Forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Romans burned Jerusalem to the ground in 70 AD, destroyed the Temple stone by stone, took its treasures, and captured the remaining Jewish survivors as slaves. Jesus predicted these events (Luke 19:41–44), which are etched in stone in the Arch of Titus at the Roman Forum next to the Colosseum.
Most of us are familiar with the Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Harrison Ford makes haste to find the lost ark before the Nazis find it. While this makes for great entertainment, we do not know exactly what happened to all of the items from the Temple, and where they are now. As far as we know, the Ark of the Covenant was never recovered after the destruction of Solomon’s temple by the Babylonians in 587 BC. The rabbis disagree over whether it was taken away to Babylon or hidden to prevent capture. The spot in the Second Temple where the ark should have stood was marked by a single slab of stone, where the high priest would place the censer of incense once a year on the Day of Atonement.[i] The haunting site would have reminded the High Priest that the words of Ezekiel the prophet had come to pass and the glory of God was removed because of the sins of His chosen people. (Ezekiel 10:18, 11:22)
According to Josephus, the menorah was touted as a spoil of war during the triumphal procession of Vespasian and Titus. The Arch of Titus in Rome depicts soldiers carrying the seven-branched golden menorah, as well as the gold trumpets, the fire pans for removing the ashes from the altar, and the table for the showbread. Afterwards, it was on show at the Temple of Peace in Rome and remained there until Rome was conquered in 455 by Vandal armies. The exact fate of the menorah after this is unknown. Some say that it was melted down into chunks of gold, others say that it was taken to Carthage, or that it sank in a shipwreck. More likely than not, the menorah was taken as a spoil of war again by the Vandal army during the conquest of Rome and taken to Carthage,[ii] and then to Constantinople in 533 by the Byzantine army.[iii] It is possible that the menorah was later sent back to Jerusalem but there is no record of this.[iv] Today, the whereabouts and final fate of the golden menorah are still unknown, as is the table for the showbread, and the altar of incense. The ark of the covenant, of course, has been a source of mystery, rumor, and legend since the destruction of the Temple. We do not know where it is!
[i] Andre Parrot, The Temple of Jerusalem (London: SCM Press LTD, 1957), 72–73.
[ii] Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Volume 7: Chapter XLI. From the Online Library of Liberty. The J. B. Bury edition, in 12 volumes).
[iii] Procopius, Vandal Wars, Book IV. ix. 5.
[iv] Procopius, Vandal Wars, Book IV. ix. 9.