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An Amazing Life: Jesus and the Nozerim

Appendix XXVII – The Sacred Treasures

The Gospels of the New Testament make no mention of the sacred vessels, objects, and treasures from the Great Temple. For whatever reason, there has been a general assumption that these objects were lost during the exile, one of several invasions of Judea, or after the Jewish revolt and destruction of the first century. But such an assumption gives the Jews little credit and ignores compelling historical evidence. It is certainly hard to make sense of an intelligent people leaving their greatest treasures exposed to easy theft or simply accepting their loss without more than a passing note.

The basic historical information, gleaned from scripture and ancient history follows this sequence of events…

God gave Moses His Commandments and Covenant upon Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19-24) and then instructed Moses to build a cabinet (“ark”) for keeping the “testimony” God had given Moses[1]. God also instructed Moses to build a tabernacle, stone alter, and specific holy items, including: the mercy seat (or “Kaporet”/ "atonement piece", a cover for the ark) along with its veil, a table for showbread[2], the table accessories (cups, bowls, dishes, pans, and jars), a lamp stand (a 75 pound solid gold menorah), curtains (for the tabernacle) and related claps and hooks, a bronze square altar, a perpetual lamp statue, an incense altar, a bronze laver (for cleansing), and priestly garments and accessories[3]. Along with Divinely ordered sacred objects, God directed the Jews to keep certain things:  the actual stone tablets holding the “Ten Commandments”[4], some of the manna from Heaven[5], and Aaron’s staff (rod)[6]. Obviously, Moses’ mighty staff became a venerated and priceless sacred object.


         Representations of the Sacred Treasures: the Ark and Mercy Seat, Table for Showbread, and Menorah

 Scripture provides some historical information regarding these objects: the Ark was in the Tabernacle at Shiloh (1 Sam. 3:3); the Ark was in Gilgal for a season after the settlement of the Israelites in Canaan (before being returned to Shiloh); and, it remained at Shiloh (Josh. 18) until the time of Eli (Jer. 7:12) when it was carried into the field of battle to insure victory to the Hebrews. Instead, the Ark was taken by the Philistines[7] (1 Sam. 4:3-11) to Ashdod and then to Gath only to be returned seven months later when the Philistines tired of the Divine punishment inflicted upon them for holding it. They sent the Ark back to the Israelites, accompanied by expensive gifts, and the Jews took it to Beit Shemesh.

 From Beit Shemesh, the Ark was transported to Kiryat Yearim. The Ark was with the army during the siege of Rabbah (2 Sam. 11:11) and when David fled from Jerusalem at the time of Absalom's conspiracy, the Ark was carried along with him until he ordered Zadok the priest to return it to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 15:24-29; about 1000BCE), where it remained until construction of the First Temple (I Sam. 5-6). Solomon placed it in the new Temple and appointed the Levites to minister before the Ark (1 Chron. 16:4). During the reign of Solomon's son Rehoboam, Shishak, the King of Egypt, raided Jerusalem (about 925 BCE) and "took away treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king's house; he took away everything….” (II Chron. 12:1-12)[8]. This begins an odd history where the same treasures keep getting taken and then mysteriously reappear…

The Jewish king Ahaz (732-716 BCE) supposedly removed the brazen altar, the bases and ornaments of the lavers, the oxen from under the bronze sea, and other temple and palace treasures to pay tribute to Tiglath-Pileser (King of Assyria). He also created a replica altar and had the High Priest Urijah sacrifice upon the replica (II Kings 16:10-17). Hezekiah succeeded Ahaz and did much to restore the Temple until the invasion and siege by Sennacherib (701 BCE). Part of Hezekiah’s success against the siege was based upon his anticipation of the Assyrian invasion and the digging of secret tunnels (the best known was to access the waters of the Spring of Gihon). But the Assyrians had captured most of Israel and Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh (686-642 BCE), re-instituted pagan worship and reversed the religious reforms made by Hezekiah. Nothing is said about the Ark or other sacred treasures, but after a revolt (641 BCE) which killed Manasseh’s son (Amon), the Ark was returned to the Temple by King Josiah (641–609 BC). (2 Chron. 35:3)[9].

But Jerusalem was far from secure and the prophet Jeremiah had a “vision” (or perhaps just common sense) indicating that another invasion was coming. Sure enough, in 586 BCE, the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem and sacked Solomon's Temple. There are conflicting accounts of what happened to the Ark before, during, and after the exile. The Bible specifically offers no record of what became of the Ark, but states that Nebuchadnezzar (the Babylonian King) “brought some of the articles of the house of the Lord to Babylon and put them in his temple [there].” (2 Chron. 36:7). 2 Kings says, "The Babylonians broke up the bronze pillars, the stands (“מְכוֹנָה”) and the bronze basin (“יָ֧ם”) that were at the temple of the Lord and they carried the bronze to Babylon. They also took away pots, shovels, wick trimmers, dishes and all the bronze articles used in the temple service. The commander of the imperial guard took away the censers and sprinkling blows-all that were made of pure gold or silver " (2 Kings 25:13-15; note Jer. 52:17-22).

The extra canonical book 1 Esdras however states that the Babylonians "took all the holy vessels of the Lord, both great and small, and the ark of God, and the king's treasures, and carried them away into Babylon." (1 Esdras 1:54). But this account serves to exaggerate the loss and it seems to make little sense that the earlier accounts which offer substantial detail regarding what was taken lack any mention of the most sacred treasures. The canonized works even distinguish specific gold and silver items, but don’t list the 75 pound solid gold lamp or the golden Ark.

Without more, we might accept that the Jews were incredibly careless with their treasures and had little regard or concern for their loss. Of course, that simply doesn’t make sense and doesn’t fit their history. Nevertheless, what happened to the Ark after the exile remains a mystery.  In Second Maccabees[10], Chapter 2, it relates that "Jeremiah, having received an oracle of the Lord, ordered that the tent and the ark and the altar of incense should follow him to the mountain of God [Mt. Nebo, 40 miles to the east of Jerusalem] where he sealed them up in a cave, and he told those who followed him in order to mark the way, but they could not find it, ‘The place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy, and then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud shall appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked that the place be specially consecrated.’”(2 Macc. 2:4-8). According to 2 Baruch an angel came into the Holy of Holies and took "the veil, the holy ephod, the mercy seat, the two tables, the holy raiment of the priest, the altar of incense, the forty-eight precious stones and all the holy vessels of the tabernacle before the invasion. (2 Baruch 6:5-9). In the Pseudepigraphal book called "The Paralipomena of Jeremiah" (meaning "the remaining words of Jeremiah" and also known as 4 Baruch) it was written that Jeremiah, in obedience to God's command, hid the sacred objects from the temple just before the destruction of Jerusalem.

At the conclusion of the exile – whereupon Cyrus allowed the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of Jewish worship there – we have these records: The Book of Ezra says, "King Cyrus brought out the articles belonging to the temple of the LORD, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem…" and then provides an inventory: 30 gold dishes, 1,000 silver dishes, 29 duplicates; 1030 gold bowls, 410 silver bowls of a second kind and 1,000 other articles making a total of 5,400 gold and silver items. (Ezra 1:8-11). It seemed clear that Cyrus intended to return all of the items taken from the Temple, but the Ark of the Covenant and other major treasures are not listed.

The returning Jews rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple and restored their worship. I would agree with Dr. Prideaux[11] that the Jews found it essential for their worship in the second temple to have those sacred objects which their Lord had specifically commanded they have. Since the Holy of Holies and its sacred veil existed entirely for the sake of the Ark and the Mercy Seat, what need had there been to rebuilt the Second Temple if the Jews didn’t possess an Ark, a menorah to light it, an altar of incense to purify it, and a shewbread table to serve it? Did the High Priest enter an empty room three times every year on the Day of Atonement and confess? And even had the original Ark been lost, was there an injunction against making another? If there had been no Ark, wouldn’t there have been a significant debate about making another?

Moving ahead a few centuries, I Maccabees states, "And after Antiochus had ravaged Egypt in the hundred and forty-third year [169 BCE], he returned and went up against Isreal. And he went up to Jerusalem with a great multitude [167 BCE]. And he proudly entered into the sanctuary and took away the golden altar and the candlestick of light and all the vessels thereof and the table of proposition and the pouring vessels and the vials and the little mortars of gold and the veil and the crowns and the golden ornament that was before the temple: and he broke them all in pieces. And he took the silver and gold, and the precious vessels: and he took the hidden treasures which he found. And when he had taken all away he departed into his own country...” (I Macc. 1:21-24). This tells us that the Jews had recovered or replaced the other holy objects for their Temple before that time. But again, there is no mention of the most significant object – the Ark of the Covenant. Some think that the “other hidden treasures” would have included the Ark, but such seems unlikely. The authors of I Maccabees certainly knew its unique significance and would have mentioned it specifically. What this account reveals is that the Jews did, in fact, attempt to hide their treasures.

I think that it is clear that the Jewish leaders learned their lesson after the Philistines took the Ark – it did not make them invincible and it could be stolen. Thus, by the time of Solomon (who was so “wise”), the Jews had created replicas of their sacred objects and had carefully arranged hiding places for their real treasures. When Shishaq removed all the treasures from Jerusalem, he got a valuable set of replicas. If King Ahaz had tried to sell of the real sacred treasures, there would have been a revolt. Hezekiah was masterful in building secret tunnels and caves and, even after Manasseh had allowed pagan rituals in the Temple (obviously not possessing the Ark), Josiah was able to return the Ark to the Temple (from “the country”).

Jeremiah’s secret about hiding the Ark and other sacred treasures from the Babylonians was well kept, but was also well known centuries later. We have no definitive record of the Ark being seen after that time. And yet, worship in the Temple continued, the Day of Atonement was conducted as normal, and no one specifically mentions that the Holy of Holies is empty until the Romans captured Jerusalem in 63 BCE.  When the temple was rededicated under Judas Maccabaeus (in 164 BCE), it was recorded that “They made new holy vessels, and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the [shewbread] table into the Temple.”(I Macc 4:49). Did they make a new Ark? Was it already in the Temple and they merely brought the other new items in?

Elsewhere, I have written about the Jewish High Priesthood and the Temple at Leontopolis, concluding that the proper or authorized High Priest (Onias IV) had escaped to Egypt before Antiochus had taken control of the Jerusalem Temple (by appointing Jason as High Priest in 175 BCE). Would Onias III (the last legitimate High Priest in Jerusalem) not have taken steps to protect his most sacred treasures at a time when the risks were obvious? When Onias and his followers had the only legitimate Temple in operation, did they have the legitimate Ark and other sacred objects as well? (Onias and his group declined an invitation by Judas Maccabaeus to return to Jerusalem. The only reasonable basis for that invitation was that Onias had the sacred treasures. As it turned out, it may have been quite fortunate for the Ark to have remained in Egypt – the Romans were soon to take control of Jerusalem.

“For Pompey and not a few of his men went into [the Sanctuary] and saw what was unlawful for any but the High Priests to see. But though the golden table was there and the sacred lampstand and the libation vessels and a great quantity of spices, and besides these, in the treasury, the sacred moneys amount to two thousand talents, he touched none of these because of piety.” (Jospehus, Ant. 14.4.4; 71-2). “Now Crassus, as he was going upon his expedition against the Parthians (in 53 BCE), came into Judea, and carried off the money that was in the Temple, which Pompey had left, being two thousand talents, and was disposed to spoil it of all the gold belonging to it, which was eight thousand talents. He also took a beam, which was made of solid beaten gold…  It was the priest who was guardian of the sacred treasures, and whose name was Eleazar, that gave him this beam [… because he feared] for the entire ornaments of the temple, he gave him this beam of gold as a ransom for the whole… Now this beam was contained [hidden] in a wooden beam that was hollow…” (Ant. 14.7.1; 105-109 & War 1.8.8; 179). Crassus broke his promise and carried away all the gold that was in the temple anyway.

This would seem to settle the matter except for two subsequent records. Jospehus later reports that upon Herod “the Great’s” death [in 4 BCE], his son Archelaus went to the Temple, ascended a platform, and sat on a golden throne (Ant. 17.8.4; 200 = War 2.1.1; 1-2). The only golden throne that could have been allowed to exist in the Temple was the “Mercy Seat”. And, after the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, Titus’ Triumphant Arch in Rome showed the treasures (loot) taken from Jerusalem: including a Menorah, the Table of Shewbread, and some ritual trumpets. But, the carving contains no Ark of the Covenant. About this Josephus wrote, “But for those that were taken in the temple of Jerusalem,  they made the greatest figure of them all; that is, the golden table, of the weight of many talents; the candlestick also, that was made of gold, though its construction was now changed from that which we made use of; for its middle shaft was fixed upon a basis, and the small branches were produced out of it to a great length, having the likeness of a trident in their position, and had every one a socket made of brass for a lamp at the tops of them… and the last of all the spoils, was carried the Law of the Jews… [Vespasian] stored the golden vessels from the Jewish Temple… but their Law and the purple (or crimson) curtains of the Inner Sanctuary he ordered to be deposited in the Royal Palace for safe keeping" (Wars, 7.5.5-6).

The account of Josephus is striking – mostly because he grew up in Jerusalem (his father was a Temple priest) and he would have known exactly what the Temple’s menorah looked like. He also would have known the Ark of the Covenant if he had seen it. What he says, in pretty plain language, is that the Romans didn’t capture the real sacred treasures: “…its construction was now changed from that which we made use of” could mean that the Romans altered it, but that makes no sense.  To be perfectly clear, he adds that the sockets at the top were made of brass and Josephus knew that the Temple menorah (by Divine decree) was made of solid pure gold. Josephus was making it clear to Jews that the Romans did not have the sacred treasures – they had replicas. That would mean that they were substituted in preparation for the Roman siege or that the items in the Temple during this entire period were replicas.




                   (Israel Antiquities Authority)***

Before continuing, it is useful to follow the trail of the Roman treasures… They were kept in the Temple of Peace and the Roman Royal Palace until it was sacked by Genseric (or Gaiseric) the Vandal (in 455 CE) who "placed an exceedingly great amount of gold and other imperial treasure in his ship… and among these were the treasures of the Jews." (Procopius, The Vandalic War, III.5.3, IV.9.5). In a similar account, Theophanes[12] tells us that Genseric took "all the money and adornments of the city, he loaded them on his ships, among them the solid gold and bejewelled treasures of the Church and the Jewish vessels which Vespasian's son Titus had brought to Rome after the capture of Jerusalem.”

Later, Justinian sent Belisarius against the Vandals and their “heretic” leader Gelimer. After defeating Gelimer at the Battle of Tricamarum (in 533 CE) Belisarius sent his spoils of war back to Constantinople, including "the treasures of the Jews, which Titus, the son of Vespasian, together with certain others, had brought to Rome, after the capture of Jerusalem" (Procopius ,IV.9.6). However, Justinian feared the power of the relics and sent them to the Jerusalem Christians. (Procopius, IV.9.9). Of course, the Jerusalem Christians were subsequently conquered by the Persians, who slaughtered its Christian inhabitants, sacked and burned the city and took away its plunder[13].

Subsequent legend has placed the Ark in several locations, but all of them are suspicious if not ludicrous. One of the claims says that it had found its way to Ethiopia where it resides in the St. Mary of Zion Church (in the town of Aksum). But, of course, Church authorities refuse to let it be studied. Some believe that the Ark was hidden in a secret passage or chamber beneath the Temple in Jerusalem. But that theory can't be properly tested since the site is now home to the sacred Dome of the Rock. The late Ron Wyatt, amateur archaeologist, said in 1982 that he had found the Ark beneath the hill on which Christ was crucified, but nobody else has ever seen it again. And there is the chance that one or more of the “Holy Grail Legends” could also include the Ark, especially those related to the “Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon” (aka - the Knights Templar). (In “The Sign and the Seal” by Graham Hancock, it is asserted that the Grail story is actually a coded description of the stone tablets stored in the Ark of the Covenant)[14].    

I am confident that the real story of the Sacred Treasures involves those Jews who were privy to the secret of Jeremiah, who made use of several sets of replicas, and who were confronted by the ultimate problem: they were entrusted with objects as sacred or more sacred than any others in human history and yet they had no safe place to keep them. These objects needed to be very well hidden, but not so well hidden that they couldn’t be found in a distant future. They needed to keep a huge secret and yet ensure that it wouldn’t be lost over generations – either by revelation or by being truly lost.

I am also confident that the ancient Jews were smart and capable – that they would have acted reasonably, prudently, and intelligently in protecting their most sacred objects. They would have gladly forfeited vast wealth and great power just to ensure that God’s Holy Vessels were protected. Whether or not the copper scrolls found in the Dead Sea area relate to these Holy Vessels, they demonstrate the manner in which the people of the time would have acted to hide and later reveal their treasures. To some extent they relied upon Divine providence, but they also encrypted the information so that only the righteous would grasp the instructions. But above all, they would rather the objects be securely “lost” than fall into the hands of evil men.

For many of us, the sacred Jewish treasures remain merely interesting, but, for those who believe that God’s plan involves the building of another Temple and the restoration of the Holy services that God commanded in scripture, pursuit of the Ark and the sacred treasures is imperative. For those interested in Jesus and his life, it is time to pay more attention to the treasures because their fate was a major issue during his life, and as “An Amazing Life” suggests, perhaps more.

*** In 2009, Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najer unearthed a carving of the first Second Temple era Menorah in a Jewish context. The carving was inside the central chamber of an ancient synagogue at Migdal (Migdala) on  the Sea of Galilee.  The menorah is flanked by amphorae and pillars and is believed to have been carved by someone who had seen the Temple’s lamp (largely based upon the inscription).

Careful inspection reveals substantial differences between this lamp and that depicted on the Titus carving (above).

[1] The construction of the Ark was commanded while the Jews were still camped at Sinai (Ex. 25:10-22; 37:1-9).

[2] Shewbread was literally "the bread of the Presence" consisting of twelve loaves which corresponded to the twelve tribes of Israel.

[3] Ex. 25-30.

[4] "And you shall put into the ark the testimony which I shall give you.” Ex. 25:16. Some think that this included the manna, but see 1 Kings 8:9.

[5] ‘Take an omer of manna (a portion for one person) and keep it for the generations to come, so they can see the bread I gave you to eat in the desert when I brought you out of Egypt.’” (Ex. 16:32).

[6] ‘Put back the staff of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against me, lest they die.’” (Numbers 17:10)

[7] To exemplify how much this loss meant, the priest Eli fell off his seat and died when he heard the news of its loss. (1 Sam. 4:12-18).

[9] The priests had removed the Ark from the Temple to avoid profanation and carried it between safe places in the country.  Josiah’s decree brought it back to the Temple and specifically forbade them to carry it around again (the “burden on their shoulders”), (2 Chron. 35:3).

[10] One of the three related Jewish Deuterocanonical books.

[11] See “The Old and New Testament connected: The history of the Jews and Neighbouring Nations” by Dr. Humphrey Prideaux, Knaplock & Tonson, 1725, pps. 220-222.

[12] “The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern History, AD 284-813”, translated by Cyril Mango and Roger Scott with contributions by Geoffrey Greatrex, Clarendon Press , 1997.


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