Did the Vatican steal the ancient Menorah?

Vatican Menorah

One of the strangest conspiracy theories circulating today is that the Vatican is in possession of the ancient Menorah fashioned by the prophet Moses at the direct command of God. This is the seven-branched candelabrum that the Israelites carried with them during the Exodus from Egypt and later installed in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Like all the temple treasures, including the Ark of the Covenant, it was looted by different invaders over the centuries. But why is it widely believed that it ended up deep inside the Vatican?

On Twitter and other social media, the Vatican stands accused of having grabbed the treasures of the Temple of Solomon at some point in history – and then hid them out of sight. The Holy see insists that it doesn’t have the golden Menorah or the Ark of the Covenant or the manna that fell from heaven nourishing the Jews during the Exodus. But the Vatican has a problem.

Because in the past – it claimed that it did have all these things. And even put them on display.

Below, I’ll look at how we arrived at a situation where in the 1990s, Israeli officials ended up demanding the right to inspect the secret archives of the Vatican to finally put to rest centuries old rumours that the Popes long ago stole the treasures of the Temple of Solomon.

God gives Moses the Menorah

Where does this intriguing story start? Well, a lot longer ago than you might imagine. First, we have to return to the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt as told in the Old Testament and Jewish scripture. Yahweh, the God of these people escaping Pharaoh’s bondage, has made the Jews his chosen people. And Moses is their prophet and leader. He must take them through the desert to the Promised Land.

On the way, God communes with Moses. He gives the prophet the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone – rules by which the chosen people will live. These are housed in a gilded box called the Ark of the Covenant, which has the power to slay thousands of people merely by being looked at or touched. And then there is the Menorah – an ornate, golden, seven-branched candelabrum.

Like the Ark of the Covenant, it was made to specifications laid out by God to Moses. Formed by one piece of pure beaten gold weighing one hundred pounds. This impressive candelabrum had seven branches topped with lamps and was just over five feet high. Moses struggled to follow God’s very detailed and pernickety instructions and so a block of gold was thrown into the fire and in a flash of light, God made the sacred object himself.

The lamps of the Menorah were lit daily using olive oil though the central lamp never ran out of oil for many centuries. According to Christian tradition, the miracle of the Menorah stopped when Christ died and was resurrected as his light now shone in the world. Throughout the Exodus of the Jewish people, the Menorah was kept in the Tabernacle and then once the Temple of Solomon was built in Jerusalem – it was housed there with the Ark of the Covenant.

But disaster would strike the Temple in Jerusalem twice. In 587BC, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city and sacked the temple. This was when the Ark of the Covenant disappeared. Either hidden by the prophet Jeremiah or melted down by the invaders – nobody really knows. As for the Menorah, it turns up again but there’s uncertainty over whether it was the original or a copy.

Five hundred years later, King Herod rebuilt the Temple of Jerusalem on the grandest scale ever. This hated, murderous monarch was trying to prove his religious credentials to a sceptical Jewish population. He was essentially a puppet of the Roman Empire – despised for his collaboration with an occupying force. Major building projects like the temple were intended to bolster his legitimacy as a Jewish ruler.

His new temple reportedly included the Menorah but the Ark of the Covenant remained lost. However, this new home for the Menorah would not last a century. In a few decades it would be consumed in flames.

The Menorah ends up in Rome

In 70CE, the Romans finally put down what had been a significant revolt by the Jewish population in its unruly province of Judaea. If there was something the Romans couldn’t tolerate, it was sedition. To punish the Jewish people, they utterly wrecked the temple built by Herod leaving only the platform on which it was built – which is the Temple Mount you see today.

All the temple treasures were looted and brought to Rome. The triumph was celebrated by the Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus, who had commanded the legions that had crushed the Jewish revolt. Titus became emperor after his father but died after a short reign. An arch was erected to his memory in 81CE. This arch tells us what happened to the Menorah.

Because on it, we see carved a group of Roman soldiers carrying what is unmistakably the Menorah.

Jewish scholars like Shimon bar Yochai wrote in the second century AD that the temple treasures were used to fund public works including the Coliseum. They claimed that the Menorah along with the golden headband worn by the High Priest and the temple curtain were all kept at the Temple of Peace, a pagan ceremonial site built by the Roman emperor. That burned down in 191CE and accounts vary as to what happened to the Menorah next. Maybe it was destroyed. Or it was transferred to the imperial palace on the Palatine hill.

But another theory emerged in 1900 when a stone with an inscription was unearthed in the Jewish ghetto in Rome that related how three Jewish subjects had been beheaded by imperial order after attempting to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant and the Menorah from the river Tiber. This seemed to confirm an old story that Jews living in Rome had seized the Menorah during the 191CE fire at the Temple of Peace and hid it in the river.

Barbarians making off with the Menorah?

Having never seen an invading army for eight hundred years, the city of Rome would endure a rapid reversal of its fortunes from the year 410CE onwards. In that year, a disgruntled Visigoth leader, Alaric, who had been in the service of the Roman state, went on the rampage with his barbarian army through the city. Forty five years later, the Vandals led by Gaiseric trashed the eternal city again with even more devastating impact.

Take your pick on barbarian Menorah theories. One has Alaric stealing the Menorah along with wagon loads of treasure from Rome, bound for southern Italy. But then the Visigoth general falls fatally ill near the town of Cosenza. The nearby river Busento was temporarily diverted to bury Alaric along with some of his ill-gotten loot, which was then covered once more with water. So, did the Menorah end up under the Busento alongside the body of Alaric?

Alternatively, the Vandals under Gaiseric took the Menorah from Rome to their capital Carthage in modern Tunisia in 455CE. The Vandals had seized Carthage from the Romans half a century earlier, but in 533CE the Byzantine empire, which regarded itself as the continuation of the Roman empire, took the city back.

The Menorah then travelled eastwards across the Mediterranean to the Byzantine capital, Constantinople – modern Istanbul. But once there, the story runs that the Byzantine emperor Justinian was warned by a Jewish scholar that the Menorah was cursed. God was furious that it had been taken from his temple in Jerusalem. Look at what had happened of late to Rome and Carthage! Surely this was proof of divine wrath?

So, Justinian sent it back to Jerusalem. He was a devout Christian emperor who had no wish to see his capital laid waste because of the Menorah.

Well, so that story goes. But there is another view.

The Pope and the Menorah

Maybe it never left Rome. Benjamin of Tudela was a Jewish traveller from what is now Spain. He visited Rome in the 12th century and wrote in his journal that the Menorah was being kept at the basilica of St John Lateran. Built on the site of a Roman military fort, the Lateran palace was home to the popes up until the 14th century. It was in effect the global headquarters of the Roman Catholic church.

In the 13th century, an inscription that can still be seen catalogued the precious items that had been placed under the high altar of Saint John Lateran. These included all the main treasures from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem: the Ark of the Covenant; the staff of Moses and Aaron; a golden urn containing manna, the bread that fell from heaven during the Exodus; and crucially the golden Menorah.

There can be little doubt that the Popes understood the religious significance of being in possession of those temple treasures that had been given to Moses by God. The inscription makes the point that they had been brought to Rome by the Roman emperors Vespasian and his son Titus. And now, they were enshrined in a place from where the Popes ruled the Roman Catholic church.

The Lateran was the new temple. Judaism, in the Catholic view of the time, had to make way for the church established by the Son of God governed by his vicar on earth, the Pope. The Temple of Solomon was destroyed but this was the new temple for the one true faith.

This point was made with gusto by a 12th century writer called John the Deacon of the Lateran in a work called the Descriptio Lateranensis ecclesiae. In this book, he boasted about the Lateran’s ownership of the sacred temple goods because by now, rival deacons at St Peter’s in Rome – what would later become the Vatican residence of the popes – were seeking to undermine the supreme status of the Lateran church. One Vatican based cleric even referred to the Lateran sneeringly as a “synagogue” on account of the number of Jewish relics it housed.

Another medieval eye witness account of the Menorah being in Rome came from an Icelandic source. A 12th century pilgrim from this far off place on the edge of Europe journeying to the Holy Land who passed through Rome and noted many of its holy relics including the Menorah. The account is called the Leiöarvisir.

So – can one assume then that the Menorah and indeed the Ark of the Covenant were indeed in the hands of the Pope?

But hang on – what about the Crusades?

We have the medieval papal HQ where the popes lived and reigned making the strident claim that they owned all the treasures of the Temple of Solomon including the Ark of the Covenant and the Menorah – and had housed them under the high altar. Great. So, why were the Knights Templar and other crusaders claiming that these relics were to be found under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem?

At exactly the same time that John the Deacon was telling us that the Menorah was in his church – crusaders were in charge of Jerusalem having conquered the city with much bloodshed in the year 1099. The Templars had based themselves in the Al Aqsa mosque renaming it the Temple of Solomon. The Dome of the Rock was rebranded the Templum Domini. Key to the crusader mission was the idea that Jerusalem and its holy relics had to be in Catholic hands.

Well, Saladin sorted out that conundrum by retaking Jerusalem for Islam in the year 1187. After that, the Lateran resumed its claim to own the Menorah and Ark without any pesky crusader counter-claims.

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The Menorah and Ark disappear from the Lateran – into the Vatican?

So convinced were the Popes that they had the Menorah and the Ark in the Lateran that every year on Maundy Thursday, the Pope would conduct a ritual close by the Ark that was believed to imitate what the Jewish High Priest would have done in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Solomon a thousand years before.

The Pope performed this rite on his own as it was written in scripture that only the High Priest could enter the room housing the Ark and lit by the Menorah. Death would come to anybody else entering the Holy of Holies. But once the papacy relocated from the Lateran to the Vatican – the theological love affair with the Menorah and the Ark diminished to nothing.

Fast forward to the year 1745 and Pope Benedict XIV paid a pastoral visit to Saint John Lateran. Like every pope since the 14th century, he lived in the Vatican as the popes do today. After a fire at the Lateran in 1308, the temple items that had been kept out of view under the high altar were put on display for the faithful. Some scholars believe that Benedict, ruling the church during the period of history dubbed the Enlightenment, found these garish relics embarrassing and not in tune with the ‘rationalist’ spirit of the time.

The Ark of the Covenant and other temple treasures including the Menorah had to be removed. Nevertheless, Benedict was happy with the table from the Last Supper retaining a very visible position at the high altar. So where did the temple artefacts go? Well, it’s a mystery. And into this gap in our knowledge has crept the conspiracy theories.

A mystery that still has the power to cause diplomatic rows in our time.

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Israel demands the Vatican return the Menorah

In 1996, Israel’s Religious Affairs Minister Shimon Shetreet was negotiating a papal visit by John Paul II to Israel planned for 1997. The papacy at the time was keen to repair relations with Jewish people. During the discussions with senior Vatican officials, Shetreet demanded to know if the Holy See possessed the Menorah. Handing it over, he declared, would be an act “of reconciliation between the Jewish people and the Catholic church”.

One report claims that the Israeli Antiquities Authority successfully got access to the Vatican archives but after a rummage around the basement of St Peter’s came away with no Menorah.

John Paul II’s papal successor Pope Benedict XVI visited Israel resulting in a bizarre court case to consider a demand that the leader of the Roman Catholic church should be seized and detained until the Menorah was returned. The case was dismissed on the grounds that the Pope enjoyed immunity as a head of state.

Still, despite the ongoing social media suspicion, the Vatican decided in 2017 to organise the first ever exhibition in collaboration with a Jewish museum. And the subject? The Menorah: Worship, History and Legend. You can either view this as a case of papal chutzpah or a desire by the Pope to finally kill off this persistent story.

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