This Just In: Ancient Temple was a Slaughterhouse!

Jesus in the temple (Greco)

Well, surprise, surprise! According to a recent archeological report, the ancient temple in Jerusalem was a slaughterhouse that powered the local economy. The animals sacrificed came from both near and far away, which “confirms visions of the temple depicted in historical Jewish texts and suggests the economic heart of the city was its slaughtering operation.”

The Journal of Archeological Science, in the December 2013 issue has an article on “The pilgrimage economy of Early Roman Jerusalem,” by Gideon Hartman, et. al., which (despite the date) is evidently already available. You can find the abstract online (scroll down to see abstract). What is new in this report is not the ancient testimonies pro or con on animal sacrifice, but that modern evidence supports the idea that animal sacrifice was a key part of the first century Jewish economy.

The demand for sacrificial animals was so intense that the local economy just couldn’t keep up, thus the need to “import” animals from further away. Hartman and his co-authors looked at remains of bones from the animals found in the Jerusalem area.  They looked at the carbon and nitrogen isotope values to determine the origin of the animals, and conclude that animals came from far and wide.  “At minimum 37% of the goat and sheep consumed in Jerusalem during the Early Roman period were brought from desert regions. The inter-provincial importation of animals to Jerusalem to meet high demands for sacrifice by pilgrims is the first material evidence for large scale economic specialization in the city.”

Descriptions of animal sacrifice are found in Josephus, from whom it appears that the practice went on almost continually. But the sacrificial cult was also highly controversial. Objections to the animal sacrifice cult were very much evident in much of the prophetic literature, and were also a key element in Jewish Christianity, which described animal sacrifice as demon-inspired.

So when Jesus went into the temple in Jerusalem and drove out the animals which were there (Matthew 21:12–13 and parallels), Jesus was disrupting the animal sacrifice business in the temple; it was an act of animal liberation as well as an economic blow. The ancient temple in Jerusalem was more like a slaughterhouse or butcher shop than a modern place of worship.

The issue of animal sacrifice, which I already discussed in The Lost Religion of Jesus, will be a key theme of Disciples, where I show that opposition to animal sacrifice was a prominent issue for Jewish Christianity and actually predated Jesus by nearly a millennium.

5 Replies to “This Just In: Ancient Temple was a Slaughterhouse!”

  1. Too bad you didn’t have this evidence before you finished your book. There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus objected to this process.

  2. See also the passage from John 2:13, where the cleansing of the Temple occurs early in Jesus’ ministry:

    13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle….

  3. Thank you. I have just found this. I independently came to the same conclusion a while back. I believe that we can reasonably make an assumption that ancient prophets possibly before recorded history had clocked that there was a good and bad way to prepare and eat meat. Their knowledge was passed down by word of mouth through a process of apprenticeship from which religion and cults formed.

    You make the connection with a slaughterhouse. It’s where they would have gathered to eat meat. What was not suitable or safe to eat, or simply could not be eaten, had to be burned for safe disposal. That’s what was offered to G_d or the gods. Not doing so would have created a huge public health risk – rat infestations and other infection risks.

    You have given me lots to read.

    1. In the case of the prophets who opposed animal sacrifice, it wasn’t a human health issue. It was an ethical issue. They opposed the bloody animal sacrifice business: “I have had enough of burnt offerings, I do not delight in the blood of bulls,” etc. (Isaiah 1:11), and “I desire steadfast love and not [animal] sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). This last verse was twice quoted by Jesus (Matthew 9:13, 12:7), and provides Jesus’ motivation for disrupting the animal sacrifice business in the last days of his life.

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