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Notes from Limmud 2007

Two Jewish Temples in Ancient Egypt

Stephen Rosenberg

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

The Temple of Leontopolis

The Temple of Elephantine was unknown until the twentieth century. By contrast the location of the Temple in Leontopolis was unknown until about one hundred years ago, and has been lost again since—we don't believe the person who claimed to rediscover it actually found it.

This temple was set up ca. 170 BCE, probably just before the time of the Maccabees. According to the Talmud it stood for 343 years, but it was actually destroyed in 73 CE, by the Romans, three years after they destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. We know this from Josephus: The Romans had been following up a rumour that the Zealots might be regrouping in Egypt; and were afraid they would use the Temple as the focus of a new revolt, so Titus sent orders to the prefect of Egypt to close the Temple down. We don't think it was actually destroyed at this time, though. 160 years later the Egyptian community was completely destroyed when the Jews of Egypt revolted against Rome.

The temple was referred to in Talmudic sources the the Temple of Onias (חוניה in Hebrew, probably short for יוחנן). Onias III was a legitimate Cohen Gadol, the great-grandson of שמעון הצדיק. He was murdered by Menelaus, an illegitimate Cohen Gadol just before the time of the Maccabees (q.v. "Would You Buy A Cruse Of Oil From This High Priest?").

His son, Onias IV, realising, he would never become Cohen Gadol, went into the army, and helped Ptolemy VI and his queen Kleopatra I, in some kind of local war. Because of the situation in Jerusalem, he decided to set up a Temple in Egypt instead. According to Josephus, he petitioned the king, saying he had found a derelict temple of Bubastis [by which he meant Bast, the cat deity], and asking if he could use it to set up a shrine for his soldiers and the Jewish colony. He quoted a passage of Isaiah to support this:

Isaiah 19:19 ישעיהו יט יט
In that day shall there be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at the border thereof to the LORD. ביום ההוא יהיה מזבח לה׳ בתוך ארץ מצרים ומצבה אצל גבולה לה׳׃

This Temple was not illegitimate, because the Talmud, tractate Menaḥot, quotes the same passage, going on to say "One shall be called the city of Heres." The question is: was it Heres or Ḥeres in Isaiah? The former means "heat" in Aramaic, i.e. the sun; but the latter means destruction.

The city of the sun is of course Heliopolis. So people have been looking for a site connected with Bast in Heliopolis.

The Mishna says [Menaḥot 13:10], someone who made a vow offering in the Temple of Onias, can be absolved by giving the same amount to the Temple in Jerusalem. OTOH one who serves as a cohen in Onias cannot serve in Jerusalem, but can eat the Terumah—he's like a cohen with a blemish.

הרי עלי עולה יקריבנה במקדש׃ ואם הקריבה בבית חוניו לא יצא׃ שאקריבנה בבית חוניו יקריבנה במקדש׃ ואם הקריבה בבית חוניו יצא׃ רבי שמעון אומר אין זו עולה׃ הריני נזיר יגלח במקדש׃ ואם גלח בבית חוניו לא יצא׃ שאגלח בבית חוניו יגלח במקדש׃ ואם גלח בבית חוניו יצא׃ רבי שמעון אומר אין זה נזיר׃ הכהנים ששמשו בבית חוניו לא ישמשו במקדש בירושלים ואין צריך (אך לא יעלו כהני הבמות אל [מלכים ב כג] לומר לדבר אחר שנאמר) מזבח ה׳ בירושלים כי אם אכלו מצות בתוך אחיהם הרי הם כבעלי מומין חולקין ואוכלין אבל לא מקריבין׃

The Gemara goes into detail about the Mishna normally, but says nothing about it here (מנחות קי ב), because by the time of the Gemara, the temple had disappeared.

Megilla 10a מגילה י א
R. Isaac said, I have heard of sacrifices being offered in the Temple of Onias in this time. He explains, the Temple of Onias was not an idolatrous shrine. אמר רבי יצחק שמעתי שמקריבין בבית חוניו בזמן הזה׃ קסבר בית חוניו לאו בית עבודה זרה היא

Josephus, in Antiquities of the Jews says it was like the Temple in Jerusalem. But in The Wars of the Jews he says it was not like the Temple in Jerusalem! Rather, it was a tower 60 cubits high [30m], and it was in the middle of a town, and it was not like the Temple in Jerusalem, but it had an altar and a shrine.

William Flinders Petrie, one of the first real archaeologists, worked in Egypt and Palestine. He was a great friend of the Jews. (His body is buried in University College in Jerusalem, but his head was donated to UCL!) He found a site 25km north of Cairo near to a place called ?Shilben el-Nahatia. It was also called Leontopolis—the city of the Lion. Is this close enough for a site associated with Bast? It's also called Tell el-Yahudia—the tell of the Jewess. There was a Jewish cemetery there.

In the winter of 1905, Petrie and his wife found this site, and decided this was the site of the temple. It was a Hyksos camp [1500 BCE], which meant it was like a giant car park, surrounded by ramps, in which they parked their chariots; with later buildings from the time of Rameses III [12/13 century BCE]. To the side of it was a hillock in which he found the foundation of a tower. It was surrounded by a wall, which Josephus mentions.

Petrie reported this in the Jewish Chronicle in May 1906, and was thanked by the Chief Rabbi; he had an exhibition at University College and exhibited a model. He did not find any Jewish artefact, but vessels and burnt brick—but one would not expect to find anything clearly Jewish. Josephus says there was no menorah in this temple, but there was a golden lamp. According to Petrie, Josephus was right: in some ways it was like the temple in Jerusalem, and in others it was not.

It's interesting, however, that Philo of Alexandria does not mention this place at all. There were 180,000 Jews in Alexandria—one third of the population of the city. This was 100 miles away from Alexandria, but it does not seem to have been affiliated at all.

The problem is that nobody today thinks Petrie was right in identifying the site.

The Temple of Elephantine

[I didn't take extensive notes on this, as I already did so when I attended a talk by Mr Elephantine himself, Prof. Bezalel Porten. My notes in this section, consequently, are just annotations to what I wrote there; you should read those notes first to make sense of the below!]

Khnum was the ram-headed god in charge of the rise and fall of the Nile. He was also a creator god; he was a potter, who had made Man on the wheel. He was the local god of Elephantine: Hence the city of Khnum on Porten's map.

The settlement at Elephantine was a military colony: Jews who had had a career in the army were given a parcel of land on retirement.

The speaker thinks the Jews came to Yeb after the defeat of Josiah by Necho in 609 BCE. (Prof. Porten thinks it was earlier, in 674, and that the building of the Temple took a century, because they didn't have much money for it.)

There are a variety of interesting documents, including a marriage document very much like the modern כתובה. (Also, women had the right to divorce at that time.) Their law was based on Egyptian law to a large extent, because they intermarried. Women marrying Jews became Jewish—because only the men came there as mercenaries, they all had non-Jewish wives. They transferred property with references to the location with respect to the temple.

Comparing the excavation to Porten's map, the Temple was actually much smaller than Porten had shown. It was actually the temple courtyard which corresponded to the space on Porten's reconstructed map.

Why would the Egyptians want to destroy the temple? (a) The Khnum priests had wanted to extend their temple, and move the King's Highway . (b) They didn't like the Jews sacrificing sheep—holy animals to the Egyptians, who even had a cemetery there for mummified sheep!

When the Temple was rebuilt, it was not in the middle of the courtyard, but was offset to one side. It was not like the Temple of Solomon at all, but like the Mishkan. The speaker thinks there was definitely a tabernacle at Shiloh, and it is on this that this temple was modelled. This is evidence that the settlers of Yeb came from northern kingdom of Israel, which did not recognise the temple in Jerusalem. The papyri said the temple had five stone pillars and cedar doors on bronze hinges.

The Temple was identified because it had a tiled floor—everything else had a mudbrick floor. The courtyard also had a good quality floor: it was plastered. <photos>

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2008-02-04 11:56 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] grumpyolddog.livejournal.com
This stuff is always fascinating, but *insert tongue firmly into cheek* your subject matter is almost always exactly the same! Let's have a nice story about Vikings or early Chung Kuo for a change!


Date: 2008-02-04 12:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Isn't "nice story about Vikings" a contradiction in terms? ;^b

Date: 2008-02-04 12:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] grumpyolddog.livejournal.com
Could be, I guess. Unless you ARE one. Let's ask [livejournal.com profile] vatine.

Date: 2008-02-04 12:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Though note I'm not saying a nice story about Norsemen is a contradiction in terms...

"...And then they settled Greenland, and all lived happily ever after. (Until the climate changed and killed them all.)"


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