which stated that Herod’s Temple was “surrounded by partition walls that were meant to separate gentiles and Jews,” the warning was meant to protect “not the whole Temple Mount, but the inner sanctuary, the inner courtyard,” Price said. The modern notion “that the entire area is somehow holy is contrary to the original purpose and status of this huge plaza of the Temple Mount.”

Gentiles were not only welcome to ascend the Temple Mount, they were also permitted, if not encouraged, to donate animals for sacrifice. Josephus recounts how Marcus Agrippa, Emperor Augustus’s right hand man, visited Jerusalem shortly after the Temple was built and offered up a hecatomb — 100 bulls — as a sacrifice on the altar. Likewise daily sacrifices paid for by the Roman state were offered up for the welfare of the emperors. Philo records in his Embassy to Gaius that on no fewer than three occasions “we did sacrifice, and we offered up entire hecatombs, the blood of which we poured in a libation upon the altar, and the flesh we did not carry to our homes to make a feast and banquet upon it, as it is the custom of some people to do, but we committed the victims entire to the sacred flame as a burnt offering.”

The article states that Herod may have engineered a more lenient policy about Gentile access to the Temple, with only most holy areas being forbidden, not just to non-Jews but to any Jew not ritually clean.

“It was not ethnic or race as much as [ritual] purity,” Price said. “Jews who were not purified or ritually impure could not pass the soreg either.” Unlike gentiles from across the Roman Empire, Jews were expected to know better than to enter the holy sanctum when impure.


Herod changed that. He wanted to exhibit the grandeur of his compound, the largest temple in the ancient world, but not enrage his Jewish subjects.

“The exclusion of the gentiles, according to the inscription, is a kind of compromise between allowing them into the Temple but still excluding them from the inner temple, which is the properly holy ground,” Orian said.

“Reality necessitates compromise in different aspects of Jewish law,” he said. But “even if they were not viewed as impure, they would still be excluded from the [inner sanctum] of the Temple.”

TempleWhat Herod changed, at least according to this article’s writer and his source, Matan Orian, a PhD student at Tel Aviv University, was the perception, based on one interpretation of Numbers 18:7, that Gentiles were “intrinsically impure”. This interpretation may be the reason even Rav Yeshua’s (Jesus’) Apostles, including Peter, typically viewed and treated Gentiles as “unclean”.

And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.”

Acts 10:28 (NASB)

I’d have to guess that Peter may have been operating from the perception that all Gentiles were “intrinsically impure,” and yet, the Almighty showed Peter in a vision that the Gentiles should not be treated as “unholy or unclean.”

Of course, as the article states, this didn’t mean Gentiles, even among the Jewish Yeshua-followers of “the Way,” would have accepted in every area of the Temple, even if they were considered to be clean. There was a point on the Temple grounds where it would have been an outrage if a Gentile were to enter.

When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from Asia, upon seeing him in the temple, began to stir up all the crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people and the Law and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.

Acts 21:27-29

Of course, Jewish understanding of the presence and role of Gentiles on any part of the Temple grounds has changed over time.

Despite the Herodian-era status quo, in which gentiles and Jews mingled atop the Temple Mount, most rabbis today maintain the tradition that the entire complex is holy ground and Jewish entry is forbidden. That ban stems from uncertainty over where precisely the Holy of Holies stood.

JerusalemThe information in this article hints at a greater Gentile involvement in the Herodian Temple than most of us might have imagined, and further suggests that this was manipulated by Herod for political/social reasons, rather than theological insight. Nevertheless, it’s exciting to consider the possibility that in the Messianic Age, non-Jews visiting Jerusalem may also be granted, while not completely free access to the Temple, a greater measure of mobility on the Temple grounds, as well as the opportunity to offer sacrifices via the Aaronic and Levitical Priests.

I don’t have any special insights into all this. I just read the article and it sparked a thought or two. Mainly, I just wanted to share.

The Broken Soreg

0 RBut now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

Ephesians 2:13-16

Paul states that the Messiah abolished the “enmity” between Jew and Gentile. This is not the same as saying he abolished the Torah. Instead, the Messiah abolishes the requirement for Gentile believers to undertake circumcision and the covenant signs of Israel (the Law of commandments contained in ordinances) before they may be regarded as one body with the Jewish people.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Commentary on Acts 21:15-22:30 (pg 689)
First Fruits of Zion’s Torah Club
Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
Reading for Torah Portion Shemini (“Eighth”)

I’m sure most Christians will find Lancaster’s interpretation of Ephesians 2 to be very creative but not very convincing. The traditional Christian interpretation is that Jesus took down the wall by abolishing the Torah. Jews and Gentiles are identical in Christ and there are no distinctions based on Jewish observance of the Torah of Moses.

I’ve looked into Ephesians 2 before, but at the behest of someone who had the exact opposite opinion of this scripture. He said:

Ephesians 2 establishes gentiles as now part of the covenants, which I wonder how you deal with such, as I have never seen you address Ephesians.

This interpretation is probably just as startling to most Christians as Lancaster’s, since it declares that all believers, Jewish and Gentile alike, are obligated to the full observance of the Torah. In discussing the Hebrew Roots interpretation of Acts 15, Lancaster has this to say:

Hebrew Roots teachers often claim that the apostles only gave the four essentials to Gentile believers as a starting point. After that, the Gentiles were expected to learn the rest of the Torah in the synagogue every week. Eventually, they would be responsible for keeping all the laws of the Torah in the same manner as their Jewish brothers and sisters.

Acts 21:25 indicates that the apostles understood their ruling differently…Instead, the apostles viewed the four essentials as a standard for the God-fearing Gentile believers. They did not require a gradual process by which the Gentiles adopted the rest of the commandments.

-Lancaster, pg 686

I covered Acts 15 and its implications in much more detail in my multi-part Return to Jerusalem series so I’m not going to revisit that material here. I just wanted to briefly provide the different interpretations that could be applied to Ephesians 2 and where Lancaster stands on the matter of Jews vs. Gentiles and Torah observance.

But what about this “dividing wall of hostility” Paul mentions? I’m about to suggest something a little radical.

In the course of his massive remodeling of the Jerusalem Temple, Herod the Great extended the Temple Mount platform significantly by constructing a retaining wall and adding fill. A balustrade made of stone lattice work (soreg) marked off the original holy precinct. The balustrade functioned as a perimeter fence that kept Gentiles from straying into the sanctified area. The Mishnah reports the lattice work wall stood ten handbreadths (three feet) high. Josephus recalled it as slightly taller at three cubits (five feet) height. The people referred to the courtyard outside of the barrier as the Court of the Gentiles because Gentiles were allowed to congregate and worship in that courtyard, but they could not draw nearer than the balustrade. The Levitical guard posted plaques on the balustrade forbidding Gentiles from trespassing beyond that point.

-Lancaster, pg 688

middle-wall-partitionTo the best of my knowledge, there is nothing in the written Torah that mandates such a wall or a “Court of the Gentiles” on the Temple grounds, however especially during the days of Jesus and afterward, until the destruction of the Temple, there was much existing halachah that kept Jews and Gentiles apart. We see evidence of such in the vision Peter had in Acts 10 when Jesus makes clear to Peter that the halachah requiring that a Jew never enter a Gentile’s home was incorrect. God did not make the Gentiles an “unclean” people.

But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction.

Acts 11:9-12

Could Paul be using the idea of the soreg metaphorically in Ephesians 2?

I told you it was a radical idea. I’m not saying that this is even a valid interpretation of the text, but it is an interesting idea. In order for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles to be successful, one of the things that had to be broken down was Jewish hostility toward Gentiles. In the diaspora, by necessity, Jews had to interact, at least to a degree, with Gentiles, but in Israel and especially in Jerusalem, this was not the case (with the exception of forcibly having to “interact” with the Roman military occupation).

We see recorded in Acts 21:37-22:21, Paul apparently successfully defending himself against his Jewish accusers after the near riot he endured at the Temple when he was falsely accused of speaking against the Jewish people, the Torah, the Temple, and bringing a non-Jew past the Court of the Gentiles and into the Temple (Acts 21:28-29). It’s only when he mentioned the Gentiles, did his Jewish listeners go quite berserk:

And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” And as they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the tribune ordered him to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging, to find out why they were shouting against him like this.

Acts 22:21-24

I’d certainly call that a “wall of hostility.”

So one interpretation of having “broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” is doing away with all Jewish Torah observance, which was apparently what was causing the separation and bad feelings between Jewish and Gentile believers. Except the Torah doesn’t say that. First century Jewish halachah said that and the lesson Peter learned was that such separation was incorrect halachah.

Another interpretation is that the wall being broken down was the wall that kept Gentiles out of membership in national Israel, and once broken down by their being “grafted in” (Romans 11:11-24), Gentiles gained full covenant relationship with God and Israel by essentially becoming Israel and thus, required to observe all of the Torah mitzvot. The only thing they didn’t have to do was convert to Judaism, but otherwise, they certainly looked like converts. That makes even less sense if the wall was broken down by “abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” Nothing is abolished, the Gentiles are just added into the “law of commandments expressed in ordinances.”

Lancaster suggests that what Jesus broke down in his flesh when he was executed was how Gentiles were prevented from covenant relationship with God and the Jewish people without converting to Judaism. The legal requirement for conversion was the law that was abolished. This makes a bit more sense because it is through Messiah that we among the nations can become disciples and we are not required to convert to Judaism. But then, where does all the hostility come from that was preventing Gentiles from entering into covenant?

If what went away was a faulty interpretation and application of Torah that promoted an extreme hostility of Jews against Gentiles (which is not too hard to understand given that the Jewish nation was at that time being occupied by a harsh and cruel Gentile imperial army), Ephesians 2, especially when compared to Acts 10, begins to make more sense.

I’m sure my amateur interpretation can be criticized on a number of levels and again, I’m not saying that my little theory has much, if any, weight of evidence to support it, but I want you to think about it. I want you to consider the possibilities, especially in light of how Jewish audiences took less exception to the message of Jesus as the Messiah, and much more exception to the idea that such a message required doing away with the Torah, the Temple, and including unconverted Gentiles as equal covenant members.

infinite_pathsPaul was fighting an uphill battle and he was never entirely successful during his lifetime. In fact, after his death, the hostility between Jews and Gentiles continued to grow until Christianity was no longer a branch of religious Judaism, but instead, represented an entirely new theological discipline…one that was actually opposed to Judaism.

To the degree that Judaism and Christianity are still separate religions, with neither one wanting to have anything to do with the other for the most part (there are noteworthy exceptions), that wall of hostility still exists today. Part of why I write this blog is to offer avenues at, if not deconstructing the wall, punching a few holes in the “soreg” so we can see each other more clearly and even have a bit of a conversation.

When the Messiah returns, I believe he will finish what Paul started. I believe he will finish removing the wall we continually rebuild. I believe he will show us how to live with each other in peace. And Jews will remain a distinct people and nation as Jews. And Gentile believers will remain distinct from the rest of the world as non-Jewish disciples of the Master. And the different parts will truly act as one within a single body.