During the days immediately before the Passover festival begins (on Friday 7th April in 30AD), Jesus teaches in the Temple courts.
Matt. 23:1-39 Jesus mounts a scathing attack on the Pharisees and the teachers of the Jewish law – the ‘religious establishment’ of his day. He attacks them for ‘showing off’ their religiosity with conspicuous ‘phylacteries’ (containing the commandments) worn on their foreheads and long, expensive tassels on their garments – intended, originally, to help them remember the commandments (see Deuteronomy 6:4-8 & Numbers 15:37-41). He also criticises their love of public attention and ‘celebrity’ status.
Tombs in the Kidron Valley
Jesus condemned the hypocrisy of the Pharisees by likening them to ‘whitewashed tombs’ that look beautiful on the outside, but contain dead bodies that make them ritually ‘unclean’ (unacceptable to God) on the inside.
In Jesus’s day, Jewish tombs were whitewashed so that they could be seen at night. This was considered necessary by the Pharisees, not to avoid accidental injury, but because any Jew who touched a tomb would become ritually ‘unclean’ and would then have to undergo ceremonial washing (see Numbers 19:16).
Jews attending the Passover festival were required to undergo ceremonial cleansing before entering the Temple. Ritual baths for this purpose were located to the south of the Temple Mount near the Hulda (‘mole’) Steps leading up under the Royal Portico into the Temple courtyards (see John 11:55 and Map 12).
Today, a number of ancient rock-cut tombs can still be seen in the Valley of Jehoshaphat (the upper part of the Kidron Valley) on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives below the south east corner of the Temple Mount (see Map 12). These include the pyramid-topped Tomb of Zechariah (believed by some to belong to the father of John the Baptist – see Luke 1:5-25 & 57-80) and the classically fronted Tomb of James. Early Byzantine Christians believed the latter tomb belonged to James, the brother of Jesus, the first leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem (see Matthew 13:55 & Acts 15:12-21). They built a 5th century church to commemorate James, fragmentary remains of which can still be seen on the hillside near the doric columns of this funerary monument.
In fact, both tombs date from c.100-200BC, and therefore were built for neither Zechariah nor James. An inscription on the architrave of the Tomb of James suggests that it was, in fact, the tomb of the Ben Hezir family of Jewish priests, descended from Hezir (see 1 Chronicles 24:15).
The Tomb of Absalom in the Valley of Jehoshaphat (Matthew 23:27)
The distinctive bottle-top shaped Tomb of Absalom is also incorrectly named. Absalom was the rebellious son of King David who died in c.984BC having erected a pillar as a monument to himself in the Kidron Valley (see 2 Samuel 18:18). The Tomb of Absalom, however, dates from the 4th or 5th century BC.
Prophetic tradition suggests that the Valley of Jehoshaphat (meaning ‘God judges’) will be the site of the ‘Last Judgement’ on the ‘Day of the Lord’ (see Joel 3:2 & Zechariah 14:4). This accounts for the many ancient and modern tombs that can be seen today on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives. Those who are buried here intend to be the first to be judged and raised to life again on the ‘Day of Judgement’.