Despite the compelling evidence of the Indiana Jones movie ... we don't know what happened to the Ark of the Covenant. It probably isn't hidden in either an OSS warehouse or the Vatican, and I won't be discussing it amongst the Second Temple treasures taken by Titus.
That's because the Ark was last recorded before Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylon destroyed Solomon's First Temple in 586 BC.
There is no evidence that it survived this early Sack of Jerusalem, and the only claim that it did is in the much later Ethiopian Orthodox tradition. Whilst it is possible that Solomon and Queen Sheba of Ethiopia had an affair and a child, I would be rather surprised if he gave her the Ark.
A few people think it's hidden in the Vatican Secret Archives, but again there is no evidence for this - and it certainly wasn't obvious in any bits of that Archive I spent time in. These days the Vatican spends an awful lot of time denying having the Temple Treasure, and I will explain where it went in a subsequent post, but ... The Church have only themselves to blame for the accusations, as they spent a good deal of time on propaganda in the Medieval period claiming they had the Temple Treasure and that made them the New Jerusalem and so forth. This PhD dissertation by Marie Therese Champagne is interesting as it discussed the relationships between the Papacy and Jews in 12th century Rome, with much of it's focus on Vatican claims to have the Temple Treasure in the Lateran Basilica.
We can reconstruct the Ark from descriptions from Exodus and other early descriptions, and we have copies of the Commandments on the Tablets of Stone as well as Moses' Sefer Torah (aka The Pentateuch), but anything else is pure speculation.
Of course speculation and disputation is part of the spice of life, but first let's look at the known facts.
Nebuchadrezzar reigned for 43 years - longer than the lifetimes of many of his subjects - and the large wine bottle is named after him for this reason. Much of this reign is recorded on baked clay tablets. This particular Cuneiform tablet with part of the Babylonian Chronicle (605-594 BC), is now in the British Museum.
Writing started around the same time, but independently, in Egypt and Sumeria. The Egyptians first recorded history; the Sumerians accounts and business transactions. By the Babylonian period, they were recording current events and history in Cuneiform.
This tablet records Nebuchadnezzar II's campaigns in the west. In 605 BC Nebuchadnezzar, still only a prince, crushingly defeated the Egyptian army. Soon after, he succeeded his father as king, then gathered his army and marched into Syria.
Jehoiakim, king of Judah, foolishly decided that that would be a good time to call a stop to the tribute he had been paying the Babylonians. Nebuchadrezzar invaded at the end of 598 BC, and captured Jerusalem on the 15/16th March 597 BC. The Temple was looted and razed. The treasures, his successor King Jehoiachin, and the Israelites were taken to Babylon as slaves.
So "By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion" ( Psalm 137). Eventually we got to go home, but did the Temple Treasure?
Around 120 BC 2 Maccabees was written to cover the period down to the 161 BC revolt against Antiochus IV, as an abridgement of the work of Jason of Cyrene. Jews still celebrate this victory of Judah Maccabee and his subsequent purification of the Temple as Hanukkah. As part of the renewed belief in themselves, and in their Covenant with God, some Jews began to tell a story about Jeremiah having been warned by God to hide the Ark before the Babylonian conquest. According to 2 Maccabees 2:4-10 Jeremiah went to Mount Nebo, "And when Jeremias came thither he found a hollow cave: and he carried in thither the tabernacle, and the ark, and the altar of incense, and so stopped the door."
So why isn't there any record of the Ark and other accoutrements and why isn't it recorded in the Second Temple? Well that may well be because although Catholics and the Orthodox consider 2 Maccabees canonical, but Jews don't. The rabbis discussed what happened to the Ark in the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 53b and following), with some agreeing that it had been taken into captivity to Babylon, and others discussing a third theory that it was buried within a hidden room in the Temple Mount itself, whilst a third theory suggests king Josiah hid it (see also the JE here)
There is no record of the Ark of the Covenant after Nebuchadnezzar. What of the other Temple Treasures?
Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and re-build the Temple; work continued under Darius, and was completed in the sixth year of his reign according to Ezra, which would be 517 BC. The dating in rabbinical sources differs. According to Seder Olam 30: R. Yose says that the Second Temple stood for 410 or 420 years, depending on the edition, and if we can agree that it was destroyed in AD 70, then it was completed in 350 or 340 BC. In Arachin 12b the Second Temple stood for 420 years. This discrepancy is large, and may be explained by two different interpretations of the 'finished' Temple, perhaps the former being dedication and resumption of worship, and the latter being structural completion? Certainly Herod's Temple was in use whilst construction continued, and the structure was not 'complete' until the reign of Herod Agrippa II (see).
[As a quick aside, as much as I disagree with rabbis ignoring Josephus for being a 'traitor' I also wish more archaeologists checked Jewish sources, so am making an effort to link to English translations of them].
According to Tattenai’s Letter to Darius in Ezra 5:
13 “However, in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, King Cyrus issued a decree to rebuild this house of God.
14 He even removed from the temple of Babylon the gold and silver articles of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem and brought to the temple in Babylon. Then King Cyrus gave them to a man named Sheshbazzar, whom he had appointed governor,
15 and he told him, ‘Take these articles and go and deposit them in the temple in Jerusalem. And rebuild the house of God on its site.’Some of the vessels from Solomon's Temple were in Babylon, and were returned to Jerusalem: these included one golden Menorah in the Holy of Holies, one table of Showbread, and the golden incense altar.
The Foundation Stone (left) was used by the High Priest in place of the now missing Ark in the Holy of Holies, and this is where he rested his incense burner on Yom Kippur (for the Second Temple, there is a long description in Tractate Middot, but in a stilted translation, here).
So far so good, and all went well until the fall of the Achaemenid Dynasty, during the brief reign of Alexander the Great, and then his Ptolemaic successors. Around 200 BC Judea became part of the Seleucid Empire, and within a generation the Temple was desecrated.
Enter the evil Antiochus IV, who in AD 167 looted the Temple, closed it, built an Altar to Zeus in it and by banning Jewish rituals such as circumcision effectively outlawed Judaism. As we've already noted, Judah Maccabee fought back, regained and purified the Temple in AD 164.
Key to the fate of the Temple Treasures in that they were looted in 167, and whilst we like to believe that they were returned and displayed in Herod's Temple until AD 70, their story is far from clear. Many of the Treasures may well have been returned under the Romans, but others probably had to be created anew. Some certainly stayed with the Seleucid royal family, for at some point between his death in 164 and the Roman conquest in 65 BC, one of his successors donated some of the Temple Treasures to the synagogue in Antioch:
for although Antiochus, who was called Epiphanes, sacked Jerusalem and desecrated the Temple, his successors in the kingdom restored to the Jews of Antioch all the votive objects that were made of brass, and to be dedicated in their synagogue, and granted them ... the Jews multiplied to a great number, and adorned their holy building [hieron] gloriously by fine ornaments of great magnificence, in the use of what had been given them. Josephus, Wars, 7.3.3 (my translation)Josephus continues to the time of Vespasian's Judean War, and I would deduce from his story that the people of Antioch probably destroyed the synagogue when they turned against the Jews at the time. Which Seleucid gave the Antioch synagogue some of the Temple Treasures is unsure, but they do not seem to have survived the Fall of the Second Temple, and were certainly never displayed in Herod's Temple.