What Happened to the Jerusalem Temple’s Menorah?

Every year, the Vatican receives hundreds of requests to return the menorah of the destroyed Jerusalem Temple. The only problem? They don’t have it.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

In 70 CE, at the end of a lengthy siege, Roman soldiers stormed the city of Jerusalem, looting and burning as they went. Despite possible efforts of then-general, later-emperor, Titus, to spare the Temple itself, his troops set fire to the most holy site in Judaism and it was utterly destroyed.

But many of the treasures contained in the Temple did not perish in the conflagration. A golden candelabrum, of a sort that, according to later tradition, had miraculously burned for seven nights during the Maccabean revolt, was not destroyed. It and the other gold and silver temple vessels were seized by the Romans and transported to Rome. But they have subsequently vanished. It’s one of history’s greatest mysteries: whatever happened to the priceless artifacts from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem?

Following the destruction of the temple, the precious gold Temple treasures—the trumpets, the fire pans used for burning incense, the table of the shewbread, and the candelabrum—were taken back to the capital of the empire.

Their arrival in Rome is immortalized on the famous Arch of Titus, which marks the entryway into the Roman Forum. On the inside of the arch is the frieze of Roman Triumph, in which the spoils of war were marched into the city in a celebration of Rome’s victory. It’s clear from the Arch that ancient sources were not exaggerating the value of these artifacts: in 2012 Yeshiva University’s Arch of Titus Digital Restoration Project discovered the remains of yellow ochre paint on the menorah relief.

Though already worth their weight in gold, these items are literally priceless. The Menorah is the oldest religious symbol in Western culture. Professor Steven Fine, a cultural historian and author of The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel, told The Daily Beast that “for Jews it represents the light of God, the Divine presence, the divinely given Torah, the Rabbis who interpret it, and the people of Israel itself. No wonder that it was chosen as national symbol of the old-new State of Israel.”

So where is it?

In the past fifty years many Jews have believed that the Temple vessels are hidden away in the Vatican. The Vatican receives hundreds of letters a year requesting that the vessels be returned to the Jewish people. And 1996, Shimon Shetreet, then Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs, asked for the Vatican’s assistance in looking for the vessels. At the time, Haaretz reported that a “tense silence hovered over the room” after the request was made. The rumors persist, even though in 2004 the Israel Antiquities Authority sent a team to Rome to search the Vatican storerooms. They came away empty-handed.

In its current form the myth itself is relatively novel. In tracing its origins Fine has shown that it emerged out of a very old Jewish, Protestant, and European distrust of the Church. In the case of Jews this was a justifiable fear: even while claiming to be the heirs of God’s promises to the Jews, the Church both passively and actively condoned all kinds of violence against the Jews.

When the Roman Catholic Church sought to improve relations with Judaism after the Second World War, Fine told me, many Jews were suspicious. The radical shift in perspective “invigorated a notion that ‘they must be hiding something,’ and that ‘something’ came to be the menorah of the Temple.”

The situation was not aided by the menorah’s inclusion in a fresco on the walls of the Borgia apartment in the Vatican or the fact that, in the medieval period, the Vatican not only propagated the myth that that it possessed the Temple vessels, but also claimed to house the Ark of the Covenant in the Basilica of St. John in the Lateran, the papal palace. These claims, Fine said, were grounded in the theological idea that the Church was heir to both Rome and Jerusalem and were taken up by both Jews and Christians. The late 12th-century Spanish Jew Benjamin of Tudela wrote in his travel-diary that the Jews of Rome knew that the Temple vessels were hidden in a cave in the Lateran. The great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was a believer as late as the eighteenth century.

If the menorah isn’t in the Vatican being used as a reading lamp for secret books in a nefarious underground basement (it’s not—the only obstructions for scholars trying to enter the Vatican libraries are administrative), then where is it?

According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, the menorah was placed in Vespasian’s newly built Temple of Peace, not far from the Arch. It seems to have resided there at least until the third century, if not until the Ostrogoth Sack of Rome in the fifth. The suggestion that it was thrown into the Tiber during a time of chaos is implausible. As Fine told me, ancient artifacts frequently go missing, but gold artifacts do not. They get recycled, often being minted as coins. It’s possible that the Vandals melted down the menorah after they sacked the city in 455 C.E.

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Even if the menorah was rediscovered today it might not be an unambiguous good. Beyond questions of authenticity, there might be calls to place the menorah in the Temple rather than a museum. Fine said, “My guess is that the messianic Pandora’s box that would be opened might cause right-minded and pious people to wish it had never been found.”

But for those who want to see the Temple vessels as they existed in the first century without sparking a political apocalypse, there’s good news. The Arch of Titus project is digitally reconstructing the menorah frieze and it is available for viewing online in its original splendor.