What Happened to the Temple Treasures - Part 2

Reproduced with permission from ‘The Testimony’ magazine (a Christadelphian publication), November & December 2011 (Second of two articles)

2. The Church of ‘St” Polyeuctus, Constantinople

Jeremy Thomas

IN PART 1  [“Archaeology” archives] we described the unexpected discovery of an extraordinary church building in Constantinople which had previously been known only from surviving Byzantine texts. As work progressed on unearthing the remains, it was not the church building itself which most impressed the archaeologists. True, it was exceptional in size, apparently second only to Hagia Sophia itself; yet in style it was all reasonably conventional for Byzantine architecture of the time. But the fabulous wealth which had clearly been expended on decorating the church was startling.

Scant though the remains were, it quickly became evident that this was a building on which untold riches had been lavished - appropriately enough for a woman of Anicia Juliana’s means. Its decorations, considered to be without precedent, consisted of marble in at least a dozen different colours, gold leaf, mother of pearl, coloured glass, semi-precious stones and mosaic, all of the finest workmanship money could buy in sixth-century Byzantium. The account of the experienced archaeologists working on the site is replete with superlatives such as "astonishing" and "remarkable!' By their own admission, they had simply never seen the like before, and they described themselves as feeling that they were uncovering not so much a church as a museum.[i]

 Of more interest to Bible readers, however, was the fact that, as the archaeologists continued their work, many of the details of the building they uncovered seemed strangely familiar. For some time the measurements by which the church had been designed baffled them; it was a near-perfect square, 51.45 metres by 51.9 metres, but this did not match any of the units of length known to be in use in the sixth century. Then it was remembered that the royal cubit of Biblical times (the “cubit and an hand breadth" of Ezekiel 40:5, for instance) measured 0.518 metres, whence it was immediately appreciated that the groundplan of the church was therefore precisely one hundred royal cubits square - exactly the same size as the temple described in the closing chapters of Ezekiel (41:13,14).

Other parts of the church had also been constructed using the same unit of measurement, including an atrium of forty royal cubits, corresponding to the length of the holy place in Ezekiel's temple (v. 2). Most astonishingly of all, an underground crypt measuring 10.0 metres by 10.2 metres was strongly suggestive of a central sanctuary immediately above of exactly twenty royal cubits square, just the size of the most holy place described by Ezekiel (v. 4) and of the most holy place in the earlier temple built by King Solomon (1 Kgs. 6:20). Surrounding the church proper were upper galleries (Ezek. 41:16) and side chambers (v. 6; 1 Kgs. 6:5), and there was evidence too of a staircase giving access towards the main sanctuary (Ezek. 40:6; 1 Kgs. 10:5, NASB) and of an exceptional number of windows (1 Kgs. 6:4; Ezek.40:16).

The church of St. Polyeuctus
The church of St. Polyeuctus

  Remains of the substructures to the church of St. Polyeuctus,

in one of which the temple treasures may have been kept. Pictures: Jeremy Thomas


All this was too much to be mere chance, and the growing suspicions of the archaeologists were confirmed when their attention turned from the church building itself towards the detail of its decoration. Although its column capitals were described as being in 'palmette' style, from photographs it is in fact easy to see them as "lily work" capitals (1 Kgs. 7:19), as on the two bronze pillars standing at the entrance to Solomon's temp1e. Then there were depictions of pomegranates (vv. 18,20), palm leaves and open flowers (Ezek. 40 :16 ; 1 Kgs 6:29). The abundant marble vine-1eaf carvings throughout the church, although having no direct correspondence with any temple described in Scripture, may have been an allusion to the large golden vine known to have graced the entrance to Herod's temple.[ii]



Pillar from the church of St Polyeuctus
Pillar from the church of St Polyeuctus

Archaeological findings from the church of St Polyeuctus, now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, including a pillar with lattice work (1 Kings 17:7, ESV) and lily-work capital (v. 19). 

Less straightforward were the numerous statues of peacocks, for although peacocks are mentioned in Scripture during the reign of King Solomon (1 Kgs. 10:22), the meaning of the Hebrew word is not certain, and the context in which it is used is unconnected with the temple. However, the ingenious suggestion was made that peacocks, with their multi-coloured wings and many-'eyed' tail feathers, were the artists' interpretation of the inscrutable cherubim, also with wings and "full of eyes" (Ezek. 1:18), which featured in the temples of both Solomon (1 Kgs. 6:29) and Ezekiel (Ezek. 41:18).

During the Fourth Crusade of 1204, Orthodox Constantinople was sacked by Catholic Christians, who removed to other locations in Europe parts of the by now ruined church. Among them were two pillars that still stand outside the south front of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice. Even to the untrained eye it is obvious that these pillars originated in Istanbul, as their decoration is identical to that on the remains of the church still in situ; but the pillars appear to be free-standing, not supporting any masonry above, just like Jachin and Boaz (2 Kgs.7:21).

However some of the details of the Church of St. Polyeuctus should be understood, plainly here was a building of which the dimensions and fabulous internal decoration were modelled specifically on details of temples described in Scripture. There cannot be much doubt that, in emulating King Solomon in particular, Anicia Juliana was making a clear statement about her own ancestry and status, far superior (so she claimed) to that of the Johnny-come-lately emperors Justin and Justinian. Even her own palace, it is believed, was immediately adjacent to the church, another feature copied from her Biblical role model Solomon.

The Palatine Anthology epigram, by means of which the ruins had first been identified, and which was preserved not only on paper but now also in the very fabric of her fabulous church, leaves no question over the extent of her pretensions. Although stating simply at first how 'All alone by righteous toil she built a worthy house to immortal Polyeuctus'[iii] it goes on to suggest that what Anicia Juliana had done exceeded the achievements of Solomon, who had raised "a habitation for Cod, whose glittering and elaborate beauty the ages cannot celebrate"[iv] - for it was no more. Indeed, perhaps most revealing of all, the epigram includes the explicit claim that Anicia Juliana had "surpassed the wisdom of renowned Solomon[v] in what she had built. As arrogant as this sounds, it provides a clear indication of her motives, and of her intention to outdo the reigning emperors of Byzantium. No wonder that Justinian, as he entered Hagia Sophia for its solemn dedication on 27 December 532 with Anicia Juliana now dead and buried, murmured, "Solomon, I have outdone thee!" Evidently he had in mind at least one competitor besides the Biblical king.


Marble carving from the church of St Polyeuctus
Marble carving from the church of St Polyeuctus

 Marble carving from the church of St Polyeuctus, showing the Greek epigram from which the site was identified and traces of  peacock decoration.

With so many allusions in the church to the temples described in Scripture, it is easy to see why some historians have suggested that it was here that the articles taken in A.D. 70 from the Jerusalem temple were housed while they were in Istanbul. Do we know for certain that this was so? No because there is no explicit mention in the history books of this happening. Yet we have noted (from Procopius) that the Emperor Justinian was too superstitious to bring them into his own palace; and the only other realistic candidate in  Constantinople, Justinian's Hagia Sophia, was not yet built. Its predecessor, of the same name, had been burnt down in the 'Nika' rebellion (as we saw in Part 1) just before the treasures arrived from Carthage in 534, and the new church was not dedicated for nearly another four years.

From stamps on the bricks used in its construction the Church of St Polyeuctus can be dated to 524-7, so we know that, at the time Belisarius was unloading his precious spoils in one of the harbours of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia was a mere work in progress, and St Polyeuctus was simply the finest ecclesiastical building in the city. It is very tempting, therefore, to picture the menorah, the silver trumpets and the table of showbread being laid up here - maybe in its twenty-cubit-square 'holy of holies' – before perhaps they were finally shipped back to the Holy Land, to complete the journey they had begun nearly five centuries earlier and take up residence in the Nea Ekklesia.


God's dwelling

But why would the rulers of the Roman, Vandal and Byzantine Empires successively concern themselves with the artefacts taken from the temple in Jerusalem? Throughout, the Scriptures are replete with the idea of God desiring to live among His chosen people. As early as Genesis 3 there are indications of the fellowship originally enjoyed between the Creator and those made in His image and likeness; and when this fellowship was lost, on account of man's sin, the cherubim were "placed" (Gen. 3:24, literally ‘caused to dwell') at the eastern entrance to the Garden of Eden, specifically to guard the way to the tree of life, providing the first hint that, in God's mercy, all was not lost, and that a way back to the tree was being made possible.

This idea was amplified considerably as Israel journeyed through the wilderness towards the Land of Promise, being given material expression in the form of the Tabernacle. The purpose of this construction was explicit from the word go: "let them make Me a sanctuary," God said, "that I may dwell among them" (Ex. 25:8). Using the same word as Genesis 3, the Almighty expressed His intent actually to take up residence with His chosen nation, that He might become an all-pervading influence in their lives and so transform them into the people He wanted them to be. No god had ever made himself so freely available to his people in this way. Such was the closeness now being offered that the relationship the Almighty sought was described in terms of a marriage; for at the door of the tabernacle, God promised Israel, "I will meet you, to speak there unto thee . . . And I will, dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God" (Ex. 29:42,45,46). The sequence of verbs employed is reminiscent of two parties encountering one another, gradually becoming acquainted, next taking up residence together, and finally enjoying complete intimacy.

It is as if we are meant to see the tabernacle as the 'matrimonial home 'in which this relationship would be based, such was the union Cod wished to share with Israel. And it was freely available - always provided there was a sanctuary, a holy place for God in the lives of His people; for the relationship was to be an exclusive one, and raised above the level of the everyday and profane. The rites and ceremonies of the Law of Moses should therefore be seen, not so much as a way of God keeping His distance from mankind (though they might appear so from a superficial reading), but as a way of maintaining the holiness of the relationship, just as a husband and wife keep themselves only for one another.

Despite Israel's failure, on the whole, ever to rise fully to this challenge, God's own faithfulness was maintained solidly through the centuries which followed. At the building of a later sanctuary, the temple in Jerusalem, the offer the Lord made in Exodus was repeated to King Solomon: "I will dwell among the children of Israel" (1 Kgs. 6:13). But the theme has its true outworking in the closing chapters of God's Word, when the idea of God and man cohabiting is seen beautifully in the vision given to the Apostle John. Describing a great crowd of faithful men and women, who have in fact been accumulating in a temple in heaven throughout his vision, John witnesses ”the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them" (Rev. 21:2,3). God's promise has its fulfilment in the establishment on earth of a community of believers with whom He can live in perfect union for ever.

The Biblical symbol of God establishing for Himself a dwelling place amongst a group of specially selected people is not difficult to discern, so it is perhaps inevitable that this blessing has been appropriated by those who, on account of their unscriptural beliefs, have had no right to it. Nevertheless, it is easy to see why they might want to do so, for a claim by any group to be the people of God potentially raises their status above all other people of the earth, just as it was meant to do for Israel in Old Testament times.

When God's chosen nation were actually far from Him in spiritual terms, there was a danger of them relying on the fact that they were still custodians of His house and assuming that they were therefore immune from His judgements. Jeremiah was sent to warn Judah not to boast, "saying, 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD" because these were 'deceptive words" (Jer.7:4, NASB). So there has always been a very real possibility of a human power which masquerades as spiritual Israel, or which claims to have usurped Israel in the purpose of God, 'hijacking' Biblical symbols in an attempt to create for itself the impression of spiritual superiority.[vi] Wherever in Constantinople the temple articles were housed, this is exactly what the Byzantines in the days of Justinian were doing, just as the Romans and the Vandals had done before them, and what the churches of Christendom (we sincerely believe) continue to do.

Ultimately, reliance on the tangible symbols even of a divinely appointed system of worship can avail a man nothing, for it is not by this means that the Almighty and His Son will fulfil their promise and take up residence with us. On the contrary, the Lord Jesus himself tells his disciples, "If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our abode with him" (Jn. 14:23). Such is the blessing offered to those who are followers of the Lord as defined by these criteria; and the prospect of being "the temple of the living God" - the community of people in whom this promise will be fulfilled - should engender in us not pride but a sincere desire to put into practice in our own lives the principles of holiness which are appropriate to God’s sons and daughters (2 Cor. 6:76-118).

Sadly, many claiming the name 'Christian' will fall short of the demanding standard which has been set, and we should never make the mistake of thinking that we cannot do the same. But throughout the ages God has remained at work on the construction of this spiritual temple of His, and by His grace there is an opportunity for us to be not only dwellers within it, but part of the very fabric of the building itself. May we be motivated by that glorious hope on the walk to God's Kingdom through the temptations of life, remembering the Lord's assurance that "Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches" (Rev. 3:12,13).



i    Harrison, M., A Temple for Byzantium (London, Harvey Miller Ltd., 1989). 

ii   Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 15.77.3. 

iii  http:/www.ancientlibrary.com/greek-anthology/0022. html, where the

     full text of the epigram can be found. 

iv  http:/www.ancientlibrary.com/greek-anthology/0026. html 

v   ibid. 

vi This idea may contribute towards an explanation of 2 Thessalonians 2:4.