Myths, of the Da Vinci Code variety, abound that vessels from the ancient Jerusalem Temples are squirreled away somewhere in the Vatican’s bowels. Of course, if the Vatican actually had the ancient Jewish relics, including the menorah, or seven-branched candelabrum, at the center of the Chanukah story, it would likely publicize them in an effort to make a convincing material argument for the truth of the Bible.
The view that the Temple vessels, or keylim, are in Rome dates back to the early Middle Ages and builds on rabbinic arguments that they are still there, but the myth about the Vatican is a product of the post-Holocaust generation in New York, which harbors “justifiable” suspicion of Catholics. That’s according to Steven Fine, who directs Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies and is the scholar behind the university’s exhibition The Arch of Titus — from Jerusalem to Rome, and Back.
The prevalence of the myth among Jews “increased with Vatican II and their still-justifiable disbelief that the Church, which had been a persecutor for centuries, could change,” Fine says. “The strength of the myth grew as the menorah became a symbol of Israel, and it exploded in public as the Vatican and Israel established relations late in the last century.”
But the claim remains an urban myth, according to Fine — up there with the one that Jews have horns. (That, and its artistic tradition, derives from a mistranslation of Exodus 34.) “The recent menorah [Arch of Titus] show was an attempt to get ahead of the menorah myth,” says Fine. “I’m afraid, though, that the chickens have escaped the henhouse, and killing this myth will be tough. Then again, I definitely do not have horns!”
In The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel, Fine notes that some of the Biblical-artifact sensationalization in television shows and movies such as the Indiana Jones series can have a positive effect. They may inspire young people to pursue scholarly careers. “When it comes to the Jewish past, few subjects more surely draw attention than the fate of the artifacts of the Jewish temples,” he writes.
The Yeshiva University Museum exhibit features a to-scale recreation of the section of the Arch of Titus, on which Jerusalem’s spoils, including the menorah, are depicted being carted off to Rome. And the show charts the menorah’s development as a symbol, culminating with its adoption, in 1949, as the emblem of the State of Israel. The contrast between the re-creation of the arch, which displayed the menorah as a symbol of Roman triumph over Judaism, and its later appropriation as a national Jewish symbol is stark.
“Christian authors have historically seen the Arch of Titus both as ‘proof’ of God’s punishment of the Jews for not accepting Christianity, and as demonstrating continuity between the Roman Empire and the papacy,” reads a note accompanying the re-creation in the exhibition. Both the menorah and the Temple’s showbread table, held to be a stand-in for the Ark of the Covenant, were “thought to be stored in the papal chapel, the Sanctum Sanctorum (‘Holy of Holies’), at the Basilica of St. John of the Lateran in Rome.” In the 20th century, amid “fierce debate,” the menorah became ubiquitous as Israel’s national symbol. “Contemporary Israeli concerns for the State of Israel and the Jewish people are projected onto the Arch, and new myths — like the one that claims the Temple menorah is stored at the Vatican — develop.”
Writing in The Daily Beast, Candida Moss, a University of Birmingham professor, notes that many Jews over the past 50 years have believed that the Vatican possesses the Jewish Temple vessels. “The Vatican receives hundreds of letters a year requesting that the vessels be returned to the Jewish people,” she writes. In 1996, Israel’s religious affairs minister asked the Church to help find the vessels, she adds, and “in 2004 the Israel Antiquities Authority sent a team to Rome to search the Vatican storerooms. They came away empty-handed.”
Moss, who notes that only administrative hurdles face scholars entering the Vatican libraries, is convinced that the menorah “isn’t in the Vatican being used as a reading lamp for secret books in a nefarious underground basement.” It might have been lost, or likelier melted down and turned into coins, she writes.
“The Vatican has nothing that they have not shared,” Fine says. “Period. All the anti-Catholic myths in our culture come together with myths like this one, propagated by people like Dan Brown — and worse.”
When they distinguish between truth and fantasy, academics, with all of their footnotes and careful research, see through “fake news” like this, Fine says, and provide “more-reliable historical narratives to students and more general readers.”