The Holy of Holies: 
On the Constituents of Emptiness 

In the year 63 BCE, the Roman general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, in the process of conquering Israel and all the surrounding territories, entered the most sacred place in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. What he found shocked him. For this temple was different in one crucial respect from all other temples.

Pompey's incursion was made upon what the Jews called their second temple. The original version of the first temple was supposed to have been a magnificent structure in Jerusalem constructed by Judah's King Solomon on land purchased by his father, King David. No archeological evidence - not one brick - has been found of anything remotely on that scale existing in what appears to have been at the time, the tenth century BCE, a tiny, sleepy kingdom. But by the reign of King Josiah, in the seventh century BCE, a central temple certainly existed in Jerusalem. It was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon in 586 B.C. Construction on a new temple began with the return from exile in Babylon in 537 BCE.

That was the second temple. The sacrifices and purity rituals that were at the center of the Jewish religion were performed in and around such a temple in Jerusalem for more than half a millennium. (Herod, beginning in 19 BCE, built a version that may truly have qualified as magnificent.) And it was into an incarnation of this second temple that Pompey, then perhaps the most powerful man on earth, intruded. "As victor he claimed the right to enter the temple," the Roman historian Tacitus explains. (Tacitus, the only source for this incident, is writing, alas, more than one hundred and sixty years after the fact.)

The temple's inner sanctum - the Holy of Holies: Yahweh's sanctuary - was supposed to be entered by only one person, the high priest, on only one day a year: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Pompey forced his way in. And here, according to Tacitus, is what Pompey found:

Nothing. "The sanctuary was empty."

My goal in this paper - formed of twelve spiraling blog posts - is to consider the elements of belief and doubt that make up that emptiness.