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The History of Jerusalem in the Bible

Jerusalem holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is mentioned 667 times in the Old Testament and 139 times in the New. Although today the city boasts a population of over 770,000 people, its origins were humble.

In this video from Encountering the Holy Land: A Video Introduction to the History and Geography of the Bible, Carl G. Rasmussen gives a biblical history of the city of Jerusalem:

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Jerusalem was located in the Hill Country of Judah, far removed from the coastal and the Transjordanian highways. Jerusalem has a rugged and treacherous landscape that protected access to the city from the east and west. Biblical Jerusalem was built on two parallel north–south ridges. The western ridge, the higher and broader one, is bounded on the west and south by the Hinnom Valley. The narrower and lower eastern ridge is bounded on the east by the Kidron Valley, which in the Jerusalem area flows basically north to south.

The early history of Jerusalem

The earliest settlement in Jerusalem began on the 15-acre southern portion of the eastern ridge, “the old ancient core,” because the only good-sized spring—the Gihon Spring—was located there. From 2000–1550 BC, Jerusalem is mentioned several times in the Egyptian texts as Urusalimum (meaning foundation of the god Shalim” or “city of peace”). Although excavated building remains are few, significant portions of a thick wall have been uncovered. This wall was apparently built about 1800 BC and continued in use, with rebuilds, until the end of the Judean monarchy (586 BC). The city remained 15 acres until it began to expand northward during the days of David and Solomon.

Two events in the life of Abraham place him in close proximity to Jerusalem. Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Gen 14:18; cf. Ps 76:2), met Abram after his rescue of Lot. Later Abraham took his son Isaac to one of the mountains in the “region of Moriah” to sacrifice him (Gen 22:2), the same place where Solomon built the temple (2 Chron 3:1).

Jerusalem next appears in the stories of the conquest under Joshua. When the king of Jerusalem, Adoni-Zedek, heard of the Gibeonites’ treaty with Joshua, he realized that his major line of communication with the coast, and hence to Egypt, was in jeopardy. He assembled a coalition of four other Amorite kings and attacked Gibeon but was defeated by Joshua.

During the period of the judges Jerusalem came under the control of the Jebusites and was named Jebus (see Judg 19:11 –12; cf. also Josh 15:8; 18:16). It was the Judahite David who captured the city in his seventh year (2 Sam 5) and made it his capital. His general Joab used the sinnor (“water shaft,” 2 Sam 5:8) to do so—an underground, rock-cut diagonal tunnel that led from inside the city to a large pool fed by the Gihon Spring.

The City of David

Because of Jerusalem’s neutral location, it was a capital acceptable to both David’s own tribe of Judah as well as to the tribes of the north. The city became David’s and his descendants’ personal property (called ”the City of David”) and the royal seat of the Davidic dynasty. David brought the ark from Kiriath Jearim to Jerusalem, which he established as the major worship center for all Israel (2 Sam 6:1–23; 1 Chron 13:1–14). David built his own palace there (2 Sam 5:11) and toward the end of his reign purchased the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, a site north of and higher than the ancient city core, where Solomon eventually built the temple (2 Sam 24:18 –25; 1 Chron 21:18–26).

In the fourth year of Solomon’s reign (966 BC), he began building the temple, a task that took seven years. The exact location of the temple is not known, although many researchers place it in the immediate vicinity of the existing Muslim shrine called the Dome of the Rock.

To the south of the temple, but north of the ancient core of Jerusalem, Solomon built his own palace and the Palace of the Forest of Lebanon (1 Kings 7:1 –12). It is possible that this royal acropolis was, in early times, called the Millo (NIV “the terraces”; 1 Kings 9:15, 24; 11:27) but later came to be known as the Ophel (the acropolis). Solomon strengthened the wall of Jerusalem and included the Millo/Ophel, as well as the temple area, within the confines of the wall. Thus the walled city expanded from 15 acres to about 37 acres.

During the divided monarchy (930 – 722 BC), Jerusalem was attacked several times: once by the Egyptian pharaoh Shishak (925 BC; 1 Kings 14:22 – 28; 2 Chron 12:2 – 4) and once by Hazael of Aram Damascus (ca. 813 BC; 2 Kings 12:17 – 18; 2 Chron 24:17 – 24). In each instance, lavish gifts, taken from the temple treasury, bought off the aggressors.

In the days of Amaziah of Judah, however, Jehoash of Israel attacked the city and “broke down the wall of Jerusalem from the Ephraim Gate to the Corner Gate”(ca. 790 BC; 2 Chron 25:23). It is difficult, however, to pinpoint the location of these gates in the city walls.

During the eighth century BC “Uzziah built towers in Jerusalem at the Corner Gate, at the Valley Gate and at the angle of the wall” (2 Chron 26:9) as he strengthened the defenses of the city. Also during his reign (792 –740 BC) and after, Jerusalem expanded westward so as to include the southern portion of the western ridge—probably because settlers from the northern kingdom moved south to avoid the Assyrian onslaught.

In the excavations in the modern Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, a 210-foot segment of a massive wall, 23 feet thick and in places preserved to a height of 10 feet, was discovered. This was likely built in Hezekiah’s day because of the threat of Assyrian assault. He enclosed the whole southern portion of the western ridge so that the total area of the walled city swelled to 150 acres and boasted a population of about 25,000.

Since the Gihon Spring was at some distance from the newly enclosed western suburb, Hezekiah devised a plan to divert the water to a spot inside the city walls, closer to the western hill. He did this by digging an underground tunnel that followed a serpentine path to a point in the Central Valley, which was inside the newly constructed city wall. This diversion is mentioned not only in the Bible (2 Kings 20:20), but also in a Hebrew inscription discovered at the southern end of the 1,750-foot tunnel.

Postexilic Jerusalem

But because of the continuing sins of the people and their leaders, God’s judgment fell on Jerusalem in 605, in 597, and climactically in 586 BC— the year when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed both the city and the temple. Almost fifty years later, a large-scale return to Jerusalem began in response to the decree issued by Cyrus (539 BC). Led by Sheshbazzar, 49,897 people returned to Jerusalem from Babylon, rebuilt the temple altar, and reinstituted sacrificial worship. Not until the days of the Persian Darius, however, were Jews, led by Zerubbabel, able to actually rebuild the temple (520–516 BC; Ezra 6).

The second return from Babylon was led by Ezra the scribe (458 BC) and was noted for its spiritual accomplishments. The actual rebuilding of the walls took place in the days of Nehemiah (445 BC; see Neh 1 – 4; 6; 12:27 –47). From that time until the beginning of the second century BC, not much is known about Jerusalem. Early in the second century the Seleucid king Antiochus III defeated the Ptolemies (198 BC), and the change in rule was welcomed by most of the Jewish population. With Antiochus’s support, repairs were made to the temple, and a large pool—possibly the Pool of Bethesda—was constructed (Sir 50:1 –3).

Herod’s building projects in Jerusalem

At the beginning of the period of Roman rule Jerusalem experienced great expansion, construction, and beautification under the leadership of the Roman client king, Herod the Great (37 – 4 BC). Pride of place must certainly go to Herod’s refurbishing of the temple and the Temple Mount, a project that took ten years, though crews were still working on it during Jesus’ lifetime (John 2:20, ca. AD 28). Herod especially expanded the courts surrounding the temple. He doubled the size of the platform area so that it reached its present size of 36 acres. The area is now occupied by Muslim structures and is called the Haram esh-Sharif—the Noble Sanctuary. To the northwest of the temple Herod built the Antonia Fortress, which towered over the temple area and housed a garrison to monitor and control the crowds.

On the western ridge Herod built a magnificent palace for himself. In addition, Herod built a second wall that began near these towers—by the Gennath Gate—and ran to the Antonia Fortress, enclosing the northern “Second Quarter” of the city (Josephus, War 5.4.2 [146]).

Jerusalem in the time of Jesus

The Jerusalem Jesus knew was basically the same as Herodian Jerusalem. On one of his visits to the city, Jesus healed a paralyzed invalid at the Pool of Bethesda, north of the Temple Mount near the Sheep Gate (John 5:1–14). Portions of a double pool that could have been surrounded by “five covered colonnades”—one on each side and one in the middle separating the two pools—have been discovered just north of the Temple Mount. On another occasion Jesus healed a blind man whom he sent to the Pool of Siloam to wash (John 9).

Most of the information about Jesus in Jerusalem comes from the last week of his earthly ministry. Jesus evidently spent his nights with his friends in Bethany, 1.5 miles from Jerusalem on the east side of the Mount of Olives. He made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey that he had mounted in the Bethphage area. After crossing the Mount of Olives, he descended into the Kidron Valley to shouts of “Hosanna”; after entering Jerusalem, he took a look around the temple area.

On Monday he entered the temple area again, and this time he drove out the moneychangers who were possibly operating in the Royal Colonnade along the southern perimeter of the Court of the Gentiles. On Tuesday Jesus once again entered the temple complex and later in the day spent time teaching his disciples on the Mount of Olives.

After resting in Bethany on Wednesday, Jesus sent “two of his disciples” (Mark 14:13) into the city to secure a room and prepare a meal so that he could celebrate the Passover with his disciples. In spite of the fact that the structure on the traditional site of the Last Supper (the Cenacle) dates from the Crusader period (at least 1,100 years after the event), it is probable that the site itself, located on the southern portion of the western ridge in a well-to-do section of town, is close to where the meal took place. Then Jesus and his disciples went down to the Garden of Gethsemane, at the western foot of the Mount of Olives, near the Kidron Valley. There, after praying for a while, he was taken prisoner.

That night he appeared before Caiaphas the high priest, Pilate the procurator, and Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, who was in Jerusalem for the festival. The exact site of each interrogation is not known, but most likely the residence of Caiaphas was somewhere on the southern or eastern portion of the western ridge, and Herod Antipas was probably staying in the old Hasmonean palace on the eastern slope of the western ridge, overlooking the temple. Although Jesus may have appeared before Pilate at the Antonia Fortress, it is more probable that as ruler of the country, he was residing in Herod’s palace and Jesus was interrogated, humiliated, and condemned there.

According to the gospel accounts, Jesus was led outside the city, crucified, and buried in a nearby tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. In Jerusalem today two localities lay claim to these events. The first of these is Gordon’s Calvary, to the north of the present-day Damascus Gate, with the nearby Garden Tomb. Although this site lies outside the ancient as well as the present-day city wall and is quite amenable to certain types of piety, there is no compelling reason to think that this is either Calvary and/or the tomb; in fact, the tomb may date back to the Iron Age (1000 –586 BC) and thus would not have been a tomb “in which no one had yet been laid” (Luke 23:53).

More compelling is the suggestion that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher marks the spot of these dramatic events. This more traditional site was probably outside the walled city of Jesus’ day and was in fact a burial ground. After his resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples for forty days and then, on the Mount of Olives, he ascended into heaven.

This post is excerpted from the Zondervan Essential Atlas of the Bible and Encountering the Holy Land: A Video Introduction to the History and Geography of the Bible. This video series is a unique, on-location visual overview of the lands of the Bible designed for students, Bible study groups, adult learners, travelers to the lands of the Bible, pastors, teachers, and all lovers of the Bible. Watch a FREE preview:

Encountering the Holy Land provides an in-depth visual overview of the Bible that will help you experience the geography and history of Scripture with unprecedented immediacy and clarity. Get it today on DVD or Download, or stream it on MasterLectures with a 14-day free trial.

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