Jerusalem, A city of Significance in the Life of Jesus

Jesus and Jerusalem

Jerusalem, a city with a rich and complex history, was instrumental in Jesus’ life.

To better understand him, we will explore Jerusalem’s culture, customs, and significant places that impacted him.

Plus, his visits to Jerusalem.

Culture and Customs of Jerusalem

During Jesus’s life, Jerusalem went from being the capital of an independent state with connections to Rome under Herod the Great (ruled 37 BCE to 4 BCE) to a city within a province of the great empire administered by Pontius Pilate (26-36 CE).

Pilate was stationed in Caesarea Maritima and only came to Jerusalem during festivals to ensure that riots did not occur. Demoting Jerusalem as it no longer served as the capital of Judea during Jesus’ life.

In fact, after Herod the Great’s death, his kingdom was divided, and Jesus lived most of his life in Galilee, ruled by his son Herod Antipas (4 BCE – 39 CE). Thus Jesus was technically a foreign visitor when he visited Jerusalem (Luke 23:7).

Despite being administered by the Romans, it maintained its distinct Jewish identity. The social structure was primarily based on Jewish religious observance, with the Temple as the center of religious life.

The High Priest and the Sadducees directed the Jewish cult worship of the temple and worked with the Romans in governing Jerusalem. The longest-serving and one who directly interacted with Jesus was Caiaphas (Joseph)(High Priest 18–36/37 CE), the son-in-law of the high priest Annas (High Priest 6-15 CE).

However, the Pharisees informally influenced the people of Jerusalem. Josephus estimated there were roughly 6,000.

Significant Landmarks in Jerusalem

Herod the Great’s reign and rule significantly shaped Jerusalem in Jesus’ day.

In particular, two significant landmarks.

His palace and the Jewish Temple.

Herod the Great’s Palace.

Herod’s Palace was a monumental structure situated at the northwestern wall of the Upper City of Jerusalem. Next only to the temple in grandeur, it was an architectural marvel built during King Herod’s reign.

After Herod’s death, the Roman governors used it as their official residence during major Jewish festivals in Jerusalem.

This is most likely the place where Jesus was tried and sentenced by Pilate (Jn18:28).

The Temple

One of the wonders of the ancient world was Herod the Great’s Temple.

Herod's Temple

It was built at the site of Solomon’s temple but much significantly larger, covering an area of roughly 26 football fields.

Not only was it large enough to allow for thousands of worshipers, including God-Fearing Gentiles, in the outer courts. A feature added by Herod the Great to the original design of Solomon. But Josephus comments it was a site to behold.

“The exterior of the building lacked nothing that could astound either mind or eye. . . . To approaching strangers it appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain; for all that was not overlaid with gold was of purest white”

Jewish War 5.222–23

Daily sacrifices were made for the people and the Roman Emperor at the temple.

Over and above the daily sacrifices were festivals like Passover. Josephus estimates that on the Passover in 4 BCE, 265,000 lambs were sacrificed (The Jewish War 6.9.3), showing the sheer size of the temple worship at Jerusalem. Serving over 2 million worshipers.

All Jewish males were expected to visit the temple three times a year.

There is debate about how closely ordinary people followed this.

And even of how accurate Josephus’s numbers are.

E.P Sanders suggests it is more likely between 300 000 to 500 000 (Judaism: Practice and Belief p. 126).

Regardless of which number you accept, the temple was a significant attraction, drawing thousands of worshipers annually, including Jesus.

How many people lived in Jerusalem in Jesus’s time?

Much debate exists about Jerusalem’s population during Jesus’s time, similar to Josephus’s estimates and modern scholarly opinions.

On the high end, we have the Roman historian Tacitus (56-120 CE)in his annual estimates that Jerusalem’s population in Jesus’ times was about 600,000.

On the lower end, Biblical Archaeology ), estimates a population of 25,000.

Current scholarship and archaeological evidence suggest that Jerusalem’s population during Jesus’s time was likely around 40,000-80,000.

Jerusalem was a significant city in the region. Still, compared to Rome, the largest city in the Roman Empire with an estimated population of over a million, it was not a significant city by population.

Why is Jerusalem Important Geographically?

Jerusalem’s geographical location has many political and military significances. But since our focus is on Jesus, we will consider only those relevant to his life.

The most significant is elevation.

The main city walls of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. Topographic map based on an original by Balage Balogh/ – Slide 3,

Image Courtesy of Free Bible Images

Jerusalem is situated on a mount. With an elevation of 754 meters above sea level.

This is noteworthy for one who wants to understand a common phrase in the gospels.

Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem

Matthew 20:17

Regularly in all 4 of the gospels is the reference to “going up” to Jerusalem.

Compared to most other locations, Jerusalem was higher.

Such as Capernaum, where Jesus focussed most of his ministry in Galilee. Capernaum is 208 meters below sea level. Requiring a climb of almost 1,000 meters to go to Jerusalem.

Even a much closer community like Jericho, only 18 miles from Jerusalem, is 1 012 meters below the city.

Bethphage, where most likely Jesus rode from into Jerusalem, is 7 meters lower. Meaning that Jesus rode uphill into Jerusalem.

Secondly is Jerusalem’s distance from the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized. The Jordon River is only 25 miles east of Jerusalem. This made it possible for Jesus to walk into Jerusalem while he ministered around Jordan before moving to Galilee. And also for religious leaders and the general population to come out to Jordan to be Baptized.

And visit Jerusalem Jesus did.

Jerusalem on a Hill

How many days did Jesus spend in Jerusalem?

The most memorialized and accepted by almost all historians is when Jesus went to Jerusalem, was arrested, sentenced, and evacuated. Often known as his last week.

But this is not the only time recorded in the gospels that Jesus went to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem visits as a child

Luke records Jesus being in Jerusalem and the temple twice as a child.

  • Circusision (Luke 2:22)
  • Passover when he was 12 (Luke 2:41)

Jesus Visits Jerusalem as an Adult

The Synoptics do not record Jesus visiting Jerusalem as an adult beyond his last week, but John does.

During Festivals

  • two during a Passover (John 2:23, 12:12),
  • one during an unnamed festival (John 5:1)
  • one at Hannukah (John 10:22).

Visits close to Jerusalem.

  • Visiting Mary and Martha in Bethany (Luke 10:38). John 12:1 tells us they lived in Bethany.
  • Raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1).
  • During his last week, it appears he stayed outside of Jerusalem in Bethany (Mark 11:11)

Debatable Times

As with anything historical, there is debate.

Some historians and many lay Christians believe that Jesus only “cleansed the temple” once. John placing Jesus in Jerusalem near the beginning of his ministry is not historically accurate in John 2. During his last week in Jerusalem, the temple incident occurred only once.

Others argue that Jesus kicked over tables twice. Once before his Galilean ministry and finally at the end. Requiring an additional trip to Jerusalem.

The other debatable visit is during Jesus’ temptation. Matthew and Luke record that the devil took him to the temple’s highest point and tempted him to test God by jumping (Matt. 4:5, Lk. 4:9).

If this was not a vision or out-of-body experience, it can be considered another time that Jesus visited Jerusalem.