Thomas L. McDonald has been a writer and editor for the past 25 years, covering technology, history, archaeology, games, and religion. He has degrees in English, Film, and Theology with a concentration in Church History. He’s been a certified catechist for twelve years, and taught Church History for eight. His other writing can be found at Weird Catholic.
The New York Times found itself at the center of a firestorm last week after publishing an article that suggested there’s no proof the First and Second Temples ever stood on the Temple Mount. The claim is common among Palestinians and their allies eager to deny the historical ties of Jews to Jerusalem, but it’s shocking to find “the paper of record” giving credibility to the notion.
Archaeologists and Biblical scholars—including those quoted for the story—reacted with outrage on the internet. As with the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” hoax, social media and blogs drove the story, pouncing on errors in the report and forcing the Times to retreat with a flurry of corrections, retractions, and ultimately an “editor’s note” attempting to clarify the initial, highly biased piece.
The story, titled “Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place” was written by Rick Gladstone, a reporter and editor on the Foreign Desk, who interviewed several noted academics on the subject. Two of these these sources later issued statements saying their words had been used out of context in such a way as to wholly alter their meaning.
Gladstone’s piece veered off the mark by the second paragraph, with the following, seriously problematic assertions:
The question, which many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered, is whether the 37-acre site, home to Islam’s sacred Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa Mosque, was also the precise location of two ancient Jewish temples, one built on the remains of the other, and both long since gone.
Those temples are integral to Jewish religious history and to Israel’s disputed assertions of sovereignty over all of Jerusalem. Many Palestinians, suspicious of Israel’s intentions for the site, have increasingly expressed doubt that the temples ever existed — at least in that location. Many Israelis regard such a challenge as false and inflammatory denialism.
There is no question at all that the Temples were located on the Temple Mount, and under pressure the Times changed the wording to make it appear as though the controversy was only over the precise location on the mount where the Temples were sited. The overall tone of the piece, however, retained its skeptical thrust, as you can see from the end of the section above, which says “many Israelis” see these claims as false. This makes it seem as though the location is just a Zionist fantasy rather than the consensus of the academic community.
For example, Jane Cahill, who was a senior staff archaeologist for Hebrew University’s City of David Archaeological Project, is quoted saying “nobody knows exactly” where it stood, while Matthew J. Adams, director of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem calls it an academically complex question.”
Adams repudiated the use of his quotes in a letter to Jim Davila, professor of Early Jewish Studies at the Divinity School of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, whose coverage of this issue at his blog PaleoJudaica has been exceptional. Adams says his actual quote to the reporter was ”First, it's pretty clear that the temple built (or restored) by Herod stood on the Haram/Temple Mount. Archaeological and Textual sources make this fairly certain." After that, he turned to the siting of the First Temple on Temple Mount, which is what he meant as the “academically complex question.” Gladstone's creative editing made it seem as though the very existence of the Temple on that location was a "complex question."
Jodi Magness, one of the most prominent experts on the archaeology and history of the area, wrote a letter to the Times saying she explained everything in an hour-long interview with Gladstone, telling him she was unaware of “any legitimate or credible scholars who doubt the existence of the two temples or who deny that they stood somewhere on the Temple Mount.”
Magness thus makes it clear that Gladstone knew the academic consensus. He appears to have suppressed it, not in passing or accidentally, but repeatedly and deliberately. The Times has thus far failed to explain the reason for this, and we are left with only one logical conclusion: an anti-Israel agenda.
In truth, there’s a mountain (literally and figuratively) of evidence supporting the location of both Temples on the Temple Mount. All textual, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence points to this fact. The al-Aqsa Mosque (the third-holiest site in Islam) was built there because it was a holy site! It is only in the highly politicized context of Israeli-Palestinian relations that Islamic propagandists attempt to bend the facts to suit their illusions of supremacy. It’s nothing less than an another attempt to wipe the memory of the Jews from the face of the earth.
The question is: why this subject, why the Times, and why now?
That’s a little easier to answer. The Times is a mouthpiece for the political left, which is committed to the anti-Israel “BDS” (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement in order to strangle the Jewish state. A key part of anti-Zionist efforts is denying the ties of Jews to Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
The problem is that, in order to keep the peace, Israel allows Islamic authorities to maintain control of the Temple Mount, and those authorities refuse to allow any excavations on the site. In the 1990s, archaeologists were horrified to learn that, in direct defiance of all agreements, Muslims had dug into the area around Solomon’s Stables to build a new prayer chapel, hauling away 400 truckloads of precious artifact-laced soil and dumping it. The Temple Mount Sifting Project has been using a small army of volunteers to go through this mountain of dirt in search of treasures. Just last month, a ten-year-old volunteer discovered an important Davidic seal, the first found at the Temple Mount.
That timing is what may explain the Times article. Palestinians don’t want Israelis digging on the site because it’s rich in proof of Jewish ties to Jerusalem: ties which predate by millennia any Islamic claims. Worse, the Temple Mount may be the fuse that ignites the Third Intifada, as rumors that Israel wants to change the rules regarding access, and video of a Jewish politician praying there, are enraging the Palestinians.
Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority, recently said “The Al-Aqsa Mosque is ours, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is ours, and the Jews have no right to defile it with their filthy feet.” This is why Jews are being chopped to death with cleavers in the streets.
Against this incediary background, the Times published a false and misleading story tailor-made to buttress the claims of the Islamic radcials and undercut the deep ties of the Jews to their land. In the Middle East, archaeology isn’t just something for the curious or academics. It’s at the very center of the fanatical political claims and religious tensions that lead to explosive cycles violence in the region. The past is always present in the Holy Land.