Ask A Jew: Is the Wailing Wall truly a remnant of the Second Temple?

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By Neal Schindler

I have read that there is controversy about whether the Wailing Wall truly is a remnant of the Second Temple or whether it is part of a Roman fortress. What does the evidence indicate?

Popular Archaeology magazine is the most mainstream source I found that has entertained the theory that the Wailing Wall was part of Fortress Antonia rather than the Second Temple. Here’s the Antonia argument in a nutshell, from a 2015 article:

Most recently, researcher and author Marilyn Sams has advanced the argument that Fortress Antonia, represented by tradition as a monumental or castle-like structure located during Herodian times just north of the Second Temple … was actually a much larger complex, more akin to the typical standard Roman fortress layout that existed during the time of 1st century Jerusalem, the time of Jesus. The actual size and nature of this alternative model for Fortress Antonia, she argues, would have encompassed the area most scholars and historians have identified with the temple precinct. She bases her argument at least in part on the descriptions recorded by Josephus and others.

Sams herself wrote an article for Popular Archaeology in December of 2015 that espouses the Antonia theory. I have neither interest nor stamina to walk you through the whole thing point by point, but of course you can read it yourself. If you do, you should probably also read Leen Ritmeyer’s take on the subject. Ritmeyer’s credentials are impressive. His company’s website describes him as

an archaeological architect who has been involved in all of Jerusalem’s major excavations. He was chief architect of the Temple Mount Excavations directed by the late Prof. Benjamin Mazar and of the Jewish Quarter Excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem directed by the late Prof. Nahman Avigad, both of the Hebrew University.

If you’re skeptical, you can check out his Wikipedia page, which links to credible publications (Moment magazine, The Los Angeles Times, etc.) that confirm his status as a major player in the field of “biblical archaeology.” Anyway, in November of 2015, Ritmeyer responded to Popular Archaeology with a blog post titled “Not wailing at the wrong Western Wall of the Temple Mount.” In it, Ritmeyer stated, disapprovingly, that Sams “is picking up the old idea of Ernest Martin that the Temple Mount was not located where all scholars agree it is, but in the City of David.”

In that post, Ritmeyer referred readers to the PaleoJudaica blog for further research and concluded: “The idea that the Jewish people pray (not wail) at the wrong wall is not only academically unsound, but an affront to the Jewish people as well.” In February of 2018, Ritmeyer revisited the Antonia theory in order to debunk it more extensively in a blog post that’s probably also worth your time. He ended that post as follows:

So, the historical sources and the archaeological evidence combine to show that the Antonia Fortress stood at the northwest corner of the present-day Temple Mount and that this Temple Mount is indeed the one built by King Herod the Great.

Jewish scholars and publications approach the Antonia theory, more often than not, within the broader context of what’s often called “temple denial” — which, in turn, is an element of some forms of Palestinian nationalism.

Regarding your original question, it seems clear that a majority of scholars accept that the Wailing Wall was part of the Second Temple. Meanwhile, a minority that may qualify as a fringe group either leaves room for doubt or outright insists it was instead part of Fortress Antonia. I suspect most Jews are solidly in the first camp.

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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