In 36 BCE, an Idumean named Herod took over as king of Judea. Known as Herod the Great, he apparently suffered from paranoia and ruled with ruthless brutality. He put to death forty-six leading members of the Sanhedrin and killed all the remaining members of the Hasmonean family, including, eventually, his own wife and children.

Herod was also an ambitious builder. His projects included, among others, the fortress in Massada, the building over the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and the port city of Caesaria. But his most ambitious project by far – which he embarked on in 19 BCE – was the renovation and expansion of the Temple, which was dilapidated after 334 years. (He undertook this renovation as atonement for all the rabbis he killed.)

The result was spectacular.1 Herod's Temple was made of white marble and covered with gold plates. According to Josephus, "it reflected so fierce a blaze of fire that those who tried to look at it had to turn away, as if they had looked straight at the sun. To approaching strangers it appeared in the distance like a mountain covered with snow." The Sages concurred: "He who has not seen the Temple of Herod, has never seen a beautiful building" (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra, 4a; Shemot Rabba 36:1).2

After Herod's death, the country largely descended into anarchy. The Roman governors oppressed the Jews and allowed lawlessness to reign. Roving gangs and corrupt Roman officers plundered and killed. Former High Priests – who had paid their way into the office and then been replaced – formed their own militias to control the Temple. As a result of the violence and chaos, in 28 CE, the Sanhedrin left their post in the Temple.