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Did the Temple Menorah Come Back to Jerusalem?

The fate of the Temple Menorah—a seven-branched candelabrum—can confidently be traced from Jerusalem to Rome after the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. It is gloriously pictured on the Arch of Titus on the Via Sacra in Rome.

It was standard Roman practice at this time, with the capture of a foreign city, that the art and treasures of the defeated people were appropriated as spoils of war and carried back to Rome. In the case of Jerusalem, the Temple treasure, which included the Menorah, was taken to Rome to be paraded in triumph as proof of Titus’s victory.

But what happened to the Temple treasures after the triumphal victory march? The then emperor Vespasian ordered most of them housed in the newly built Temple of Peace that held works of art from around the empire for public viewing.

Probably in 192 C.E. the Temple of Peace was destroyed in a fire, according to Cassius Dio, but it must have been restored by the early third century C.E., as Ammianus implies. In neither report is there any mention of what became of the Menorah or any of the other Temple treasures. But a certain Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, who lived in the second century C.E., is said to have traveled to Rome and reported seeing the Menorah, presumably in the Temple of Peace.

Today almost nothing remains of the Temple of Peace; what little there is may be seen just north of the Via dei Fora Imperiali, which separates the ruins of the Temple of Peace from the Roman Forum. Between 526 and 530 C.E., Pope Felix IV built the Church of Santi Cosma e Damiano over the southeast corner of the Temple of Peace.

In the triumphal arch of the church apse is a mosaic, still visible, that may contain a visual reference to the Temple Menorah. At the top of the arch flanking the Lamb of God are seven large gold candlesticks, which may refer to the Temple Menorah or the candles in Revelation 1:12–13, Revelation 1:20; Revelation 2:1 and Revelation 4:5, or both.

Who destroyed the Temple of Peace and why? And where did the Temple Menorah go?

To the first question we know nothing. To the latter question we know little directly, but ancient texts and archaeological finds provide some tantalizing hints and possibilities.

The Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea (c. 500–560 C.E.) reports that when the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 C.E., they took from Rome “treasures of Solomon the king of the Hebrews.” If the Menorah was among these treasures, the story of the Temple Menorah ends here.

However, Procopius makes little of this appropriation of Solomon’s Temple treasures and provides far more detail concerning the Temple treasures that were taken to Constantinople.

Procopius describes at much greater length the history of the Vandals and their sack of Rome in 455 C.E. The Vandals were a northern European people who, over a period of more than 300 years, traveled south and eventually crossed the Mediterranean to settle in Carthage (today Tunisia).

From Carthage, they launched an attack on Rome that resulted in the destruction of much of the city. After sacking Rome, the Vandal leader, Geiseric, set sail from Italy with “a huge amount of imperial treasure in his ships.”

At this time the capital of the empire was in Constantinople, and Procopius was writing to record and glorify the Roman emperor Justinian (c. 482–565 C.E.), who was his contemporary.

Consequently, his history of the Vandalic Wars was concerned with how the Vandals got their comeuppance (i.e., the conquest of Vandal Carthage and the Vandals themselves by Justinian’s general Belisarius). Belisarius is depicted by Procopius as a great general who took Vandal Carthage in 534 C.E. and returned to Constantinople with treasure from his conquests.

Procopius tells us that General Belisarius entered Constantinople as a victor and proceeded through the city in “triumph” in the manner accorded to Titus. After marching through the city, the procession ended at the “place where the imperial throne is.” There Belisarius presented his emperor with the spoils of his war against the Vandals.

“And there was also silver weighing many thousands of talents and all the royal treasure amounting to an exceedingly great sum … and among these were the treasures of the Jews, which Titus, the son of Vespasian, together with certain others, had brought to Rome after the capture of Jerusalem.”

There is no doubt that Belisarius did indeed march through Constantinople with the treasures from Vandal Carthage, which could very well have included the Temple treasure and the Menorah.

In fact, in a separate book titled The Buildings, Procopius describes a mosaic on the ceiling of the Chalke Gate, the entrance to Justinian’s Palace, which depicts the cities captured by Belisarius, the general himself returning to the capital, and finally the general’s presentation to Justinian of the spoils “both kings and kingdoms and all things that are most prized by men.” We would dearly love to see that mosaic. But the mosaics have long been destroyed.

Procopius also relates a story, perhaps legendary, of a Jew who warned Justinian that the Temple treasures were, in a manner, cursed because Titus had taken them from Jerusalem.

As a result, every city they had been housed in had been destroyed: Jerusalem by the Romans, Rome by the Vandals and the Vandal city of Carthage by Belisarius. Justinian, according to the story, immediately sent the Temple treasures, which could have included the Menorah, back to Jerusalem.

Is this only a legend? Is there any evidence that might bear it out?

With regard to Justinian, there is some further evidence—relating to Justinian as the builder of a large church in Jerusalem known as the Nea. It is shown on the famous Madaba Map, a sixth-century C.E. mosaic map in Jordan that includes Jerusalem. Sitting on the east side of the Cardo, the main road that bisects the city, is the Nea Church.

As described by Procopius, Justinian completed the Nea in 543 C.E., just nine years after he was given the Temple treasures. The efforts made to build the Nea bear a resemblance to the description of the efforts made by Solomon to build the Jerusalem Temple.

Excavations at the Nea by acclaimed Israeli archaeologist Nahman Avigad of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the second half of the 20th century revealed the vaults described by Procopius.

More recently, Hagi Amitzur of Bar-Ilan University has made the case that the Nea was Justinian’s attempt to compete with Solomon and build a new Temple in Jerusalem. Israeli scholar Yohanan Lewy has suggested the Nea was built to house the Temple treasures sent to Jerusalem by Justinian.

Further evidence for the return of the Temple Menorah to Jerusalem is even more fragmentary and indirect. Nonetheless, there are additional pieces of literary and archaeological evidence from a variety of sources to suggest an interesting, if not conclusive, story.

The story weaves together three arcane Jewish writings from Late Antiquity, specifically the seventh century C.E.

The first is an obscure Jewish Apocalypse called Signs of the Messiah (’Otot ha-Mašiah). It lists 10 signs of the imminent coming of the Messiah. Part of the sixth sign reads as follows:

The Messiah of the lineage of Joseph will come and fight a battle with the ruler of Edom [Rome]. He will win a victory against Edom, kill great heaps of them, and also kill the king of Edom. He will devastate the province of Rome. He will recover some of the Temple vessels that had been deposited in the palace of Julianos Caesar and come to Jerusalem.

In the seventh century C.E., “Rome” could mean either Rome or Constantinople, which had become the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire. German scholar Samuel Krauss has suggested that in place of the words “Julianos Caesar” the text be amended to read “Justinos,” that is, Justinian, because “Caesar” became a sort of title for any Roman emperor.

The next question is, who was “the Messiah of the lineage of Joseph” referred to twice in the above quote? The Messiah of the lineage of Joseph was thought to be a precursor or harbinger of the “Messiah of the lineage of David.”

The Messiah of the lineage of David was the ultimate Messiah who would bring about the final redemption of the Jewish community. Elsewhere in the ’Otot ha-Mašiah, the Messiah of the lineage of Joseph is identified as Nehemiah ben Hushiel who, apparently, was a historical person living in the land of Israel in the seventh century C.E.

Our second obscure apocalypse is The Book of Zerubbabel (Sefer Zerubbabel). It was probably written a little more than 50 years after the death of Justinian and at a time when the kingdom of Persia had taken Judea and Jerusalem from the Byzantine empire.

The book is attributed to the Biblical character Zerubbabel, who is said to be the last known descendant of David (1 Chronicles 3:19; Haggai 1:1 and Ezra 3:2).

At roughly that time (597–587 B.C.E.), the First Temple built by Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians, and the Temple treasures were taken to Babylon along with many Jerusalemites—as part of the Babylonian Exile (2 Kings 24:13 and 2 Kings 25:11–17).

A generation later, Zerubbabel appears in Biblical and apocryphal books as a leader of the Judean exiles returning from Babylon and the chief restorer of the Temple.

More important, for our purposes, Zerubbabel is intimately associated with the Temple Menorah.

Even today his name is invoked when Jews light a nine-branched version of the Menorah during the holiday of Hanukkah. For eight nights they sing “Ma’oz Tzur,” a song whose third verse states, “When Babylon fell and Zerubbabel took charge, within 70 years I was saved” (see also Zechariah 4:1–3).

The Sefer Zerubbabel describes a vision of the future granted to Zerubbabel by an angel. As restorer of the Temple, Zerubbabel is told that the Second Temple, which he helped build, will nonetheless be destroyed in 70 C.E. by Titus.

Then the vision goes on to say that hundreds of years after the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus, Nehemiah ben Hushiel will collect all Israel “together as one entity, and they will remain four years in Jerusalem (where) the children of Israel will offer sacrifice, and it will be pleasing to the Lord.”

The Sefer Zerubbabel is not history. But neither is it made up out of whole cloth. We can take the above passage to mean that sometime in the first quarter of the seventh century C.E., an attempt was made to restore the Temple, or at least Temple sacrifice in Jerusalem. To do that they needed the Temple vessels, including the Menorah, which had been delivered to the Byzantine ruler Justinian.

And the ’Otot ha-Mašiah says that Nehemiah ben Hushiel, the Messiah of the lineage of Joseph, has Temple vessels. Consequently these two obscure apocalyptic and messianic texts paint a picture of hope at the beginning of the seventh century C.E. that the Temple and its vessels would be restored.

A third and separate obscure source, a piyyut or Hebrew poem, is dated to a time roughly contemporary with the Sefer Zerubbabel. It also speaks of the Messiah of the lineage of Joseph.

According to this piyyut, after the Persians succeeded the Byzantine Romans in control of Jerusalem, the Messiah of the lineage of Joseph (also one Nehemiah ben Hushiel) rebuilt a small temple—but not “the Temple”—in Jerusalem.

The Persians appoint him “leader and the head” of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. Shortly thereafter, the Persian commander murdered him in the rebuilt temple.

These three seventh-century C.E. writings taken together offer a vision of hope in Jerusalem for a rebuilt Temple and the return of the Temple vessels, including the Menorah.

The violent, not to say chaotic, historical circumstances at this time precipitated the messianic hope expressed in these documents.

In 614 C.E. the Persians reconquered Jerusalem with the significant help of Jews from the Galilee. While undoubtedly there had been a small Jewish presence in Jerusalem, with the Persian conquest, for the first time since the end of the Second Jewish Revolt (the Bar-Kokhba Revolt) in 136 C.E., Jews were officially allowed to live in the Holy City.

Within months of the Jewish return, however, Christians attacked the Jews in Jerusalem and reoccupied the city. With Persian help, Jerusalem had been reconquered along with an ensuing massacre of Jerusalem’s Christians.

Archaeological remains found in a cave west of the Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate included heaps of human bones and coins dating the cave deposits to the seventh century C.E.c Jerusalem had been returned to Jewish hands, albeit violently.

However, by 617 C.E., the Persian authorities turned on their former Jewish allies and gave Jerusalem back to its Christian inhabitants. By 630 C.E., the Byzantine emperor Heraclius, now at peace with the Persian empire, marched undisturbed into Jerusalem and banished Jews from the city.

By 638 C.E., this back and forth of Jewish-Christian conflict was moot. Jerusalem had been conquered yet again, this time by Muslim armies.

This very brief history helps us to understand better the apocalyptic yearnings expressed in ’Otot ha-Mašiah, the Sefer Zerubbabel and the piyyut. For a generation at the beginning of the seventh century C.E., it must have seemed as if the hundreds of years of Jewish exile from Jerusalem were over, and a messianic age was imminent.

Maybe the Temple could even be rebuilt, and perhaps the Temple instruments, including the Menorah, could be, or had been, returned from exile as well.

In 2013 Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar discovered in Jerusalem a gold medallion from the seventh century C.E. depicting a seven-branched menorah.

More relevant to our analysis here is an excavation nearly a half-century earlier—in 1968—by Eilat Mazar’s grandfather, the eminent Israeli archaeologist Benjamin Mazar. Adjacent to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount Benjamin Mazar excavated a two-story building from the seventh century C.E. that was decorated with four seven-branched menorot.

In the largest room in the building (on the upper floor), the excavators discovered an empty niche more than two feet wide. Each side of the niche had originally been decorated—with a painted seven-branched menorah (only one has survived in situ).

In the debris of the room, the excavators found a stone door lintel that probably lay above the entrance to the building. In the center of the lintel was a carving of a Greek cross. On either side of the cross was, again, a painting of a seven-branched menorah.

Flanking one of the menorot were drawings that the excavators identified as a lulav (palm branch) and an etrog (lemon-like fruit), items used in the festival of Sukkot.

Benjamin Mazar stated that the cross in the center of the lintel had been plastered over, probably at the time—in the early seventh century C.E.—when the building that had apparently been occupied by Christians was converted into a synagogue or other public building and the menorot had been added in paint.

Unfortunately, this lintel has disappeared. As a result, we cannot confirm whether lulavs and etrogs were painted on the lintel. But we can report that in several instances ancient synagogues with mosaic floors feature a menorah and lulavs and etrogs.

The House of the Menorot, originally occupied by Christians, was at one point converted to a synagogue. When this happened is a matter of serious scholarly controversy.

Some, including Eilat Mazar, contend that this did not occur until after the Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 638 C.E.

American archaeologist Jodi Magness, on the other hand, dates the House of the Menorot to the Jewish occupation after the Persian conquest in 614 C.E.

There may be a way to sort out this controversy. I suggest that even though the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614 C.E. officially allowed Jews to return and live in Jerusalem for the first time in more than 400 years, their return was quickly stifled by a Christian revolt.

Only the second conquest of Jerusalem by the Persians, again with Jewish help, succeeded in establishing a Jewish presence in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, this second taking of Jerusalem resulted in the massacre of many Christians.

An archaeological indication of the resettlement of Jerusalem at the expense of some Christians is the House of the Menorot. It specifically demonstrates how a Christian dwelling became reused as a synagogue or public building.

The repeated use of the image of the menorah is not unusual in synagogues and may not have been out of the ordinary here. Then, only a few years after the building was refurbished as a Jewish structure, Emperor Heraclius ousted the Jews from Jerusalem.

Shortly thereafter, Muslims conquered Jerusalem. They had their own connection to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, and Jews had to reconfirm their right to live in Jerusalem, south of the Temple Mount, with the new ruler, Caliph ’Omar.

This theory takes into account the dramatic settlement of Jews in Jerusalem, the contemporaneous creation of a synagogue or public building from a formerly Christian building and the concern of the new Muslim ruler regarding his Jewish subjects. But what does it say if anything about the Temple Menorah?

This article has traced a thread of traditions, following the Temple Menorah from Jerusalem to Rome to Carthage to Constantinople and perhaps back to Jerusalem, maybe in the Nea Church or in the vicinity of the House of the Menorot. In the end it is a slender thread, and it is only one of several traditions.

A competing Jewish tradition preserved in the Second Apocalypse of Baruch written after the fall of Jerusalem to Titus has the Temple vessels saved by an angel, who buries them in the earth somewhere in the land of Israel, to await their restoration to a rebuilt third Temple.

Yet another tradition has the Roman emperor Maxentius fleeing from Constantine in 312 C.E. across the Milvian Bridge and incongruously carrying the Temple Menorah. Maxentius’s humiliation is complete when both he and the Menorah fall into the Tiber River and are lost.

Clearly the Temple Menorah has fostered many stories and conjectures. Whether any of these traditions helps to explain the fate of the Temple Menorah remains a question.


Biblical Archaeology Review 43:5, September/October 2017


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