Ancient history Old Testament

Did the Jerusalem Temple Really Have Treasures?

There are rumors of some pretty fantastical treasures.

The Jerusalem Temple treasures are rumored to have been hidden or stolen in association with conflicts like the First Jewish Revolt—if they existed at all. Interestingly, archaeological evidence such as the Arch of Titus suggests that Romans absconded with riches like a menorah. A Hebrew text called Massekhet Kelim also leaves tantalizing clues—and is (mis)used as a treasure map by modern enthusiasts. In this interview, biblical scholar Elena Dugan explains more.

Learn more by reading Elena Dugan’s Biblical Archaeology Society article about Jerusalem’s lost Temple treasures.

What are some of the treasures we know were in the First and Second Jerusalem Temples?

It depends what you mean by “know.” Even a whiff of lost treasure gathers rumors and legends around it quickly, so it’s nearly impossible to sort fact from fiction. What we can say is that some biblical texts, like the Book of Jeremiah, list temple implements made of bronze, gold, and silver being carried away in the sacking of the First Temple by the Babylonians.

Others, like the Book of Ezra, say treasures like 1,000 silver dishes were deposited back into the Second Temple.

They might not have gotten their hands on the best treasures.

Perhaps the most famous treasure belonging to the First Temple is the Ark of the Covenant, though the Ark represents a mystery all its own, as the biblical accounts do not mention it being carried off by the Babylonians, nor being restored under the Persians.

As time went on, the list of rumored treasures grew even longer—though more information probably doesn’t mean better information!

That said, there are rumors of some pretty fantastical treasures, ranging from Adam’s clothing and Eve’s earring, to the rod of Moses, to seventy-seven tables of gold made from the (purportedly) golden walls of the Garden of Eden.

Experience a layman’s introduction to the Jerusalem Temple Treasure in this makeshift treasure hunt conducted by History.

What did the Babylonians do with the treasures taken from the First Jerusalem temple?

Apparently, not much! According to biblical accounts like Ezra, many of the implements were returned to the Second Temple, at the same time Judeans were allowed to return from exile.

Other non-biblical accounts speculate that the Babylonians might not have gotten their hands on the best treasures, which were pre-emptively hidden by particularly canny Judaeans.

Where they ended up is still a mystery.

Either way, we don’t know very much about what happened to the treasures in exile, if, indeed, they went there in the first place. Plus, if the biblical account is correct, the treasures weren’t outside of Judaea for very long before they were restored to the Second Temple. Perhaps they just weren’t in Babylon long enough to inspire anyone to write about them.

What happened to the Second Temple treasures taken by the Romans?

The Roman case is a bit different than the Babylonians. After the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, Persia took power in the region, and sent the treasures back into a rebuilt Second Temple. But after the Romans sacked Jerusalem and razed the Second Temple in 70 CE, there was no third Temple.

The Romans did the usual crowing about their booty and conquest—the most famous vestige of this braggery is a relief on the Arch of Titus depicting a menorah being carried away as spoils of war.

The Arch of Titus depicts Romans carrying a menorah that may have been among Jerusalem’s temple treasures. Photo credit: Paolo Villa.

But as the years passed, and no treasures reappeared, many people became convinced that the Temple treasures were still in Rome, somewhere.

Some eyewitnesses in the earliest centuries CE claimed they’d seen Temple vessels in Rome. In fact, some people have gone to major news outlets in the last five years and claimed they’ve seen Temple vessels hidden in the basement of the Vatican!

But we have no evidence to back up any of these claims—ancient or modern. All we can say is that the Romans were quite proud to have claimed some of the Jerusalem Temple’s treasures as spoils.

Exactly how much they took, or where they ended up, is still a mystery.

What are some of the Jerusalem Temple treasures?

The legends around the fate of the treasures can be roughly sorted into two camps. One group argues that the treasures were hidden in Jerusalem, while another prominent theory suggests the Temple’s valuables are still in Rome.

The Jerusalem Temple treasures may have been hidden

The first camp are legends suggesting the treasures were stashed away—hidden from either the Babylonians, or the Romans, or both!—in locations in and around Jerusalem.

These stories have the most modern cache, as they are tied to the upswing of interest in biblical antiquities in Palestine that took off in the 19th century and never really calmed down.

This group of legends are the ones that most inspire modern treasure hunters.

The Jerusalem Temple treasures may still be in Rome

A second group holds that the treasures were sacked by the Romans (last we know) and are accordingly still hanging around Rome somewhere.

Some notable contributors to this group were early Islamic storytellers and historians, many of whom were very interested in the riches that might be waiting for Islamic forces should a siege of Constantinople and/or Rome prove successful.

From a scholarly perspective, one group of legends has as much corroboration as the other—which is to say, not much! No identifiable temple vessels have resurfaced over the years, much as we might wish they would.

What is Massekhet Kelim?

Massekhet Kelim is a Hebrew-language text that lists a trove of lavish and outlandish treasures belonging to the First Temple, and tells the story of how all these treasures were hidden in caches from the Babylonians.

Learn more about the role of Massekhet Kelim in lore surrounding Jerusalem Temple treasures

The legendary treasures include a thousand lyres made by David, 1,353,000 pearls, the jar of manna given to the Israelites in the wilderness, and more.

In some places, Massekhet Kelim fits with the first camp of legends, because some of the caches feel like they might be quasi-biblical locations in the Holy Land, if only because they are given Hebrew names.

It’s written as if it were an account of treasure-hiding.

But, in others, it charts its own course, as it insists that many of the Temple Vessels are hidden in caches in Babylon itself. There are some hints of Babylonian locations for Temple treasure in literature across the centuries, but not much.

Massekhet Kelim represents the most substantial Babylonian Temple treasure map, so to speak.

What do we know about its provenance?

Not as much as we’d like! Massekhet Kelim appears in some early-modern (17th century and onwards) printed books, though not with a ton of information as to who wrote it, or where it came from.

There was also once a set of two marble plaques on which a version of Massekhet Kelim was engraved, but those plaques have since gone missing, and it’s surmised by researchers that they were modern productions as well.

So, we don’t know much about it before the early-modern period, though it bills itself as quite ancient indeed.

Are we able to approximate when it was written?

The text itself is framed as if it were composed at some point during the first millennium BCE—perhaps around, or just after, the fall of the First Temple to Babylon in 586 BCE. But this is a very common literary device in ancient Mediterranean texts, known as pseudepigraphy (literally, “false attribution.”)

Just because a text presents itself as if it were written by a famous person, or during a famous era, doesn’t mean that we should take that literary claim at historical face value.

Think about where you’d actually start digging!

And it’s not just because we can spot a fake, as the name “pseudepigraphy” seems to suggest.

Instead, scholars are coming to understand that ancient writers would attribute texts to famous people, or locate them in famous historical moments, for a number of different reasons: to help communities enter into important moments in their collective past, to endow a story or message with the glow of a certain honored figure, and more.

So, Massekhet Kelim was written as if it were an account of treasure-hiding around the time of the Babylonian exile, precisely because the treasures lost in the Babylonian exile were the ones that the writers must have cared about the most about!

Otherwise, it’s very hard to take a guess as to when the work was written, as people have been consistently interested in the Temple Treasures for thousands of years, and could have written a work like this at any time.

It could be a kind of reverse treasure map.

I have suggested in an article that it might have been written by Abbasid-era (8th-11th century CE) Babylonian Jewish communities. The distinctive identification of Babylonian locations for treasure could be explained as a kind of hometown pride, as a local community placed (now lost) legendary treasure caches along the banks of its own rivers.

Plus, Babylonian rabbinic academies flourished under the Abbasid caliphate, and there are some distinctively rabbinic phrases in Massekhet Kelim that suggest some sort of interaction with rabbinic Jewish literature.

But this is just one of many historical settings from which Massekhet Kelim could have sprung, and we have much more to learn!

In what ways could Massekhet Kelim be viewed as a treasure map?

Massekhet Kelim does list caches of treasures as being in certain places, some of which feel rather specific, until you try and think about where you’d actually start digging!

So, one tradition states that there are gold and silver treasuries, myriads of shields, and the aforementioned million-plus pearls and fine stones—all hidden “in the wall of Babylon and at Tel Baruq underneath the great willow that is in Babylon.”

That story isn’t found in the early modern books.

It feels like the writer is trying to communicate something specific, but it’s also hard to imagine where you’d begin digging if all the information you had was: a great tree in a giant city.

Many of the locations feel like directions to places the reader would have to know about already. Accordingly, it seems like the purpose of Massekhet Kelim is not to tell the reader where things might be found, but instead, to assure the reader that things were safely hidden.

Really, it could be a kind of reverse treasure map, where the purpose is to know that things are safe from treasure hunters, rather than to help said hunters along.

How has Massekhet Kelim been misunderstood?

When modern scholars got their hands on Massekhet Kelim, they had two ways of accessing the text—early modern books, and two curious engraved plaques. The engraved plaques, now missing, began with a story about hiding a good amount of the treasures on Mount Carmel, west of the Sea of Galilee.

That story isn’t found in the early modern books—the printed versions mostly focus on Babylonian locations. But, since it’s always nice to have materials sorted together, edited versions of Massekhet Kelim accessible to scholars today included the Mount Carmel legend from the plaques at the beginning, before proceeding into the Babylon-centric portions of the work.

To most readers, the reference to Mount Carmel would place the work in the first camp of legends—stories about hiding the treasures in and around the Holy Land—and that’s how Massekhet Kelim was slotted.

Treasure hunters have used Massekhet Kelim.

But, if you read each version on its own, it becomes clear that one version—the printed book version—is very focused on Babylonian locations for Temple treasure!

It’s an unusual set of identifications that doesn’t have a particularly strong set of precedents, which is why it might be easy to overlook.

Do contemporary treasure seekers use the Massekhet Kelim?

Yes, especially alongside the Copper Scroll—another treasure-text that has come to scholarly attention over the last 100 years. The Copper Scroll was discovered in Cave 3 at Qumran. As the name suggests, it is engraved on copper, which makes it quite distinctive!

The Copper Scroll lists caches of gold and silver, and although many of the locations are still obscure, many of them seem to be located in and around Roman Palestine.

With the Copper Scroll as a baseline, and the network of legends placing treasures in the Holy Land, modern day treasure-hunters like James Barfield and Vendyl Jones have used Massekhet Kelim (especially the Mount Carmel story appended to the beginning) to corroborate proposed locations for treasure.

These modern treasure-hunters have achieved minimal success, thus far. After all, the discovery of an authentic Temple vessel would make international news, and we haven’t heard anything yet!

What do you think will be the next Jerusalem Temple treasure discovery?

I wish I could say that the next discovery would be a discovery of an authentic treasure-cache, though I find that very unlikely. What seems most probable to me is that any treasure-caches that might have existed have been cleared out.

If they’d been found by someone interested in maintaining and preserving the Temple vessels, I’d expect such a discovery to make an impact on our historical record somehow. If they’d been found by someone interested in profit, or just melting them down for materials and starting again, I’d expect that discovery to be kept quiet.

We shouldn’t expect too much.

Since the historical record for discovery is largely silent, the latter scenario feels more likely—if, indeed, anything was ever found at all! Of course, that all assumes that treasures were actually hidden, and I’m not quite sure that happened either.

Lore about hidden treasure is just about as old as human treasure itself, and the draw to tell stories about a mythic, golden past is so strong, that I’d be suspect of a historical reality behind just about any story of lost treasure. Plus, the realities of ancient warfare are such that we shouldn’t expect too much when it comes to preservation of a conquered nations’ valuables.

All that said, I think the absolute richest (pun intended) network of material for any budding treasure-hunter is to be found in Islamic folklore, historiography, and apocalyptic texts, many of which remain untranslated into English.

I was amazed in my initial surveys of this material at the unique memories of unusual treasures preserved in this body of literature, many of which don’t overlap with stories we find elsewhere.

There’s a lot to discover there!

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About the interview participant

Elena Dugan is a Research Associate at Harvard University and teaches at Phillips Academy Andover. She holds a PhD in Religion from Princeton University and an MSc in Biblical Studies from University of Edinburgh. Her research interests include 1 Enoch, pseudepigrapha, and early Islamic history. She has written about the Jerusalem Temple Treasures for Biblical Archaeology and has also written a book version of her dissertation, “The Apocalypse of the Birds: Enoch in the First-Century CE.”

Further reading

Jerusalem temple treasures resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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