The concept of an ideal or heavenly Jerusalem appears to emerge in Jewish tradition in the third century of the Common Era. There is a midrash, a rabbinic homily, in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, a leading rabbinic figure in Tiberias in the early third century, who asserts, in part, that in the future the earthly and the heavenly Jerusalem will be reunited as one. This teaching is based on an exposition of Psalms 122:3, “Jerusalem built up, a city knit together.” According to the midrash, ‘knit together’ means the uniting of the earthly Jerusalem with the heavenly Jerusalem as one. However, the roots of this idea are found in earlier Jewish thinking.
Today, it is difficult for us to comprehend the impact on the Jewish people and on Jewish life of the conquest and destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 C.E. In the minds of the Jewish leaders of that era, the Rabbis, it was the worst tragedy ever in the history of the Jewish people.
Both in national and religious terms, it appeared that Jewish life might come to an end. The Temple, the physical link between God and the Jewish people, and its rituals and rites, abruptly ended. The city of Jerusalem lay in ruins and Jews were forbidden to live within its walls. Moreover, the Romans continued their occupation of the land of Israel and their oppression of the Jewish people. Uprisings against Rome were brutally crushed in both the early and the middle of the second century. Following these failed revolts, it was clear to the Rabbis that revolt against Rome was futile.
Therefore, the Temple would not be restored any time soon, nor would Jerusalem return to her former glory. With the earthly Jerusalem in ruins, it is easy to understand why Jews would want to imagine a heavenly Jerusalem existing in all its glory.
The Influence of Greek Philosophy
Another factor contributing to the development of the concept of a heavenly Jerusalem is the philosophy of Plato, as it was understood then. Platonic thought posits that every real object draws its existence from an ideal metaphysical form. Thus, if there is a Temple on earth, there must be a metaphysical Temple; an earthly Jerusalem demands a heavenly Jerusalem. Rabbinic thought is full of metaphors, images, principles and the like that have their origins in Greek philosophy. It is understandable that, eventually, the loss of the earthly Jerusalem would be mitigated by belief in a perfect heavenly Jerusalem. In fact, belief in the heavenly Jerusalem became so entrenched, that the rabbinic mind imagined that Jerusalem had been created by God at the beginning of the universe.