I'm a big fan of the "History of Rome Podcast". It is probably one of if not the best historical podcasts, and I eagerly await each new episode.
This week the historical narrative at "The History of Rome" has reached the emperor "Julian The Apostate". In its honor, and also because Julian's brief attempt to rebuild the temple is not well known, I thought it might make an interesting post. Additionally it is a fitting topic for the three weeks – telling of how close we were of already building the third temple.
Julian is most famous for his opposition to Christianity. Julian grew up as a bookish young man, with a strong love of philosophy. He was the emperor's cousin – which was actually quite a dangerous position to be born to – since the emperor killed almost all his other male relatives. Julian became emperor in 355 C.E (Part of this time he was a cesar and not a full blown augustus), and was unusual in that he tried to bring back paganism to the Roman Empire. This stance has earned him the title "The apostate". He famously wrote a short anti-Christian book called "Against the Galilaeans" (GALILAEANS being a derogatory name for Christians) which is also noteworthy for the views he espouses about Judaism.
In 363 C.E Julian ordered that Jerusalem and the Temple be rebuilt. His motives are somewhat open to dispute, ranging from his wish to prove Christianity wrong, to a genuine wish for a pluralistic society. This letter below, taken from the Jewish Encyclopedia is a segment of Julian's letter to the Jews:
Desiring to extend yet further favors to you, I have exhorted my brother, the venerable Patriarch Julos [i.e., Hillel II.], to put a stop to the collection of the so-called Apostolé [see Jew. Encyc. ii. 20, s.v.] among you; and henceforward no one will be able to oppress your people by the collection of such imposts, so that everywhere throughout my kingdom you may be free from care: and thus enjoying freedom, you may address still more fervent prayers for my empire to the Almighty Creator of the Universe, who has deigned to crown me with his own undefiled right hand. . . . Thus should you do, in order that when I return safely from the Persian war, I may restore the Holy City of Jerusalem, and rebuild it at my own expense, even as you have for so many years desired it to be restored; and therein will I unite with you in giving praise to the Almighty."(Read the full version here)
There seems to be some question whether or not the building of the temple ever actually commenced. A personal friend of Julian, Ammianus Marcellinus, wrote this about the effort:
Julian thought to rebuild at an extravagant expense the proud Temple once at Jerusalem, and committed this task to Alypius of Antioch. Alypius set vigorously to work, and was seconded by thegovernor of the province; when fearful balls of fire, breaking out near the foundations, continued their attacks, till the workmen, after repeated scorching, could approach no more: and he gave up the attempt.(Wikipedia).
Some have suggested that the work on the temple was destroyed by the earthquake the shook Israel that year. (see here for example) Christians saw this as proof of god's disfavor with Israel – and hence another proof of the truth of Christianity. Regardless, Julian's death in battle the following year put an end to any plans to rebuild the temple.
As far as I'm aware this whole episode is not mentioned in a clear fashion anywhere in classic Jewish sources.