Saturday, August 14, 2010

About Another Jewish Temple in Ancient Egypt

I've written before touching on the ancient Jewish community at Elephantine in southern Egypt and their Temple. Not only did this Temple community feel connected to both the Temples in Jerusalem and Samaria but it also seems to have practiced a form of polytheistic Judaism. At the very least Yahweh was worshipped with a consort. The Elephantine Temple didn't survive the Persian period and was no longer functioning when Alexander the Great arrived on the scene. However, Hellenistic Egypt under the Ptolemies saw the establishment of yet another Jewish Temple in the 2nd century BCE, this time at the city of Leontopolis in the Nile delta region of northern Egypt.

The Ptolemies seem to have been a very important, even beneficial, factor for ancient Judaism. Not only did Ptolemaic Egypt contain large communities of what would later be called Jews and Samaritans, some of whom like their antecedents at Elephantine appear to have enlisted for military service, but for more than a century Palestine/Coele-Syria was itself a province of the Ptolemaic kingdom. The Ptolemies do not appear to have interfered in the running of either of the Palestinian Temples at Mt Gerizim and Jerusalem. Indeed, according to the 2nd century BCE Letter of Aristeas it was the Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283-46BCE) who commissioned a Greek translation of the Torah that would become the basis for the Greek Bible, the Septuagint, later to become the Christian Old Testament. (The Letter of Aristeas also provides a detailed description of Jerusalem and its Temple in the 3rd/2nd centuries BCE).

However this happy state of affairs came to an end at the start of the 2nd century BCE when Antiochus III (ruled 223-187 BCE) of the Seleucid Empire to the north seized control of Palestine from the Ptolemaic state. In particular, in 175 BCE Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to the throne and began interfering in the operations of the Jerusalem Temple. In 171 BCE, the High Priest, Onias III, was murdered at Antioch, the Seleucid capital (2 Maccabees 4.33). While the ancient accounts are inconsistent it appears a son of Onias fled to Egypt seeking refuge at the Ptolemaic court. This son, also called Onias, then sought permission from Ptolemy VI to establish a Jewish sanctuary in Egypt. Ptolemy still hoped to regain Palestine and granted Onias' request. The Temple was built at Leontopolis in the central delta region. It appears too that the Temple was endowed as well by Ptolemy.

The most detailed descriptions of the Temple are found in the works of Josephus in both his Antiquities and Jewish War. The Jewish Encyclopedia summarises these descriptions thus

(The Temple) was built on the site of a ruined temple of Bubastis, in imitation of the temple at Jerusalem, though smaller and less elaborate (Ant.xiii. 3, § 3). The "fortress" (ὀχύρωμα) of the temple of Bubastis may be explained by the statement, which seems credible, that Onias built a fortress (θρωύριον) around the temple in order to protect the surrounding territory, which now received the designation "Oneion" ("B. J." vii. 10, § 3).

The Onias temple was not exactly similar to the Temple at Jerusalem, being more in the form of a high tower; and as regards the interior arrangement, it had not a candelabrum, but a hanging lamp. The building had a court (τέμενος) which was surrounded by a brick wall with stone gates. The king endowed the temple with large revenues (ib.)


In fact, because of the Temple the area became known as the Land of Onias.

If the Ptolemies thought that establishing a Jewish Temple in Egypt would return Palestine to their control, they would be disappointed. Antiochus' interference in and eventual desecration of the Jerusalem Temple provoked the Jews of Judea to revolt under the Maccabees. The revolt was successful and an independent state of Judea was established under the Hasmonean High Priests. Eventually they would take control of all of Palestine and rule it as priest-kings until the Romans came in the mid-1st century BCE.

The Temple at Leontopolis outlasted the Ptolemies, the Seleucids and the Hasmoneans. All up it seems to have lasted for about 243 years being closed by the Romans around 73 CE after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE during the First Jewish War. The Romans were apparently afraid that a continuing Jewish Temple might keep the fires of rebellion burning. Ironically the Second Jewish War against Rome, in 115-17 CE, began in Cyrene, modern day eastern Libya, but in the ancient world part of the Ptolemaic state, and then spread to Egypt itself and then Cyprus, which had also been part of the Ptolemaic Empire and also had a large Jewish population, before subsequently spreading to Judea and then to the Jewish communities of Mesopotamia, only recently conquered by Rome. Rome suppressed this revolt with disastrous consequences for the Jews of Egypt, Cyrene and Cyprus in particular. But I wonder if the Temple at Leontopolis had been allowed to continue whether the revolt would still have taken place. There's no record of the Temple ever being associated with seditious activity, unlike Jerusalem. At the same time it was regarded as a legitimate sanctuary and not a rival or threat to Jerusalem and presumably had a sacral authority, an authority that would be enhanced by its status as the sole Temple after 70.

I also wonder about a pretty basic question, who paid for the Temple over the 243 years of its existence. It appears that Ptolemy VI endowed the Temple when it was established. But at same time temples can be expensive operations to run. First off you have the staff to support. All reports indicate that Leontopolis had both priests and Levites and sustained the full cycle of ritual and sacrifice. The Temple had to be maintained as well as its vessels and vestments and other accouterments. And then there were the needs of the cult itself - animals for sacrifice, incense, grain, wine, plus the fuel for burning the offerings. Presumably there was a Temple Library as well and perhaps even some sort of facility for the production of texts. Priests, Levites, scribes and other Temple personnel would also have to have been trained as well. Either Ptolemy VI gave a quite substantial endowment or perhaps his successors topped it up with their own endowments as well. After all the Temple at Jerusalem relied on a Temple tax levied on Jews around the Empire to help finance it and it was a major pilgrimage site too, always good for revenue. But Leontopolis does not seem to have been a major pilgrim centre (although that may have changed if it had been allowed to continue after 73). If subsequent Ptolemaic rulers did top up the resources of the Leontopolis Temple what happened when Ptolemaic rule came to an end and was replaced by Roman rule in 30 BCE? Did the Roman administration provide any resources to maintain the Temple for the last century of its life too? And as I come to the end of this post I still wonder whether there would have been a Second Jewish War, a war fought almost entirely within the old Ptolemaic domain, if the Leontopolis Temple had not been closed. What would Judaism and even Christianity have been like if the Temple had been able to continue? Intriguing what ifs.

One other observation I have to make is that it seems there never was a time when the Temple in Jerusalem was the sole Temple of Jewish or Israelite or Yahweh religion even though it would appear that it often tried to present itself as such.

The site of ancient Leontopolis is currently known as Tell el Yahudiyeh and was excavated by Flinders Petrie in 1905/06.

There's a post on the Leontopolis Temple over at PhDiva with a link to a review of an Italian study of the Temple and more details on the Temple at the Jewish Encyclopedia site.

There's also a good overview of the history of the Jews in Egypt from the 7th century BCE to the present day here at Wikipedia.

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