A letter in the new Biblical Archaeology Review from Professor Shaye J.D. Cohen, Ph.D. of Harvard throws light on an old Jewish urban myth – the "location" in the vaults of the Vatican of relics sacked from the Second Temple, including the menorah shown on the Arch of Titus in Rome. As Professor Cohen notes:
…Byzantine and medieval testimonies … show that the Temple vessels were taken from Rome in the depradation of the fifth century and ultimately reached Constantinople via Carthage. Some vessels were taken from Constantinople back to Jerusalem in the sixth century in order to be deposited in a church being built there by the Emperor Justinian. These vessels were probably plundered by the Parthians in 614 or disappeared in an earthquake of the late seventh century. The menorah, however, was not transferred to Jerusalem; it remained in Constantinople and was still there in the tenth century … At this point the trail grows cold.… [T]he menorah [may] have been plundered by the Venitians in 1204 (in a war known as the Fourth Crusade).
In sum: There is no reason whatever to believe that the Temple Menorah is in the Vatican. Perhaps in is somewhere in Venice, perhaps it is somewhere in Constantinople (Istanbul), or, what is most likely, perhaps it no longer exists, having been melted down long since.…
For an excellent treatment of years of anti-Catholic myths – but not this one – see Rabbi David Dalin's excellent new exposé, "The Myth of Hitler's Pope."
I am reminded of a conversation I had with a leading right-wing Modern Orthodox rabbi with academic training. The subject of the Vatican's position on an issue came up. "The Pope, yemakh shemo," the rabbi said with venom. ("The Pope, may his name be blotted out.") This is a curse traditionally reserved for villians like Haman and Hitler, yemakh shemam. I let the remark pass unanswered and steered our conversation back to its point.
If Dalin's book had then been published, I would have responded. As it was, I looked back on years of hearing the "menorah held captive in the Vatican basement" story at farbrengens (hasidic gatherings) and of Pope Pious XII's (falsely) alledged conspiracy with Hitler, yemakh shemo, and I remained silent. Perhaps this post will belatedly change his mind.