Stephen Fine and YU Students Tracking the Temple Menorah

When last we heard about Stephen Fine and his crack teams of Yeshiva University students, they were detecting the colour of the Temple Menorah on the Arch of Titus (The Golden Menorah on the Arch of Titus). Now the WSJ reports on their activities checking into the semi-frequent claims that the Temple Menorah, after the sack, eventually ended up in some secret place in the Vatican. Definitely research we need on record here (and a tip ‘o the pileus to Joseph Lauer for alerting us to the article):

It is a tale that seems at home in an espionage thriller about ancient religious secrets, such as the “The Da Vinci Code.”

For nearly 2,000 years, stories have circulated about the ultimate fate of sacred Jewish objects plundered from the Jerusalem Temple by Romans in A.D. 70—including a human-size, solid-gold Menorah. One widely shared theory among some Jews holds that the artifacts are hidden inside the Vatican, which many believe inherited the wealth of the Roman Empire.

There is only one problem, say many scholars: It isn’t true.

Steven Fine, a Jewish history professor at Yeshiva University, has dedicated the past two decades to debunking these stories. This summer, he turned the question into the subject of his class on the Arch of Titus, an ancient monument still standing outside the Roman Forum that commemorates the capture of Jerusalem and depicts the Menorah being paraded through the streets of Rome in A.D. 71.

The assignment was prompted by a recent public flare-up: In late May, Mr. Fine spotted an open letter to then-Israeli President Shimon Peres. In it, Israeli Rabbi Yonatan Shtencel urged Mr. Peres to approach the Vatican and ask for the return of the Menorah, a cultural symbol so important it is pictured on Israel’s state seal.

“I have a myth to kill,” said Mr. Fine, speaking of the secret-Vatican-hoard theory. Mr. Fine is writing a book about the Menorah and its many legends, to be published next year by Harvard University Press. “If we don’t nip it, it’s going to get worse,” he said.

In their own letter to Mr. Peres sent last month, Mr. Fine’s students disputed each assertion in the rabbi’s letter, after contacting his sources and consulting rare books. They haven’t received a response from Mr. Peres, who left office this month, they said.

Rabbi Shtencel said he hadn’t read the Yeshiva University response because it is in English, but said, “These aren’t my claims. I am relying on several extremely serious sources.”

Among them: Shimon Shetreet, a former Israeli minister of religious affairs, who said he raised the question of the artifacts during a meeting with Pope John Paul II in 1996 and separately with the Vatican’s secretary of state, but got no answer. He wasn’t surprised by that, he said, because “they are a very silent organization.”

He said the issue wasn’t raised when Mr. Peres traveled to the Vatican in early June.

“No one can dispute that they were taken to Rome,” said Mr. Shetreet of the artifacts. “The question is what happened. It lies between legends, rumors and facts.”

The Vatican dismissed accusations that it had the objects in a statement provided to The Wall Street Journal.

“I had heard once in the past rumors about such [a] story. But I never thought it was worthy of attention,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman. “It belongs to the genre ‘mysteries of the Vatican,’ in which some people exercise their fantasy.”

Paolo Liverani, a professor at the University of Florence, said he received a handful of letters every year asking about the Menorah when he worked at the Vatican as a museum curator, but never came across the artifacts in the Vatican storerooms.

Still, he said, “it is very difficult to demonstrate things that don’t exist.”

Scholars say the myth surfaced in the U.S. during the 1950s and ’60s, as the Vatican was working to improve relations with Jews in the wake of World War II. Additionally, they say troves of lost, buried Jewish treasures do exist—many hidden by Nazis.

“There’s a whole world of subterranean manuscripts and antiquities,” said Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, director of the Global Institute for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies at New York University. “A lot of that world is real.”

But, he said, the Vatican theory isn’t. “The story was created in the 20th century,” Mr. Schiffman said. “There’s no historical continuity.”

Myths are also hard to uproot once they take hold, said Mr. Fine.

“People still feel pain,” Mr. Fine said. “It’s hard to get rid of that.”

Some of Mr. Fine’s students were initially wary of the class assignment. “At first I was almost afraid that this was anti-Jewish,” said David Silber, a 21-year-old rising junior at Yeshiva. “But as we went further, the truth is the truth.”

While the Arch of Titus and rabbinical sources depict the treasures in Rome in ancient times, that doesn’t mean they ended up in storerooms of the Vatican, which was founded centuries later.

Some books Rabbi Shtencel cited in his letter weren’t available in the U.S., so students had friends in Israel track down copies in university libraries there. Scouring the texts, they said they didn’t find any eyewitness accounts of the temple artifacts inside the Vatican, as Rabbi Shtencel had claimed.

Their research didn’t prove that the Vatican doesn’t have the treasures. But “I’m convinced that his proofs are not valid proofs,” Mr. Silber said.

There are many myths surrounding the fate of the Menorah, which is linked with the coming of the Messiah in Jewish lore, experts say. Some hold that it was stashed in a cave in Galilee, others that it lies submerged in silt under the Tiber River in Rome and still others that it is buried under a monastery in the West Bank.

Mr. Fine has his own theory: that it was taken by invaders who ravaged Rome in the fifth and sixth centuries and probably melted down.

“I say to people when I give lectures, ‘Gold doesn’t disappear. Maybe you’re wearing the Menorah in your ring,'” he said. “That’s a really unsatisfying answer for a lot of people.”

 

If the claim is new to you, you might want to check out The Vatican and the Temple Vessels (reprinted from the December issue of  Ami Magazine) which includes many comments from Rabbi Shtencel and Dr Schiffmann. Almost a decade ago, Dr Fine penned this (available online in pdf):

… which is good for showing why there might be a belief that the Vatican has it somewhere.

Augustan Stables to be Reburied?

From the Telegraph … skipping a bit:

Now, to mark the two millennia since his death in 14AD, a successful exhibition has been staged in Rome and Paris, while on Rome’s Palatine Hill newly restored rooms at Augustus’ house and elaborate frescoes in a dining area will go on display for the first time.

But at a large excavated site off Via Giulia, in the heart of the city, workers will start covering the remains of Augustus’s marbled stables with waterproof cloths, ready for reburial, left for future generations to rediscover.

Described as “extremely important” by Rome’s archaeological authority when they were first found in 2009 by a firm excavating to build an underground car park, the buildings gave a unique glimpse of how imperial stables were built, adding to shreds of information provided by digs at Roman military camps and mosaics found in North Africa.

Graffiti on the walls boasting of victories in races at the Circus Maximus provided a fascinating insight into the four racing teams that shared the stables and divided the fierce loyalties of Roman race fans.

In 2011, archaeologists celebrated when it was announced the stables would be preserved and open to visits, only for city officials to cancel the plans this year due to budget cuts.

Cataloguing discoveries before burying them is standard practice “when there are no funds to guarantee the work needed to safeguard the finds,” said Federica Galloni, a culture minister official.

Experts believe that once reburied, artefacts and remains do not risk erosion by the elements or the thefts they might endure if left exposed and unprotected, and can be re-excavated when funding permits.

The fate of the stables and Augustus’s mausoleum contrasts with other monuments in the city which have benefited from a new trend for restoration work paid for by Italian fashion companies. Shoe maker Tod’s is sponsoring a clean-up of the Colosseum while Fendi is funding repairs to the Trevi Fountain.

Officials have said the city of Rome did seek a sponsor to help restore Augustus’ mausoleum in time for the 2014 celebrations, but found no takers.

With just two million of a required four million euros available, work will now be finished in 2016.

Meanwhile, yards from the mausoleum, Augustus’s excavated and restored Ara Pacis – or “temple to peace” – is in much better shape and now hosting an exhibition devoted to the emperor. After it was discovered buried beneath a cinema in central Rome, fascist dictator Benito Mussolini decided in 1937 to excavate the temple at all costs in time to celebrate Augustus’ 2000th birthday.

Sparing no expense, experts dug down to retrieve the monument using innovative techniques to freeze the foundations beneath the cinema to ensure the modern building did not collapse.

History unearthed – and reburied

Reinterring ancient sites to protect them from the elements and thieves rather than leaving them exposed is becoming more frequent as funds for archaeology become a luxury in cash strapped economies like Italy and Greece.

An important thermal bath dating to the first century AD reign of the Roman emperor Titus, discovered close to the Colosseum in Rome in the 1990s, has been reburied until money is found for its preservation.

On the outskirts of Rome, experts are campaigning for cash to save from reinterring the stunning tomb of Marcus Nonius Macinus, the Roman general whose 2nd century AD campaigning helped inspire Russell Crowe’s Gladiator.

In Greece, an early Christian basilica, discovered in 2010 during the construction of an underground railway in Thessaloniki was reportedly reburied.

Not sure how I missed this discovery back in 2009. Back in 2008 we read of an impending restoration of the Circus (Circus to be Restored!), and shortly thereafter, about some entrepreneur’s plans to bring chariot racing back to the venue (Chariot Racing in Rome Redux), but then all we heard were tales of a beach soccer tournament therein (Beach Soccer in the Circus Maximus?).

The so-called ‘Gladiator Tomb’ has been its own saga … ecce:

… so apparently the campaign on that score is continuing. Hopefully publicity will bring a sponsor out of the woodwork …

 

Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews ~ 08/18/14

The latest:

  • 2014.08.29:  Sten Ebbesen, John Marenbon, Paul Thom, Aristotle’s Categories in the Byzantine, Arabic and Latin Traditions. Scientia Danica: Series H, Humanistica 8, vol. 5.
  • 2014.08.28:  Jason König, Katerina Oikonomopoulou, Greg Woolf, Ancient Libraries.
  • 2014.08.27:  Mika Kajava, Studies in Ancient Oracles and Divination. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae, 40.
  • 2014.08.26:  Angelos Chaniotis, Pierre Ducrey, Unveiling Emotions II. Emotions in Greece and Rome: Texts, Images, Material Culture. Heidelberger althistorische Beiträge und epigraphische Studien (HABES), Bd 55.

Classics Confidential: Constanze Güthenke on German Classical Reception

I’ve got a pile of these interviews to catch up on (18 or so! I’ll be spacing them out over the next week or so). In this one Constanze Güthenke talks about German Classical scholarship and reception over the past couple centuries or so …   here’s the official blurb:

CC’s Anastasia Bakogianni caught up with Constanze Güthenke, Associate Professor of Classics and Hellenic Studies at Princeton University (http://www.princeton.edu/classics/peo…), during her visit to the UK. Constanze came to London to present a paper at the Encounters with Athens, Rome and Jerusalem: (Re)Visiting Sites of Textual Authority in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century conference organised by Professor Catherine Edwards at Birkbeck, University of London (1-2 July 2013).

Constanze talks about her new book project Greek Lives: German Classical Scholarship and the Language of Attachment, 1790-1920. She explains that German classical scholarship became the dominant model for academic and archaeological investigations of ancient Greece and Rome during this period. She tells us how her comparative approach arose out of her own educational background which combines a thorough training in Classics, with German and Modern Greek Studies. Constance also talks about her interest in how academic disciplines are formed which is the research question that drives her current project. Secondary literature has become her primary source in her investigation of the German model.

Her interest in the reception of the classical past in Modern Greece is reflected in her first monograph Placing Modern Greece. The Dynamics of Romantic Hellenism, 1770-1840 (Oxford University Press, 2008: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/97…) that interrogated the formation of the modern state and its dialogue with classical literature.

At the conference Constanze examined the German encounter with Modern Greece in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. German travellers and scholars came to the modern state seeking a connection to the classical past. The immediacy they sought was, however, complicated by the process of modernisation that they encountered. Their ambivalent response towards this modern reality found expression in their scholarly writings.