In the central hill country, the key city in the historical events of the OT and NT; yet it was unattractive in its geographical endowments with a poor water supply, uncomfortable climate, and unproductive soil. But in the hands of the Jebusites it lay conveniently in the very north of the territory of Judah on the boundary with the northern tribes. David's genius was to recognize this neutral city as the ideal capital from which he might rule both north and south in a religious and political unity. Under his commander Joab, the city was stormed and taken (2 Sam. 5: 8); at the northern end the royal palace rose, and on Mount Moriah a site was selected for the Temple, built by David's son, Solomon. From now on Jerusalem was to be a religious and political centre, often prosperous, repeatedly assaulted, and the destination of millions of pilgrims. Sadly, the ideal of Jerusalem as the centre of religious unity for both parts of the kingdom did not last. Even in Solomon's time various pagan cults were permitted on the outskirts, and after the disruption, when Israel in the north detached itself from Judah, sanctuaries in the north were built to dissuade worshippers from travelling to Jerusalem. However, Jerusalem continued to expand; walls were strengthened by Hezekiah, and the water supply augmented by the pool of Siloam (John 8: 7). The city's defences were never seriously tested when Sennacherib brought the Assyrian forces to its gate, but the prophets' warnings (e.g. Mic. 3: 12) that this immunity would not last for ever were fulfilled when the Babylonians plundered the city in 597 BCE, deported many of the leading citizens, and returned to raze Jerusalem to the ground in 586 BCE.

Cyrus king of Persia permitted the exiles in Babylon to return and rebuild in 538 BCE. Some did: but the rebuilding, including that of the Temple, was on a small scale, and the walls constructed under the direction of Nehemiah in 445 BCE surrounded only a small area, so that the city no longer enjoyed its pre-exilic prestige; it was nevertheless responsible for maintaining Jewish religious ideals. This earthly poverty inspired apocalyptic dreams of a new Jerusalem where God would be hailed as the victorious king (Zech. 14: 16) and to which the nations would be attracted and Gentiles would make pilgrimages (Zech. 8: 21).

In the time of Alexander the Great, Jerusalem's political importance recovered, but Hellenistic ideas and customs intruded under the Seleucids of Syria in the 2nd cent. BCE (1 Macc. 1: 14), to the dismay of traditionalist Jews who re-established and fortified the city between 160 and 134 BCE, the Hasmonean era. After the victory of the Romans in 63 BCE the city grew greater and buildings of grandeur were erected by Herod the Great, who was appointed king in 37 BCE. Walls and fortresses and city gates appeared, and the Temple mount was dominated by the Antonia fortress where Paul was to be imprisoned (Acts 21: 34). Houses to accommodate a population of some 25,000 inhabitants, trebled at the time of the Passover by visiting pilgrims, were needed, and a reservoir called the Sheep Pool (John 5: 2) was dug. Above all Herod began the reconstruction of the huge Temple, destined to occupy a quarter of the area of the city, though always regarded by strict Jews with an uneasy conscience in view of Herod's mixed (Idumaean) race.

When tension between Jews and Romans flared into open rebellion in 66 CE, it was only a question of time before the city was again destroyed (70 CE), as Jesus had warned if the people rejected the way of peace which he proclaimed (Luke 19: 41–4; 21: 20–24). But on the site of the Temple another generation of Romans determined to build a shrine in honour of Jupiter. Jewish nationalists could be restrained no longer, and rose to revolt under Bar-Kochba in 130 CE. The rebellion was crushed; a pagan temple was built (cf. Mark 13: 14); Jews were banished; Roman soldiers were installed in the city now renamed Aelia Capitolina—after the family name of the emperor Hadrian (Capitolina referred to the god Jupiter). It was not until the emperor Constantine (c. 330 CE) established the city as a Christian centre with churches that any further major changes took place. In 451 the bishop was elevated to the status of patriarch. The city was more than once taken by Muslim invaders and was in their hands from the 13th to the 20th cents., and the site of the Temple, the Dome of the Rock, became a shrine, venerated in the belief that it was from here that Muhammad ascended into heaven. Jews believe that the rock was used by Abraham for his intended sacrifice of Isaac. Jerusalem is therefore sacred to three great religions.