Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Temples of the Jews in Egypt

Aside from the Third Temple of Julian the Apostate there were also two Temples built in Egypt.

The papyrus path from the Jerusalem Post

It is not well known that there were two Jewish temples in ancient Egypt. They do not form part of our traditional history, which concentrates on the going down into Egypt and the coming out of it, as based on the Torah accounts, for which there is little or no contemporary corroboration. But the two temples, though well attested by contemporary sources, have received little attention from our tradition.

One of these temples has been known about for nearly 2,000 years from Josephus Flavius and the Talmud, and its site was claimed to have been found just 100 years ago, but it has now been lost again. The other was never known of till just a hundred years ago and its site has only recently been discovered. The first is the Temple of Onias at Leontopolis dating to about 200 BCE, and the second is the Temple of Elephantine dating to 300 years earlier, to about 500 BCE.

Josephus describes the Temple of Onias as being both like and unlike that of Jerusalem. In his Antiquities, he says it is like Jerusalem, but in his Wars of the Jews he says that Onias built it like a fortress with a tower 60 cubits (30 meters) high. Who was this Onias? In Hebrew his name is Honiah and this name was carried by several high priests descended from the famous Shimon Hatzaddik. Our Onias was probably Honiah IV, who was prevented from following in the footsteps of his father, who had been supplanted by Jason, the high priest who started the process of Hellenizing Jerusalem that led eventually to the Maccabean revolt.

Honiah IV went off to Egypt and started the Temple at Leontopolis, with the agreement of Pharaoh Ptolemy IV and his queen Cleopatra I (not the famous Cleopatra VII), in an area somewhat north of today's Cairo. That would have been in about the year 170 BCE. Ptolemy IV was keen to have the support of Honiah, who brought with him a military force to reinforce Egyptian rule in southern Palestine, and was happy to allow him to erect a Jewish temple.

This temple had legitimacy in the eyes of the Talmud, as it was set up by the son of a traditional high priest and it fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: "In that day there shall be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt..." (19:19). The Mishna tells us that a sacrifice vowed in Egypt could be redeemed at Leontopolis, but a kohen (priest) who had served in Egypt could not officiate in Jerusalem, though he was allowed to eat the truma (priestly food) there (Menahot 13:10). This temple stood for more than 200 years and was destroyed by the Romans in 73 CE, shortly after their destruction of Jerusalem.[...]

1 comment :

  1. What's also often missed in history lessons is that around the year 300 construction on the 3rd Temple in Yerushalayim was begun under teh auspices of a sympathetic Roman emperor although it has to be abandoned after a regime change and earthquake caused funding to be suspended.


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