Monday, May 11, 2009

Does the Vatican Still Have the Temple Vessels?

It seems to be a common belief among many Orthodox Jews that many of the vessels that were used in the Second Temple are presently in the custody of the Vatican. This belief is reinforced by the famous image of the Arch of Titus, showing the Romans carrying off the menorah and other artifacts from the Beis HaMikdash. Many Orthodox Jews to this very day believe that the looted treasure is still somewhere in the Vatican. Just today, two Israelis (I don't know if they are members of the government or not) tried to prevent the Pope from coming to Israel until (among other demands) the vessels are returned.

Personally, I'm a bit skeptical that the Pope has them. While I'm certain the Vatican has an impressive collection of historical memorabilia, including, probably, things that would be of incredible interest to Jewish historians*, I'm not so certain that golden vessels (especially something as large as the menorah) would be among them.

For starters, let's remember that the Romans who destroyed the Beis HaMikdash and plundered its treasures were not Christians, but were pagans. You might expect that if Christians had plundered the Temple, they might have kept the menorah out of some respect for an artifact from their "parent religion." The pagans, however, probably had no such sentimental feelings. In all probability, they probably saw the menorah and other Temple vessels as simply gold and silver -- nothing more. They would simply have no reason to keep them around in a dusty basement somewhere. Rome wouldn't become Christianized for a few centuries yet. It's difficult to say that the pagan Roman emporers would have kept all this treasure around without melting it down and using the gold/silver for their own purposes.

Another factor which leads me to doubt the presence of the Temple vessels in Rome is the fact that Rome has been sacked since the vessels would have arrived there. In fact, the city has been sacked several times:

It was sacked in 410 by the Visigoths
It was sacked again in 455 by the Vandals
It was sacked yet again in 546 by the Goths
And yet again in 846 by Arabs
And again in 1084 by the Normans
And yet again in 1527 by the Holy Roman Empire

I would find it very hard to believe that even if the pagan Romans held on to the gold and silver of the Temple that it would have survived the three barbarian sacks of 410-546 and the latter sackings as well.

Am I wrong? Is there some reason to really suspect that the Vatican is still holding on to the treasures of the Second Temple and that they survived the multiple sacks of Rome? Or is the general perception in the Orthodox Jewish world incorrect and there is little, if any chance, that the Vatican still has these treasures today?

The Wolf

* I once had a rebbe in high school who postulated the silly idea that there was a Talmud Bavli for every mesechta of Shas -- except that the ones that are lost today are actually sitting in a Vatican library somewhere. How the Romans managed to "steal" documents that did not exist until hundreds of years later in another part of the world was not quite explained to us.


Garnel Ironheart said...

I went to a scholarly lecture on this a couple of months ago.

No, they're not in Rome. They were smelted down and carried off by the Visigoths or the Vandals. The Pope has NO Jewish treasures.

And the most interesting thing is that the whole story that these things are sitting in the Vatican was started in a New York Jewish paper in the 1950's!

Originally From Brooklyn said...

You know, you never know. The Vatican could have them, who can know one way or another? If not the Menorah and the other things, then they might have some of the sfarim that they stole from Jews many years ago. Who is to say what they have and don't have?

BrooklynWolf said...


I agree with you that there is a good possibility that the Vatican has memorabilia that Jewish historians would find very interesting. However, I doubt the keylim are there. Anything of that value from that long ago would have long ago been destroyed or stolen during one of the sackings of Rome.

The Wolf

Zach Kessin said...

Or just melted down by one of the popes when they were short on cash (which happened quite a bit). We are talking about almost 2000 years here.

I'm sure they dp have some interesting Jewish Manuscripts that we would love to get our hands on but that is another topic

Anonymous said...

See this post where this issue is also discussed and a bibliography is provided.

Garnel Ironheart said...

They do have Jewish manuscripts, like some original Mishneh Torah copies handwritten by the Rambam.

They also have the titles and records of all the land stolen by the Church from Jewish landowners over the centuries as well as artwork, books, etc.

But they don't have the menorah.

Mike S said...

As far as manuscripts, perhaps including massechtot of gemara we haven't got, they would not have come from stuff carried off by the Romans, but from confiscations in medieval Europe. Our copies of the Meiri, for instance (a work written in medieval Europe) are from the Vatican, although many portions were known from secondary sources. However, I doubt there are other Massechtot of Bavli--or Rashi or Tosphot would have referred to them somewhere. I believe Rashi lived before the first of the book confiscations. On the other hand rashi does cite midrashim not found in our collections, so there might be some material from the Talmudic period we haven't got.

nobody said...

Whether or not there are actually keilim from the Beis HaMikdash at the Vatican, you'd think the Pope could just come out and say if there are or not. If he says yes, they should give them up. If he says no, well - he's a Pope, and Popes never lie, right?

Also, why is it that the only city you ever hear of being "sacked" is Rome. Why does only Rome get to use that word? I demand vocabulary equality!

shoshi said...

I understood that they were melted immediately and that the colosseum was built from the money...

(At least, they say in the guided tours of the Colosseum, that it was built with the money from jerusalem)

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

AI Spam Bot said...

The Popes spent it all on prostitutes, wine, baccanalian orgies and mistresses; long ago... if there was anything left to melt down from the barberians.

Anonymous said...

I believe the Vatican does have the Menorah and many other artifacts as well. The officials claimed they had no such thing in the Vatican. No, it may not be "in" the Vatican, it could be under the Vatican or perhaps at another location altogether. But I do believe it is in the Vatican's possession. I do not believe the Menorah was melted down for other purposes. It was too grand a trophy for that. Nonetheless, in the spirit of Christianity, Vatican officials, all plundered items (including those bought) should be returned to their rightful owners, meaning, the country it was taken from.