Israel seeks return of Temple artifacts from the Vatican

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.

{ 11 comments to read ... please submit one more! }

  1. If in fact the Vatican & Rome possess these STOLEN sacred objects: they SHOULD be returned to Israel as soon as possible. Why have then hidden away from view in underground dungeons and vaults.???

  2. The Romans took everything with them to the Vatican. They are thieves, and they will always remain thieves as long as they hold the holy artifacts in their possession.
    They probably melted down all the gold to make adornments for their church. They claim to be the true church, but they are not.
    True Christians, true followers of Christ, Jesus, do not still. Jesus will return, and the Vatican will get on their knees, and the pope too, but it will be too late

  3. If the Vatican does hold some of the treasure stolen by the Romans when they sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the 2nd Temple, it should now be all returned to ‘The State of Israel.’
    Rome caused all the suffering, the persecution, the genocide which world Jewry as endured for the last 2,000 years, therefore the Italians through their ancestors are indirectly responsible for what befell the Jews since their forced great dispersion to all the four corners of the world. The vatican has a lot to answer with reference to the 2,000 year old persecution of the jewish people.

  4. This is ironic. It is some years since I wrote to Shimon Shetreet. He never replied. I wrote to the London Ambassy of the State of Israel with information. It was never acknowledged and finally, I wrote to the editor of the Jerusalem post and once again my letter was ignored. What is it with you people that when someone tries to help they are cold shouldered? Certain documents and inscriptions to be found in the village of Rennes-le-Chateau, south of France, suggest that there is, in the area, ‘Sion tresor’. If such is the case, then the question must obviously be asked – how did it get there? One solution is the question could be explained by the establishment of the Visigoth kingdom, following their sacking of Rome in 410. Another could well well be by way of the Templar Knights who had very strong representation in this particular part of France, prior to its Order being dissolved by Philip the Fair who was after their wealth – but never got it.
    Having tried very hard over a period of time by letter writing and being ignored I feel that in order to be more direct in what I claim to understand, I would impose conditions – so would my son who has a PhD in science. The condition has absolutely nothing at all with money – or reward. Absolutely not. My wish is to see the Menorah returned to Jerusalem and placed in the Israeli seat of government – the Knesset, in the absence of the temple on the Temple Mount.
    Now, I don’t know who you are but, I will say this, if your article is just a news item then do not bother to respond to this. If however, your voice is heard in the Knesset, then I would wish to have your remarks concerning your position, at a national level, before I release any information to you. The condition I would make for myself, and that of my son, would be that you pay our expenses to visit and stay in the area of France – having obtained permission from the Authority for Ancient Monuments to archaeologically investigate the site I would take you to. It is the ruin of a building – a very old building. However, I suspect that this will be the last we shall hear from you. Interestingly, the Menorah is referred to by name but, in addition it is also spoken of as Lampes, OIE (Goose if you are schooled in the fables of Aesop, the Ord Orme (gold tree/elm) and finally, OR LUX. There is just one more thing; do not waste my time. If you are interested but have not authority, I do not wish to hear from you. If you claim to have authority, then you will be required to prove it and I would want to see government interet, serious intention in the matter, supported in writing, complete with a senior government’s signature applied to the paper bearing the official seal of Israel – the Menorah.

  5. We have always known that the Vatican has artifacts from the Second Temple. When I heard that the Pope declared that, “….the Jews did not kill Jesus…” I said to myself, “Great!, now just give us back our stuff!”

  6. The Vatican should give up the goods. After all this time it seems only fair. I mean, really, who owns anything. The Vatican probably has them in a crate in a basement. Let’s get them out in the open for everyone to enjoy. Roman Catholics, Jewish and the like. We can learn so much from history and from one another.

  7. I find it difficult to believe that posters like Simon, aka ReginaLady, never learned that proper names, like Roman and Jewish and The Vatican, should be capitalized. But then again, education is just another myth to rile up the uneducated.

  8. I find it difficult to believe that the vatican would have the temple artifacts or that the romans would hold onto them.
    They were proably melted down long ago for some roman purpose.
    The Temple Artifacts still being around is just another myth to rile up the jewish people.

  9. I fully agree with Ann, in that there are numerous cases throughout the years, of countries petitioning others for the rightful return of plundered, stolen and smuggled artifacts. One that comes to mind, recently and continuously, is Zahi Hawass, on behalf of the Egyptian Antiquities services. I beleive that several countries have to date, agreed with Mr. Hawass on this very subject, and have returned, and or are in negotiations, concerning the return of important Egyptian treasures. NO, the Vatican should not receive any special treatment.

  10. I believe the Vatican should return all artifacts and documents to their proper homes as can be resonably asserted. I know that they have pre-Columbian art in their archives from the Americas. Also, countless documents had been confiscated from the Jews during the Inquisition which would help in identifying those who are crypto Jews. I don’t see why the Vatican gets a pass on confiscated articles when countries and races have been sucessful in establishing ownership of items confiscated by others – such as the Nazis.

  11. Isaac Haskiya

    Even Yeshua ben Yasef would say Yes!

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