LEONTOPOLIS (Greek, Λεόντων πόλις = "lion city"):

Place in the nome of Heliopolis, Egypt, situated 180 stadia from Memphis; famous as containing a Jewish sanctuary, the only one outside of Jerusalem where sacrifices were offered. Aside from a somewhat uncertain allusion of the Hellenist Artapanus (in Eusebius, "Præparatio Evangelica," ix. 23), only Josephus gives information of this temple (more explicitly in his "Antiquities" of the Jews than in his "Jewish War"). The Talmudic accounts are entirely confused. The establishment of a central sanctuary in Egypt was not due to the disorders that arose in Palestine under Antiochus IV., Epiphanes, to the desecration of the sanctuary at Jerusalem, to the supplanting of the legitimate family of priests by the installation of Alcimus, nor to the personal ambition of Onias IV., but to the vast extent of the Jewish diaspora in Egypt itself.

Founded by Onias IV.

It would appear from the account of Josephus in the "Jewish War" (i. 1, § 1), and more especially from the fact that Onias is called in the same work (vii. 10, § 2) "the son of Simon," that the temple of Leontopolis was built by Onias III., who drove the sons of Tobias from Jerusalem, and who fled to Egypt, Syria's ancient rival, when Antiochus IV. attacked that city. But this account is contradicted by the story that Onias III. was murdered at Antioch in 171 B.C. (II Macc. iv. 33). Josephus' account in the "Antiquities" is therefore more probable, namely, that the builder of the temple was a son ofthe murdered Onias III., and that, a mere youth at the time of his father's death, he had fled to the court of Alexandria in consequence of the Syrian persecutions, perhaps because he thought that salvation would come to his people from Egypt ("Ant." xii. 5, § 1; ib. 9, § 7). Ptolemy VI. Philometor was King of Egypt at that time. He probably had not yet given up his claims to Cœle-Syria and Judea, and gladly gave refuge to such a prominent personage of the neighboring country. Onias now requested the king and his sister and wife, Cleopatra, to allow him to build a sanctuary in Egypt similar to the one at Jerusalem, where he would employ Levites and priests of his own race (ib. xiii. 3, § 1); and he referred to the prediction of the prophet Isaiah (Isa. xix. 19) that a Jewish temple would be erected in Egypt ("Ant." l.c.).

Spuriousness of the Onias Letters.

Josephus then quotes two documents: Onias' letter to the royal couple, and the king's answer to Onias. Both of these, however, appear spurious, on the following grounds: Onias refers in his letter to his military exploits in Cœle-Syria and Phenicia, although it is not certain that the general Onias and the priest Onias are identical. His assertion that a central sanctuary is necessary because a multiplicity of temples causes dissension among the Jews evidences imperfect knowledge of the Jewish religious life; and, finally, his request for the ruined temple of the goddess Bubastis, because a sufficient supply of wood and sacrificial animals would be found there, seems unwise and improbable for a suppliant who must first obtain compliance with his principal request. It seems strange, furthermore, that in the second letter the pagan king points out to the Jewish priest that the proposed building of a temple is contrary to the law, and that he consents only in view of Isaiah's prophecy. Both letters were apparently written by a Hellenistic Jew. Only this can be stated as a fact, that the temple of Leontopolis was built on the site of a ruined temple of Bubastis, in imitation of the temple at Jerusalem, though smaller and less elaborate (ib. xiii. 3, § 3). The statement in "B. J." vii. 10, § 2 of Onias' argument that by the building of this temple the whole Jewish nation would be brought to turn from the Syrians to the Ptolemies seems very plausible, and may have given rise to the assertion made in the letters that there were dissensions among the Jews. 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.)—a fact that may have suggested to the writer of the letters mentioned above the wealth of wood and sacrificial animals.

Sacrifices Made There.

The reputation which the temple of Onias enjoyed is indicated by the fact that the Septuagint changes the phrase "city of destruction" (Isa. xix. 18) to "city of righteousness" (πόλις ἀσεδέκ). It may be taken for granted that the Egyptian Jews sacrificed frequently in the temple of Leontopolis, although at the same time they fulfilled their duty toward the Temple at Jerusalem, as Philo narrates that he himself did ("De Providentia," in Eusebius, l.c. viii. §§ 14, 64).

In the Talmud the origin of the temple of Onias is narrated with legendary additions, there being two versions of the account (Men. 109b). It must be noted that here also Onias is mentioned as the son of Simon, and that Isaiah's prophecy is referred to. In regard to the Law the temple of Onias (, handed down in the name of Saadia Gaon as ) was looked upon as neither legitimate nor illegitimate, but as standing midway between the worship of Yhwh and idolatry (Men. 109a; Tosef., Men. xiii. 12-14); the possibility of the priests of Onias being admitted to officiate at Jerusalem was explicitly stated, while one passage even expresses the view that sacrificial worship was permissible in the temple of Onias (Meg. 10a). The opinion was prevalent among the Rabbis that the temple of Onias was situated at Alexandria—an error that is repeated by all the chroniclers of the Middle Ages. This temple is also sometimes confounded with the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. ("Yuḥasin," ed. London, pp. 11b, 13b; Azariah dei Rossi, "Me'or 'Enayim," ed. Mantua, xxi. 89a; Gans, "Ẓemaḥ Dawid," ed. Offenbach, ii. 10; Heilprin, "Seder ha-Dorot," ed. Warsaw, 1891, i. 116).

According to Josephus, the temple of Leontopolis existed for 343 years, though the general opinion is that this number must be changed to 243. It was closed either by the governor of Egypt, Lupus, or by his successor, Paulinus, about three years after the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem; and the sacrificial gifts, or rather the interior furnishings, were confiscated for the treasury of Vespasian ("B. J." vii. 10, § 4), the emperor fearing that through this temple Egypt might become a new center for Jewish rebellion. No ruins have so far been discovered of this temple, once so famous; perhaps the present Tell al-Yahudi marks its site (Ebers, "Durch Gosen zum Sinai," pp. 497 et seq.).

  • Grätz, Gesch. 4th ed., iii. 27 et seq.;
  • Weiss, Dor, i. 130;
  • Willrich, Juden und Griechen, pp. 146-150;
  • Schürer, Gesch. 3d ed., iii. 97;
  • Büchler, Tobiaden und Oniaden, pp. 239-276, Vienna, 1899 (this author's opinion, that originally a Samaritan temple was referred to, is not tenable).
G. S. Kr.
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