Israel seeks return of Temple artifacts from the Vatican. Do any exist? What evidence do we have?

Some years ago, while reading about the Knights Templars, I stumbled upon a close-up picture of the famous relief which is part of the sculptured Arch of Titus, (Arcus Titi) erected in Rome, depicting the capture of Jerusalem by the Romans, in A.D. 70. And that image of the pillage of our Holy Temple has stayed with me all these years.

The entire arch can be seen here, while another closeup of the inside jamb of the arch, depicting the victors carrying off the treasures of the Temple can be seen here. Evidently, the Arch of Titus tickled many people’s imaginations. A small version of a painting of the Arch of Titus, now being displayed on this page, shows the northern arch only, by three painters, George Peter Alexander Healy, Frederic E. Church, Jervis McEntee, who wanted to create a memento of their experience in Italy together.

In the closeup of the southern arch is the relief representing the spoils from the temple at Jerusalem; the table of shewbread, the seven-branched candlestick, and the silver trumpets, which are being carried in triumph into the city.

Well, yesterday, Israel’s chief rabbis, Yehuda Metzger and Shlomo Amar, were scheduled to meet Pope John Paul II, and to seek permission to search Vatican storerooms for artifacts such as the huge golden menorah that stood in the Temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

When the Romans sacked Jerusalem in AD 70, they took Temple treasures with them. Legend has it that religious articles from the Temple, including the menorah, were among them. Amar said the Vatican has already denied the menorah is there.

An aide to the rabbi said the Vatican was not likely to permit a search. The Vatican will allow the rabbis to view rare Jewish manuscripts in its possession, Amar said. He said if the rabbis were to come across “other objects,” they would be happy to bring them home.

The Maariv newspaper in Israel said the two rabbis could also seek to buy back a candelabrum that came from the Temple. It is believed to be held in the Vatican’s vast treasure caves.

In 1996, in the face of criticism and skepticism, Israeli Religious Affairs Minister Shimon Shetreet requested of the pope that an official inquiry be conducted to determine if the legendary golden menorah from the Second Temple is hidden in the Vatican.

Shetreet claimed to have evidence the menorah was there, though he refused to disclose it. He did say he had statements of people who claimed to have had discussions with previous popes, who indicated that the Catholic Church indeed did have such objects.

But, is the menorah depicted on Titus’ Arch the same menorah that was used in the Temple?

When the Maccabees returned to the desecrated Temple they found that much of its wealth and splendor had been plundered by the Greeks. Among the artifacts that had been stolen by Antiochos was the golden candelabrum, likely the same one that had been fashioned by the returning Babylonian exiles in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Until a new candelabrum could be crafted, the soldiers improvised a makeshift device out of hollowed spearheads. Only later was a new golden replica manufactured, which was probably lit at the official rededication of the purified Temple, the first Chanukah.

The representation of the candelabrum on Hasmonean coins depicted here and here provides one of the oldest pictures of the Menorah. One notable feature of that depiction is that it seems to be standing on a sort of tripod. This would agree with the evidence of the Talmud (which speaks of an indeterminate number of “legs”), as well as with the three-legged Menorah images that were incorporated in much of Jewish art in later centuries.

This portrayal of a Menorah supported by a tripod base is not the one that springs most naturally to our minds. Most of us imagine the Menorah with a broad, solid base, like the one that appears in the official seal of the State of Israel. The source for this image is the Arch of Titus, and the Menorah is perhaps the most prominent of the treasures. However the base of Titus’ Menorah is not a tripod, but the now-familiar two-tiered hexagonal structure.

There are many factors that testify to the authenticity of the depiction in Titus’ arch: In general, Roman triumphal arches were designed as historical documents and towards that end strove to be as accurate as possible. In this case, almost all the details demonstrate to the sculptors’ intimate knowledge of the Temple’s vessels as described in the Bible and other Jewish sources.

How then are we to explain the discrepancy between two different renderings of the Menorah’s base?

Some clues to this are suggested in ornamental designs that appear in Titus’ Menorah. A similar base has been excavated from a Roman temple at Didymus, now in southern Turkey.

There are some striking differences between Titus’ candelabrum and its pagan counterparts. The Didymus lamp features a human figure seated on the back of the monster. It also portrays this creature with spikes coming from its neck, an image that was explicitly prohibited by Talmudic law. Both these features are lacking in the image of the Temple Menorah.

This fact might account for the absence of the Menorah from the coinage of the Jewish rebellions in 69-70 and 135, which made much use of other symbols from the Temple worship.

When the Menorah did regain popularity as a decorative theme in Jewish art from the third century onwards, it was the original three legged lamp that was chosen.

So, the question remains: Is the menorah depicted on Titus’ Arch the same menorah that was used in the Temple?

But more importantly, does the Vatican still possess artifacts of the Temple? If the Vatican does not, what happened to our Temple’s treasures?

Fortunately, the majority of readers of this poll, Should Vatican return Temple treasures to Jews? chose “Yes, artifacts rightfully belong to Israel”.

Smooth Stone gratefully acknowledges Ohr Sameyach for their research and Folger’s delicious coffee for providing me with the energy I needed to write this article.

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