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Temple of Onias

Posted December 15th, 2011 at 08:31 AM by Lady_Cassandra

One of the papers I wrote this semester. It was done for my Jewish history class "Between Persians and Islam" which dealt with the Second Temple Period. I'm quite happy with it, largely the paper deals with the possible location of the temple.

A Second Temple in Egypt: The Location of the Temple of Onias

The Temple at Leontopolis, otherwise known as the Temple of Onias, is an important subject for study because it was the only temple outside of Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple at Elephantine where sacrifices were offered. As such it stands out as a significant and unique lens through with the Jewish Diaspora in Egypt during the Hellenistic period can be understood.
Lack of information concerning fundamental facts such as who was the founder of the temple and even the location lend a shroud of mystery to the topic of the Temple of Onias. Ancient records are sparse and confusing and archaeological evidence has either been lost or the object of looting. Such are the problems facing contemporary researchers seeking to answer some of the questions which surround the Temple of Onias. Despite this, analysis of the available evidence can lead us to form conclusions of the likely scenario behind the founding of this Egyptian temple and the place where it may have been located. Tell El Yahudiyeh has long been considered by many to be the probable location for the Temple of Onias but the recent excavations at another site known as Bubastis or Tell Basta has uncovered some promising evidence. None of the possible locations of which we presently know conform completely to the descriptions of the temple found in ancient sources such as the writings of Josephus. Upon examination of each of the major sites, the only conclusion at which one can arrive is that further research is required.
To understand how this can be deduced we must examine the available source documents that describe the temple, its location and its features. The most complete ancient texts that are available on the Temple of Onias are contained within Josephus’ Antiquities and his The Wars of the Jews. After the analysis of Josephus’ works it is important to read the archaeological reports of the earliest excavation of the site by Edouard Naville and F.L. Griffith in which the question of Tell El Yahudiyeh and the possibility of it being the location of the Temple of Onias are directly addressed. One also has to consider the works of scholars who both question and affirm the validity of the determination of Tell el Yahudiyeh as the place where Onias’ temple was located and who mention additional possibilities, the most recent of which is the site of Tell Basta.
Josephus attributes the following words to Onias, who is identified as the founder of a second temple located in Egypt which was active roughly between 150-160 BCE and 73CE. They were meant to describe the vision and ambition Onias had for his temple:
“… a temple to Almighty God after the pattern of the one in Jerusalem and of the same dimensions…so that those Jews who dwell in Egypt may have a place where they may come and meet together in mutual harmony…”[1]
This temple was created to serve the Diaspora Jewish population and reportedly became as a center for worship and took up many of the activities as well as the appearance of the temple in Jerusalem.
Onias came to Egypt following his removal from the high priesthood and the ascension of the Tobiads to this same position. The question that emerges from this is: Which Onias founded the temple in Egypt? Onias III was reportedly killed near Antioch by Andronicus[2] and yet Josephus clearly indicates that this same Onias “…fled to Ptolemy, and received a place from him in the Nomus of Heliopolis, where he built a city resembling Jerusalem, and a temple that was like its temple…”[3] In this account the same Onias who had held the position of high priest founded and obtained land for the use of a temple outside of Jerusalem. In War, Josephus also describes this Onias as “the son of Simon”[4] which again points to Onias III. However, in Antiquities, Josephus identifies Onias IV, the son of Onias III, as the founder of the temple in Egypt.[5] As our main source on the topic, Josephus is obviously not completely reliable on the subject of identifying the creator of the Temple of Onias. This might be a question that could be answered through archaeological evidence.
What is clear from the accounts of Josephus is that the temple in Egypt was built to be if not a competitor with the temple in Jerusalem than a substitute for those Jews who found themselves living in the Egyptian Diaspora. Onias justified the building of the Temple by referencing a prophecy of by Isaiah according to which a temple would be founded in Egypt by a Jew.[6] It also seems reasonable to assume that the priestly lineage of Onias (regardless of whether he would be Onias III or IV) would lend credence to his effort to establish a legitimate, fully functioning temple outside of Jerusalem.
According to Antiquities the temple was located at a place known as “Leontopolis in the nome of Heliopolis and which is named Bubastis of the Fields”[7]. It also is said to have been located “180 furlongs” from Memphis, Josephus also tells us that a tower was present, but this seems to contradict the claim that we have which says the temple in Egypt was build to be similar structurally to that of Jerusalem. A fortress 60 cubits high and build from large stone blocks was also reportedly present. The altar was modeled after that of Jerusalem. Indeed the may explain the confusion and apparent contradiction in the accounts: the altar resembled that of Jerusalem but the temple and fortress built to house the altar did not. Josephus also tells us the temple possessed a golden lamp which hung from the ceiling of the temple by a golden chain, was surrounded by a wall of brick and had gates of stone.[8]
What is affirmed in all accounts of the temple in Egypt is that it was situated in the nome of Heliopolis. This nome is located in Lower Egypt and has been known to be a center for Jewish tradition.[9] The reference to the “Fields of Bubastis” seems to indicate that wherever it was built the temple was placed in an area in which the Egyptian feline goddess Bastet was worshipped. This provides us with the criteria for determining whether a site may or may not be a viable candidate for the location of the Temple of Onias.
One site which has been considered a possible location is that of Demerdash, which is located just south of Heliopolis. It is evident that a Jewish community was present at this location during the time period that the Temple of Onias was in operation. Proof of this can be found in the Jewish inscriptions and tombs that were found in a cemetery at the site. It has, however, been largely left unexcavated and is currently a heavily populated area which would make future excavations highly unlikely to yield much evidence. It is also a somewhat inconspicuous site, which does not fit with the description we find in Josephus. [10]
Another site which has recently emerged with considerably more potential is that of Bubastis. From the name of this site it is obvious that it was a center for the cult of Bastet. This site was studied by Edouard Naville from 1887-1889 and in the report of his work the archaeologist makes no mention of the Temple of Onias.[11] When considering that he also studied the site of Tell El Yahudiyeh and identified that site as a possible contender it may be safe to assume that Naville either did not find evidence of the Temple or had already found (in what he considered to be) sufficient evidence for Yahudiyeh and thus did not look for Oniad traces at Bubastis.
The site of Bubastis is littered with fallen pillars and large stones which are reminiscent of the description we find in the letter attributed to Onias IV, in Josephus’ work. It requests permission from Ptolemy to build the temple at the site of “Bubastis of the Fields”, which was filled with “materials of some kind”.[12] Bubastis, however, is not in the nome of Heliopolis and this presents a major flaw in the theory that it may be the site of the Temple of Onias.
The major contender as a possible location for the Temple of Onias is Tell El Yahudiyeh. First excavated by Edouard Naville in 1887, the name of the site has been translated as the “Mound of the Jew” which implies that there was a large and active Jewish population at this location at some point in the past and that it perhaps could be referred to as an ancient “little Judea”[13]. A large Jewish cemetery was found at this site which confirms that it was a sizeable settlement.[14] At this site the inscription of Onion was also found on a block near the cemetery which indicates it was known as the city of Onias or related in some way to the Oniads. Yahudiyeh is located in the Heliopolitan nome as well. Naville notes that there had been previous reports of fragments of statues of Bast found at Tell El Yahudiyeh but that he found no such statues during his investigation, since then, however, a figure has since been found at the site which indicates that it was the center of worship for a Bastet cult at some point in the past. Naville did find evidence of fortification and the location of the site on a prominent, high standing hill would make for an ideal spot for a fortified temple.[15] One flaw in the theory that Tell El Yahudiyeh is the location of the Temple of Onias that should be considered is that Naville did not find any evidence of an altar which should, in theory, be easily identifiable given it’s prominence to such a settlement; there are only a few places that such an altar could be located on at Yahudiyeh and none have so far yielded any evidence of an altar. But we must also keep in mind that the site of Tell El Yahudiyeh has been subject to much looting over the years, even before Naville’s work at the site, it therefore may have been significantly damaged and many artifacts may have been lost or stolen.
F. L . Griffith also studied this site at the same time as Naville and came to a different conclusion. He notes that “the whole evidence of the antiquities, in my opinion, is against a Ptolemaic, or even early Roman occupation of the city… I believe that the temple of Onias must be sought for not here, but in one of the neighboring Tells.”[16] Griffith apparently found no evidence contemporary with the timeframe attributed by our sources to the Temple of Onias.
Flinders Petrie also studied the site of Tell El Yahudiyeh and he arrived at the same conclusion as Naville. He based this identification of Yahudiyeh as the site of the Temple of Onias on three criteria which he established during his excavations. First, the tell is the only center for the worship of Bast that can be identified “from Memphis to Belbeys”. Second, Josephus identifies Onias’ temple to be located approximately 180 stadia from Memphis. Yahudiyeh is a very close 186 stadia. And third, the central mound of Tell El Yahudiyeh has a height that the buildings on it might have stood 59 cubits (Josephus tells us the temple rose to 60 cubits high) above those of the temple below. [17]
Despite the three investigations above—that of Griffith, Naville and Petrie—there still has been no hard evidence found of a temple or altar at Tell el Yahudiyeh. Like every other potential site that has thus far been identified and investigated, Yahudiyeh is an imperfect fit to the features, measurements and map laid out for us by Josephus. Josephus’ account is questionable as well due to the conflicting and often confusing statements found within it. To complicate matters further: many, if not all, potential sites have been the subject of looting and damage from age and carelessness and researchers also have to contend with local resistance and political statements against the research into the history of an Egyptian Jewish population. To identify any of the given sites as the Temple of Onias would be unjustified by the historical record we have and to the available evidence that has been uncovered at each.
It is with this in mind that further research into the location and identification of the site of the Temple of Onias needs to be called for. The finding of this site would lead to a better understanding of a volatile period in the history of the Jewish Diaspora in Egypt and would aid in shedding light on the politics and organization of the Temple both within and without Jerusalem during the Second Temple Period.


















Bibliography
· Griffith, F.L. The Antiquities of Tell El Yahudiyeh and Miscellaneous Work in Lower Egypt During the Years 1887-1888(London: Messrs, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. 1890) 30-76
· Naville, Edouard. The Mound of the Jew and the City of Onias: Belbeis, Samanood, Abusir, Tukh El Karmus 1887 (London: Messrs, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. 1890) 1-29
· Pastor, Jack, etc. Eds. Hata, Gohei “Where is the Temple Site of Onias IV in Egypt” Flavius Josephus: Interpretation and History (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2011) 177-191
· Pope, H. “The Temple of Onias at Leontopolis” The Irish Theological Quarterly 3.12 (1908) 415-424
· Schiffman, Lawrence H., editor. Texts and Traditions: A Source Reader for the Study of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism. “Josephus, Antiquities XIII, 62-73: The Temple of Onias” (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1998), 181-182
· Taylor, Joan E. “A Second Temple in Egypt: The Evidence for the Zadokite Temple of Onias”, Journal for the Study of Judaism XXIX (1998):297-321
· Wasserstein, Abraham “Notes on the Temple of Onias at Leontopolis” Illinois Classical Studies 18 (1993) 119-129 Accessed November 30, 2011, https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bits...pdf?sequence=2
· Whiston, William, trans. The Wars of the Jews or the History of the Destruction of Jerusalem (2009), EBook HTML. Accessed November 30, 2011 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2850/2850-h/book7.htm
· Whiston, William, trans. The Wars of the Jews or the History of the Destruction of Jerusalem (2009), EBook HTML. Accessed November 30, 2011, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2850/2850-h/book1.htm

[1] Schiffman, Lawrence H., editor. Texts and Traditions: A Source Reader for the Study of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism. “Josephus, Antiquities XIII, 62-73: The Temple of Onias” (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1998), 181

[2] Schiffman, Lawrence H, editor. Texts and Traditions: A Source Reader for the Study of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism. “2 Maccabees 3-6: The Hellenistic Reform and the Onset of Persecution” (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1998), 153

[3] Whiston, William, trans. The Wars of the Jews or the History of the Destruction of Jerusalem (2009), EBook HTML. Accessed November 30, 2011, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2850/2850-h/book1.htm

[4] Whiston, William, trans. The Wars of the Jews or the History of the Destruction of Jerusalem (2009), EBook HTML. Accessed November 30, 2011 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2850/2850-h/book7.htm Book VII, Chapter 10

[5] Schiffman, Lawrence H., editor. Texts and Traditions: A Source Reader for the Study of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism. “Josephus, Antiquities XIII, 62-73: The Temple of Onias” (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1998), 181

[6] Schiffman, 181

[7] Schiffman, 182

[8] Whiston, William, trans. The Wars of the Jews or the History of the Destruction of Jerusalem (2009), EBook HTML. Accessed November 30, 2011 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2850/2850-h/book7.htm Book VII, Chapter 10

[9] Taylor, Joan E. “A Second Temple in Egypt: The Evidence for the Zadokite Temple of Onias”, Journal for the Study of Judaism XXIX (1998): 315

[10] Taylor. 318-320

[11] Pastor, Jack, etc. Eds. Hata, Gohei “Where is the Temple Site of Onias IV in Egypt” Flavius Josephus: Interpretation and History (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2011) 186-187

[12] Pastor. 189

[13] Taylor, Joan E. “A Second Temple in Egypt: The Evidence for the Zadokite Temple of Onias”, Journal for the Study of Judaism XXIX (1998):319

[14] Naville, Edouard. The Mound of the Jew and the City of Onias: Belbeis, Samanood, Abusir, Tukh El Karmus 1887 (London: Messrs, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. 1890) 13-17

[15] Naville. 19-20

[16] Griffith, F.L. The Antiquities of Tell El Yahudiyeh and Miscellaneous Work in Lower Egypt During the Years 1887-1888(London: Messrs, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. 1890) 53

[17] Pastor, Jack, etc. Eds. Hata, Gohei “Where is the Temple Site of Onias IV in Egypt” Flavius Josephus: Interpretation and History (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2011) 183-184
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  1. Old Comment
    Clodius's Avatar
    Thanks for this: really interesting! I'm studying ancient Judaism too - I see we've been reading some of the same books!
    Posted December 15th, 2011 at 03:05 PM by Clodius Clodius is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Lady_Cassandra's Avatar
    I'm glad you liked it. It was really fun to put together and the reading is all very interesting.
    Posted December 16th, 2011 at 02:04 PM by Lady_Cassandra Lady_Cassandra is offline
  3. Old Comment
    St. Anselm's Avatar
    Brilliant! Excellent work!
    Posted March 16th, 2012 at 08:58 PM by St. Anselm St. Anselm is offline
  4. Old Comment
    what a great writing! i enjoy reading it.where are u studying and what course in history that u take? i'm new actually,degree in history & civilization,1st year student. i hope that i can gain more knowledge here..keep on going!!
    Posted May 18th, 2012 at 08:31 PM by zaanjo zaanjo is offline
 

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