Since my first visit to Jerusalem in 1968 I have had ample opportunity to see the city evolve from a tranquil array of neighbourhoods strewn along the Judean hills to the sprawling, dynamic and exasperating urban centre that it is today.
Nostalgia and the difficulty of finding convenient housing aside—the city’s growth is an inspiring testimony to the flourishing of the Jewish homeland and to the gathering of the exiles within its perimeters.
The prophet Zechariah, who lived during the return to Zion following the Babylonian exile, beheld a vision in which a mysterious figure was proceeding “to measure Jerusalem, to see what is the breadth thereof, and what is the length thereof.” An angel was immediately dispatched to stop the surveyor, “saying: Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls for the multitude of men and cattle therein.”
A homily in the Talmud expounded Zechariah's vision as a debate between God and the angels, with the angels lobbying the Creator to refrain from fixing boundaries to the holy city, so as to allow it to receive all the Jews who would one day be gathered into its precincts. This goal could not be achieved within defined borders. Rabbi Samuel bar Naḥman taught that Jerusalem would not be rebuilt until the time of the ingathering of the exiles. According to some opinions, the city limits would eventually extend as far as Damascus!
The ancient Jewish sages also envisioned a vertical dimension to Jerusalem’s growth in the ideal future. Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob foretold that Jerusalem would one day ascend so high that it would reach the heights of the divine throne, before which it would utter the words of Isaiah: “The place is too narrow for me: give place to me that I may dwell.”
The midrashic imagination was not content with that image of sky-scraping towers that aspire to heaven. They went on to introduce the very powerful motif of a parallel heavenly Jerusalem that hovers above the earthly city. They found an allusion to this concept in the Psalmist’s encomium that “Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together.”
According to Rabbi Yoḥanan in the Talmud, the Holy One vowed that he would refrain from entering his celestial Jerusalem until it also became possible for him to re-enter the earthly city.
It must be stressed that in all these sources the celestial Jerusalem was perceived as in some way subsidiary to the the physical, earthly city which is the principal focus of divine concern. The aspirations of its residents, like Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob’s towers, reach upward from foundations that stand on solid ground.
Now, the imagery of the “heavenly Jerusalem,” which did not make its appearances in Jewish sources until the third century C.E., should not be equated with that of a heavenly Temple—a concept that can be traced back to the biblical prophets, notably to Isaiah’s vivid depiction of the Lord of Hosts enthroned in a smoke-filled chambre equipped with an altar, coals and tongs. Some scholars pointed out that the existence of parallel celestial and terrestrial realms was an accepted feature of the Babylonian world-view. Others have suggested that the rabbinic concept is indebted to Plato’s doctrine that physical objects are instances of eternal ideas that exist on a more elevated plane of reality. In any case, once we have accepted the existence of a temple in the upper realms, it is understandable that a similar idea should be applied to the city in which the temple was located.
Ancient Jewish writings contained detailed descriptions of the worship that is conducted in that celestial sanctuary, presided over by the angelic high priest Michael and other supernatural beings.
However, the matter is not quite so simple.
For one thing, the Jews were not the only ones who were cultivating the imagery of heavenly counterparts to Jerusalem and its Temple. In fact, these very themes enjoyed immense popularity among spokesmen for the Christian church.
Christian authors, however, understood that the relationship between the two cities moved in the reverse direction.
A central feature of the teachings of the apostle Paul was that the authentic divine covenant was the spiritual one chosen by the followers of their savior, not the physical literal approach preferred by the Jews in their ossified legalism. In keeping with this premise, in his Epistle to the Galatians (composed while the holy city and its Temple were still standing), Paul contrasted the sublimely spiritual Jerusalem with its present-day counterpart “which is in bondage with her children” (likely referring to the city’s community of Christians who, contrary to Paul’s preference, were still committed to observing the traditional commandments); whereas “Jerusalem which is above, which is the mother of us all, is free.”
The rabbinic texts that were quoted above all regarded the earthly Jerusalem as the primary one, the main object of divine concerns and the paradigm upon which the heavenly city was modelled. Even after the Temple’s destruction, the rabbis continued to expound in meticulous detail the intricate laws governing the priestly service.
The destruction of the Temple by the Romans was perceived by church leaders not only as a punishment for the Jews’ rejection of their messiah, but also as evidence that the sacrificial cult conducted in the earthly city had finally been superseded by the more authentic spiritual worship in the heavenly city. In contrast to the rabbinic depiction of the restored city rising upward until it touches the divine throne, the New Testament book of Revelation foresaw “ the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven.” An angel proceeds to show the narrator “that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God.” The vision goes on to describe the sublime beauty of the replacement Jerusalem that will be crafted out of brilliant gold and precious jewels, constructed according to precise symmetry and monumental dimensions.
Diverse theories have been proposed to explain the differences between the Jewish and Christian portrayals of the supernatural Jerusalem. There are some who regard the emergence of the rabbinic conception of a heavenly city that is subordinated to its physical counterpart as a conscious rejection of the Christian doctrine—and indeed, the historical timing would be consistent with such an explanation.
Another theory has it, based on extensive examination of a broad range of ancient sources, that opposing ideas about the heavenly Jerusalem originated within the ancient Jewish community. There were mystical and apocalyptic movements that reacted to the destruction of the second Temple by cultivating fervent hopes for a greater, more glorious version of the holy city that would soon emerge from its ruins. It was those same apocalyptic traditions that furnished the foundation for the Christian formulations found in the book of Revelation; and it was in reaction to them that Rabbi Yoḥanan and the talmudic sages took their more realistic stand, careful to stipulate that the advent of the heavenly Jerusalem—however eagerly we might yearn for it—is contingent on first rebuilding the earthly city.
I have no privileged information about the prospects for heavenly municipal planning. It would indeed be wonderful if Jerusalem could rise or expand to a magnitude that could contain a vast population while also lowering real estate prices—as long as those heaven-bound towers don’t obstruct the city’s breathtaking views.