Ancient 'outlaw temple' discovered in Israel

A bird's-eye view of the temple, taken at the end of the 2013 excavation season.
A bird's-eye view of the temple, taken at the end of the 2013 excavation season. (Image credit: P. Partouche/SkyView)

The discovery of an Iron Age temple near Jerusalem has upended the idea that the ancient Kingdom of Judah, located in what is now southern Israel, had just one temple: the First Temple, also known as Solomon's Temple, a holy place of worship in Jerusalem that stood from the 10th century B.C. until its destruction, in 586 B.C.

The newfound temple — whose roughly 150 congregants worshiped Yahweh but also used idols to communicate with the divine — was in use during the same period as the First Temple. Its discovery shows that, despite what the Jewish Bible says, there were other contemporary temples besides the First Temple in the kingdom. 

"If a group of people living so close to Jerusalem had their own temple, maybe the rule of the Jerusalem elite was not so strong and the kingdom was not so well established as described in the Bible?" study co-researcher Shua Kisilevitz, a doctoral student of archaeology at Tel Aviv University in Israel and an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, told Live Science.

Related: Photos: Israel's largest Neolithic excavation

Archaeologists have known about the Iron Age site at Tel Motza, located less than 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) outside Jerusalem, since the early 1990s. However, it wasn't until 2012 that researchers discovered the remains of a temple there, and it wasn't until just last year that they excavated it further, ahead of a highway project. 

This temple was likely built around 900 B.C. and operated for a few hundred years, until its demise in the early sixth century B.C., according to Kisilevitz and her co-researcher, who wrote about it in the January/February issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review magazine.

This timing of the temple's existence dumbfounded archaeologists. "The Bible details the religious reforms of King Hezekiah and King Josiah, who assertedly consolidated worship practices to Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem and eliminated all cultic activity beyond its boundaries," Kisilevitz and review co-author Oded Lipschits, the director of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, wrote in the magazine. 

These reforms likely happened between the late eighth and the late seventh centuries B.C. In other words, they occurred at the same time that the Tel Motza temple was operating, the researchers said. 

Was it daring for such a temple to seemingly defy the kings' orders and operate so close to Jerusalem? The only other known temple from this time period in the kingdom, besides the First Temple, "is a small temple in the southern border fort of Arad, which served the local garrison," Kisilevitz said.

However, it appears that there were sanctioned temples in the kingdom whose continued existence was permitted, despite Hezekiah's and Josiah's reforms, Kisilevitz and Lipschits said. Here's how that may have happened.

Ancient granary

The site was home not just to the temple, but also to dozens of silos for grain storage and redistribution. In fact, the granary appears to have thrived as time went on, and it even had buildings that likely served administrative and religious purposes. 

It appears that Tel Motza became such a successful granary that it catered to Jerusalem and became an economic powerhouse. "It seems that the construction of the temple — and the worship conducted in it — were related to [the granary's] economic significance," the researchers wrote in the magazine piece. 

So, perhaps the temple was allowed to exist because it was tied to the granary and didn't seem to threaten the kingdom in any way, the researchers said. 

Broken idols

The temple itself was a rectangular building with an open courtyard in front. This courtyard "served as a focal point for the cultic activity, as the general population was not allowed into the temple itself," Kisilevitz told Live Science. 

"Cultic finds in the courtyard include a stone-built altar on which animals were sacrificed and their remains discarded into a pit dug nearby," Kisilevitz said. In addition, four clay figurines — two human-like and two horse-like — had been broken and buried in the courtyard, likely as part of a cultic ritual.

The horse-like figurines may be the oldest known depictions of horses from the Iron Age of Judah, the researchers added. 

Related: Photos: The ancient ruins of Shivta in southern Israel

But the ancient people probably weren't worshipping the clay idols, Kisilevitz noted. Rather, these idols were "a medium through which the people could communicate with the god [or gods]," likely to ask for good rainfall, fertility and harvest, Kisilevitz told Live Science.

It's not surprising that people in the ancient Kingdom of Judah used idols, the archaeologists noted. 

"Evidence of cultic activity throughout the Kingdom of Judah exists both in the biblical texts (depicted as royally sanctioned, with the notable exception of Hezekiah and Josiah who conducted cultic reform) and in the archaeological finds," Kisilevitz told Live Science.  

Moreover, during this time, new political groups were emerging in the Levant, the region that includes Israel and its neighboring countries today. Given these tumultuous changes, people tended to stick with their old religious practices, the researchers said. Even the Tel Motza temple's architecture and its artifacts were reminiscent of religious traditions from the ancient Near East that had been practiced since the third millennium B.C., the researchers said. 

In all, the discovery of this temple sheds light on state formation during this period, the researchers said. When the Kingdom of Judah first emerged, it wasn't as strong and centralized as it was later on, but it built relationships with local nearby rulers, including one at Tel Motza, the researchers said. 

Originally published on Live Science.

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Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.

  • NathanR
    Is there a consensus as to how long after Hezekiah and Josiah's time were the accounts of their reforms written? Could the Biblical accounts have been written later for political effect and not reflect the true nature of the religious situation in ancient Israel at the time?
  • BlueCat49
    Uh, I was going to give the writer the benefit of the doubt on this terrible article. I realize it is a SHORT summary of what was likely a very long report.

    1. Why was Solomon's Temple destroyed? Because the Jews were disobeying God. Hmm, any chance an "outlaw" temple might be part of that disobedience?

    2. The Bible says there was one GOD "authorized" temple, NOT that there was only one temple.

    3. The article sounds like the writer farted a bunch of anti-Bible bias out her, ummm, mind...

    4. "roughly 150 congregants " Pick a number, any number. The researchers don't have a CLUE how many people "worshipped" there. Or what the "idols" were used for. Or pretty much anything about that "outlaw" temple except it existed and they found some stuff in it. Was the stuff they found there in that temple the ENTIRE time it was in use? About all they can report was what they found when they excavated. Beyond that, they are guessing.

    The Bible is NOT exhaustive. What is written is limited in scope and was written to communicate something specific. The Bible is historically accurate, not historically comprehensive.

    Heck, beyond this article I probably couldn't find much evidence of the existence of Laura Geggel, much less Live Science two thousand years in the future.

    Why not just report the FACTS, and leave out the guesses and anti-Bible bias? Truth is stranger than fiction. Just report the truth.
  • BlueCat49
    admin said:
    According to the Jewish Bible, there was just one temple in the ancient Kingdom of Judah: the First Temple, which sat in Jerusalem. However, a new discovery just upended that perception.

    Ancient 'outlaw temple' discovered in Israel : Read more
    That new discovery did NOT "upend" anything. The Jews were disobedient and worshipped many gods from day one. Haven't you read any of the Bible? Why were the Jews in Egypt? Why was Solomon's Temple destroyed? Why don't you at least read THE sourcebook that this research is referring to? The Bible.
  • BlueCat49
    NathanR said:
    Is there a consensus as to how long after Hezekiah and Josiah's time were the accounts of their reforms written? Could the Biblical accounts have been written later for political effect and not reflect the true nature of the religious situation in ancient Israel at the time?
    It doesn't matter when the accounts were written.

    The Biblical accounts were written to tell a story. (I contend it was a factual, accurate account, but we can debate that if you wish.)

    The problem with UNDERSTANDING such discoveries is that even the researchers and those that summarize their research in articles PROJECT their MODERN mentality onto the ancient people.

    Sure, the news of what was going on in Jerusalem got around, but back then even a few miles was a day's journey.

    Think about the area YOU live in. From YOUR home draw a circle with a 10-mile radius. Think about it. You haven't got a clue what is happening in virtually any of that area. You interact with what, 10 people a day in a meaningful way? You are aware of and could name 20 buildings. You probably couldn't even name all the streets you drive on, or even all the streets in YOUR neighbourhood.

    I often cite "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I read those hundreds of pages in high school and the ONLY thing I remember is that is was NOT repetitive. It was a narrative that constantly moved forward. Sure, it talked about him eating more than once, but it covered everything he did in that ONE day.

    How could any researcher think that they "know" anything about an "outlaw" temple that existed for hundreds of years beyond what they can physically see and touch that was "frozen" on the day it was covered up? Then some writer summarizes that in a report filled with their personal bias.

    No, about all we can learn from this "outlaw" temple is that the Jews CONSTANTLY disobeyed their God's commandments. And they paid the price for disobedience.
  • cars&trucks
    admin said:
    According to the Jewish Bible, there was just one temple in the ancient Kingdom of Judah: the First Temple, which sat in Jerusalem. However, a new discovery just upended that perception.

    Ancient 'outlaw temple' discovered in Israel : Read more
    The Bible also talks about Solomon building "high places" for the gods of his wives. 1 Kings 11:7-8. The Hebrew word used is "Bamah". Also in 1 Kings 12:31, we see Rehoboam "made an house of high places". The word house, "Bayith", used here is the same word used for house for the Lord, as used in reference to the Holy Temple.
  • NLomax1
    I dont wish to insult the intelligence of anyone, but, I have been a lifelong student of The Bible.
    (Hebrew, Aramaic, & Greek scriptures). The flaw in your reasoning (in the article, not personal)
    Is that from the beginning of the Israelites coming into the promised land, they did not do as God
    Had instructed them to drive out all of the Canaanite population. (Judges 2:20-22).
    So for hundreds of years they fell in & out of worshipping false God's. Like Baal, Ashtoreth,
    Molech, their Sacred poles & high places where false priests officiated.
    King David was a faithful King, & all Israel worshipped Jehovah all of his rein & most of Soloman's. In Solomon's later yrs he deviated from true worship & in either 998 BCE or 997 BCE
    The Nation broke apart. Judah & Benjamin in the south- the 10 tribe Kingdom of Samaria in the north. Of Judah's 19 kings beginning with Rehoboam, only a handful practiced true worship.
    Along with the kings, the people also vacillated between true & false worship.
    You mentioned Hezikiah & Josiah. While Uzziah & Jotham were relatively good kings
    Ahaz (Hezikiah's father) was a bad king who along with the people worshipped false Gods. Even sacrificing their children to Molech, burning them to death.
    For a short time during Hezekiah's rein he turned most of Judah to worshipping Jehovah.
    But the people still worshipped idols on the high places.
    After Hezekiah, Manasseh his son revived idolatry & sorcery, murder & violence.
    His son Amon was likewise a bad king. His son Josiah tried hard to do good & waged a campaign
    To clean up the idolatry & false Baal worship in Judah. After his death, the last 4 kings of Judah
    Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, & Zedekiah were bad kings & reverted to pagan worship until
    Nebuchadnezzar II came & destroyed Jerusalem. So, if anything, your archeology has just verified
    The unstable conditions that existed between the True worship of Jehovah at Solomon's temple
    & false pagan worship that existed at the same time all around in Judah & Samaria.
    Some of the bad kings of Judah filled Solomon's Temple with Idols & dedicated it to pagan God's.
    Some people in the land used Idols in there misguided ideas of seving Jehovah or Yahweh.
    If you used God's word the Bible as an accurate & reliable guide in your archeology, maybe you wouldn't have so many seeming contradictions. If you wish, I can give you all the Scriptural texts
    That I'm quoting from. It is solid information both historically & prophetically. & while the Bible does not claim to be a scientific text, it is accurate & reliable.