Tuesday, January 26

Jewish Identity, Catholicism and the Arch of Titus

What do Jewish cemeteries, menorahs, an ancient Roman arch and the Catholic Church have to do with each other? For many centuries, the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish communities has been difficult. Aside from various stages of cooperation such as those on the Iberian peninsula during the Middle Ages, much of the Church’s history has seen an anti-Semitic bent toward the Jews. This relationship was complicated in part by the presence of the Arch of Titus in Rome. The Arch of Titus was erected around 80 CE to celebrate the victory of Emperor Titus over Jerusalem, and it depicted one of the symbols that has held importance to Jews for centuries: the menorah, originally described in the Scriptures in the writings of Moses. 

Consider the importance of the menorah for the Jews: on October 14, 1928, it was reported that a 1700-year old Jewish cemetery was unearthed near the ancient town of Saloma. In it, they found “menorahs, lamps with Jewish symbols and a fragment of a sarcophagus with a massive Menorah of the kind depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome.”1 Two years later, there was an attempt to “Revive Legend That Menorah of Second Jewish Temple is Buried in [the] Tiber River,” a legend dating back to the Medieval period. Several times in the 19th century this project was discussed - the Jewish community even offered to cover the costs if the Pope would allow it to be drudged up, but the Pope cited possible health concerns over river slime.2 Clearly, this menorah depicted on the Arch of Titus is somehow central the the Jewish identity. It continues to crop up - whether in an ancient Jewish cemetery or in a revived medieval legend. In fact, the State of Israel modeled its emblem - the menorah - after the one on the Arch of Titus.3

But another fact worth noting is that for the last 1700 years, Rome has also been largely influenced by the Catholic Church. When the Roman Empire seemed to fade away, the Roman Church rose, and many of the Roman Christians seemed to feel as if they had inherited the glories of Rome. This included the Arch of Titus. For several centuries, during the inauguration of a new Pope in Rome, Jews were forced to stand near the Arch of Titus, but not pass under it, as a way of “putting them in their place,” so to speak, reminding the Jews of the lessened role they held in Rome.4 Thus, it was even more significant in 1947 when, following the establishment of the Jewish State by the United Nations, over 5000 Jews “paraded under the Arch, in symbolical defiance of the Roman law which prohibited Jews from passing through the Arch. Prayers were recited for the 6,000,000 Jews who died in Europe at the hands of the Nazis.”5 This act of defiance was a major step for Jews. 

Following the rebirth of Israel, relations improved between the Jews and Catholics. During the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Church released a document, Nostra Aetate, concerning the Church and other religions. Following this document, relationships have most definitely improved, and many acts of reconciliation have taken place. In early 1996, the Israeli Religious Affairs Minister, Shimon Shetreet, spoke concerning an upcoming visit of Pope John Paul II, and noted that he had asked the Vatican to investigate whether or not the menorah was in Rome.6 He stated that the Catholic Church’s investigation into its whereabouts could be a symbol “of reconciliation between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church.”7 Finally, on December 24, 1997, the important symbol of the menorah took center stage in the relationship. Two menorahs were lit: one underneath the Arch of Titus, and another at the Vatican. This was done to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Israel’s return as a nation.8 It was an unprecedented event, and helped to continue solidifying relationships between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jews, showing that despite our shared history, Catholics and Jews can share a bright future together.

[1] "Uncover 1,700 Year Old Jewish Cemetery." Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 14 Oct. 1928. Web. 
[2] "Revive Legend That Menorah of Second Jewish Temple Is Buried in Tiber River." Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 11 Aug. 1930. Web. 
[3] "Israeli Religious Minister Says Pope May Visit This Year." Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 17 Jan. 1996. Web.
[4] "Jews Hail New Jewish State Under Arch of Titus, Erected to Mark Destruction of Judea." Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 03 Dec. 1947. Web. 
[5] Ibid.
[6] “Israeli Religious Minister Says Pope May Visit This Year.”
[7] Ibid.
[8] "Chanukah Ceremonies at Vatican, Arch of Titus Are Full of Symbolism." Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 25 Dec. 1997. Web. 

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