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Temple of Onias

ONIAS, TEMPLE OF, temple of the Hellenistic and Roman period established in Egypt for Jewish worship and sacrifice. Its location is given by Josephus as being in the district of Heliopolis, where it was built over an earlier ruined temple to Bubastis, the lioness-goddess; hence the area's other name Leontopolis. It was established for the worship of "God the most High," as that at Jerusalem (Ant., 13:62–68). The location is presumed to be at Tel el-Yehudiyah (Mound of the Jewess), the name serving as a clue to its identity. It was first investigated by E. Naville in 1887 and in more detail by Flinders Petrie in 1905. The site is part of an earlier Hyksos encampment outside the present town of Shirban el-Qanatir, 25 km. north of Cairo. Petrie found a towered structure beside a small temple-like enclosure, accessed by a long staircase and surrounded by a mudbrick wall, triangular in plan. He showed a model of his finds to a meeting of the Jewish Community in London in 1906, but the model has since disappeared. The location in Egypt has been visited by a number of archaeologists, including the writer, who have been unable to confirm Petrie's findings, though it is clear that the alleged site is close to a necropolis of Jewish burials in the area known as Leontopolis.

The temple is mentioned several times by Josephus and twice in some detail, but each time differently. He describes it first as being modeled on the Temple of Jerusalem (Ant., 13:72), while the second time he says it was built like a fortress in the form of a tower 60 cubits high, unlike Jerusalem (Wars, 7:426–432). It is presumed that the second description is a correction of the first. Josephus claims that it stood for 343 years (ibid., 436), but this is unlikely; 243 years would be nearer the mark. It was destroyed in 73 C.E. on the orders of Titus or Vespasian (ibid., 421), who feared that it might become the focus of further revolt after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. At the earliest it could have been built in 170 B.C.E., shortly before the Hasmonean Revolt, because it is always referred to as the Temple of Onias (Ḥonia in Hebrew). There are two candidates for that honor, *Onias III (son of Simon II, the Just), who was high priest some time after 200 B.C.E., or his son *Onias IV. It is generally accepted that the earlier Onias, who was ousted by his Hellenizing brother Jason, was murdered in Antioch (II Macc. 4:34), so Onias IV is the more likely candidate. When he saw that his legitimate right to the High Priesthood had been usurped by the Hellenistic party, friendly to the Seleucids, Onias set up a rival sanctuary in Egypt, under the protection of their enemies, the Ptolemies.

It is unlikely that he did this to serve the Jews of Egypt as a whole, who may have had some difficulty in reaching Jerusalem under the Seleucids, as the temple is never mentioned by Philo or other Judeo-Egyptian sources; nor was it located in or near Alexandria, the chief center of Egyptian Jewry. It is more likely that the temple served a military colony under the direction of this Onias, acting in the capacity of an officer willing to bring manpower and troops over to Ptolemy VI Philometor and his queen, Cleopatra II. Josephus records that two sons of Onias acted as generals in assisting Cleopatra in her fight against her son Ptolemy Lathyrus (Ant., 13:285–287 and 348–349). In that role the temple was similar to the earlier fifth century B.C.E. temple serving the Jewish mercenaries at Elephantine, at the southern border of Egypt.

The Talmud takes a somewhat relaxed view of this temple. It claims that it was not an "idolatrous shrine" because Onias had based himself on Isaiah 19:18, which says that, "One day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt," and because he was a legitimate Zadokite priest, a descendant of the high priest Simon the Just (Men. 109b). The Mishnah states that some vows made in the Temple of Jerusalem could be redeemed in the Temple of Onias and, while a priest who served at Onias was precluded from serving in Jerusalem, he could nevertheless eat the terumah (consecrated food) there together with his priestly brethren (Men. 13:10).


M. Delcor, "Le Temple d'Onias en Egypte," in: Revue Biblique, 75 (1968), 188–203.; R. Hayward, "The Jewish Temple of Leontopolis: a Reconsideration," in: Journal of Jewish Studies, 33 (1982), 429–43; J.M. Modrzejewski, The Jews of Egypt, from Rameses II to Emperor Hadrian, trans. R. Cornman (1995), 124–29; E. Naville, The Mound of the Jews and the City of Onias (1890), 13–21; W.M. Flinders Petrie, Hyksos and Israelite Cities (1906), 19–27; E. Schuerer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (rev. English edition, G. Vermes, F. Millar, M. Goodman, 1986), vol. 3:47–48, 145–47; V. Tcherikower, Hellenistic Civilisation and the Jews, trans. S. Applebaum (1959), 275–81.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.