LaCrosse (WI) Tribune
Published - Thursday, September 08, 2005

Biblical measurement at center of debate

How long is a "cubit"?

Defining that ancient measurement might seem a matter of mere Bible trivia, but in theory the answer could affect a potentially calamitous modern-day religious confrontation.

The term occurs in the Bible more than 100 times. Some well-known examples:

God's directive to Noah on building the ark: "The length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits" (Genesis 6:15).

The dimensions for the Jerusalem Temple King Solomon built: "60 cubits long, 20 cubits wide and 30 cubits high" (1 Kings 6:2).

The prophet Ezekiel's vision of the restored Temple precinct: "Set apart for the Lord a portion of the land as a holy district, 25,000 cubits long and 20,000 cubits broad" (Ezekiel 45:1).

Cubit, from the Latin word for "elbow," is used in most English Bible translations when the Hebrew word for "elbow" refers to measurements.

In various ancient cultures, the cubit referred to the typical measurement between a person's elbow and the tip of the middle finger. Obviously there was no fixed meaning because people come in different sizes. Scholars say the cubit became a more or less standardized measure but referred to different lengths in ancient Sumer, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Israel.

As for biblical usage, scholars estimate the cubit at anywhere from 1.33 to 2.2 feet, says Joshua Schwartz, the dean of Jewish studies at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, writing in the current Biblical Archaeology Review.

The consensus appears to be the 1969 view of Arye Ben David that in Temple measurements, at least, a cubit was 1.84 feet.

However, Asher Selig Kaufman is a "cubit minimalist" who puts the length at only 1.43 feet. Historian Kaufman specializes in aspects of the Temple Mount, the sector where the Temple once stood (called the Haram as-Sharif or "Noble Sanctuary" by Muslims). His short cubit provides the basis for controversial calculations on the location of the ancient Temple.

During the past five centuries, most Jews have agreed with Rabbi David ben Zimra's belief that the ancient Temple stood at the exact site that now is occupied by the Dome of the Rock. This is one of Islam's holiest structures, commemorating what's believed to be the spot from which Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Some zealous Jews and Christians interpret the Bible as teaching that it's God's will for the Temple to be rebuilt someday at its original location. If the conventional location is correct, that would require demolition of the Muslim shrine and incitement to interfaith world war.

But the effect of Kaufman's short cubits is to undermine the old "central theory" for the Temple's location. His "northern theory" puts the Temple site northwest of the Dome of the Rock at a cupola known as the Dome of the Spirits or Dome of the Tablets.

Kaufman set forth his case in Biblical Archaeology Review in 1983. He pursues the theme further in a 2004 book published in Israel, "The Temple Mount: Where Is the Holy of Holies?" the third in a series treating the Mount.

If Kaufman is right about cubits, it's possible Israel could someday rebuild the Temple without having to destroy Islam's Dome of the Rock not that Muslims would welcome such nearby construction, either.

(c) 2005 LaCrosse Tribune