The Forgotten Temple

The Forgotten Temple February 18, 2019

I have written a lot through the years about Christian origins and their Jewish background, mainly in my 2017 book Crucible of Faith. In writing that work I came across what seems to me a really intriguing aspect of the history, and one that rarely gets the attention it deserves.

Not just once in history, but twice, Jewish temples stood in the land of Egypt. One was at Elephantine, in the fifth century BC, and quite a bit has been written about it because it seems to record a community that knew a female deity besides YHWH. That is often discussed in surveys of the Old Testament world, and the emergence of monotheism. Far less frequently noted is another Jewish Temple that stood at Leontopolis, in the Nile Delta, from roughly the 160s BC through to 70 AD – at least 230 years. Both those temples, of course, contradict our normal assumptions because of the theory that just one Temple could exist, and that was in Jerusalem. But the Leontopolis one raises plenty of other questions, especially in terms of what might have been written or created there.

In the early second century BC, the Jewish religious/political elite was starkly divided between two warring family factions, the Oniads (descendants of Onias) and the Tobiads. During the lethal feuds in Jerusalem in the 170s BC, Onias, son of the high priest, was defeated and sought refuge in Egypt. The then king, Ptolemy VI Philometor, received him warmly. He granted him permission to build at Leontopolis a new temple, supposedly an imitation of the main Jerusalem sanctuary. As Josephus records,

Here Onias erected a fortress and built his temple (which was not like that in Jerusalem, but resembled a tower) of huge stones and sixty cubits in altitude. The altar, however, he designed on the model of that in the home country, and adorned the building with similar offerings, the fashion of the lampstand excepted; for, instead of making a stand, he had a lamp wrought of gold which shed a brilliant light and was suspended by a golden chain. The sacred precincts were wholly surrounded by a wall of baked brick, the doorways being of stone. The king, moreover, assigned him an extensive territory as a source of revenue, to yield both abundance for the priests and a large provision for the service of God. In all this, however, Onias was not actuated by honest motives; his aim was rather to rival the Jews at Jerusalem, against whom he harbored resentment for his exile, and he hoped by erecting this temple to attract the multitude away from them to it. There had, moreover, been an ancient prediction made some six hundred years before by one named Esaias, who had foretold the erection of this temple in Egypt by a man of Jewish birth. Such, then, was the origin of this temple.

Like Jerusalem, this temple was staffed by priests of the proper lineage and maintained all the forms of the sacrificial cult. Later Jewish scholars were remarkably mild about this rival enterprise, presumably because by the time they were writing, it had long ceased to exist. Also, the sense was always that this Temple was an adjunct to the real institution at Jerusalem, not a replacement.

The Temple attracted Jewish settlers into this Land of Onias, adding still further to Egypt’s role in Jewish history.

As it would have had the requisite complement of scribes, the Leontopolis Temple might well have been yet another center of Jewish literary activity, over and above Jerusalem and Alexandria. We know that the years from roughly 200 BC through 70 AD were a phenomenally productive era in Jewish and proto-Christian texts, commonly pseudepigrapha – that is credited to some famous name, such as Enoch or Adam or Abraham. Many were certainly composed in Egypt. That includes many works about angels, and focused on apocalyptic speculation. Unfortunately, savage wars and massacres against the Jewish community in 115 AD mean that much of our detailed knowledge of this activity was subsequently lost.

It is intrinsically likely that Leontopolis should have been a prime creative center. As I said, it had the skilled literate people on staff and in the neighborhood, and moreover it was close to Alexandria. Can any of the texts we know have come from there?

One prime candidate is found among the so called Sibylline Oracles, works composed over a lengthy period and including Jewish and Jewish-Christian content. For present purposes, the most significant sections of the Oracles are found in book 3, most of which was written by an Egyptian Jew in the mid-second century BC. Conceivably, it might even be the work of that Onias who fled Jerusalem in order to establish the new Temple. Like the Book of Daniel, this oracle offers a description of the Hellenistic empire, and it shows how deeply Seleucid aggression had aroused eschatological hopes and fears. The oracle portrays an imminent crisis and the destruction of invading pagan forces. When God uttered judgment with a mighty voice, all creation would tremble; mountains would be split asunder. All would end “by fire and by overwhelming storm, and brimstone there shall be from heaven:”

And all the unholy shall be bathed in blood;
And earth herself shall also drink the blood
Of the perishing, and beasts be gorged with flesh.

I don’t know the answer to this, but I ask: did this Temple have all the sects we know from Jerusalem, namely Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes? We know that an Essene-like sect called the Therapeutae existed in Egypt, at Lake Mareotis.

Let us move the story forward to the mid-first century AD, and imagine those scribes and priests as they existed at Leontopolis between (say) 30 and 70 AD, of whom we know next to nothing. Let me offer a speculation, and it is nothing more. Were any of them influenced by the Jesus Movement in any of its forms, including those trends that we call Gnostic, which were so common in Egypt? When the Leontopolis Temple fell, we know that it was closed rather than destroyed, so that its literate priestly staff survived. Did any of those people survive in new roles, either within Judaism or related movements? What did they do with the texts they would have possessed at the Temple?

Might any of those people actually have written some of the texts that we find in Egypt in later years, and which grew out of the larger Jewish universe – the Gnostic and Sethite tracts, even the earliest layers of early Christian documents? When we look at writings like the Gospel of John, we comment on its powerful roots in Jewish and Hellenistic thought and the world of the Temple, but it helps to recall that there was not just one Temple operating at the time. The Logos doctrine of course was best known from Philo, who had been based at Alexandria.

It’s curious to think that this other temple stood and flourished throughout the lives of the apostles, and the literary career of Paul.

To take another interesting character, the Book of Acts tells us about “a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria … a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord … and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John.” But the Western text of Acts presents a slightly different story about Apollos, who “had been instructed in his own country in the word of the Lord.” I wonder where exactly in Egypt he might have picked up that somewhat variant understanding of the new faith?

All speculation, I know, and please don’t quote me as stating a new theory about the origins of John’s Gospel. But what we can say with confidence is that Leontopolis should by all rights have been an influential and widely connected center of Jewish thought, and we would dearly love to know more about it.

And if nothing else, it does give me an excuse to write blogs with titles like “The Forgotten Temple.”


The scholarly literature on Leontopolis includes:

Robert Hayward, “The Jewish Temple at Leontopolis: a Reconsideration,” Journal of Jewish Studies 33,1-2 (1982) 429-443.

Joan Taylor, “A Second Temple in Egypt: The Evidence for the Zadokite Temple of Onias,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 28 (1998), 297-321.

I have not seen the story cited much in explorations of early Christianity in the region, but I am quite prepared to be corrected on that.

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