In 2 Maccabees 2, there is an interesting story about how the prophet Jeremiah hid the ark of the covenant and the tent of meeting prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC:
"We find in the archives that the prophet Jeremiah, when he had given the deportees the order to take the fire, warned the deportees never to forget the Lord's precepts....The document also described how the prophet, warned by an oracle, gave orders for the tabernacle and the ark to go with him when he set out for the mountain which Moses had climbed to survey God's heritage. On his arrival Jeremiah found a cave-dwelling, into which he brought the tabernacle, the ark and the altar of incense, afterwards blocking up the entrance. Some of his companions came up to mark out the way, but were unable to find it. When Jeremiah learned of this, he reproached them: 'The place is to remain unknown' he said, 'until God gathers his people together again and shows them his mercy. Then the Lord will bring these things once more to light, and the glory of the Lord will be seen, and so will the cloud, as it was revealed in the time of Moses" (2 Maccabees 2:1-8).
This is a story obviously designed to answer the nagging question: "What ever happened to the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle?" Their collective fate is not mentioned in the OT, and more to the point, the list of treasures plundered from the Temple in 2 Kings 24-25 do not list these most sacred items. The hidden ark legend in 2 Maccabees is probably inspired by the text in Jeremiah 3:16 which reads: "In those days, Yahweh says, they will no longer say '[Where is] the ark of the covenant?' It shall not come to mind, nor be remembered, nor be sought for, nor shall another one be made". The suggestion that "another one" will not be made implies that the original ark had been destroyed. But the author of 2 Maccabees has apparently interpreted the Hebrew here as: "In those days they will no longer say, 'The ark of the covenant does not come to mind, nor is it remembered, nor is it sought for' ". That is to say, the author has construed the text as saying that in the future restoration of Israel, people who had previously not sought for the ark or remembered it will now remember it and seek for it to be restored. Another will not be made because the original has been recovered. Thus Jeremiah 3:16 is likely the "oracle" mentioned in 2 Maccabees that Jeremiah had received on the ark's fate, and the story could be viewed as a midrashic explanation of this prophecy. To ensure its preservation, Jeremiah is thus presented as hiding the ark so that it will not come to mind or be sought for in the immediate future, and so that it will be restored in the Temple in the more distant future.
The same motif of hiding and restoration of something associated with the Temple appears in 2 Maccabees 1. In connection with the rededication of the Temple in 164 BC and the Hannukah lights (the story about the lights likely derives from the story under discussion), the author tells a story dramatizing the continuity between the First Temple and Second Temple cults. While the exiles were being deported to the East, the devout priests in Jerusalem "took some of the fire from the altar and hid it secretly in the hollow of a dry well, where they concealed it in such a way that the place was unknown to anyone. When some years had elapsed, in God's good time, Nehemiah, commissioned by the king of Persia, sent the descendents of the priests who had hidden the fire to recover it; but they notified us that they found not fire but a thick liquid" (1:18-20). This liquid was petroleum (naphtha), and was used to reinstitute sacrifice on the new altar.
There is another story in 2 Baruch (early second century AD) which mentions the Temple treasures more broadly and describes their burial into the earth by angels:
"Now it happened on the following day that, behold, an army of the Chaldeans surrounded the city .... And I saw, and behold, there were standing four angels at the four corners of the city ... and another angel came down from heaven and ... I saw that he descended in the Holy of Holies and that he took from there the veil, the holy ephod, the mercy seat, the two tables, the holy raiment of the priests, the altar of incense, the forty-eight precious stones with which the priests were clothed, and all the holy vessels of the tabernacle. And he said to the earth with a loud voice: 'Earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the mighty God, and receive the things which I commit to you and guard them until the last times, so that you may restore them when you are ordered, so that strangers may not get possession of them' .... And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up" (2 Baruch 6:1, 4-5, 7-9; compare 80:1-2).
While the story in 2 Maccabees antedates the Roman destruction of Jerusalem by at least a century and a half, the narrative in 2 Baruch was written sometime after AD 70 and scholars generally believe it alludes to this event in a veiled way. In this light, the stated reason for hiding the treasures ("so that strangers may not get possession of them") is especially poignant in light of what in fact happened when General Titus despoiled the Temple in AD 70. Josephus (Jewish War, 7.5) mentions the victorious procession in Rome of the spoils of war, including "the golden table weighing many talents, the candlestick made of gold ... and the last of all the spoils, was carried the Law of the Jews". The Arch of Titus in the Forum similarly displays soldiers carrying the table of show-bread, two trumpets, a cup, and a menorah from the Temple. The angelic burial of First Temple treasures in the ground alleviates some of the horror at this event: the Second Temple treasures may be lost, but the treasures from the First Temple will be restored when Israel itself is restored.
The hidden ark myth of 2 Maccabees and the hidden treasure myth of 2 Baruch have two other well-known parallels in the Second Temple period. Josephus (Antiquities 18.4) mentions that during the rule of Pontius Pilate, a man excited the Samaritan community by his claims that he would dig up and reveal to them certain vessels hidden by Moses on Mount Gerizim. There is a possibly related tradition in Pseudo-Philo 25:10 which mentions that the tribe of Asher buried on Mount Gerizim certain "golden idols" and "precious stones". The man's claims were a sensation and he went to Mount Gerizim (their sacred mountain) with a multitude to make this discovery. However, when Pilate learned of this, he sent a force to Tirathaba near Gerizim and prevented the Samaritans from having access to Mount Gerizim by road. Then he attacked the mob, killing some, putting others to flight, and executing the man who caused the sensation. Josephus does not really explain why Pilate's response was so severe and why the Samaritans were so whipped up into fervor over the claims, but some scholars believe that the "hidden vessels" story here also involved a messianic-like promise of restoration of the Samaritan kingdom of Israel, involving a leader whose revelation of the vessels would coincide with the eschaton. In particular, the Samaritan woman in John 4 states that "I know that Messiah -- that is, Christ -- is coming and when he comes he will recount to us all things" (4:25), and she mentions Mount Gerizim ("this mountain where our fathers worshipped") as where "one ought to worship" (v. 20-21). Pilate's brutal response toward the Samaritan archaelogical expedition to Mount Gerizim is quite intelligible if the latter was part of a messianic-like movement and Pilate reacted to it in a similar way to how he is said to have reacted to Jesus.
The second parallel is that of the infamous Copper Scroll. This unusual text, discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, is a treasure map-like listing of hidden vessels and treasures scattered throughout the territory (dating to the late first century AD). The following is an excerpt:
"In the ruin that is in the Valley of Achor, under the steps, with the entrance at the east a distance of forty cubits: a strongbox of silver and its vessels, seventeen talents by weight. KEN. In the sepulchur, in the third course of stones: one hundred ingots of gold...In the mound of Hohlit, votive vessels -- all of them flasks -- and high priest garmenture....In the cistern opposite the eastern gate, at a distance of nineteen cubits: in it are vessels.... At the tank of Zered Gorge, at the western burial chamber, the one with a black stone for an opening, dig down two cubits: Three hundred talents of silver coins, gold coins, and twenty vessels containing Temple penalty fees" (3Q15 1:1-9, 2:7, 10:8-9).
Scholars remain divided as to whether this tantalizing text describes a real treasure or invents a fictional one. The original publisher of this text, J. T. Milik, believed that the treasure was fictional and should be viewed in light of the tradition of the buried Temple treasures in 2 Maccabees or 2 Baruch. Fictional does not necessarily mean deceptive. The author of the text could have received a vision of where angels buried the treasure (as it was in 2 Baruch) and honestly believed that these were the places where the hidden treasures would be retrieved when the Temple is restored. There is an interesting account in Tacitus (Annals 16.1-3) about a Carthaginian named Bassus who had a hallucination concerning where the enormous treasure of Dido was buried on his estate and to his great folly, the cash-strapped Emperor Nero spent time and money digging up the estate -- finding nothing. Such visions thus were often taken seriously, as the situation involving the Samaritans and the man claiming to know what is buried on Mount Gerizim also attests. Milik also noted a strikingly similar text, the Massekhet Kelim, known in a medieval version and a much older version discovered in Beirut written on tablets. This text gives a long list of vessels and treasures from the First Temple hidden in various places by a Levite priest named Shimmur and others before Nebuchadnezzer's destruction of Jerusalem. Strikingly, the vessels were said to remain hidden until the Messiah arrives to restore the nation of Israel. This mishnaic text offers an intriguing link between the Second Temple treasure list in the Copper Scroll and the First Temple "hidden ark/treasure" traditions in 2 Maccabees and 2 Baruch.
In a recent article, Steven Weitzman (JSJ, Supp. 83) has added another fascinating piece of evidence that grounds these Jewish stories of hidden treasures in the broader Hellenistic context. The Greek historian Pausanias (second century AD) describes what Weitzman calls the "Messenian Mysteries". As Weitzman explains: "The Messenians were a Greek people defeated by the Spartans and sent into exile where they languished until the fourth century B.C.E., when they were able to resettle their homeland. During the war, the Messenian leader Aristomenes learned from a prophecy that his people were destined to be defeated and that the survival of their culture depended upon the safeguarding of their mysteries, a 'secret thing' that Pausanias never describes clearly but which seems to have consisted of rules for religious practice" (p. 245), rules analoguous to the Ten Commandments in the Jewish cult. The legend described here is reminiscent of the outlines of the Jewish stories in 2 Maccabees and 2 Baruch: The Jews fought a war against the Babylonians, and were sent into exile for a time -- during which the Temple treasures were hidden. Then, when the entire kingdom is restored in the eschaton, these hidden things would be revealed. When we examine the text of Pausanias, we find the resemblance is even closer:
"For the Messenians possessed a secret thing. If it were destroyed, Messene would be overwhelmed and lost forever, but if it were kept, the oracles of Lycus the son of Pandion said that after lapse of time the Messenians would recover their country. Aristomenes, knowing the oracles, took it towards nightfall, and coming to the most deserted part of Ithome, buried it on the mountain, called on Zeus who keeps Ithome and the gods who hitherto protected the Messenians to remain guardians of the pledge, and not put their only hope of return into the power of the Lacedaemonians" (Pausanias, Descr. 4.20.4).
Like the story of Jeremiah in 2 Maccabees, Aristomenes responds to an oracle relating to the restoration of a sacred object and buries it away on a mountain where it could not be found until the appointed time. What is more, the mysteries -- when they are found upon the restoration of the city-state of Messene -- are kept in a wooden chest in a nearby town (Pausanias, Descr. 4.33.5), a situation reminiscent to the Ten Commandments in the ark of the covenant. Weitzman explains that most scholars believe that the story of the "age of Aristomenes" is fictional, a political attempt by the city of Messene to create for itself a heroic "mythic past". The contemporary importance of the mysteries lies in their link to this past and guaranteeing the transmission of tradition from the past. The story of how the mysteries were discovered also bears an uncanny resemblance to the Copper Scroll and the other stories. Pausanias explained that after the Messenians were restored to their homeland in 369 BC, "the Messenian leader Epiteles had a vision revealing where the lost mysteries were hidden" (p. 246). He dug and found in a cave the mysteries written "on some tin foil, very thin, rolled up like a scroll" (Descr. 4.26.8). Like the Copper Scroll, this is a metallic scroll bearing a link to the mythic past, hidden in a cave.
Weitzman is agnostic as to whether the treasures on the Copper Scroll are real. He points out that in a real-life situation of siege as there was in AD 66-70, there would have been a desire to protect sacred and valuable objects and in the danger of Jerusalem's impending attack priests could have been induced to enact the "hidden ark" and "hidden mysteries" myths, and hide real treasures in hopes of a real future restoration. But either way, there seems indeed to have been a broader Hellenistic-era mythic tradition of national restoration based on "hidden treasure" motifs, as attested in Josephus, 2 Maccabees, 2 Baruch, the Copper Scroll, and the Massekhet Kelim.