(Maayan Berrebi/TPS)
Temple Mount in Jerusalem

‘There is zero debate that two temples stood in that place in scholarly literature,’ says NYU professor.

By Menachem Wecker, JNS

An article that appeared in The Washington Post just before Passover seems to equate the historical reality of the Jewish Temples in Jerusalem and that of the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s miraculous “night journey” to heaven.

“In Jewish tradition, the Temple Mount is the site where the First and Second Temples once stood. For Muslims, it [sic] known as the Noble Sanctuary, the place where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven,” wrote Louisa Loveluck, Niha Masih and Miriam Berger. “The night of violence at the al-Aqsa compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, adds fuel to an already combustible situation.”

An earlier version of the story had noted: “In Jewish tradition, it is the site where the faith’s First and Second Temples once stood. For Muslims, it is the place from which the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.”

Professors with relevant expertise told JNS that there is no debate in the scholarly community about the reality of the two Jewish Temples, whereas the question about whether Muhammad was a prophet who took a miraculous heavenly journey is not seen as a matter of fact, particularly for those who are not believing Muslims.

“There is zero debate that two temples stood in that place in scholarly literature. Mohammed’s ascent ‘happens’ from there only because it is the Temple site,” Lawrence Schiffman, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, told JNS.

“The story about Muhammad going on a miraculous horse all the way from Arabia to Jerusalem and ascending to heaven is a religious belief. It’s like saying that Jacob prayed there,” he said.

The locations of the Herodian Temple, and the Hasmonean Temple before it, “can be proven archaeologically, and is a hard fact,” said Schiffman, adding that numerous Islamic sources prior to the modern period recognized that fact. (In more recent years, some Palestinian leaders have denied long-standing Jewish presence in Israel.)

“They are trying to be neutral, but that confuses the facts,” Schiffman said of the Post.

A view of the Dome of the Rock and the Old City of Jerusalem, as it seen from the Mount of Olives lookout, Feb. 8, 2023. Photo by Jamal Awad/Flash90.

‘Literary sources, however, are ample’

Steven Fine, professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University and director of its Center for Israel Studies, and a founding editor of the Jewish art and visual culture journal Images, agreed.

“It is an historical fact that the Jewish temples were built on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Archaeological evidence for the Temple rebuilt after the return from the Babylonian captivity and continuing until 66 C.E. is not contested,” he told JNS.

There is scarce archaeological evidence of the First Temple, which is associated with King Solomon, since Herod rebuilt and expanded the Temple Mound in the year 20 or 19 BCE, “and also because Muslim authorities do not allow scientific excavation of the site,” said Fine.

“Literary sources, however, are ample,” he said. “No historian doubts the presence of an Israelite Temple on Mount Zion in biblical times.”

Based on the Koran and later Muslim tradition, it is true that to Muslims, the site known as the Noble Sanctuary is where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, according to Fine. “The claim regarding Muhammed is a matter of faith.”

Washington’s paper of record has had prior difficulty with its reporting on the sacred site in Jerusalem.

“An earlier version of this article misidentified the Jewish temple built by King Solomon. Solomon built the First Temple, not the Second,” the Post stated in a May 23, 2013 correction. “The article also incorrectly referred to Herod as the builder of the Second Temple. Although the temple is sometimes called Herod’s Temple in honor of his expansion of it, the original construction occurred centuries earlier.”

In 2006, the Post appeared to suggest the opposite of its recent story. A discovery “strengthens Jewish ties to the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary. The site of ancient Jewish temples contains Islam’s al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock and is revered as the place where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven,” it reported.

It also suggested that the Jewish Temples were a fact in 1986, 1989—in an article that notes that what was Judaism’s “holiest shrine” and that “in the centuries since then,” it has “become Islam’s third-holiest site, where Moslems believe Mohammed ascended to heaven”—2002 and 2013.

The 2013 article quotes an Arab Israeli parliamentarian who insisted “There is no such thing as the Temple Mount! … It does not exist. It is not there.”

A 2016 Post article, which states that “Jews call it the Temple Mount, believed to be where the first and second temples once stood,” again questions the history of the Temples.

Asked if the Post recently changed its policy to express skepticism towards the scholarly consensus that the two Jewish Temples are historical facts, a spokesperson for the paper did not immediately respond.