For thousands of years, people have hunted for the lost treasures of the First and Second Jerusalem Temples. The story begins about 2,500 years ago, when several biblical accounts—2 Kings 25:13-17, 2 Chronicles 36:18-19, and Jeremiah 52:17-23—narrate the removal of treasures from the First Temple by the invading Babylonian armies. Most of these Temple implements (or vessels; Hebrew: kelim) are reported restored in Ezra 1:6-11 and Ezra 5:14-17. Taken together, these biblical passages suggest that some treasures may have had a temporary stay in Babylon, but most returned to Jerusalem and came to rest in the rebuilt Second Temple. The First Temple treasures, according to this tradition, wandered a bit, but were largely protected within the walls of the Second Temple.
After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, that belief snapped. The Temple had been sacked, its treasures plundered, and the vessels were nowhere to be found. Where they went has been an open question.
Most quests to find the lost Temple treasures have set their sights on two promising locations. Taking their cues from ancient Roman sources such as the writings of Josephus and the reliefs from the Arch of Titus, some think the implements are located in Rome.a Rumors of glittering lampstands stashed in dark Vatican archives have long swirled and resurface even today. As recently as last year, a Vatican guard claimed to have spotted a shining menorah hidden in a mysterious storeroom located at the end of a narrow and cramped tunnel.1
Others think the implements are hidden somewhere in the Holy Land. Some take their cue from ancient Jewish apocalyptic works like 2 Baruch, which holds that the greatest treasures of the Temple were swallowed up by the earth near Jerusalem before the Babylonians could loot them. And the discovery of caches like the Dead Sea Scrolls, not least among them the enigmatic Copper Scroll that gives clues to no fewer than 64 caches of gold and silver, fueled speculation that the Temple treasures were hidden away almost 2,000 years ago in scattered locations across Israel and Transjordan.b
More recently, however, a new 047text has entered the conversation— a Hebrew work known as Massekhet Kelim, or Treatise of the Vessels, which insists that the treasures from the First Temple remained buried in the heart of Babylonia, in caches between the Tigris and the Euphrates.2
Massekhet Kelim tells the story of the hiding of the implements of the First Temple in advance of and shortly after the Babylonian capture and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Most of the work is a long-form list enumerating lavish and outlandish treasures, where they were hidden, and by whom. The Levites, for instance, reportedly hid 200,000 talents’ worth of pearls in a tower. Seventy-seven tables of gold, taken from the walls of the Garden of Eden, were allegedly hidden in what has been translated as the “treasure of the cistern.” A thousand lyres and 7,000 lutes, crafted by King David himself and coated in gold, were supposedly buried by Baruch and Zedekiah at the Spring of Zedekiah. And so the text continues, promising that all these implements would remain hidden until the coming of “David, son of David” (the messiah), when they will “ascend and reveal themselves.”
One might hope for a clear set of X’s marking the spot. But, as it turns out, Massekhet Kelim has a very complicated textual history that will slow down anyone looking for discrete geographic locations. Massekhet Kelim has come down to the modern world in two main ways. The first is through a series of Hebrew books, printed between the 17th and 20th centuries, that collect and transmit materials on topics of interest to Jewish communities. Many of these works are midrash, or community histories of interpretation of sacred texts like the Bible. When Massekhet Kelim appears in them, it 048is framed as a kind of antiquarian curiosity but comes with little other identifying information. This means the work is likely older than the early modern period, but we have no idea just how old it is—guesses have ranged from late antiquity (c. third–seventh centuries CE) right up until the 17th century—and nobody knows who wrote it.
The second way Massekhet Kelim has popped up in the modern world is more interesting still: through a collection of stone plaques on which is inscribed the entire Book of Ezekiel—currently at the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. The mysterious and unprovenanced plaques, now surmissed to be modern forgeries, likely once included two additional tablets inscribed with the beginning of Massekhet Kelim (see sidebar). Now lost, the two tablets are known to us only through a picture of the first of them that appeared, along with a partial transcription of both stones, in a 1959 French translation of Massekhet Kelim by J.T. Milik, famous scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls.3
The problem is that each version of Massekhet Kelim provides a different “treasure map.” The version inscribed on the Ezekiel plaques included a prologue, not found in the printed books, which sets the reader atop Mt. Carmel in northern Israel. It tells the “children of Israel” that the Temple vessels are hidden at the top of a mountain, behind a closed gate. The reference to Mt. Carmel seems to situate the text within the bounds of the Holy Land. The plaques also reference the heroic actions of Baruch and Zedekiah, two figures celebrated elsewhere in midrash and folklore for their actions in the Holy Land, before the rampaging arrival of the Babylonians. Otherwise, however, the plaques seem to provide very little information to go on. But the general picture is of Holy Land caches, waiting for the coming of the messiah.
The version of Massekhet Kelim found in early modern books, by comparison, is quite clear: The First Temple implements are to be found in and around Babylon. According to this version, libation jars bedecked with hundreds of thousands of talents’ worth of gold were hidden away “in the land of Babylon,” in a city called Bagdat (Baghdad). It avers that the stones with which the Temple was built were hidden “from before Nebuchadnezzar.” It reports that the fine stones, pearls, silver, and gold set aside for “the Great House” were hidden in Borsif 049(Borsippa). The gold and silver treasuries from Kings David to Zedekiah were hidden “in the wall of Babylon, and at Tel Baruq, underneath the great willow that is in Babylon” (Tel Baruq possibly being the well-known site of Tell Brak in eastern Syria). This version also features a unique conclusion, suggesting that when the messiah comes, the Gihon will overflow unto the Euphrates, and only then will the vessels ascend and reveal themselves.
The center of gravity is firmly in Babylon. There is some expected deviation, of course. There are some places in the printed books where it seems that some Holy Land sites are in view (like the Spring of Zedekiah), and there are some places in the Ezekiel plaques where Babylonian sites are mentioned. But when the two versions are detangled, the geographic focus of their treasure caches becomes clear. The printed versions of Massekhet Kelim suggest the majority of the Temple implements are waiting, between the Tigris and the Euphrates, for the banks of the rivers to overflow (as they so often did), and for an eschatological flood to one day free the vessels from their hoards, to fly to the side of the coming messiah.
Ultimately, Massekhet Kelim does not tell us where the Temple treasures are currently hidden, as exciting as that might be. We do not walk away from Massekhet Kelim with a new, unified map for the priceless riches of the biblical kings. Massekhet Kelim was likely never meant to be an actual map— it is hardly specific enough for that! Instead, it operated in a genre that scholars of pre-modern Jewish literature are just beginning to understand, of fictional and imagined treasure. Different Jewish communities found comfort, power, or even entertainment in telling tales about the treasure they might have had, had things turned out differently; or treasure they once had, back in 050the day; or treasure they might still have, if only they knew exactly how to find it!
It does seem, however, that an older version of Massekhet Kelim is reflected in the early modern books. This version placed the treasures in and around Babylon. Historically speaking, this is an unusual resolution for where the lost Temple treasures rest, as it resists the expected temptation to locate the treasures in the Holy Land or Rome. Remember that biblical texts, particularly Ezra, insist that the implements returned from their Babylonian exile, and their subsequent fate was tied to the Second Temple and its destruction by the Romans. In contrast, the insistence of Massekhet Kelim that these vessels didn’t just sojourn by the Tigris but stayed there for centuries—and would stay put until the very coming of the messiah—would feel very strange to someone operating within that tradition of history and memory.
Why Babylon? One possibility is that this “map” was produced by Abbasid-era (eighth–eleventh centuries CE) Babylonian Jews, living in an era in which Baghdad was the capital of the empire ruling the known world; the ghost of Rome had ceased to be quite so important as in centuries past. This was also the period in which Babylonian rabbinic academies were flourishing, and the “rabbinization” of Jewish communities around the Mediterranean and Near East was well underway. It is suggestive that the Babylon-centric version of the work has more than a few uniquely rabbinic flourishes.4 Perhaps this work is best understood 051as a little bit of hometown pride mixed with a pinch of rabbinic propaganda, as Abbasid-era Babylonian Jews claimed the blockbuster treasure of yore to be safe in their own backyards, with the clues to its discovery written in their own distinctively rabbinic idiom.
Conversely, the version on the Ezekiel plaques feels like an attempt to change the map a bit and imaginatively rebury the treasure in some of the more usual hiding places in the Holy Land. By skimming off some of the Babylonian references, and adding a little extra focus on the Holy Land, someone stitched Massekhet Kelim into the more popular quilt of legends alleging that the implements remained in the Holy Land. In this case, the importance of the version on the Ezekiel plaques may be in affirming just how strange the Babylon-centric version is: It was so peculiar to allege that the Temple vessels were in Babylon, apparently, that a later reader took it upon themselves to correct such a claim! And if the missing plaques are indeed modern forgeries, the change may also have been even more calculated: Artifacts tied to the Holy Land, rather than Babylon, would prompt more vociferous public interest (and selling power). But no matter when exactly they were created, the plaques show the cultural cachet vested in Holy Land sites for the Temple treasures.
Ultimately, the real story of Massekhet Kelim is one of communities suffused with stories, legends, rumors, suspicions, and dreams of a blockbuster treasure as valuable as it is mysterious. Through close study of the manuscripts and versions, it is possible to glean an unusual solution to the resting place of the priceless treasures of the Jerusalem Temple: The implements, some thought, were still hidden in Babylon. But over the centuries even this solution was buried under a competing account, and it takes a little textual archaeology to dust off this very curious—and valuable—treasure map.
For thousands of years, people have hunted for the lost treasures of the First and Second Jerusalem Temples. The story begins about 2,500 years ago, when several biblical accounts—2 Kings 25:13-17, 2 Chronicles 36:18-19, and Jeremiah 52:17-23—narrate the removal of treasures from the First Temple by the invading Babylonian armies. Most of these Temple implements (or vessels; Hebrew: kelim) are reported restored in Ezra 1:6-11 and Ezra 5:14-17. Taken together, these biblical passages suggest that some treasures may have had a temporary stay in Babylon, but most returned to Jerusalem and came to rest in the rebuilt Second Temple. […]