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Challenge to Sun-Worship Interpretation of Temple Scroll’s Gilded Staircase, Jacob Milgrom, BAR 11:01, Jan-Feb 1985.

Dead Sea Scrolls - test chart

In “The Case of the Gilded Staircase,” BAR 10-05, Professor Morton Smith attempts to prove that the Temple envisioned by the Essenes had a gilded staircase to reach the roof of the Temple where members of the Dead Sea sect worshipped the sun. As can be expected from Smith’s well-attested erudition, his contribution is informative and insightful. However, his thesis that the Essenes worshipped the sun must be rejected in toto.

Smith himself is fully aware of the major obstacle to his thesis- The Essenes were a fundamentalist sect that interpreted the Torah (the Pentateuch) literally. Their Temple Scroll—the same document that prescribes the Temple’s gilded staircase—also expressly cites the Deuteronomic prohibition against worshipping the sun (Temple Scroll, Column 55-17–18). Smith suggests that the sect may have rationalized its blatantly heretical behavior by claiming that it “reverenced” rather than worshipped the sun.

Smith finds himself driven to his conclusion by a number of factors- The staircase of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, as described in rabbinic sources, is entirely different architecturally from the staircase described in the Temple Scroll. The Second Temple staircase circumscribes the Temple walls, he says; it is not freestanding. The staircase described in the Temple Scroll, on the other hand is freestanding (see drawing 1). It is contained in a 20-foot-square tower adjacent to the Temple. It rises to a height of 60 feet and is connected to the Temple roof by a viaduct. The Temple Scroll staircase and its tower, termed beth hamesibah, “the stairhouse,” are plated with gold inside and out. Smith reasons that the expense involved in building a separate structure for the staircase (instead of enclosing it within the Temple, as was true of the Second Temple staircase) and then gilding it on all its surfaces can only mean that it was used for ritual purposes, specifically the worship of the sun on the Temple roof. Smith finds support for this conclusion in archaeological, iconographic and textual sources.1

Smith is wrong, however, when he suggests that the freestanding staircase tower was an innovation of the Temple Scroll staircase; in fact, the Second Temple, as it stood in Jerusalem at the time, had an adjoining structure which housed a staircase leading to the roof. Moreover, this staircase served an essential, but distinctly non-ritual, function in the maintenance of the Temple.
The description of the Second Temple staircase is contained in the Talmud,a in the tractate Middot-
“A staircase (mesibah) went up from the northeastern corner to the northwestern corner, whereby they could go to the roofs of the chambers. [The priest] went up by the staircase facing westward, and went the whole length of the northern side until he reached the west; after he reached the west he turned his face to the south, and went the whole length of the western side until he reached the south; after he had reached the south he turned his face to the east and went along the southern side until he reached the entrance to the upper chamber, for the entrance to the upper chamber opened towards the south. And at the entrance to the upper chamber there were two cedar posts by which they could mount to the roof of the upper chamber. And in the upper chamber the ends of flagstones marked where the division was between the Sanctuary and Holy of Holies. And in the upper chamber there were openings into the Holy of Holies by which they used to let the workmen down in boxes, so that they should not feast their eyes on the Holy of Holies” (Mishnah Middot 4-5).

Until now, most commentators, including Smith, assumed that this staircase was built inside the Temple walls, beginning on the northeast, circling the northern, western, and southern walls, and emerging on the upper story on the southeast corner (see drawing 2). However, recently this theory has been demolished by Itzchak Magen.2 Magen notes that the cross-sectional measurements of the Second Temple (Mishnah Middot 4-7) only allow for a staircase (mesibah) within the northern wall! Thus, when the Mishnah speaks of turning south and traversing the “western side” and turning east and traversing the “southern side,” it is speaking of the walls not of the Temple but of the staircase tower located in the northwest portion of the Temple. Furthermore, since the description in Middot makes no provision for this structure within the Temple, it must perforce be situated outside, as represented by Magen in drawing 3.b Thus, a person would have entered at the northeast corner, without setting foot inside the Temple itself, ascending the long corridor on the northern side to a height of approximately 20 feet and negotiating the 40 feet remaining to the level of the Temple roof by making one complete, 360 degree turn on a staircase.

Access to the Temple roof itself would then be by a bridge or causeway. Such a causeway is expressly indicated in the passage from Middot already quoted. As noted by Magen, the text speaks of two upper chambers, one on the roof of the staircase tower and the other on the Temple roof, connected by “two cedar posts by which they could mount to the roof of [the Temple’s] upper chamber.” The two cedar posts, then, form the causeway which connects the staircase tower to the Temple roof, conforming precisely to the specifications for a similar causeway in the Temple Scroll.

The principal purpose of this staircase tower is also indicated in Middot- It is to allow workmen access to the Temple, in particular, to the Holy of Holies.

According to old rabbinic tradition, the repairmen of the Temple need not be priests- “All may enter to build and repair [the Temple building] and to remove impurity.”3 The Holy of Holies was inspected once in seven years,4 at which time the workmen would be lowered in boxes. Except for the side facing the wall, the sides of the boxes were closed “so that they [the workmen] should not feast their eyes on the Holy of Holies.”

It must be remembered that laymen were forbidden to enter the Temple, not to speak of the Holy of Holies itself. When Nehemiah was advised to seek refuge in the Temple, he replied “Will a man like me take flight? Besides, who such as I can go into the Temple and live? I will not go in” (Nehemiah 6-11). Thus, repairmen, who at times were recruited from the laity, were admitted first through a corridor which would bypass the sanctuary altogether and, then, into the Holy of Holies in such a way that the workers could inspect and repair its walls without being able to view the inside of the chamber.

To be sure, the Holy of Holies in the Second Temple was empty; the Ark, Cherubim, and kapporet (“Mercy Seat”?) of the First Temple were never replaced. Only the projection of bare rock, known as “The Foundation Stone,”5 served as a reminder that this was where the Ark of the Covenant had once stood. Nonetheless, the holiness of the place remained unimpaired. All the more so would this hold true in the Holy of Holies envisaged by the Essenes, in which all the sacred objects prescribed by Scripture would be restored. Thus, the Temple Scroll would surely have mandated a staircase by which the workmen could be admitted into the Holy of Holies without entering the Sanctuary.

This leads me to Smith’s next point- Why did the Essenes propose an economically prohibitive and functionally inefficient structure for the staircase instead of enclosing it within the Temple itself? Magen conjectures that the staircase of the Second Temple was added to the Temple subsequently and as such it became the model for the Essene Temple envisaged in the Temple Scroll. This explanation is inadequate, however. The Essene Temple was only a blueprint; it could have endorsed any improvement so long as it did not violate the explicit prescriptions of the Bible. Thus, the Temple Scroll could and did contemplate such installations as the slaughterhouse, the utensilhouse, and the laverhouse about none of which is anything said in the Bible.

The correct explanation for the lavishly gilded independent staircase stems from the data in Middot cited above. The Essenes would have barred all non-priests from the Temple, at any cost. The Essenes probably objected to the design built into the Jerusalem Temple whereby the workmen were admitted to the staircase from the vestibule of the Temple itself. Instead, the Essene Temple proposed an independent stairhouse adjacent to but separate from the Temple at the nearest point to the Holy of Holies so that the workmen could enter it via the roof and thereby entirely bypass the Sanctuary and its Sancta. As for its cost, what did that matter to a sect that envisaged a Temple compound containing outer walls each of which was 1600 cubits long (nearly half a mile) and 49 cubits high (about 75 feet)—enough to encompass the present Old City of Jerusalem. And how can budgetary matters have bothered a sect which prescribed a staircase as well as its structure plated with gold inside and out?

This brings me to Smith’s final point- Doesn’t all this gold imply that the stairhouse was essential, perhaps quintessential, to the doctrines and worship of this sect? Not at all. As I have already pointed out elsewhere6, the stairhouse was plated with gold because of the rule in Exodus 30-9 that “whatever contacts them becomes sacred.” That is, what is in contact with the Temple, such as a stairhouse connected to the Temple by an elevated viaduct, itself becomes sanctified. This law from Exodus is explicitly referred to in the Temple Scroll (Column 30-6–7). As gold was used to plate the interior of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6-21–22) and to fashion its vessels (2 Chronicles 4-19–22), so was gold prescribed for the Temple described in the Temple Scroll (Column 4-14) and for its vessels (Column 3-8, 9, 12).

Gold was used also in the House of the Laver (Column 32-10–11); that is, to plate the cubicles in which the priestly garments were stored. These garments are holy (Exodus 29-21; Leviticus 8-30) and the Scroll adopts the teaching of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 42-14, 44-19) that their holiness attaches to whatever or whomever they contact (Column 33-7). Thus, the receptacles in the House of the Laver must also be gold.

For this reason, the stairhouse was also gilded—because it was attached to the gilded Temple and, hence, equal to it in holiness.

In short, the stairhouse of the Temple Scroll was no innovation. It was already part of the Second Temple. The Temple of the Temple Scroll simply adopted this installation and modified it by making it an independent structure and plating it with gold. The notion that the stairhouse was used in worship—not to speak of worshipping the sun—is neither necessary nor true.

Morton Smith, author of “The Case of the Gilded Staircase,” responded as follows to Jacob Milgrom’s comments about his article.

Milgrom’s confidence is stronger than his case. Fanciful attempts to make sense of the Mishnah Middot have been going on for centuries and have been consistent only in being failures. Milgrom does not explain, for instance, how it would be possible to make “one complete, 360° turn on a staircase” by following the directions in Middot 4.5, which prescribe only two turns on it of 90° each (from west to south and from south to east) in its description of the Second Temple.
Nor does he explain why the independent Temple staircase is supposedly described in Middot (written about 200 A.D.) is unknown to Josephus, a priest who had spent much time in the Temple in 66 A.D.

Nor does he explain why Josephus reports that the Essenes prayed to the sun and thought its rays those of a god, why the Sepher haRazim, from the Cairo Genizah, gives directions for worship of the sun, why early Christian writers repeatedly report Jewish worship of angels, etc.
Most important of all, Milgrom does not explain how he knows that his notion of orthodoxy (forbidding sun worship) was the same as that of the Essenes’ contemporaries, so Milgrom can describe their behavior in worshipping the sun as “blatantly heretical.” Modern notions of orthodoxy change, as Professor Milgrom will realize if he recalls what he would have said 50 years ago to any suggestion that Palestinian Jews of talmudic times might have used pagan pictures of the sun god as the central decorations of their synagogue floors. “Blatantly heretical,” of course, would have been his response. Then came the discoveriesc; now “orthodoxy” has been revised to allow for the evidence. Never mind. Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose.

a. The Talmud (from the Hebrew, to “study”) is a written compendium of oral law completed by about the fifth century and is composed of the Mishnah and the Gemara, a commentary on the Mishnah. The Talmud exists in two versions- the Jerusalem and the Babylonian.

1. Smith adduces this evidence in even greater detail in a more technical article in Eretz Israel, Vol. 16 [1982], 199–214.

2. Eretz Israel, Vol. 17 [1983], 227–350.

3. Tosefta Kelim Baba Qama 1-11; cf. Sipra Emor 3-11.

4. Ibid, 1-7; b. Pesahim 86a [baraita].

5. Mishnah Yoma 5-2.

6. Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 71 [1980], 90.

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