Keep Out, for the Sake of All that is Holy! (A Temple Warning Inscription)

Remember the scenes from Jesus Christ Superstar and Life of Brian in which the bustling marketplace on the steps of the Temple of Jerusalem incites the protagonists to rage? These scenes remind us that the Temple was more than just a place of religious activity — it was also a bustling community center serving Jews and non-Jews alike. This was especially true after the restorations of Herod the Great, the Judean ruler who was a client-king of the Roman Empire from 37 to 4 BCE.1 Herod earned his epithet “the Great” by spearheading a number of ambitious building projects, all of which were colossal in scale.

Eighteen years into his reign, Herod began his greatest project — a vast addition to the Temple of Jerusalem. Construction continued 46 years, from 19 BCE until 27 CE.2 The Temple was already the crowning jewel of Jerusalem and the hub of the city’s economic activity.3 Herod’s expansions remodeled the Temple’s fortress and appended a “Royal Portico” for hearing cases and conducting official business as well as a large secular forecourt for commercial activity. These additions to the Temple showcased Herod’s power and the city’s wealth while making the Temple itself an even more magnificent center for the city of Jerusalem.4

As you might expect, Herod’s additions created a problem for pious Jews: wealth, commerce, and power are not always compatible with holiness. If you were a pilgrim arriving at the base of the Temple Mount from the east, you would first pass through a gate delineating the Temple complex. This gate would lead out into the midst of the Court of the Gentiles, the site of Herod’s colonnade and marketplace. As its name implies, the Court of the Gentiles was accessible to Jews, Gentiles, foreigners, and the ritually impure. Here, you could mill about, exchange money, and even buy doves or oxen.5 Judaism at this time regarded images as forms of idolatry, and coins with images had to be exchanged for temple currency.6 The exchange of money was considered vulgar, and animals for sale dirtied the space with their droppings. Clearly, this secular and ritually impure space was incompatible with the function of the Temple as the Jews’ holiest place of worship.

To satisfy both the interests of the Temple’s worshippers and those who profited from the Temple’s secular functions, Herod’s builders erected strict physical boundaries separating the holy inner sanctum of the Temple from the bustling marketplace.7 A low wall, or “peribolos” (περίβολος) demarcated the beginning of the sacred, or “agios” (ἅγιος) area of the Temple.8 The sacred area included all of the Temple’s older section built by King Solomon in the 10th century BCE.9

A series of “keep out” signs in both Greek and Latin were posted along this wall at regular intervals to warn away those who were non-Jewish and thus, unfit to enter the sacred space (see jeru0598, jeru0599). Two of these “keep out” signs have survived to the present day. The most complete of the two, discovered on the Temple Mount in 1871, reads: “No alien may enter within the balustrade around the sanctuary and the enclosure. Whoever is caught, on himself shall he put blame for the death which will ensue.”10

The fact that the signs were written in Greek and Latin but not Hebrew, the local vernacular, or Aramaic, the regional language, reflect the fact that the signs explicitly target foreigners and not people from the immediate vicinity, even those who were non-Jewish. The language of the signs also suggests that they were put up by rulers representing the Roman Empire and Hellenic (i.e., Greek) influence instead of by the Temple priests.11

If you were to continue beyond the low wall with the “keep out” signs, you would enter a small forecourt, or “truphaktos” (τρύφακτος) and ascend a staircase of fourteen steps leading up to the Beautiful Gate,12 which was set into a high wall.13 Passing through the Beautiful Gate, you would arrive at a large forecourt called the Court of the Women. This court was accessible to all ritually pure Jews both male and female, but women could go no further into the Temple’s holier spaces. Here, you could deposit a tithe using special coins which lacked an engraved image.

If you were male and wanted to make a sacrifice, you would be free to exit the Court of the Women and pass beneath the elaborate Nicanor Gate to an even holier courtyard. Here, a priest would accept your sacrificial animal and prepare it as a burnt offering on your behalf. As a layperson, you would be separated from the priests by a short flight of steps. Beyond this Court of the Priests you could glimpse an enclosed shrine in which the Ark of the Covenant had once been housed. This shrine was off limits to all but special priests (kohanim) descended from the tribe of Levi.14

The Temple’s many subdivisions and restrictions on who could enter each successive area reflected the hierarchal structure of Jewish society at that time. These hierarchies were based on ritual and genealogical purity. The high priest traditionally traced his paternal ancestry to Aaron, brother of Moses, and followed a strict regimen of religious laws. As a result, he alone could access the chamber once housing the Arc of the Covenant. As an “ordinary” Jew, you would trace your lineage to one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel and “submit… to all the requirements of ritual purity.”15 Barring special circumstances such as recent contact with a corpse, you would be “pure” enough to enter the holy areas of the Temple but were not qualified to enter the most sacred inner sanctum.

It is interesting that the two extant temple warning inscriptions conflate genealogical purity with ritual purity. The temple warning inscription forbids those “born elsewhere” from entering the holy area of the Temple. But as one scholar points out, “The alien was not excluded [because he was] alien: any foreigner devoted to the worship of God was on the same footing with the native Israelite.”16 Instead, the inscriptions most likely refer to those who did not observe the Jewish faith and were ritually impure. Interpreted strictly, a prohibition against those “born elsewhere” would be discriminatory against Diaspora Jews, but we know that the Temple was the epicenter of pilgrimage. Scholars suggest that the specific word used in the temple warning inscription “probably follows the terminology of Greek sacramental cults” and is inappropriate in the context of the Temple in Jerusalem.17 Some scholars see the Hellenistic diction of the inscription as another indication that the “keep out” signs were put up by Herod’s officials instead of by the Jewish priests themselves.18

Finally, what are we to make of the “keep out” sign’s threat of a death penalty? Similar warning inscriptions at holy sites throughout the Mediterranean usually threaten a fine instead of a harsh physical punishment, and there is no legal language specifying the punishment.19 Some scholars suggest that the threat of death is karmic instead of proscribed by law: a violator might expect to suffer at the hands of an angry god rather than submit to a legally mandated execution.20 The irony is that those who do not worship the Jews’ god are assumed to fear this god’s punishment. Another possibility is that violators would be punished by the community in the form of lynching or stoning.21


Hartman, Gideon, Guy Bar-Oz, Ram Bouchnick, and Ronny Reich. “The Pilgrimage Economy of Early Roman Jerusalem (1st Century BCE – 70 CE) Reconstructed from the d15N and d13C Values of Goat and Sheep Remains.” Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013): 4369–76.

Llewelyn, Stephen R., and Dionysia van Beek. “Reading the Temple Warning as a Greek Visitor.” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period 42, no. 1 (2011): 1–22.

Ritmeyer, Leen. “The Temple Mount in the Herodian Period (37 BC–70 A.D.).” Biblical Archaeology Society, December 3, 2014.

Rowton, M. B. “The Date of the Founding of Solomon’s Temple.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 119 (1950): 20–22. doi:10.2307/3218801.

Von Wahlde, Urban C. “Archaeology and John’s Gospel.” In Jesus and Archaeology, edited by James H. Charlesworth, 523–84. Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006.

  1. It was Herod the Great’s son and successor, Herod Antipater, who ruled during the time of Jesus. 
  2. Ritmeyer, n.p. 
  3. Hartman, et. al., 4369, and Llewelyn and van Beek, 8. 
  4. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XV, xi. 
  5. See von Wahlde, 550-1. 
  6. See von Wahlde, 550. 
  7. See Llewelyn and van Beek, 15. 
  8. Llewelyn and van Beek, 10. 
  9. According to 1 Kings 6:1, construction of the first Temple began during “the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel.” Solomon reigned from about 963 until about 923 BCE, so Temple construction began in about 959 BCE. See Rowton, 20. 
  10. “Μηθένα ἀλλογενῆ εἰσπορευεσθαι ἐντὸς τοῦ περὶ τὸ ἱερὸν τρυφάκτου καὶ περιβὸλου. ῾Ὸς δ` ἂν ληφθῇ, ἑαυτῶι αἴτιος ἔσται διὰ τὸ ἐξακολουθεῖν θὰνατον.” In Bickerman, 388. 
  11. Llewelyn and van Beek, 1. 
  12. Acts 3:2. 
  13. For the general layout of the Temple, see Bickerman, 389. 
  14. The Tribe of Levi was one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. It was designated by God as the tribe of priests. Members of the other eleven tribes were “God’s chosen people” but not priests. 
  15. Bickerman, 392. 
  16. Bickerman, 393. 
  17. Bickerman, 393-4. 
  18. Llewelyn and van Beek, 7. 
  19. Bickerman, 394. 
  20. In Bickerman, 394. Bickerman himself seems to think that the death penalty was literal. 
  21. Bickerman, 394. 

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