A mysterious document yields new clues
The mystery of the lost treasures of the Jerusalem Temple keeps the debate alive about their possible whereabouts. Were they destroyed long ago, or might they still be awaiting discovery in some secret location? We are told in Ezra 1:6–11 and 5:14–17 that most of the First Temple implements stolen during the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 597 BCE were eventually restored. But even those vanished after the Romans captured Jerusalem and plundered the Second Temple in 70 CE. The Arch of Titus, which was erected in Rome to commemorate the victories of the future Roman emperor Titus over Judea, famously pictures the looted treasures from the Jerusalem Temple being paraded through the streets of ancient Rome. Nevertheless, all possible leads to track down the Temple treasures seem to run into a dead end.
Writing for the Summer 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Elena Dugan revisits the question by drawing attention to a document that has so far escaped the purview of scholars. A specialist in early Judaism and Christianity with the Center for Jewish Studies and the Department of Classics at Harvard University, Dugan turns her attention to the mysterious Hebrew text Treatise of the Vessels.
In her article “Jerusalem’s Temple Treasures: Where Did They Go?” Dugan begins by detailing some of the impressive items catalogued in the Treatise, which purports to report on First Temple implements around the time of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem: 200,000 talents of pearls; 77 gold tablets taken from the walls of Eden; 1,000 lyres and 7,000 lutes, all crafted by King David himself and coated in gold. These precious items were reportedly hidden in different places shortly before the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. Their secret locations are sufficiently obscure to be suggestive yet nonspecific—in a tower; as part of the “treasure of the cistern”; at the Spring of Zedekiah.
Even more confounding, Dugan writes, is the complicated textual history of the document. Its age, origin, and authorship uncertain, the Treatise of the Vessels comes to us in two distinct textual traditions. On the one hand, it was sometimes incorporated into composite Hebrew volumes printed between the 17th and 20th centuries that contained various items of interest to Jewish communities. These versions of the Treatise clearly indicate that the Temple treasures are to be found in and around Babylon, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
The version preserved on two ancient-looking plaques, on the other hand, assumes the Temple treasures were deposited somewhere in the Holy Land. The two plaques—now lost—were associated with a collection of 66 stone plaques inscribed with the entire Book of Ezekiel that are now displayed in the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. The whole set is now believed to be a modern forgery, but the original inclusion of the Treatise among the plaques is noteworthy. Moreover, the Treatise from the plaques differs from the version in the printed volumes in a crucial way: By placing the reader atop Mt. Carmel in northern Israel, it appears to situate the Temple treasures within the Holy Land itself.
Dugan thoughtfully explores when and where both traditions may have appeared. As she argues, it may at first seem counterintuitive to locate the treasures of the Jerusalem Temple in Babylon, when the Book of Ezra tells us that following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, the Temple equipment was eventually returned and used in Jerusalem’s Second Temple (only to be carried off again by the Romans centuries later, as depicted on the Arch of Titus). But given the robust community of Jewish learning in Babylonia from the 8th to 11th centuries, we may have here, according to Dugan, “a little bit of hometown pride with a pinch of rabbinic propaganda,” in which the original authors of the Treatise imagined the Temple hoard being left behind, right in their own backyard.
Meanwhile, Dugan writes, the suggestion that the Temple treasures remain stashed away in the Holy Land accords with a “popular quilt of legends” that places them there. In her mind, this tradition is the later of the two, and represents a reimagining of the treasures’ locations, with some of the Babylonian references stripped away and an extra focus on the Holy Land.
Dugan returns in the end to the unspoken theme permeating not only her own article but the Treatise of the Vessels itself: “dreams of a blockbuster treasure as valuable as it is mysterious.” Through careful textual archaeology, she manages not only to disentangle the document’s two distinct strands of tradition, but also to maintain the mystique of the treasure itself.
To explore the intricacies of historical sources about the vanished treasures of the Jerusalem Temple, read Elena Dugan’s article “Jerusalem’s Temple Treasures: Where Did They Go?” published in the Summer 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.