Traditions of a ‘New Jerusalem’

Israel's Idealized Future

A century and a half earlier, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been crushed by Assyria. Now, in 587 BC, the forces of Babylon conquered the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem was broken, its temple destroyed, and many people were taken into exile back to Babylon.

For the next fifty years the exiled Judeans began to compile many of the revered scrolls and traditions that survived the destruction of their homeland. Their myths, legends, folk tales, histories, and law codes, were weaved into an overarching narrative, supplemented by books of prophecy, poetry, lamentation, and wisdom. By making this growing collection of holy texts the center of their identity, the Judeans began to organize their religious expectations in a way unseen before.

Some of their prophecies warned that Israel and Judah would face such exile. Allusions to the fall of their kingdoms were retroactively inserted into history and law code. This was not the end of their society, though. Their prophecies, history, and law code also talked about a return from exile. The people of Israel would come back from their collective ‘death’ and rebuild.

Jerusalem was an important center of religious activity before the fall, but in the future it would become paradise.

The Babylonian Era

A priest, Ezekiel, saw the destruction of Jerusalem as inevitable. Ten years before the city was destroyed, Nebuchadnezzar came and took some of the royalty and nobility. Ezekiel was among those taken. Five years later he received his first prophetic revelation: the city and temple were doomed. He continued to warn this for ten years, and in 585 BC word finally came back that it had happened.

At the same time, Ezekiel also said the nation would be restored after a time: Israel and Judah would be united into a single kingdom, ruled by a new ‘David’, and a new temple would be built. Jerusalem would become the center of a universal faith, invoking traditional language used for the tent during the exodus:

I will set my sanctuary among them forevermore. My dwelling-place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations shall know that I Yahweh sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is among them forevermore.
Ezekiel 37.26–28

Another twelve years later, the priest received an elaborate vision of a new Jerusalem. The cit would be rebuilt. In intricate detail he described the temple and its furnishings, the city around it, the rituals of the priests and the king, and even the allotment of land around the city. Then Ezekiel sees something completely new:

Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple … it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed. … As I came back, I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on one side and on the other. He said to me, ‘… everything will live where the river goes. … On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.’
Ezekiel 47.1–12

This is an incredibly positive transformation of the Near East, with Jerusalem at its center. While tempting to see the river and the trees as allusions to the garden of Eden, we shouldn't jump so quickly to such a conclusion. Contrary to Genesis 2, Ezekiel sees only one river, not four; he also sees many kinds of trees which give ‘healing’, rather than a single ‘tree of life’.

The Persian Era

Ezekiel's vision of a near-supernatural Jerusalem sparked the prophetic imagination in Israel. It becomes a recurring theme in prophecies about Israel's future.

Isaiah 52.1, written shortly before the end of the Babylonian exile by a student of the original Isaiah's prophecies, anticipates Jerusalem becoming a bright city of hope. This is developed further a few chapters later, when Deutero-Isaiah talks about God being overwhelmed with 'great compassion' and restoring Judah. Jerusalem in particular becomes a dazzling sight:

O afflicted one, storm-tossed, and not comforted, I am about to set your stones in antimony, and lay your foundations with sapphires. I will make your pinnacles of rubies, your gates of jewels, and all your wall of precious stones.
Isaiah 54.11–12

Trito-Isaiah, writing sometime after Jerusalem and the temple have already been rebuilt, continues the scene:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of Yahweh has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but Yahweh will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … Your gates shall always be open; day and night they shall not be shut, so that nations shall bring you their wealth, with their kings led in procession. … The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of Yahweh, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel. … The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but Yahweh will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.
Isaiah 60

Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah probably meant this all metaphorically, but the picture of a bejeweled Jerusalem receiving the wealth of the nations persists, joining Ezekiel's vision of a garden-like city in Trito-Zechariah:

On that day there shall not be either cold or frost. And there shall be continuous day (it is known to Yahweh), not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light. On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter. And Yahweh will become king over all the earth; on that day Yahweh will be one and his name one. … And the wealth of all the surrounding nations shall be collected—gold, silver, and garments in great abundance. … And there shall no longer be Canaanites in the house of Yahweh of hosts on that day.
Zechariah 14.6–21

Later still, the prophet Joel borrows and condenses all of the imagery seen in Ezekiel, Deutero-Isaiah, Trito-Isaiah, and Trito-Zechariah:

So you shall know that I, Yahweh your God, dwell in Zion, my holy mountain. And Jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers shall never again pass through it. On that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, the hills shall flow with milk, and all the stream beds of Judah shall flow with water; a fountain shall come forth from the house of Yahweh and water the Wadi Shittim.
Joel 3.17-18

While this emerging eschatology sees Jerusalem and its temple become the religious center of all humanity, Israel takes a position of privilege above the nations. While Trito-Isaiah is fairly inclusive of non-Judeans (even claiming they will serve in the temple, which was forbidden in the Torah), Trito-Zechariah is quick to heap warnings on Egyptians, and outright bans Canaanites. Joel reiterates the Torah's exclusion of ‘strangers’, and flatly condemns Egyptians and Edomites; an eschatology inclusive of non-Judeans has its limits, it seems.

The Greek Era

Although Jerusalem and its temple have already been rebuilt by this point, the eschatological vision of the pre-exilic prophets is given specific form by Ezekiel and continues to grow over several centuries: Jerusalem and its temple will be rebuilt in glory, adorned with gems and jewels and precious metals, flourishing economically and agriculturally, and no longer prey to violence.

Disillusionment begins to set in after Alexander of Macedon swoops in and seizes the region from Persian control. About 200 BC, one author minces no words in admitting that Jerusalem's current temple and livelihood is not fulfilling the ancient vision. Still, he maintains his hope in a brighter future. This author tells a story set centuries earlier, before even the Babylonian exile, and has an elderly character claim the second temple will be inferior to the first, but that it will be replaced with a third temple:

God will again have mercy on them, and God will bring them back into the land of Israel; and they will rebuild the temple of God, but not like the first one until the period when the times of fulfillment shall come. After this they all will return from their exile and will rebuild Jerusalem in splendor; and in it the temple of God will be rebuilt, just as the prophets of Israel have said concerning it. Then the nations in the whole world will all be converted and worship God in truth.
Tobit 14.5–6

The author's vision of what this better Jerusalem will be like is seen one chapter earlier, in a poem of praise. The description is a familiar one:

O Jerusalem, the holy city … A bright light will shine to all the ends of the earth; many nations will come to you from far away, the inhabitants of the remotest parts of the earth to your holy name, bearing gifts in their hands for the King of heaven. … The gates of Jerusalem will be built with sapphire and emerald, and all your walls with precious stones. The towers of Jerusalem will be built with gold, and their battlements with pure gold. The streets of Jerusalem will be paved with ruby and with stones of Ophir.
Tobit 13.8–18

The Animal Apocalypse, written within a few years of the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BC), shares the perspective of Tobit's author. In a highly symbolic vision, the author sees Israel's tent from the exodus replaced with Jerusalem (the ‘house’) and the first temple (the ‘tower’), which are later destroyed. After the Babylonian period, they are rebuilt, but the author shares Tobit's perspective.

And behold, three of those sheep returned and came and entered and began to build all that had fallen down of that house. … they raised up that tower and it was called the high tower. And they began again to place a table before the tower, but all the bread on it was polluted and impure.
1 Enoch 89.72–73

The post-exilic Jerusalem and temple are inferior to their pre-exilic predecessors. The Animal Apocalypse sees Israel soon facing a major crisis, but once everything is resolved we find exactly what we expect: a new Jerusalem and a third temple are built, better than any before them, and the city becomes the center of the world's devotion to God.

And I stood up to watch until that old house was folded up. And they removed all the pillars. And all the beams and ornaments of that house were folded up along with it. And they removed it and put it in a place to the south of the land. And I watched until the Lord of the Flock brought a new house, larger and higher than that first one, and he erected it on the site of the first one that had been rolled up. And all its pillars were new, and its beams were new, and its ornaments were new and larger than those of the first one—the old one which he had removed. And all the sheep were within it. And I saw all the sheep that remained. And all the animals on the earth and all the birds of heaven were falling down and worshiping those sheep and making petition to them and obeying them in everything.
1 Enoch 90.28–30

The Roman Era

Sometime in the decades after the Maccabean Revolt the people of Israel began to factionalize, birthing parties such as the aristocratic Sadducees, the populist Pharisees, and the mysticist Essenes. The Essenes were ascetic, messianic, and extremely apocalyptic. While the Essenes lived throughout the region alongside their Judean kinsmen, many isolated themselves from society at large.

These radical Essenes saw the priesthood as corrupt, the temple polluted, and the ritual calendar errant. We gain insight into their eschatology from the texts they left behind, the Dead Sea Scrolls. They picked up on themes of a major crisis in Ezekiel, Trito-Zechariah, and Joel, envisioning a climactic battle between the ‘sons of light’ and the ‘sons of darkness’. The conclusion to this conflict shows influence from that earlier literature as well regarding Jerusalem's fate (following translations from Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English):

O Zion, rejoice greatly! Rejoice all you cities of Judah! Keep your gates ever open that the host of the nations may be brought in! Their kings shall serve you and all your oppressors shall bow down before you … Deck yourselves with glorious jewels and rule over the kingdom of the nations!
The War Scroll (1QM 19)

The Essenes also introduced a new idea. They were still waiting for a perfected Jerusalem, and because they saw the temple as profane, they saw their own community as a surrogate temple in the meantime.

When these [men versed in the Law] are in Israel, the Council of the Community shall be established in truth. It shall be an Everlasting Plantation, a House of Holiness for Israel
The Community Rule (1QS 8)
the men of the Community shall set apart a House of Holiness in order that it may be united to the most holy things and a House of Community for Israel, for those who walk in perfection.
The Community Rule (1QS 9)

Several fragmentary texts from the Essenes were inspired by Ezekiel 40–48's idealized Jerusalem, but because the text is so badly damaged what has been reconstructed doesn't offer much new.

Fourth Ezra, an apocalypse written circa AD 100 in response to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70, is a little more opaque regarding the author's ideas for a new Jerusalem. Fourth Ezra 7.26 implies that the new Jerusalem actually existed already, in the author's time, but that it could not be seen and was to be revealed in the near future. This fits with the typical apocalyptic idea that the new Jerusalem was ‘hidden’ away in heaven or some other spiritual world. Fourth Ezra 10 calls Jerusalem ‘the mother of us all’, and in a vision sees the city as a broken, crying woman who is suddenly caught up in a blinding light, replaced by a city of divine construction.

Another apocalypse, written just about the same time as 4 Ezra, depicts Jerusalem's destruction by Rome as imminent. The author comforts his audience by explaining that Jerusalem's destruction in AD 70 was not the end, but that it only made room for the true Jerusalem to be revealed. This author brings back the association of Jerusalem with the garden of Eden:

And the Lord said to me: ‘This city will be delivered up for a time, and the people will be chastened for a time, and the world will not be forgotten. Or do you think that this is the city of which I spoke about when I said, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands?” It is not this present building that has been constructed in your midst; it is that which will be revealed with me, and which was already prepared from the moment I decided to create the garden. … And now, behold, it is preserved with me—as well as the garden.’
2 Baruch 4

Meanwhile, the Christian movement moves a different direction. It starts similarly enough. The apostle Paul displays an extremely developed eschatology. In the 50s AD, Paul mentions having ‘citizenship’ in heaven (Philippians 3.20). Similar to the Essenes, he also understood the Christian community as a living temple and used common scriptural idioms to relay that idea (1 Cor 3.16–17; Second Cor 6.16–18; Eph 2.17–22). And like 4 Ezra, Paul also calls Jerusalem ‘our mother’:

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother.
Galatians 4.22–26

A student of Paul's theology picks this up and also describes a heavenly Jerusalem, built by God himself:

For [Abraham] looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. … But as it is, [Israel's ancestors] desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11.10,16

The author exhibits a sort of ‘already-not yet’ conceptualization of this divine Jerusalem. But in contrast to earlier traditions of the new Jerusalem, this author sees it as presently accessible to the Christian community, apparently where deceased Christians have already departed.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect
Hebrews 12.22–23

He briefly alludes to it once more, subtly contrasting it to the so-called ‘eternal city’ of Rome:

For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
Hebrews 13.14

This is given full form in the Revelation of John. Revelation 3.12 briefly touches on the same idea Paul had, that followers of Jesus comprised (or, in this case, will comprise) a figurative temple and belonged to a Jerusalem that ‘comes down from my God out of heaven’. Later, in Revelation 21–22, John's vision of the new Jerusalem borrows heavily from the above passages in Ezekiel, Deutero-Isaiah, Trito-Isaiah, Trito-Zechariah, and Joel, among many other scriptural passages, while also dwarfing those earlier iterations. But then John completely transforms all earlier expectations of the new Jerusalem:

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.
Revelation 21.22

Because the temple in Jerusalem has been supplanted by the community of God's followers, there won't be any temple at all in the new Jerusalem.